Last night I did something unusual. I sat an watched TV. For a whole hour! It wasn’t live TV of course. It was something recorded but still it was TV. It was great. I just got to sit there and be entertained and because it was off the DVR I could skip all those pesky ads. My teenage daughter joined me for a while but she spent equal amounts of time engaged with the show and with her friends online. Nothing unusual there. But the experience really brought home to me the problem many companies are facing with their marketing. For decades marketing departments looked at forms of media that were non-interactive. Consumers simply looked and listened. We read stories around which adverts were draped, or we watched shows interspersed with ads that we sometimes watched. It seems many companies are approaching the challenge the online world has created by producing marketing that assumes we are passive consumers of marketing, rather than people to get engaged with. This is strange because what I’ve just said is nothing that new. People have been saying for a while that the online world is all about getting engaged with consumers, yet for some reason it seems the vast majority of marketing dollars are still spent on forms of marketing that are passive. Why? I think the answer has two parts:
1. Brands are struggling with ROI – the new marketing model requires new tools to measure its effectiveness. There are no shortage of tools but there is a shortage of any agreed standard when it comes to measurement. Furthermore the goal of linking campaigns to sales still eludes most marketers. It’s definitely possible. We’ve run some highly measurable and thankfully successful campaigns for clients but it’s sad to say that too many campaigns are still run that go unmeasured and therefore hard to justify.
2. Failure to innovate – many brands view innovation in online marketing as some clever pop up ad that you can’t avoid. We all know that’s not innovation. Innovation is where brands start with a clean sheet. Instead of taking their old world tactics and applying them to the online world, they start with an online mindset. They create and/or find content that engages with their audience. We recently created a campaign for AMD that involved a virtual scavenger hunt. It is designed to engage with developers so it hooks in to that community in a way that appeals to their inner geekiness. In other words we gave developers a reason to interact with AMD and thankfully it seems they’ve jumped at that chance.
Now as a consumer I should point out that I don’t want to spend my day interacting with brands but I do expect that when I am looking for, or at something online that brands will try and engage. Brands that sit and wait for my attention will struggle to get it. So ask yourself a simple question: how engaged is my marketing? As far as I know there is no agreed percentage that is the new standard but if the answer to that question is: less than my competitors, it should be cause for concern. Another way of answering it would be to brainstorm how engaged your brand could be and then analyse the gap between where you are now and where you could be. For many brands engagement will be a journey but one they have to get on board with fast. Otherwise they will become as irrelevant as the TV ads I skipped past while I watched TV last night.
In the old world, the one before the Internet and social media, we got our content when they gave it to us. It was akin to three square meals a day if you were lucky. Newspapers flopped onto driveways, radio stations paused at the hour to bring us news and the family (well the parents) sat down to watch the evening news. These content outlets created funnels through which we got our news, views and perspective. All that changed when the Internet arrived. We could now get what we wanted when we wanted. Well sort of. Google and Yahoo! served up huge amounts of previously inaccessible content in ways that changed the world forever. We quickly got used to being able to get news headlines and perspective at our time and place of choosing. But with this change in behavior came a change in expectations. Because we can now get news on a subject 24/7, we now want news on that subject 24/7. If there is no news to report then we are disappointed. We are, it seems, the spoilt kids when it comes to content. This creates a challenge for brands because you never want to disappoint your customers.
A quick study of top consumer brands show they re all struggling with this challenge. Whether they are conscious of the challenge is debatable but many are trying to engage more frequently with their customers and partners online to avoid going dark for a few hours. Think about that. A decade ago a brand could go dark for days, even weeks and nobody had a problem. Today we expect our brands to be talking to us, introducing us to their friends, entertaining us and of course keeping us informed every hour of the day. Big brands, it seems, are being pushed to behave more and more like media outlets. But constantly creating compelling content is only part of the solution. Brands need to learn more about how and when their customers want to engage. They need to plan the engagement cycle rather than the news cycle. For many this requires a wholesale rethink of how they structure communications and marketing so that they focus less on how to get the news out and more on how to drive engagement on a consistent basis. That word ‘consistent’ is critical. Brands that engage around a new campaign and then go dark are the ones that create the largest expectation gap with their customers. Avoiding going dark requires a rethink of the ‘big idea’ approach to marketing and instead a focus on what the guys at our Bourne agency have termed the ‘long idea’. After all, today’s world needs ideas that drive lasting engagement by creating a series of conversations, not just one.
