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Good News for Marketers

Cheryl Pruett
Good News for Marketers Cheryl Pruett

Online news is like fast food -- served fast, hot and 24/7. The hunger for news -- online and off -- is as insatiable as news organizations' willingness to feed that appetite, and to deliver to advertisers the marketing equivalent of super-sizing. The dual nature of online and offline media at CNN, MSNBC, New York Times and Wall Street Journal attracts advertisers who see it as the perfect combo.

Marketers salivate over online news' demographics and sheer volume -- nearly 70 percent of Americans who go online get news online. That’s 80 to 105 million people, according to The State of News Media 2004, an annual report on American journalism.

It’s not luck that attracts readers to an online news site. It’s strategic and integrated marketing by media owners that uses the sites' offline counterparts -- television, cable or newspaper - to drive traffic online. News site publishers have become marketers selling themselves by what they do best and whom they bring to the table -- the all-important demographics.

For advertisers there’s a wealth of opportunity on the news sites. They can choose from traditional display units (banners, skyscrapers, buttons and classified listings) and brick-and-click combination packages. Or they can use innovative units and ad models like those offered through the NYTimes.com -- "surround" sessions, half-page ads, behavioral targeting and sponsored archives.

Verizon, for example, has been committed and consistent for two and half years with its online advertising on NYTimes.com, says Julie Weitzner, Verizon's manager of media services. The missing link in the past for Verizon was tracking -- but that's not an issue with NYTimes.com. Weitzner says the company sees the most efficiency online based on cost per acquisition and highest customer retention.

Verizon uses both print and online versions of The New York Times, but  increased its online budget about 20 percent this year over last after realizing a solid return on investment and a cost savings over print. Verizon uses NYTimes.com to target small business owners for its DSL product, for example. It keeps a continuous online advertising presence for some products and incorporates a variety of ad types: home page take-overs, roadblocks, day-part targeting and banners.

Who is this audience?

Online news publishers’ selling points for advertisers are the same selling points they use to lure consumers -- with the added bonus of demographics that match advertisers' dream hits.

At NYTimes.com, Slack says it offers consumers the insight and analysis of its print sister -- The New York Times -- combined with breaking news, functionality and tools that users expect of the Web. For the trade, she says that makes the site a good place to reach the Influentials audience, since 50 percent of NYTimes.com users are Influentials compared to 15 percent of the general online audience. The audience breaks down as: mean age of 44, 46 percent female, mean income of $86,150, 74 percent college graduates, 75 percent have the site bookmarked, and 33 percent use it more than 20 days a month.

MSNBC has positioned itself as a leader in original journalism and breaking news, leveraging journalistic strengths of NBC News and the technology of Microsoft to cover a wide-range of topics meaningful to at-work audiences, says Cherylynne Crowther, vice president of marketing and communications. Its readership is high-income, highly-educated and professional/managerial. The site offers sponsorships of sections and sub-sections with brand advertisers. JC Penney’s sponsored the recent launch of the expanded 'Today show site. Sponsorships can include a standing link on the selection and an interstitial ad.

WSJ.com is selling content. It competes on its reputation as a respected and valued brand, and by constantly updating news and offering archives with in-depth research on 30,000 companies that a traditional newspaper can’t provide, says Randy Kilgore, vice president of The Wall Street Journal Online. In addition, WSJ.com's demographics include 54 percent top management, 26 percent with C-level job titles, 93 percent who research products/services online, $215,600 average household income, $1.6 million average household net worth, average age 49, and 34 minutes per day on site.

Kilgore says WSJ online offers display advertising with one large ad unit per screen view. He says the company excels at smart targeting solutions that focus on behavioral targeting, looking at user habits. WSJ online launched Interest-Based Targeting (IBT), allowing advertisers to reach subscribers who have shown an interest in a particular area of news coverage (business, personal technology, travel, automotive, investments, health, and leisure). Computer Associates International, Inc. was the first software advertiser to use IBT. Kilgore says audience search is the next evolution in behavioral targeting that offers a new way for advertisers and publishers to validate the quality of an audience throughout a campaign. It also offers Total Journal, an integrated ad opportunity for B2B advertisers.

