Author Archive for Tony Quin

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The New Brass Ring: Trusted Knowledge Source

Brass Ring

The problem with selling stuff is getting people to buy on your schedule vs. theirs. As a business you need sales sooner, not later, so the solution has always been discounts and promotions to motivate people to act now.  Discounts and promotions, however, assume the consumer is already sold. They pre-suppose that the only thing standing in the way of the sale is timing and cost. But what if the prospect is actually in tire-kicking mode? I’ve heard that the rule of thumb is that only 1-2% of prospects are ready-to-buy at any particular moment. If true, and it seems reasonable, that would mean that 98-99% of the target audience you are going after, are not actively interested in buying.

I am amazed how many times brands are still hunting for that 1-2% of ready-to-buy people and hoping that the sales they get make up for the inefficiency of wasted exposure to the rest.  It used to be that the sales generated justified the cost, and the silent majority didn’t matter.  But the silent majority of consumers today, while perhaps not ready to buy, are far from idle. They are doing their due diligence, digital style, and ads, as we have learned, may not be the best way to approach them.

Trusted Knowledge Sources

Search has trained us to presume we can gather all the knowledge we need to always make the best buying decisions online. And according to the Nielsen Trust in Advertising Report, people get a lot of that knowledge from brand websites because they trust them second only to recommendations from friends. This underscores the importance of a good website at the heart of a smart marketing ecosystem. But what it really reveals is that consumers are looking for trusted knowledge sources that will help make the process of getting to that perfect decision easier, faster and more reliable.

If you think about your own online research, invariably it’s hard to find a credible, apparently objective source of information. In most categories there are sites that purport to offer objective reviews, but are really just shills for paid sponsors.  Then there is a plethora of articles and opinions, social and otherwise, that pop up in a general search. Poring through them all on a quest for fast and easy truth can be frustrating and time-consuming. The result is a wide divergence between what the web actually delivers and consumer expectations of being able to make the perfect choice every time. As Barry Schwartz described in “the Paradox of Choice” lots of choices overwhelm people quickly, and since we all want to make the best, most informed choice, it’s never as easy as we want it to be.  This lays bare the opportunity for brands to leverage the goodwill that consumers already feel for them even further, by becoming the go-to trusted knowledge source in their category.

Driven by the two consumer objectives of “making the best choice” and “making it easy”, the true battle is to be among the handful of brands that get a trusted source spot on the consumer’s mental shelf, which is the modern version of Reis & Trout’s Positioning. These are brands that can be relied upon to not only deliver content that is relevant and valuable, but also to operate with perceived transparency and objectivity. This is not something that brands can fake, and has to be a commitment to actually deliver on consumer expectations.

Simplify the Process

Most consumers don’t know much about many of the product categories they explore, like buying light bulbs or a digital camera, and in their quest to make quick, informed decisions, they jump to search. This usually starts with wading through the body of knowledge associated with the category that has built up over time, across many companies, and is sitting in the archives of lots of brand websites. Invariably it’s an overwhelming, complex mountain of knowledge, hard to sift through and often impossible to find what you are looking for.  Making this process easy is clearly the first opportunity that brands should be looking for in their category. The objective is to simplify the process of evaluating and buying, by doing the heavy lifting for the consumer. That means developing tools and systems to make the buying process easy and intuitive, delivering exactly the right information at the right time, and answering questions. For those consumers who have an interest in the category beyond just getting a purchase made, it also means developing content to feed those interests.

Many people may have an active interest or passion in a category long before, they become ready-to-buy or even start their digital due diligence. Figuring out what the associated interests and passions of a category are, however, can be tricky. If you are lucky enough to be in a category like pet food, for example, the passions are easy to see. But what if you sell generators?  A brand might assume there are no passions and give up on staying connected to prospects through content. But that’s when you have to dig, talk to consumers and maybe get a little creative. We actually went through the generator exercise and came up with intense interest in the relationship of weather patterns to power outages, which led to an idea for a service to help predict outages. If we could keep an open, regular line of communication to cultivate qualified prospects, the thinking went, we would be top of mind when they became ready-to-buy, without the cost of finding them again through advertising.