I challenge you to look at the frequency with which your brand or your clients are creating a reason to engage and then compare that with the competition. While pace of engagement isn’t everything it is rapidly becoming a key measure of a brand and its value. So if you are trying to drive brand value, take a long hard look at how frequently you are engaging with customers, stakeholders and partners. In today’s world, it’s not the only way to drive brand value but it sure is a crucial one. Oh and while your are at it please make sure to feed my insatiable appetite for updates, insight etc. In todays’s world can you engage too much? Let’s leave that topic for another post.
Social commerce is where eCommerce and Social Networks meet. Effectively it’s an approach to eCommerce that embraces all the benefits of social marketing. It creates a way for people to see what their friends like and don’t like, what the influencers they trust think. More importantly it enables them to decide if they trust the business they are buying from. PR plays a huge role in social commerce. We create, influence and share content that buyers and sellers want access to. Yet, rarely do we get involved in understanding how PR fits in the social commerce sales cycle. We tend to analyze brands based on the online media and social media coverage around them and devise plans based on that analysis. What if we analyzed the conversations taking place in social commerce situations? If we learned what buyers were saying about our brands, what issues they were raising and what issues they weren’t paying attention to? To do this effectively, we need to be prepared to isolate the conversations in social commerce from the rest of the noise around the brand. Having done that we can see how these conversations are influenced by the conversations taking place in other forums such as the media, social networks etc. Put another way, PR has a real chance to become a key player in the sales process thanks to social commerce. It is not something we take on lightly but if we do grab hold of it, it could make a significant change to the role PR plays in business overall.
I’ve been a little slow in making this mental leap but it occurred to me today that we have (or at least should) now finally seen the end of push-based marketing activities. For years people in PR, advertising, direct mail etc have created marketing campaigns designed to push information at consumers as a way of engaging with them. While brands may well have done research on their customer base they had limited contact with them outside of the sales and customer support processes. All that has changed with social media. Brands no longer ‘control’ what messages get put out OR when those messages are communicated. While brands do still push messages out, consumers create their own messages and communicate them when they want. Messages like: “the PlayBook from BlackBerry/RIM is a me too product.” Indeed, managing this aspect of the conversation around a brand or product is now at least as important than managing the company created content. Yet I wonder how many brands really do manage the conversations consumers are having? I meet quite a few senior communications people in my work and many talk about the importance of this but it still seems that 90% of the effort is directed towards the content they as businesses create. Listening and shaping the conversations already taking place? Well they may do the former but rarely the latter. I believe this is largely because they don’t know how to, or have never really tried.
Why wouldn’t brands try and shape existing conversations about them? In large part brands seem to feel that it’s much harder to try and change someone’s argument than it is to start a new one. That may be true but in reality, shifting the debate is a way of shaping a conversation. It just needs some careful thought, planning and action. It’s my belief that brands should be sitting down every week (at least) and discussing the conversations taking place on-line about them. These online conversations are really a digital version of what their customers believe be it good or bad. By understanding these conversations they are getting a valuable pulse check on their customer-base which in turn should enable them to join in discussions with real integrity. Again though, I don’t see enough brands doing this. All too often brands will monitor the conversations but then review them long after the debate has moved on or take little action when they do see a rising topic. This isn’t true of all brands of course. Some have jumped in to the social marketing world feet first and are learning some great lessons in the process.
In closing I want to talk briefly about the worst way to tackle social marketing. This is where brands simply replace their current marketing tools with social tools. This largely means they carry on trying to push messages at consumers, they just use Facebook, Twitter etc to do it. Ironically some brands believe that by doing this they have really embraced digital/social marketing and are being progressive. In my mind all they’ve really done is swapped one bad habit for another. In short, I’d urge brands to give some thought to how much of their marketing is them joining in the conversation versus starting it. If you are always the one starting a dialog, it isn’t really a dialog, it’s a speech. So unless you are Martin Luther King or Winston Churchill you’re better of using those things on either side of your head that Apple designed the iPod for. RIP Push.
