Challenges Companies Face in Truly Embracing Digital

Over 700 million people are now on social networks worldwide. Numerous companies are successfully engaging with these people, leveraging social media, technology and emerging platforms to engage with customers, generate demand and drive sales. They are also gaining valuable insights and data as a result of their efforts, paving the path for more intelligent business decisions and targeted marketing.

However, in spite of this, many companies have been slow in embracing the digital frontier. For these organizations, several concerns stand out.

Lack of attention and priority to digital

A digital mindset must involve all levels of an organization, starting at the top with senior management. In fact, many companies at the forefront of digital have senior managers who actively engage with customers, whether through corporate blogs, Twitter or other means. Peter Aceto, CEO of ING DIRECT Canada, openly shares a variety of insights on Twitter at @CEO_ingdirect. Without senior management support, as is the case with any strategy or initiative, it will be difficult for digital to permeate through an organization.

A tactical, and not strategic, focus

Related to the point above, a digital strategy must be highly integrated with the overall business objectives and marketing plan. Merely setting up a corporate Twitter account and Facebook Fan page, and regurgitating marketing and communications messages from other platforms, is not sufficient. A digitally strategy must be well thought out, with consideration given towards the needs of the target market and how each unique touch point can be leveraged to engage and create value.

Organizational education and alignment

To effectively build a strong digital presence, specific skills are required. Those people responsible for being the face of a company online must understand how to foster and build community and loyalty with customers. A sense of trust is of the utmost importance. Further, some organizations allow employees from departments other than marketing and communications to engage with customers. In such instances, it is critical that employees understand they are representing the brand, and that external departments buy into and support the effort.

Disparate consumer touch points

Companies are now able to connect with consumers in a variety of ways, through a variety of platforms, both online and offline. The number of different consumer touch points certainly makes it more challenging for companies to ensure that consumers are receiving positive, consistent experiences that are aligned with the brand. Well thought out digital strategies, including proper training and internal communication of brand values, will help ensure consistency.

Dated CRM strategies and research methodologies

While customer relationship management systems are still important, solely relying on them is not enough. Digital provides an opportunity to collect rich and relevant insights about customers, and how they want a brand to fit within the context of *their* lives. One new and evolving way to glean insights is through crowdsourcing, which enables a company to tap into the collective intelligence of a large group of people or community. Crowdsourcing could, for example, be used by a company to determine how it can improve its products and services, brainstorm products and services it should consider offering or, from a philanthropic standpoint, learn about causes its customers would like it to support.

So, how to get started with a digital strategy?  This is definitely a topic for another blog post, or a book (and there are many great ones out there!).  A good first step is for a company to figure out which social media platforms are most relevant for its brand. At minimum, consideration should be given towards cultivating a following on Twitter and a community on a Facebook Fan Page. Staff should get involved, engaging with customers on a daily basis, which will result in credibility and trust being built over the long term.

Ah yes, long term trust. Imagine the rewards that can be created, for both companies and consumers, through a forward-thinking digital mindset and well-conceived strategy.

Do any of the concerns mentioned above resonate with you? Has your company truly embraced digital?

Communications Providers and Customer Service

It never ceases to amaze me how often communications providers rely on promises of “better network coverage”, “faster Internet access”, or “better pricing” to differentiate themselves from competitors and lure consumers. Such advertising, in my opinion, does very little to make their brands truly stand out in the consumer mindset. Other than perhaps offering exclusivity for a particular product, such as an iPhone, it seems that you could insert any brand in any campaign.

How can a communications company stand out and be remarkable? How about innovating around customer service? Wouldn’t it be amazing if your cellular provider contacted you mid-contract, to advise you of a better and more cost-effective cell phone plan based on your usage? Would that perhaps build your loyalty to the brand, and reduce the chance of you switching when your contract expires?

Communications companies could also benefit from establishing themselves on social media, to open themselves up to customers and engage with them. Yes, they can and will receive criticisms from customers that can be viewed by anyone. However, putting a human face on a cold, corporate brand has a tremendous upside. As an example, read about Comcast Cares.

What are your thoughts?  How should communications providers innovate, so they can stand out from the competition?

Robbie’s Home on Howe – Experiential Marketing and Social Media

Experiential marketing enables customers to engage and interact with brands, products and services, allowing for personal experiences that aid purchasing decisions. Max Lenderman, Director of OuterActive at agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, mentioned in his best-selling book “Brand New World” that experiential marketing is often used in India, a country in which few families own TVs, and that it is poised to become more prominent on a global basis over the coming years. I agree.

Recently, at an event hosted by the BC Chapter of the American Marketing Association, furniture retailer Urban Barn, in conjunction with ad agency and design firm Spring Advertising, PR firm Elevator Communications, and retail consultancy DIG360 presented details of an innovative experiential marketing and social media initiative.