The digitally empowered consumer has made the cultivation part of the sales cycle more important than it ever was. As a result figuring out what content it’s going to take to keep them connected has become critical. But even with the right content strategy and compelling content, the challenge is how to keep your brand front and center until prospects become ready-to-buy.  Of course you could go old school and just buy non-stop paid advertising, but the better way is to let your content work for you with SEO, SEM and social, with a little email thrown in for good measure. There is still nothing better than having a qualified prospect in an email database.

Good old-fashioned email is still a golden goose that’s worth its weight. Despite the ever-growing volume of spam, permission email has lost none of its luster. It’s the perfect channel when done right; cheap, personal and two-way. The problem comes in what brands tend to do with it. All too often people sign up to get something that’s important to them, and end up being given something that’s important to the brand. Unfortunately because it’s so cheap and misunderstood, brands often end up spamming their best prospects, sending too many offers too frequently, and not investing in content.  As a result the people they worked so hard to get to sign up in the first place, stop opening their emails, and the cost of acquiring them, and the opportunity to cultivate them, goes down the drain.

How to win hearts and minds varies in each category, but it takes a commitment to the unfamiliar and very different business of creating engaging, valuable content and using it to carefully cultivate consumers, while resisting the urge to badger them for sales. Most companies, by now, are at least paying lip service to this idea, but few really get it. The result is a lot of noise that neither differentiates nor positions brands.  Becoming a trusted knowledge source doesn’t just happen, and consumers armed with their digital devices and high expectations will anoint only the few that genuinely serve them.

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Every Brand Needs a Playbook

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Every Brand Needs a Playbook

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An Evidence Based Approach

Marketing has become a very complicated game. On every play there are thousands of possible permutations and like chess you have to not only win the moment, but also make it part of the bigger strategy. It’s not easy because there are so many things to consider, from the sheer number of channels and influences, to the behavior of the independent minded, digitally savvy consumer. Trying to do it by gut, or even experience, alone is just not possible anymore. That’s why brands need an evidence-based approach to marketing planning.

First Things First

There a number of steps to developing a plan, each building on the other, but to begin you need to gather all the intelligence you can find. This includes data and insights on barriers and opportunities inside your company, the category, the competition and the target consumer. It also includes doing a health check on the brand position, reviewing the lead process, if any, the conversion process and the role of technology; internal and external. Then with, hopefully, target audience segmentation and personas in hand, you should conduct a competitive analysis, use social listening to see what your targets are talking about, and analyze search patterns to glimpse what they are actually doing.

Mind the Gaps

Normally companies already have lots of this information, as well as Attitude & Usage research, sales and geographical data and so on. The idea is to synthesize all this data into insights and direction. But first you should determine the gaps in your knowledge, where you need additional understanding, and decide how critical it is to fill those gaps. Often stakeholder interviews, across the organization, from sales to the executive suite, are a fast way to fill in knowledge gaps, identify what is important internally and as an important bonus, get buy-in for the planning process.

Journey Mapping

All this data and knowledge becomes inputs for the next phase; Journey Mapping. This critically important step is based on the Mckinsey Consumer Decision Journey model introduced in 2009. Its job is to map consumer behavior at the key steps of awareness, evaluation, conversion, post purchase and loyalty. It tells us what each segment of consumers is thinking, doing and feeling at each juncture; it also identifies barriers, distribution requirements, brand role and more. Usually conducted as a collaborative workshop, Journey Mapping brings marketers together with key stakeholders and subject matter experts, to answer the key questions of “When” and “Where” to connect with consumers, and the role and purpose of channels at the different stages of the journey. Of course it is invaluable to talk to consumers too if time and budget allow.

Mighty Messaging

Building on Journey Mapping is Content Strategy, which is focused on answering the other two key questions “What to say” and “How to say it” at each touch point. The objective is to determine the most relevant and impactful messaging that can be presented to each consumer at each interaction.  That messaging needs to be relevant to the persona and their stage of the journey, while also being designed to contribute to a cumulative brand impression. At the same time messaging must be delivered in a way that is right for the context of the interaction; a video on a phone, for example, might be perfect or completely wrong depending on where someone is likely to view it and what he or she might be doing at the time.

