Top 9 of ’09 – #7 Desperation

November 26, 2008

Desperate times call for desperate ledgers. Oops, I meant measures.

If the deals for this coming Thanksgiving weekend are any indication of what to expect for ’09, business is in trouble. While the experts remain largely confused on the future, all signs point to continued trouble well into the later part of the year.

I expect the first part of the year, the traditionally slow months, to culminate in a push to win at all costs – as long as the cost is reasonable. Digital marketing succeeds in terms of price. Traditionally conservative brands will be lured into social media through a low cost of entry and a potential for return as evidenced by some of the early players.

This does not mean we should expect success. Rather, I expect these efforts to be half thought out and focus more on the channel than the message and strategy. Not good news for those of us that enjoy the relative sanity of new digital tools (looking at you Twitter). Expect friend/follow/join requests from brands in the coming year. Expect little in return as these accounts will fill with offers irrespective of consumer needs.

The good news: this is a start. As agencies and companies alike begin to tweak these new communication channels, they will provide improved relevance and actual meaning to consumers. While panic will resonate throughout most of 2009, it may just be the driver needed to bring products and customers together in these new communication channels.

We may be hitting the point where customers no longer have to seek out the services they desire. The services will be growing smarter and coming to them. But don’t expect this to happen overnight. 2009 will only mark the start of this move.

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Top 9 for ’09 – #8 Intent

November 21, 2008
Photo from Flickr user candrews

Photo from Flickr user candrews

There has been plenty of evidence to suggest attention becoming more fragmented. Households now receive an average of 104 television channels. Radio, once confined to an available frequency spectrum has extended to HD, Satelite and the Internet. Our time is split between music, television and online entertainment. This is all pointing to one unquestionable fact – we have less time for more information. As marketers, we are always searching for ways to attract that attention. As we move through 2009, I expect to see marketers embrace the fragmentation and develop strategies that target customers where their attention lies rather than trying to direct attention away from existing sources.

Louis Grey points out how the successful web applications of today are simple to use. Not all people that are online today are early adopters. In fact, the Internet has become mainstream. While there are many locations online and applications online that remain focused on an early adopter niche, the true successes are aimed at the majority of users. Twitter wins out over other life streaming applications due to its simplicity. Facebook beats branded networks through its ease of use.

But what makes Twitter and Facebook easy to use? It’s not only in the interface. The simplicity for web applications comes from the ability to conform to the user. While many brands have tried to create their own social networks (many with poor results), the adoption of Facebook and MySpace continues to grow. What these offer (that brands can not) is intent. Users of these services can craft their own intent. They can connect with friends, share photos, crack jokes and spy on others (one of the biggest unspoken drivers). The intent is to connect. The specifics are largely fragmented. Brands must maintain focus. Users do not. Thus, the success of digital applications is driven by its simplicity in not only use but intent.

We’re already seeing a push toward this in marketing. Guns ‘N’ Roses released their long awaited album on MySpace. Zappos has been able to supply truly PR-able customer service through Twitter. Smashing Pumpkins is releasing the first single from their new album in the Rock Band video game. These are all early cases of digital marketing going to the customers.

For years, digital marketing has revolved around getting customers to your site. This involved creating a site with enough content and value to make customers visit. We added news, networks, games and sales. While we were able to see some success, only the truly motivated were attracted. Others remained on the sidelines. Our efforts to attract them led to banner ads at first and to SEO and SEM as we got wiser.

Search Engine Marketing is only the first step of this new wave of digital marketing driven by intent. It was an understanding that users most often start with search (intent). We are concerned with getting customers to our site when their intent matches something we can service. While promising (and lucrative for Google), this still requires the act of a click on the user end to generate any sales.

Where intent driven digital marketing is heading in the next year is away from the brand site and into the myriad locations users already frequent. We will be seeing Facebook, YouTube and Amazon more like the major television networks – opportunities to reach a lot of customers. The benefit this time is that we can customize the message to each potential customer. No longer do we have to settle for one commercial to appeal to a demographic. We are now able to customize the messages to individuals based on their intent whether it be connecting with friends, thinking about a vacation or wondering what to eat for dinner. The information is there. Customers are open to communication. It only depends on how we choose to interact.


