So what now? Concrete tips on how to engage digital audiences

It should be easy enough. Listen to your audience, come up with a simple, relevant message and win the hearts of consumers everywhere. However, as we’ve seen gaining traction online is often more complicated and difficult than brands expect. Great campaigns like Old Spice’s can sometimes take years to reach the tipping point, while others that are seemingly less impressive explode overnight. So what are the most important take-aways when considering how to create a successful digital campaign?

1. Be an anthropologist. Knowing your audience takes more than just listening; it requires you to immerse yourself in their world. When do they get online? What kind of content do they consume? How do they connect online content to their physical world? Finding the answers to these questions whether it’s through observations, focus groups or interviews will help you find the best ways to connect in terms of media and message.

2. Tell a story. Most human interactions revolve around sharing stories. We can’t wait to tell someone about that funny incident on the subway, an annoying customer at work or a meeting with an old friend. Companies can tap into our affinity for sharing by finding an insight that makes the brand relevant to our daily lives. You’ll know you’ve reached a great insight when it seems obvious after the fact. ‘Got Milk?’ played on the simple idea that people get upset when they need milk and don’t have it. It seems elementary now, but when the campaign was created it was a completely new way of positioning the product.

3. Be persistent. Online channels offer endless opportunities for exposure, but that doesn’t always translate into immediate success. Even if your campaign is brilliant, it may take time for it to reach critical mass. Consider how your audiences’ social networks function. Who are the big influencers and trend setters, and how can you get their attention?

4. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Digital media offer a powerful way to connect with consumers, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Consumers do lead offline lives the majority of the time. Brands that continue the conversation once the audience has logged off tend to have the most longevity. Instead of discounting traditional media completely, consider how it can act as a supplement to your online efforts. In Old Spice’s case, mass media was able to build enough awareness to fuel direct consumer-brand conversations via the ‘Response Campaign’.

Although they are not all encompassing, these guidelines provide concrete stepping stones to developing a successful digital campaigns in a changing landscape.

It’s not as easy as it looks: the secrets of successful online campaigns

So what is the real key to creating campaigns that resonate with consumers? Rob Rose of iMedia Connection looks at some of the unnoticed work Wieden + Kennedy put in to make Old Spice’s campaign a success, and teaches brands some important lessons in the process. The first thing he emphasizes is the fact that Old Spice didn’t reach social media stardom overnight. Instead, it took three years of tweaking to achieve the perfect combination of satire, swagger and dialogue. Take a look at Old Spice’s progression, starting in 2007.

This level of patience is important for brands looking to make a mark in the digital community. Wieden + Kennedy kept retooling their ads as consumer responded, allowing them to create a hybrid campaign that combined the best elements of their previous videos. Brands that want to be online need to accept that it sometimes requires a long-term investment.

That brings us to the second key lesson: digital campaigns also require offline investments. Although the Old Spice phenomenon started online, to take it mainstream Wieden + Kennedy made key investments in traditional media. According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, Old Spice spent approximately $54 million on media in 2006. In 2007 Nielsen estimated approximately $80 million in media spend. It’s a safe assumption that the media buy for 2009 and 2010 was in the hundreds of millions of dollars (Rose). This mass exposure created the level of exposure Old Spice needed to fuel “The Response Campaign” that fed off consumer responses from Twitter, Facebook and other online outlets.

Finally, Old Spice is continuing to evolve. In his recent Q&A session, Rich Silverstein said, “Agencies will never stop pitching, whether you don’t have the account or you’ve had it for ten years.” This sentiment also has important implications for brand-consumer relations. Brands that don’t evolve as popular culture changes will cease to be relevant. Alternatively, brands that constantly strive to connect with consumers in new ways, tap into cutting-edge trends and play on the insights they discover will build long-term brand equity. Those that don’t will become passing fads.

Rose, Rob. (2010). 3 things you don’t know about Old Spice’s success. iMedia Connection. Retrieved from http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/27462.asp.

Do online campaigns promote all talk and no action?

