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Understanding how to utilize credibility, emotional appeals and stories is vital to developing successful brand communications.  It’s what makes campaigns memorable, and more importantly believable.  These rules should act as a guide in all media, but they should be treated as hard and fast in the digital realm.   A brand’s success or failure online is largely contributed to whether consumers are able to relate.  And although we all hope for a utopia where consumers are unwaveringly dedicated to their toothpaste brand, the truth is most consumers use digital media to connect to other people – not products.

This all sounds like common sense, but unfortunately many companies fail to successful execute a humanized strategy.  They talk at consumers, sending out various bits of information that give the audience no reason to become involved.   American Express’s OPEN forum provides a compelling case study for how to do it right and get consumers talking in the process.

OPEN forum

Credibility is an uphill battle for every company.  Those that successfully establish it (read: Apple) reap mega rewards over the lifetime of the brand.  To gain credibility, ‘Made to Stick’ recommends letting consumers pass judgement independently. Although it’s scary to stop spinning, the companies that do can quickly create brand ambassadors.

American Express allowed their customers to create Facebook-style profiles and share business tips, exchange financial advice and promote their products and services.  There was a chance that unhappy customers could have used the forum as a sounding board for their complaints. AmEx took that chance and saw a 350% visitor growth rate over the past year (Fredricksen).  They were able to do this because they embraced a simple human truth: business owners care more about interacting with other business owners than their financial institutions.

Emotional appeals should not be brand-centric.  Alerting your Twitter followers that your company was just featured on the news or won an industry award does not count as an emotional appeal.  It’s like having a baby – although it’s exciting for you, no one outside your immediate family wants to fawn over your newborn’s picture for 2 hours.  Emotional appeals have to hit on something that has significant, personal relevance to consumers.

OPEN was founded on the insight that small business owners are fighting everyday to keep their doors open.  Most often, they don’t have deep pockets and are constantly looking for small ways to make a big impact in their business.  OPEN knew their customers wouldn’t feel a deep connection with a multi-billion dollar corporation.  The best way to help them was to let them connect with other entrepreneurs that had also taken a leap of faith in launching a new business.

Stories get our attention when advertising can’t.  Humans are wired to pay attention to stories – there may be valuable information that can help us in the future.  Compelling stories spark consumers’ interest and encourage them to regularly engage with a brand.

OPEN leveraged this knowledge by creating a space where business owners could share real stories of success (and failure).  Jason Rudman, OPEN’s content strategist, explains how this approach paid off:

“The content on OPENForum.com is original and exclusive to us. It’s not like we have an aggregated RSS Feed and we pull in content and display it under our brand. It’s all original content, not repurposed from other publications and Websites…It’s essentially a virtual trading post of insight between industry experts and small-business owners.”

In other words, it’s all original stories coming from credible, real business owners that are financially and emotionally invested in their respective companies.  The result is an astoundingly involved community of over 9,000 American Express OPEN card members (Fredricksen).  In reaching out to consumers through digital channels, using an emotive approach is vital.

Fredricksen, Clark. (2010, 13 May). Case Study: American Express OPEN Forum Socializes Small Business. The E-Marketer Blog. Retrieved from http://ht.ly/2OdZ6.

Heath, Chip & Heath Dan. (2008). Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Rev. ed.). New York: Random House, Inc.

“Excuse me for saying this, but it’s only a f*@$%ing chocolate biscuit”

This phrase was uttered by an agency planner working on a new chocolate cookie for Nabisco.  His client mistakenly believed that housewives would be reduced to hysterics over a new product improvement that added an extra half-millimeter of chocolate all around the biscuit (Steel, 1998).   This statement reveals a painful, but accurate truth: most people don’t care about the intricacies of a product or service.

With the increasing penetration of online networks in the market, many companies naïvely cling to the idea that consumers are falling over themselves to comment on their brand’s Facebook page, Twitter stream, YouTube video and blog.  And of course after doing so they will promptly run to the store and buy the product.

Unfortunately, many brands are finding out the hard way that it doesn’t work this way.  While there may be 60 million Facebook updates a day (Qualman, 2009), but you can bet that most of them aren’t about products.  To understand how brands can develop effective digital content, we must first understand the core elements that make commercial messages successful.

