Why Shopper Marketing NEEDS Content Strategy

I have been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of shopper marketing and content strategy. For the uninitiated, shopper marketing focuses on the actual conversion as opposed to top- or mid-funnel activity like awareness or arguably engagement. 

While not necessarily confined to in-store, retail activity, most agencies that specialize in shopper marketing focus on POS (point of sale). On many shopper marketing agency sites, you will see a lot about packaging, signage, displays, etc. Some work with or have bolted on a PR component to make further hay out of any special event. But I find few agencies that embrace a rigorous strategic component BEFORE diving into the in-store marketing. Of the top 10 search results that include "shopper marketing," only one ("shopper marketing research") contains an element of messaging or strategy. (Not definitive evidence, I realize, but illustrative at least.)

Content strategy can add a lot to shopper marketing; likewise, content strategists can also learn a lot from shopper marketers. I will get more into why shopper marketing agencies need to embrace content strategy later, but let's take a look at how user behavior has changed in the last decade as it will likely point toward how agencies must evolve to meet demand.

We Sure Don't Shop Like We Used To

I cringe at these citations, but bare with me. The wikipedia entry for shopper marketing cites several stats, including:

  • 70% of brand selections are made at stores (GMA Online, 2007)
  • 68% of buying decisions are unplanned (MediaBuyerPlanner, 2006)

These stats describe a free-wheeling retail experience which is unfamiliar to me, at least. Now, let's look at some more recent figures from The Zero Moment of Truth.

  • Consumers are viewing much more content online before making a purchase decision. In 2010, consumers consulted 5.7 pieces of content online before making a purchase. That number almost double in a year. In 2011, the average was 10.4 pieces of content. You can bet that the number of pieces is only increasing.
  • Consumers are spending more time with that online content. In 2010, 9% of a consumer's research time was spent online, pre-POS. In just a year, that almost doubled to 17% of research time in 2011. Again, bet on that figure only increasing.

So, if consumers are investigating pre-purchase more and more, why would many shopper agencies cede that territory to focus on POS? Short answer: they shouldn't. Enter content strategy.

Content Strategy <3 Education

Awareness and engagement are easy answers to the pre-purchase conundrum, but they are also vague. In my opinion, educational content is where shopper agencies should develop their offerings and content strategy is perfectly positioned to define educational content: what already exists, what consumers want to know, the type of content they prefer, channel of choice, content cadence, etc. (Educational content definitely hits awareness and can also hit upon engagement too, of course.)

Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy, had this to say on the topic (emphasis mine):

"If you have no real basis for comparing one product to another, the normal instinct is to buy what's cheaper. But if a store sets itself up to educate shoppers, even just a little, a certain number of them will spend more than what is absolutely necessary." (Updated version, page 190)

I was recently working with a big-name brand who offers home appliance repairs, digging into their content and investigating what leads up to this brand getting a call to fix a dishwasher, air conditioner, etc. After performing a content audit and mapping out the user journey, we were able to discern exactly where this brand was supporting the consumer through the funnel with educational content and where they were lacking. (This exercise alone will have a huge impact - they will spend their money more wisely producing exactly the content their consumers need with fewer editorial revisions and served up in multiple channels. This efficiency will save them thousands, if not millions.)

But, when combined with secondary research, we learned that a big problem was that a lot of these customers did not know how to be repair customers. They didn't fix things themselves, but a lot didn't regularly call for repairs either. We needed to illustrate what a repair service call looked like in order to put them at ease. Our job, through content, was to make them better repairs consumers. Truly fascinating!

Content Strategy In Action With Shopper Marketing

There are many ways content strategy adds value to shopper marketing efforts. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Use digital (educational) content to drive to in-store sales. Online orders only count for 11.6% of total retail dollars, but digital can still drive sales into stores. Content strategy can help define customer pain points and determine topics that will help snag the conversion - online or in-store.
  2. Use content to help make decisions (or up-sell) while in-store. With 80% of shoppers using their smartphone while in the store, digital couponing while in-store is occurring more and more. Content wrapped around those coupons help the in-store consumer make purchase decisions and provide the opportunity for retailers to up-sell. Content pre- and post-purchase - based on various data sources - would also be a powerful addition.
  3. Use content to convince and persuade through signage. This poster from the CDC and displayed in Walgreens is a great example of a seemingly innocuous decision that can be changed through educational content.
  4. Use content to way-find or ease the shopping experience. Ideas like a mobile concierge (page 5) would be popular to guide consumers to items they want (whether they are familiar with those items or not) or give location help while in-store. Content strategists could help advise what in-store problems people are expressing online as well as recommend other relevant products to promote.
  5. Use content to create a unique experience in-store. Kate Spade, in partnership with eBay, and others are playing around with digital selection experiences. A content strategist could determine not only user needs at the POS, but also assess criterion consumers use to make decisions to create a decision-making experience that is fun and playful. (TV shopping alone would never be the same.)

