(Almost) Everybody’s Here Now

The path to cultivating and building influence on the social web has gotten a lot harder than what it used to be. That’s saying something – because building influence has never been an easy task. Companies, in developing digital marketing and communications strategies, have included influencer outreach and engagement as a key focal point for a number of years now. However, the continued steady growth of information and content on the web, blogs and otherwise, has made it much more challenging for individuals to build a standout, highly trafficked online presence – correspondingly, companies will face increasing difficulties in defining and engaging with influencers, and must rethink their strategies accordingly.

According to Wikipedia, as of February 2011 there were 156 million public blogs in existence. Comparatively speaking, various estimates peg the number of blogs in 2005 at around 25 to 35 million. More notably, however, is the rise in overall content creation and consumption. Think about the time that is now spent on social networks, and the resulting information that is being generated and shared.  If attention were to be considered as a currency, the exchange rate right now is quite high.

When blogging first started to truly grow in popularity a few years ago, those who put forth the effort to provide quality, reliable and interesting content were able to create a strong online presence – attracting readers, establishing themselves as influencers. A couple of such prominent bloggers who come to mind are Raul Pachec0-Vega, who writes at hummingbird604.com and Rebecca Bollwitt, who writes at www.miss604.com. Make no mistake, both Raul and Rebecca put in a lot of hard work into establishing their online presences – and success did not come overnight for either of them. However, I find it hard to believe that the degree of success they have earned can be achieved by anyone today, in the crowded attention economy.

This has ramifications for companies, as they attempt to identify and work with influencers to build relationships and establish genuine word-of-mouth about their products and services.

Here are some questions companies should consider:

  1. Is the message that they would like to spread, and engage influencers with, sticky and relevant?
  2. Do they have the capabilities to scale their influencer outreach?  To achieve a similar breadth of outreach compared to years ago, it is likely that companies now need to engage with more influencers – remember though, the quality of relationships with influencers can’t be replaced by quantity. Building personal relationships is important.
  3. Are accurate metrics and evaluation processes in place to identify relevant influencers?

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?