In “Made to Stick” Chip and Dan Heath explore the common elements shared by   phenomenons such as urban legends and proverbs.  These messages went viral long before the internet was even conceived.  By exploring the commonalities between these messages we can learn important lessons on how to successfully communicate with consumers.  Below I explore the six elements of effective messages, and what this means for digital communications.

Successful messages are…

Simple.

Consumers have always had limited memory capacity; now they also have highly segmented consumption habits, a diminished attention span  and a need for immediate gratification.  Tweets are 140 characters, status updates are rarely longer than a sentence and even URLs are being condensed.  Thus, if a consumer can’t explain why an online video or site is worthwhile in a sentence or two, it’s unlikely they will ever share it with their network.

Concrete.

The best messages talk in the language of the consumer.  Nabisco’s agency planner knew better than to talk to housewives about how many millimeters of chocolate were on each one of their cookies.  Even if it was put into terms they could understand, it is unlikely that it would break through the clutter and even more unlikely that they would care.  However, they might care if they found out their family was getting twice as much chocolate-y goodness for the same price.  This is an extremely important concept for digital messages.  Consumers have infinite entertainment choices and information outlets online.  They are not going to take the time to wrap their minds around a complex or convoluted statement.

Unexpected.

There’s a reason why Old Spice and Nike enjoyed some of the biggest viral successes last year.  People expect deodorant to talk about how well it can keep you dry.  They expect an athletic company to talk about why their products make athletes great.  But these companies didn’t do that. Instead they discovered something the consumer was already familiar with – the desire to impress the opposite sex, the excitement that one moment of a championship game can lead  to glory or despair – and presented these moments in a fresh way.  It paid off: Old Spice’s sales doubled.

To fully understand how brands can develop effective digital messages, we must first understand what makes a message appealing to the consumer.  Although there may be a lot of important things we want to say about the product or service we are offering, it ultimately does not matter what we think.  By focusing our digital messages on simple, concrete concepts and presenting those messages in an unexpected way we can capture the attention of consumers in saturated medium and encourage them to share the experience with their networks.  In the next post we’ll look at how brands can leverage credibility, emotional appeals and stories to create consumer interest and involvement.

Steel, Jon. (1998). Truth, Lies & Advertising: The Art of Account Planning. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Heath, Chip & Heath Dan. (2008). Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Rev. ed.). New York: Random House, Inc.

Qualman, Erik. (2009). Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

The Digital Consumer-Brand Gap

Digital media has opened up endless possibilities for involving consumers through new channels. Brands can touch consumers wherever they are, whenever they’re online.The challenge lies in leveraging these media to create a mutually involved consumer-brand relationship. Too often, brands distribute traditionally formatted messages through digital media. This creates a disconnect between how brands use social media and how users consume information on digital media.  This can explain the current irrelevance of most brands in the digital world.

A study released by 360i highlights how most brands are speaking in a language foreign to the digital sphere. Although expansive possibilities for consumer-brand conversations exist, most brands still talk at people.

Don't shout!

They take a traditional media approach by simply passing along information, instead of connecting with consumers in a meaningful way.  A dissection of consumer-brand interactions on Twitter reveals how irrelevant most brands truly are:

  • 43% of consumer tweets are conversational (@replies to other users)
  • Only 12% of all marketer tweets show active dialogue with consumers
  • Only 1% of consumer tweets that mention a brand are part of a conversation with that brand

In the words of Nigel Carr, “the measure of communication lies with consumers; they are the ones who will notice or not, become involved or not.” Messages in the digital realm don’t need to be more informative, persuasive or believable. Instead, they need to be more noticeable, more relevant, more involving and more effective (Goldman, 1995).

Conversation is remarkable!As advertisers, it is our responsibility to utilize digital channels in ways that are cognizant of consumers’ usage habits. We must understand how consumers use digital channels, how they consume information and what content is most relevant in a digital format.  My next series of posts will examine how advertisers can better develop remarkable digital messages, as well as how brands must evolve to maintain relevance on digital media.

