Catering to the Lowest Common Denominator

A couple of weeks ago, I attended TrackMaven’s Spark conference. There were many discussions on using digital tools to market, backed by several brands showing their best practices. Using data to ensure that a marketing program doesn’t simply mimic its competitors’ efforts or general best practices was a central thread.

I really appreciated the conversation because it addressed a common marketing mistake, doing what others do because its popular or it worked for several others. Digital communicators live in a world of social media best practices with the added pressure of executives seeing success stories unfold in the media, then wondering why they, too, don’t have a successful Instagram strategy.

Communicators scramble to add the same type of marketing and outreach, whether it may be influencer generated content or Snapchat accounts featuring a daily non-wow moment. They ape the best practices espoused by social media blogs, blogs often written by people who have rarely done it for anyone or anything other than their own personal brand.

This is catering to the lowest common denominator, doing what others do. It remains one of the greatest dangers in marketing and PR.

Catering to the lowest common denominator offers a whole series of safe outcomes that make it an oft chosen method of marketing. You can appease internal stakeholders by showing that you are doing what the competition is doing. Evidence from the social media darlings lets you claim that you are indeed following best practices. Unfortunately, it does not account for customer fatigue with the tactics, or market position leadership.

Like a false pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the outcomes fail to meet the illusion. Your audience is non-plussed at another “me, too” campaign. Soon the executives become non-plussed with your second or third or worse place performance. They see no tangible results. Share of voice, in-bound traffic, and other performance metrics tell the tale of a laggard instead of the hoped-for leader.

How Data Helps You Find a Better Path


The best most strategic marketers go further, and innovate with their communications efforts. Often innovation is disguised as incremental change and experimentation, but that’s how evolution happens. In that vein, there’s never been a better time to be a marketer because there is so much data out there to inform these changes.

Data helps by telling you what your competition is doing, where they are generating share of voice, and why. More importantly, it lets you see why and where your content resonates and how it under or outperforms your competition. Data lets you A/B test little format changes, for example number of words or characters, red versus yellow visuals, etc.

Understanding the lay of the land allows you to apply creative and try to better the situation. And when success occurs you know, it, and can then expand your marketing to meet the community with the right types of communications.

Of course, TrackMaven‘s tool helps marketers do these things, and thus the Spark message fit the. But it’s a good message, and one that should be repeated across the space and in university classrooms across America.

I remember when we strategized at Vocus about our content, we would look at competitors in the space. If our content was the same as theirs, we would challenge ourselves to go further. It was not enough to do the same as other successful brands. The only way to escalate and elevate position was by going beyond “me, too” approaches.

Go beyond the lowest common denominator. Measure to elevate your creativity and your overall marketing game.

When the Wrong Mouth Speaks

Remember when social media meant talking with people online? Then when businesses began catching on, the early days of social media marketing revolved around relationship building via grassroots communications or word of mouth marketing. Well, a lot has changed since the mid 2000s. These days the wrong mouth is speaking way too much.

We have a problem, Houston. Marketers just want to broadcast, produce content, and position themselves as influencers in their business. But real interaction seems to escape most companies.

Talking with people connotates two or more people communicating in a dialog. But in today’s most common approach to social media marketing, brands deploy content to spark engagement. Now, while this tactic could be a great conversation starter, most brands deploy content becomes a vehicle to position one’s brand or self as excellent.

This is fine to some extent. Afterall, positioning and branding are worthy business outcomes.

The online medium demands more.

Consider going to a dinner party. Say your host is extremely well known. What would you think of that host if they prattled off the whole time and talked over every single guest?

You’d probably think they are a terrible bore.

Then there are the always publishing inbound marketers. These content creators have become lazy and are focused on a singular outcome: Inbound leads. Content, while certainly a powerful tool to aid nurturing, has a higher purpose in my mind, which is to serve stakeholders, start conversations, and ignite word of mouth.

The mouth you want speaking is that of the other person(s) at the party, not just the host. Even that is generous. Most marketers are not the hosts, rather they intrude with the rare exception of opt-in followers.

Inbound versus WOMM


Word of mouth marketing (WOMM) revolves around the premise of other people talking about you. Success in this aspect of marketing, means that stakeholders talk more about the brand than corporate communications does. WOMM triggers a combination of media and community (on and offline) commentary about a brand and its offerings.

I think smart marketers — inbound, PR, email — all get this. Yet, today’s tactical discussions revolve around content for content’s sake. Is it any wonder that we have content shock conversations occuring?

Every study that comes out on trust always shows that earned media produces a stronger brand impact. That’s why companies who are looking to build awareness and use branded content as their primary means of promotion (sorry about that Facebook business page, folks) may face serious challenges with customers.

Inneffective tactic selection may have deeper impact than brand awareness. Branded content delivers less sales lift than earned media, says Digiday. Their commentary is based on a Nielson study (pictured below).


Digiday goes on to say expert content fairs 88% better than branded content, and 50% better than user-generated content for “lift” or influence on sale. So people trust media more than they trust their peers, which in turn they trust more than brands. Brands come in last.

A Marketing Strategist Uses Tools within an Ecosystem

I have some doubts about the Nielsen study, but I agree with branded content taking last place on trust. Sure you can point to individual content marketing successes where customers go crazy, from Coke to the ever present Red Bull.

