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Be Inclusive Or Be Irrelevant

January 27, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsletter

In my column in BtoB magazine this month I discuss the contrasting media relations styles of two giants of the Internet age: Google and Apple. The column focused specifically on their communications styles, but I believe the business tactics of these two starkly different but successful companies have bigger significance.

Google and Apple are diametrically opposed in many respects. Apple creates delightful experiences. Its products are proprietary, closed and self-contained, but people love using them because they not only work but seem to function the way humans expect. Apple is a
technology company whose vision is rooted in human-friendly design.

Google’s vision is rooted in the potential of technology. The company produces an amazing array of products, ranging from mapping software to CAD design to medical records organizers. Google shares its ideas quite openly in public “labs” and is also prone to ending public experiments with little notice or explanation. Even its self-deprecating error messages are emblematic of the corporate culture, as if to say “So it didn’t work; we’ll make it better.”

The public-facing strategies these companies employ also couldn’t be more different. Apple holds its new product plans close to the vest and reveals them with fanfare at elaborate press conferences that generate months of media speculation. The company may only hold a couple of press conferences a year, but you can be sure they’re memorable.

Apple not only doesn’t use social media, it has actively litigated against bloggers who have revealed sensitive information. The strategy works well for Apple because its rabid base of fans is more than happy to indulge in speculative frenzy and drive awareness that no amount of advertising could buy.

In contrast, Google rarely holds press conferences. Most of its products are announced in a low-key style via blogs. Its developers and product managers work the long tail through one-on-one interviews and frequent speaking engagements. The company uses every social media outlet it can, but shuns the media spotlight.

So Which Are You?

Is your company Apple or Google? Most businesses model their public personae on the Apple example. Their plans are shrouded in secrecy, access to executives is granted only to the top media and leaks are dealt with harshly out of fear that they could compromise the goal of being first to market. The theory is that the market is hungry for information, so it’s best to withhold news until it can have the greatest impact.

That strategy works for Apple, but not for most businesses. Today, customers are swimming in information and if they don’t get insight about where you’re going, they simply move to someone else. Companies that build products behind closed doors risk becoming irrelevant because no one talks about them. What’s more, they lose the advantage of involving customers in a process that can not only make their products better, but form the basis for a word-of-mouth marketing force.

How about being first to market? That benefit is vastly overrated. History has demonstrated that the only advantage of being an early mover is that it gives you the opportunity to make mistakes that others learn from. Apple’s sole first-to-market experience — the Newton — was also its most notable failure. The history of technology markets in particular is littered with businesses that created innovations that others later made successful.

In a world of plentiful information, the winners are those that do the best job of talking about their innovations before they reach the market. Prospective customers want to be involved in the process, and they punish those businesses that don’t indulge them. Look at the companies that are making headlines today and you’ll find nearly all of them have adopted an open and inclusive path to the market.

The Apples of the world are few and far between. Nearly everyone would like to be an Apple, but few will ever get the chance.

A New Online Community Just For Us

The Society for New Communications Research has been providing valuable perspective and advice on new media for over five years, but it has always done so from the precarious position of a nonprofit organization. So I was very excited to learn late last year that Redwood Collaborative, a b-to-b media company specializing in technology, has stepped in to fund some of SNCR’s programs and build on its ideas.

The first fruit of that investment is NewComm Collaborative, a knowledge-sharing community for professionals who are “passionate about learning how to harness the new communications technologies that are transforming media and business models.” The beta site just launched with hundreds of articles from contributors and the SNCR archives. I was pleased to be asked to guest-edit the category of New Media and Journalism for January. We’ve got material from Jeff Jarvis, Martin Langeveld, Mark Potts, Gina Chen and other smart journalists as well as a forum topic entitled “Is Media Devastation a Good Thing?” Click on over and sign up.

While you’re there, also sign up for the annual New Comm Forum, April 20-23 in San Mateo, CA. In my view, this is the best lineup of speakers the Forum has had in the four years I’ve been attending. I can’t wait to meet these people!

Tip of the Week: Xmarks

If you, like me, regularly use more than one computer to access the Web, you know how frustrating it can be that all browsers are local. You know the drill: You bookmark a website on your home computer and then can’t find the same site when you’re looking for it at work two days later. Or if you use the saved password function in the browser, you learn the hard way that passwords saved on one computer don’t show up on any others unless you copy them through a laborious backup and restore process.

Xmarks is for you. This simple but super-useful little plug-in for Firefox, Internet Explorer and Apple Safari synchronizes all your local bookmarks and passwords so the stuff you choose to remember on one computer will be available to you on all the others you use. In recent months, Xmarks has added other cool features like search-result commentary from its community users, but I find it enormously useful simply because the items I bookmark on the laptop in my bedroom at 7 a.m. are available in my office two hours later. Thank goodness for simple pleasures!

Are You Doing B-to-B Social Marketing? Contact Me

Eric Schwartzman and I are hard at work on the new book we’re co-authoring on the subject of business-to-business social media marketing. We’re looking for companies that are using the tools to reach business customers, channel partners and other non-consumer constituents. We want this book to be full of success stories and anecdotes, so if you have an interesting experience to share, please contact me. And don’t forget to visit the draft outline and give us your suggestions.

Just For Fun: Not Just Another State Of The Union

State of the Union addresses aren’t known for their excitement. Especially in an economy like this one. But we found a great idea to spice things up this year: a drinking game you can play as President Obama is talking tonight. Granted — it won’t get you as drunk as, say, a shot for every missed verb in a Palin speech, but even if you play by only one of the rules, you’ll still be happy enough at the end of the event tonight to say you paid attention to this historic SOTU. For extra credit, continue playing during the pundit commentary afterward.

Brand Marketing Due for a Makeover

October 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Newsletter

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!