The New Word-of-Mouth Marketing Infrastructure?

The role of a proprietary community environment for the purposes of marketing (or social marketing program) has been hotly debated among brand marketers and social media insiders. We know that social sites are more engaging (people spend more time on them) than non-social, and marketers want to tap into that power.

So as a marketer, do you build your own community, or do you join others’? If you decide to build a community, what is the best marketing application – a community for your Loyalty Program, a community for building Insight into consumers that Market Research uses, an educational community for those considering your products that is more of a Direct Marketing play?

But it seems like brands are benefiting from building AND joining . . . and we’ve seen applications for social marketing  that are generating value along each (and in many cases, all) of the above dimensions.

Something I learned long ago is that if your questions have multiple correct answers, then you might be asking the wrong questions.

The range of marketing value propositions that a branded online community can serve indicates that the community isn’t really appropriate for just one of them – after all, separating “loyalty program” from “acquisition program,” “pre-purchase” from “post-purchase,” is something that marketers do for ourselves. Consumers don’t classify interactions that cleanly. Plus we’re seeing social tools being applied in almost every dimension of a company’s customer-facing business . . .

Ecommerce – Social Commerce / product presence through ratings and reviews by providers like Bazaarvoice

Support – Enhanced Product/Service Support Forums by providers like Lithium

PR/IR – Blogging and corporate presence platforms by providers like Awareness Networks

Focus Groups and Research – Formal deep online market research environments from providers like Communispace

The problem with the above applications is that while they are powerful when a consumer is ready to hear about what you’re selling, they suffer from what I call the “dinner party egomaniac” problem. If they are the only social applications you have, you risk sounding like the person at the dinner party who is only willing to have conversations about themselves  – your products, your company, your brand. And if your product or brand isn’t particularly sexy, that problem is exacerbated.

This makes it remarkably difficult to drive brand engagement from third party social environments to your properties. On those sites, consumers are busy talking to and relating to each other about the things that matter to them. They are not in a transactional mindset, and the invasive brand-centric presence there will be no more effective than, and probably less effective than, a 30-second TV spot.

What is needed is a transitional space, a place where consumers can go from third party social engagement to brand engagement naturally. A place that “changes the subject” at the dinner party in a way that Emily Post would approve.

This is where a branded online community can enter in – as the platform that reaches into third party social sites, converting third party social engagement into branded social engagement while retaining the context of consumer needs and aspirations. Branded communities need to be focused at the lifestyle and category level for this reason – it’s where the brand connects to consumers and their conversation.

What makes this easier are technologies that most third party social sites are implementing that allow users to take their identity, relationships, content, and features seamlessly from an unbranded environment to a branded one: like Facebook Connect, for instance.

word-of-mouth-infrastructure

So perhaps all of these things begin to function together in a new-media word-of-mouth marketing infrastructure, as above. Social enablement of the brand presence in all dimensions, and then a social marketing program where the brand connects with the relevant aspirations and needs of the consumer – and which fields participants from social destinations in powerful new ways that wildly outperform more traditional broadcast marketing channels.

I’ll be talking about this topic, social marketing, and how Powered provides these programs every week, starting tomorrow at 2:00 CST, in a webinar called “Powered Social Marketing: How It Can Elevate Your Bottom Line.” Stop by and see what we have to say!

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Content and Audience: Inexorably Tied

At yesterday’s Social Media Breakfast in Austin, Tim Walker had us revisit the past to help us see the present and future more clearly (read or listen to his talk – you’ll enjoy it). In what had to be the most entertaining history lesson I’ve had in many years, he reminded us that the changes social media has brought to the way we connect and communicate aren’t the first of their kind. Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther utilized “new media” (aka words printed on the printing press) to fan the flames of his reformation. Thanks to this new-fangled print media, information was more readily-available and it changed the way people thought about, discussed, and impacted the world around them. This technology opened the doors for a much larger group of content creators to tell their story and publications were no longer under the control of a select few with the knowledge and funds to publish. Today’s social media tools have very much paralleled the impact the printing press had on society – albeit much more quickly. We’re in the midst of the same kind of information evolution that Luther so deftly leveraged to change the course of history.

In the midst of Tim’s excellent trip to times past, I started to think about how the printing press changed its audience and, conversely, how the new audience for works spun from the printing press directly impacted what was written and printed. The audience and the content were inexorably tied. With more books to read, more people had a reason to learn how to read. With a much more diverse audience to serve, the subject matter of books changed greatly and many more publishers emerged to serve the new demand for information both fact and fiction. Before the printing press the audience for books was largely the clergy and the extremely wealthy and the books of those times were for those audiences. After the printing press, the audience grew to include all classes and multiple vocations. The diversification of a previously homogeneous audience completely drove what was written and printed – but without the printing press, that audience would never have existed.