Scot Safon, CNN's senior vice president of marketing and promotions, says CNN created the category of 24/7 connection 25 years ago and continues to build on that brand with more news gathering resources in more places around the world than any other news organization. Its affluent readership includes a majority of college graduates, ages 25 to 54 with an average household income of $80,000-plus. Advertisers will find that CNN aggressively uses the larger IAB-sized ads as well as a combination of banners and sponsored links. It also offers a roadblocks for sponsors. A roadblock uses a different homepage layout with larger ad sizes above the fold that are all owned by one advertiser for a day. Safon says CNN is getting great feedback from the ad community on this product.

What works

Online news sites have worked hard for advertiser recognition, employing the usual suspects to market themselves: media buys/ad buys on other Web sites, sponsorships, distribution deals, house advertising online and offline, list brokers, key word searches, and search engine cost-for-click buys. At NYTimes.com, for example, Michele Slack, director of marketing and operations, says its online marketing budget represents 45 percent and offline marketing with print, radio and events represents about 25 percent of the marketing budget.

The things that works to drive the audience back and forth between the online and offline properties has a dollar appeal to advertisers, in that it increases traffic. MSNBC and NBC use headline links, in-show promotions such as on the 'Today Show' or 'Dateline NBC'. A personalization feature on MSNBC.com helps drive frequency, as do a variety of newsletters, Crowther says. Integrated and interactive programs -- 'Today Show Throws a Wedding' or 'Question of the Day' -- also drive traffic between the online and offline properties.

CNN funnels users into services that CNN offers. Safon notes that a significant database helps market services and programming via email, and member offerings to deepen user loyalties to the CNN brand. Funnel methods at the New York Times include the tag line "in print and online" so readers know that services like JobMarket are available in both media. One goal ,Slack says, is to leverage NYTimes.com’s audience base to drive home delivery subscriptions to the newspaper. It works -- increasing subscriptions by more than 250,000 during the past two years.

News sites offer contextual ads, too. At NYTimes.com they are separated from the editorial content and clearly labeled as advertising. The site does not use intelliTXT or other advertising models that place links within editorial content of the online site. MSNBC works with Kanoodle for contextual search advertising, providing links of relevant merchandise on story pages. WSJ online uses Overture. CNN.com is in the process of launching contextual links provided by Overture and has had Search advertising in place since mid-2003.

So what's the big headline for marketers about news sites? They offer loyal, desirable and engaged audiences who visit with a purpose. And because these news organizations actively drive users back and forth between the online and offline versions of their brands, they provide a variety of creative and effective ways to drive traffic and sales for advertisers.

Google Trends
Want to know what people are searching for in real-time? Of course you do.

Google Trends, technically a beta product from Google Labs, has been around for a while. But the service, which allows anyone to track keywords over time, continues to add new features, including its latest, which is an application that will aggregate terms from social networks such as -- you guessed it -- Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.

According to Reggie Miller, CEO of ICED, a media strategies firm, client demand for "buzz" reporting has made tools like Google Trends an invaluable part of his arsenal.

"By tracking popular terms, I can keep a pulse on what's hot and what has piqued people's interests," Miller explains. "When I sense something is becoming a reoccurring theme, I'll dig deeper and figure out if it's something that I'll actually find useful or should really care about." 
So how can you "dig deeper" with Google Trends? Try pairing your trend analysis with another tool, Google Insights, which allows you to narrow your focus to specific web properties, location, or vertical categories. You can also overlay seasonal factors, like holidays, sporting events, and elections to see how long-term trends are affected.

Want to know what the three most popular search terms were for Black Friday last year? It's there. But pair that information with tweets from Christmas morning 2008, and you get some idea of what people really thought about those "hot gifts."

OK, at this point you're probably suffering from Twitter-overload. But I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that everyone, and I do mean everyone, I spoke with told me that their favorite market intelligence tool these days is Twitter.

Here's one representative comment from Rich Sullivan, president of Red Square Agency:

"Twitter is probably the best tool in spotting trends. I get nearly all of my information from thought leaders there. By its nature, Twitter represents a kind of collective conscious for what's happening right now. There are a number of very intelligent people (from the fields of technology, marketing, advertising, PR, pop culture trend spotting, music, art, literature, satire, television) that I follow. Before Twitter, I read as many blogs as a possible. [Now], I still read blogs, but find it quicker to get information via the feed. It is intelligence delivered by the fastest method I know."


