Thursday, January 29, 2009

Death of the Influentials?

In the flat world of web communication networks, is the old marketing strategy of seeking out influential opinion-leaders really dead?

Some digital digerati (like Guy Kawasaki) suggest that in today’s world of blogging and tweeting, mass reach is the name of the game. Guy’s argument is that the internet and social media have eliminated or substantially reduced any semblance of information dissemination hierarchy. As such, if you extend your reach as far as possible through as many network nodes as possible, you will reach more prospective customers and thereby optimize your results. In this view, focusing on reaching “influentials” who might effectively distribute your message to an audience of more likely buyers is a waste of time. Just blog away and let anyone and everyone carry the message.

On the other side of the issue are people like Ed Keller of Keller Fay, who literally wrote the book on the influentials. Ed’s research into both online and offline WOM suggests that A) online WOM is still only a small fraction of offline WOM volume in most categories, and that nothing is more effective at driving behavior than the objective recommendation of a known, credible source. This would suggest that pursuing sheer volume of reviews and opinions flying around the websphere may be a potentially distracting pursuit to the marketer seeking highly effective leverage of their limited resources.

I see some parallels in marketing history here to how first network television and then direct mail each boomed on the strength of message delivery efficiency, and then busted under the declining marginal returns as clutter and CPMs rose and response rates declined. Each respectively then fractured further (network TV to cable TV; direct mail into database marketing) in search of targeting efficiencies. The idea of targeting “influentials” was born out of a desire to focus the increasingly constrained marketing team resources on the points of greatest leverage in the market.

Granted, there are substantial differences in the evolution of web communications, not the least of which is the no/low cost of pushing out messages. But it strikes me that the real cost of communicating with a flat world is the time and energy it takes to respond to all the feedback you get, much of which is irrelevant (owing to the reverse-application of the flat world theory back on you). This is just one of the dimensions of measuring WOM effectively.

So I suspect that the futurists forecasting the death of the influential-centric strategy are just that, futurists (and, somewhat paradoxically, influentials themselves). If you’re selling Coke or Crest or something else that practically anyone in the world (including emerging economies) would buy, maybe the flat world model works. But until we have appropriate technology for effectively and efficiently sifting/sorting and managing the feedback from the flat world, most marketers would probably be better off concentrating their efforts on reaching the right “nodes of influence” within the websphere.

Presumably that’s what you and I are both doing right this very moment.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Taking Full Credit When Harvesting Brands

I’ve spent the past few days at the AMA’s MPlanet conference, listening to every speaker make some form of the following statement:

Now more than ever before, we need to build and nurture our brand assets.

Presumably this is intended to mean that in these times of great economic challenge, we cannot afford to let our brand standards slip, our brand equities become cloudy, or our brand experience decay.

Fair enough. But does that mean that we should be spending money to build these brand assets, even in the face of substantial cutbacks elsewhere? Or just be cautious not to cut things that would cause an undue decline in brand strength?

This had me wondering … under what conditions would we expect to be able to “harvest” some of the investment we’ve been making? How bad would things have to get before we expected the brand to “pay us back”? At what point would a CMO stand up and advocate “harvesting brand value”?

Sure, I understand that you should always be working on building your brand, and that done right, it is always paying you back. The flow is bi-directional and fluid. But it’s also transparent, and that’s the problem.

Assets, in a financial context, are a way of storing cash value for later use. You invest in stocks as assets, with the expectation that they will appreciate and return more cash to you later. Likewise, you invest in assets like manufacturing equipment, software, or other “tools” required to produce goods or services to sell. Brands could be said to play a similar role. Yet property, plant, and equipment are depreciated over time to reflect the decline of their useful life. Stocks and bonds are liquid assets for which there are markets to quickly buy and sell them, thus establishing their value.

Brands, on the other hand, aren’t depreciated. They can become “impaired” (accounting term meaning they are worth less than you paid for them, thereby triggering a write-down), but only if you purchased them from someone else. So if we marketers are going to rationalize some of our cash spending in good times by talking about “investing” in brand “assets”, at some point we are expected by the financial types to demonstrate how that asset value is being realized back into cash. I call it, “harvesting”.

So under what circumstances would you consider harvesting some of that brand equity?

Well, for starters, if you need to raise prices without adding any incremental costs associated with new features, benefits, or other value visible to the customer. In that case, you are relying on your brand asset to carry you past the danger of customer defection. To the degree that you averted attrition related to unilateral price increases (not matched by competitors immediately), you can legitimately claim that your brand “saved” you money. This is measurable.

Likewise, when a competitor announces a new product/feature/benefit that you cannot match, thereby taking an advantage in perceived value, you rely on your customers’ relationship with your brand to carry you through until you can once again restore your value proposition to its rightful state. This too is measurable.

