marketing

Google’s Third Wave Of Innovation

Is it normal that a search engine is buying up all of the robotics and drone companies?

If you’re in the marketing profession, you have to be scratching your head at the moves that Google has made over the past little while. It’s hard to reconcile how a company that was founded on a search engine (and then optimizing an advertising platform so efficiently that it drove them to a $350 billion market cap) could be spending its war chest on technology so nascent and future-focused. If Google’s main form of revenue is advertising and licensing software, where will the ads be going on all of these robots and drones?

Google’s first wave of innovation.

Google has gone through two dramatic waves of innovation (with many nuances and smaller ones in between). It’s important to understand that in phase one, Google mastered search. The ability to organize the diverse and divergent pieces of data, content and information that were being created in a non-formulaic way across the Internet. It was everything from programs to articles, and (through the years) it’s hard to imagine how we would find anything (let alone remember stuff) in a world where we can “Google it.” The problem with search, of course, is that there was no significant revenue in helping to organize all of the world’s information. While Google didn’t invent keyword-based advertising, they have certainly mastered it. Ushering in the era of performance-based advertising, they nurtured search engine marketing into becoming one of the most effective forms of direct-response advertising. People searching for content would be exposed to contextually-based text ads that did not interrupt the search experience. On top of that, the ads would be sold to brands and media agencies in an auction-based mode where the cost would be charged only if the consumer clicked on the ad (showed interest). Over the years, Google has expanded the offering to individual’s website wishing to run these types of ads in lieu of traditional banner advertising. From there, the company has made several strategic acquisitions to build their GDN (Google Display Network). The acquisition of YouTube in 2006 is also significant in this first wave of Google’s innovation. Years later, they are beginning to understand the types of commercials that works in the online video world as TrueView continues to learn which ads the consumers are watching (and which ones they are skipping). Within a few years, TrueView will become as efficient at performance based commercial advertising as keywords have become. To put the first wave of Google’s Web dominance into perspective, comScore Media Metrix’s rank of the top 50 U.S. desktop Web properties for February 2014 tells the tale: In a world of over 222 million unique visitors, Google’s website account for over 187 million of them.

Google’s second wave of innovation.

Back in 2006, Google acquired a lesser-known mobile operating system called Android. It was, at the time, an acquisition that perplexed the media pundits. It was a bold play and one that has – without question – enabled Google to become a dominant player in the mobile space. Now, Google doesn’t just build applications that run on a mobile-enabled platform (which they do), but they own the actual platform on which our mobile connectivity is playing out. As consumers move from desktops PCs and laptops to smartphone and tablets, Google has continued to innovate and own the mobile landscape, and this includes being hyper-competitive in relation to Apple and the staggering success of the iPhone and iPad. Still, Android (and the supporting Google applications and mobile websites) are the 800-hundred pound gorilla in mobile. Adding some data to this, comScore’s February 2014 U.S. smartphone subscriber market share demonstrates just how much of the mobile Web Google owns: While Apple ranked as the top smartphone manufacturer (41.3%), Android led as the number one smartphone platform with over 52% of the market shares. What makes this more staggering, is that Google sites hit close to 90% of the entire smartphone browsing and app audience. In short, they own mobile as well. 

Welcome to Google’s third wave of innovation.

How does a company like Google grow? The opportunity to scale becomes increasingly difficult (will another 30 million people using a particular app truly help them?). The answer lies in in connecting the last mile of humanity that is currently not on the Internet. It’s nothing new. We have been talking about the digital divide for decades (the chasm that exists between the haves and the have nots). In fact, Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, discusses this very topic in depth in his business book, The New Digital Age – Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (co-authored with another Googler, Jared Cohen). There are close to five billion people not connected to the Internet. There are countless appliances that aren’t “smart” or online (just yet). That is the kind of scale that Google must now focus on. For that, Google is pushing the envelope of innovation towards drones, robotics and artificial intelligence. Massive and risky bets that will enable a new type of connected consumer. Drones will enable Google to deliver connectivity to that massive last mile. Robotics is primarily based on the idea that we can get machines to work, think and do things somewhat autonomous to human intervention. This requires a new kind of computing coding and architecture – one that is based on machine-learning capabilities (yes, programming a computer to teach something to another computer and having each successive version be able to get better and teach more). While everyone is focused on Google’s most recent acquisition of Titan Aerospace for their drones, or that they have bought eight (maybe more) robotics companies in the past short while (including the very popular Boston Dynamics), not enough people have spent enough time thinking about why they acquired DeepMind in late January.

Getting computers to think better.

It has been reported that Google spent close to $500 million for DeepMind (which doesn’t seem like much, if you consider that it also paid over $3 billion for Nest not that along ago). DeepMind was in stealth mode when purchased, but we have been told that the London based technology was developing artificial intelligence to help computers learn and operate like humans. Couple that with connecting more devices, purchasing drones and robots and you can let your mind wander. From a marketer’s perspective, this may still sound quizzical and off-brand, but to anyone willing to expand their horizons, it is clear that Google is a company not willing to rely simply on media as a business model, but rather much more interested in technology and connecting the word. This is important for brands to understand as well. Perhaps the real future of marketing is not in just getting more efficient with advertising dollars, but in following Google’s footsteps to help connect your our brands to more people through technology on a more global scale.

The above posting is my monthly column on marketing innovation for Strategy Magazine. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

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Some Questions About Your Questionable Content

Marketers, we have a problem…

Do you know how long an effective Facebook post should be? If I told you forty characters, what would your reaction be? A tweet should be 100 characters (even though Twitter affords you 140 of them). It makes perfect sense, right? I know that people like Tom Webster over at Edison Research is, without a doubt, rolling his eyes. I’m with him. But, that was the latest headline from Fast Company in an article titled, The Proven Ideal Length Of Every Tweet, Facebook Post, And Headline Online. All over the world, junior brand and community managers are building PowerPoint decks with charts, graphs and quotes from this article in an effort to demonstrate both how “in the know” they are, and how antiquated the upper echelons of the marketing and communications are. Those silly dinosaurs running the show in their corner offices, don’t even know how valueless most of what they do has become.

Don’t be fooled by the numbers (even if they are small ones).

Length does not equate to quality, value or substance. It’s an arbitrary number that is being allotted to a very crowded (and hyper-saturated) marketplace that hosts very finicky and tough to understand consumers who, in one instance, will “like” a picture of a dog licking itself and within the same brush of the finger also like a group denouncing human rights in Syria. Ahh, the human condition. So mystical. So difficult to pin down. The question is asked often, and in various ways:

  • How long should a tweet be?
  • How long should a Facebook post be?
  • What is the right balance between content and images?
  • How long should a podcast be?
  • How long should a blog post be?
  • How long should a business book be?
  • How long should a movie be?
  • How long should an article be?
  • How long should a… you get the point?

What matters more than the mechanics?