Making the Cut

By this stage of the process you will have identified many potential tactics that address “where, when, what and how”.  But since budgets and time are always limited, you need to make choices based on each tactic’s ability to achieve business goals. Tactics are therefore reviewed for how they are projected to deliver on business objectives within time, resource, difficulty and ROI requirements and those that make the cut go into The Playbook. This is a prioritized action plan, typically covering 12-18 months, made up of the most effective and efficient tactics that you have determined will together achieve your business goals for the period. With it you know what marketing tactics need to be executed when, what performance they are projected to deliver, over what period of time, at what cost and at what difficulty level.

Less Guesswork

The Playbook is the culmination of a comprehensive evidence-based strategic process that takes the guesswork out of this complex process and gives senior management and the marketing team the confidence they need that their marketing plans will accomplish their business goals. While experience alone might have worked in simpler times, it’s just too risky today, which is why the Playbook will give a brand a much higher chance of success vs. reacting, improvising or just going on gut.

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The End of Words?

End of Words -TQ

While the essence of a brand still involves a logo, a look, hopefully a differentiated position, and maybe even an enduring idea, it has become so much more thanks to technology and the new consumer. But while so much has changed, the fundamentals of the way people emotionally connect to other people, ideas, products and solutions are unchanged as they have been for eons. This is important to remember as we fight to stay connected to an always fast-evolving consumer. People haven’t changed. Our behavior may be new, but our motivations are ancient.

Simon Sinek talks about how brands need to answer the overarching question of why they do what they do. As he eloquently explains, money as an answer is not good enough. While “what” a brands does and “how” it does it is very important, according to Sinek, it is the brands that have a defining mission of some sort that have lasting resonance.

In the past much of this brand focus has been translated into the words a brand used in its adverting and communications. Words were the keys to a brand finding its place in the word. That’s why a positioning statement that could define a brand’s relative position in the consumer’s mind was considered so important for so long.  This focus on words was a reflection of the way companies distilled their ideas into communications and translated that in advertising. Of course sound and imagery was important too, but with fewer, simpler channels, words most often led the charge.

Fast forward to today and the electronic age in all its digital glory has ushered in a visual experience that has overwhelmed words. Screens surround the modern consumer, and screens scream out for images. Unlike words, and similar to music, images don’t need to be translated into meaning in the same way language does. We can look at an image or see a video and without any words feel the meaning. This direct consumption uses parts of our brain that are far older and more elemental than our higher thinking capabilities. Our immediate responses to imagery are, as a friend recently described, “reptilian,” appealing to elemental motivations of fear, desire, love and so on.

Now as I see more and more brands resort to imagery vs. words to communicate, the imagery being used naturally leans towards those that evoke emotional triggers. At the same time the digital camera has flooded the world with our own images of every second of our lives from cradle to grave. The result is a visual tsunami is already immersing us in a more sensory world. How it changes the marketers mission to influence consumers remains to be seen. Man has not led with images since the middle ages, before the advent of the printing press, and it will be one of the more important new dynamics for marketers to understand as we move beyond these early days of the new age of pictures.

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Danger: Good Times Ahead

Danger: Good Times Ahead

In case you haven’t noticed there is a sea change happening in business. As companies go into 2015 they are more confident that their marketplace is solid than at any time in the last five plus years. This is very different from every January I can remember since the recession hit. If you recall, as we would roll into each New Year, brands would emerge extremely cautiously, prepared at any moment to run for cover as they watched their consumers crawl back into their shell. Of course they had reason to be gun-shy. Pretty much on schedule every year the promise of the economy turned to ashes usually around the second quarter. Budgets were cut, rosy forecasts trimmed and the rest of the year was usually a matter of subsistence marketing.

This year, however, is different. Confidence is brimming, because the fundamentals are finally, truly strong. More important, consumers feel the wind at the back of the economy for the first time in a long time. As a result brands are bullishly turning their attention to full force competition. That’s a big shift in mind-set. Planning to grow market share in the face of competitive pressure requires a different set of strategies and tactics to those required to just make it through the year.  This is made much more demanding when you consider that consumers have been trained by years of scarcity to be value conscious, sophisticated buyers. The upshot is the most challenging, competitive environment brands have probably ever seen.

The lean years have turned consumers into smart, careful shoppers. Buyers of all stripes have been provided with the tools, education and practice to become adept digital consumers armed with the skills required to make the best possible decisions every time. This has reshaped the buying process and redefined consumer expectations. Now there is really no choice for brands but to deliver enablement, transparency, quality and a superior experience. Anyway you look at it, it’s a tough nut to crack, but the companies that deliver on these expectations will earn a place in the consideration set.

