Brand Marketing Due for a Makeover

As corporate marketers dive headlong into the annual ordeal known as the annual budgeting cycle, Forrester Research has released an interesting new report that challenges some assumptions about brand management. It costs $499, so see if you can borrow a copy from a friend. This summary will give you the high points.

The October 9 report is entitled “Adaptive Brand Marketing,” but that’s really a fancy term for “turn on a dime marketing.” Author Lisa Bradner attacks several traditional assumptions about brand marketing. They include the notion that any individual can orchestrate all of the channels needed to deliver a message, the primacy of channels over customers and the belief that just a few core messages are sufficient  to communicate value.

Those simple concepts are becoming almost quaint today as channels of communication are fragmenting, customers are self-organizing into affinity groups and the cost of switching continues to decline. Customers increasingly want direct contact with and influence upon the products they use. They are no longer satisfied to be spoken to as a mass; they want messages that address their individual needs. If they don’t get that, Bradner explains, they’re quick to take their business elsewhere. She quotes Forrester research showing that more than 80% of consumers now indicate a willingness to switch from their regular brand of product to a private-label alternative. The recession is no doubt pushing that trend along.

Start With the Customer

“Adaptive Brand marketing starts with the environment — customers and a deep understanding of their needs and behaviors — and then designs the most appropriate channel mix for engagement,” she writes in a sentence that nicely sums up the thrust of this research. “Spending and planning decisions are daily — not annual — events.”

As a longtime media professional, I found that last comment particularly meaningful. The end of the year is typically a time when media salespeople go into overdrive trying to get their events, supplements and special projects on their clients’ advertising schedules. This sometimes means trying to convince somebody in November that they should spend money on a marketing program that won’t run until the following September. The idea that anyone can predict their needs that far in advance was always a little silly. Today it’s downright ludicrous.

The Forrester report proposes a new model for brand marketing that embodies an iterative approach to planning. Frequent testing guides message development and the best ideas are funded almost instantly. It also suggests that analytics based upon the massive amount of data we can now collect about customers’ online behavior should guide tactics, not hunches and experience. In fact, the report is critical of the whole idea that past experience counts for much of anything. Rapid shifts in behavior driven by constant customer conversation have created an environment that changes too quickly.

Bradner concludes that the four Ps of brand management — product, price, promotion, place — will be replaced by four new Ps: permission, proximity, perception and participation. In a nutshell, this means that brand marketers will need to request permission to speak to their customers, listen and respond with customized messages and invite customers to collaborate on product evolution. She also suggests that the term “brand manager” is outmoded because no individual can coordinate all the necessary market conversations. She argues instead for brand advocates who live close to their markets and constantly experiment with new messages.

The timing of the research is a bit ironic coming, coming the week after a PRWeek and MS&L survey reported that 70% of marketers say they have never made a change to their products or marketing campaigns based on consumer feedback on social media sites. Perhaps this is because we’re still early in the evolution of these new media, but with blogging now well into its fifth year of hyper growth, it seems odd that marketing pros should be taking so long to get the message.

I came upon this research in the course of an ongoing discussion with a household-name consumer goods company with which I work. The marketers there were quite taken with its conclusions, and this is the type of company that leads entire markets in new directions. We shouldn’t underestimate the scope of change that Adaptive Brand Marketing would require. On the plus side, we wouldn’t spend each November frantically assembling annual marketing budgets. But we would have to learn to live in a world of nearly constant change in plans and priorities. Welcome to the new reality of 21st century business.

Come to Boston, Hear from the Best

Regular readers know that I’m a passionate supporter of the Society for New Communications Research, a nonprofit organization that includes some of the smartest new media people I’ve met and that produces a constant stream of education and research on developments in this area. If you’re in the New England area, or plan to be here late next week, please sign up for the annual 2009 Symposium and Awards Gala November 5-6 at the Harvard Faculty Club.

The event kicks off Thursday with a four-hour workshop on “Social Media Metrics and Measurement” led by SNCR Senior Fellows Katie Paine & Charlotte Ziems. Metrics is the top issue marketers ask about these days, so how can you go wrong spending an afternoon with Katie, who literally wrote the book on the subject? Friday evening we’ll be presenting awards to more than 20 organizations that have excelled in their application of social media to all kinds of objectives. I’ve had a chance to review all the winning case studies, and it’s fantastic stuff. The early bird pricing deadline has expired, but if you note on your application that I invited you, they’ll extend the discount.

Tip of the Week: Online Coupons

If you’re in the habit of just clicking that “submit” button when your online order is completed, then this tip is for you. I never make a purchase online anymore without first checking to see if coupons are available for that merchant. It’s amazing at how many retailers and service providers offer discounts that you can find on sites like RetailMeNot, Coupon Cabin, CouponMom, CoolSavings and Coupon Mountain. Usually, all you need to do to take advantage of the savings is copy and paste the code from the coupon site into the checkout window.