We get caught up in the mechanics and completely forget about why we’re creating anything in the first place. Ultimately, it should be twofold:

  1. Create value.
  2. Create awareness.

The answer to all of the questions above surrounding length is rather simple: content should be as long as it needs to be to create value. I’ve seen movies that have been three hours long and movies that have been thirty minutes long that have changed my life (and how I think about humanity). Research Brief posted a fascinating article – at just around the same time as the Fast Company one mentioned above – titled, Trusted Content Closes Vendor Selection. So, it’s not about the content… it’s about the quality of it and the level of trust that it inspires. It’s true, we often ask the wrong questions about the content that we’re creating and, in doing so, we wind up creating content that doesn’t get traction. The net result being a perception that either content marketing doesn’t work or that content marketing doesn’t work for our brands. Both are misnomers. Putting aside any kind of viral effect that some are lucky enough to achieve (do you believe in unicorns?), we need to be asking more profound (and real) questions about the content that brands are putting out into the world. So, before you put finger to keypad in an effect to pump out an extra few free impressions to a saturated social media channel, sit down and ask yourself the following:

  1. How trusted as a source of information is our organization?
  2. Is there a third-party who might be better suited to help us with our content?
  3. What is point of this content and who is it educating?
  4. Is this content “me too” or unique and additive to the current flow of discourse?
  5. Who are we looking to speak to with this? Customers in discovery mode? Qualification mode? Final selection mode?
  6. Once this content is created how will it be distributed? Our own channels? Third-party channels or platforms?
  7. How will this piece of content help the decision makers be influenced?
  8. How will this content help our potential customer make the best decision (and yes, this may even mean buying from someone else)?
  9. Is our content broad and expansive or is it myopic and narcissistic?
  10. Are the people we are speaking to more interested in fresh research and data or editorial-like content?
  11. Is our content the type of work that the industry influencers would pay attention to and share or is it closer to a de-jargonated press release?
  12. Does our content allow for honest commentary between us and the community?
  13. Is our content both findable and shareable to everyone that it needs to be?

The path to purchase is complex.

That’s the main thing that every brand needs to focus on. Content that understands and responds to the thirteen questions above will change the brand and help it add more value to the path to purchase. What this Research Brief article also illustrates is something that many digital marketing pundits (like myself) have been banging the drum about for some time: Yes, the path to purchase is complex, but “The Internet is the primary place where business buyers begin the path to purchase. 68% start their content sourcing at search engines and portals, 40% go to vendor websites, and 25% are activated by an email from a trusted source or peer.”

If you read nothing else, go back and re-read that last sentence.

If there was ever a case for digital marketing to lead all marketing initiatives (B2B, B2C, a small impulse buy or a year-long sales cycle) this is it. The Internet is the primary place where business buyers begin the path to purchase. This is a critical and key message. So, if you thought that the thirteen questions above are going to make you bang your head against the wall, start asking yourself a whole new set of questions about what your brand is truly doing to to engage with those who are simply kicking tires, those who are looking for a preferred vendor and those who are trying to validate the choice of vendor that they have already made. Too many brands are churning out this chum of content without the focus, intensity and voracity that is truly required to qualify any/all of this content marketing as a “success.”

Make no mistake about it… it starts with you. That being said, it all starts online.

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If You’re In Business, You Need To Watch This CrossFit Documentary

Surfing across Apple TV, I came across something that you should watch this weekend.

Let me take a step back. Around 2000, I had heard about this crazy website, where a well-respected trainer was trying to completely disrupt the fitness space. It was called CrossFit. Every day, they would post on a blog a workout of the day. At first, it was criticized and ridiculed by many pundits in the industry. Any serious trainer would use more professional gear and would never post this type of proprietary system online for free. A lot of the gear was stuff that you might have lying around in your garage. What were they thinking?

Have you check out the business of CrossFit lately?

People are quick to point to Apple and Amazon as these untouchable beacons of corporate perfection, but spend some time looking at CrossFit. From how they disrupted the industry to how they communicate and connect with consumers. It is a master class in understanding the powerful connection between business success and marketing. My dear friend, Jeffrey Hayzlett, has a great television show on Bloomberg called, C-Suite with Jeffrey Hayzlett, where he create mini-documentaries on interesting companies and speaks to the owners, customers and employees to see what makes them tick. This episode isn’t a new one . It just happens to be 30 minute business documentary that I watched with amazement the other night and it’s something that you should watch and share as well.

It is inspiring. My hope is that it inspires you as well… 

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Let’s Stop Mixing Up Digital Advertising With Digital Marketing

I get into this fight all of the time.

When people talk to me about advertising agencies – especially ones that claim to be “fully integrated” – what I (still) hear is: digital advertising. Make no mistake about it, advertising is a juggernaut in the world of marketing, but it’s not everything. That’s the main gripe I have when people look at advertising agencies with digital capabilities, and try to compare them to a digital marketing agency. Here’s my theory on this (and it’s not perfect, there are variances and exceptions to every rule): An advertising agency (whether they have digital capabilities or not) are in the hammer and nail business. To an advertising agency (which would be the hammer), everything can be solved with an ad (which would be the nail) – and yes, to a hammer, everything does look like a nail. There is nothing wrong with that. Advertising is an essential component of a strong communications platform, and it is still a very efficient way for a brand to communicate a message to an audience. Brands can complain all they want about the diminishing returns on advertising, but this is a problem that gets exacerbated when lack of compelling creative meets a faltering scarcity model (too many channels and opportunities).

How does a digital marketing agency fit into this?

It depends on who you ask. We’ve been running Twist Image since 2000 (that’s 14 years, for those who do not want to do the math). And, for all of that time, we were never looking to solve a business challenge with an ad. We have always looked at the business challenge and tried to develop a solution that is based in the digital world. So, we’re looking to create products and/or services that can help a brand leapfrog both their competitors and the more traditional ways of connecting with consumers. From there, we build a framework for success (and, if you’re struggling to understand the difference between a framework and ROI, check out Avinash Kaushik‘s amazing article titled, See-Think-Do: A Content, Marketing, Measurement Business Framework). Once we have that product or service (and yes, that could be an e-commerce solution, a game, an app, social media initiatives, a website, etc…) and a framework for it, it becomes a question of communications. From the communications standpoint, we’re trying to leverage a healthy mix of paid, earned and owned models to help the brand to be successful.

Can you feel the difference?

Advertising is one component of the communications challenge. The reason this confusion is so prevalent in the marketing industry, is because we use media spend as the benchmark for some kind of marketing mix comprehension. Just today, eMarketer published the news item, Digital Ad Spending Worldwide to Hit $137.53 Billion in 2014. I thought it was a typo. From the article: “Spending on ads served to internet-connected devices including desktop and laptop computers, mobile phones and tablets will reach $137.53 billion this year, according to eMarketer’s latest estimates of worldwide paid media spending. Digital spend will be up 14.8% over 2013 levels, according to the forecast, and will make up just over one-quarter of all paid media spending worldwide. That’s up from about one-fifth of spending in 2012, and it is set to rise to nearly one-third of the total by the end of our forecast period, when advertisers around the world will invest $204.01 billion in digital.”

That’s a lot of bank.

Actually, that’s a misnomer. It’s a staggering amount of dollars. And, when marketers are pouring that kind of financial resources behind the paid media spending of brands, it’s easy to see how the distinction between advertising and marketing gets foggy. If you don’t think it’s staggering, just check out this chart: Internet Advertising Revenues Hit $7.3 Billion in Q1 ’11 from the IAB. I remember when the paid media spend was well under the one billion dollar level (I remember it so well, because I was selling online media back in 1999). Now, digital advertising spend is rivaling that of TV, and for one good reason: brands put the money where the consumers are. And, where do you think that the consumers are?

It’s about more than media.

When was the last time you read something about a brand and said to yourself, “you see… that is smart!” That my reaction when I read the AdWeek article, Why Johnson & Johnson Treasures BabyCenter’s Data. Moms and soon-to-be moms tend to like BabyCenter for information. That digital property is owned by Johnson & Johnson. Think about the business solution that J&J solved with this marketing solution. Think about the data capture that is happening on this site. And, ultimately, think about how they can leverage all of this information to better target both the advertising on this site (and even when J&J advertises on other mom-related sites). It’s staggering. It also demonstrates the massive chasm between digital advertising (the last mile of communicating the brand to the world) in comparison to the digital marketing work (develop a platform for moms, build a framework around it and push a communications platform to either get the message out or, in this case, even monetize it).

Don’t dismiss advertising.

