by: Mark Rogers

Internet World took place in London this week. Jonny Rosemont of Weber Shandwick has posted a nice summary of the key lessons. Here is part of it:

“Digitising is changing the world but it shouldn’t change communications strategies i.e. it is still all about giving people what they want.

Consumers have to be co-opted into the marketing process, they are the new brand managers …”

This chimes with some thoughts that have been percolating in my head for a while.

Brands find it harder currently to respond to all their customers and stakeholders in ways that satisfy them.

There are three reasons for this:

a) It is now easier for the consumer to address the brand. Brands can no longer hide behind call centres and complaints procedures. Customers can discover email addresses and when they email they expect a response. When they don’t get that response, or aren’t happy with it, they can make a post on a message board, or post a hostile review, or blog.

b) It is now more difficult for the brand to address the consumer. All of the various “channels” have broken down, eroded, become one. All communications by the brand have become part of one general conversation. The comments of a tired call centre worker, or the carefully judged explanations of a chief executive briefing analysts all represent the “brand”. And they have as much, if not more currency than conventional marketing and advertising messages. It doesn’t necessarily all take place online, but 80% of it is recorded online. Worse, the relationship between the brand’s message and the consumer is mediated by the search engines, and that means that the brand’s message gets mixed up with the comments and statements of all of its other stakeholders, including the disaffected consumers mentioned above.

c) The expectations of both consumer and brand are out of whack. The consumer expects the kind of response he or she might get from the local dry-cleaner (”I’m sorry about that, we’ll clean it again”); the brand expects to be able to choke off the access of the consumer to dialogue (restricting access to call centres by ensuring wait times are long, and concealing emails and phone numbers). Neither is realistic. The consumer will have their response, but this cannot always be a one-to-one experience. The brand will have to communicate with the consumer, but will have to find ways of doing so without setting up a response centre the size of the Inland Revenue’s.

In these circumstances brands can learn much from the lessons of the early community builders online. They need to give some of the work of communicating their brand values and compiling their FAQs to the broader stakeholder group. When we set up the message boards in the early days of BBC online we discovered (copying AOL) that it works better to recruit online moderators (brand advocates and protectors) from amongst the stakeholder group (EastEnders fans, or mums with kids) than it did to use paid employees. The EastEnders or Doctor Who fans cared more about the forum and worked harder at maker it a success than the paid employees.

Similarly a Land Rover aficionado knows more about Land Rover than any product manager working for Land Rover ever will. These are the new brand champions, and the constituency who can do most to create a channel with that vast, mass amorphous group of Internet searchers and (potential) customers who are so hard to reach by conventional means. What a brand needs to do is to figure out how to get their stakeholders to do some of their communications for them, to empower them. What is the good news about the brand? What are its responses to key challenges? Brands can use the tools of social media research to learn how to identify and to speak to its key stakeholders: who are they? what messages do they respond to? what messages do they reject? If they communicate based on that understanding there is a chance that the positive message will spread.

This is an argument which is inspired by customer service, but it applies as well to investor relations, marketing communications and - perhaps most urgently - advertising.

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