The Other Side Of The Coin

Naturally, integration between content strategy and shopper marketing could yield these and many more positive results for clients. I'm able to focus more on the content strategy side of things because that's the world I know. That said, content strategy could certainly learn from shopper marketing practices as well.

One element I would urge content strategists to learn from shopper marketers is that the buyer isn't necessarily the consumer. (Think about beer purchases and consumptions.) Content strategists spend a lot of time thinking about consumers and their needs, but they often don't pay as much attention to behavioral patterns and differences that may emerge. Or content strategists focus only on digital and sometimes ignore anything that falls outside of the digital realm. We can certainly learn those lessons from our friend specializing in shopper marketing.

Comments?

So, what do you think? Please feel free to poke holes in this argument. I look forward to all constructive criticism in hopes of presenting a more clear understanding of how these disciplines can learn from each other.

Your Secret Marketing Tool: The Daily Public Transit Commute

Commuters

BG and I took the train together yesterday morning and I had an epiphany.

The morning commute is the perfect marketing tool. And no one uses it (pretty much).

Yesterday was the first day I wasn't cocooned in my iPod and book. I was chatting with BG and had my eyes and ears totally open to the world around me.

I'm ashamed to say, it was probably a first.

A New World

I listened to the way people talked about current events, I spied what they listened to on their iPod, and I peeked over shoulders to see what people were reading (yeah, I'm that guy).

It was great! I picked up more details about human interaction than I would have after a week researching online.

How is this a marketing tool? Marketing is all about relationships, and becoming more so all of the time. As I mentioned in a post about how marketers are now anthropologists: "Now, relationships are a prerequisite to business, not vice versa."

On the train, I was able to observe how people related to media, other people, and the world around them. You can figure out someone's priorities pretty quickly in a packed train car.

For 30 minutes, I studied sociology, anthropology, and marketing all at the same time. And it was awesome.

Try Something New

What's the alternative? Enveloping yourself in the retreat of a car interior?

If you live in a city with public transportation, let someone else do the driving tomorrow morning. It'll give you time to study that elusive "public" marketers are always talking about. To paraphrase David Ogilvy, the customer isn't an idiot, she's your train companions.

If you've got the guts, we'd love to hear about your experience. Or, if you have another secret marketing tool - a place you go to check out human behavior - please also share it in the comments section below.

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When ROI Measurement And Actual Effectiveness Are Mutually Exclusive

roi-vs-effectiveness

In The 2009 Social Media Marketing and PR Benchmark Guide, MarketingSherpa explains a conundrum marketers are facing in a web 2.0 world:

What do you do when the ability to measure your return on investment (ROI) is mutually exclusive to the effectiveness of a particular campaign?

In other words, how do you sell a tactic up the chain of command that you know will work but can't provide definite numbers? Or conversely, how do you dissuade a course of action that has proven ineffective, but which your executives embrace because they understand the number of impressions or "hits" or lives interrupted by the campaign?

It's a difficult predicament, to be sure. And it appears that's the situation most marketers are facing.

Known Badness vs. Unknown Goodness

Traditional PR and marketing has never had much measurability, but it is a known entity. What was the return on investment for your PR firm to make unsolicited calls on your behalf? How many sales resulted from your Times Square advertisement? Traditional marketing has always had terrible measurability.

But, it's what your boss knows. Now, we have new technologies that can show an amazing array of ROI statistics, but they're new. They're "untested." They might fail. (Because that never happens with old media!)

Yes, I Can Back That Up

Don't believe me? Take a look at the report.

The executive summary shows that most marketers think the ability to measure ROI (also reported the second most significant barrier to social media adoption) has "nothing to do with the effectiveness of the tactic" (page 6).

In fact, MarketingSherpa goes on to say that:

"Marketers obsessed with only tracking social media results quantitatively are missing the point and may find themselves employing much less effective social media tactics for the sake of measurability."

How about you? Would you rather fail than tell your boss she's wrong?

Budgets Going...Up?

So, are marketers telling their bosses about social media? Quite possibly, yes. But marketers might not be educating their bosses as much as they need to.

MarketingSherpa reports that "social media and email are the only to tactics on which more companies are planning to increase spending than are planning to decrease spending" (page 4). This matches Forrester's recent report entitled Social Media Playtime Is Over. They report even higher numbers, saying that over 50% of marketers will increase their spending on social media in the coming year.

