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.


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!


Uncool, man. Uncool.

My daughter is thirteen years old. She’s smart, savvy, and wise beyond her years in many ways. She’s a tech-freak, teaching herself photo editing, photography, HTML, and more. Her Palm® Centro™ is constantly in her hand. In many ways, she and her gaggle of friends are the perfect audience for social marketing. We talk about using social tools like Twitter to reach new generations of consumers, the ‘kids today’ obsessed with MySpace and Facebook and the rest.

Imagine my surprise when I told my daughter “You should get on Twitter!”, and she responded “Please, all our parents are on Twitter”. Apparently, this makes Twitter automatically uncool. Ouch. Ah well, I’m a parent. I’m used to anything I like being automatically uncool (with the possible exception of music, movies, and TV – we seem to have a two-way dialog going on there). However, this conversation got me thinking.

My daughter is a Millennial, aka a member of Gen Y or the Net Generation. What we’re seeing, as dinosaur Gen Xers ourselves, is that our children experience the world in a vastly different way than we ever did. They don’t have artificial boundaries, or loyalty to any one technology or platform as a vehicle to connection or self-expression. If a MySpace clone emerged with better functionality (say, for my daughter, a better interface between unsigned bands and music lovers), she’d dump MySpace in a heartbeat and not give it a second thought.

It occurs to me, then, that we must broaden our understanding of social marketing if we’re going to reach this vital group of consumers. Make no mistake, my daughter and her friends have serious money to spend. Millennials account for more than $170 billion dollars of spending a year. That’s roughly five percent of all US consumer spending. As they mature, that number’s only going to rise.

We might think we’re on the cutting edge of social media, but what if we really have tunnel vision regarding the future of the movement? What works today with us and our peers is not likely to work tomorrow with my daughter and her peers. Teenager Tom says, “Yeah there’s a lot of advertising everywhere, but I don’t know… The more advertising I see, the more it kind of turns me off of buying things I think, ’cause I don’t like all that advertising being right in my face all the time. I don’t buy any of that stuff. I basically go, if somebody else has it I ask them, y’know, what they think of it or I’ll try it out myself. I don’t really listen to commercials and ads and newspapers and everything.”

These kids grew up with Tivo®. My daughter experiences physical pain (or so one might think from her moaning and groaning) when she can’t fast forward through commercials. If you try to sell her, you’ve lost her, because guess what? You’re trying too hard. And trying too hard is…you guessed it. Uncool.

Millennials listen to each other. Microblogs, corporate blogs, anything with the tinge of ‘The Man’ to it will automatically turn them off. Of all the elements of social marketing available to us, ratings and reviews are the ones most likely to work in this growing demographic. What if the aforementioned Tom wanted to spend his Christmas Best Buy® gift card on a Bluetooth® gaming headset for his PC, but none of his friends had such a thing? He’d head to the Best Buy Web site and look for ratings and reviews. But not just any reviews – he’d look for reviews that actually address the things that matter to him, and that he felt were written by peers. The concerns of a middle-aged Gen Xer who is enthused about using his headset to talk to his colleague in Finland on Skype™ would not resonate in the slightest, and might even provoke the dreaded teenage eyeroll.

The thing to remember about marketing to Millennials is that while they’re more connected than any other generation in history, they’re also the most deeply cynical and suspicious. They like to get advice from each other, but they don’t trust advice from outside. Finding a way to target ratings and reviews without looking like we’re targeting ratings and reviews is the key to communicating with them. The good news is that, once you do manage to open a dialog based on trust, you’ll have their loyalty…at least until something better comes along.


Sales Troubles? No Comment(s)

Influence of various sources of information on purchasing

Influence of various sources of information on purchasing - Rubicon Consulting 10/2008

It probably won’t surprise you that personal advice is the number one reason people buy products from one company vs. another. It’s only natural to ask a co-worker, friend or family member’s advice before purchasing a new product or service. What I’ll bet you didn’t know was that online comments were the second most influential source for driving purchase consideration*. And not just by a little bit.

As you can see from the chart below, 50% of the 3,036 people surveyed selected “influence me strongly” or “influence me very strongly” as their choice when it comes to online comments. That compares to 70% of people that cite “personal advice” as their top motivator and 40% who look to “articles posted by newspapers/magazines” for advice.

