The challenge of any marketing strategy is that as marketing leaders we always face the great ‘leap of faith‘ that you can’t get over. We try to design marketing programs that coincide with right place, right time and right target audience. And we have binders full of statistical, demographic and ethnographic insights that we use to justify this triangulation. But it all remains a guess.
Further, our target customers don’t choose to participate in a given media or social-networking channel saying, “I hope my favorite brand will market to me there!” They choose these channels out of their own personal and professional interests and needs.
Finally, their choice of channel constantly changes over time.
Thus the underlying issue is that our brand communities are mobile – not just in the phone sense but in the holistic sense. And it’s our challenge and opportunity as marketing leaders to figure out how to keep up with them. Yet many of our legacy approaches, processes and platforms do not enable this; instead, they focus more on the medium, rather than the brand community relevance.
What can we do to help solve the ‘mobility’ problem and better center our marketing on brand communities?
Where should we start?
Nearly all of the major technology platforms and strategic marketing/brand frameworks have their shortcomings. But we’ve got to start somewhere, which is the goal of this post – to get the dialogue rolling on this most central of issues to us as marketers. I would like to propose that we start by: (1) understanding brand communities; (2) placing brand communities at the center of our marketing strategies; (3) recognizing the challenges and opportunities inherent to mobile marketing; and (4) asking the right questions as we evolve our marketing programs to better target our mobile brand communities.
What are brand communities?
Brand communities are a ‘connected’ group of admirers and/or active users of a brand, and they can exist on multiple levels. A brand community is also an important, conceptual way of thinking about brands as a cultural ‘totem’ or icon that helps to organize groups of consumers, their brand affiliations and the strength of those affiliations. On the one end of the spectrum, there are visible and strong brand communities, such as Harley-Davidson enthusiasts – a group often cited in academic papers and case studies. But brand communities are everywhere and cover even the most inconspicuous of brands.
Brand communities have always existed, but research into brand communities has only really evolved over the past decade. Professor Tom O’Guinn, who heads the Center for Brand and Product Management at Wisconsin, is a leading thinker on this topic. “Brand communities have changed the basic marketing paradigm in that it has forced marketers to realize the enormous importance of consumer-to-consumer communication in a wired world, where groups of consumers may speak not with the voice of one, but with the power of thousands,” commented O’Guinn in a 2007 press release.
The research of O’Guinn and his colleagues supporting the concept of brand communities provides a powerful way to think about how we market to our customers. Moreover, the growth of the Internet and of social networking/social media platforms has served as a key enabler for more effective identification of, connection with and management of brand communities.
Years ago brand communities may have been less visible, but today they are front and center. In fact, someone in your brand community may have even ‘friend-ed’ your brand on Facebook.
What are the implications of brand communities on marketing to an ever-mobile customer?
I believe that there are two key, twenty-first-century realities we must keep in mind:
> Think cross-channel; track their movements: In the past we might have arbitrarily decided that the particular customer we’re going after is ‘more of a radio audience’ (or TV, or Internet, etc.) and so we would have focused our major campaigns in this way. And our metrics and ratings from Nielsen or Arbitron would have been entirely-focused on that channel. Now, more than ever, we need to identify where our brand communities congregate, cross-channels, and track and measure the performance of our marketing investments in this way. We need to find correlations between channels and identify how our customers use these channels at different points in the process of interacting with and reacting to our brands. (One example can be found in the emergence of digital place-based media – covered in a recent post on this site – where there is a interesting opportunity to tailor messages to customers in specific settings, making specific decisions.) Then we need to communicate differently through different channels as part of an integrated marketing communication strategy. We also need to keep our fingers on the pulse and know when our brand communities are permanently migrating from one platform to the next.
> Capture mass perception, but maintain one-on-one relationships: O’Guinn succinctly identifies the universal truth of a brand community – that it is not a homogeneous collective but, rather, is a collection of individual perspectives and opinions that has a common interest – your brand. This means that while mass perceptions do matter, your integrated marketing communication strategy needs to embrace one-on-one, customized and personalized interactions with your customers wherever possible. A one-size-fits-all message to a brand community will fall flat.
What are the challenges and opportunities inherent to mobile marketing?
A key opportunity for better connecting with our mobile brands – staying with them and maintaining that all-important, one-on-one dialogue – is to communicate with them via channels that allow access anytime, anywhere. The most compelling platform is, of course, their mobile phones and data devices.
Mobile marketing remains in its infancy – with many marketers wrapped up in text-based ad campaigns and sponsored-search marketing. Such an approach is, at the end of the day, not very sophisticated, has diminishing returns and imposes on the medium the same limitations that have been noted above about centering marketing activities on a communication channel, rather than on a brand community.
For mobile marketing to evolve and grow, we must treat it differently. But the question is how to do more with a platform that remains limited in many ways.
Let’s explore some of the challenges and opportunities:
> Voice and SMS remain king: Let’s not sugar coat this fact. The majority of usage of this medium is not about fancy graphics and snazzy iPhone manipulation of photos; today, the mobile medium is primarily about voice and text. 80% of mobile operator revenues comes from voice services, according to industry analyst group Yankee Group in an article in Telephony magazine. Mobile text campaigns regularly get 10X better return than those using rich media, according to the CEO of Limbo in a BrandWeek article. An iPhone user is 70% more likely to use SMS, according to Nielsen Mobile in the same BrandWeek article.