360i. (2010). Twitter & the Consumer-Marketer Dynamic [White paper]. Retrieved from http://ht.ly/2hkb3.

Goldman, Debra. (1995, April 10). The Species. ADWEEK, 31-21.

You Are What You Consume

We all can say, with varying levels of confidence, that the evolution of the Internet has allowed us to access, share and distribute information and opinions with increasing ease.  You can share news articles, sound off on discussion boards, independently publish content and find countless commentaries on any subject that manages to capture your attention.  However, does more, or most importantly easy, mean better?  Many researchers are saying no.

Nicholas Carr recently published an article for CNN Tech, “Is the internet making us quick but shallow?” In the article, he cites the President’s recent concern that our beloved digital gadgets are turning information into a “distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment” rather than a means of intellectual “empowerment.”  And in fact, a 2009 article by Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist that teaches at UCLA, drew attention to supporting evidence that our increased interaction with computers, smartphones and other digital platforms weakens our ability to think deeply, critically and creatively.

If this is true, it presents a bit of an oxymoron: a technology that is based on informing, inspiring and educating its users may in fact be doing the opposite.  And it’s an oxymoron that borders on technological blasphemy in the eyes of many avid members of the digital community.  Bloggers and media outlets rushed to condemn Obama as being a ‘technophobe’ (coming from Economist magazine according to the article), perhaps because he is ‘a grumpy old man’.

Why is the majority so quick to criticize those that question the effects of the Internet?  Criticism is often what breeds improvement and evolution.  However, in this case, I don’t think it is the Internet, smartphones or social platforms that need to do the evolving – it’s us.

The next time you stumble upon an link or article, ask yourself the following:

Is the author legitimate?

Are there any hard facts, research or expert opinions that back this up?

Is this information useful in my personal, professional or social life?

Why do I agree or disagree with this?

They seem elementary, but when I thought about it I couldn’t pinpoint the last time I’d really consciously thought about those factors. Those four simple questions are helping me kick my bad habits and consume more constructively. The great thing about the Internet is anyone can publish and share content.  The bad part about the Internet is anyone can publish and share content.

It’s up to us to separate and determine what is first legitimate, and second useful in improving our daily life.  If we become indiscriminate consumers of information, the Internet will lose its power to enlighten.  Instead, we stand to become passive users who are shaped by the serendipitous convergence of links in our Twitter streams, blog feeds, and surfing expeditions rather than our own opinions.

If you don’t have something true to say, then don’t say anything at all.

Today I read an article that struck a chord. The article, BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ Slogan Becoming Toxic, highlighted the widespread disappointment BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ campaign has created.  For the most part, I agree.  The slogan seems ridiculous in the aftermath of one of the worst oil disasters in history. And as the article points out, their lofty promises only serve to make the fiasco worse. It feels like a sucker punch to those who bought into it, and validation to those who maintained a skeptical stance.

This is a great lesson for companies within any industry. What you say really does matter. The words that you use to brand your company become your brand promise. BP’s brand promise was focused on its commitment to improving the environment.  The bad news for BP is that brand promises equate to consumer expectations.  When you attach a statement to you brand, you better be ready to deliver.  If you don’t, the damage to your brand will be exponentially worse than if you had never said anything at all.

Make sure the slogan you choose for your brand is consistent with what is going on behind closed doors.  Advertising can create an image for a company, but it is the reinforcement of that image that really creates brand equity.  Nike has used ‘Just Do It’ for years.  It continues to work because they continue to embody that statement.  They endorse the best athletes, support collegiate athletic programs and put out great gear.  Choose a statement that reflects what is already great about your company, or if you are undergoing a fundamental change in corporate values, make sure that you’re walking the walk before you go public.

5 Little Brand Investments That Pay Big Dividends

In today’s diversified, competitive market, driving a consumer to try your product or service for the first time often takes a significant investment of resources.  Delivering on the value or benefit you have promised is essential to fostering a relationship with your customer that has substance, durability and longevity.  The difference between a negative, neutral or positive brand experience is surprisingly small.  Each customer interaction is a chance to make a great impression, gain share of mind and develop long-term brand loyalty – so what can you do to make a difference?