So what if you don’t have comments on your site? What if you don’t have any type of community or social presence? Unless you can get people telling their friends and family about you (something online communities/social media is also good at) you have to hope that a magazine or newspaper will write about you or the editor of a third party website favorably reviews you. Not surprisingly, “advice from salesperson” comes in at a whopping 20% in the top 2 box.

In a society where people are becoming less and less trusting of what big companies are telling them, don’t you think it makes sense to create a place where your customers can tell other customers what they think about you? Yes, they may something bad but guess what, if you don’t make good products or your customer service stinks, they are already saying this about you. Don’t believe me? Try doing a Google search on your company’s name plus the word “sucks” in your query.

Looking for an example of a company that is doing this well? Take a look at Sony’s Backstage 101 community. Their engagement, loyalty and willingness to recommend numbers are off the charts. Yes, Sony is a customer of ours but don’t take our word for it. Check out the case study that our friends at MarketingProfs put together.[the report requires premium membership – if you need a copy, e-mail me at stroutmeister AT gmail DOT com].

*Online Communities and Their Impact on Business: Ignore at Your Peril – Rubicon Consulting, October 2008 (thanks to our friends at SHIFT for forwarding this report over to us).

From Flat to Round: The New Brand

The Most Interesting Man in the WorldI draw a lot of parallels between marketing and storytelling, and I’m certainly not the only one. But recently, I’ve been giving some thought (mostly as a result of it being a hot conversation on the web) to the branding dimension of marketing, how it’s changing, and how it relates to the art of telling a good story.

Branding is to me most like characterization in the storytelling paradigm, the ability to develop convincing and compelling personalities with whom the reader (a.k.a. consumer) can identify and form a firm relationship. When you read a book, see a play, or watch a movie where characterization is done well, your emotions (love or hate) for the characters are amplified. The actors are full, their flaws and their strengths are detailed, and you can get to the point where when the story ends you want to see more of them. Good brands are like that – you feel like you know them, you feel like your association with them says something about you, and you want to see more of them.

A little bit of research into characterization rendered this from the Department of English at The University of Victoria that digs a little deeper:

A flat character (also known as a type, or a two-dimensional character) is defined by a single quality without much individualizing detail. A round character is a complex individual incapable of being easily defined. The degree to which characters are given roundness and individual complexity depends upon their function in the plot–some only need to be seen at a distance, like strangers or acquaintances, rather than known intimately.

I would argue that most brands today, and in the old world of marketing, are “flat characters.” A brand’s time with us has been hindered by our inability to choose with which brands we spend that time, as offline marketing channels feature a more-or-less complete lack of consumer control. As a result brand-marketers have had to keep branding simple. Every commercial break has been like a round of speed-dating where you have 30 seconds to get to know each of the brands involved.

That’s changing. With the web now a major force in marketing (and driven by consumer choice, spread primarily by word of mouth) consumers now have the means, and the ability, to choose to spend more time with brands they like. Brand marketers have to be ready for that. They must build “round characters” – the kind with depth, complexity, even flaws. This is why many people define the new branding as more conversational, more social. What they really are describing is the process of brands shedding their archetypical trappings and becoming more like real people.

Two good examples that go part of the way, but perhaps not far enough, are a couple of great efforts by Dos Equis and Palm. Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World” is a crusty old guy who looks like a cross between Chuck Norris and Antonio Banderas. He is surrounded by women, and described by phrases like “his blood smells like cologne” and “his personality is so magnetic that he is unable to carry credit cards.” He’s a great character for beer drinkers, myself included. You can become a fan of him on Facebook, and you can visit a website where he is featured, but you quickly get the sense that, well, he’s not really that interesting. While I give kudos to Dos Equis for some great ad spots and a slick website, opportunities are missed here for a deeper and longer-term engagement. A similar treatment was given to Claus, Palm’s metro-hip version of Santa Claus. Great character, but a bit flat for the web.

So what is a “round brand” on the web? Isn’t it a huge effort to develop all the backstory on your character for the few that are interested? Actually, it might be less work. By merely pulling back the marketing curtain and exposing the personalities and voices of the interesting people on your marketing team (through social networks and through your own socially-enabled website), you can contribute those personalities to your brand – rounding it out. Just look at what Dunkin Donuts is doing on their Twitter account. And it might be more than just a few that become interested, as word-of-mouth spreads at the speed of the web.

