Where’s the value in your communications planning?

What is the common factor behind all effective communications? There are of course many ways to answer this question but in this blog I want to look at the concept of value. By this I mean communication that has value not just to the people who initiate it but also, importantly, to the intended audience.

Why should they be interested?

The starting points for most communication planning tend to be business objectives, target outputs and outcomes, key messages, target audiences, appropriate channels and scheduling. A question that often doesn’t get asked at this stage is – why should the target audience be interested? Or put another way, what will the target audience perceive the value of this communication to be?

It is surprisingly easy for communications planners to forget this element or to take it for granted. A good example of this is when planning communications for a change programme. By its nature this type of communications tend to be top down, with the drivers of change coming from a senior level. From this perspective the focus is often on generating a set of key messages in line with the company’s strategic objectives. The expected value for senior management is clear; strategic changes and objectives will be communicated and employees will be motivated to join them in the brave new world they are creating. The real result is often low levels of engagement, or worse, confusion and alienation.

Don’t assume

Why is this the case? It’s caused by an assumption which is often made in communications planning. Namely, it’s important to us, so it must automatically be of interest to our target audience.

The key here is perception. Even if information is relevant and important to an audience, unless its value is made clear in the framing and delivery of it, audiences may well not engage with it. Value for an audience is derived from perceived relevance i.e. the more this information seems relevant to me, the more value I will attach to it.

Always ask why

This takes us back to some of the basic principles of effective communications planning: understand your audience, carry out meaningful segmentation, select appropriate channels and use language which will be understood. Ultimately, it should always be clear to your target audience why you are communicating with them.

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The end of ‘push’ marketing

Traditionally marketing and advertising have been predominantly based on models involving the ‘pushing’ of messages at audiences or attempts to interrupt their lives, whether through television adverts, outdoor posters or online banner ads, so they see your product and hopefully decide to buy it.

The notion of ‘pulling’ customers and consumers in to your brand or product has run parallel to these approaches but has generally played a smaller role in the marketing strategies of most businesses. That said, engaging and ‘pulling’ has been gaining currency in the last ten or fifteen years, particularly now with the rise of social media, as compellingly explained by Brian Solis in his book Engage.

Now the dynamic has changed, a tipping point has been reached and the new paradigm is one where push and interruption are becoming less and less effective and relevant. It is noticeable that these approaches now mainly reside in those media where impact and ROI are difficult to measure.

Increasingly customer touchpoints – television adverts, banner ads, even outdoor posters – are conditioned the by the characteristics, needs, location and behaviour of the person on the receiving end.

What does this mean for your marketing strategy?
Now effective marketing is about being there for your target customer at the right place, at the right time, and with the right proposition. This means segmentation strategy is more important than ever. An effective marketing plan will be based on a strong understanding of your customers, beyond traditional demographics to psychographics and behavioural analysis – as Johanna Blakley explains in her TED talk ‘Social media and the end of gender’. If your proposition is going to be there exactly when your customer needs and wants it you’ll need to understand not only their current or potential relationship with your brand but also how they interact with and feel about different media channels.

Even with all this planning the modern marketer must fully accept, as PR professionals have done for years, that they have no ownership of their message. For this reason your message must be clear and compelling enough to resonate whether it’s been refined for a different setting or channel or passed through other agents.

No one is more adept at filtering out unwanted noise than the modern customer. Everyone is now bombarded with so much information that the only rational response is to listen out for what seems relevant and to shut the rest off. Relevance and resonance are now the cornerstones of effective marketing.

Technology is now allowing for a truly customer focused world, marketing strategies and campaigns must do the same.

So… understand your customer, put genuine empathy – as explained by Seth Godin on his blog – at the heart of your planning process and be wherever they need you to be, when they need you to be there.

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Why you shouldn’t try to buy your customers

Cover of "Predictably Irrational: The Hid...

Cover via Amazon

Loyalty and advocacy – businesses and marketers are increasingly devoting time and resources to attempting to inspire these behaviours in their customers.

