I was listening to a presentation by marketing leaders at a major consumer packaged goods (CPG) company this past week, and it made me think about the issue of the sustainability of our marketing campaigns and investments online. One of these marketers was talking about how her team, as part of a major brand marketing initiative, had launched a Web micro site. The site was well-produced, but it was little more than an online brochure (with some value-added content, to be fair). It was not bad, but my immediate thought was about the half life of such a site. Sure it would help drive traffic and subsequent exposure and attention for a period of time, but it was static, with nothing special to keep people coming back once they had gotten tired of it. It wasn’t serving as an ongoing catalyst for the customer relationship and for longer-term brand community.
I had a similar experience listening to another presentation by marketers at a different CPG about a month ago. They were talking about how a key piece of a new product launch was a ‘buzz campaign.’ It made me wince, but — yes — they were talking about paying people to go online and create buzz for their new product. The ethics of such a campaign aside, it also made me think about sustainability. As long as these ‘buzz agents’ were being paid to talk about the product, there would undoubtedly be dialogue in chat rooms and on blogs, but once the campaign was over, how long would this continue, and what would be the impact on the brand’s reputation if people found out about the paid buzz agents?
Dr. Justine Foo, a scientist and marketing researcher, perhaps said it best in a post, titled “New metrics for sustainable marketing,” on her Brains on Fire blog earlier this year: “Our current market is driven by short-term forces: get next quarter’s numbers up, what it will cost me now, # of mass impressions, etc. As a result, we create campaigns, not movements … .”
Where is the sustainability in all of this?
This to me is the core challenge of Internet marketing. Are we investing in campaigns that are little more than one-way ads/brochures online with diminishing returns, or are we investing in a long-term marketing presence that will establish a foundation for growth, that will really stir the passion of our customers and that will, as a consequence, be self perpetuating over a longer period of time? This is an issue that impacts not only the strength and life of our brands but also the ROI from our marketing investments.
What is marketing sustainability, and why should I care?
To answer this question, it’s worth taking a moment to understand what I mean by sustainability — getting away from the environmental associations — and how it is relevant for businesses.
> Business context: Sustainability in a business context is the concept of creating business strategies that meet the needs of today’s stakeholders, especially customers, employees and shareholders, “… without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” per the World Commission on Environment and Development in the G3 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines document from the Global Reporting Initiative. That means running a business in a responsible way that enables continuity and growth over time — i.e., creating a context for sustainable stakeholder value.
> Marketing context: This concept of sustainability is highly relevant in a marketing context, especially when considering marketing investments. A sustainable marketing presence is one that can be built upon and grown over time, contributing to sustainable and growing commerce. This means that a dollar invested in marketing today should not only generate revenue today, but it should also contribute to a growing stream of revenues down the road. Sustainable marketing is also integral to building and growing brand equity — a key asset for every business.
What are the key factors in Internet marketing sustainabilty?
The core of marketing sustainability is the effectiveness of programs that facilitate and grow customer connection. In the Internet environment, there seems to be two major levers that are most significant: engagement and ownership. To what degree are customers engaged in the marketing (i.e., actually interacting versus being passively exposed)? And to what degree do they take ownership of their engagement and proactively participate in the program?
When our Internet marketing programs promote customer engagement and ownership, we find that minor investments lead to tremendous returns. Not only do we convince these customers to buy our products, but these customers also become vested stakeholders in our marketing programs and brands; thus, our marketing investments produce multiples of returns through word of mouth, buzz and true brand advocacy. The impetus is then on us as marketers to build marketing programs that lead to engagement and ownership.
There are other ways to think of these key factors. I ran across an interesting, recent presentation by David Armano, vice-president of ‘experience design’ at marketing firm Critical Mass, (via Bob Kosovsky’s Furtive Librarian blog, BTW). Armano framed the issue of building a sustainable Internet marketing presence via what he calls the ‘three U-s.” They are:
- Usefulness: marketing that “serves a purpose”
- Utility: marketing that “fosters meaningful interactions”
- Ubiquity: marketing that is “effective across multiple touch points including social [media]”
One of the most basic ways to approach both engagement/ownership and the ‘three U-s’ is through technologies that invite user-generated content and experience — perhaps the most significant trend in Internet marketing today. This stuff changes everything, and yet many business leaders still question whether social media, social networking and user-contributed media is really in the mainstream.
