Friday, September 28, 2007

Marketers are Out of Control

We’ve all heard the phrase “consumers are in control” many times. It has become part of the theme music for Web 2.0. How often do we stop to think about what it really means?

One thing is clear. Consumers can say pretty much anything they want to say pretty much anywhere on the web. They can post videos. They can make content viral. If it’s favorable to our brand, that’s great! What if it’s not?

Marketers are used to controlling their communications with consumers. Marketing guru Don Schultz call this “linear media.” In the video clip he also points out that media doesn’t work that way anymore. Marketers are still trying to control communications that are no longer under their control.

What is the response? Head-in-the sand is one option. A headline today on eMarketer says “Marketers Hooked on Old Media” (September 28, 2007). Quoting a study by Gundersen Partners, they say that 60% of marketers put at least half their marketing budgets into traditional media and 45% allocate only 10% of their budget to new media.

But the situation is not all bleak for new media. More than half of respondents in this study plan to put 10 to 30% of their budgets into new media, with 80% planning to achieve their goal within two years. I wonder how much the media will have changed by that time. Clearly a static plan will not accomplish meaningful goals.

One more point from this report. When asked why they were not moving faster, 40% said they had insufficient knowledge and 1/3 said they did not have enough time to evaluate new channels.

While I don’t doubt the surface truth of those two statements, is fear of the unknown lurking below the rational responses? Are the majority of marketers afraid to take the plunge into social media?

Or perhaps the reason for the long lead time is to allow for experimentation to see what works before committing substantial funds. Is your company experimenting? If not, I’d suggest that train has already left the station and you need to hurry to catch up to it.

Heinz has a tradition of contests that generate ideas from everything from ketchup bottles to labels. It probably should be no surprise that they recently ran a contest for consumer-created ads. The contest generated thousands of entries by the deadline on August 6, so many that they have announced a second round of winners, coming in October. If you missed the winning ad on the Emmy Awards in mid-September, you can view it and all the semifinalists on the Top This TV microsite. You might also want to read the contest rules; Heinz created an environment that protected them against intellectual property issues and, working with YouTube, protection against objectionable content.

Marketers cannot control what consumers say about their brand. But they can provide a forum for constructive discussion and support activities that give insight into consumers feelings and lifestyles.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Using the Tools

It’s always a pleasure to receive an email from your daughter, especially one that has a picture of your adorable grandson. This one was special.

Her family signed up to participate in the Walk for Animals sponsored by MSPCA and Boston’s Angell Memorial Hospital earlier this month. The email included a link to their personal page complete with a picture, personal fund-raising goal and a link to their bulldog group web page. The scrolling list of donors indicated that various people and pets had already contributed.

Sure, I would have made a contribution anyway; they are my kids. But this made it easy for me. Even better, it made it easy for them. It was personal and appealing but very soft sell. Because it was a simple text email it was easy to forward. I did, and my friend’s cat made a contribution also. The system also provided an email template for participants to thank their donors along with the standard email acknowledgement by the MSPCA.

I wasn’t there, but I’m told that people, dogs, and a pair of ferrets had fun. The cats on leashes and the parakeets in birdcages strapped to strollers didn’t look as happy. But, according to the MSCPA, they raised over $330,000 with this event. Every communication provided links to the website and the HTML ones included a lot of the site functionality.

All this was powered by Convio’s TeamRaiser fundraising software. That made it easy to replicate some of the MSPCA home page components on the personal pages. It also interfaced with the MSPCA donor database, capturing new names and updating donor records.

The participants are an integral part of an event like this. Using interactive tools to improve their experience and produce desired results for the organization is a win-win.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Corporate Blogging--The Good and The Ugly

Many of us remember Dell and its customer service problems. One customer’s issues were highlighted on Jeff Jarvis’s popular blog and spread like wildfire across the web during the summer of 2005. His original post had 253 comments and some of his later posts had even more.

This is a “listening (not) to the voice of the customer” problem. My sense is that Dell was very good at it when their customers were large B2B enterprises. When the Internet allowed them to profitably sell to individuals, they took advantage of it. However, they didn’t recast their customer service operation to deal with consumers. Worse, they ignored the 2005 firestorm on the web for several months. When they did respond, it seemed a bit tentative.