When trying to engender these responses from customers it can be tempting to offer monetary incentives in the form of discounts, sales, cashback offers etc. But, using these techniques to reposition, convert, or develop the relationship between your brand and its consumers can have unintended, and potentially negative, consequences.

In his book on behavioural economics, Predictably irrational, Dan Ariely draws a useful distinction between ‘social’ and ‘market’; norms:

Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy … and reciprocity is not immediately required.’

Market norms are different…

The exchanges are sharp-edged with costs and benefits. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for – that’s just the way it is.’

These definitions are instructive to those working in marketing and, in particular, for those concerned with customer retention and loyalty.

Ariely goes on to explain that once you set the terms of your relationship in ‘market’ or monetary terms it is very difficult to move back to a more ‘social’ dynamic. For businesses this can be dangerous because a customer who is judging you solely, or predominantly, on a cost basis can easily be lured away by a competitor competing on these terms.

Building a social relationship may take more time and creativity but it will also be harder for a competitor to replicate. By tapping into the consumer’s social drivers – i.e. those of community and status – companies will be more likely to draw out behaviours such as loyalty. Consumers will be more likely to relate to the brand and therefore likely to advocate its values and benefits in their other social activities.

Many companies are realising and exploiting these ideas in their advertising and product offerings:

  • For example, moneysavingexpert.com allows users to thank other users for their advice and comments. Over time a user can gain medals, which demonstrate their perceived ‘value’ to other users of the site. This arbitrary and, in economic terms, valueless reward has been extremely effective in conditioning the behaviour of certain users to give their time and effort to the site, increasing the value of the site, while costing the company no money. It is possible that by offering users a small cash sum for useful comments the same outcomes would have been achieved. However for this approach to be financially viable the incentives would have to be so small that it seems unlikely. Think about it like this: would you be more likely to spend time writing a well informed piece of advice for five pence or for the thanks of hundreds of people and even a badge signifying how well informed and helpful you are?
  • In another example Vodaphone have recently been running a campaign advertising their VIP service. Rather than offering discounts or other monetary incentives, the advert offers the chance to get front-row seats at fashion events. The relationship offered is set in terms of status (the potential for bragging rights) and exclusivity (implying access to a particular community). These are powerful incentives and create a set of brand associations far more complex and potentially valuable than simply leading on price.
  • Finally, the online poker site PKR has instigated a very creative driver to encourage loyalty in their customers. The mechanism is very straightforward: users are able to use ‘PKR points’ to dress their online avatars. Clearly having a well-dressed character to play poker with has no financial benefit to the user but it does very effectively tap into the social drivers of community, social validation and status. It encourages users to make an investment in their avatar, which creates a relationship between them and the site. It also encourages a peer pressure whereby users can end up being ridiculed for not spending points dressing their avatar. Through this approach PKR have changed a poker site from a solely transactional setting to a social environment, which encourages relationship building and loyalty.

These examples highlight the importance of how you set the relationship between your brand and your customers, and show that while economic incentives may seem an obvious way to direct customer behaviour, they may not always be the most effective.

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The rise of the Human Internet

Google‘s recent algorithm changes (as reported in Brand Republic today) ostensibly aim to combat retailers looking for negative feedback, as highlighted in the infamous New York Times article on Decormyeyes. For those companies and retailers who do not partake in ‘black hat’ SEO tactics this should be viewed as good news. The interesting thing about these changes is that they increase the importance of sentiment and subjectivity in shaping how people experience the web.

This represents a significant development in wider changes taking place on the web, how we use it, how we experience it and what our expectations are.  This is the rise of the human Internet.

During the early years of the Internet many users were content simply to have access to information more quickly and conveniently. They accepted that the experience would be vastly different to real life. In this context companies and marketers could simply transpose their broadcast advertising techniques and product brochures onto this new channel. But as more people have started accessing the Internet expectations have changed. A greater diversity of people are demanding that services and content are designed around their needs and if your company can’t meet these needs they’ll find one that can.