1. Find out what matters to them.

You may think your in-room dry cleaning service is the best thing since the World Wide Web, but if your hotel caters to lakeside tourists and families, it won’t matter.  Think about what your customers find valuable and find a way to offer it.  If you are a business-to-business company, it may come in the form of easily downloadable notes on your latest products.  If your focus is retail consumers, you may want to think about a simple loyalty rewards program.  The point is, it doesn’t have to be big – it just has to be relevant.

2. Admit your limitations.

Admitting your limitations doesn’t mean broadcasting your shortcomings to your customer base.  It does, however, mean recognizing the areas you excel in and focusing your energy.  Your brand can’t be everything to everyone.  If you try, you will inevitably end up disappointing your customers in an attempt address needs you either do not have the resources to meet, or lack the experience to satisfy.  Instead, pick a targeted portfolio of services or products and over-deliver.

3. Maintain your brand.

It is necessary to evolve to survive in today’s market.  However, be careful not to lose your customers in the process.  Strengthening your brand and improving your offerings will gain you points with your customers; altering your brand image based on the hottest weekly trends will not.  Create clear expectations for your brand and make sure you live up to those expectations.  If you do not, you risk confusing your customers or loosing them to brands they view as more established and consistent.

4. Keep your promises.

If you take a close look at your marketing and advertising, you should see the reoccurring values, features and benefits you communicate to the consumer.  Above all else, you must deliver on these promises.  There are few things that will hurt your company more than dissatisfied customers.  Disappointed customers talk.  They sound off on social networks, write online reviews and activate their word-of-mouth networks.  Take care of those that take care of you.

5. Know when you’ve won them over.

Nothing is more frustrated than gifting your loyalty to a company, only to be blasted with an email the next day asking you to become a customer.  Keep track of your customers, and make sure you recognize their status as such in any direct communications.  The shift in marketing and advertising channels has primarily been driven by the fact that consumers don’t want to be treated like another number.  Be sure to communicate your appreciation for their business and strive to treat them like a valued member of your business.

The Masses are Fickle: Make Sure Your Offline Experience Doesn’t Disappoint

Today we are constantly hearing how digital media is about building a relationship with your customer.  Technology allows us to interact on an immediate basis, and customize brand experiences based on the individual preferences of the user, whether the medium is a social network, email campaign or search-optimized advertisement.  As a result, we have come to expect this level of personal attention and responsiveness.  But what happens when these relationships move offline?  What are you doing to impress your customer once they walk through the door?

I think many companies fail to go the extra mile, and in doing so miss a valuable opportunity to create lifetime customers.  As versatile and prevalent as digital media is, for most companies a brand experience will go offline at some point.  If your customer purchases a product or service and it does not live up to the expectations that you have created through their digital interactions, not only will they be disappointed, but you will also lose credibility.

Offline experiences are a chance to make a powerful impact and show customers that you genuinely care about their personal experience with your product or service.  It doesn’t take a grand gesture – just think about the little things that make your daily life easier and better. Tom Martin does a great job of summing up how small efforts can make a big difference on customer experiences, and your overall profitability.  Marketing can get your customer through the door, but it won’t keep them there.

In my opinion, your most valuable customer is the one you already have.

Tried-and-True: When Old Customers Beat Shiny and New

A while back, I wrote an article for my company newsletter that touched on well-known basics for successful marketing.  In a search for some blog inspiration, I decided to revisit some of these key fundamentals and see if the last year of my increasing personal reliance on social networks and digital media had altered my perceptions at all, or if leveraging social media made meeting these basic objectives any easier.

I stumbled across this gem of wisdom – talk to your customers more often. It seems like common sense, but many companies forget to follow this simple guideline.  Luckily, the advent of social media has made this basic principle a lot harder to forget.

Brands can now have a direct two-way communication with their audience any time, anywhere.  With the rise of new technologies (mobile apps specifically come to mind) consumers are no longer tied down to their computers and are communicating, updating and sharing brand experiences on a minute-to-minute basis.