Well, here's a snapshot that any marketer can use.

These are the most popular tweets of the moment (10:14 a.m., PST, June 16, 2009). For a marketer, that's an invaluable window into what people are talking about in real-time. Who wouldn't want that?

But Twitter is just one tool, and a rather limited one at that. Only a fraction of the visitors to Twitter actually tweet with any regularity, and while the tweets themselves can give you a good indication of buzz, it's hard to get a lot of depth in 140 characters.

Listen to Facebook
It's fair to say that quantitative analysis has the edge over qualitative thinking when it comes to digital marketing. After all, there's just too much data to ignore. But data isn't everything.

If you're looking for a cheap and fast digital focus group, interactive marketing veteran Jeff Berkwits says he's a big fan of Facebook. While he acknowledges that it won't work for everyone (and similar information can be gleaned from Twitter, albeit in shorter bursts), Berkwits says that a good Facebook fan page or Friend Feed can help any marketer see what people are thinking, and -- perhaps most importantly -- give them some perspective on where those thoughts are coming from.

"If you are lucky enough to have a sizable number of friends on Facebook who are into the same products (particularly lifestyle brands), it's not too difficult to spot some trends simply via the conversations and comments that occur," Berkwits says. "[However], one needs to be especially cautious, and likely do additional research, but it's an opportunity that shouldn't be altogether ignored."

Berkwits also adds that for certain brands, especially those in the entertainment category, Facebook groups can be an exceedingly reliable way of drilling deep into the insights of brand loyalists, who are seldom shy about sharing their opinions.


Feed the information overload
If you talk to anyone who works in digital these days, the topic of information overload is bound to come up. But mention the RSS (or any of the free news feed services out there) and more often than not, you get a blank stare. It's not that people don't know about feeds -- it's just that many people don't seem to actually use them.

But according to Dimitry Ioffe, CEO of The Visionaire Group, the proper settings on an RSS tool can really drive a campaign's success, if the agency's culture demands that staff use the tool.

Ioffe explains how his agency uses a general RSS feed to help identify marketing and advertising opportunities:

"The RSS feeders are set up either on the desktop or in a browser such as Firefox. These feeds are checked on a daily basis without any one project in mind. The key is to absorb as much as possible and recognize where marketing or technology opportunities lie. The second step is matching those opportunities to clients' needs and goals. In the entertainment space, being innovative is a requirement so every RFP needs some kind of tie-in with new trends. So, we are constantly thinking of how we can incorporate these trends into our proposal and as well as current projects." 

On a more granular level, Ioffe explains that each team member is also encouraged to personalize the RSS based on their own job responsibilities:
"Each user personalizes the feeds to best fit their job responsibilities," Ioffe says. "So, a Flash designer will have not only technology blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable on there, but they will also include Flash design and motion graphic blogs. Whereas an account director may not include Flash or motion graphic blogs, but would include marketing feeds like Ad Age and iMedia Connection. Tailoring what feeds you focus on is important because there is so much information."

And does it really work, or is RSS just a fancy gadget?

According to Ioffe, it really works. Here's how the agency used RSS to its advantage to serve its client, Fox Searchlight, by pairing a tech trend (augmented reality) with the campaign for the upcoming film "Gentleman Broncos":

"Augmented reality (AR) was something that our developers were watching for over a year. There were some very simple tests back in 2008 that were online and [that we] first spotted through an RSS feed. This topic was followed by multiple people on the team until, at the beginning of 2009, people started posting how to actually do AR on their blogs, and the general chatter on the topic really picked up. We saw some early examples of it being used with mobile marketing and quickly saw there was an opportunity for this to work with an entertainment brand. The 'Gentlemen Broncos' film is a perfect fit for this technology, so we pitched the idea to Fox Searchlight, which was also aware of the technology. Obviously, Fox was doing its own trend spotting. They loved the concept and were excited to become the first movie studio to create a digital campaign using the new technology."

You can check out the results of the agency's long-term trend-spotting here.