Faced with the prospect of a significant drop in sales at their Howe St location during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, due to street closures and excessive Olympic crowds, they transformed their retail store into an interactive experience. The store became a fully functioning home, inhabited 24/7, by Robbie, the store manager. People had an opportunity to walk through and experience “Robbie’s Home on Howe”, while also enjoying Olympic events on several TVs that were set up.

To support the initiative, a microsite was created, and advertising was placed on the store front as well as inside. Awareness was in part generated via social media, notably via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. At the end of each day, Robbie recorded a video diary.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_w42iKtNXwE]

The initiative was also promoted at Urban Barn’s 38 stores across Canada.

Urban Barn did not set a specific sales objective to measure ROI. I believe doing so would have been quite difficult, particularly given the unique nature and circumstance. However, qualitatively speaking, it does seem that “Robbie’s Home on Howe” was an effective brand building exercise. Urban Barn tracked over 2000 people going through on a daily basis, and even had to hire a bouncer to control crowds. The store became a destination.

“We set out to attach Urban Barn’s name to something memorable and unexpected and without a doubt this was achieved,” states Brianna Doolittle, Senior Marketing Coordinator at Urban Barn. “Over the course of 17 days we were able to touch thousands of people with an experience that will stick with them, and we feel confident that next time they need some furniture or accessories for their home they will think of Urban Barn.”

Urban Barn’s effort also received significant PR coverage, both locally and nationally through mainstream press, as well as through social media.

I believe we are truly at new frontier in marketing and advertising, and it is great to see companies like Urban Barn that are willing to take a risk and experiment. Urban Barn has remained active with the connections created with customers through social media, and they are currently working with their partner agencies on follow-up strategies.

I look forward to seeing what they do next!

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The Costs of Social Media

Last Wednesday I attended the F5 Expo, a business conference on changing technologies in the online space, including social media, search marketing and mobile marketing. Malcolm Gladwell, the noted author and columnist for The New Yorker magazine, was the conference’s keynote speaker.

The audience, not surprisingly, had a strong contingent of people who are active with social media. Perhaps it’s also not surprising that the audience seemed only lukewarm to Gladwells’ keynote, which touched on some of the costs associated with social media. To learn more about Gladwell’s thoughts on social media, here is a recent interview published in the Globe & Mail.

Before I go on, I want to state that I have benefited immensely from social media. I am very active in several different online communities, at times spending a couple of hours a day interacting on them. Through my involvement, I have met some amazing people, many of whom I have been fortunate to meet in person and become friends with. I have also been connected to countless others whom I value and have learned from.

That said, I agree Gladwell, and I think it is possible that many people don’t fully realize the costs associated with social media. Online connections, “friends” or “followers”, are missing a distinct human element, an element that I believe can only been attained through face-to-face interaction. Social media is great at enabling breadth to be achieved across a social network, however it is far more difficult to achieve depth in the resulting relationships – unless subsequent in-person connections are made.

In his keynote, Gladwell stated that in the 1980s, 10% of Americans did not have a close friend they could confide in on personal matters. That number has now climbed to 25%, which I believe is quite startling. Is social media to blame? No. But is it a factor in this? I think it might be. Stop for a second and consider the time and investment it requires to truly build a deep relationship. Now consider the number of people many are connected to on social networks.

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical limit to the number of social relationships one can maintain, the number is commonly believed to be 150. Given this, I find it hard to believe that many people aren’t being stretched by their extensive online networks, stretched in a manner that takes time away from building closer relationships and making them matter. People may have more friends than ever before, but at what cost? Strong relationships take time to develop.

There is another question that needs to be considered. In many ways, social media enables people to become more productive. One such example is the quick and easy formation of groups.  However, has it made people less productive in other ways? It seems to me that there is a lot of content clutter on social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter. In fact, I am very guilty of creating some of it.  Do people really care when I check into a cafe using Foursquare, and then post it on Facebook and Twitter?  Online friends who I have met in person, or at least built a strong connection with, might. Others, who account for the vast majority of my connections? Probably not.

Social media represents an opportunity for people to procrastinate, waiting or the next tweet or Facebook status update, taking away from time that could perhaps be better spent creating or adding value elsewhere.

Now, again I need to reiterate, I love social media. It has made a huge difference in my life, and my career direction has changed as a result. However I think it is important consider the costs associated with the social media revolution. For anyone who is interested, I recently wrote a blog post containing tips on how to better manage time spent on social media.

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Social Media Time Management

(how to regain my sanity)

I have a problem. I love marketing and I love social media, and I am very excited about the rapid change and innovation that is occurring as marketers join consumers in conversation about their products, services, brands and companies.

Every day, through my multiple online profiles, I am connecting with new people – some very bright minds – and I am learning new things.

However, as the number of people I am connected with increases, and as I discover new tools to try, widgets to download, and articles to read, I find myself to be increasingly starved for time. Time to invest back into the social media communities I participate in, hopefully providing value to others, and time spent in the offline world (is there such a thing anymore?). Time also, to focus on writing for this blog – although admittedly I was quite distracted by the Winter Olympics in February.

