Why marketing must Learn from the EU

We all know what a mess Europe has been in the last few years.  The lack of central controls has resulted in some slow and often poor decision making, that has dragged the region into another recession and has cast doubt on the future of the single currency.  There is a lesson in here for all those running marketing at a regional or global level.  If they want to run a coordinated campaign across more than one country, they need to take control and be willing to make decisions that will be unpopular at a local level OR they need to accept that their campaigns will not be consistent.  Just as the EU learned, all too late, that it needed to enforce economic controls on Greece, or risk collective failure, so CMOs need to enforce marketing controls.  

The failure and success of some brands is seen when they pitch their business around the world.  Some brands involve local countries but make it clear their vote will only assist in decision making, not define it.  Others are overly democratic and allow local countries to veto certain agencies and thus create a ‘lowest common denominator’ decision, where the least offensive agency wins.  This does nobody any favors and results in two years of misery for everyone but the chosen agency (actually even they don’t really enjoy this process).  

Just as Angela Merkel realized, it’s important to show leadership on critical decisions, so must CMOs.  Now it may be that the company’s internal structure (who holds the purse strings is of course the definition of internal structure) may work against a company running marketing programs across regions.  If that’s the case, then efforts to have a regional or global agency are doomed before they start.  Organizing the financial and human resources are the first step a CMO should take BEFORE they embark on finding the right agency partners.  At the end of the day, agencies cannot make up for the inherent weaknesses of internal structures.  If anything they will amplify them.  If, because of politics, a CMO can’t affect the right changes here, then they should focus instead on having each country make the very best LOCAL decisions and stop worrying about the regional or global brand efforts.  For the agencies involved, perhaps the advice they must all stick with is to avoid pitching business where there are a dozen decision makers spread across a region.  We’ve seen how dysfunctional the EU has been lately.  Businesses that employ the same basic process will fair no better.

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Real Time/Social Media is making us spoiled – time for the ‘long idea’

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.

Later.

 


PR PROs should drive insight not just news

PR agencies do more than drive news BUT they do tend to focus on the news cycle a great deal for obvious reasons.  Yet PR has to recognize that the way we consume news has changed drastically in the last five years.  Five years ago people had a primary news source, either via broadcast or a daily newspaper. Today they have a broad array of news sources that includes these same outlets, albeit online, but also includes bloggers, friends and people they follow on Twitter or are connected to on LinkedIn.  In such a fragmented market for information it is harder for companies to control their message.  This makes it far more important that companies determine the insight they want the news to create, which in will in turn drive the way they engage with the brand.  Yet all too often companies are so focussed on how to best to get the news out that they spend little, if any, time on what the news means and what they expect the people who should be connected to that news to do as a result.  In a world where we are drowning in information, the brand that goes the extra mile and helps us figure out how to make use of that information will win.  For PR agencies this means changing the way we think about the news cycle.  We need to work with our clients to make sure they understand the real and or desired implications of the news they want to promote.  There’s an old saying – there’s no such thing as bad news.  Perhaps PR consultants should worry less about the news and more about the insight.  Insight drives behaviors and actions and without these a client may well wonder why they engaged with you in the first place.


Is the PR pitch process back to front?

PR agencies know the ropes.  You get invited to pitch for a certain account against other firms.  You then throw a ton of time and effort into it.  At some point it becomes clear that you’ve been chosen by the internal team and then you are passed over to procurement to ‘dot the Is and cross the Ts.’  In most cases that process is also quite familiar.  Procurement comes with a huge list of things they want agencies to give up (most of them involve some form of discount).  Now most procurement departments are quite reasonable while some push things to the limit.  I don’t really blame them, after all it’s their job.  But what this can result in is a situation where you simply can’t accept the terms the procurement people are seeking and you have to walk away.  This is frustrating for everyone concerned.  Should we therefore consider negotiating the contract and financial terms before pitching?  I appreciate that may mean more work for procurement as they may have to try and negotiate with all the potential vendors.  However, they could also simply say these are our terms and if you accept them you can pitch.  If you don’t then you should withdraw now.  Such an approach would save everyone a LOT of time and money and would result in clients only getting pitches from people willing to accept their terms.  As I say, I have nothing against procurement departments being aggressive.  Again, it’s their job to get the best deal for their business.  What is frustrating for the agency is this notion that if you win the pitch that you should then be prepared to sign up to terms that don’t work for your business.  To be clear, this post doesn’t relate to a certain pitch we’ve been involved in.  In truth it related to several that have taken place in the last few months.  Just want to propose a better way for client and the agency to get engaged.


OBSESSED WITH SOCIAL MEDIA? YOU SHOULD BE OBSESSED WITH SEARCH!

I keep reading about brands that have used social media to reach their audience.  It’s kind of funny when you think about that.  First it’s funny because traditional media is writing about the very media that is killing them.  Second, it’s funny how obsessed we are that social media is ‘different’ from old media.  There seems to be a belief that social is inherently better.  Why is that?  Is it because social is seen as more democratic?  Is it because social is seen as more real?  Or is it because social is just the new way?

Before I go any further let me get one thing off my chest.  While there is some traditional media left, the vast majority of media is now social.  Most of our media has social aspects to it.  We can share it, comment on it, create our own versions of it and directly influence it.  Some purists would say that organizations such as the BBC are traditional media businesses.  Yet if you look at almost all their online content it has a social element to it.  The BBC has made real efforts to embrace social media and social network concepts.  I still feel they could go a lot further but they have come a very long way in the last year.  Organizations such as the New York Times have also taken bold steps as have publications such as Forbes.  Again, there is more they could do but you have to applaud their efforts.  We now follow their editors on Twitter, we get their news in real-time, we see comments from other readers.

So does all this mean that social is now the norm?  I’d say that many aspects of social are the norm.  Publications have realized that the value of content is directly linked to the number of people that share that content.  Sharing an old fashioned print story was hard and rarely happened.  Sharing a news story via twitter, Facebook, email etc is all too easy.  So easy in fact that we are now looking for ways to filter all the content.  When social arrived we all loved the idea that we could effectively let our friends filter the content for us.  If our friends thought it was worth re-tweeting it was probably worth a read.  With thousands of tweets landing on our feeds each day that method is a bust.  We now need tools to filter the filter.

So the challenge for the media isn’t to become more social.  The smart ones have already done that and are now struggling with how to break through all the clutter.  Put another way, social media is starting to deal with the very same challenge most companies have been wrestling with since so much commerce went online.  When people started buying products online search optimization took off.  Now of course most social content has some optimization built in.  But I’d argue that most tweets, blogs and YouTube videos are not that optimized (this blog is a great example).  Indeed it would seem that content optimization is still a huge opportunity for the creators of content.  Indeed I’d argue it is THE opportunity.

I’m sure some of the social media gurus out there will say I have this all wrong but IMHO there is still more talk than action on search from comms staff.  Most comms staff don’t discuss search strategies, they talk about content strategies.  They don’t conduct search audits, they conduct messaging audits.  This is not surprising.  Most of the people in communications have grown up with content as king.  We are trained to find ways to craft messages not optimize for real time search engines.  I’d argue that our obsession with content is a good thing BUT that we need an equal obsession on search if we are to win in a digital world.  Content, however great it may be, has no value if nobody can find it.


Should PR be a part of sales or marketing?

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.


The end of Push PR/Marketing

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.