While feeds can be useful, they can also be a little overwhelming, especially on days when you're swamped. After all, those are the days when your inbox ends up looking like a disaster area, and you spend the rest of the week deleting messages that weren't related to the pressing issue that blotted out the sun. In those cases, you're likely to miss a few days of RSS reading, and for that, Corey Pilkington, account supervisor at Worktank, suggests augmenting your feeds with a bookmarking tool.

While there are a number of free products on the market, including social bookmarking tools that allow an office to share information on the fly, Pilkington remains partial to Evernote, which allows her to "clip" and save information from multiple sources into a file that she can access at her leisure.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer.

The rise of data scientists

How are we going to sift through data that is doubling ten thousand years of recorded history every two days? What tools do we need? How is this information going to flow through marketing organizations to even make use of it?  

As with many challenges, it's almost always a people problem.

In October 2012, the Harvard Business Review presented a defining article on this subject with "Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century," by Thomas H. Davenport and D.J. Patil. In this article, Davenport and Patil describe the emerging role of the data scientist:

"More than anything, what data scientists do is make discoveries while swimming in data. It's their preferred method of navigating the world around them. At ease in the digital realm, they are able to bring structure to large quantities of formless data and make analysis possible. They identify rich datasources, join them with other, potentially incomplete data sources, and clean the resulting set. In a competitive landscape where challenges keep changing and data never stop flowing, data scientists help decision makers shift from ad hoc analysis to an ongoing conversation with data."

The article begins by profiling LinkedIn data scientist Jonathan Goldman, a PhD in physics from Stanford, who, in 2006, was able to identify, collect, merge, scrub, analyze, and build insights that helped change the way LinkedIn successfully engaged and built its user base. Guys like Chittilappilly and Goldman see data the way that chefs see ingredients -- the cake is there, it just needs to get put together.

But marketers haven't traditionally had the deep math, coding, and data skill sets to work this way -- and it takes years of training and experience to be able to get to that point. That's a problem for this industry.

"Many marketers even lack the essential understanding of where that data comes from, its implicit presumptions and dependencies, and how to extrapolate from the quantitative to qualitative or business conclusion," said Daniel Jaye, CEO and founder of data powerhouse Korrelate. "Case in point, most advertisers can analyze a marketing campaign and come up with a conclusion, but if they don't know that the data they analyzed is limited to only a specific subset of users, they may misapply the data or present erroneous results to the chief decision makers."

"In ten years, marketing organizations will have embedded in their planning, strategy, and execution teams people who are comfortable with the entire pedigree of the data they leverage, its curation, and how to dig deep and create business insights and conclusions using SQL or whatever tools we have at that point. They won't necessarily be statisticians, but they'll be familiar with things like causal calculus and the difference between training and scoring in machine learning," Jaye said.

Jim Sterne, founder of the Digital Analytics Association, who turned me on to the Harvard Review article agrees this role is an inevitability:

"With enough data and enough smarts, we are more and more capable of anticipating needs and filling them. What's missing is not the data nor the technology, but the educated, creative, inventive Data Scientists who understand granular data and see the big picture at the same time. If you find one, do not let him or her out of your sight!"

Five action items to data driven nirvana

Not only is aligning your operations and processes around data the right thing for your company, but it's the right thing for you, too. The era of data is here whether you like it or not. You can't just bury your head in the sand like an ostrich and hope disruptive change passes over you like an afternoon storm. Even if you're not "in the data department," unless you're four or five years from retirement, you will need to get comfortable in a data setting or find your career track being leapfrogged by younger and more data-friendly colleagues.

This doesn't mean you have to learn to wrangle databases or code JavaScript applications -- but the time is now to start positioning yourself as an active member of the data community. You will be interfacing with data scientists in the near future on all types of projects and they will be looking to your industry expertise and experience to help them help you.

The following are five steps to begin the process of getting your organization more data friendly:

Admit the problem

As any good coach will tell you, the first step to solving any problem is to admit you have the problem. Stop wrinkling your nose at big data and embrace it. Yes, we know your skillset in this area is limited and it's not a comfort zone for you. But, instead of poo-pooing the issue, embrace it. You could be the catalyst for change and be remembered as the data hero.