It bears repeating: advertising is big, massive and growing (especially in the digital channels). Just look at those numbers: $137.53 billion in 2014. Still, advertising is but a subset of the communications platform which – in and of itself – is a component of a greater marketing good. Be floored by the media dollars that are being shifted to digital, but without a sound marketing platform that runs horizontally throughout the brand/organization, those messages will – for the most part – fall on deaf ears.

Still, digital continues to look healthy, growing and ever-evolving – even when we confuse the terms.

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It’s Gut Check Time For Marketing

How do you feel about the marketing dollars that are being spent at your organization?

This is about much more than your marketing mix, and this is much more serious than how creative your advertising is looking these days. Quick question: how much do you rely on data and analytics to build, develop and deploy your marketing? This is not a trick question. It’s a very serious one. We live in a world (finally) where the data doesn’t lie. In fact, there is so much data (and so much depth to it), that acting without data seems incredulous (and that’s using a kind word).

What do you know about your consumers?

What do they like? How do they like it? What are they doing? How are they doing it? How many steps does it take for them to purchase? What is their path to purchase? What is your cost per acquisition? How much of your advertising is being optimized along with these data sets? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Still, when these questions get asked, the rooms always get quiet. Forget all of that. Be real. Get honest. If you could better understand what, exactly, your consumers were doing and were able to test and try different things against that to see if you could improve their path to purchase, would you?

Of course you would!

Here’s the thing: none of this stuff is all that expensive to do. In fact, I would be willing to argue that there are some awesome free (or even cheap-ish) tools that can make every marketer that much better. This is nothing new. These tools have been around for a while now and they are fairly sophisticated (Google Analytics, anyone?) and have become quite mature. You also don’t need a team of IT professionals to get this stuff up and running. For the most part, the vast majority of these tools are cloud-based and require little more than dumping a simple line of code on to your digital pages. I’ve seen administrative assistants pull this off as well as an IT director. 

In a world where you can do… why aren’t you?

It was a big, massive sigh. The kind of sigh that leaves you shaking your head. This feeling of almost complete defeat. That, with a slight glimpse of glee. Why glee? Because I can help. That was the array of emotions I felt after reading the Marketing Charts news item that was published today and titled, 1 in 2 US Marketers “Trust Their Gut” for Marketing Budget Decisions. Half. Half of all marketing decisions are made with our guts. With all of this data. With all of this big data. With all of this insight. With people like Avinash Kaushik and Bryan Eisenberg telling us this stuff for almost twenty years. We’re still just using our guts to decide? From the article: “There seems to be a consensus among marketers that they need to reinvent themselves to succeed, particularly as the vast majority believe that marketing is undergoing a revolution. But few of those who want to reinvent their role know how to go about doing so. Part of embracing a new approach to marketing also involves experimentation, and 54% of respondents believe that the ideal marketer should take more risks. That risk-taking extends to new technologies, but marketers were twice as likely to agree that they are more comfortable adopting new technologies once they become mainstream (65%) they they were to agree that they make use of new technology even before it’s proven (31%).” 

Depressed much?

As a digital marketing agency dude, this is mostly good news. It means that our runway at Twist Image continues to be both long and wide as nearly half of the marketers in our business are still acting quite traditionally in this world that has so radically changed. Still, as a Marketing Activist (Media Hacker or whatever you want to call me), it saddens me to read how little has changed. We’re still in the era where the CMO would much rather see their brand on a sports arena (mostly a vanity metric) than be working day in and day out to lower the cost of marketing, by being razor focused on the data, optimization and improvements that can be made by integrating technology throughout the entire marketing system. So yes, it’s gut check time.

What kind of marketing department do you want to be a part of in the future? Those that are driven by gut feelings or the data?

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Where Great Content Comes From

This could get gross. You have been warned.

Last week, I was lucky enough to have attended the TED conference. I’ve been going to this event since 2009. While most people can’t stop talking about how incredible the TED talks are (and yes, they are incredible), I wholly subscribe to the notion that they are but a small part of a much bigger (and more profound) experience. This year, one of the highlights was the return of Sarah Kay (you can watch her first TED talk below). Sarah was a part of the all-star stage, where famed TED speakers from events past got the chance to riff on what they have been up to since cranking million of views on YouTube and beyond. Kay was about to launch her latest book of poetry, No Matter The Wreckage. I know what you’re thinking at this point. You’re thinking that this is going to be some high brow blog post that you need to read with one pinky sticking out. Not the case. What makes Kay so awesome is her pragmatism. She’s all about getting everyone to try poetry. She’s about the democratization of poetry and spoken word, and encouraging young people to try it.

I’m a poet and I didn’t know it.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anything about poetry. In fact, the only thing that I may know less about than poetry is ballet. So, I’m not that cultured. I choose Metallica over Monet on any given Sunday. Still, I love the work of Sarah Kay. After talking about her new book, recent travels and the fame of being famous because of TED, the host asked her about the construct of poetry, her levels of concentration and the effort it takes to create a poem. As someone who creates content, this line of questioning is fascinating. How does a poet toil over their prose and decide which words should go where? Do you know what Sarah told the audience?…

“Poetry is like pooping. If there’s a poem inside of you, it needs to come out.” 

There’s brilliance in this thinking (and yes, it’s pretty hilarious). It’s not just about poetry either. That statement is as true for brands who are posting to Facebook or can’t figure out what to blog about, as it is to the art of crafting a poem. I did a real life LOL when she said this, because it jettisoned me back to the moment when I knew I had to write my second book, CTRL ALT Delete. I don’t work in isolation. Everything that I do, create and publish has a direct relationship with Twist Image. The whole purpose of my work is to help people become better in marketing and business, with the hopes that should they require a digital marketing agency that Twist Image would be top of mind. I don’t just decide to write a book. I sit down with my three other business partners and have a conversation about it. I remember telling them how excited I was about the concept and more. We then discussed if the timing was right, considering the growth trajectory of the agency or if the market conditions made sense for a second book. All fair questions, but the book needed to come out. I remember telling them that my water broke, and the baby was coming. Timing and perfect market conditions could not be factors at this point. I was in labor!

Where do babies come from?

I get where Sarah Kay is coming from. Sure, innocuous content like a tweet or Facebook status update doesn’t require that type of urge, but even a blog post (or article) should give the content creator that type of feeling. You need to have something to say! All too often, brands (and certain individuals) are just looking to fill up space, to be present, to not waste an impression, to not fall off of their consumer’s radar. That’s silly. That’s content for content’s sake, instead of content because there is something important that needs to be shared. As brands struggle to figure out the secret to creating compelling content in a world where everyone is a content producer, and the levels of saturation continue to rise and rise, it would be wise to pay attention to the words of Sarah Kay. We all need to make sure that whatever it is that we’re producing needs to come out. That’s good poop. Let’s try to stay away from the content that’s being created just for the sake of creating it.

That’s bad poop.

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It’s A Small (And Strange) World After All, Brands

How much control does a company really have over their brand?

Never has this question in business been asked more than in the past decade. Technology, the Internet and social media have been a virtual can of worms for brands that has extended well beyond the marketing department, and has poured over into everything from customer care, business innovation, the reputation of individual leaders within the organization, how a company hires employees and more. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why I’m such a massive advocate for marketing to become a horizontal function within the organization instead of it’s current role as a vertical. We need everyone (from employees to consumers) to understand what the brand is and how the stories are told, because every single one of us has become a media entity unto ourselves. We can talk about the merits of social media as an engine of engagement and conversation for brands, but the simple truth is that it is nothing more than a public publishing platform. A place where anyone – in text, images, audio and video – can create content, applications and communities about anything and everything. It’s free (in terms of cost, not time and attention) and distributed globally for the world to see (also free, if you’re not thinking about your Internet and mobile monthly bills). While the past fifteen years has brought with it a lot of innovation and depth, we’re seeing how the nuances of the brand have started to shift in more dramatic ways.