Following this tangential mental activity, I realized that social media technology and its audience have the same relationship that the printing press and its audience did so many centuries ago. When the Web first emerged, publishing was limited to those who understood the technology required to put up a site and who could afford to host a site. The message was completely controlled by the publisher and the audience was fairly homogenous and small. With the emergence of simple, free, and socially-focused tools for publishing everything from the written word to images and pictures, a new group of publishers was born. Immediately thereafter, a new audience was born. When the total number of available web pages was smaller and the content heavily guided by the publishers, the audiences for those pages were smaller and less-diverse. The population in general simply didn’t have a compelling reason to be online regularly for any extended period of time. As soon as that audience could read the works of those they cared about most – friends, family, and interesting content creators who might not otherwise have been published – they found their reason. And just as the printing press drove an increase in literacy, so did the social web drive an increase in technology literacy and connectivity (both physical and virtual). And just as the new literate audience drove the evolution of what was printed on the printing presses, the new social web audience is now actively driving what is created on the web. The circle has been joined and the web hasn’t been the same since.

So what does the history of the printing press and its audience tells us about the possible future of the social web? A few things come to mind:

  • Many publishers will emerge but not all will remain. While cheap publishing means more people can publish, in the end, the audience cares about quality content that is relevant to them and will be the drivers of which publishers are successful. While the number of Web publishers is significantly larger the number of people who have ever been published in print, over time web publishers will see attrition just as print publishers did. In the case of print publishers lack of revenue largely drove attrition, whereas on the web lack of readership (and possibly revenue) will be the culprit. And then there’s the fact that publishing quality content on a regular basis does take a reasonable amount of energy and when your content isn’t monetized there’s the pesky issue of the day-job to consider. There are only so many hours in the day that people will devote to taking in content – and over time the best content will rise to the top. The publishers that will find success are the ones that can stay focused on their audience and what that audience cares about.
  • While the audience may not drive the initial innovation of a technology, they will impact its evolution and its uses. Had you asked the pre-printing press world how they would feel about a printing press, many wouldn’t have even known how to respond. But once they experienced the results of the innovation – inexpensive and easily available books — they had a direct impact on the evolution of the printing press. The audience favored certain printed formats and disliked others, helping shape the world of print over time. The same is already true of social web technologies – from blogs to rich media sharing and micro blogging. While a pre-twitter world wouldn’t have known how to feel about Twitter, now that micro-blogging is real, there are many opinions driving its growth and evolution. Once exposed to a technology or an application of it, audiences will start to impact its future direction, even if you don’t necessarily want them to. Those who respond well and show agility will be successful.
  • New forms of media will emerge. For many years print was the best game in town. Then internet came along and changed everything. Granted, it took a few hundred years between the two innovations, but chances are we won’t have the luxury of that kind of time before new media types emerge that make the Web look old school. Will you be ready when the next printing press comes along?

My single biggest take away from today was to re-remember my favorite Cicero quote: “Not to know what happened before you were born is always to be a child”. While we are all blazing new trails and innovating, we should never forget that there are good lessons from the past that can provide valuable guidance in our current endeavors.

Zappos Delivers WOW Moment

My Zappos order was delivered overnight as a special WOW gift to make me feel good.

Here’s a quick follow up to my recent post about Tony Hsieh and Zappos. I’m pleased to report that the company delivers on its WOW promise. Shortly after placing my order at www.Zappos.com on Wednesday, I received an email stating:

“Although you originally ordered Standard (4 to 5 business days) shipping and handling, we have given your order special priority processing in our warehouse and are upgrading the shipping and delivery time frame for your order. Your order will ship out today and be given a special priority shipping status so that you can receive your order even faster than we originally promised!

Please note that this is being done at no additional cost to you. It is simply our way of saying thank you for being our customer.”

Sure enough on Thursday my shipment arrives, complete with the cool Paul Frank monkey shirt for my son Ayrton. He’s wearing it proudly at school today. It’s always good to know another company that truly values relationships with customers.

ANA 2008 Brand Innovation Conference in NYC

“Brand Building 2.0” is the manner marketers use to effectively reach and relate to their audience in today’s world. This method employs more than just digital media, such as the Internet and mobile devices. It requires consumer empowerment. This was the topic at last week’s ANA Conference at the Hard Rock Café Times Square in New York.

Presentations were made by such respected brands as American Express, P&G and Ford. Of these, Claire Bennett’s discussion on “How new media has enhanced the American Express brand” was the most compelling. “It takes risk” was her summation about creating online marketing programs. Courage was the word she pin-pointed as the important take away.