If you're a social media marketer and think this sounds great, think again. Just because marketers expect the amount they spend on social media to increase, that does not mean it'll be a lot. In fact, B.L. Ochman says that Forrester reports three-fourths of marketers expect to spend less than $100K on social media marketing tools.

Read the conversation B.L. includes at the end of a recent post. I think she correctly portrays a set-up for failure, where marketers are expected to spin social media gold from corporate hay, stymied by every other department in their company.

So What Do I Do?

As a social media marketer, you have the proverbial wind at your back. You must seize this opportunity, but don't forget to lobby for the resources and permission you will need later.

Personally, I recommend buying MarketingSherpa's Social Media Marketing and PR Benchmark Guide. Their research is among the best, their arguments are persuasive, and, to be honest, it's expensive enough for your boss to trust it. Or buy Forrester's report. Or another one like it. But, do something.

We have fought for so long to be taken seriously. Remember being scoffed at five years ago when you claimed Facebook would be huge and a decent marketing tool? Remember when Twitter was just a fad? You get it. You see further down the road than most people. (Strategy is part of your job, after all.)

Well, part of your job is also being an educational resource for your boss and her bosses, too. Buy them a report. Send them information from sources they trust. Hell, reserve time on their schedule and read the damn stuff to them. But make them listen.

Otherwise, you will be one of the poor marketers tasked with doing "something viral." If you hear "we need a Facebook page" and don't hear mention a strategy or goals, you are about to get screwed.

But this is your chance! We finally have the green light to participate in social media marketing in a responsible way! But leverage the resources you need (don't forget staff time!) and the backing to make it all possible.

Then, come back and let us know how it went!

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(Note: I am a MarketingSherpa affiliate which means that I make a little beer money if you buy the report. But I'd tout their work even if I wasn't. It's great stuff, period.)

The Best Way To Kill Your Email List In 2009

Tough economic times increase the pressure on marketers to hit their goals for open rate, click throughs, conversions, and new email subscriber acquisition. Some marketers believe renting email lists is a way to reach these goals.

MarketingSherpa reports in their new 2009 Email Marketing Benchmark Guide that 29% of B2B marketers plan to increase spending on third-party list rentals (compared to 23% planning cuts). In this free excerpt of the report, their experts weigh in on this development:

"Pressure to meet numbers has always been a problem for email. It forces marketers to send too many emails to too many list members - the 'batch and blast' mentality that has eroded the trust of consumers and business[people] over the last 10 years...and that's not necessarily good for the long-term health of the medium."

(If you are interested in this report, you can get more information at the end of this post.*)

And yet, later in the excerpt, they report that 66% of consumers would be much more or somewhat more likely to subscribe to an email list if the company guaranteed not to share their information with other companies.

So, in this next year, we can expect to see businesses engage in an activity that decreases customer trust and engagement with that very business. A lot of marketers could kill their email list in 2009.

List Rental's Influence On Relevance

Let me be clear: companies who use rented lists are inherently and unquestionably going to deliver content that is less relevant than what the subscriber signed up for. Period.

Lowered relevance equals lowered trust. The customer will trust both companies less - after all, one sold her information and the other delivered spam. Unless she agreed to receive third-party emails (and a default checked box does not mean agreement), she will likely unsubscribe and refrain from doing business with either company.

Lack of relevance is one of most complained about email marketing practices. From a recent eMarketer article: "'There is a substantial gap between what marketers believe is relevant to the consumer, and what the consumers rate as valuable,' said Lori Connolly, director of research at Merkle."

List rental is the toxic waste of online customer relations. It poisons everything it touches.

Marketing In A Recession

A recent Merkle study, as reported in that same eMarketer article, said that about one-third of respondents said "they had stopped doing business with at least one company as a result of poor email marketing practices." That's almost the same percentage of B2B marketers who expect to increase their spam through list rental in 2009.

List rentals equal decreased relevance. Decreased relevance equals decreased trust. Decreased trust during an economic slowdown equals a serious threat to your business.

Loren McDonald from MediaPost's Email Insider explains:

"Consumers with a growing concern about the future of the economy and their own pocketbooks with increasingly choose to do business with companies they trust and may be less likely to risk their personal data and inbox space on unknown entities or those for whom trust is questionable."

You can't afford to kill your email list during this economic downturn. But building your own list, building trust, and staying relevant can avert this disaster.

What do you think? Am I totally off-base? Or do you have a list rental horror story to share? Feel free to use the comments section below.

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(*The Email Benchmark Guides are one of my favorite resources. It's a little pricey, but if you put the knowledge therein to use, you will likely save much more in the long run. Here's a link if you want to purchase the new version: MarketingSherpa's 2009 Email Marketing Benchmark Guide.