And finally, when some aspect of your customer experience is deficient – a poor interaction with a call center agent, an inaccurate statement, or maybe a data privacy mishap – you rely on the strength of the overall brand relationship to carry you through. The value of this too is measurable.

So in this economy, while your budget is getting cut again and again, be sure to take the necessary steps to earn credit for how you’re now “spending” some of that “asset” value you built up over time. Done correctly, it will underscore what a good steward of company resources you are, and how far-sighted you’ve been all these years.

Just be careful not to overspend that brand asset account along the way (also measurable).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Yes We Can - The Marketing Renaissance Moment

It strikes me that the spirit of "Yes We Can" is very applicable to marketing at this particular point in time when many have recently suffered significant cuts in marketing budgets owing to their lack of ability to demonstrate the financial value derived from those investments.

Yes We Can apply more discipline to how we measure the payback on marketing investments without increasing the workload proportionately.

Yes We Can embrace this discipline without harming the creative energy so critical to marketing success.

Yes We Can measure those "softer" elements like branding, customer experience, innovation, and word-of-mouth, and link them to impacts on company cashflows.

Yes We Can overcome gaps in data and find ways to build reasonable approximations which even the CFO will embrace.

Yes We Can align the entire company on a single set of marketing metrics and all use the same yardsticks to measure success.

Yes We Can forecast the impact of changes in spending amount or allocation in ways that will inspire confidence instead of criticism.

Yes We Can anticipate the challenges ahead with reasonable certainty and act now to prepare ourselves to meet them head-on. And most importantly,

Yes We Can restore credibility and confidence in marketing as a means of driving profitable growth in our companies, regardless of industry, sector, corporate politics, culture, structure, or market dynamics.

The present economic environment offers a unique opportunity to re-invent the role of marketing in the organization, and to re-establish the critical links between our marketing efforts and the bottom-line shareholder value they create.

Believe it. If you're not doing it, your competitors likely are. There are no more good excuses. There is only "Yes We Can".

Monday, January 12, 2009

Gaining More Than "Experience" from Measurement

I recently did some in-depth interviews with CMOs from 6 multi-billion dollar companies which revealed these key measurement challenges and obstacles still looming large in 2009:

  1. Lack of clarity - not having a specific definition of what they're trying to measure, and getting lost in the ambiguity of the process. HINT: define and prioritize the key questions you're trying to answer BEFORE you set out to measure them. Read this.
  2. Inability to measure the "brand" impact - having great difficulty getting funding for branding activities/initiatives due to absence of any hard financial evidence of how brand drives value. Here are a few ideas. NOTE: solve this one now, or what's left of your branding budget may well disappear in the tough year ahead.
  3. No or bad data - this is not a reason, it's an excuse. There are dozens of ways to overcome short-term data gaps IF you realize that doing so is a people/politics challenge and not a technical one.
  4. Low credibility in the board room - the chickens have come home to roost. In the good times, we should have been working on building your knowledgebase of how marketing drives shareholder value. Now, all we can do is move funds from the more intangible activities to the more quantifiable. That's not a strategy. That's an outcome. How to NOT lose the battle next time around.

If you're still struggling to get an insightful and credible measurement program off the ground (or to see it reach a higher level of value), look here to see what your symptoms are, and then find the prescribed cure.

On the bright side, out of this economic crisis marketers are sure to gain some valuable experience ("experience" is what you get when you don't get what you want). As a community, we will learn from it and do better next time. At least, those of us who are actively working hard to get better will.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Research Priorities Are All Wrong

I got an email today from the Marketing Research Association spelling out the "top 6 issues for protecting the profession". Included were:

  1. Increasing difficulty of reaching consumers via cell phones
  2. Consumer fears of behavior tracking
  3. Stage and federal government interest in shady incentive practices used to entice medical professionals
  4. Unpopularity of "robocalls" and automated dialing
  5. Public backlash to "push-polls"
  6. Data security and breach protocols

While each of these dynamics is a threat to the future of the research industry, the bigger threat is the increasing irrelevance of research to senior management. More and more companies have outsourced their strategic marketing research functions to suppliers. The suppliers have been consolidating, often being acquired by bigger agency or marketing services holding companies. Not surprisingly, there is a serious degradation of objectivity that occurs in the process. And the more junior marketers now left client-side to direct the research program within their companies are not generally as politically senior/influential as one needs to be to push through the right research agenda - especially in times of immense cost-cutting pressure. (see Rebuilding Trust in Research as a Measurement Tool)

Sure, there are many executional threats facing the research industry today. But unless the way research is conceived in an appropriate strategic/financial context and prioritized for the value it potentially holds, the methodological threats will be but cubes floating in an ocean of icebergs.

It's time the research profession re-rises to the occasion. I hope they do.