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

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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).

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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.

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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.

Why I Don’t Blog About Social Tools

John Wall's Sweet J Filtered
I re-edited this John Wall jumper photo with Snapseed, one of my favorite social tools for photo sharing.

People frequently ask my opinion about social networks and applications. While I oblige requests individually, generally I don’t proactively seek to give advice or blog about tools unless the discussion revolves around a macro trend or impacts strategy.

It comes down to positioning, long term viability and personal interest.

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5 Common Actions Competitors Take

Marketing extends beyond stakeholders and organizations. Although companies and nonprofits like to pretend they operate alone in an industry, competition exists even if its just for the stakeholder’s time and money. If a marketer does their job well, and the product, service or solution is met with a warm reception, invariably the competition responds.

Moving forward, there are some common competitive responses that you can expect. Here are five of them:

1) Pretend You Don’t Exist

This out of all the responses is the most short sighted and foolish response. The ostrich approach — at least publicly (they certainly talk about you behind closed doors) — kids no one. Customers know there are alternatives, and so does the media and bloggers.

No one thinks the company or nonprofit operates in a vacuum, so when your competitor acts like that, it causes them look, like, well, marketers. It doesn’t mean anything other than people view communications from their organization to be completely transactional or brand related. Customers are less willing to trust them.

Further, it’s hard to develop industry leadership when a company doesn’t acknowledge the ecosystem, even in a general way. Apple rarely talks about HP or Dell, but it certainly acknowledges and talks about other PCs and smartphones. Car companies discuss industry accolades, which is smart, because it puts their product within a competitive context.

2) Copy Your Offering

When a company does really well, a common competitive response is to ape the product and offer the same product or service, often with less success. After Amazon launched the Kindle, Barnes & Noble offered the Nook. When Cirque du Soleil revolutionized big top entertainment, other circuses stole elements from their shows like the ribbon dance.

Holding first place is a very strong position for long-term success. In a strategic sense, first is the position of high ground. It’s always good to have established market share when this happens, but it can still be quite disconcerting.

There are instances when a company like Netflix or Google rises up and wrestles the market away, usually through some sort of technological innovation. Sometimes companies are caught in a price war.

The key here is to not necessarily over-react to the competition. Rather, to continue innovating on the product or service offering and extend market leadership. Don’t rest on your laurels.

3) Trash, Sue and Undercut

Smartphone bar.
Image by MJ/TR

Google recently purchased Motorola Mobility to acquire its patents in an effort to strengthen its case against Apple, who is suing the search giant for copying the iPhone iOS with Android. Other common hardball acts include talking poorly about the competition publicly, privately, stealing (er, hiring away) their talent, blocking distribution, and undercutting pricing to seize market share.

These are the tactics of war in the market. You have to be able to defend against them, not necessarily with direct engagement, but certainly by responding with value to your customers.

While these tactics are inevitable, they almost always make the market harder to work within, and can reduce customer trust sector-wide. These tactics do not grow the general market in any obvious way.

4) Go Toe to Toe

In an established market like car insurance where offerings are very similar from company to company, it is not uncommon to see advertising that directly positions a company against its competitors. This is a common tactic that Sprint takes with Verizon and AT&T with its data and service plans.

There’s not much you can do here other than to clearly state why your product is better than their’s and to engage in customer service and loyalty programs. This is about avoiding customer churn by bettering your total experience.

In the competitive wireless market, Sprint is a distant third currently, a gap that has increased over the past decade in large part because of the customer service issues the company experienced after acquiring Nextel. Having resolved many of these issues, it is now struggling to rebuild that marketshare. In a highly commoditized market, non product specific points like service can make a great difference.

5) Leapfrog Your Offering

Honda Civic
Late 1970s Honda Civic by dave_7

Last, but not least is when a competitor responds by offering a product or service that is significantly higher quality, more cost effective or easier to use than yours. While you might have the higher ground, this type of innovation in a new offering creates green fields for your competitors. Customers flock to them.

Consider how Japanese companies beat their U.S. counterparts in the electronics and the automotive sector in the 70s and 80s by offering higher quality products for lower costs. The result was incredible losses of marketshare and reputation. Google beat Yahoo by offering a superior search algorithm.

In this instance, speed is critical. Loyal customers will stick with your brand, but only if you are able to match or better the offering quickly. Unfortunately, when faced with a paradigm shift, most leading companies fail to respond, comfortable in their way of doing business. And thus new brands seize market leadership.

What are some common responses you see from competitors?

The “One Strategy” Myth

One tree hill
Image by Chuck Nado

A bubbling marketing conversation states that there are no ad, pr, social media, sales, customer service, HR or any other specific functional strategies; rather that an organization — corporate or nonprofit — only has one strategy. All actions are part of that strategy. What an interesting myth — particularly for larger organizations that have diverse brands, product lines, companies and international operations.