Yes, I'm an affiliate, but I was singing their praises long before I signed up and I wouldn't be an affiliate if I didn't believe in their work. Plus, as an affiliate, I can occasionally get you discounts on their reports - yet another reason to subscribe.)

Customer Altruism: A Complaint Really Is A Gift

It is against our nature to respond receptively to complaints. At their base, complaints are alerts that we (or our business) are unsatisfactory and often are requests to change our behavior.

People usually don't like being told how bad they suck.

But in business you have a responsibility to please your customers. In this effort, you may do market research, put out surveys, or request exit interviews. But what if you could hear all of feedback without paying for it?

Complaining is the customer's way of giving feedback. It's often difficult to hear about areas that need improving, but complaints can easily change your business for the better.

In this post, I will prove that customer complaints usually emanate from an altruistic place, that their feedback is immensely important to your business, and offer ways that complaints can be turned into a wonderful gift.

It's like lotto: you have to be in it to win it

The first step to turning a complaint into a gift is the ability to listen. Listening to your customers is really online reputation management. The good thing is that your customers are already talking about your business. From Bob Thompson, CEO of CustomerThink:

"You also might find that customers are already telling you what they want on forums or blogs, web site feedback forms or call center agent logs - if you'll take the time to read them. Text mining is becoming a more commonplace way to learn what customers are saying when the volume becomes too high to handle manually."

Power to the people

We also know from Groundswell (my must-read book of 2008) that a full quarter of U.S. adults leave reviews online. And why are customers giving this feedback? Believe it or not, but it's usually because they want to help.

A recent Bavaarvoice survey shows that 73% of respondents say they write online reviews of products because they want to help companies improve the products they build and carry (per MarketingVox). Your customers who review your products online (one feedback/complaint mechanism) are mostly motivated by altruism.

Another reason not to ignore this feedback is because it's likely true. ComScore reports that "[n]inety-seven percent of those surveyed who said they made a purchase based on an online review said they found the review to have been accurate." ComScore also reports that customers trust each other more than you, the professional.

A plan of action

So we know that customer reviews are accurate and trusted. We also know that they give you feedback or complain because, in the end, they want to help you improve. So how can you leverage this feedback?

Psychotactics recommends the following:

  1. Get face to face and let your customers know who to complain to.
  2. Listen to customer's precise complaints, fix them, and then don't forget to woo them back.
  3. Complainers can frequently be turned into the most vocal advocates, if handled properly.
  4. It costs 8 times as much to get a new customer than to retain one your already have. 'Nuff said.
  5. The customer is always right.

What this and other sources agree upon is that customer feedback is incredibly rich information. Your employees need to cultivate this feedback and they need to know that upper management encourages listening and reacting based on customer feedback.

Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller effectively wrote the manual on this process in their book, A Complaint Is A Gift. They write about integrating this into your process:

"Treating complaints as feedback from a most valuable asset, customers, helps create a customer-focused culture...Service recovery takes care of customer, makes them whole, and ensures that the organization lives up to its service promise. Customer complaints provide the information to improve the organization's quality" (page 71).

Have you created a business culture where complaints are valued and acted upon? How have you improved your business through feedback from your customers? Please feel free to leave suggestions and lessons learned in the comments section below.

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The End Of Email - Celebrating The Imminent Death

Courtesy of flippabotamatic via Flickr Email is dying, mark my words. It will soon go the way of Morse code, the ham radio, and hand-written letters.

Whisper it to yourself: "No. More. Email." It's scary, but freeing at the same time. It sounds like heresy, doesn't it?

So how can email be dying? Emarketer reports that almost a quarter of Americans check their email upon waking in the morning and more than a third check email throughout the day. But there is evidence that email will soon be a thing of the past.

Here are the reasons why you and your customers have numbered days with the ol' email address.