All of this requires not only a different mind-set, but also a different tool kit to what brands used the last time they went out to do battle in a strong economic environment. Some forward thinking companies saw this coming, recognized that buying dynamics would forever be linked to new consumer expectations and put the pieces of a new kind of brand ecosystem in place. This ecosystem intelligently connects all of a brand’s touch-points throughout the consumer decision journey. With technology supplying consumer insights, and content keeping the consumer engaged, the new brand ecosystem has shifted to more science than art, and provides companies with more predictability even in the face of more complexity.

Today as we launch into the best environment in years, those brands that studied the new consumer and invested in the infrastructure and technology, find themselves ready to activate these sophisticated marketing ecosystems. Brands that did not do the work, however, are in a very different position. They will quickly find that they don’t have what they need and will be forced to not just change the tires on the bus at 60 mph, but to try and rebuild the whole bus without stopping.

Within the next few months the gap between the haves and have-nots will play out and for the first time the stark realities of marketing in the digital age will be plain for even the most hitherto blinkered to see.

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3 Technology Game Changers

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3 Technology Game-Changers

Part of our job at IQ Agency is to make sure our clients don’t get blind-sided by new technologies, devices or changes in consumer behavior. So we make sure we know what’s going on and what’s coming. Being the founder and board chair of SoDA, the Society of Digital Agencies, helps because it lets us at IQ see what many of the most advanced, innovative agencies and companies in the world are working on. Here is a glimpse of some technologies that look like they might bring big change in the not too distant future.

1. Virtual Reality is Real Now

Virtual Reality

The Oculus headset at SoDA’s “What’s Next” meeting.

The first is virtual reality from Oculus Rift. This is a company, bought by Facebook last year, which is near to perfecting a virtual reality headset. I tried it, it is not a toy, and it is already remarkable. Imagine a viewing experience with normal peripheral vision. The image you see is an environment that responds to your movements almost exactly as it would in life. One of the programs I tried had me as a judge on “The Voice”. When I looked to my left there was the real Blake Shelton, when I looked to my right I could see Gwen Stefani in the next seat over. I can easily see how disruptive immersive, VR experiences will be, first in games, then in entertainment and marketing.  It reminded me of a movie called “Strange Days” which posits a future in which virtual reality is more seductive than life itself. I think this technology, which is going to market very soon, will take a little while to filter down to marketing, but once people have the headsets, the marketing applications will be endless.

2. Augmented Reality – Not a Gimmick Anymore

Style My Floor AR app

“Style My Floor” AR app

Augmented reality is also getting ready for prime time. Right now we use it for things like the “Style My Floor” app my agency just designed for a flooring company, where you can instantly see what your floors would look like in any number of different materials. But this technology is evolving fast to enable a virtual layer on life. Imagine seeing driving directions actually on the street, like the down markers in a football game, or vacancy signs at hotels, or a big arrow in the sky pointing at the building you are going to.  The marketing applications, especially for retail business will know no bounds.

3. The Data Layer is Forming

Google Glass by Luxotica

Fashion versions of Google Glass from Luxottica

Now hold that thought about augmented reality and think about what’s happening with Google Glass. I know, it may seem like an irrelevant novelty after all the empty hype. But things are quietly a-foot. Luxottica, the biggest eyewear company in the World, has partnered with Google to produce fashion versions of Google Glass that will look just like regular glasses. This will enable all of us to walk around life informed by a layer of data. Imagine what might be useful when you can get environment specific data in your glasses. Now combine a wearable device like this with all the data that the “Internet of Things” will produce, AND the possibilities of augmented reality, and you can see the potential. Before long I think this living data layer will be as ubiquitous as the smart phone and we will all, marketers included, wonder what we did without it.

4. Getting Ready for Tomorrow

Connect Cultivate Convert

All these technologies, and others, are on their way, but brands will only be able to take advantage of them if they are ready. That means getting their marketing ecosystem, which is now predominantly digital, wired up and operating.  This is not quite as easy as it sounds, but has to be done. It starts with having a sophisticated consumer centric strategy built round the new dynamics of the digital consumer. All these fantastic new technologies are coming, but if brands haven’t done these basics, they won’t have a marketing ecosystem to connect them to.

