Wednesday, February 27, 2013

#OscarsRTM: Real-Time Marketing or Real-Time Misfire?

You're at a party visiting with friends when out of the corner of your eye you spot a stranger eavesdropping. A friend mentions she watched the Oscars, and the stranger pounces. "I work for Oscar Mayer. What a coincidence!" After an uneasy moment, another friend mentions he just saw "Les Miserables," when suddenly another stranger interrupts, "I thought Les Mis would win--could you please tell everyone at the party?"

This uncomfortable and preposterous social situation is a pretty fair analogy for what passed as "Real-Time Marketing" (or RTM) on Oscars night. Oscar Mayer posted a humorous tweet about how it was trending (Oscars/Oscar--get it?), while Special K tried to achieve virality by asking people to retweet its prediction that Les Mis would win an award. Oscar Mayer received more than 700 retweets--a more than respectable number--but Special K's image received just six retweets, half from people who appear to have a relationship with the brand (and only one of whom disclosed it).

Oscar Mayer and Special K were hardly alone. I won't attempt to provide an exhaustive list of the largely ineffective social media RTM that occurred Sunday evening, but you can see more at Jay Baer's "Convince and Convert" blog, where he does a fine job furnishing examples and commentary.

The evening of the Oscars, David Armano launched a hashtag, #OscarsRTM, to discuss the night's real-time marketing. He was dismayed when the hashtag conversation became "a constant stream of snark, dismissal, critique and a never ending barrage of 'not impressed.'" David particularly objected when someone in the #OscarsRTM stream unkindly edited a photo of the U.S. Cellular "2013 Oscars Newsroom." David rose to U.S. Cellular's defense, noting "they are TRYING to provide relevant content vs. just doing straightforward advertising."

I have tremendous respect for David--he has been a thought leader leading the charge for social media for longer than most social media professionals even knew what Twitter was--but this time I think David is wrong. What U.S. Cellular did on Oscars night was not "provide relevant content;" they tweeted ads. Each tweet contained an image attempting to tie the brand to one of the Oscar-nominated films.

The problem with the social media RTM that occurred on Oscars night is the "M" in RTM. The intent of these brands was clear to everyone--not to add to the conversation or enhance others' enjoyment of the Oscars but to create value for themselves. Almost none of the brands attempted to engage others in a dialog--they instead broadcast a stream of brand messaging. Many brands tweeted their social advertising using the same #Oscars hashtag that consumers adopted for their conversations, which demonstrates how much RTM on Oscars night was less about social engagement and more about old-fashioned one-way interruption advertising.

When brands like Oreo and Tide demonstrated wit and agility with funny posts during the Super Bowl blackout, social media RTM seemed poised for growth. Just three weeks later, the pre-planned, unfunny, heavy-handed, brand-centric posts of Oscars night managed to make RTM look not like a fresh, new strategy but old, tired marketing-as-usual.

Not every brand fell into the trap of talking about themselves. Victoria's Secret participated in social media as people would, commenting about the Bond girls, complimenting Jennifer Hudson's performance and raving about Anne Hathaway's dress. Mercedes-Benz's Smart USA Twitter profile made creative use of Vine to honor the Oscar winners while inventively pimping their products. My personal favorite tweet of the evening was Chobani's, which made fun of the fact they could not get legal approval for their Oscar tweets.

When big events occur and millions of people turn to social media to share and talk, it is understandable that brands want to be a part of that, but they have to bring something to the conversation other than their own wants and needs. If brands want to build attention and awareness using social media during international events, they should consider the following:

  • Don't broadcast; spark and engage in conversation. Respect that you are part of the consumers' social channels and consumers' dialog.
  • Be creative. Photoshopping a "Les Mis" French flag or a Lincoln stovetop hat to your product is not creativity--not by a long shot. As RTM grows, the bar will raise for what consumers will find worthwhile and welcome (and, conversely, the bar will lower for what they will dislike and criticize.)
  • Be spontaneous. The more you plan and prep, the less surprising, unique and topical your content will be. Watch for the unexpected to occur--such as the lights going out in the Superdome--and be ready to produce something timely. True RTM happens in real time; that's why it is called "real time marketing."
  • Engage emotions. Make people laugh; make them cry; give them something to think about; furnish them with something they will want to share or discuss. If you cannot do this, then maybe your brand is better saying nothing at all.
  • Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. No one wants to see how the sausage is made--they don't care how your magazine ad is produced or that your social team is standing ready to tweet marketing content. U.S. Cellular misstepped by retweeting an employee's photo of its social newsroom; it invited--and received--criticism.
In 2013, it can sometimes seem social media is a mature medium, but Sunday night proved that we are still feeling our way through this new channel with its new rules. A lot of brands paid employees and agencies to work on a Sunday and stay up late creating opportune content. Very few brands got enough bang for their buck. Either marketers must do much better to be authentic, relevant and interesting in the moment, or they should just let their employees enjoy the Oscars and other big events from the comfort of their homes.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ten Years Damaging Reputation: The Streisand Effect and How to Avoid It