But they were learning. When laptop batteries began to spontaneously erupt in flames in the summer of 2006, they were paying attention. They posted news of the recall on their blog, as well as on the Dell website, although critics argued they should have acted more quickly.

The Direct2Dell blog remains active and generates quite a bit of customer response. But Dell is looking for more. Their IdeaStorm minisite actively solicits ideas from customers, responds to them, and creates a community environment. Can this approach work in, say, a consumer packaged-goods environment? How can companies deal with the legal liability “you stole my idea” issue?

That’s the good, when we can learn from our mistakes and oversights. On to the ugly. Many of you know that John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, was ‘outed’ for posting negative comments about competitor Wild Oats on a Yahoo! bulletin board under an assumed name. The problem came to light when Whole Foods made an offer to acquire Wild Oats. It looks as if the fall-out for Mr. Mackey personally and perhaps for the Whole Foods brand reputation may not be over. The case was made a poster child for bad corporate behavior at a recent NARC conference, with a representative from the FTC giving useful guidelines for staying out of trouble. Corporate bloggers should read (Media Post, free registration required) and heed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Blogs Are a Mature Medium

Blogs and their predecessors have been around for awhile (Wikipedia has an interesting history), but many of us only became aware of them in the early years of this decade. We watched with interest as several blogging services gained traction, specialized search engines and advertising networks were introduced, and, recently, blog audience metrics were developed. These are all signs of a mature medium, and one might expect businesses to take advantage of this low-cost way to reach their customers directly.

The sheer size of the blogosphere has clearly exploded. According to Technorati, in April 2007 they were monitoring over 70 million blogs. 120,000 new blogs were being created every day—1.4 per second! True, most of those are personal, political or news blogs. eMarketer’s newsletter (May 1, 2007) quoted a study that found that only 8% of the Fortune 500 firms, and 4% of their Global 1000, have public blogs. Reason given: they did not have policies governing the use of social media and were concerned that employee comments would damage their brand.

Policies can be established, and it doesn’t take much technical savvy to establish a blog—I’m living proof of that! Is it that most marketing managers--who aren’t part of the social-networking demographic--are not aware of the potential benefits of direct interaction with customers? Or is it a reasonable fear that the brand could be harmed? Or is it purely the fear of making a mistake, of looking foolish in the eyes of one’s colleagues and peers? What have your experiences been?

Tomorrow we’ll see one example of learning to use social media effectively and another that represents just the opposite.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What is DIY Marketing?

DIY Marketing is all about direct interaction between marketers and customers. No constraints, no filters—just honest, two-way communication. At least that’s what it should be. But it’s hard.
For years now marketers have talked about “Listening to the voice of the customer.” That usually means marketing research that is expensive and time consuming. Marketing research involves many people, each of whom may add—even inadvertently—biases or perspectives. Before the Internet it was about the only way we had to find out what our customers thought and felt.

The Internet added a new dimension—the ability to track what customers actually do. The value of behavioral data about customers cannot be overstated, but it misses the “thinking and feeling.”

While most marketers were still trying to cope with things like websites, email and metrics, a new Internet was quietly emerging, fueled by technological innovation and the communications obsession of young people. Internet 2.0--for want of a better term--has presented marketers with a bewildering array of tools for interacting directly with customers across the demographic spectrum. With these new tools we can not only track what customers are saying and doing, we can also engage them in dialog that reveals how they think and feel.

But it is hard. Not the technology; that is usually pretty friendly, even to the most technology-phobic marketer. But establishing the dialog requires new marketing approaches and maintaining it requires discipline and focus. It requires unfiltered attention to what customers are actually saying—good, bad, or incendiary. Perhaps hardest of all, it requires a whole new way of thinking about marketing.

That is the subject of this blog. What technologies, tools and techniques can marketers use? What new applications show promise? What customer sources do marketers need to monitor? How do we engage customers in ways that respect their privacy? What are the organizational barriers to unfettered communication? How can we overcome them? What is working and what isn’t? And, as we go, other topics will emerge.

I’ll be blogging several times a week, so please join me in exploring marketing’s newest frontier!