Self-assessment via auditing

Start by getting the smartest folks in your organization together and try to figure out where the gaps are. Are your teams still working in data silos? Does everyone who touches the data understand the reports and use them to make decisions? How are you holding people accountable to bring data into the equation? How are your competitors using data to succeed?

Setting goals and prioritization

Proper project planning should be the easiest bullet point to tackle. Once you have your audit in hand, it should be very clear which are the short term tasks that can be small wins and which long term projects that will virtually change the game for your marketing organization. Set goals, milestones, and check-in points to keep on schedule. You don't have to go at it disruptively in full speed -- even a slow, gradual, and steady change will pay off in the years to come.

Gather resources

The Harvard Business Review article has some good advice for attracting data scientists from posting geek contests to hanging out online where these kinds of folks gather. You'll also need more training for everyone and new tools will probably be in order as well. It's important that the person who signs the checks is completely onboard with this strategy so that these projects will be funded properly. Chances are you won't get everything you ask for, but if you start laying the foundation now, it will be easier to push through these initiatives later.

Learn and adapt

You're going to make mistakes -- that's a given. You may hire a new data guy only to find out he has the personality of a moth and will never click with the team. You also may end up licensing some amazing technology to better help your team visualize the big data sets and realize a few months later that no one is adopting the tool. Don't get discouraged. This is a process. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. But they aren't. If you can move the needle even slightly for your company towards the data future, it will be worth it.

Times they are a changing…

It's a new era of marketing -- the era of data. Regardless if your data is big, bigger, or biggest, the marketing organizations that embrace this new world will find themselves with a distinct and powerful advantage over their competitors. For so long, marketing has chiefly been a two headed monster of media and creative. It would seem that data is finally taking its seat at the table -- it hasn't been invited, it's literally crashing the party.

As an industry, we've been discussing and pawing at these challenges for some time. Data has been given lip service in a way. No one denies that there's value there, but for most marketers who come from media or creative backgrounds, analytics tends to be more of an afterthought used post-campaign to measure things or to justify opinions already set.

Now, the paper trails that follow every consumer and transaction in the digital world will yield major returns for those that know how to best tap into it and have the courage to let the data lead versus follow. We'll need data scientists to not just answer the questions we need answering, but rather to think of the issues that non-geeks haven't even thought to examine. Many people have the skills to answer difficult questions, but it's the true visionaries that know which difficult questions to ask. You'll need people like this on your team to get you across the finish line.

Josh Dreller is senior director of client and industry solutions at Visual IQ.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Apples" image via Shutterstock.

Exclusive previews

One industry with some of the most exciting experimentation on Pinterest is retail and fashion. Many designers, stores, and online retail sites already leverage the platform to curate new looks and generate brand appeal through visually enticing style boards. However, others are taking it a step further, giving their followers an exclusive first look at new collections or a behind-the-scenes glimpse at runway shows. One brand quick to experiment was J.Crew. In late 2013, it launched its entire fall collection as a Pinterest board and gave valued followers a chance to pre-order items before they showed up online or in-store. As hungry shoppers jumped at the opportunity to put these items on their shopping list, the brand was also benefitting from an early glimpse into what styles might become the most popular as inventory hit stores.

Similarly, another brand testing the potential buzz of Pinterest is high-end fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. The fashion house, which is especially popular in the "Weddings" category for brides-to-be pinning their dream day start-to-finish, gave users an exclusive first look at its 2013 wedding collection. "Oscar PR Girl," the Pinterest account representing the brand, photo documented its 2013 runway show through "live pins," from backstage preparations to finishing touches and the big event. Users online could view the pin stream from their feed in real-time, while others exploring Pinterest post-event could access the board for the complete feed of inspiration.

New product launches

Pinterest is strongly positioning itself as a platform driving transactions for brands. A report from Piqora blog.piqora.com/pinterest-roi-study/ in November 2013 revealed that one pin generates, on average, 78 cents in sales, up 25 percent from the same time the previous year. Fashion retailer CUSP by Neiman Marcus leveraged this user activity for the launch of the Rebecca Minkoff "Elle" bag, creating an exclusive product available only through Pinterest for a limited time. Pairing exclusivity with an existing engaged audience on Pinterest can stimulate heightened interest and buzz, while connecting the purchase funnel end-to-end.