Is Perception More Important than Fact?

November 19, 2008

Clearly, there are still hard feelings over the recent presidential election. A forthcoming documentary aims to blame the media for the Obama victory. Putting hard feelings aside, the studies commissioned for this documentary point to an important impact digital technologies have had on our culture. There are so many experts and details and facts that truth is anything but concrete. Is truth now defined by perception rather than fact? Does digital marketing need to embrace its own theory of relativity?

Over 100 years ago, Albert Einstein published his paper “On The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” This groundbreaking work would eventually be known as the Special Theory of Relativity. While bringing up Einstein and relativity usually conjour thoughts of advanced physics, the ideas presented are really quite simple. In the absence of an absolute position for measurement (even as we stand still, we are not still – the earth rotates on its axis and circles the sun at incredible speeds) there can be no absolute measurement. All measurements are only accurate as they are relative to the position and movement of the observer.

As we have seen in just the past week with the Midol Moms campaign, the same may now be said about marketing in a digital age. Messaging is relative. We strive to brand and create positive perceptions about products. However, our best laid plans are often cut off by customers. More frightening, these plans are often upended by competitor customers. In the case of Midol, many of the outraged mothers were not customers in the first place. This campaign only solidified their aversion to the product. In non-digital mediums, this is not such a problem. In digital mediums, their voice carries.

So what can we do? The best solution is the same that has worked for years. Build a compelling proposition based on facts. Leave perception to the customers. By presenting fact or a compelling story behind the brand, we leave perception open to interpretation. Each customer can decide how the offering fits into their life. The power of social networks is the ability to take a story and craft meaning in hundreds of ways. Midol as a cure for the aches and pains of everyday life is a compelling story. Let the mothers decide what pains are best to cure. As an added benefit, truck drivers can redefine the story to fit their needs, office workers can further refine it and health professionals can make their own suggestions.

The role of marketing in this process is to facilitate – not create. Customers have control over perception more than ever before. While crafting a compelling perception may win one segment of customers (or lose them in the Midol case), it does nothing to speak to other segments that may have sold themselves.


Go Where the Customers Are

November 11, 2008

Ubiquity is one path to increasing sales. If you aren’t there, customers can’t buy from you. And so brands grow. They become part of new communities, rent space in malls, build new stores, relocate to where the population is and expand internationally. And then think of the possibilities of the World Wide Web. We have the chance to be everywhere at once. So why aren’t the customers coming when they have 24/7 access to my products?

Photo from Flickr user Bobasonic

Photo from Flickr user Bobasonic

Being available is different from being available. Let me restate that. Having a store in Chicago doesn’t mean your customers in Chicago will visit.

We all set priorities. Maybe a trip to the mall will answer most of our problems. Maybe jumping all around town is required. How often do you find yourself speeding across town to get a loaf of bread from your favorite baker? Would a loaf from the supermarket down the street do just fine?

These are issues we face in the real world. It’s not much different in the virtual world. Having a site for your customers is only one step to becoming digitally ubiquitous. Because you are available to all people at all times does not mean they will seek you out.

This is key in today’s world of social media. Users now spend more time searching and connecting than buying. In fact, many of the buying decisions are made long before they reach your site. Whether it is a search engine that created preference, a ratings site or friends and family, your web site does not act as a virtual storefront.

Yet, most are created to serve that purpose.

Your storefront is your search listing. It’s the raves and rants being related every day by your customers. They are taking pictures of your products, shooting video, writing reviews and defining the benefits – who thought mentos and diet coke could be entertaining.

Becoming ubiquitous in the digital world means more than putting up a transaction center. It means arming your salesforce to go out and meet the customers. You need to interact where they congregate.

One step toward this is certainly advertising. Just as signage in a mall can drive traffic to the store, banner space online can drive traffic to a site. However, the numbers are in and they’re not good. Now, think about the individuals walking around that same mall talking about your store. This conversation gets overheard and drives a lot more traffic to the store. Let’s go one step further. Imagine you had an employee walking by that overheard that conversation and could add some authority to it. In addition to, “you’ve got to see these new shoes,” an employee could add, “and they’re all 10% off today.”