Happy Birthday, Streisand Effect!

Ten years ago this month, one of the most well-known Internet memes was born: The Streisand Effect. This meme is not a frothy Harlem Shake-like viral sensation that is here today and gone tomorrow; it is a set of avoidable circumstances with serious consequences for anyone responsible for managing reputation, public relations or social media. Already in this young year, The Streisand Effect has tripped up a number of brands and people who should, by now, know better. Avoiding The Streisand Effect is not difficult, so why after a decade is it still such a problem?

The photo that launched a
meme--Streisand's mansion
The Streisand Effect was named after an incident that began in February 2003. A photographer, Kenneth Adelman, posted thousands of photos of the California coastline in an effort to document coastal erosion. One of those pictures showed an aerial view of Barbara Streisand’s Californian estate. Streisand's law firm wrote a cease-and-desist letter and later filed a lawsuit, demanding the photos be taken down.

This heavy-handed legal action not only failed to get the photos removed but called tremendous attention to the photos of Streisand's massive home. The image of her estate was downloaded just six times prior to the suit but was accessed almost half a million times in the month afterward. And thus a meme was born--"The Streisand Effect" occurs when someone's ineffective attempts to censor information results in that information gaining more publicity, attention and engagement.

It is positively astounding to me that public relations professionals still do not grasp the essential truth of the digital and social era: Information cannot be contained. If damaging information hits the web, there are many things you can do to manage reputation, including responding, issuing contradictory information, addressing individuals, enlisting advocates and contacting influencers. In fact, there is really only one option that is not available in 2013 (as was the case in 2003), and that is to attempt to get the offending information scrubbed from the Web.

Ten years after the "The Streisand Effect" was born, brands and PR professionals still have not learned. Already in the first seven weeks of 2013, we have seen some big brands stumble into Streisand Effect blunders:
As the Chubby Checker example may (or may not) demonstrate, the Streisand Effect can also be used by smaller brands to create awareness and challenge established brands. A better, more obvious example of this comes from SodaStream's 2013 Super Bowl non-ad. The company sells beverage-making machines that replace consumers' need for Coca-Cola and Pepsi products. The first draft of SodaStream's Super Bowl ad (see below) was reportedly rejected by CBS; of course, it was uploaded to YouTube where it has received almost five million views, courtesy of the controversy.

This was not the first time the Streisand Effect boosted SodaStream's awareness. Last year, TV execs in the UK yanked a SodaStream ad for being too disparaging to soft drink companies. Soon, the number of views of the ad on YouTube surged from 100,000 to more than 2 million.

The Streisand Effect is so pervasive nowadays, it is hard to understand why so many companies stumble into the situation. Is it ego, thinking a brand's power can be used to scrub information from the Internet? Outdated thinking? Or just panicked decision making that severs decisions from common sense?

This is not the first time I've written about the Streisand Effect, and something tells me it will not be the last. Of course, preventing the Streisand Effect is really quite easy. If a piece of incorrect or damaging information begins to circulate, the recipe to avoid danger is:

  1. Stop! Do not act until dispassionate logic has the upper hand over emotional reaction.
  2. Do not rely solely on lawyers for guidance. For both action and communication decisions, involve PR, reputation management and social media professionals for counsel.
  3. Appreciate that the offending information is on the Internet and will never disappear. Your goal is not to get it removed but to react in a way that mitigates damage.
  4. Do not overreact to the situation. Take stock of how much the information is really spreading, if the company's customers and prospects care, and whether it will impact the company's reputation and business. Sometimes, no action is better than anything else.
  5. Be transparent and embrace openness. Show people you have nothing to hide, care what they think and are open to feedback.
  6. Do not hesitate to correct--but not censor--erroneous information. Combat misinformation in the same channels it is spreading. For example, fight video with video--you cannot counter a viral YouTube video with a press release.
  7. Engage consumers, advocates and influencers in a conversation. This is not a shouting match but a dialog.
  8. Admit fault where there is fault. You cannot hide from the court of public opinion, and pleading guilty will often do more to end the spread of damaging information and enhance reputation than trying to evade.
  9. Do not, under any circumstances, post and tweet the same canned language time after time. This is like throwing gasoline on a fire, and it will only make matters worse. Avoid corporate speak and talk like a person.
  10. Lastly, do not wait for a reputation event before you consider how to address one. Be prepared. Have a plan. Drill on it, to make sure your tools, processes and people are ready. 