But let’s qualify this data. Those phone calls and texts are the ‘ether’ that ties together brand communities and is how ideas and insights spread at a grassroots level. So the challenge may be the slow adoption of the advanced, rich-media mobile services we all dream of, but the opportunity is to enable and participate in this dialogue today, via predominant mediums, not imaginary future mediums.
> Cross-channel ‘mash-ups’ are changing the game: The opportunity to participate in this dialogue is rapidly emerging as part of a new round of mash-ups that are aligning the capabilities of the Internet and social-networking/social-media world with the accessibility of mobile devices.
Perhaps the most interesting of developments is centered on the portability of social networking/social media platforms. LinkedIn, a tool for professional networking, has migrated from accessibility via a Web interface to integration with Outlook and now with your mobile BlackBerry or iPhone. Meanwhile Facebook, a platform for broader social networking (and perhaps the better channel when it comes to tools and capabilities for interfacing with brand communities in the consumer arena), has also gone mobile. In fact, Facebook has a native application for BlackBerry and for iPhone, making it even more interactive and useful than LinkedIn’s mobile-browser interface. Increasingly, even Twitter and blogs (including the Propelling Brands blog) are optimized for mobile access.
Usage of these sites is still nascent, but it shows great potential for growth. Yankee Group, in a previously-cited Telephony article, states its belief that 15% of young adults/teens that use social networks already access them via mobile devices, and the firm pegs current carrier revenue from mobile social networking at $600 million. And there is a lot of room for growth.
The chart below (which I developed from a number of data sources, noted in the caption) illustrates what is still very early but promising penetration of mobile usage into leading social networking/social media sites:
Two other emerging mash-ups of interest to us as marketers: First is the evolution of mobile devices as an ‘e-wallet.’ This concept is not new, but there is emerging evidence that this idea has potential traction with consumers. Harris Interactive, in a BrandWeek article, notes that roughly 20% of consumers want to see their mobile phone become an e-wallet. Second is Google’s foray into the mobile arena. The drawback to Google’s approach is that it is still very search-centric, which means that it is a more-tangential approach to centering marketing on brand communities; however, their new, open-source ‘Android’ platform for mobiles will likely offer marketers a whole new level of intelligence when it comes to interacting with and measuring brand communities on the go.
> Lots of promise: Not surprisingly, many marketers are very bullish about mobile marketing. 83% of marketers believe mobile marketing effectiveness will grow over the next 3 years, and 23% of mobile subscribers have been exposed to mobile marketing, according to Forrester in the same BrandWeek article cited above. The good news is that such an attitude lowers institutional barriers. Translation: ‘We want it; we just don’t have the tools, yet, to maximize our use of it!’
How can we better align marketing programs with mobile brand communities?
To be clear, my overall statement here is not that in order to stay with your ‘mobile’ brand community you need to embrace mobile marketing. Mobile communication mediums are just one aspect of this opportunity to shift our opportunity and our thinking; rather, I think of this as an holistic move that has multiple parts.
Here is a proposed checklist of whether your existing marketing programs are aspiring to be mobile-brand-community-centric:
> Support for two-way dialogue: This is a topic I’ve noted before and is inherent to platforms such as Twitter (discussed in a previous blog piece). Are the channels you’re using to communicate with your brand community one-way or two? Are you listening, or are you just talking?
> Tracking organic community movements: I’m not talking about location-based services or GPS or ‘big brother.’ It’s simple: Will you know when your brand community migrates from one platform to the next? AOL is a great case study in this. In many ways, the combination of Facebook and Twitter have taken the place of AOL, it’s e-mail platform, its communities and its AOL Instant Messenger application. If these were mediums that you were marketing through, can you honestly say you were aware of the migration as it was happening?
> Incentives and rewards; participation: How pervasive is your customer relationship? What are the incentives and rewards inherent in not only your product or service but in the marketing programs that promote your product or service? A friend and colleague, John Rotheray, who is working on an interesting venture related to mobile marketing, likes to call it ‘participation’ marketing. I like this concept a lot. How participative is your marketing program?
> Multi-channel/multi-platform thinking: When you look at the lifecycle of your consumer and his/her purchase decision, how have you integrated your marketing communication programs so that there is a seamless handoff from one medium to the next? And how natural is that connection? There are numerous instances of marketers ‘forcing’ brand communities to aggregate on branded product websites. Is that the right approach? How channel and platform agnostic are you? This is less of a problem as Web-browsing standards have stabilized, but if you’re pursuing mobile marketing, do you work on a range of mobile devices or just one? Most importantly, are you embracing platforms, such as Facebook (and, frankly, even plain-old-text-based e-mail) that can be served up in numerous mediums – via desktop application, via Web and via mobile? And have you optimized your communications so that they can be viewed easily cross-channel/cross-platform? These are the subtleties and the realities of staying with our brand communities.
> Brand-community-centric metrics: Finally, and most importantly, do you know when you’re connecting with your brand community versus just generating a lot of ‘impressions?’ Do you have the right metrics in place to assess the quality and strength of your connection with you brand community and to gain guidance about where you might take your branded products and services? This is perhaps most fundamental and a topic we will come back to in future posts.
This dialogue is just beginning. What are your thoughts on centering marketing programs on brand communities? What are your experiences with making marketing mobile and multi-channel/multi-platform? Please share your thoughts.