  • They aren't getting your email - Email recipients simply aren't receiving your message. Jupiter Research (now with Forrester) reports that 17% of the U.S. population changes email addresses every six months. You cannot maintain or build a relationship that way. This churn is steadily (and increasingly) chipping away at your list.
  • They don't care about your email - Email's value is decreasing. Open rates have declined for the last three years and 60% of subscribers don't interact with your email messages at all. (The joint M+R/NTEN study examined non-profits - I think it's safe to say that the results for businesses would be even more dismal.)
  • They opt for Facebook over email - I have seen personally and professionally a move toward communication via social network rather than email address. By self-selecting a social group, the individual avoids spam. Quantcast reports a decline in Hotmail traffic corresponding to an increase in Facebook traffic (Yahoo and Google results inconclusive). (Seb Chan has some good ideas about why this is.)
  • They might like microblogging more than social networks - As astute marketer Rich Brooks says, "While there will always be the telephone and email for us 'old folks,' a lot of important conversations will be going on exclusively in the social media arena." Even though email takes less than a minute, the ambient awareness offered by microblogging platforms like Twitter and Plurk allows for a lifestream rather than direct contact or lengthy carbon copy lists.
  • They switched from an address to a URL - You just aren't a good marketer if you haven't read Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. If you have, you know that one out of six of your customers is a "creator" - someone who regularly blogs, uploads video, or keeps a website (pg. 43 and 131). With their online home changing from inbox to blog/avatar/podcast, your customers are more find-able than ever before. The dominance of search accentuates the importance of a home base website.

Your customers don't get your email and, when they do, they likely don't care enough to open it. They prefer their regular hangouts like Facebook and Twitter over a boring email address. And finally, who needs an email address when they have a Google-indexed, searchable contact page on their website?

Do you notice how all of these are similar? What is shared by all the nails in email's coffin?

Customer Empowerment

The theme that connects all of these trends is that the customer is more in charge. Hence, you cannot be shocked then at the increasing prevalence of these developments.

Marketers are no longer interrupting customers' lives with sales pitches. Instead, they (or the good ones, at least) are concerned with providing value so that the customer will want to visit their site. The push economy has replaced the pull economy.

Are you seeing similar development in your business or personal life? Is it possible we could abandon email? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Nothing Funny About A Good Online Video Business Model

Courtesy of gapingvoid In their new September issue, Fast Company magazine features a fascinating story about the comedy web video business and how it's almost impossible to make these websites profitable.

They lay out many of the current business models, but I think an addendum is useful. In this post, I will outline a mindset that hurts that industry, what the current business model is and why it doesn't work, a suggestion to ensure profitability, and the business model that can make an online video site profitable.

First, The Mindset

We tend to think about web videos as a "thing." It is a product. It is content.

Forget this mindset. If you're a video producer, web video might be a tangible thing that comes from tangible people sitting around your tangible office. But it's not.

For your audience, web video is an experience. There's no actual product for the viewer - the video elevates the spirits or gives us hope or connects us to others. It has more in common with a trip to Disneyland than it does with buying razor blades.

So stop thinking of a video as a commodity and start thinking of it as an experience you provide for your viewer.

Second, The Model

As the Fast Company article points out, the prevailing business model is advertiser-based. This has been the case for most things in the U.S. for more than half a century.

However, the advertiser business model cannot support web video. Consider it: the marketplace is fragmented, niche sites have the most loyal visitors, online is still new to many advertisers, audience has a decreased appetite for ads, and the content (at least on the comedy sites) is oftentimes...edgy, to put it diplomatically.

Even off-shoots of the advertiser model don't work, such as product placement and sponsored shows. The huge conglomerates that have the money to invest in these small comedy sites only know these sorts of models - give the product away in exchange for some advertiser time.

No matter how many times you throw money at the problem, this business model still doesn't work.

But that doesn't mean web videos will never be profitable. (Misters Murdoch and Branson, please have your assistants print out the following explanation.)

One Suggestion

First, just a suggestion: keep the suits as far away from the video production as possible. Nothing kills comedy like business people.

You want to appeal to college kids? Hire college kids or recent grads to do the show. Fast Company points out the CollegeHumor.com, a site still operated by the creators, plays well with YouTube and still cleans up at the bank.

"The site has attracted advertisers such as Motorola, Fox, and Subaru and reaped $4.2 million in ad revenue during the first quarter of the year. CollegeHumor is profitable - the only profitable major comedy-video site."

You do what you're good at and hire people to do what they're good at. (This applies to most businesses, not just online video, by the way.)

One Solution

OK, you've been waiting for that business model that will work better than advertising, right? This is how major media companies can succeed with online video.

Here it is, step by step, just for you titans of business:

  • Take all the money you would spend on focus groups and market research.
  • Invest this money into your online video business.
  • (Once the site is up, collect the bits of ad revenue and re-invest it.)
  • Use the website to do all the market research you would have done for your other shows.

Web video sites can be profitable when the "product" is not the web video. Websites are the perfect venue for market research. You can find out anything you want - people are dying to share their opinion for free!

Can't decide between jokes for a sitcom? Film them both and let the website audience vote. Feature pilot shows on your website and only air the most popular ones. The money you save from traditional research and focus groups (much less money lost in terrible shows you would have aired), will more than pay for your video website.

