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Think value, not viral

It’s easy in marketing communications to get caught up in the ‘cleverness’ factor when developing a campaign – it’s usually quicker to get to market since it’s not usually targeted & multi-layered, it’s sexy, it can be distilled into a soundbite, and it’s, well, clever (who doesn’t like cleverness or wit?). With the downturn in the economy the pressure will start to mount to deliver quick results & many clients will opt to go with a ‘catchy’ campaign in the hopes of standing out and driving fast returns to justify their marketing budgets. It may not be a bad approach if the campaign is dead on with the strategy and insights (usually the type of campaign that *goes* viral), but too often that just isn’t the case. The problem with this type of approach is that it tries to force cultural reaction with little chance of, or planning for, long-term success.  The mistake of cultural reaction-baiting becomes amplified in the social media space, even while the potential for pick-up & viral distribution is hard to resist.

Over the long-term the brands that will succeed in our new multi-layered marketplace are the ones that think value and relevance first and ‘hook’ second. Part and parcel of trust is history… is your history one that the customer remembers for it’s intrinsic value, or as a day at the carnival (if they remember it at all)? At the outset of planning shift your mindset to think of why your product is of value to an individual, or how it can be used that adds value.

When you try to create a “viral” program what you are ultimately doing is adding further noise to your customers life. Sometimes they’ll appreciate the tune you are playing, but most times they won’t. However, when you set out to provide something valuable vs. noisy your chances of making it onto a regular playlist increase. Being “of value” doesn’t have to mean being boring, it should mean being creative *and* relevant.

[photo credit: Supercapacity on Flickr]

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The great viral swindle?

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I was hesitant to weigh in on the latest kerfuffle raised by the recent TechCrunch post, frankly, because I knew all of these black hat tactics were being utilized by those less savory in our field, and the post just confirmed it, but felt I had to do so when I realized that too many people in our industry were surprised (vs. the ‘regular folks’ in the TC comments who were justifiably outraged, if not surprised).

Let’s apply some logic here – the Internet is a huge, unruly place, with millions of people and companies vying for attention. Dollars are shifting online in record fashion and LOTS of service companies want a piece. How do you break through the clutter, prove results and make a buck? By pushing the limits to the edge, as all firms: advertising, marketing, PR, Web 2.0, etc. do? Do we really suppose that we’ve always done things completely ethically? I’d like to say yes, but I’ve worked for too many firms with client expectations and million dollar budgets on the line to ever make that claim with a straight face. I know that I founded my own strategic marketing firm because I grew sick and tired of tactics employed, lack of true innovation, and egos, and I keep a firm grip on how myself and my team execute projects and develop strategies, but that’s just little old Wildfire in a sea of thousands. I also am (speaking of ego) able to better navigate the waters and develop innovative strategies precisely because of my track-record in the interactive space and the focus I’ve always placed on customer relationships vs. pure push advertising. It’s easier to determine how to balance a company’s need for bottom-line ROI while remaining authentic and transparent about the tactics employed: been there done that and seen a lot. For example, I’m particularly proud of the creative concept and integrated strategy I developed while working with TFC for Sharp Canada (Aquos 1080p D82 Challenge) precisely because it was pure branding, social responsibility, and community engagement. It worked on all levels and the bottom line result was good for Sharp and good for the environment.

That being said, why are we surprised? It takes work and a lot of money to be truly immersed in the Internet and social media space, and with profit margins at agencies and companies being pushed further down, is it realistic to expect that any firm can afford that much R&D and people-hours? Folks expect to get paid and brands expect a return on investment that is tangible. The bottom line for all brands is to sell product and satisfy their shareholders (which is why they are called “for profit”). That will not change, and it’s why 30-second spots still work, even if they’re being moved online in increasing numbers (hello, viral spots). And, as consumers get more sophisticated, more people will recognize not to necessarily trust what you read online unless you know the person, or unless it’s independently verified (ala Consumer Reports) like all of us old skool interactive geeks realized about 7 years ago. Everyone has an agenda, that’s just life. We don’t live in a utopia, we live in a capitalist society. Even the old standard, The Red Cross, was less than pure after 9/11. We can change things, for sure, but change takes time; people aren’t a piece of software that we can just upgrade when we discover a bug or want to add a new feature.