Just for Fun: Hands as Art

Most of us work with our hands, whether that means typing on a keyboard or holding tools or waving at airplanes on a runway. But how many of us can say our hands are works of art? Sure, they are miraculous feats of biological engineering and the nails can be painted to dress things up, but I’m talking about art, here, people (don’t say I never delivered culture in this newsletter)! So use your hands to click your way over to this photo gallery of hand-painting. The pity, of course, is that these are real people’s hands and these complicated dye jobs had to come off after the picture was shot. Like a beautiful bloom, the intricate beauty comes from the intrinsically ephemeral quality of the artwork itself. Or so I read in a magazine once… Enjoy!

E-mail Do’s and Don’ts

As I write this essay, the founder of Email Data Source is telling the audience at the Inbound Marketing Summit, that email marketing has a return on investment of 44:1. I believe that, and Bill McCloskey’s words remind me that it’s been a while since I sang the praises of this venerable but highly useful marketing tool.

E-mail should be central to your online marketing plan.  It’s how you turn casual passersby into steady customers. It gives you permission on a regular basis to contact your constituents. It’s your best tool for driving website traffic and business results.

As a practitioner of e-mail marketing going back nearly a decade, I’ve learned a few simple do’s and don’ts. Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of rules. The most important ones are to be useful and to respect the access that your subscribers have granted you.

Do give visitors to your websites every chance to subscribe to your e-mails. Put a signup form on every page. If you can manage it, squeeze a promo into your e-mail signature. Remember, a Web contact is casual but an e-mail subscription is a relationship.

Do give your subscribers special treatment. Offer them exclusive offers and discounts. Some software companies now give newsletter publishers free promotional licenses to products that are one release out of date. Look for these offers and ask if you can adapt them for your subscribers.

Do use an e-mail service provider. I use iContact, but there are many others, including Constant Contact, Benchmark Email and Lyris. There are even free options. For a nominal cost, you’ll get reporting, tracking and list management you’d never be able to duplicate yourself.

Don’t deceive your subscribers. If you tell them they’re signing up for a newsletter, don’t send them promotional messages. If you say you won’t contact them more than once a month, then don’t do that. Monitor your unsubscribes. If a lot of people are leaving, they’re trying to tell you something.

Do provide a Web version of your newsletter. Mine is here. This makes it easy for people to share your content on social bookmarking sites, Twitter and Facebook. It also makes you discoverable by search engines.  Finally, it’s a way for people to respond to you.

Which reminds me: do invite response to that Web version you just created. Email is boring when it’s one way. Start a discussion.

Do sweat the subject line. Make it provocative or intriguing. However, don’t mislead people into opening the newsletter if you can’t deliver the goods.

Do keep messages brief and varied. Provide several “points of entry” to engage your audience’s different interests. Have fun. The most well-read item in my newsletter is the short “Just for Fun” blurb at the end. Do you think I don’t know that?

Do provide alternative delivery in text format. All service providers support this option. Not all subscribers prefer HTML and they shouldn’t have it forced on them.

Don’t add subscribers without their permission. There’s nothing wrong with renting an opt-in list, but scraping addresses off websites or borrowing other people’s lists can get you in legal trouble.

Don’t underestimate the value of e-mail marketing. This newsletter consumes three to four hours of my time every week. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was important.

And Speaking of Great Offers…

The nice folks at HubSpot have extended an offer to my subscribers that I think deserves your attention. It’s a complete text and video course that educates you in the art and science of using social media in general – and Twitter in particular – for marketing. And it’s entirely free to my subscribers. What does HubSpot get out of it? Well, you have to fill out a contact form to download the information, but there’s no obligation and you will learn a lot from the basic program.

Here’s what you get:

  • Video: Twitter for Marketing and PR – Learn how to use Twitter to spread news about your company (1 hour)
  • Video: Getting Found Online using Social Media – Learn the ins and outs of using social media for business (1 hour)
  • EBook: How to Use Twitter for Business (25 pages)
  • EBook: State of the TwitterSphere Report

HubSpot understands the value of providing high-quality information as a way to generate leads. So take them up on this offer and let me know what you think. Download the course here.

Tip of the Week: AutoPager

I find and discard a lot of Firefox add-ons, but AutoPager will be with me for a long time. This wonderfully useful little utility addresses one of the most frustrating time-wasters of Internet research: clicking through to new pages. Any Google user knows the syndrome: when you get to the bottom of a page of search results, you have to click a link to view the next page and then wait while that page loads. AutoPager automatically loads the next page in any sequence when you scroll to the bottom of the preceding page. When you’re performing a lot of Internet research, it can be a huge time-saver. Like all open source utilities, it’s free.

Just for Fun: Those Silly Tech Support People

It’s a humbling truth in life that even the smartest person among us sometimes needs help, especially when it comes to the intricate workings of computers. But what happens when the people who are supposed to know more than we do in fact know very little? We’ve found this amusing collection of tech support stories to brighten your day. The stories are dated, but still very funny. You’re very welcome.