This is the world of social media and networking that we live in today. There’s two sides to becoming ubiquitous. First, there’s being seen through search listings and banners. This seems fairly straightforward and well understood by today’s marketers. We have paid search, organic search and ad networks that facilitate much of this process.

What we’re missing is the personal touch. And therein lies the greatest opportunity. Ubiquity and availability are two different concepts in the digital world. Being available means going where the customers are. Currently, this is in the social spaces – Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter and the list goes on. Exactly what spaces to get involved with and how to interact is its own combination of art and science. We’ve been able to figure out search and ad networks, I have no doubt we’ll be able to figure out a more human network.


When Cloudy is Clear

October 31, 2008

Polymer Studio’s Don Ball got me thinking yesterday about the past and future of the cloud. Sure, we’ve gone from Usenet to the present battle between Amazon, IBM, Rackspace and now Microsoft. The outcome this move and subsequent battles will have on technology is being discussed regularly on TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb. I’m more interested in what impact this will have on consumers and marketers.

Users are driven into the cloud by Intent

Users are driven into the cloud by Intent

The first thing to note is that digital mediums are driven by intent. We don’t passively participate with digital mediums. When we open a web browser, pick up a mobile device or switch on a gaming system, we are doing so for a reason. This contrasts with traditional media that often resides in the background. Televisions, radios and print can sit unnoticed in the background for hours.

What’s frightening here is how much of the world is moving digital. We may not be far from a day in which intent can not be created according to traditional marketing tactics.

The cloud itself is becoming our access. As more software and services move online, our access to products and services begin to reside in the cloud rather than in physical settings. Amazon has already demonstrated the success of using user information stored in the cloud to enhance sales. As email, instant messaging and microblogging become standard communication streams, most of our activity will exist in a digital cloud. With the new Office having an online component, it is reasonable to assume that much of our personal and business lives will exist in digital mediums.

With this shift already underway, marketers must put more of a focus on where their customers reside rather than where they want them to be. The home page is no longer the home page. With search results driving users to more relevant information deeper within sites, every page becomes equally important. Furthermore, opinion and conversation around companies are occuring in all corners of the Internet. The notion of the home page is eroding, replaced with fragmented pieces of corporate information serving every niche with a high degree of relevance. And this is happening without question as to the authenticity of the information.

Using the cloud to provide (potential) customers with a definitive source of access to information becomes more important than ever before. Only marketers can not assume customers will seek this information out. It will often need to be brought front and center. Perhaps this is where digital users are so eager to invite brands into their social circles. While brands are currently more interested in ‘friending’ their customers, customers want to put the network back into social networking.

Driven by intent, users often remain in the cloud – creating insights all along the way. Where they emerge is the key. I consider three areas where users emerge from the cloud to be of particular interest to marketers.

Knowledge:

Driven by original intent, users often gain insights through their journey. A user interested in vacationing on the beach may start by looking at Florida. Through the process of engaging with digital mediums, they may discover Southern California to be more their liking. The end result of such a process is a net gain in knowledge. This knowledge often leads back into the cloud through new intent – in this case, a vacation to Southern California. This may well be one of the most frequent practices online today. Users, driven by intent, use their insights to learn and refine their needs. It’s almost like a continuous intent loop.

Participation:

In the event Southern California looks promising, the process of learning and refining may come to an end. In an effort to gain valuable information about the destination, garner the best deal possible or take confidence in the ultimate choice, users will often engage a larger community of members. Whether it be by reading forums, subscribing to rate feeds or viewing images/videos of destinations, users opt to participate in communities. It is here that the social web takes center stage. Participation is not limited to contributions, but is equally effective when users make use of existing contributions and act as bystanders. In fact, recent data has shown a majority of users to be rather passive when it comes to creation.

Preference:

The ultimate outcome for marketers is in driving preference. This occurs when a user has made a selection. They have selected from the variety of possibilities and are contributing the majority of their attention to one brand. It is at this point where loyalty and possibly evangelism is created organically.

In a future post, we’ll take a look at the cloud in more detail and what happens after users emerge on the prescribed paths. For now, I feel it is sufficient to say that the emergence and popularity of cloud computing has resulted in users driven by intent. Through their original intent, they require access to corporate resources like never before. Depending on their experience with this access, users will either refine their intent, further engage in participation or form loyal preferences with brands.