Exceptional case studies don’t constitute the mean performance. They only provide hope to those that aren’t there yet. Yet many marketers don’t see the incredible amounts of research (e.g. listening and studying) that top brands invested in serving customers with the right content, which in turn creates fantastic word of mouth.

Their content is useful. It fits within larger ecosystem of serving stakeholders with value that meets a brand promise.

One of the reasons I like Edelman’s approach to trust is the firm’s understanding of stakeholder ecosystems. Look at this chart.


You can see all the ways a business touches people, and how it needs to communicate to build trust. You can argue the fine points, but I do think the chart captures the need for a business to look at its approach. A business operates in the customer’s ecosystem.

Never in the chart do you see the words “produces content” even though Edelmnan is a leader in native advertising and content production. That’s because content is a tool. It helps brands to engage. Content lets a company serve its stakeholders. For some brands — like those top performers — content becomes a product in its own right meant to please customers.

An approach like this helps brands create WOMM, third party validation of its efforts, and yes, referrals. The marketing strategist uses content and other tactics like customer service, direct interation, product marketing, media relations, speaking, etc. etc. to achieve an ideal state of building brand, generating leads and retaining customers.

When content is the alpha and omega of marketing, you end up with one mouth talking. It’s the wrong mouth from a strategic perspective. As a result, alone as the primary marketing tactic it fails to achieve large stakeholder and brand needs.

What do you think?

Featured image by D4Dee.

Automation Is Everything But the Machine

In creating algorithmic driven segmentation and automated content and nurture paths companies still need humans at the helm.

No better example can be seen than the recent outing of a young lady’s pregnancy by a direct mailing driven by algorithms. The issue may have been avoided if someone had looked at the algorithm and considered the potential invasion of privacy, or had at least segmented the list by age groups.

Clearly data is a huge driver behind automation. To make big data manageable, companies need to create governance a high priority issue. Data standards need to be implemented so data is easily handled, processed in the correct fields, and in turn, empowers the company to better serve prospects and customers with great, precision-oriented information.

Most importantly, strategists need to run marketing automation as opposed to automation dictating paths. They need to decide when someone is going to receive an email. Or a custom landing page. Just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they should.

The key to great automation is to take a strategic business approach , ensuring your corporate personality and value proposition rings through in automation, people behind the brand serving its customers with great tools. Great automation maintains the personality of a brand.

Consider how Nordstrom manages to keep its incredible high quality customer centric personality through the decades. You better believe Nordstrom uses database marketing to send you its timely emails and direct mail. Yet you never get the sense that Nordstom is pushing it, always maintaining its high touch personality. The tools serve the brand rather than shaping it.

When brands move to adapt automation they would be wise to remember the holy grail, a great customer experience that is seamless. It is so well tailored that customers see interactions with the company is timely, useful, and prescient.

To get there companies need to do more than implement powerful software. They need to understand and implement better business processes, integrating teams, training to work technology across business functions, and a commitment to adapt to rapidly evolving media. Most importantly, they should treat automation as a means to end, a way to communicate and deliver their very human commitment to their customers.

What do you think about marketing automation?

This post ran originally on the Vocus blog. Image: -sel (Creative Commons)

Download Welcome to the Fifth Estate

Welcome to the Fifth Estate by Geoff Livingston

It’s almost been two years since my second book Welcome to the Fifth Estate was published. Because of the compensation issues, time since publishing, and frankly, the plethora of social media and online marketing books out there, it’s time to give it to you for free!

Please feel free to download the book here. The password is “Fifth.” I’m sorry that it’s only available to you in this PDF format. And per the issues link, please forgive any typos.

From a content perspective, the Fifth Estate offers the deepest dive into social media of my three books. Here’s a glimpse:

  • A fantastic introduction from Mashable’s Chief Strategy Officer Adam Ostrow.
  • The first chapter details the media theories driving social networks and communities online.
  • Chapter Four offers perspective into the four types of strategies most frequently used in social networks; participation/community, content, influencer marketing, and crowdsourcing.
  • My former colleague Kami Huyse delivers perhaps the best 20 pages you can imagine on social media measurement in Chapter Six.
  • Chapter Seven offers tips to handle and successfully adapt to rapidly evolving social media.

Enjoy! Feedback is certainly welcome.

Taking on Challenges

5710792192_34d9afdedeImage by Frank et Son

When it comes to seeking clients, I try to find challenging projects and start-ups. Building a brand from the bottom-up and executing marketing turnarounds are some of the best ways to build a reputation as a marketer.

Seeking opportunities with “good” companies — while always nice for your client list and resume — don’t necessarily distinguish you. It’s always easier to guide a boat on course than one in turbulent waters.
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5 Tips for Forging a New Brand

8513073813_b06cefeb80I’ve launched a couple of my own companies, and helped more than a half dozen other brands as well as others’ book projects launch. The media landscape changed, but there are common approaches I would execute today if I were to launch a new company and brand.

Here are my top five activities for forging a new brand:

1) Align with stakeholders: Usually a company, brand or service is created with a vision in mind, a way to do things better. But sometimes that entrepreneurial vision is not in line or positioned well with market needs.
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