The following essay was featured in Campaign Magazine’s annual Power Essays supplement here in the Middle East. Excuse the lack of hyperlinks, but it was written for analog media .
Throughout the last 12 years on the client side of things, I’ve always been amazed at how many companies outsource their “soul” by assigning critical customer facing tasks to external agencies and consultants. Customer service and call centers are operated by external providers with heavy cost reduction pressure on them. Social media presences are managed by social media agencies because brands are afraid they don’t understand the “social space”. Creative agencies are used on a case-by-case basis to communicate (and often dictate) the brand essence of the company. SEO & SEM tasks are outsourced to media or specialist agencies with no client interest of delving into the topic. The list goes on…
This needs to change. The Internet has brought along some major disruptions to the media landscape, along with it a fundamental shift in control. Brands are no longer able to control the message across the touch points, but rather live in a scenario in which the brand perception is a hybrid between company and customer perspectives. Customers are more in charge than ever before and the traditional media landscape (as it used to stand) simply no longer exists. Before the Internet, mass media dominated the audiences. This led to corporate ways of working in which the brand used mass media to broadcast its message and the “conversations” were outsourced to agencies behind a phone line or repair centre to deal with. In today’s time and age, these “conversations” and their amplification possibility has caused this shift in control. It is now more important than ever, to engage in these conversations, co-create value with customers and fuel your brand presence through advocacy, not mass communication.
In marketing and advertising, the old broadcast paradigm still seems to hold many corporations down. Most of the marketing budgets are placed on bought media and the conversational marketing costs are always questioned. Mass media still prevails, merely because of engrained habits, but also due to the same paradox in which brands outsource their souls by replacing time with money. In today’s time and age, time cannot be replaced in the manner it was replaced during the “mad men” times. Time is the “new money” as brands need to take the responsibility and accountability of interacting with its customers. Social media and community managers are often the core voice of the company towards customers. Call and customer service centres are not merely “cost centres”, they can become significant profit centres when positioned and managed properly.
Advertising is also evolving. Going from seasonal campaigns only, into continuous engagement and “always on” marketing efforts, allows brands to deepen their relationships with customers. These kinds of changes require brands to rethink their strategies but also their budgets. The notion of human media becomes a cornerstone of an engagement platform. Instead of funnelling money to outside agencies and bought media, brands should first look at investing the proper amounts of resources to handle their customer facing engagement roles. Once these roles exists, brands will get much more mileage from the creative and media agencies as the same co-creation principle applies just as much in a client – agency relationship, as it does with end customers. This calls for brave CMO’s and marketing managers.
Why is it so easy for brands to invest hundreds of thousands of Dirham’s into TV advertising, while hiring a few full time social media managers seems to require more approvals, amendments and bureaucracy than passing a new law in the UN? The reason is simple. In most companies, human media is still perceived as a non-working cost from a financial perspective. Marketing headcounts are kept low, because most of the actual work is done by agencies and over 70% of the budgets go to bought media on various channels (aka working media). With the emergence of digital channels, all of this has changed. 70% of your budgets should not be going into bought media alone. By investing more time and money into your creative/brand, you ensure you give your brand presence a continuous voice. Hiring internal resources to manage your “always on” performance media and social presences, is just as much working media, than buying TV spots. By having this human media inside your organization, you ensure that you have accountability as well as a proper workflow of knowledge gathering and sharing. Continuous engagement strategies stride on co-created value with the customers. Co-created value fuels advocacy and advocacy fuels positive WOM or earned media. This is like steroids for any brand.
The marketing organization of the future is one that understands the importance of its human media as well as the importance of cultivating conversations with customers. In-house conversational marketing teams will become more and more popular as they end up driving cost efficiency as well as a whole new degree of accountability and customer engagement. External resources are not seen as agencies, but rather soul mates. With the digital revolution that the Internet has provided us, customer-facing roles and channels have grown and the need for continuous dialogue, interaction and engagement become a standard part of how brands interact in this space. Customer engagement is much more conversation driven, in which dialogue and engagement begins to provide a shift away from a bought media and broadcast driven marketing alone. Internal creative agencies, customer service centres, community managers and brand architect’s begin to drive a fundamental transformation in the industry. An industry fuelled by your soul: the human media. Don’t outsource your soul.
The idea with this model, is to help brands think through their social media presence. We’ve all seen brands enter into social media venues, whether opening a virtual office in Second Life, creating a fanpage on Facebook or taking steps to build a community of their own. What’s been surprising to note though, is the lack of focus and long term thinking in many of these initiatives. Twitter channels are created around events, then left to wither and die. Campaigns are launched, but only have a lifespan of a few months. More deep engagement and commitment is needed.
Depending on the nature of the company, certain engagement methods work better than others. I’ve taken a stab at defining them below:
This is very much about mapping the venues and initiatives that give a face to the brand. It’s not so much about what the brand says, but what it actually does. Involving consumers to different initiatives, creating time during which consumers can immerse themselves in a positive brand experience. It’s not about pushing the hard sell , but more about raising brand awareness and driving increase in measures such as net promoter score. Burger King’s Whopper Sacrifice on was a quite nice tie in to using an existing community in a manner that raised overall interest about the brand.
Some brands are great in connecting people through their services or technology. The brand itself isn’t at the forefront of the dialogue, but acts more as the enabler of the experience for the community. Nokia has done this quite nicely with Royal Artist Club. In essence, Nokia technology is utilized by the bands, to create their mobile blogs while on the go. Fans can get exclusive backstage footage of their favourite band and have the chance to comment and engage in conversations on a more personal level. There’s no money exchanging hands, it’s just about “giving love, to get love” in this case. These initiatives are more driven by generating sign ups to your enabling platform.
In the end, each brand needs a business model that brings a positive cash flow, in order to keep the wheels rolling. Thinking about where and how you want to go for the “direct sell” is just as important as mapping out where you do not want to do this. RSS feeds or Twitter channels that are specifically skewed towards communicating the latest offers are dimensions that need to be clearly defined before launching. There’s a lot of dialogue about how brands should “sell” within social media. My take is that all dimensions on the PESH model will generate sales, but they all do it in their own manner. In the “supplier” initiatives, brands should identify the best venues for driving their performance driven sales initiatives and be open about the purpose of the initiative. Transparency and openness.
Social media and care walk very much hand in hand. In many companies, the social media teams are part of the care organization, as it is so closely tied to the ongoing online monitoring and need for reactive actions. Social media provides great venues for listening, but at the same time, these need to be clearly identified and utilized in a way that helps consumers find help when they need it and not a call to action to participate in the latest marketing campaign.
In essence, this model is not meant to be a black & white chart, where activities need to be “locked” into a particular compartment. Many of the activities (for example participant) will include other dimensions (supplier / helper), but this model should help plan and differentiate the primary brand initiatives within the space and allows better focus both internally and externally.