What a Long Road We Have Left to Travel

January 14, 2009
Image by Flickr user muffytyrone

Image by Flickr user muffytyrone

There has been a lot of talk for quite some time now in the marketing world about social media. There’s getting to be the full slate of who, what, when, where, why articles just about every day now.

Just about everything I need to know is wrapped up in the fact we still call it social media. I would have thought the distinction would have been made long ago. All conversation has actually been around three distinct topics, yet they are always lumped under one. Case in point – a recent discussion on Social Media found on George Parker’s AdScam. The wary take heed before clicking through. Always good thought but not for the sensitive type.

Social media is actually:

  • Social Media
  • Social Messaging
  • Social Marketing

We have a distinction between mass media/messaging/marketing. Why not the social sphere?

Why not? Because it’s only just starting to be understood. The fact it is still called social media highlights the current thinking. It’s only media. Yet, some of the newest efforts are much further than that.

Social media is like a cocktail party. It only answers the where and what. It’s this place you’ve been invited to. You can show up or not, but you won’t meet anyone new just sitting home on the couch. Sure, you can call your friends on the phone, but you won’t have much interesting to say if you’re home night after night.

Social messaging is the interesting part. This is what people want to hear. The stuff they don’t want to hear is the spam. If you show up to the party and nobody wants to talk with you, you better change your tactics. You know the person I’m talking about. We’ve all had to freshen a nearly full drink or make a trip to the bathroom just to escape. Unfortunately, there are always these people at the party. Social media is no different. There are just more of these people. We may get excited at first, but once the formalities are out of the way, we’re too eager to split and find something more interesting.

Thus, social marketing is the full strategy. It’s always been possible to sell at parties. In fact, some of the closest ties are formed in these intimate settings. However, we know better than to walk into a party and introduce ourself as a salesman from Addidas only to talk about the great benefits of our products and the great discount you can get if you want to place an order right now.

You’ve already seen social marketing work in the real world. You’re talking to somebody about running. They run marathons. You’d like to start. (Maybe you haven’t had this exact conversation.) They are excited to introduce you to their friend Mike. He works for Addidas. You walk across the room, get an introduction and will now be more likely to buy from Addidas when the time comes for those shoes.

Why do we think the social in digital is any different? There’s no grand execution – there is only execution. Perhaps a little more emphasis on the social and a lot less on the media would be a good start. The fact that we still can not separate the two speaks volumes about how far we have left to go.


Top 9 of ’09 – #6 Ownership

December 10, 2008

I’m always impressed by the ideas from Valeria Maltoni of Conversation Agent. Yesterday, she wrote a piece on conversation. The title sums it up: “Change the Conversation, Change the Game.”

As marketers, we are used to owning the conversation. Brand standard guides exist to ensure every level of communication is uniform and pushes the right levers. Experiential brands remain experiential. Time savers focus on time.

The challenge with digital media has been gaining an understanding on how to own the conversation in new channels. Most brands have retained tried and true methods of communicating while only shifting channels. Print and broadcast are ported to digital channels whether or not they fit the destination. Banner ads have been forced on the web even though they do not fit the medium – doubt it, check out conversion rates.

Digital mediums are prime marketing tools. You have users with expressed intent devoting their sole attention to your brand. They have the ability to take action immediately. Users are able to interact in ways television, radio and print never allowed. It’s now conversation and not messaging.

I expect 2009 to be a turning point in the way marketers interact with consumers online. They will adapt to the conversational nature of the medium and begin to own the conversation again. The biggest hurdle I expect to be overcome is the ability to react to existing content rather than to create.

While consumers have long discussed products and brands in their own circles, a true authoritative voice has been missing. We have already seen the extent a connected voice can have with Dell, Zappos and Starbucks. We have seen the impact of a lack of that voice with Motrin.

Brands will begin to retake ownership again in 2009. However, this will not be done through messaging – it will be dependent on reaction. The ability to respond to niche markets and disparate voices with one unified and authoritative voice will again shift ownership of the conversation from consumers to brands.

Consumers will welcome this shift as participation provides a win-win scenario where consumers retain their voice and gain clarity. Brands retain and win consumers in addition to controlling expectations.

In the end, consumers can learn to refine their expectations while brands can learn to better serve their markets. This will be done by owning the conversation and not the message.

Customer Communications – Two Paths, One Result

December 8, 2008

This digital world we now live in is still in its infancy. As time moves along, we gain comfort in the technologies that seem so unique today. In the world of marketing, these new technologies are opening many doors for meaningful customer communications. However, selling these new communication streams still remains a challenge. I have been of the belief that this new breed of digital communication is most frequently employed only when it becomes necessary. However, there is a second more preferable path. First, let’s start with the more common.

Communicate when necessary:

Dell may have been the first and most notable case study of adoption when it becomes required. Jeff Jarvis wrote on his frustrating experience with Dell’s customer service. The post picked up steam and replaced Dell in organic search engine listings. Since that time, many other companies have fallen victim to angry customers using their digital voice to spread the message. Most recently, Motrin came under fire for a campaign targeted to new mothers. Even agencies are not immune as Enfatico has been the recipient of a digital uprising.

Most companies and brands have a desire to participate in digital channels. The cost is low, the reach is great and the results – when done right – can be profound. Starbucks has improved their service offerings by letting customers talk about their wants. Dell has responded to their critics by providing a forum for discussion around their products. Both sites have led to improvements in the product and service leaving all customers as beneficiaries of the few participants.

There is little question that companies want to participate. However, the problem is that most only take action when their back is against the wall. The benefit to this approach is the ability to gain critical mass relatively quickly. With a product backlash already underway, greater reach can be had. Digital consumers are already searching results, hash tags are showing up on trending lists for Twitter and Flickr images and YouTube videos are high on the list of views. Finding the relevant channels becomes easier as conversation already exists.

The problem at this point is the messaging. Companies are already starting off from a negative point of view. They are seen as taking action because they are forced to. Trust is eroded and needs to be earned anew.

In a recent AdAge article, Roger Frizzell of American Airlines responded to questions on being the first airline to charge a checked bag fee.

If we had even more robust customer communications, we could have done more to talk about why we were making thosechanges. Delivering bad news is not the fun part of the job, but we did our best to explain the circumstances behind it to … our customers even though they didn’t like or understand it.

Without question, there would have been better opportunity to talk with customers had the investment already been made to create new channels of communicating. Still, how does one go about creating these channels before they are needed to stem the tide of negative sentiment?

Communicate to learn:

There are many reasons, but for lack of an end all term, we’ll call it communicating to learn. This is the second way companies and brands can create communication channels. Unlike the first, this is undertaken as a benefit to the consumer. While the first method is reactionary, this is proactive.

The key to establishing these communication channels is building the understanding that it will be present when needed. American Airlines would have been better served communicating baggage fees within a community. Rather than forming an us against them mentality, the announcement could have served as a building block toward solving both the airline and customer problems. Travelers want reasonable fees. Airlines want to provide them. This was a good opportunity to engage a community to discover alternatives. Even in the absence of alternatives, the message could have been communicated based on necessity rather than come from the blue.


In the end, it does not matter what reasons a company or brand uses to expand their digital communication channels. Communicating without need heightens trust and builds affinity. Responding to a need reaches a broad audience nearly overnight. As Dell has discovered, the original reasons for starting digital communications disappear in consumer’s minds. The Jeff Jarvis incident is only replayed in case studies.

The more important fact is to start using these channels for communication. Only through action can metrics and greater understanding be gained.