Eventually the website might make money and that's fabulous. Until then, use it as a seed bed. Test out new acts, try out new jokes, ask your audience's opinion, and gauge their interests. Web video sites can have immense value if they are viewed as research laboratories instead of content production facilities.

But what do you think? Maybe advertising just isn't being done correctly for these online comedy sites to become profitable? Maybe a subscription model like The Bitterest Pill podcast would work? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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Marketing Is Dead; Long Live Anthropology

Courtesy of jbhill via Flickr I've had a little case of writer's block this week, so I started with the basics: I read the definition of "marketing" in Wikipedia.

The impetus of this was a comment I wrote on a recent Brazen Careerist article in which I boiled down marketing to selling stuff. Really? That's the business I'm in? I get up at 5am to write because I love making crap fly off the shelves?

Listen to Wikipedia's definition: "Essentially, marketing is the process of creating or directing an organization to be successful in selling a product or service that people not only desire, but are willing to buy."

Bleh! Sure, there's creation and desire (positive), but there is also directing and willingness to consume (negative). It's almost like it's not enough for them to buy it; you gotta make them want to buy it. Make 'em beg.

Frankly, this doesn't sound like the business I'm in at all. I find marketing these days to be customer based - where are they and what do they want? - and less, well, skeezy. Ideally, marketing these days isn't invasive or worthless or annoying. In fact, marketing these days sounds a lot more like anthropology than marketing.

What do you think? Are web 2.0 marketers really anthropologists of the present time? Don't we study why certain people behave a certain way (and how to influence that behavior)?

Maybe Not

Maybe I'm way off base. Maybe I'm an idealist. Is marketing these days really that different from the old days? Sure, maybe we have flashier toys and get better insights, but does this alone more it into the category of anthropology?

Maybe So

Here's the difference: Now, relationships are a prerequisite to business, not vice versa.

You may want to read that last sentence again. Even if it's not that way right now, all signs indicate we are moving in that direction.

But not just in a direct sense, business to customer. Now, blogs have as much or more influence as official channels (e.g. company websites, newspapers). And recommendations from friends have even more sway than blogs. (Sounds crazy? It's not. Scope the numbers via Groundswell [page 132 for those of you following along at home].)

All the while, people who call themselves marketers are camped out in the bush, observing all of this new commerce occurring, jotting down furtive notes in our journals on our blogs.

What do you think? Is marketing now anthropology of the present day? Do we need to change the definition of marketing altogether? Or am I just full of it?

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21 Considerations Before Your Business Starts A Social Network

Courtesy of jbhill via Flickr Social networks are all the rage and many of my posts at OnlineMarketerBlog recommend social tools for businesses. However, there are potential pitfalls to consider before you facilitate interaction between customers and your business.

Here are 21 things your business should consider before starting a social network:

Internal (Your Business Capabilities)

1. Can you invest the necessary resources to run a social network properly? Can you afford the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to properly create and staff this resource?

2. What is the role of marketing, sales, IT, customer service, advertising, HR, etc.? Social networks often delve into all of these departments and more. Make sure all of your teams are engaged, enthused, and prepared.

3. While the potential ROI of a social network is proven, is this the best investment of your time? If you don't have a unique product or your customers aren't enthused (or your product isn't any good), don't look to a social network to solve your problems.

4. What are your expectations - number of members, amount of content, etc - on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis? Create little benchmarks to ensure you do not go far off course.

5. Will your employees have their own voice on the network? Will they use their full names? This transparency can be daunting, but it can also provide high emotional buy-in from employees.

6. Is the correct employee in charge of the social network? This is often not the highest paid or the most experienced. (It's also likely not the intern - this is your brand, after all.)

7. Which came first: customer need, company strategy, or cool technology? If it's anything besides customer need, reconsider everything.

External (The World You Compete In)

8. Are your audience Joiners? You should read Li and Bernoff's book of the same name, but at the very least check out the free Groundswell tool from Forrester. If your audience isn't likely to join any social network, it's highly unlikely they will join your social network.

9. What value does the community offer your customer? Do not think of the social network as a marketing tool - its primary existence is for the good of your customer.

10. Who are your network's competitors? If someone is already offering the service you want to provide, don't spend time trying to re-invent the wheel.

11. What does your network do better than anyone else? Use that strength to separate your network from imitators and provide a quality service to your customers. If you cannot identify that unique quality, consider piggy-backing on someone else's network.

Before The Launch

12. Who approves interaction or content? What is the chain of command? Is your process streamlined to react to breaking news or is it clogged with a bunch of red tape?

13. How will negative comments be handled? Have you prepared a code of conduct for participants? Will constructive criticism be considered honestly and without pride?