Why are we trying to figure out social media ROI at all if we believe it’s all about the long-term relationship? True relationships take years to develop, just because someone joins your community, for whatever internal and external reasons suit their needs at the moment, it’s just as easy to leave when it doesn’t. That’s what churn is. Consumers own their relationships with a brand and for that reason they also own the conversation – trying to satisfy everyone while continuing to make money is the rub of social media. You can’t have an agency built with everyone’s best friend. The participation economy is a reality, but it’s also a fallacy when you step outside of our bubble. Hip Hop artists don’t do product placement in videos and start their own clothing lines (multi-billion dollar industry) because someone wrote a positive review online or added them as a ‘friend’ in Facebook.

Let’s be realistic. How much time do you spend on YouTube scouring the new submissions, rating them up and sending them along? With over 10k submitted per day, my guess is not enough that you could spot “the next big thing” without having someone point you to it. The recent WOM conference in Toronto in April of this year recognized Chevrolet for their “Let’s Go Chevy” campaign as being a WOM success story when the company was blaring the URL in TV spots, banner ads, newspaper ads, etc. etc. Did we complain then (well, I did, but not too many others)? Why is that okay and not the tactics employed by The Commotion Group except for our own expectations of the purity of the space? It’s not. Neither of them is okay. We need to take off our rose-coloured glasses and think in the big picture. I don’t employ the tactics used in the article, but I get the feeling I’m in the minority (and no, I’m not going to share my secrets), and although a shame, we should look at this as a learning opportunity and be prepared to recognize that if we really want to succeed in this brave new world, we have to be honest with our clients about how much time and effort it will take to build lasting success… and what success truly means. We need to stop speaking to ourselves and start exploring the space.

We bloggers even do similar things – link-bait posts that exist solely to drive traffic/ reputation (Lists upon lists of “the top blogs”, posting on your own blog about a controversy instead of responding in the comments elsewhere: just like this post, etc), “calling outs” to stir controversy, speaking to our own echo chamber and measuring success against that, plagiarism, passing ourselves off as experts in the space when we aren’t, whatever. None of us are true angels. No one is completely pure in reality, and that includes the consumers we are trying to reach.

Perhaps this will be a wake-up call, but I think not. Too much money on the line and the easy way out is usually the one people take (especially for products such as movies that have a short shelf life to make a buzz on opening weekend – the majority of the clients The Commotion Group appears to work for). I know that I’ll continue doing what I do, and one of these days I’ll hang it all up and go be a yoga-instructor and run a golf course up north. Until then, I’m not jumping on any bandwagons and I’ll keep learning, experimenting, educating clients, and being a hurricane when appropriate.

But that’s just my opinion – there are a million of them (manufactured or not) out there to choose from.

Update: Tony Hung has a good post on this as well…. a choice bit:

Mike Arrington himself seems a bit taken aback by how honest the post is, but is anyone *really* shocked?

Are your (or anyone’s) sensibilities *really* that delicate?

….

Bottom line is that this post pulls the curtain back on a phenomenon that any rational thinking individual would already suspect.

That is, when there is financial incentive and opportunity to game a system — even when that system has the appearance of being “open”, “transparent”, and built upon the goodwill and trust of its users (how typically quaint!) — someone will do it.

And the best of them will do it in such a way that no one else will even *know*.

[photo credit: daryldarko via Flickr]

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Viral vs. Word of Mouth – what’s the difference?

I know I haven’t blogged in eons, but I have been supremely busy with new clients and programs at TFC and have been putting theories into action so to speak, and my blog has suffered. For that I do apologize. I hope to rectify the situation after returning from a week in the sun in early May, although I do have one other post brewing I hope to squeak out before I leave (how’s that for some mixed metaphors!). :)

All that aside, in reading Sean’s wrap-up from the CMA’s recent “From Mass to Grass Conference”, I was struck by something I’ve been noticing recently – a blurring of the lines between viral & WOM when speaking about the success of a “word of mouth” campaign. In too many instances they actually are describing a viral campaign. And there is a distinction worth noting – viral occurs when you’ve passed the tipping point; WOM gets you to the tipping point.

I hate to be blunt about this, but if you’ve purchased TV ads and billboards and are blaring your URL to the world, it doesn’t qualify as word of mouth. It can definitely qualify as viral if enough people dig what you’ve produced online and send the link to their friends, tag it, or post about it on their blog. But it’s mass audience, not influencers and organic.

The essence of WOM is that it spreads organically; you are earning the publicity, not paying for it. If your microsite URL is on TV you’re the one spreading the word, not your customers.

If we’re talking to our client’s about generating word of mouth, we should also be making the distinction between getting the WOM via advertising vs. getting it because their customers were evangelizing to their friends.

[Update - June 15, 2007] I’m adding this as an update here to Sean’s post on his blog as I don’t feel like signing up for a typepad account in order to comment… btw Sean, my comments are fixed, it was a database issue (spam will take over the internet before we know it!).