What is the face of the brand?

Marketers wonder if there is a structured and prescribed way to dictate the sentiment and actions that we would, ideally, like customers and employees to have when they interact with a brand. What most successful brands still fail to realize is that in an environment of global interconnectivity, humans are also increasingly exposed to newer types of cultures and ways to connect. This means that newer ideas and ways to connect can be crossbred, much in the same way we’re currently breeding very different kinds of dogs to create newer kinds of dogs (care for a Labradoodle, anyone?) or fruits (hungry for a Grapple? – yes, an apple that tastes like a grape). Brands are quickly starting to feel, understand and interact with their own little Frankenstein versions of themselves.

What does a crossbreed brand look like?

Imagine waiting in line for the It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland, and suddenly coming across what looks like a Harley Davidson meets Fall Out Boy group of Disney fanatics. Tattoos of good ole Walt Disney on their calves, ripped jean jackets, piercings, patches of Daisy Duck surrounded in gang-like skulls and crossbones and more. It may feel like something out of a Tim Burton movie, but you have actually come face to face with the Neverlanders. This group of rag tags are more than 30 strong and were recently featured in an in-depth editorial piece by Vice called, The Punks Of Disneyland. It’s a unique story about passionate brand evangelists (the kind of people who visit these properties so much, that they are actually on a first-name basis with the staff and characters) who have taken their love of all things Disney into a dramatic and alternative realm. This is much bigger than the annual Disney conventions for fans (D23 Expo) and the Neverlanders are not the only exclusive, members-only, social club that roams these parks and resorts (there is Main Street Elite, the Wonderlanders, Jungle Cruisers and many more). In the case of the Neverlanders, this group formed through social networking. They began connecting and sharing in spaces like Instagram long before they formalized themselves as an independent social club (some people call them a gang).

What do you think Disney has to say about all of this?   

Here’s the official Disney quote from the Vice article about these roaming Disney fan gangs: “We are fortunate to have guests who share such a strong affinity for Disneyland Resort.” What would you do? What would your brand position be on groups of people who love what you are doing this much, but still run down a much more alternative path than the brand might publicly be comfortable with? Granted, this isn’t the challenge of all brands, but it begs an interesting question: If consumers are actually in control of the brand, and now they have the tools, resources and connections to do these types of things, what is the brand and what does it really stand for?

It’s not just Disney.

For every legitimate and corporately run group like Jeep‘s annual Jeep Jamboree adventure event and meet-up, you have groups like IKEA Hackers. Formed in May 2006 on a blog, this website is now full of passionate IKEA customers who build their own, unique, projects by modifying and repurposing IKEA products. They are embellishing and adding their own elbow grease to figure out new and interesting types of furniture that can be built through various pieces of IKEA furniture. So, whether you would like to build your own iPad kiosk or a laundry organizer from standard IKEA kitchen cabinets, the possibilities are now endless. According to the IkeaHackers website, IKEA does not pay the owner or in any way sanctions or endorses it. It is purely a fan-run website.

It’s a small world, for brands, afterall.

Brands now have a deeper optic into what, exactly, their heavy users want. In fact, what these examples demonstrate is that we can often never truly understand what consumers want, and when they do things like hack our products or roam our properties in a way that it was never intended, perhaps brands should be doing a better job of supporting, encouraging and helping them to be successful. Instead, most brands are attempting to keep them at arm’s length. Steve Jobs from Apple once famously said: “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Perhaps, in today’s age of connectivity and social media, brands need to pay attention when the reverse comes true as well.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

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The Naked Brand And The Future Of Marketing

Society blames advertising for a lot of things.

Here’s the truth about advertising: it’s role is to get the consumer excited about something. He’s another reality: reality is not all that exciting. So, advertising exaggerates the good parts of a produ…

Even If You’re Not Doing Social Media, You Should Still Be Doing This…

In an effort to better involve themselves in social media, many brands still attempt to decide which channel to hop on.

It’s easy to do this. It’s easy to be attracted to whatever the bring and shiny object may be at the moment. Brands can be like little, distracted squirrels when it comes to social media. Some have already tinkered in places like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, while others simply haven’t invested the time and resources to figure out which one will serve them best. Many are wondering if Instagram, Vine and Pinterest can help them be better and do more. Most brands have fundamental challenges with the platforms because, while they are free to connect and engage with, it takes a tremendous amount of knowledge, patience and effort for it to bear juicy fruits. With that, the popularity of online social networking has also brought with it the complexity of paid media as well. For a lot of this more corporate content to rise above, it must now be boosted and supported with significant media dollars. We’re seeing everything from fan acquisition paid media strategies to companies that are paying to promote individual posts and tweets to garner attention. It sounds a lot like traditional media… and that’s because it is. Still, there are many brands (especially in the small and medium-sized business space) that are experiencing great returns by simply being present, helpful and interesting to customers and potential clients. If all of this sounds complex, it is because it is complex. The best way to understand this brave new word of marketing is to think of it as a publishing platform. Brands can create content (in text, images, audio and video) much in the same way that a publisher can create content, and brands can advertise on these publishing platforms as well. The biggest paradigm shift (that most brands still fail to comprehend) is that within this model, brands can also be the publisher or build their own publishing platform (meaning, they are no longer at the mercy of the publisher to run the content or negotiate the ad space with). It’s enough to make any business throw their hands up in the air and give up entirely. 

A way to step back, but still win at social media.

When asked where to start with social media, most gurus, thought leaders and ninjas will tell brands to listen. Spend some time on these channels listening to what consumers are talking about. Are they mentioning your brand, your competitors or the industry that you serve? It is sound advice and something that many brands can start doing right at this moment. There are free tools (like Google Alerts or Talkwalker Alerts) that can give you a semblance of what is being said, but times have changed. Social media is now close to fifteen years old (older, if you really want to get specific about when the popularity of blogging first took hold). There has been many layers of maturation in the space. Now, brands can (and should) be doing a lot more than just listening, when they decide to take the plunge into social media. In fact, if you’re still on the fence with social media, there is one big, major and fascinating thing that you can do to better understand not just social media, but how your brand is competitively performing in the marketplace: invest in a social media analytics tool.

Start with social media analytics.

This isn’t about measuring your brand efficacy in digital marketing (at least not yet), it’s about taking the first step (and making that first step a lot more power and profound than simply listening). Now, as a brand, you can gather insights about your business, your competitors and the industry that you serve like never before. Last week, eMarketer posted a news item titled, Marketers Adopt Social Media Analytics Tools, that looked at some new research on how close to two-thirds of companies in North America have adopted some kind of social media analytics tool (and how the increase has really taken shape in the past two years). What makes this research so compelling to brands who are not immersed in the digital marketing and social media space is how these tools are being used by organizations. According to the article, here is the breakdown:

  • Campaign tracking – 60%
  • Brand analysis – 48%
  • Competitive intelligence – 40%
  • Customer care – 36%
  • Product launch – 32%
  • Influencer ranking – 27%
  • Owned/earned media analysis – 18%
  • Product innovation – 11%
  • Category analysis – 11%
  • Risk management – 3%
  • Partner monitoring – 3%

What is this list screaming to you?

All of these activities. All of them. Can be used for every kind of business and you don’t need a social media presence to benefit from the results. I would argue that augmenting your current marketing and communications strategies with social media is smart, but that’s an entirely other conversation piece. Think about what these new (and constantly improving) social media analytics tools can tell you about everything that you are doing to grow your business. Even if all you are doing is taking out local ads in the newspaper and on radio, a good social media analytics tool can let you know how that campaign is tracking (are people talking about it online, sharing it, etc…), it can tell you how well your brand is perceived, what people think of your competitors, how well you are handling customer service issues and so much more.

Beyond listening. Beyond doing.