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The SoDA Report – Volume 2, 2014

SoDA Report Volume 2 2014

As the founder and board chair of SoDA, the digital society, I’m happy to say it’s time again for the SoDA Report. It is now perhaps the most read digital trends report in the world, clocking almost 300,000 views from our last issue. You can see it here on a responsive site or as a Slideshare.

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Publicis buys Sapient in quest to sell the dream

Publicis Sapient Merger Deal

The Publicis Sapient deal announced this morning is part of a trend that has agencies becoming consultants and consultants becoming agencies.  In Sapient, Publicis is buying a technology consultancy with deep technology capabilities across the spectrum of all business activity. This makes sense if Publicis has a vision of itself, not just as a collection of ad agencies, but as a 21st century business consultant; helping companies change the fundamental ways they do business in the digital age. I don’t think they are alone in this vision.

Back in 2002 IBM decided to shift their focus to being essentially a business change and performance consultant. So they bought Price Waterhouse consulting and then a few years later sold their PC business to the Chinese. In 2009 the huge consultant Accenture launched Accenture Interactive with P&G as it’s first client and has continued to buy advertising and design firms around the globe, and WPP is buying business and digital consultants, the latest being Cognifide earlier this year.

All these moves spring from the way that digital is forcing companies to rethink everything they do from product development to marketing and customer service. In the recent Nielson Trust in Advertising report, consumers cited brand websites, which Sapient has made many of, being second only to “recommendations from people I know” for advertising trust. Websites have not been considered advertising, but in the digital age their importance is just another indicator that the lines are blurring between advertising, marketing, service and product.

Feeding all this change is not just the digital consumer, but also the desire of companies to turn their business into a predictable machine. This is being stimulated by the promise that all this business consulting, the systems, data, and models, will reduce risk and increase certainty; every CEO’s dream. But it’s not so simple, because this new approach requires a complacent consumer and unless anyone hasn’t noticed digital consumers are anything but complacent, especially in their own defense. Consumers are not only much faster to adopt new technologies than brands, but they are also less credulous, less tolerant of manipulation, and more sensitive to privacy issues today. That could throw a wrench in the grand plans of these super consultant/agencies as they try to help companies re-take their position as the manipulators in chief.

The good news for mid-sized companies, which probably cannot afford to not hire Accenture anyway, is that they need not fear losing a competitive edge to their larger competitors. Building a brand’s digital ecosystem designed to connect, cultivate and convert consumers, is now I believe accessible to most mid-sized companies for the first time, and while data plays it’s part, success comes more from connecting the pieces intelligently rather than overlaying some massive data crunching system. In fact I think that companies with more nimble cultures, which can react faster to consumer needs and marketplace opportunities, will have an even greater opportunity for success than those that try to build machines to control the unruly digital consumer.

 

 

 

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Online Video Top Priority For Brands in 2015

Marketing Content Strat for VideoThe CMO Council’s latest report shows that the two top priorities for brands in the coming year will be social and online video.

Everyone has been focused on social for a while, of course, and it continues to be a fast-evolving space, but video is rapidly becoming the new challenge for brands–and an opportunity for competitive advantage. Compared to text, video is easier to consume, and, if used in the right context and at the right time, consumers prefer it to other types of messaging.

The value proposition for brands is irresistible:

• Instead of paying a network or TV station to deliver your video, you can make your video “findable” by people who are searching using SEO.

• Many of these videos should live on your Web site, so when you drive people there to see a video, they become the gateway into your entire sales story.

• Videos are also powerful with existing customers for upsell, cross-sell, and retention, and can be triggered with email and even by 1-2-1 sales.

• You can also use paid SEM, buying keywords to drive audience to your videos.

• You can, of course, buy preroll video ads just about anywhere, and use display ads to show or link to your videos

• Videos are also social currency and exactly what people like to share in social networks, so they should become a key component in your social strategy

The list of applications for video includes paid (purchased media) exposure, as well as earned (social/PR) and owned (Web site). But clearly it’s smart to exhaust the opportunities to get free exposure before putting your hand in your pocket.

The challenge is that just putting a video out there doesn’t cut it. To succeed, brands have to make the right videos, tailored for the target audience and context. However, many brands still don’t put the time and money into figuring out what videos they should make, what subjects they should address, what they should say, and how they should say it. And the truth is, video is not right for every situation; often, it is very wrong.