Due to changes in available technology power has shifted away from companies and advertisers. One of the consequences of this shift is that more than ever people are able to interact with people.

The real world comes online

Nowhere is this change more apparent that on the increasingly popular and influential social networks. These networks mean that people’s ability to interact with other people has increased exponentially and suddenly rather than viewing the internet as a sterile and static environment it has become a place of social interaction, subjective discourse and human experience. For marketers this means a crucial shift in approach from simplistic customer segmentation and targeting to one of qualitative understanding and engagement.

Who are you really?

As the online world becomes more able to cater to the social instincts of people marketing which lets people understand and engage with the people in your business will become increasingly important. So elements such as blogs – with a place for comments – videos and podcasts are likely to gain in value. These channels allow customers to use the instincts they use in the real world to make decisions on whether they trust someone and want to do business with them.

Push and pull

As people’s experience of the Internet becomes more sophisticated the emphasis for marketing will need to be more on: engaging potential customers, drawing them in to your online offer, allowing them to share what they find so they can discuss and validate with people they trust and enabling them to access the people that make up your company. More than ever your brand will be judged by its values and behaviour as opposed to your stated benefits and claims.

The B2B social purchase cycle

Previously potential customers may have been content to realise a need, carry out some research and make a purchase. Now, because of developments in communication technology, there is a greater importance placed on developing a deeper understanding and relationship with the selling company. There is more scope for seeking the views and validation of other people and using this information to reduce your risk as a buyer.

Listen and hear

What does this mean for marketers working for companies hoping to sell products and services? Essentially, it means a paradigm shift in strategic and tactical terms. Of the traditional 4 or 7 Ps of marketing a greater emphasis must be put on the people element and they should be complemented by participation and engagement. It also means the classic marketing audit has now become a much more dynamic study, audits should be less a snapshot and more a framework based on strategic objectives and populated by trend, pattern and sentiment data.

More than ever marketing teams cannot afford to work in isolation, they must link with customer services (in particular CRM), business development and sales.

In this world internal communications and employee engagement become increasingly important because customers will want to know about and interact with the people who make up your business.

Simply put, the web is beginning to be able to handle and facilitate the complexities of human interaction in the real world. Marketing needs to reflect this change or it will become increasingly irrelevant.

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Demonstrate your online marketing ROI (Infographic)

The online marketing metrics wheel below should help you in selecting the right metrics for your online marketing campaign (including social media, for which over 100 metrics are featured) and make it easy to track you efforts back to your core business objectives thereby clearly demonstrating ROI.

The metrics wheel aims to allow you to simply join the dots from your business objectives to your marketing metrics giving you a clear base from which to develop your business case narrative.


Infographic of online marketing metrics

The online marketing metrics wheel

I hope you find it helpful, any suggestions as to how it could be improved are welcome.

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5 steps to social media marketing credibility

I met with the head of a branding and media agency yesterday who talked to me about the number of clients who were demanding a social media element to their campaign regardless of whether it fit into their business objectives.

For someone like me who advocates the use of social media it’s positive that businesses seem to be keen to get on board. But I worry about the damage that can be caused to the longer-term credibility of social media once this zeitgeist phase is over. With that in mind I thought I’d run through the key elements of planning a social media campaign or participation strategy which should ensure that they deliver tangible business benefit.

1.            Understand the business objectives and needs

No activity should be undertaken unless it can be clearly linked into the objectives of the business, a campaign which is successful on its own terms and doesn’t generate revenue, reduce costs or improve your customer’s experience will not be able to demonstrate ROI and ultimately this will make it harder to secure funding for future activities.

2.            Base your decisions on evidence

The reality is, if you carry out your research, develop a comprehensive social map and it turns out your target customers and prospects are not to be found on social networks then these are not the right channels to use at this time.