Let’s face it, PR pitches have all become very similar. All agencies present some research showing they understand the problem, some measurable objectives and then some creative, strategies, tactics and costs. There may be one or two additional elements to please a certain client but that is about it. Aware that many agencies use their best people to create pitches and their best sales people to deliver pitches, clients ask to see the ‘real team’ on the day. In other words they want to interview the team they’d get to work with. Makes sense. But all this has started to change now that digital has come on the scene. The team, their thinking, ideas and their research are all still important but now agencies are also presenting digital content and in many cases technology created by specialists that will rarely interact with the client (for good reason). This is a world that the advertising agencies are very familiar with. They are used to having a person who manages the client relationship and then draws on the skills of a great many people, many of which the client never sees. And so the pendulum swings back in the other direction, leaving the client with the challenge of trying to base their decision on the quality of ideas presented, the track record of the agency and in all likelihood the personality of their account handler. This is far from ideal for the client and suggests that some work to change the process is required. With that in mind, may I suggest the social pitch process?
We have all become very used to social networks and social media. Perhaps we can create a process that embraces ‘social’ to enable better decisions for the client. Imagine the client puts its RFP out on a Ning or Grouply like site. Agencies are then invited to work collaboratively with them on refining the brief, through a series of conversations. With a better brief (which agency has not wanted to improve the brief?) the agency can then start to use social tools to develop concepts and campaigns that demonstrate their thinking and also the roles of the people at the agency. Instead of a client seeing who presented an idea, they could see who came up with it and how others worked on it and made it what it is. The client can test out over a period of days the thinking, enthusiasm and skills of a broader team than was ever possible in the 90 minute pitch they have today. I should be clear, I’m not envisioning a process limited to short blog posts, tweets etc. I’m envisioning a process that includes video chats, group discussions AS WELL AS blog posts, tweets etc.
I doubt for a minute that many firms will have the nerve to hire an agency just by using a social approach but I do hope that a large enough number wake up to the fact that digital has changed the PR game and that we should embrace it in the way agencies are hired, not just in the work we expect from them.
I’ll admit right now that I was never a fan of this technology. The idea of people knowing where I was at any given time was always a challenge to me. I can see why some people got excited about it and the whole ‘Mayor’ thing certainly got people buzzing for a while but unless I’m mistaken it would seem that buzz around Foursquare has started to die. I used to get tons of tweets from people telling me which airport they were at. or which coffee shop they were frequenting. This week I’ve had less than a handful. It’s as if the novelty of it has worn off. I also think that Facebook and Twitter adding similar functionality has made the idea mainstream and it seems that when it comes to social media/networking, mainstream isn’t good. If you read or watch any of the media devoted to Foursquare it all sounds very compelling as a business model. Crowds open up to where they are and what they’re doing and receive a benefit as a result. Problem is that for a lot of people, the cost of losing their anonymity isn’t worth the half price day old muffin they just received. No doubt I’ll learn next week that they’ve been bought for billions and I was wrong but from looking at Twitter, it would appear Foursquare has had its day and could end up like MySpace…
We all consume media on a daily basis. We love the stuff but we are paying less and less for it as our parents die and we all get our content online. And as we all know, news online is almost all FREE. Free isn’t a business model that really works for media. Good journalism is expensive and tough to support through online advertising. Rupert Murdoch has responded aggressively to this by putting a charge on many sites such as WSJ.com. This hasn’t worked too well in part because you can still get to the content through a Google search for free. He’s threatening to change all that though for the simple reason that they are struggling to make the economics work even with an online subscription model in place.
I have a suggestion for Mr Murdoch and other media moguls. In the same way that we pay a cable fee in this country and even a TV license in the UK, why not charge a monthly media fee that would enable you to access all the media without having multiple subscriptions. You’d need an aggregator such as Apple’s iTunes to get in to the mix but I’m pretty convinced that in the same way as people will pay $10 a month for satellite radio, they’d pay $10 a month to access the top 100 publications in the US. Now there’d be a challenge figuring out which magazine or newspaper got what out of that $10 each month but I’m pretty sure it could be worked out. It would also enable one player to take over the challenge of managing the online advertising for a host of publications, instead of having a fragmented model as they do today. It would also mean as a user that you would only need one login. I’d almost pay $10 a month just for that as I keep forgetting what username and password I have for various online titles.