The challenge for brands comes in managing these communications in a way that builds brand loyal relationships and drives return on investment. Most businesses immediately think of developing new business when they define return on investment.  However, in my opinion, social media has the highest potential for return on investment when it comes to retaining an organization’s client base.

Depending on your source, statistics state that securing a new customer is five to seven times more costly for a company than retaining an existing one.  More interestingly, it’s been found that a 5% increase in client retention can drive profit increases of up to 100% (Harvard Business Review).  Don’t get me wrong, new business development has its place in digital media strategies.  However, for the majority businesses entering the social media realm, it makes more sense to focus initial activities on building on and increasing the value of existing relationships.

Why? Because managing an integrated digital media strategy is extremely time-consuming. Unless you have a competent, in-house social media team or hire a digital agency as support, it can be difficult to keep up with the constant stream of digital chatter and still run your business successfully. Unlike many traditional forms of new business development, consumers using social media expect a greater level of interaction before they will accept being directly marketed or sold to.

While this may not be true in all situations, (let’s be honest – I don’t really need my local coffee shop to tell me a funny anecdote to convince me to buy a latte) it is becoming increasingly expected in digital conversations.

For small companies, or those taking their first steps into social media, speaking to existing consumers has the maximum potential for return on investment.  When you have an existing, brand loyal relationship you can bypass the first stages of conversation, where self-promoting is a major faux pass.  In this segment, the focus can shift to encouraging trials of other products and services and maintaining customer satisfaction.  Most importantly, these relationships hold the potential to tap into powerful referral networks by leveraging influential consumer-to-consumer relationships.

The New New Year’s Resolution

As 2010 approaches, like everyone else I am taking a look at what I have accomplished in the past year and what I hope to accomplish in the upcoming year. Each year I make resolutions and set goals with an optimistic fervor, which are then for the most part forgotten by late January. This year I had given up on resolutions completely – until I found this post by Amber Naslund on how to create measurable objectives.

It got me thinking. In advertising, I work with companies to set goals and map out strategies to achieve those goals on a regular basis. Yet somehow, I am unable to do this in my personal life (at least when it comes to resolutions). Why? Well, like with many failed strategies, I don’t give myself a clear path to action.

In the article, Amber calls to our attention that we must go beyond creating general goals or visions for the future. Setting a goal to increase brand awareness through the United States is great, but it’s really just a starting point. In order to succeed, we have to create measurable objectives, outline strategies and monitor our progress through established metrics.

So, sure, you can make a New Year’s resolution to get into shape – but what does that mean really? Is getting in shape losing 20 pounds? Is it being able to run a marathon? Or is it just being able to run up the stairs without loosing your breath?

A co-worker recently sent me this statistic: Only 10% of the population has specific, well-defined goals, but even then, seven out of the ten of those people reach their goals only ½ the time. To give ourselves a fighting chance, we have to forget about lofty resolutions and embrace the nitty-gritty – objectives. Goal-setting research suggests that specific, difficult goals lead to higher levels of performance than easy goals or vague goals.

This year I am abandoning resolutions and creating a plan, complete with goals, objectives, strategies, tactics and metrics. It may be a little more complicated than your standard New Year’s Eve promise, but I think I will find my results to be a little more than standard as well.

The End of NMDL

Tomorrow is my last meeting for the New Media Driver’s License class I have been taking through Michigan State University.  When I started the class, I had no idea what to expect.  Beyond Facebook and Gmail, I had no experience with using internet networks and tools.  If you would have asked me then to predict where I would be now, I would not have even come close to being right.

Just a few short months later, I am an avid Twitter user, spend multiple hours a week reading through blogs and participate in numerous discussions on LinkedIn.

Not only have I learned to use these tools on a personal level, I now use them to market the advertising agency I work for, King Media.  It has increased my value as employee and given me skills that are highly valuable in this market, specifically, my increased knowledge in search engine optimization, Google AdWords and PPC advertising.

I am looking forward to expanding the communities I engage in and finding new ones to contribute to.  NMDL has been a great resource for me; I recommend anyone that has an opportunity to participate in a program such as this one to do so! Check out my final thoughts and presentation.