Sadly, most brands see social media analytics tools as an engine to better understand how they are performing in social media. Instead, the true opportunity is in understanding just how powerful and profound these tools are in giving you a true temperature check on the overall health of your business and the brand. Have you had success on Facebook? What about Twitter? If your peers are trying to talk you into (or out of) using these channels to build your business, it is in your best interest to start with a strong social media analytics tool and from there start building a true marketing strategy that is driven by your business goals. No need to to hop on the latest craze, and no need to just listen to chatter any longer. Do yourself, your business and your future a favor. Start paying attention to everything that is going on in the social media space, and use these analytics as a barometer for what’s happening in your business and what you can do – with each and every passing day – to improve it.

Social media analytics… it’s not just to see if Facebook is working for you anymore.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for Inc. Magazine called Reboot: Marketing. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

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Market What Works. Get Schooled… Seth Godin Style

Are you interested in taking a very modern course in marketing?

With each and every passing day, I get a handful of emails asking me who offers up the best course in marketing. Up until today, I wasn’t sure that I had the best answer to give. I do now. And, you can thank Seth Godin (who else?) for that. Seth loves to push buttons (poke them?). He loves to provoke with his myriad of brilliant business books (you have read Purple Cow, Linchpin, The Dip and all of the other ones, haven’t you?), his daily kernels of deep wisdom on his blog always inspire and force you to think, and now, he’s teaching a course (actually, this is his second one). He calls it a workshop, but trust me, it’s a course. A deep and rich one that is full of powerful information.

What does modern marketing look like?

Seth teamed up with Skillshare to launch The Modern Marketing Workshop. It’s a course aimed at marketers – at all levels, for all types of organizations. If you’re trying to understand where great ideas come from, how to connect in a more direct and profound way with your customers, and – most importantly – how to market what works, then this course is for you. Listen, if you have been following this blog for any semblance of time, you know two things about me: One, I am an unabashed fanboy of all things Seth Godin. Two, I don’t shill for anyone unless the value of the product far outweighs the price. Unless it’s something I one hundred percent believe in and think that everyone should be checking out. Here’s why Seth created this course from the man, himself…   

“Marketing has changed more in the last 20 years than any other business discipline. Far more than accounting, manufacturing, or management. Why are we relying on the same-old traditional textbooks? Why are CMOs cornered into decisions that make no sense? Why do leaders still talk about marketing and advertising like they’re the same?… It turns out that just about everything we learned in school, just about everything our boss, our board and our co-workers believe about marketing is out of date. The new course includes videos, new ebooks, worksheets and more (more than 75 pages of brand-new material and many hours of discussions and projects for you and your team.) I hope you’ll devote the time to really dive into it, and you’ll challenge your peers to do it with you.”

I’m in on this course… are you?

It’s not free, but it’s only $19 (which, is as close to free as you can get, if you consider the professor and the quality of which he creates any form of content). This just seems like the perfect course for everyone in marketing to take, to do the hard work along with, to share with their team members and, ultimately, to make marketing (as an industry) that much better.

Check out the video promo below and sign up before it’s too late: Seth Godin’s Modern Marketing Workshop.

An Online Skillshare Class by Seth Godin

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Where Is The User Manual?

How does that coffee machine work?

I’m not a big coffee drinker. Too much caffeine does not play well with my biology. I’m anxious enough. A heavy does of it, and I’m spinning like a top, I get a headache and it’s all regret. Still, occasionally, I like a cafe au lait (who doesn’t?). Tasty. We’ve had the same coffee machine in our office at Twist Image for as long as I can remember. I walk by it multiple times a day. There are only a handful of buttons on it. I have no idea what those buttons mean or how to use it. I also recognize that we live in a world of coffee pods, where you simply slide these little tins into a coffee machine, hit a button and “poof,” you have a French cafe style coffee pumped into your “Friday… my second favorite F Word” mug without any pretention. Still, I am clueless. It’s just a bunch of buttons and sliders that I don’t understand. I’ve tried. Sitting next to our coffee machine is a binder. On that binder, it says, “Coffee Machine User Manual.” It’s a binder. For a coffee machine.

How does your iPad work?

Do me a favor, take a look at the instruction manual for your iPad. How about the one for your iPhone? Your Android smartphone? Hmmm… no manual. That’s interesting. Turn it on, slide to unlock it, touch and go. If you make a mistake, don’t worry, you won’t break the thing. It may take an extra second to figure it out, but you won’t be punished by scolding hot water. Think on this for a moment: what is a more complex technology with a myriad more of functionality? That coffee machine or that iPad? That coffee machine user manual makes me laugh every time I see it. We talk about marketing, advertising and communication as a way to inform the public about the existence or nuances of the products and services that we sell, but marketing is so often left out of the actual development and experience, that what marketers are really left to do is to simply talk about something that may be overly complicated to explain and use.

Marketing includes design, usability and experience.

Don’t forget about that. We often do forget about this or get lost in the erogenous zone of simplicity. Steve Jobs from Apple forced the world to look at design, usability, experience and marketing as one, holistic, thing. Business books, articles, case studies, documentaries, blog posts, annoying Instagram quote pictures deluge our eyes/brains with the idea of focusing on simplicity. I’d offer this thought: don’t focus on simplicity. Simplicity is the outcome of bringing together the right people in the room that can get you to a specific point of resolution for your business. It’s like trying to create something viral. Viral is a result of doing a lot of things brilliantly. Same with simplicity.

How to do away with the manual?

That specific point of resolution should be this: is it possible for your business to create something that does not require a manual or training? Ugh. Sucks to read that, doesn’t it? Sucks to think about it. I know many business-to-business companies that will scoff at this notion, simply because this is how they ensure regular (and ongoing) revenue – through training, support and other value-added services. Fine, it may be impractical to completely do away with instruction manuals and trainings, but what if the real goal was to reduce it to its bare minimum? For my dollar, this is the highest form of marketing: creating something that is both needed and completely frictionless for the consumer (these are the things that consumers love to use and talk about). Find me a product that does this and was not accepted by a strong customer base, and I’ll call you a liar (in the nicest way possible). Oh, and if you think it’s one hundred percent impossible to drive your products and services to the point where instruction manuals are not needed, feel free to study (in-depth) some of the design thinking that the Apple team (and other folks – like the people at IDEO) are bringing to market. How they did it, might just surprise and inspire you and your teams. Lastly, remember that we have reached a very unique inflection point in time (and, it’s something I discuss in a lot more detail in my second book, CTRL ALT Delete). We are finally at this amazing point in society when technology has removed the technology from technology. This stuff is intuitive, it does not require an instruction manual and it’s accessible to all people – across demographics and psychographics. From the very young to the very old, to everyone in between. That is something to cherish, celebrate and integrate into all of our business. Always.

Dump the instruction manuals. That’s the beginning phases of brilliant marketing.

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The Secret Life Of Social Media

Shhhh, don’t tell anybody anything (even though I just posted this secret online for anyone to see).

It has been brewing for some time, and it’s a difficult trend for businesses not to understand and embrace. As much as our social lives are now made public in everything from 140-characters of text on Twitter to long-form videos that we post of ourselves on YouTube, there is a growing mass audience (and developers behind them) that are creating an entirely new (and private) layers to social media. And, if all goes according to their plan, it could very well be the proverbial needle to pop the balloon of how brands have attempted to market to consumers using modern technology.

What’s the hottest thing happening right now?