Many brands have succeeded in connecting with consumers online, but some in the ad industry doubt if these connections actually translate into real profit and/or growth for the company. Sources have argued each side, some saying online buzz is powerful sales tool while others say that digital chatter doesn’t always translate into results. One of the most highly discussed campaigns of 2010, the Old Spice Guy, shows how online brand communications can drive real action in consumer segments. Wieden + Kennedy released the following case study video highlighting the results of the campaign:

According to Nielsen data, overall sales for the body-wash products are up 11 percent over the last year. They went up by 55 percent in the last quarter. And following “The Response Campaign” sales are up 107 percent.

To find out more about how Old Spice effected consumer attitudes and behavior, I interviewed a group of 18-24 year olds. Reactions to the campaign were overwhelmingly positive in both male and female consumers. “I just felt like its one of the only campaigns in a long time that was real. They didn’t pretend to be some high-class product that they weren’t. They weren’t afraid to make fun of themselves a little bit,” said one male participant.

Females appreciated the humor too, “I really liked that they incorporated me even though it’s a guy’s product. A lot of the things they said just made fun of stereotypical relationship issues and interactions within couples – which I found really entertaining. I’ve probably watched the commercial on YouTube over 20 times.”

But did it really translate into new customers for Old Spice? For some yes, for others no. “I definitely have bought Old Spice a few times since the commercial and before I didn’t even really think about it. I think all guys products are pretty much the same, so I usually buy whatever I think of first. Sometimes its Old Spice, sometimes its not,” commented one male participant. A female participant jumped in saying, “My boyfriend loved the commercials, but I know he hasn’t bought Old Spice since it came out. I think when you go the entertainment route, you risk people viewing it as just a funny video instead of something to do with the product.”

Although opinion and involvement may vary, the statistics make an undeniable case that the campaign worked on some level. It used storytelling to present the audience with funny human truths, allowed them to interact with the character and stayed relevant by recognizing how consumers engage online. Only time will tell if the campaign was able to create long-term brand equity, but it has certainly positioned Old Spice in a new light for young consumers.

Flat brand communications, flat sales

This past week I had the pleasure of attending a Q&A session with famous ad man, Rich Silverstein. An Art Directors’ Club Hall of Famer, Silverstein has launched successful campaigns for brands including HP, Doritos, Sprint and Comcast, as well as landed some of the industries most coveted awards. Silverstein spoke to how his agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, helps their clients connect to consumers in the digital space and shed light on the challenges involved in making an effective online campaign.

During the session, we discussed Doritos ‘Snack Strong Productions’ campaign. Doritos had been experiencing flat sales for the past five years. When they dug into the underlying reasons, they discovered that they were failing to connect with their once-loyal core audience. To complicate the issue, their audience’s media habits were rapidly changing (Doritos Case Study). Silverstein was charged with finding an innovative way to reconnect consumers with the brand, as well as draw in younger demographics accustomed to diverse and interactive entertainment options.

To address this challenge, Silverstein created ‘Snack Strong Productions’, a collaborative brand-consumer experience that allowed consumers to name flavors, vote on what varieties were released and which were shelved and even compete to create an advertisement that would air during the SuperBowl.

What’s interesting about the campaign is that although it was born online, it wasn’t confined to one medium. It’s something Silverstein believes is key to successful brand communications. He further illustrated this concept by explaining Hotel626.com, a horror-themed website that incorporated users’ computers, cameras and cell phones to help them navigate through a haunted hotel.

“The website was successful because we focused on immersing the consumer using a myriad of tools. Think about how consumers use and touch things. It’s important to be cross-platform,” Silverstein said, adding, “Approach everything as telling a story – we approached Sprint and Doritos the same way. How do you find the truth in the brand? It’s not about the industry. Don’t close your mind off into a sector – think about how people use things. How do you personalize your communications?”

Although consumers may spend a great deal of time online, their interactions aren’t confined to the digital world. Brands have to be dynamic. For online campaigns to result in actual increases in sales or brand equity, brands must learn how to translate online interactions to real life action. Think about how a consumer progresses through their day, and find out how you can touch them at a relevant moment.