Remember, these situation are not about information but about People (people who need people). If you want the Internet to not Rain On Your Parade, avoid Emotion, and soon Happy Days Will Be Here Again--you and your customers will be back to The Way You Were.

(Sorry about that. I was really struggling with how to close this blog post on a Streisand note.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Satisfaction with Social Marketing and Servicing Impacts Your Brand, Says J.D. Power Survey

Last week, J.D. Power and Associates published new research on the ways consumers interact with brands in social channels and how this engagement affects behaviors such as satisfaction and purchase intent. I had the chance to probe the findings with J.D. Power’s Director of Social Media and Text Analytics, Jacqueline Anderson. Her study furnishes still more evidence of the rising expectations consumers have of brands in social media, as well as the importance for brands to get social right, both for service and marketing.

One of the findings of the study is that consumers are engaging with both marketing and servicing in social channels, but this varies with age. In the 18-to-29-year-old demographic, 23% interacted with brands (on the brand’s owned social site) in a marketing context and 43% for servicing purposes. For those older than 50, the ratios are reversed, with 38% engaging with companies in a social marketing context but just 18% turning to social for servicing.

Interestingly, while consumers’ social marketing and social servicing experiences may vary by age, the impact to the brand does not. Anderson notes that, "While there are vast differences among age groups in the frequency of servicing and marketing engagements, there is a consistency in the impact on brand perception and purchase intent through both types of engagement. A one-pronged approach to social is no longer an option."

Another important conclusion of the study should surprise no one—making people happy in social channels is good for business. Among highly satisfied consumers, 87% indicate that the online social interaction "positively impacted" their likelihood to purchase from that company. Meanwhile, one in ten of those who are less satisfied indicate that the interaction "negatively impacted" their likelihood to purchase from the company. This relationship between consumer satisfaction and purchase intent is consistent across all age groups. “Younger and older consumers alike who are satisfied with their social marketing experiences are more likely to purchase,” says Anderson.

As she evaluated the data, verbatims and conversations observed in the community, Anderson found that consumers make little distinction between a brand’s social experiences and the overall brand experience. “There’s no social bubble anymore. Everything a company is doing—whether it’s in a store, on the website, in an email, on the phone or in social—impacts the consumer’s opinion of the brand. Companies need to make sure that experience is cohesive.”

One of the primary conclusions from this study is that brands have to get serious about social customer service. Says Anderson, “So many companies jump to the marketing piece, but consumers are looking more and more to social channels for support. Some companies feel threatened by this but it’s actually an amazing opportunity.” The J.D Power survey found that 67% of consumers have used a company's social media site for servicing, compared with 33% for social marketing.

Servicing and marketing are part of the same circular brand funnel, notes Anderson. “It is critically important that consumers are able to find you in social—that’s the marketing—so they can talk to you when they need to—that’s the servicing. Then, of course, you want to keep those consumers engaged with your brand, so you circle back to the marketing again.” This synergy between social marketing and social service is “especially important for elusive younger consumers. If you can nail that service experience, you have the opportunity to make a strong connection and engage them on an ongoing basis.”

Anderson points out that the trends among Millenials is unmistakable and demand that brands “set the ground rules for their approach to social servicing now, before it’s too late. Millennials are infamous for wanting things done quickly. As this group ages and starts having families and more time constraints, they’re going to turn more frequently to the fast-paced world of social to interact with brands and get their issues resolved.”

The J.D. Power study also looked at what turns off consumers about brands’ social media engagement. Unsurprisingly, consumers hate when brands focus too much on themselves. A participant from an initial online research community  described the problem using an interesting analogy, recounts Anderson. “She compared ‘liking’ a company on Facebook to dating. You take the first step and agree to go out—‘the  like.’ You look forward to learning about them and sharing information about yourself, but then it becomes clear the other person is only interested in talking about themselves; it’s always, ‘me, me, me,’ so you have to break up.”