It’s Snapchat, of course. Isn’t it? Lauded by the younger generation because they can send each other photographs/mini videos via smartphones and tablets that are incinerated once viewed (leaving no trace for parents, etc…). The app has become so formidable, that Facebook offered to buy them late last year for a reported $3 billion, which Snapchat turned down. Turning down $3 billion dollars buys a lot of attention and street cred. The private online social network continues to grow, as brands like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Acura and others have been jumping on board to figure out if Snapchat’s community of 30 million-plus users (and growing) cares to get this type of micro-disposable content from brands. Maybe, it’s not Snapchat that is the hottest thing anymore. One could argue that the hottest thing happening right now, is the fact that Facebook bounced back from this rejection and managed to acquire the cross-platform mobile messaging platform WhatsApp for an astonishing $19 billion two weeks ago. With close to 500 million users and growing, WhatsApp is, in its purest form, BlackBerry Messenger (which, of course, is now available for Android and Apple users as well) that works on any mobile device and any mobile carrier. In fact, the deal was so massive that it completely over-shadowed the fact that a similar messaging platform, Viber, was also recently acquired for $900 million by Rakuten (a Japanese online commerce platform).

Think about it: private pictures, videos, messages and more. That doesn’t sound very social, does it?

While companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter monopolize the growing areas of online social networking, what we’re beginning to see is continued growth and interest in private online social networking. The types of content, conversation and sharing that is done outside of the public limelight. Sometimes anonymously. Sometimes between two friends. It just doesn’t feel like the place that brands can insert themselves to monetize a growing user base, does it?

I have a secret to tell.

While they have not been acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars (yet), the San Francisco based startup Secret (that was founded by two former Google and Square employees) is getting tons of attention, followers and fans. In short, you can write anything that’s on your mind, add photos or colors to the background and customize this content while being able to share it – free of judgment – and without attaching any of your personal information or profile to it. It feels like a more modern, mobile and more social version of Post Secret (where individuals physically mail their anonymous secrets on the back of a postcard to a group that then scans and shares the most creative ones online). While Secret isn’t the first or only app like this, it is currently getting the lion’s share of media and consumer attention. Do you really want brands to share secrets with you? Does that even make sense? Secret follows in a long line of increasingly popular platforms that are moving towards more private, restricted and personal interactions. Path (which launched back in 2010) seemed like a more mobile version of Facebook with one major distinction:Path only allowed a maximum of 150 connections (which followed Dunbar’s number theory that human beings can only maintain a total of 150 true relationships). Small stuff, right?

What matters most to you: Public life? Professional life? Social life? Personal life?

What we’re now seeing is motion away from all of this publicness that we have been experiencing at the hands of social media for the past decade, or we’re simply seeing the mass development of a completely different type of private online social networking. In fact, if you look at where the venture capital dollars and user growth is currently happening, we could well arrive at a juncture which finds consumers much less interested in the public chest beating of their semi-consequential day-to-day accomplishments on social media, and a much more focused desire to use technology as a communications platform to add more personal meaning. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp could substantiate this (why wouldn’t they want to own both the public and private online social networks of consumers?). So, while Ellen may have broken Twitter with her a-list selfie stunt from the Oscar’s, we may be at the nascent stages of seeing a brand new type of social media play that is small, intimate and, seemingly, impermeable to brands, advertisers and media companies. A place where twerking could well find it’s perfect home… behind closed doors and not out in public.

Are private online social networks the future of social media? More interesting will be how brands will react and engage with this new reality. 

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

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Crazy, Sexy, Cool: Attributes Of The Most Clickable Ads

How entertaining is your brand?

On the surface, this may seen like a simple question to answer. If you produce movies, energy drinks or running shoes, you probably have something that is highly entertaining. Most of us don’t work for brands like that. We sell valves, insurance policies, accounting services and the like. Not the kind of stuff that evokes deep emotions like laughter and tears. Still, we live in a day and age when most brands are forced to be out there. Not just with television commercials, flyers and ads on the radio, but actively engaged online. We need to get people to like our brand on Facebook, pin our images on Pinterest, subscribe to our YouTube channels, retweet our 140-characters of goodness on Twitter and more for attention. In fact, when it comes to the modern marketing mix, you will often find many companies struggle so desperately, that they are willing to buy media to promote their content posts or spend money on fan acquisition (there’s an oxymoron in there, if you think about it). There are countless strategies that marketing pundits will put forward in order to help brands understand where and how to create value in a world that has never been so cluttered with advertising.

Screaming louder than everyone else.

If you go back a mere fifteen years, marketing experienced a new dawn. Social media brought with it the ability for brands to have real interactions with real human beings. As powerful and profound as that was (and still is), the waters have become quite murky. The current arms race for likes, friends, followers, subscribers, retweets, pins and more has brought with it an over-simplification of what a brand should be pursuing. Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like are no longer encouraging brands to figure out a way to create a depth of meaning and connection with their consumers. If you scratch slightly beneath the surface, everything that they offer is sold much in the same way that traditional media outlets have sold their traditional advertising. It has become just another type of marketplace, where the brand who screams the loudest gets the most attention. So, is the promise of social media dead? Do we really need to care about depth of interactions, building true relationships, nurturing people towards engagement, or are we looking for just another quick fix in a long history of advertising’s version of the one night stand?  

Tell me what you want… what you really, really want.

You would think that as your business adds digital marketing into a more prominent position within a marketing mix, that the true value will come from time spent digging deep into what adds value to the consumers life. How can your brand – in a world where anyone can publish anything in text, images, audio and video – create something so compelling that it becomes an integral part of a consumer’s digital experience. Well, it turns out that the pace with which consumers are ignoring advertising messages has not dissipated in a world where we have an incredible ability to target, customize, personalize and build a true relationship. According to a Research Brief news item published earlier this week titled, Four of Five American Consumers Ignore Online Ads Most Frequently, the digital world is having just as much trouble capturing a consumer’s attention. “82% of Americans ignore online ads, ahead of television ads at 37%. 92% of Americans ignore at least one type of ad seen every day across six different types of media,” according to the article about the first annual Goo Online Advertising Survey. “The online ads Americans are most likely to ignore included: online banner ads (73%), followed by social media ads (62%), and search engine ads (59%). The highest wage earners, those with a household income of $100k+ per year, were statistically more likely than those households making less than $50k per year (86% vs. 78%, respectively) to say they ignore online ads. Overall, the 65+ age group ignored the most, while the 35-44 age group ignored the least.”

Advertising revenue would beg to differ.

If that one study is reflective of the industry at large, the fire alarms should be clanging from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley. We continue to see a sharp increase of ad spend shift from traditional channels to digital ones in hopes that customization, analytics and targeting will create a more effective form of advertising. So, what do consumers really want? The Goo Technologies went on to report that consumers would like advertising to:

  • Look more interesting.
  • Not feel like an ad (whatever that means).
  • Be funny.
  • Be entertaining.
  • Have stunning graphics.
  • Have a sexy man or woman in the ad (I can’t make this stuff up).
  • Be more interactive.

Nothing new in new media.

If you’re wondering why all of that technology, analytics, retargeting and more is not moving the needle in your advertising, or why that last YouTube video didn’t find the viral success that you were hoping for, it turns out that consumers – no matter how evolved they are in their technological prowess around media channels, content creation and devices – are overwhelmed. There is a sheer brunt force of advertising everywhere. They are either completely ignoring advertising or simply want it to give them a chuckle or raise an eyebrow and move on. As simple as that sounds, not many brands are in the business of entertainment, and that’s the true rub. Consumers are online, connected, creating, curating, sharing and more. As intellectual and powerful as that is, nothing will get them to act on your message unless you can really entertain them. Smart advertising is good entertainment. Surprise! Nothing much has really changed in the game of advertising no matter how sophisticated and evolved the platforms and opportunities have become.

So, how entertaining is your brand?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for Inc. Magazine called Reboot: Marketing. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

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How To Reboot Your Marketing – A Quick Video Primer

Are you ready to reboot your business?