PR is all about managing people’s perception of a person, brand or organization. In the last 20 years that has meant getting them good press, having them show up in the right places, connecting them to the right issues etc. Today, people’s perception of a brand can change because of a tweet, a Facebook comment, an Amazon.com review or a blog post. Indeed at a dinner this week I was told a story of a startup that had been well covered by the WSJ but saw far more customer interest when it appeared on a blog. In other words for many brands media isn’t necessarily the best route to influencing people’s perceptions. What struck me when I thought about this is that the change in medium also offers a chance to change the approach we take to perception management. Today in PR we still focus on persuading content creators (journalists, bloggers etc) to produce material that benefits our clients. When we produce our own content, it looks awfully like the content these journalists and bloggers would create. Why? Because we rarely take a big step back and ask what would it take to make people think of the brand differently. In other words we use standard techniques that tend to deliver incremental results. This is not that surprising. Most of the time we are simply giving our clients what they expect but maybe with a small amount of innovation thrown in. Indeed if we go too far there is a real risk the client will freak out and hire someone else even if our thinking is amazing. But let’s assume we can get our clients to be bold (most actually want to be, they just need convincing that a risk is worth taking). If they’ll take the risk then it could mean us spending their budget on creating some very different content – video, a game, an application, a community on Grouply or Ning. We may not even talk to an editor or blogger. Believe it or not some agencies are doing this. It scared them at first but the clients are loving the results. Is it PR? You bet! Its just not press relations.
PR agencies are jumping on the digital bandwagon and rightly so. But what constitutes digital? A lot of agencies describe digital as social media relations, or online PR. In that regard they embrace social networks (they monitor them and find ways to create communities for their clients). They also embrace bloggers and of course all the online publications and wikis. Much of this shift to digital is simply replacing traditional media with online content sources. I’d argue that such an approach is not true digital but a much narrower form of digital communications. True digital is far more complex and difficult. My description of digital embraces:
- Analytical tools and services that enable companies to fully understand the extent to which they and their rivals are participating in the conversations and communities in the digital world. And some insight into what to do next!
- Search skills and the ability to influence the terms people use when searching for clients and their rivals. SEO skills are not a part of most PROs toolkits. They will be though.
- The ability to design and build web properties. Right now agencies are outsourcing the task of designing and building micro-sites etc. But the structure and content of web properties is increasingly becoming a more central service and not a skill that should sit outside the firm.
- Connection to CRM technology and the customer support side of the business. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the join between customer relations and public relations, thanks in large part to the online relationships that now exist around brands. This creates both a technology and skill challenge for agencies.
- Creative direction. The concept of having a creative director is not a common one for many PR agencies. Indeed, we often assume that all our people are creative. With the convergence of digital advertising and digital communications, many clients actually expect to see a creative director. Furthermore, B2B PR actually needs another level of creativity. In B2B PR we are so used to focusing on key messages that we can forget the value of simply making people enjoy their connection with the brand. Consumer PR people understand this challenge well, which is why creative teams and creative directors are more common in that world. Put another way, we engage with brands intellectually AND emotionally. B2B PR tends to focus on the former. In a digital world it has the chance to put equal focus on the latter. Bring on the creative director.
- Community building skills. PR firms are used to leveraging influence through existing communities. For example we use the editorial or blogger community to get our messages out there. We are embracing Facebook and Twitter but we need to do a LOT more. We need people who can really build communities. This thinking goes well beyond Facebook and even Ning and Grouply. It needs to embrace online and offline community management skills.
There are actually other areas, such as video content that a true digital agency should embrace but hopefully this shows that digital done right is a lot more than just basic social media relations. This transition is going to be fascinating. I’m dying to see who the new kings and queens of communications will be.
Like a lot of you I follow a bunch of people on Twitter and some of them are constantly tweeting. Indeed I had to turn one off today because he was filling my Twitter inbox and I couldn’t see any other tweets. One of the other people I follow, who normally does a pretty good job of tweeting – say 10 a day (about 9 more a day than I average). Today this person didn’t tweet. Not once. Indeed the absence of his tweets mad me wonder if he was OK. Now I wasn’t exactly about to call 911 but it did make me realize that Twitter has become a measure of someone’s state of mind etc. I could easily see that you could develop a tool that analyzed people’s tweets to determine what kind of mood they are in and whether this would be a good or a bad time to call them and ask them for that $100 they owe you, or to buy something from you. Of course this would only work with the people that tweet in enough volume but that guy I turned off earlier today would be a perfect candidate for such a tool. So, you prolific tweeters – look out, you may be getting that sales call right when you least expect it and you are unwittingly at your weakest.