All of those questions can be answered with a good content strategy, which studies the consumer decision journey, the context, competition, and so on. Guessing is really not an option, and only when you have a content strategy to guide you should you move to creative and production.

For example, for one of IQ’s clients we learned that consumers were very uneducated about the buying process. So we researched via organic search to discover the top terms, especially long-tail searches, people used in the buying process. These led to videos designed to address those areas and questions, and which, through good SEO, would attract those searches. Since we know that Google favors videos in natural search results, these videos acted as a lead-generation tool, while, at the same time, filled out the brand story on the Web site and acted as content for marketing automation.

The idea is to make an effective video, but what works? Google considers “good” to be videos that are popular, based on such factors as how much people share your video, as well as how many links connect to it; the more popular, the higher the rank. So the objective is to make videos that your target audience find valuable and want to share. But why is one video more compelling than another? While there’s no simple answer, we do know that there are some general rules for what works, what doesn’t, and how to get it done.

Online, brands need a constant stream of compelling content to stay fresh and relevant to their consumers. The ability, therefore, to quickly create high-quality video on an ongoing basis at a reasonable cost is a key to making video online work. The trouble for many brands and their agencies is that making Web videos is not like making TV commercials. TV spots are produced only a couple of times a year, take months to make, and have very large budgets. They’re just too slow and too expensive for Web video.

As brands turn their focus to delivering fresh, relevant, and compelling online video, they will realize that it’s not as easy as checking a box. That means some will be better than others–some will succeed, while others will fail–but in the end isn’t that what competitive advantage is all about?

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Harpoons, Comets, Risk and Marketing

Marketing risks like unto harpooning a comet.

I was listening to the news this morning and heard the amazing story about the Rosetta spacecraft that has finally caught up with a comet it was sent to chase ten years ago. More unbelievable is that the plan is now to land the spacecraft on the comet by firing harpoons at the surface, which will pull the craft down. By the time you read this we should know if this wild plan was successful.

Clearly somebody 10 years ago had an extraordinary vision. The odds on catching the comet were slim and the odds of getting to the surface even slimmer. But despite that they managed to persuade someone to green light the money. Some cold-hearted, penny-pinching bureaucrat said yes to this outrageous plan. When I think of the small daily battles we have in marketing to get our clients to take risks it makes me feel truly humble.

Risk is of course the route to reward. As we are all told: the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Of course, the safer more predictable an investment, the more likely everyone will be doing it and the less likely it will be to produce a game-changing result. Yet it is that game-changing result that all our clients want, and actually deserve. They want the video that gets millions of viral views, the slogan that’s on everyone’s lips, the app that you simply must have. But at the same time, unlike at Rosetta’s organization, the typical corporate appetite for risk is small. This is nowhere more on display than from watching what’s happening in marketing today.

Companies, understandably, prefer investments in which they can accurately predict their risk. That’s really hard with creative, because how do you quantify the emotional impact of a new idea; it’s much easier with data. As a result you can already see the tremendous interest companies have in data. Already the corporate focus on data has started to squeeze out the focus on creative and originality. Instead of how do we capture people’s imagination, the talk is about programmatic buying, analytics, big data and so on. Companies love the idea of turning marketing into a predictable machine so they jump on all these technology investments in the belief that they will eliminate risk and uncertainty from the equation.

This is all well and good, but it ignores the final step in the journey; making the connection with the person. You note I said the person, not the consumer, because we are all people in the final analysis, not cogs in a giant marketing machine. I’m not saying that data is not valuable. At my agency, for example, we map all the customer touch points, aggregate the data and turn it into insights, which in turn leads us to original creative approaches that are more likely to resonate. Data does not replace the role of creative, but rather makes it smarter.

Data is good at telling us what has already happened and can predict, with some accuracy, what will happen in the future under similar circumstances. The problem is that data isn’t so effective when applied to new ideas. As Steve Jobs, who famously eschewed market research, said “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” So the secret is in the marriage of data and creativity. Data informs the process of originality and innovation, but is not its master.