My second business book, CTRL ALT Delete, came out late last year. As part of the promotion for the book, I spent several days in Boston attending HubSpot’s incredible Inbound 2013 event. There were thousands of …

The End Of Customer Service

Now that everyone complains… nobody cares when there is a complaint.

There was a time (not that long ago), when someone’s complaint online would be rocketed to the executive office, changes were made and brands were being held accountable for their foibles and mishaps. It was the early days of social media (nearly a decade ago). We had the Slashdot effect and more. It was a time when Jeff Jarvis complained about his experience with Dell (now, a story that lives on in infamy as Dell Hell) and it (along with other similar stories) demonstrated that the power to publish a story online had ramifications well beyond the usual “write a letter to the company” and hope that they respond. Back then, you would do an online search and see massive corporate websites vying for search engine optimization over someone with a blog and a bad customer experience. Online social networking took hold and these stories were further exasperated. Brands went from private responses to very publicly trying to resolve customer service issues.

David meets Goliath.

It’s hard not to face the reality that the vast majority of brands came into social media and digital connectedness kicking and screaming. They made very public concessions and apologies. Several organizations have since restructured how their marketing, communications, customer service and more interact with each other and with consumers. Transparency, speed-to-response, bringing a sense of humanity to the brand have all become corporate cultural pillars that every brand now lives to embody. It’s not easy. Remember back when the sentiment was that a brand needs to respond to everything – positive, negative and neutral – everywhere?

But, there’s something else.

Do brands really care anymore? Are there now so many people online, in so many places that it has become both impossible to keep up and, to be raw, not all that important for brands to respond because of the sheer volume? Did the whole United breaks guitars actually do any material damage to the brand? There are some many customer reviews online, that it is often difficult to make heads or tails of something. I’ll often find myself wondering about how brands respond to customer service online, because the same/annoying passive-aggressive type of customer service calls are now being embodied in the digital channels. In fact, when I have a customer service issue, I am prone to not post it online, as I don’t feel the need to leverage my community to get a response or a desire to publicly call any one brand out. I simply want a response and resolve to be done privately. The desire for brands to force this outing on social media is bewildering to me. This past week, Chris Brogan was ranting about his own customer service issues with Dell (you can read about it right here: Update to my Dell Hell Story).

Social Media Cowboys.

Brogan’s raw frustrations or issue with Dell and their products isn’t the crux. The real point of focus lies in the corporate integration. Forgetting that this is Dell, that this is Chris Brogan and that all of this is very public, what we’re seeing is a failure of integration. I loved his use of the term “social media cowboys”, because it speaks volumes to the real challenges that a brand faces in a world where consumers are both the center and the true omni-channel of a brand experience. Sadly, most companies have some kind of social media cowboy. It’s an analytics package, it’s a social media monitoring tool, it’s a real-time marketing command center, it’s a handful of work-from-home helpers, it’s a four person team working within the communications or customer service center to be listening and responding to trending issues. In short, it all means nothing, if it’s not integrated into the core product/service. Having a handful of emails (or people) run through the organization with their hair on fire because someone with any semblance of an audience (like Chris Brogan or anyone else) is demanding answers doesn’t change how a brand operates. It creates a dissonance with how everything else runs.

Sadly.

What have we learned? This is what really made me sad and frustrated after reading Chris’ post: we have not learned much after all of this time. And, for all of the talking that has been done, not much has changed. You would think that Dell (which is often held up as a case study is excellence for social media and monitoring) would be able to nail something so basic. So, left to our devices, I’m wondering how many true strides brands have really made in an effort to be better, to be more transparent, to be more human and to connect more with their consumers? Ultimately, how many brands have built a better organization, in a world where every voice now has a stage and an audience?

I’m hoping this isn’t the end of customer service.

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The Failed State Of Branding

How well do you think brands are doing?

Brands are going to have to face the music. It’s a ruse that has (probably) been going on longer than anyone cares to admit, but it’s something that has showed itself – front and center – in the past few months. What we’re seeing is something we may have known all along (but were reticent to admit). People just don’t care or think that much about brands. The entire engine of advertising is built on that truism. If people loved brands, there would be no need to advertise, right? Advertising is simply a financial engine that allows brands to pay to have access to an audience. This got very murky a little over a decade ago, when the Internet and social media collided. Suddenly, because all of the things that people think, like, share and create was made public, brands figured that they could suddenly engage and connect with anyone who makes mention of their favorite bubbly sugar water. It turns out that even if millions of people are liking a brand anywhere public, it doesn’t really mean that they care all that much about it, does it?

What are we seeing suddenly that should make us rethink branding in 2014?

Here are four different types of brand new content that all marketers need to read, watch and think about before they go out develop their next Pinterest or Vine strategy:

  • Are Consumers “Falling Out of Love” With Brands? That is the question that this Marketing Charts article asks. It is based on a study conducted by Mindshare called, Culture Vulture 2014 (but it also looks at some other reports), and here’s what the article states: “…consumers are ‘falling out of love with brands’ and that ‘brands are in crisis’… only 47% of North American consumers last year agreed that they like to pass on interesting things they see or hear about brands, with that figure having steadily fallen over the past few years, from 66% in 2010. The analysts take that as a sign that ‘a majority of brands are seeing their relationships with consumers weakening,’ and that brands need to better adapt to consumers’ expectations.” Are you surprised by this? Brands are busy trotting out how many followers, likes and friends they have, but consumers are busy not being interested or asking, “what have you done for me lately?”
  • Twilight Of The Brands. The New Yorker ran this fascinating article from James Surowiecki (who also authored the excellent book, The Wisdom Of Crowds back in 2004), that looks at consumer empowerment and access to information as a few of the key leading indicators as to why consumers are caring less and less about brands. From the article: “You can never coast on past performance–the percentage of brand-loyal car buyers has plummeted in the past twenty years–and the price premium that a recognized brand can charge has shrunk. If you’re making a better product, you can still charge more, but, if your product is much like that of your competitors, your price needs to be similar, too. That’s the clearest indication that the economic value of brands–traditionally assessed by the premium a company could charge–is waning. This isn’t true across the board: brands retain value where the brand association is integral to the experience of a product (Coca-Cola, say), or where they confer status, as with luxury goods. But even here the information deluge is transformative; luxury travel, for instance, has been profoundly affected by sites like TripAdvisor.”  This means that in a world where the experience is everything, a product or service has to do more than just bang a drum to tell the world how great it is… they actually have to be great. Which, for most, is a constant struggle.
  • Absolute Value. That New Yorker piece above featured this book (co-authored by Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen). This brand new business book looks at why consumers really make the choices that they make, and just how much power a brand actually has in that relationship. The reason for writing this book? Both authors feel that branding and loyalty are losing their relevance, because consumers are more connected and informed. In short, consumers are making better choices that are more rational and this puts a lot of what we know about branding (and it’s power) in the corner.
  • Facebook Fraud. This video (which is embedded below) has been making the rounds this week. It’s highly controversial and it’s getting a ton of attention. When I first saw it, there were only a few thousand views, and now it’s creeping close to 1.3 million views. It has got a bunch of people up in arms. There is enough discourse surrounding the validity of the content, that it’s not worth diving into further here. Still, it fits the general thought of this blog post: in a world where brands are so thrilled and excited to get people to like them, follow them and share their content, what we’re seeing is that only a few people in the marketplace really care all that much to do so. Personally, I’m not sure why this is such a contentious issue with anyone? For most people, it’s enough to just see your commercials… they don’t need much more. Just because brands want people to follow them and share their content, it doesn’t mean that consumers really care. This type of activity might be perfect for the heavy users, but the vast majority of purchasers could probably care less. No matter how excited the brand is about the prospect.

There is hope.