While purchase intent may be the brass ring for brands, Anderson notes that satisfying social experiences provide other benefits, as well. “We found that positive servicing experiences raise the likelihood to use social servicing again, as well increases consumers’ likelihood to recommend social servicing to friends and family. In addition, we found that social marketing satisfaction has a positive impact on overall brand perception.”

If any brands have any doubt about social's importance, the J.D. Power study should put them to rest. Says Anderson, “There is a very strong storyline here that finally supports the case that social engagement truly is important to brands.”

Amen to that!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Secret Door--One Brand's Way to Spark Dialog and Attention

Enter the Secret Door
Every now and then, an online marketing program grabs my eye and is worth sharing. "The Secret Door," from window and door company Safestyle UK, is one such program. It is earning media and consumer attention not by begging for likes on Facebook but by giving them something to talk about.

The concept is really quite simple--give people a door through which they pass to arrive at random and interesting places on earth, all thanks to Google Street View. The locations have been carefully curated to be interesting and invite exploration.

Your experience will be different than mine, but I entered the Secret Door and found myself at a rave in Stockholm. Another click brought me to the floor of the ocean. Then I was standing in a comic book store. The experience invites engagement and makes it easy to share through social networks.

So often, I hear from people who are struggling to make their brands talkable in the social era because their vertical or product is "boring." There are dozens of ways to do overcome this challenge and spark dialog, from making a difference in the community to taking a stand on an issue to developing bold products to empowering employees to creating engaging events to turning your brand over to your community. But don't overlook the old standby: Creativity. "The Secret Door" demonstrates that even a company in the relatively mundane category of home supplies can still become buzzworthy with a little creativity.

"The Secret Door" succeeded in getting people talking quickly after launch. Within a day or two, the site had generated 350 tweets, over 1,500 Facebook Likes and over 250 Google +1's, and it is still trending upward thanks to articles in Venture Beat and Technorati. I will be curious to see if all this sharing amounts to additional business for Safestyle UK, but the links and traffic certainly are boosting the firm's SEO.

Most brands and categories are more interesting and relevant to consumers' daily lives than a company that makes double-glazed windows. "The Secret Door" shows how to overcome attention challenges and create conversations by bringing a bit of creativity and furnishing a worthwhile experience with which consumers want to engage.

Click below. Where will you end up?

The Secret Door
The Secret Door is presented by Safestyle UK

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Lure, Opportunity and Danger of "Social Selling"

The term "social selling" has been around a while, but suddenly it seems very hot. I have been asked about it four times in the past few weeks, and the term has recently appeared in my tweet stream quite a bit. What is social selling and why has it become a hot buzzword now?

Source: Social Media Examiner
The definition is obvious--using sales techniques in social media channels to increase revenue--but why is the term "social selling" on the tip of so many tongues today? I think the interest in social selling is just another way of probing the ROI of social media, a question that never goes away despite the fact almost 100% of marketers are today deploying social media tactics. For some, the thinking seems to be that building community, enhancing reputation and creating advocacy is nice and everything, but if social doesn't help brands increase sales, what good is it?

Of course, social media can do lots of good aside from increasing sales. It can furnish research, decrease customer service costs, improve customer retention, decrease return rates, improve awareness, protect and build reputation, furnish stronger collaboration with customers and vendors, combat incorrect information and multiply word of mouth, all of which are beneficial business outcomes that are not directly measured in sales. Social can also enhance sales with strategies that do not explicitly fall under the category of "sales"--for example, social campaigns can increase site traffic, ratings and reviews can improve ecommerce conversions and communities can increase share of wallet.

But what about "social selling"--the execution of selling techniques in social channels? Is there a place for these tactics in social media? The answer is a very cautionary and qualified "yes." Creating successful social selling opportunities requires that brands overcome consumers' natural aversion to being sold to. No one likes door-to-door salespeople and when given the opportunity to prevent telemarketers from calling, US consumers added 209 million phone numbers to the Federal do-not-call list (in a country with just 84 million residential landlines). Consumer attitudes in social channels are no different; according to a 2011 Exact Target study:

Source: Exact Target
  • 71% of consumers report being more selective about "liking" a company on Facebook than they were last year.
  • 81% of consumers have either "unliked" or removed a company’s posts from their Facebook News Feed, with 43% saying their wall was becoming too crowded with marketing posts and 24% saying posts were too promotional. 
  • And, perhaps most interestingly, while 51% of consumers said they expected that "likes" would result in marketing communications from brands, a whopping 40% did not believe it should result in marketing communications. Think about that--four in ten people who "like" your brand still don't want you to try to sell them something on Facebook.