If you don’t ‘believe’ that this ‘social stuff’ is really happening, consider these data points:
> Participation and user-generated content dominate the top global Web sites: Among the top 10 Web sites globally, according to Internet-tracking service Alexa, 5 out of those 10 are social media, social networking or user-generated media sites. They include: YouTube (3), Facebook (5), MySpace (7), Wikipedia (8) and Blogger.com (9). And even for the other 5, including Google, user-generated content is a critical piece of the overall equation.
> Growth among ‘produced’ sites is diminishing; engagement is critical: User-generated content increasingly rules the roost, not polished, professional and ‘produced’ content on sites such as Yahoo!, especially when it comes to news and information. “[O]nline news audience growth is flat and the market is highly fragmented, with nearly one-half of traffic going to sites that are below the top 100 news sites,” according to Jupiter Research in a press release issued in March of this year. And this is occurring even as the total number of Web sites globally continues to explode. In response, the same press release urged, “… site publishers must actively engage online users to combat audience fragmentation.”
> User-generated/social media IS a reality today when it comes to ‘best practices’ among Internet marketers: Former Forrester analyst Peter Kim, who is today working on an ‘enterprise social technology’ venture, keeps a tally of ‘social media marketing examples’ on his blog. It lists some pretty major companies with brands many are envious of. Most importantly, there are many companies on this list that have really embraced sustainability of their Internet marketing. I’d take a second to check out this list; the extent of the examples may surprise you.
What are the benchmarks for determining whether my company is building a sustainable Internet marketing presence?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue over the past week. Below is a working set of benchmarks. It’s not definitive, but it’s a good start:
> Is interactivity a feature or the focus? The number-one Web site on the Alexa rankings (from above) is Yahoo!. Some would argue that there is a tremendous amount of user-generated content and contributions on the Yahoo! site. I would agree. But I would push back on this point: Interactivity is a feature on Yahoo!, it is not the focus. What do I mean by this? It’s easy to add the ability to comment to your Web site, but does this lead to user-mediated interactions that breed engagement and ownership. No. It just means that users can comment. As a consequence, are you really building a sustainable relationship? Interactivity has to be the focus.
> Is your customer dialogue ‘produced’ or ‘authentic’? This gets into the issue raised earlier on by the CPG that was investing in ‘buzz agents.’ Sustainable marketing is predicated on building brand community. But when you are paying people to pretend like they are community members to drive excitement, what happens when those buzz agents are no longer in the mix? The buzz — not really sustainable — will die.
I might take this a step further, though, to include how honest your communications are with your customers. Is everything perfect in your online world — i.e., is everything polished and ‘produced’ — or can you — ‘authentically’ — admit when things don’t go perfectly in your customer relationships and engage in real dialogue?
As a retailer in this space, it is important for people to trust us. The only way people will trust us is if we are behaving in a way that makes us trustworthy. Part of that is sharing and being honest, genuine and open about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s working, and what’s not working.
Going forward with social media, maybe we can start to somehow get all those conversations on our Web sites. It’s not hard for people to see what’s being said about Best Buy, both the good and the bad. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, it’s being said, so why not make it easy.
Robert Stevens, the founder of Geek Squad who still works at Best Buy said to me, “Let’s make it real easy for customers to complain. We want to hear it. Then we can do something about it, so let’s do all we can to make it easy.”
> Are you advocating for your brand or building brand advocates? Push versus pull. That’s what it comes down to. Does your marketing make people want your brand, or are you focused on pushing your brand to people through an unending stream of campaigns, direct-mail pushes, etc.? Marketing that builds brand advocates (who then pull) is much more sustainable than marketing that constantly has to re-validate and remind people of its brand.
Related to this, in your Internet marketing, are you delivering tools to help support your brand advocates? Small things such as commenting and participating in the blogs of your brand advocates, rather than just letting them do this on your site, and helping them stay in touch via mechanisms such as RSS feeds and tags such as del.icio.us make a huge difference.
I think this also touches on the topic of brand community, which was the topic of a past post on this blog. That dialogue was about keeping up with your ‘mobile’ brand community. Does your Internet marketing strategy take into account the cross-channel reality of your brand advocates’ lives? I’d check it out.
> Are you helping or hurting return on brand equity? A business needs to generate revenue in increasing amounts over time. That comes from leveraging assets, and brands need to be a key asset in that scenario. Are you leveraging your brand equity to generate growing revenues, or is your Internet marketing actually using up your brand equity?
What’s next? What do you think?
As always, this dialogue is just beginning.
What can you add to the initial list of benchmarks, above? I’d love to hear more on the dimensions you think should be considered.
What do you think are the keys to sustainable marketing, and do you agree with the premise that we as marketers should care about business sustainability?
Please share your thoughts.