American Express Members Know web site

It also takes time, explained Bennett. Her experience has shown that program ROI can not be realistically expected in the first year. A web site needs an opportunity to build momentum through trial and error, refinement, cross media promotion and WOMM. American Express strives to create marketing programs that “surprise and delight.” AMEX had only two such web sites in 2004, but now has eight successful ones, including MembersKnow and OpenForum.

Zappos 2007 Culture Book

The most interesting presentation at the conference was made by Tony Hsieh. He is the CEO of Zappos “a service company that happens to sell shoes.” The business is steadfastly focused on culture and service. The vast majority of their marketing budget goes into improving the customer experience. This includes stocking millions of shoes in their warehouse, providing exceptional and untimed call center support and surprise overnight shipping upgrades. Items not normally found in a marketing mix.

The goal is to create as many “wow moments” as possible. This creates loyalty and referral business. The approach is working. Zappos was started in 1999 and is expected to achieve over a billion in sales this year.

The Zappos culture is shaped by passion, fun, values and humility. Their core values are published on their web site. And a Zappos Culture Book is published each year featuring entries by all employees of the company – even negative comments. This radical transparency and humility seems present throughout Zappos.

I find the Zappos brand refreshing and empowering – so much so that I placed an order at Zappos this morning. In addition to the cool Paul Frank monkey shirt I bought for my son, I ordered the Zappos 2007 Culture Book. I paid $15 for it despite the fact that Tony Hsieh said he would send me one free if I emailed him. I just felt compelled to support the Zappos brand, culture and employees. Now that’s brand innovation.

A Golden Age for Consumers

I was shopping at one of my local home centers this weekend and was talking to an associate about a product.  For the first time ever I had an associate suggest I go online for research and specifically suggest I check the product’s reviews. 

And it reminded me that wow…how far things have come in such a relatively short time.  The web has been around about 14 years.  And in just the last few, things have gotten extraordinarily transparent.  I can read volumes about what shoppers and owners think of a product, and can find out how to do just about anything I’d want with it.  I can especially learn things the manufacturer probably should teach me, but doesn’t.

Speaking of empowered consumers and transparency, check out The Consumerist.  It’s an extraordinary concept, and a welcome presence on the webosphere.  As a consumer, I’ve found it helpful on more than one occasion, particularly when I needed to fight back (and sound off to a company’s upper management when I needed to help them see things my way.)

At Powered, we’ve been in the business of helping brands give consumers a great experience and spend their hard earned dollars smarter for years now. It’s nice to see we have some help.

Know of a site that helps consumers fight back?  Please share.

 

How Blogs & Social Media Are Changing Crisis Communications

Flight cancellations from American Airlines created a lot of news coverage and consumer angst this week. The result of wiring problems on MD-80 airplanes, this situation got me thinking about how the involved communications teams are responding.
Are they holding cards close to the vest or communicating openly?
Are they leveraging the Internet and social media?
An American Airlines MD-80 during take off.
How are consumers reacting online?
 
American Airlines’ customers have been highly inconvenienced, with over 2500 flights cancelled. Their home page had a single line: “ADVISORY: AIRCRAFT INSPECTIONS AFFECT SOME AA TRAVEL.” This linked to a simple page of text summarizing the situation. It was not all that helpful.
 
American Airlines’ chairman Gerard Arpey’s press conference today is already up on YouTube (uploaded by a consumer, not American Airlines). In the video, he personally accepts responsibility and apologizes for the problems. Other videos tagged with “American Airlines” posted on YouTube.com this week have been viewed over 20,000 times.

In the blogosphere, Greta van Susteren’s post on the subject has created a good amount of consumer conversation with nearly 50 responses since 11am this morning.

These events show how consumer conversations take place in real time online. Communication professionals need to account for this in crisis communications plans. We need to monitor, analyze and interact with the blogosphere and UGC communities before, during and after such events.
 
As advisors in social media, we have a responsibility to encourage and facilitate a more open conversation in the market. This is even more important in difficult times.

Shouldn’t The Golden Rule Apply to Marketing Too?

rockgold1.jpgIf you were a consumer (and you are) – would you like your marketing? Would you want it done to you? Your family and friends? I’ve been in marketing for nearly 17 years and have found myself (unfortunately) on more than one occasion hypocritically applying a double standard. “I don’t want that product’s marketing noise in my inbox/mailbox/living room…but hey, when it comes to my stuff I’m sure they want what I’ve got. I’ve just got to tell them. Often.” BTW, I’m doing my best to stop that. And I am DEFINITELY not alone in my remorse. See this. And this. And this.

 

The great thing is that “new” marketing (done right) makes it easier than ever to treat others as you’d like to be treated. And in many ways it’s easier to mea culpa for mistakes. Because we’re all going to make them. And we should, because we should be trying new things all the time – just like Einstein said.

 

So next time you’re about to launch that new campaign or initiative, remember the Golden Rule.