Of course, there are circumstances in which consumers will welcome selling, and this depends on two factors--context and relationship. If a consumer enters your company's space by walking into your store, visiting your retail web site or posting a product question via a social network, they have expressed an interest in receiving information and stated an intent to consider a purchase; in this context, selling is welcome. Many social media strategies are designed to improve inbound marketing so that consumers themselves create the context for sales opportunities.

The other factor that increases a consumer's desire to be sold to is relationship--does the consumer recognize, know and trust the brand or sales representative? Consumers welcome brands and people who are partners, help improve their lives and bring value, but they are no more likely to accept sales queries (in social media or elsewhere) from entities they do not know than they are to welcome a telemarketing call. Last year, an study found that 84% of respondents reported they will not engage with a brand until trust has been established.

Whether or not social media is a fertile venue for selling has less to do with the medium and more to do with what your brand and associates do to create trusting relationships and recognize when the context is appropriate. "Social" is not a magic word that converts distasteful and disagreeable sales tactics into something desirable and effective.

In 2013, the risk with social selling is that companies could become overly assertive deploying a new breed of social CRM tools that use social listening systems to identify consumers experiencing key life and money movement events. If companies use these tools to target smart and personalized messages to people with whom they have a relationship, these tools can improve social selling; however, if companies misuse these tools, the outcome could be an onslaught of spammy auto-posts that do more to offend than to motivate transactions. If a hundred companies using the same social CRM tools all reach out to a consumer following his or her post to friends about a pregnancy, birth, graduation, job change, retirement or relocation, the result is not likely to be improved sales but unfriended and blocked brands, spam reports and damaged reputations.

This is why relationships, as always, matter. Social doesn't revolutionize sales--if anything, it reinforces the importance of traditional value-based relationship building. Brands that wish to succeed with social selling must realize that sales is a lagging indicator; the vital leading indicators are the ones that gauge the strength of relationships.

If sales are a lagging indicator, what are the leading indicators that suggest a brand or sales associate is improving both relationships and social selling opportunities?

  • Brand-building engagement--not just "fans" and followers but interactions, shares of content, community participation, etc.
  • Increased numbers of advocates and influencers engaged
  • Increased share of voice and improved sentiment
  • Positive reviews and ratings on sites like Yelp and recommendations on LinkedIn
  • Inquiries received and appointments arranged via social media
  • Views, inbound requests and downloads for white papers, SlideShare decks and YouTube videos
  • Inbound site traffic from social networks
  • Surveys that validate higher Net Promoter Score, trust and affinity for the brand

Social media is not, first and foremost, a direct marketing or sales channel; it is a relationship channel. And like in every other channel, relationships are not built on constant selling but on shared values, reciprocation, partnership and caring.

Social selling can be successful for companies and people who invest the time and energy to build relationships, but those that bring traditional sales tactics such as cold calling and ABC (Always Be Closing) will find social hostile territory.

Enjoy Alex Baldwin's "Always Be Closing" speech from Glengarry Glen Ross. (Be advised, some of the language is NSFW. What did you expect, it's David Mamet, after all?)

Monday, February 11, 2013

How Wearable Tech and Social Media Will Destroy (or Build) Brands in Five Years

We human beings are notoriously awful at foreseeing how technology advancements will change our lives and our brands. The problem is that we have the tendency to only consider how new technology will apply to today's behaviors rather than create new ones.

This is happening today. A sea change is about to occur in our world within the next five to ten years--one that will rock the relationship between brands and consumers--but few marketers are prepared for it, much less see it coming.

First, let's explore the phenomenon of how consumers and marketers are constantly surprised by change and how our nearsightedness is costly. Take the advent of the Web--in 2000, five years after the web went public, consumers welcomed the empowering new tool into their homes, but few expected it to change their lives. Even as we soared past the 50% adoption milestone in the US, consumers thought they would retain their tried and true ways to bank, shop, work and listen to music; the reality is that online banking has skyrocketed (Bank of America saw a 300% increase in just one year), consumers now spend 5% of retail dollars online, one in five global workers telecommute and more music is purchased via download than as physical media.