Sometimes you really do have to join them

We’ve discussed what happens when user-generated content departs from a company’s desired brand image. In this post, I discuss some of the factors that brands should consider when deciding how to deal with unexpected consumer responses. These guidelines offer a framework for brands who may be trying to decide whether to address negative responses in hopes of changing perceptions, redirect them or shut down the content completely.

1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Consider the product category you belong to, as it can have a large effect on how consumers expect you to respond.  Car manufacturer Chevy had to deal with parody ads attacking its negative effects on the environment after inviting consumers to make videos showcasing their favorite attributes of the Tahoe.

In this case, it’s more appropriate to deal with the situation by addressing consumers’ concerns and misconceptions through public relations and direct response. You’re still connecting with consumers in a meaningful way and showcasing your company’s engagement without endorsing the messages.

Companies like Smirnoff, however, are in a product category that’s more focused on entertainment.  They could have easily connected ‘Icing’ with their fun and laid- back personality, which they showcased a few years earlier in their viral ‘Tea Partay’ video.

This brings up a second consideration.

2. Think about ways to translate existing messages into positives.

Although icing was based around the idea that no one would voluntarily drink Smirnoff Ice, had the company embraced the conversation they could have turned attention to the positive aspects of the campaign – like the hilarious, highly sharable experiences it promoted between guys.

By joining the conversation, Smirnoff could have diverted conversations about the bad taste to discussions on ‘most creative icings’ and the ‘counter ice’, which were already happening organically. For example, consider these consumers’ comment, “The worst Icing’s I see are the one’s where some dumb@*$ just runs up and hands it to him. I’m not a big fan of the game but the only good ones are where people get real creative”….”Definitely supposed to hide it. That’s what makes it fun.”

3. Staying above the fray doesn’t always mean you’ll stay out of it.

Consider whether the trend has long-term potential or will pass relatively quickly.  Companies often try to avoid engaging in conversations they think are detrimental, but doing nothing can sometimes have more repercussions than simply making the best of the situation.  Smirnoff’s apathy towards the fad actually hurt some consumers perceptions by making a company that was once regarded as trendy and fun seem anything but.  Smirnoff’s silence was criticized by many consumers as being disappointingly uptight and conservative.

A 24 year-old male college student agreed, saying, “My opinion of Smirnoff has actually gone down from what it was before icing was popular.  Sure, people still make jokes about the awful taste and ridiculous amount of carbonation, but people would have thought those things whether icing came about or not.  It would have been awesome if Smirnoff would have just joined in the fun – it might have actually encouraged people to stick with the brand after the fad was over, or try some of their better products like Smirnoff vodka.”

As long as consumers are talking online, there will always be the risk of negative comments being directed towards brands.  However, as more companies are forced to deal with these situations it has become clear that the companies response effects consumers’ long-term brand image more than the original viral content.  Modern consumers are displaying a strong affinity for brands that connect in a real way – and unfortunately, this sometimes means having the grace to suck it up and laugh with them.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets iced…

Although a number of high-profile companies have had success with user-generated content, it is not irrational to fear that these types of messages could damage brand equity. Inconsistencies in the way consumers portray the brand and how the company strives to portray the brand can create tension and ultimately degrade the company’s reputation in the market. Companies that invite users to create content can take steps to protect themselves to a certain extent, but what happens when consumers take it upon themselves to start the conversation?

Smirnoff faced this dilemma in the early summer of 2010 when it discovered a drinking game website based around its malt beverage, Smirnoff Ice. The game challenged ‘bros’ to punk their friends by presenting them a Smirnoff Ice, which they then had to chug while taking a knee. At first, consumers thought it was a clever marketing campaign gone viral – until the website mysteriously shut down, leaving its fans with the message ‘We had a good run bros.’

Smirnoff’s parent company, Diageo, eventually responded in an article to AdAge, saying “Diageo has taken measures to stop this misuse of its Smirnoff Ice brand and marks, and to make it clear that ‘icing’ does not comply with our marketing code, and was not created or promoted by Diageo, Smirnoff Ice, or anyone associated with Diageo.”