Here are some tactics I intend to try, to better manage my time spent on social media.

1. Focus on quality, not quantity of connections

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of social relationships one can maintain.  There is no precise value, but many people approximate it to be 150. I imagine most people in social media are well beyond that, and I am quite certain that I am.

I have a strong presence on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and I am fortunate to have met many of the people I have connected with. However, I don’t feel I have devoted enough time towards truly nurturing and growing my relationships, and I believe that many have the potential to flourish – online and offline. Moving forward, I intend to focus more on building the relationships that I already have. How? By interacting, joining conversations, and helping others when possible. For example, on Twitter I now have a separate list for friends and I will make every effort to focus on it.

2. Become selective with social media communities and tools

Being active in social media and staying on top of the game doesn’t mean that one needs to use all available tools, or participate in an inordinate number of communities. I used to run a social group using ning, however I found that it was too much for me to handle so I abandoned it – the value generated didn’t warrant the effort required. I also had an account on Delicious to share articles that I enjoyed reading, but again I didn’t find it worthwhile to maintain. Instead, I now send out a couple of tweets a day with links to articles I believe others might find to be of interest. Where possible, I also aggregate my status updates, using Twitter to feed into Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites.

4. Spend more time, less often

Truly becoming involved with social media, and understanding the changes and impact on marketing, requires both time and effort. It’s cliché, but one gets out what one puts in. That said, personally I have found that I am signing into social media platforms too frequently, in intervals that are too short – checking Twitter to review the feed, or commenting on a friend’s updated status on Facebook. It’s very tempting to stay connected and find out the latest news. However, I have found my habits to be disruptive to other tasks I’m working on.

As such, I intend to sign in a little less often, but spend more time online when I do sign in.  I am going to take the time to read blog posts, craft replies and hopefully write my own. With regards to Twitter, I have set up lists that make it easier for me to catch up on the latest news. I will also be make more use of timed tweets, to help build my own personal online presence.

These are just a few of my planned social media time management tactics. Do you use any that you have found to be successful?  Please feel free to share!

Key Considerations for Launching a Social Media Strategy

More and more companies are embracing digital and social media as an opportunity to engage and deepen relationships with customers, augmenting or even replacing traditional marketing strategies. A recent example, rather move forward with a traditional Super Bowl TV spot, Pepsi launched the Pepsi Refresh Project. Through the $20 million crowdsourcing initiative, which will no doubt be a marketing case study, people are enticed to submit and vote on ideas that will have a positive impact on society. The best ideas will receive grants ranging from $5,000 to $250,000 each.

Pepsi is just one many companies endeavoring to be more innovative in an increasingly fragmented media landscape. Such innovation is now a necessity, as brands strive to break through and achieve relevancy in the mindset of modern consumers. However, before going full on in digital and social media, there are some very important questions companies must ask themselves.

1. Is the strategy aligned with the brand and overall marketing plan?

 

An interactive social media strategy should be created and executed in proper alignment with the overall brand strategy. Keeping in mind that social media is based on two-way dialogue, companies must ensure that the brand identity is upheld and in each and every interaction. Like any medium, desired messaging must be consistent with other components of the marketing plan.  Social media should not be a standalone strategy, where possible companies should consider integrating it with other mediums.  For example, a print ad could drive people to a Facebook fan page, with a proper incentive that consumers find to be of value.

2. How will the social media efforts be measured?

 

As with any marketing strategy, metrics are important. While it is always valuable to determine ROI on a given campaign, social media measurement should be considered a bit differently. Effective social media engagement strategies rely on word-of-mouth.  As such, companies need to monitor the conversation that is occurring. What is being discussed? What is their share of the conversation, for a particular market segment? How often is their product and/or service being recommended?

The 4Ps have evolved into the 4Cs – content, connections, community and conversations.

Here is an overview of online buzz generated from this year’s Super Bowl commercials, courtesy of Mashable.

3. Are the necessary resources available to execute?

 

Companies need to consider whether they have the knowledge and skills necessary to properly execute a social media strategy, either internally or with partner agencies. Social media is much, much more than possessing an understanding of Facebook and Twitter – companies that rely on that as a basis for “expertise” are only setting themselves up for failure.  As a side note, in May 2009 a search of Twitter profiles revealed that there are 4,487 self-proclaimed social media experts. As of December 2009, there were 15,740. This represents a three and a half fold increase, within just six months! Yikes! Drawing a parallel, I’ve been skiing most of my life, so I suppose I should be trying out for the World Cup circuit right now, shouldn’t I?

Of course, there are many top social media pros who stand out from the crowd, I am fortunate to know some of them. In building resources to execute social media program, an understanding of both social media and marketing fundamentals is important.

What are your thoughts? What should companies consider when developing a social media strategy?