Not all is lost. These are important pieces of content that most brands should spend the time to consume, think about and build a true strategy against. The opportunities to connect and build a direct relationship with consumers has never been more promising. The challenge – for most – is that they are bringing a very traditionally-based advertising mindset to the fold, instead of spreading their wings and seeing the bigger opportunity in smarter marketing mixed with better consumer experiences. These next few years are going to be even more challenging for most brands, because consumers are becoming more connected and are consuming media in such new and interesting ways. Personally, this failed state of branding is probably a good thing for brands who are willing to think differently about what it means to create and share a message moving forward.

So, what do you think? Are brands losing their relevance more than ever?

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The Marketing Moral Compass

Are marketer’s the most loathed human beings on earth?

It is a question worthy of an answer. As a marketing professional, I often wonder where the vocation sits on the list of the most respected and appreciated industries out there. Without any material proof, I’m going to guess it’s way down at the bottom of the list, cuddled between the used car salespeople, drug dealers and assorted scumbags of the world. Maybe that’s being a little harsh, but our reputations precede us. Marketers have done so many nasty things to society that now require governments and laws to protect the public (think about spam, privacy and telemarketing). But, it is different times and a business’ success in marketing has a direct correlation to its financial health and walking the line, as Johnny Cash would put it.

Changing the marketing game.

While too many people try to strike it rich on Facebook and Twitter, the true value of social media is how it acts as a truth serum for brands. Companies that have spent any semblance of time online know this, in a profound way. Just look at any number of consumer reviews (on any site) and it’s plain to see: Brands are neither loathed or loved. They are not just purchased or dismissed. What social media has brought is the ability for every business to understand the tiny nuances that make consumers both appreciate or revolt against something. There is a ton of ambiguity (for every one person who can’t live without a product, there are five people who consider it a complete waste of time, money and effort). Regardless of these varying opinions, it is clear that there is one component of marketing that offers the opportunity to overcome the negative (without fail): a strong marketing moral compass.

The moral compass of marketing.

You can have a brand that people aren’t interested in, but if you’re always perceived to be doing the right thing (because you are doing the right thing), this will lessen the potential damage of negativity, while adding layers of comfort to those who are already in love with the business. So, what does your business stand for in relation to your consumers? What types of relationships do you want with your customers? Before you buy that first ad, before you ask for that first email address, before you post that next piece to your Facebook page, spend some serious (and quality) time defining your marketing moral compass.

Ask yourself the right questions.

Most marketers run afoul or try something that inevitably gets them into trouble, because they haven’t defined their moral compass of marketing and they have no bearings when presented with opportunities that could wind up messing with their cultural GPS. So, grab a notebook, a cafe au lait and start asking yourself these questions:

  • How do you want people to feel before, during and after they touch your brand?
  • What are you willing to do to get attention for your brand?
  • How important are the relationships that you have with your consumers?
  • How open, responsive and quick will you be when responding to consumers (positive, negative and neutral feedback)?
  • What should (and should not) be used in terms of consumer’s information? Do you have their permission and do they understand it?
  • What is the common good that everyone – within the organization – should be working towards?
  • What will be the measurement of a healthy marketing organization? Will it be by revenue? How many people are employed? What consumers think about your work? Something else?
  • Is the overriding success of the work going to be the company’s needs, the needs of others or something else? 

More questions.

Don’t stop there. In answering these questions, more questions (and hopefully better answers) will arise. This work is not meant to be a linear piece of work that ends up in a document, then a vision statement, then posted somewhere on a wall in your office as some kind of finished idea, or a slide in your PowerPoint deck. Your marketing moral compass is an ever-growing and on-going organic embodiment of what you stand for (and what you can’t stand). When it is roughly defined and in-line with the personal and corporate values of everyone involved, share it with your team, be open to their candid feedback and input, ensure that it is honestly in-line with the values of the company and the people that you keep. In a sea of brands who are willing to do anything for a click, a like, a follow, a friend, a retweet, a comment, a review, an impression and more, being vigilant about having and embodying a strong marketing moral compass will always keep your business on the straight and narrow. Ultimately, it will also be in the defining moments – like an opportunity to have a business benefit that may not be as good for your consumers, when the metal of your marketing moral compass will meet the road.

Having it fixed, in place and part of the culture will always help you to resolve these moments, and point your business towards the true north.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for Inc. Magazine called Reboot: Marketing. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

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It’s All Just Dumb Luck

Selling a lot of books is very hard. Making a video go viral is very hard. Creating a billion dollar company is very hard.

It’s a story that I will never forget. Back in 2008, I was prepping the release of my first business book (Six Pixels of Separation). I was very excited because the book was going to be the lead business title for Grand Central Publishing – which is a part of the largest book publishing company in the world (Hachette Book Group) – and the senior-most executive at the publishing house wanted to meet with me. I was excited. I was nervous. If you could close your eyes and imagine what the head editor of the largest book publisher in the world might look like, you would have the right visual of this powerful, smart and compelling individual. A beautiful corner office with a view, that is decorated with awards, celebrity author paraphernalia, photos of this individual with Presidents, royalty and more. As we sat down on the couch for a coffee, they leaned in and quietly said, “Mitch… I love your book. We all love your book. It’s a fascinating space and you have captured it perfectly. We are thrilled that we’re publishing it and look forward to its success…” and then there was a long pause. They finished the sentence with: “now, all we need is lightning in a bottle.”

Wait. What?  

Write a book that one of the world’s most esteemed editors loves, get signed to a global deal by one of the largest book publishers in the world, get to be the lead title for their back to school season, and it’s all going to be dependant on how lucky we get? It’s a situation that I have known and dealt with for decades. Back in my music industry days, I would face this story on a weekly basis. A band would release an amazing album on one of the major record labels, that was supported with a ton of marketing, featured a great producer, with an amazing tour to come, and it would be crickets and tumbleweeds in terms of record sales, seats sold and general media interest. I could rattle off hundreds of bands who should have been huge from the eighties and nineties while others (some might even argue less-qualified) got the accolades, attention, fame, sex, drugs and well, you know.

In the end, is it all about luck?

I am thinking about luck a lot lately. I’m not the only one. Just yesterday, I saw two really interesting articles on Mashable about Facebook (titled: ‘It Was Just the Dumbest Luck’ — Facebook’s First Employees Look Back) and the meteoric rise of the most frustrating game, Flappy Bird (titled: How ‘Flappy Bird’ Went From Obscurity to No. 1 App).

Check out these quotes…

  1. Ezra Callahan was Facebook’s sixth employee. Here’s what he says about it: “It’s humbling to know I was part of something that became such a phenomenon around the world. Every day, I recognize how it was just the dumbest luck in the world to have been in the right place at the right time.” 
  2. Doug Nguyen is the indie developer who created Flappy Bird. He never did any type of marketing or advertising for the game and simply said, “The Popularity could be my luck.”

Is it just all dumb luck?

You can imagine how many articles, blog posts and book have been written on the subject of luck. I’ve often referred to this “secret sauce” that seems to have no known recipe in the success of things of other stuff. We would like to think that true success happens when someone can match passion, intellect, dedication and effort against a cause. We would like to think that if you just put your nose against the grindstone, something is going to give. We don’t want to believe in something “other” (and no, I’m not talking about any religious figures here). Still, when you speak to those we would consider the best of the best, they often default to some type of comment about just how lucky they got. Sure, go ahead and dump all of the catchy quotes below about how a lot of hard work makes people lucky, I still find it fascinating how there are always these random forces at play. The things that make one video go viral and another, equally compelling piece, be a dud. It feels like luck usually does have something to do with it, regardless of what the data jocks tell us and the puritan hard workers. 

So, do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?

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Hacking Art Education And The Creative Experience

Is an education worth it? Is an education in art school worth it?

There are many marketers that have (or are even thinking about) art education. It will not be news to anyone, that most students leave college in tremendous debt. With that, there is no…