What brands do you think have character?

Community Noise: How to “Bring the Unique”

SnowflakeThere are a lot of brands out there chasing the same audiences. Consumer goods purveyors are pursuing the purchasing-power moms. Financial services and technology companies are after the small business owners. Just about everyone is trying to figure out Gen Y and the “digitally born.”

In our last post my colleagues Aaron and Bill touched on how to connect with a passion point to drive community – but what if everyone out there is trying to connect with that same audience, and as a result trying to tap into the same passion point?

There are only so many communities about healthy eating, managing your finances, owning a small business, travel, or even fly fishing that can survive on the web. And often this is a point marketers stop at even before they start. They see the benefits of owning a piece of the conversation, but are daunted by the large and successful communities out there already addressing their audience’s interests.

The key, in my mind, is to turn the analysis inward and ask “what is the unique, relevant value that my company or brand could bring to a community on the web?” Answering that question takes some imagination. Below, a few thoughts on how to tackle that issue and “bring the unique.”

A Bigger Budget

One of the biggest ways brands can offer something unique, especially in contrast to consumer-run online communities, is the resources they can focus on it. A site that is professionally designed and built, with content that is supplied by top-notch experts, and perhaps augmented by the presence of celebrities – these are things that a brand can create that can be truly unique and will attract consumers to commune. A key point here is that the budget should be employed to bring things to consumers that are non-self-serving and of interest to them, so no flashier product demos or buying guides please (though these things have their time and place!).

A Backstage Pass

A great area of community value is simply access to company and brand. People want to meet the people behind a brand or product. They want to know how things are made, and hear the thoughts and opinions of internal experts. Successful companies are unique in the market, and increased access to that can be a great source of fuel for community. Even if a community isn’t truly pulling back the curtain, some level of active participation is always powerful.

Go Niche

A brand can employ its considerable resources and access to a more focused audience than any of its competition does. By narrowing a community focus to a group of people that is of highest relevance to their brand, a company can create a more unique community. In the long run, the deepening of relationships with people who really belong with your brand, and the power of advocacy they bring, will serve you better than trying to lure those who aren’t a great fit with a broader community focus.

Know Your Place

Finally, a point of caution. Even though a brand can get an audience engaged, it doesn’t pay to invest heavily on communications tools for them. Allow them to use the email/IM/Twitter/Facebook that they already have in place and feed into those tools. Social marketing is about offering unique, relevant value in a community-powered environment – not about communications between and coordination of people. The quickest way to doom a community is to compete with the thousands of social networking tools out there. It’s more than just offering a competitive tool – it’s that people don’t feel truly comfortable communicating with each other when a brand is “in the room.” Why do you think display ads on Facebook don’t work well? If people find each other and want to take their new relationships out of the context of your brand, that’s great, it pays to let them – that’s where true advocacy begins.

Any other thoughts on how a company or brand can bring the unique, or reactions to the points above? Please sound off in the comments!

Image uploaded by Karl Wagner

MorphMonkey: Social gets viral on Facebook

My reaction to the new MorphMonkey marketing campaign on Facebook is… well awkward. It just makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Yet that’s the point.

A press release from the American Social Health Association explains the campaign:

“In an unusual creative move, a team at Duval Guillaume (DG) has agreed to spread an infectious disease by working with the American Social Health Association (ASHA). The aim is to… highlight the dangers of Chlamydia to young people during April, which is STD Awareness Month. …(The team) devised a Facebook application called MorphMonkey in which users are invited to “make a love child” by morphing pictures of their own faces with that of their friends.

The humor then takes a different turn. The infected user is notified that they have caught the infection from their friend and is prompted to discover more on the ASHA website: The message is “Spread it here so we can beat it here”, according to all involved with the program.”

I learned about this new application from a post on TechCrunch. I find the comments below the post interesting to get the social buzz. The campaign is quite edgy in that the MorphMonkey application page on Facebook makes no mention of Chlamydia. Essentially participants… dare I say it… get caught with their pants down.

Here’s the MorphMonkey application page on Facebook.

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 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.