14. How does the social network affect the priorities of your business? In other words, is it clear to your employees when they should opt to work on the social network as opposed to their other tasks?

15. How will you promote the network? Will there be a URL on your print advertising? Should customer service mention the website? Use existing channels to promote this new one.

16. What capabilities will members have? Can they speak to each other, create profiles, or upload files? All of these aspects have their complications.

17. Are there different levels of engagement? For instance, could a member of your social network take on an administrative or editorial role? What are possible levels of engagement and how do members move up?

18. What motivation do people have to participate? What is their incentive?

19. Is your network "sticky"? Is there a reason for participants to tell their friends?

After The Launch

20. What will you do with the community once you have it? Will you have the infrastructure set up to benefit from customer insights, free market research, justified criticisms, helpful customers, etc.?

21. How will you gauge success? While the potential ROI of social networks is great, it is rarely as cut-and-dry as most other marketing. Are visitors more important than commenters? How is beneficial engagement quantified?

The Most Important Consideration

I think one of these considerations is more important than every other one and I will write a post on it later this week. Make sure you don't miss it.

What Did I Forget?

Did I forget anything? Feel free to leave other considerations in the comments section below.

Or, am I wrong about anything listed here? Please let us know!

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How To Be An A-List Blogger - Study, Study, Study (Part 4)

Update: Welcome Stumblers! If you like this article, please show your love via StumbleUpon. Thanks! In this installment of the series, I will cover all of the books, magazine, websites, and podcasts that you need to become an A-List Blogger. These resources will give you the ammo to be the very best in your field. (And if you think this amount of reading, watching, researching, and learning is impossible, visit tomorrow when I will share the secrets of how to carve out at least 10 hours per week to study.)

Marketing has a funny relationship with education, research, and good, ol' fashioned studying. Maybe it's because the communicative aspect of marketing comes naturally to us that we forget there's a lot of hard work that needs to happen, too. In short, you cannot be a good blogger or marketer without studying your craft.

You Can Study Communication?

From David Ogilvy: "This willful refusal to learn the rudiments of the craft is all too common. I cannot think of any other profession which gets by on such a small corpus of knowledge. (page 21)" Sometimes the flashy new tools or the expense accounts or the pursuit of new clients can all distract us from our responsibility to constantly improve our game.

And while the world around is may be shifting from books to blogs, an A-list blogger or marketer perhaps should think in terms of content or research or media, regardless of the medium. Read, watch, and listen to as much as possible, and think critically about whether the message has value.

Help Me Help You Help Me

Of course, I can only speak from my own experience. But I thought it might be helpful to outline the books, blogs, podcasts, and other forms of blogging/marketing research in which I've partaken during the last year.

This isn't meant to come off as boastful. My main goal is to impress upon you the importance of continual professional education, then see you buy or subscribe to these resources and suggest new resources to me.

Books Read

  • On Advertising, David Ogilvy - Great to see how much (and how little) has changed over the years
  • The Long Tail, Chris Anderson - Required reading, but I just got to it this year
  • Join The Conversation, Joseph Jaffe - Again, required reading; may be my favorite book of the year
  • Niche Envy, Joseph Turow - A terrible screed against marketers; if you must read it, do so at the library so he doesn't make any extra cash
  • Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath - Also a contender for favorite book of the year
  • Meatball Sundae, Seth Godin - Not worth the hype, but good for beginners or to brush up
  • Blink, Malcolm Gladwell - Not a lot on marketing per se, but a quick read
  • The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Rarely have I read a book where the author was so omni-present, and rarely have I found that author so pompous
  • Why Beauty Is Truth: A History Of Symmetry, Ian Stewart - Not a lot on marketing, but very interesting for former science fair kids

Websites

Your best bet is to consult the lists in the right column of the blog. Here is a highly subjective list of my favorites:

  • First, check out the bloggers in the Wordpress Marketing Bloggers Network (WMBN) - this is a new group that I am honored to be a part of (above blogroll on right side)
  • Copyblogger - THE copywriting blog
  • Marketing.AllTop - Like RSS for people who don't want to know about RSS
  • Drew's Marketing Minute - Solid marketing advice from the heartland
  • Logic+Emotion - Fellow Chicagoan puts us all to shame at the intersections of marketing, design, and UX
  • QualityWriter - Phil Dunn spreads the good word(s)
  • THINKing - Harry Hoover and team cover marketing, social media, PR, and advertising
  • Web Strategy with Jeremiah Owyang - The prolific Forrester researcher would risk overkill if it weren't all so damn interesting

Magazines

Podcasts

I've listened to more than my share of marketing podcasts and these are the ones I turn to week after week. (Either use the link for more info or search for these names in iTunes.)