3.            Segment, target and position

Many of the traditional principles behind successful marketing are still relevant in these new fields. Understanding who you are trying to reach, why you are targeting them, what you want them to do and how you want them to do it is still essential. Tweeting to whole world about your great brand and not generating any engagement or sales isn’t going to achieve very much for your business.

4.            Integrate

In this context integrate has two meanings:

Firstly, particularly if you are developing a participation strategy for your business, make sure it is integrated with the work of relevant functions i.e. customer services, business development, product development and of course marketing. Social participation is mainly about establishing relationships, you wouldn’t send only your marketing executive to every meeting with a client or business development event in the real world so why do it online?

Secondly, if you are running an integrated campaign make sure it is just that. I’ve seen a number of high profile campaigns with expensive television commercials and outdoor adverts which drive people to Facebook pages only to see that no-one is actually managing that presence leading to lots of dissatisfied and confused potential customers. What a waste.

5.            Identify meaningful metrics and measure

This goes for all marketing but it is essential for establishing the credibility of new channels and new media. Think from your business objectives up and look for tangible and valuable change. Having 800 followers is nice but if none of them are converting to sales or interacting with you then what are they actually worth to the business?

This is an exciting time for social media and it’s great that businesses are willing to experiment with it but there are risks. If your social media marketing doesn’t deliver demonstrable benefits now, why should others in the business believe that it will in the future?

Does this strike a chord with you?

How are you getting on with demonstrating the value of social media marketing?

What kind of metrics have you found most useful? Why don’t you share them on Twitter by using #SMMmetrics

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What social media participation strategies can learn from the Lean Startup process

In a previous blog post (The hedgehog and the fox) I talked about the importance of having a flexible and incremental approach to social media marketing. My key point was that rather than having a single approach underpinning your social media participation strategy or marketing campaign, given the range and speed of data available, it makes more sense understand your overall goals and to take many approaches to achieving them. This way when your video goes ‘viral’ or a particular message creates a buzz you can respond quickly and capitalise on the opportunity.

Recently, I was made aware of Eric Reis and Steve Blank’s work on the Lean Startup approach to product development and it rang some bells.

In their presentation, The Lean Startup – low burn by design not crisis, Steve Blank and Eric Reis describe in importance of ‘agility’ in business success: “Agility requires a continuous cycle of interactions with the environment.”

In simple terms the Lean Startup process (explained graphically below) advocates moving the ‘customer validation’ stage of product development much earlier in the process. This avoids time, effort and resources developing a product for which there is no market. Once the feedback from customers is received the company can then ‘pivot’ (refine or even radically alter) their approach accordingly. Essentially they are suggesting putting the customer firmly in the centre of process.


A flow diagram of the lean startup process

The Lean Startup process


What does this mean in marketing terms? Basically, it means get out there. Don’t be afraid of customers and don’t spend all your time working up a perfect (on paper) participation strategy for your company only to find when you launch it into the live world of social networks nobody is interested.

The relatively low cost of entering social networks, coupled with the analytical tools available allow the customer validation phase of a campaign or participation strategy to occur earlier and more easily. This, in turn, reduces the risk of investing significant resources into an approach that will not lead to customer (or revenue) creation – a problem often associated with high cost, relatively fixed traditional campaigns.

Old media marketing, with its long lead-ins and relatively slow and inaccurate feedback mechanisms, relied on large scale, rigid strategies. With new media the key is to have an understanding of your business’s goals and to work flexibly and incrementally to reach them.

Social media is about marketing and engaging in a fluid context. Be agile, be adaptive and above all listen (be smart with your monitoring, metrics and reporting processes) and put yourself in a position to react quickly and appropriately (pivot).

As Eric Reis says lean, agile approaches are about ‘not wasting people’s time’ by pursuing ideas which will not give you a return.

You can get more information on this approach in Eris Reis’s entertaining and interesting presentation at the Web 2.0 Expo in May of this year.

Do you have experience in devising and delivering participation strategies?

Has your experience differed from developing traditional style marketing strategies?

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