Don’t tell that to business today, however. Unfortunately, we are entering a phase in the marketing world where the momentum is to connect all the data silos into one unified system that promises to deliver marketing data Shangri-La. Companies will flock to this idea that data and systems will take the risk out of marketing, and will invest like crazy in platforms to predict and manage every thought consumers have. This will all come at the expense of creativity and in the end, I’m afraid, will still leave them short of that magical connection with the target audience. That will still take something that an algorithm will never produce, a completely original, emotionally impactful, idea, sort of like harpooning a comet.

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The Great Social Media Bait & Switch

The social media free ride is over.

Free Social Ride is Over.

Brands are either hip-deep in social media or in the process of getting there. At the center of it all, of course, has been the astonishing rise of the big social platforms. With millions of users at the ready, brands have jumped into this candy store with both feet.

But now their addiction to the free sugar threatens to backfire: It appears that it’s time to pay the piper.

What’s happening is that Facebook is ratcheting down the number of people who can see a post within a brand’s Facebook community. At the moment, only 2.1 percent to 6.2 percent of a brand’s community will see a brand’s post (see chart, below); according to research conducted in February, the amount may go to zero before too long.

That means those huge communities of “likes,” which brands have spent millions to build, will be worthless unless they buy Facebook ads to reach their fans.

FB Marketing Statistics

Of course, the big social networks need to make money. I suppose they could ask consumers to pay for the privilege of using their platforms, but that wouldn’t go very far.

As Jason Loehr, director of global media and digital marketing at Brown-Forman, which has millions of likes on its Facebook pages, described to Digiday: “This is business, after all. It was more of a wake-up call for the marketer that platforms are a ‘leased’ channel. And there are downsides to renting, not owning.”

Loehr went on to say,“It’s not just them, it’s going to be Instagram, it’s going to be Pinterest, it’s going to be Twitter, it’s going to be all of those guys. At the end of the day, they have shareholders to answer to.”

To add insult to injury, research from Forrester shows that social engagement is much more effective than ads. So what’s a brand to do?

 

The New Social Marketing

Just because brands might not be able to leverage all of those likes on Facebook for nothing anymore doesn’t mean the social marketing party is over. It also doesn’t mean that brands will be forced to pay for notoriously ineffective Facebook ads. Instead, it signals that brands need to refocus on their own digital ecosystems–all of the pieces of their digital marketing infrastructure that they can control without paying someone else.

The good news is that within a its own ecosystem, brands can still take advantage of the power of social posting to attract new prospects and cultivate rich relationships–all without paying a dime for access.

It also means that “owned” media properties are more important than ever for brands. That includes brand Web sites, mobile sites, apps, content, blogs, CRM, and email. If they haven’t done so yet, the time has come for brands to create their own communities built around the content and functionality they offer on their own properties.

With the social networks devolving into just advertising networks, brands have to first maximize the most effective and efficient media opportunities open to them–their own communities.

The brand Web site lies at the heart of the owned brand ecosystem. It has three missions: It should be where prospects get the most persuasive, comprehensive, personalized pitch; where customers can easily accomplish account tasks, and get social community and knowledge; and it should filter other constituencies, such as investors, employee candidates, and press, and get them to the right place.

The brand Web site is also where a brand should build its CRM database, enable brand ambassadors in social media, and attract natural search with content. It should be the hub of everything a brand does not only because it can be controlled, but because it’s where consumers go anyway. According to the 2013 Nielson “Trust in Advertising” study, brand Web sites have become the most trusted form of advertising.

The idea is to build a system. You start with your Web site, which you populate with content designed to attract search. Search and advertising deliver prospects, who you convert into your sales pipeline or your CRM program. Your CRM program uses email and content to cultivate them over time, and you enable social sharing of that content. The result is a self-sustaining marketing system that you own.

 

Content Deja Vu

The hardest part about building this system is creating the right content. That includes not just articles, pictures, and videos, but also tools, apps, and functionality. Most marketers have already figured out that content is critical–so much so that the amount of all kinds of content being created is enormous.

The challenge is, therefore, to stand out and create content so compelling, relevant, informative, and entertaining that people will want to share it. To begin, every brand needs to develop a first-class content strategy. This guides what to say to each persona at every touch point, and how to say it. Guessing is not an option.

So perhaps the free ride on social media is almost over. Now we all have to work a little harder for our supper. The good news is brands are all a lot smarter and have the tools and experience to build brand ecosystems that can do the job better than ever before.

Sweet.

 

 

 

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