Consumers responded in droves, slamming Smirnoff Ice for shutting down the site and discouraging consumers from having fun with the product.  Besides expressing disappointment, most comments had a common thread; they thought Smirnoff had made a big mistake.

“I think it’s a bad move on Smirnoffs part to just take down the site. I understand they don’t want any liability associated with irresponsible drinking behavior, but honestly, this site created some sort of dialogue for Smirnoff within a group that probably wouldn’t have even touched the stuff prior to the site. Most of the guys I know have heard of the site, think its funny, have participated.”

“This is just stupid on Diageo’s part, both from a business standpoint and branding standpoint. The only people that drink Smirnoff Ice are younger consumers that have nothing but love for brosicingbros.com.

I went into a liquor store a week ago and bought a sixer to ice some bros on my kickball team. I asked how smirnoff ice sales were. The owner said they had skyrocketed.  Money is money. Smirnoff ice is a goofy brand to start. They have been trying to sell the stuff to guys from the start. This is a win-win.  Mike’s hard lemonade……here’s your window bros!”

This highlights a key issue in the user-generated content debate: should companies let consumers own the brand, even when it doesn’t go along with their strategy?  There’s no clear-cut answer to this, but in the next post I’ll discuss some guidelines that can help brands decide how to best address unexpected user-generated content, whether it results from a sponsored marketing campaign or a consumer’s spontaneous creativity.

Open dialogue, open happiness

Many companies are reluctant to embrace existing user-generated content for fear that the messages disseminated won’t reflect their brand personality appropriately, or may imply negatives things about their product and/or service. Brand giant Coca-Cola encountered this problem in 2006 when a pair of consumers introduced the infamous Mentos and Diet Coke video.

Comments ranged from “this just makes me want to go to a store and make a mega mentos+coke bomb” to “no wonder there wasting it ITS DIET COKE EWWWWWWWWWWWWWW.” As a result, Coke’s reaction to the video was less than favorable. They worried that the ingredients of Diet Coke, specifically aspartame, would come under question as consumers wondered what type of ingredient could fuel this reaction. Coke went on to create a YouTube-like cite called the Coke Show to draw traffic away from the video and ultimately create a more controlled conversation. However, the user-challenge based site failed to garner many submissions, and instead created backlash among consumer groups who saw the motive behind Coke’s new site (Morrissey).

Based on consumers’ reaction, Coke decided to take a different policy moving forward, “The biggest takeaway [from the Diet Coke-Mentos video] was consumers own our brands,” said Carol Kruse, VP of global interactive marketing at Coke. “We had absolutely nothing to do with it, but we were the beneficiaries. [We] needed to embrace that.” (Morrissey)

Coke went on to delve into a consumer controlled Facebook page, online contests and blog with the hope of engaging consumers on a more organic level and creating increased loyalty. Their strategy is simple: put fans first. Coke continues to prove their loyalty to this philosophy by doing things many other brands shy away from.  For example, their Facebook page not only is controlled by two super-fans in conjunction with Coke VP’s, but also displays user created content in their main Facebook Wall feed by default (even critical comments), allows fans to upload their own content their various social media sites and incorporates employee photos, Coke products from around the world and pictures of old Coke nostalgia (Baron).

The result is over 14 million engaged fans on Facebook alone, and a new image for Coke. A big brand went grassroots and empowered millions of brand ambassadors to speak in their name.  This has continued to increase Coke’s brand equity around the globe, as well as further distance the brand from competitors.

Baron, Lisa. 2009. What Coke Knows About Social Media That You Don’t. Outspoken Media. Retrieved from http://outspokenmedia.com/social-media/what-coke-knows-about-social-media-that-you-dont/.

Morrissey, Brian. 2008. Coca-Cola Hunts for Social-Net Formula. ADWEEK. Retrieved from http://www.adweek.com/aw/content_display/our-products/in-print/digital/e3iac100babad132e4d5267adba9a8f04c7).