Business leaders were equally unprepared for these changes. They struggled to shift marketing dollars and strategies online and allowed smaller and more nimble competitors to reframe products in a digital world. Google, YouTube, Amazon, Apple, eBay, Napster, Netflix and Paypal rose from obscurity to become household names, while Blockbuster, Borders, Yellow Pages, Tower Records, Kodak and virtually every newspaper and magazine went the other way.

The changes sparked by the Internet are nowhere near complete as the web continues to alter every aspect of business--analysts estimate that one in ten malls will fail in the next decade as retail continues to shift online, and banks that spent billions increasing the number of bank branches 20 percent from 2000 to 2009 are now reversing course and rapidly shuttering costly locations and laying off employees.

The problem is that as we humans experience new technology, we see it only in the context of today's problems and habits rather than foreseeing how it will change us tomorrow. Many consumers saw the Internet displacing encyclopedias, typewriters and postal mail, not replacing banks, retail stores, books, CDs, photo albums, newspapers and magazines. And many business leaders saw the Internet as a new marketing channel and not as a new channel for products and services.

Our inability to see new technology and not foresee how it will change us and the world has costs. The cost to individuals of being unable to see the future is that many failed to retool their own skills to stay relevant and employed in a digital world. The price paid by many businesses was even higher--the inability of corporate leaders to see how web technology was changing fundamental consumer behavior caused massive business failures, dislocated millions from their jobs and vaporized the value of brands once thought of as bulletproof. In the past decade, the Interband brand value of brands such as Citibank and Gap have been sliced in half, and Compaq and Kodak--two brands that were in the top 30 most valuable brands in 2001 with a combined value of more than $20 billion--have disappeared from Interbrand's top 100 list.

It is happening again. New technology is coming. We've all seen it and many are dismissing it as creepy, unnecessary or unimportant, just as many once mistook PCs, the Web, smartphones and social networking as creepy, unnecessary or unimportant  We are once again failing to see how new technology will be adopted and change us. Marketers should not fall into this trap again--now is the time to prepare for the changes of the next decade.

Wearable technology is the "next big thing," and the most visible of the upcoming products is Google Glass, an augmented reality head-mounted display due to hit the market next year. When people first see this (and if they do not immediately discount it), they think of how it would work with today's sorts of applications: They may envision loading a Kindle book, checking Facebook or launching Yelp to find a nearby business. These are all good use cases for Google Glass, but they are shortsighted, applying new technology to old problems rather than considering how it will affect new behaviors.

Wearable technology combined with social media will not just make software easier to use and hardware less intrusive--it will change the world. How? Instead of envisioning how Google Glass will react to your requests in the same way your smartphone does today, consider instead how this will work when you are passive and it is proactive.

Here is an example: For years, you have purchased the same brand of OTC drug. You are brand loyal--the product works, you trust it, you purchase it on autopilot, and you do not even notice the attempts of competitive brands to get your attention with advertising, new packaging and PR. You are the perfect brand consumer--until the day you enter the aisles of your drugstore wearing your new pair of Google Glasses.

You reach for your favorite product, your new wearable tech notes what you have taken from the shelf and it compares this product to the preferences, beliefs and priorities expressed through your actions and in social media. Suddenly, an alert pops up! You are a fan of the ASPCA, you have liked many of your friends' pictures of cats and dogs and you visit the local Humane Society to volunteer. Your Google Glass knows all of this, and it also knows there is a disconnect with the product you just selected--the company tests its products on animals.

Is it possible you will ignore the alert and purchase the product anyway? Perhaps, but chances are your years of brand loyalty have just been severed in the blink of an eye. No amount of existing affinity, catchy slogans, sizable ad budgets or snappy packaging will stop you from putting that product back and grabbing the one next to it. Cognitive dissonance, enhanced by a new wave of wearable technology and social media, instantaneously and permanently alter your brand affinity and purchase behavior.

Of course, this does not just work with people who are animal lovers. Maybe you care about keeping jobs in the US and the product you just selected on the store shelf is laying off thousands of Americans to shift production overseas. Maybe you care deeply about protecting the environment, and your favorite brand's packaging contributes to the destruction of the rain forest. Maybe you stand behind marriage equality and the brand you just selected does not extend benefits to same-sex partners. Or maybe you care about traditional family values, and the brand in your hand sponsors LGBT events. Whatever your beliefs, they can now become instantaneous and proactive information that impacts your purchase behavior far more than any TV ad or Facebook fan page ever could.