I don’t have a ton to say except that I don’t believe I said above that WOM couldn’t be orchestrated, I just obviously have a fundamental disagreement with Sean as to what constitutes true word of mouth. Semantics do matter if you’re working towards long-term and big picture goals. I’ll reiterate my thoughts – if you are using mass advertising to drive people to your website and then push or cajole them to spread the word, that’s not meaningful word of mouth that builds true influential brand evangelists and contributes to long-term customer loyalty (the fundamentals of a WOM program). It’s an ad campaign with an online driver… same as it was in 1999, 2002 or 2005.

Word of mouth happens when people are compelled to share their positive (or negative) experiences with your brand or product within their circle of influence. Word of mouth can be orchestrated, but it has to come from a position of equality and respect… not blaring an ad on TV. Mass isn’t sexy – exclusivity is (as I pointed out in my WOM presentation at SES, available here). Viral isn’t a bad thing by any means, it’s just different.

[photo credit: moose477 on Flickr]

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Where’s the ballerina?

Continuing my Toronto culture theme today, I am loving the new National Ballet of Canada contest: Where’s the ballerina?

I received an email last week announcing the first week of the contest, as I have opted in to receive communications from the National. The email was elegant and simple, it matched the branding of the website, and it was compelling. The contest is fantastic & runs over a four week period – win two tickets to the gala opening of The Sleeping Beauty at the new Four Seasons Centre. And the hook… well, what can I say, I’m in love…

A ballerina has been sighted at various locations throughout the city of Toronto. Your job is to identify where she is from 4 multiple choice locations. The “clue” is a beautifully shot black and white video clip set to music from the ballet of the ballerina exploring the location. It’s visually stunning and engaging.

The contest, although simple and to the point, hits all the right privacy marks with opt-outs and policies upfront; and it encourages viral by building in a refer a friend for more chances to win option. Finally, the entry form design is excellent as it’s built into the page and doesn’t ask for more info than they need. In fact, they only ask for name and email address.

Bravo to the National Ballet for using the interactive medium in a intuitive way that speaks directly to the brand, the community, and the art.

Update: Although the campaign is terrific, one way to add depth and buzz would be to tie in the theme into an exclusive grand prize where those users who entered correctly all 4 weeks had an extra chance to participate… perhaps a 24 hour period where an exclusive ‘part 5′ is posted that is more difficult to decipher… with a chance to win tickets to a different ballet, or a pre-show chat with Karen Kain. Once you open the door to connecting so well with your brand and your audience, the possibilities are endless to increase the experience.

[photo credit: foreversouls on Flickr]

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3 Lessons for Starbucks

Starbucks Coffee recently found themselves in the position of revoking a coupon they distributed to employees in the Southeastern US, as it was redistributed beyond the “original intent” after spreading far and wide in cyberspace… as offers usually do on the web. I’m frankly befuddled as to Starbucks’ inability to foresee how an offer like this distributed via email would NOT become a huge viral item.

Although the damage has been done, Starbucks can still learn from this experience (and must learn from it if they hope to engage their customers successfully in our real-time marketplace):

  1. Understand the medium & your message, anticipate the worst and strategize to mitigate it – i.e. anticipate that an offer like a free iced coffee, with a web-based coupon, will be shared outside of the small circle of friends and family you initially planned for and ensure you recognize what you can do to contain it, or not. If the potential costs outweigh the benefits, don’t do it.
  2. Technology is your friend. Why not build a self-serve contest/ content management app for all Starbucks regions to use for their own promos? Set parameters for the offer and send out an email to employees directing them to the website to send the coupon to a friend. Starbucks could set the parameters for instance, to only allow 10 coupons to be available per employee and institute a unique bar code for each that can be scanned and verified at the Starbucks location. More cost to set up than just sending an email, but if Starbucks is so concerned about freebies getting out of control, it may be a worthwhile investment in the long term. If Starbucks is willing to invest in podcasting (which ironically is aimed to bring back consumers to the coffee chain, which the coupon was succeeding in doing), then they really should be using the very basic strengths of the Interactive medium in their daily business… bells and whistles are nice, but basics like honouring offers mean more in the everyday.
  3. Your competitors will take advantage of your mistakes and that will spread across cyberspace in real-time as well. Caribou Coffee in a great move will accept the coupons on Sept 8th from noon-close at all locations. I’m sure they’ll win a few converts, if not new employees from this maneouver… and a lot of positive word of mouth as well. Was that potential cost factored in to the decision to revoke the coupons?

[photo credit: nate steiner on Flickr]

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