  • Jaffe Juice by Joseph Jaffe - Simply the best
  • Managing the Gray by C.C. Chapman - A little spotty - not surprising considering how much content C.C. produces - but still tops
  • Six Pixels of Separation by Mitch Joel - Like a Canadian James Brown, Mitch is the hardest working man in podbusiness
  • Media Driving by Jay Moonah - Another Northerly neighbor who just started podcasting but is doing it all right
  • Marketing Over Coffee by John Wall and Christopher Penn - Despite sounding a little like the 2 Craigs from the Meth Minute (Channel Frederator podcast), these guys are great too (and their website features time segments marking when they discuss certain topics for easier reference)

Tech

No one is allowed to get by without some understanding of the technology out there. Here are some resources this English major finds helpful:

  • WIRED magazine - The best for the layman, the blogger, and the marketer without a doubt
  • This Week in Tech (TWiT) - By far the best tech audio podcast, and funny to boot (be sure to catch an episode when both John C. Dvorak and Jason Calacanis are both on)
  • Video podcasts: GeekBrief.TV, Webb Alert, CNET videos, and Loaded from CNET (select it from the "tech shows" pull-down menu)

Did you read this far? You deserve a cookie.

What resources did I miss for the up-and-coming blogger/marketer? Are there any sources or mediums I neglected? Please leave a comment with your suggestion.

I hope the items I've listed here help you as much as they have helped me. I'm a believer that whenever you stop learnin', you start atrophyin'. Here's to living and learning together!

(Interested in other ways to be an A-list blogger? Try commenting, optimizing for search, and curiosity. And if you like these articles, please use StumbleUpon to recommend them.)

Social Technographics: Forrester And The ROI Of Social Media

Last week, a lot of you read my guest post about the ROI (return on investment) of social media. There is no doubt that social media is changing the ways people interact online and hence, the way companies communicate with their customers. The thing that is still missing is quantifiable data about these interactions. We're in a theory stage - we know what's right because we have experienced it - but we are still waiting for proof in numbers. Forrester Research made a giant step in the right direction when they introduced social technographics.

Social technographics is an analysis of consumers' approach to social media - not just which ones they use, but understanding how they use the medium in their daily life. You can download the full report on Forrester Research's website (there is a fee) or read the book on the same topic published April 21, 2008: Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. (There is also a ton of free goodies at the Groundswell blog.)

I sat in on a webinar last week where Charlene and Josh expounded on their work. Josh summed up the goal of this work: "Think about what you want to accomplish, not the technology." There is so much fascination about what technology can do that marketers often forget the question is what technology can do for you. The webinar came back again and again with the message to use this data to inform a strategy for your clients. (You can find the resulting Q&A published post-webinar here.)

How's It Work?

Charlene and Josh categorize web users into six sections based on the level of their activity, from Creators to Inactives. I have not seen a clear but simple ranking system like this before and I certainly hope it is accepted as an industry standard. The real value, however, comes from their detailed analysis of each category's activity.

I won't go into all of the details of their work, but they go into serious detail about each group. There are some valuable insights to be garnered from their work. But the research does not get lost in either theory or numbers - there are very specific, actionable suggestions.

What's The Catch?

There isn't one as far as I can see. Charlene and Josh set up a system and fill it with data very valuable to marketers. Forrester is one of the top organizations in online research and analytics (if not the very best), so it isn't surprising to see this level of work from them. I do, however, have two small concerns.

  • One nagging concern is the age of the data (all from Q4 2006). While this isn't grievously old, there have been trends in that time that might change the data somewhat (Facebook opening up, Twitter emerging, etc). That said, I understand the huge amount of work that goes into collecting and analyzing this amount of information, so I can't fault Forrester that much (plus, I think the underlying theories are probably unaffected).
  • The second concern is the wording of the questions. For instance, when asked whether they do the following activities at least monthly, respondents were given several choices, including "Use social networking sites" and "Watch peer-generated video." I wonder how responses would have changed if they offered examples like MySpace, Facebook, Eons, and Gather for the first question or YouTube and Google Video for the second one. (I read a report recently that mentioned a large section of people who claimed not to go online because they did not realize they were online when they logged into Hotmail or searched on Google.)

The Gist

As mentioned before, social technographics should be used to build your strategy. "Rather than pursue Social Computing technologies based on fashion, marketers need to think about how they want to engage with their customers and prospects - and create content, features, and functionality that create a path for participation." 'Nuff said.

If you're going to take seriously the new business model in a Web 2.0 world, you owe it to yourself to be equipped with the best research. As far as I can tell, this is it.