For decades, there has been a disconnect between consumer attitudes and purchase behavior, in part because it is impossible to know the corporate practices of every brand on store shelves. No more--thanks to wearable tech that knows our actions, is aware of our social media activities, and connects us to real-time information, the very nature of shopping changes.

We all recognize that today's social media has brought more transparency to corporate practices. Anyone who watches social media even minimally knows that companies such as Nestle, Mattel and Bank of America have had unwanted transparency thrust upon them and were forced to change corporate plans and standards. But today's transparency is child's' play compared to the radical transparency that will come once our virtual and physical worlds are merged by wearable tech powered by our social media data.

What can marketers do to prepare for the changes in the next five to ten years? It is not too early to lay the groundwork:

  • Turn inward: Shift your attention not just to external communications but to internal practices. Help your peers to understand what consumers care about and how corporate practices must align to brand attributes. Your brand is increasingly expressed not in colors, copy and images but in your company's actions.
  • Make tough choices: Many marketers think they know where their brand stands. This is easy when it comes to things like the saving the environment, supporting veterans or contributing to disaster relief, because every consumer supports these efforts. But what about traditional family values versus same-sex equality? Last year Oreo took a stand on Facebook and faced some backlash, but in the end the brand benefited with an eightfold increase in Facebook fans and a doubling of positive sentiment. Meanwhile, Chick-Fil-A was drawn into the same sensitive topic but from the opposite side of the issue, and it also found the social media storm caused no business issues, with usage, market share and ad awareness all rising following the controversy. I am not suggesting your brand start purposely wading into sensitive topics, but to the extent your HR and corporate policies are increasingly becoming brand drivers, it is helpful for marketers to define what they stand for, what they don't and how the brand's values align with customers'.
  • Build brand advocacy: A Facebook "like" is not advocacy; consumers engaging with a sweepstakes is not advocacy; consumers "liking" a brand's post about National Hot Dog day is not advocacy. Advocacy in the social era is expressed differently than in the past but is still defined in the same way--engaged consumers who are informed about the brand, care about it, and are willing to talk on the brand's behalf. If your social media activities build engagement but do not create advocacy, a change in strategy is required.
  • Get the word out: The key in our increasingly transparent world is not to have the most clever marketing messaging or the largest media budget; what will separate the winners from the losers is a willingness to build authentic engagement about real brand activities and beliefs. Content strategies cannot save a brand whose practices are disconnected from consumer attitudes, but if the two are aligned, it is imperative you create and encourage content that spreads the word.
  • Educate employees:  Your employees are brand ambassadors, whether they want to be or not. Brands cannot dictate that employee beliefs and behaviors align with the brand's mission and consumer beliefs, but marketers can ensure employees are educated on what is expected in social media and how to protect themselves and the brand.
  • Become more transparent now:  Do not be outed by an environmental, labor, animal or other advocacy group. Out yourself--engage consumers in a dialog about your brand practices and tell them why you do what you do and how it benefits them. Listen to consumers, change what can be changed and do not hesitate to defend what cannot. We cannot please all of the people all of the time, but we can prepare them to hear and disregard damaging brand information. Take, for example, the scenario I shared above about the OTC brand that tests on animals. Perhaps there is no alternative to testing on animals in order to protect human lives; if this is the case, the time to engage consumers in that discussion is not once they have been interrupted in store aisles with surprising and concerning information; by then, it is too late. It is your job to arm consumers with the knowledge they need to expect, interpret and ignore information that would otherwise create cognitive dissonance and decrease brand loyalty. 

The future need not be scary if we simply acknowledge and prepare for the changes. The brands that have succeeded in the past fifteen years are the ones that embraced and invested in change, while the brands that were ground into irrelevance wasted away clinging to old business models and practices.

We can see the future coming. Will your brand cling to old ways or begin to invest in the changes ahead?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Does Social Media Impact Purchase Decisions?

I published my first-ever post using Storify.  I found it more than a little difficult to use, but I'm glad I finally got around to giving it a test drive.

Here is the post, which is about the wildly contradictory data around the association between social media and purchase decisions. It includes links and data from over a half dozen studies, surveys and research reports.  Some show social drives substantial purchase behavior; some could find evidence for almost no association between the two.