I recently experienced how easily one can disrupt a stable ecosystem. And I learned the hard way how difficult it can be to re-stabilise that same ecosystem!
We have two dogs and one of them likes to socialise around the neighbourhood, and to this end she will dig amazing tunnels or climb over the high fences in our back yard. To keep her in safely we have laid various bricks and paving stones around the perimeter of the yard.
Not long back I moved one brick from one part of the perimeter to another. Several months of chaos, escapes and tunnel digging ensued.
Just one little brick gave Trotsky the idea that escape was viable and she turned her considerable energy & intelligence to that end. The ecosystem of my backyard suffered for months following the removal of just one brick.
It’s all sorted out now. But this got me thinking about how we often cannot see the pattern that keeps an ecosystem strong and stable. Just one little thing that looks almost irrelevant can pull the whole thing asunder.
This is precisely the kind of thing that we are seeing in the traditional marketing ecosystem with the impact of social media and social networking.
Businesses are grappling with this problem. They are continuing to execute the old faithful marketing plans and see them deliver less telling results than before. Debates are happening in board rooms about the importance or otherwise of the web. And many business people think that it is all a fad that will pass like so many others.
People are using & consuming media and technology in new ways – for example a recent Nielsen study showed users want to use TV and internet simultaneously. The change is deep, and it is important because it is a social phenomenon. It is also impacted by the convergence of web and mobile phones that see traditional ways of consuming internet changing – this Pew report gives some indication of these changes.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
Time will ensure that we work out how to deal with the changes in our business ecosystem that arise from the changes in people and their use of technology. But it is these in-between times that challenge us and create fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Seth Godin’s recent post Out of bounds got me thinking about the implicit contracts that we create almost unconsciously everyday.
In Seth’s post he’s talking about companies and their marketing. He notes how upset people get when a brand or product does something that does not fit into the consumer’s preconceptions.
But I realised that the same things happens with us as individuals. We get put into mental pigeon holes by the people we deal with every day (and we do the same to others). Sometimes it can be hard for us to escape from those preconceptions. Also it can be hard for us to realise that an individual has changed or grown past their original parameters.
This is an interesting question for both brands and people: how can we grow and evolve beyond our original boundaries?
An important foundation for growth is to understand and develop the skills, knowledge and capabilities that support the new boundaries. There is no point trying to move on past old boundaries if you’re unable to deliver the goods. As Seth notes, “The real problem is that when marketers believe they are going out of bounds, the work they do tends to be lousy.”
It’s interesting to consider these ideas from an individual perspective as well as a business one.
Back in the old days at GE (pre GFC) we were taught that all business ideas or problems should be considered from the “outside-in” or from the customer’s point of view. This was part of their Six Sigma approach using Voice of the Customer principles. Now admittedly that was a few years ago, but the principle remains sound for business in general and also in relation to social media.
There are many voices articulating rules for social media engagement – from simple ideas like ‘treat people the way you would a friend’ or ‘treat people the way you’d like to be treated’ to long lists of tips.
One thing that many of these approaches have in common is looking at things from the business perspective rather than that of the customer.
For example, hypothetically: I might treat friends (as I would like to be treated) by calling them a boofhead & punching them in the shoulder. Such interaction might simply annoy a customer who is a suburban mother of two. Instead it might be better to find out how that customer actually wants to be dealt with.
Indeed it might even be worth understanding if there are different kinds of customers who’d like to be treated in different ways. Perhaps football-watching beer-drinking men might like to be called a boofhead & punched in the shoulder?
One thing that social computing has enabled is for micro-segments to emerge. Once we treated customers as a large block, dissected them up into fairly big chunks and called that segmentation. But now we have the ability to mine data to a degree unimagined in the past. And this capability lets us understand the groups within our customers. Data mining is a key capability powered by web 2.0 and social computing. We are now in a position to obtain deep insights into our customers, their needs and their behaviours.
We have also seen classic examples of companies totally misreading their customer audience. Motrin Moms was an amazing lesson for onlookers late in 2008. Within hours really angry mothers online via Twitter had mobilised against the brand and Motrin backpedalled furiously to quiet the issue. Jeremiah Owayang gave a good summary of this situation with Motrin Moms (as they came to be called). He also offers some insights into testing and planning these kind of campaigns.
Social computing has brought about the democratisation of the means of communication. In the past customers, like the Motrin Moms, did not have access to the means of protest. But now within hours they can slam down a carefully planned and executed media strategy. The sooner businesses come to terms with this democratisation of communication and the related shift from monologue to dialogue the easier life will be for all of us.
This is the traditional marketing model we all learned in university. But we really need to consider if this model remains appropriate for the digital age.
My instinct is that we need to adapt this traditional model to incorporate new media channels and collaborative communications rather than abandon it. But many people seem to be saying we are moving into an entirely new paradigm.
[RANT: I remain sceptical about the utility of notions such as paradigms & paradigm shifts in general, and also in particular in relation to completely unscientific domains such as marketing*. And I remain sceptical of their utility as an explanatory construct for most things. In fact, the word paradigm when used by anyone except philosophers of science (like Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos or Paul Feyerabend) & in relation to the philosophy of science makes me feel queasy. But that could just be my early liberal arts education coming through (three years of studying philosophy must have some impact!). /RANT]
But putting on a business hat it is clear that we need to find effective ways to allocate scarce resources to enable our brands and products to be known in the marketplace. Further, business experience has shown that structured approaches to expenditure tend to be more sustainable in the long term.
Thus, even in the digital age, businesses need a structured way to plan, coordinate and allocate marketing resources to deliver business value.
For this reason it is unclear why digital and online is not simply considered another medium or channel that is sufficiently encompassed by a traditional marketing model. The situation regarding digital and online marketing is analogous to that of television when it was introduced. In the early days of TV people did not yet understand the medium and how to communicate using it (like in the 1950s ad below). But only a few years later they had mastered the medium and were delivering messages effectively.
The real difference with this new medium is to understand how it needs to be used from an audience perspective. Especially since now that the audience is no longer a passive consumer, but is becoming an active participant.
Another key area that we need to understand better is metrics for digital and online. In the same way that TV required new ways of measuring value, digital and online marketing must be able to demonstrate ROI.
Bad behaviour and bad products get outed very quickly these days – develop rules of engagement for staff so they know what is acceptable behaviour, if bad stuff happens own up. I am a Civil Servant shows how rules of engagement can be done.
Consumers can now share their displeasure and mobilize fellow consumers quite easily – if consumers voice their anger engage with them, listen to their concerns, and don’t be defensive.
If you annoy people it can go around the world in minutes via channels like Twitter (refer Motrin Moms for great example of this) – so monitor reputation online as a matter of course so you are aware of what’s going on.
The success stories – like Dell moving from ‘Dell Hell‘ to ‘Dell Community‘ are the result of hard and consistent work, dedicated resources and a willingness to embrace openness and authenticity.
It is really worthwhile to learn from the experience of others before dipping a toe into the somewhat murky waters of social media.