Consider the old GE mission of achieving first or second place in any of the business areas it operates in. Does this mean General Electric has one strategy? Hardly. It’s pretty safe to say that their railroad business has a completely different marketing strategy than its lighting group. For starters, one engages in high-end business-to-business and business-to-government sales, while the other is a consumer products group. They simply share a common goal.

How about a mid-sized nonprofit’s communications department? That department may have direct outreach methods like email, donor development and events, as well as a marketing communications group, including advertising to brand and generate leads, PR for word of mouth and earned credibility, and social media for direct relationship interactions, PR and lead generation.

Do you think the advertising approach will work in social media? How about the donor development effort in PR? No, this is often a problem, forcing a method from one specialty into a second area that requires a different approach for success. Direct marketing in social media without relationships and conversations doesn’t work. Inserting a direct ask for donations into a press pitch usually fails (disaster relief provides an exception to this rule).

Yes, they all work better together as part of a larger whole, in essence forming the larger movement and strategy. We know this. Integrated coordinated action always works to create a larger output. Yet you still need different approaches for each outreach effort for maximum output.

Understanding How Strategies Flow Together

Behold the Potomac River
Harpers Ferry Where the Shenandoah Flows Into the Potomac

Organizational strategies are like flowing water, for example a river. A river has many tributaries, some are creeks, streams, brooks, runs and yes, other rivers. All of this water seeks to find the fastest path to sea, joining forces to create a mighty body of water pushing towards the end result. Consider how many small bodies of water contribute to the Ohio River. Yet the powerful Ohio River is but a tributary of the Mississippi River.

Similarly, an organization has multiple strategies, some specific to a functional area or subset of that area (marketing and advertising, say). These strategies all dovetail together to form one movement towards the organization’s end goals and initiatives. Independently they each have their own approach towards navigating their specific terrain, but together they create the larger result.

A master strategy may involve several strategies. In order to achieve larger objectives, different tasks have to be parceled out and addressed independently. Further, smart strategies do this because to have one plan exposes an organization to too much risk. All or nothing is never a good place to be. It’s better to deploy multiple approaches.

Granted, much of this gets back to a basic understanding of the definition of strategy. Still, don’t believe the hype. One strategy is the equivalent of trying to fit a square peg not just in a round hole, but into many different types of holes.

This post has been added to the Fifth Estate Strategy Wiki.

Welcome to the Fifth Estate Available for Pre-Order

Geoff Livingston & The Fifth Estate

Welcome to the Fifth Estate is now available for pre-order with a release date of May 11! Special thanks to Mashable Editor In Chief Adam Ostrow for writing the forward to Welcome to the Fifth Estate. This introduction offers the experienced journalist’s view of an ever changing media landscape that has moved from blogs to group texting on mobile phones.

You must be thinking, yet another social media book… And from a guy who wrote one of the first social media books, Now Is Gone? Really? Well, after reading Now Is Gone again as well as the plethora of social media books that have been released since, a correction was needed with a stronger foundation in media theory and marketing fundamentals.

This book won’t pretend to be something it is not. Simply put, Welcome to the Fifth Estate guides executives and communicators towards generating a winning and sustainable social media strategy. In that sense, it is a social media book.

What distinguishes Welcome to the Fifth Estate?

  • Strategy: There will be no themed memes about engaging, conversations, instant response or personal branding. Instead, this book aims to advise you on how to get ready for, build and sustain a great online communications strategy. There is a whole chapter on specific social media strategies and a second on tactical implementation.
  • Experience: Seven awards later and dozens of social media initiatives for the likes of the American Red Cross, General Dynamics, Google, the National 4-H Council, Network Solutions, and the United Way provides this book a depth of pragmatic experience-based conclusions that no other social media book offers.
  • Measurement: Part of building a great strategy includes knowing how to measure it. Kami Watson Huyse provides a guest chapter on how to build a measurement program.
  • Pitfalls and Sustainability: Two chapters deal with topics you normally don’t see in social media books. Chapter Two deals with the weaknesses and dangers social media presents for your organization. Chapter Seven provides concrete ways to stay relevant once your effort becomes a success.
  • Commercial and Nonprofit Case Studies: Each of the seven chapters features two in-depth case studies, one commercial, one nonprofit. Every case study has a tangible outcome associated with it a la the prior point on measurement.

If your job involves communicating online, then this book will help you. It is designed specifically to become an off-the-shelf tool that supports your real efforts with guidance that has worked for many other organizations. In that sense, Welcome to the Fifth Estate should become more useful than your average business book. That is a guarantee.

Please pre-order your copy of Welcome to the Fifth Estate today!