Influencer collaborations

Internet celebrities, or those that people love to follow for their unique advice, tips, stories, inspiration, and/or debate, also offer huge potential for brands that appeal to their lifestyle or interests. These partnerships help brands share their message, reach new or reconnect with consumers, and generate increased affinity with their label, which extends to Pinterest and how brands are marketing in this channel. However, unlike other environments where brands might be able to collaborate with influencers without restraint, Pinterest is very specific about what activity it will and will not allow. Staying within these guidelines means ensuring that compensated pinning is authentic and transparent.

Whole Foods Market and Etsy are two brands that work closely with influencers to curate inspiration on Pinterest. Whole Foods Market has established boards with collections of Pinterest users to share content, such as recipe ideas and DIY "reusing" tips. Meanwhile, Etsy works with its site members and guest pinners to build boards that represent the diverse interests represented on their site. For example, "Brooklyn Bride" is a board curated by Vane Broussard, author of bklynbrideonline.com, and features "stylish picks from Etsy and the web." The benefits of these collaborations are two-fold. While they bring added credibility and an endorsement to the brand, they also allow the brand to reach an expanded audience with the group board also being shared via the influencers' Pinterest profiles with their followers.

Another brand leveraging Pinterest influencers is Target, but with a slightly different approach. The department store has identified three top Pinterest influencers and is working with them to create limited edition party products that will be sold both in-store and online. The influencers, identified for their significant Pinterest followings, blogs, and work in design, created their own unique collections, from party hats to tablecloths and decorations. These collections were unveiled on Target's "Party with Pinners" Pinterest board and went on sale starting March 16.

Rich pins

Within Pinterest's recent product evolution was Rich Pins, which allow sites to automatically attach information to content pinned from their sites. This functionality is available for movie, recipe, article, product, and place pins, and has gained increasing relevance for brands with every new iteration, improving search functionality and providing greater utility to users.

In their latest release, product pins, which pull in price, availability, and retailers, are now integrated to a new "Gifts" category feed where pinners can browse items and filter by price. If a product is pinned to a user's board, they will receive a notification when that product goes on sale. One online retailer incorporating the feature is ModCloth -- users that discover its products through the "Gifts" feed can immediately see if they're in stock, their price, and click through to purchase on site. Once there, pinners can also browse "Most Popular Pins" from the ModCloth site, a feed aggregated through the Pinterest API.

While implementing rich pins greatly improves a brand's ability to increase discoverability within Pinterest, Place Pins stand out for the deeper level of creativity they afford. For example, Four Seasons gave followers a "gastronomic" tour of their favorite restaurant meals around the world. At a glance, users can see pins on the world map or zoom in on specific locations to find recommendations in a particular area -- which is especially relevant for the travelling consumer. 

However, the power for Place Pin inspiration isn't just limited to travel brands. Starbucks, a brand that uses store design to create a welcoming and relaxing environment for its customers, shares its favorite café interiors from around the world on its "store design" board. This activity helps the brand share one of its core values through a visual lens and also helps new followers discover the brand through new categories (e.g. design or home décor), which they wouldn't typically associate with Starbucks.

Contests and sweepstakes

Many brands are experimenting with contests and sweepstakes on Pinterest as a way to engage users and curate inspiration around brand relevant themes, and they are seeing great success. When a 360i client, Kraft Cheese, wanted to inspire users to fire up their barbeques and get grilling last summer, it invited followers to create boards featuring their favorite recipes for different occasions. With new themes curated by the brand each week, participants were able to get ideas while generating significant spikes in repins and engagement around Kraft Cheese. Also experimenting with the power of contests, Burt's Bees leveraged Pinterest to launch its new Red Ruby Groovy "morning" scent. The brand asked contestants to curate their "Perfect Güd Morning," with winning boards being turned into a reality. To kick it all off, they took one lucky Pinterest user to Tulum, Mexico to make her "Good Morning" a reality.

Robust content strategy

While exciting activations can generate a lot of buzz and awareness for brands, having an interesting and brand-own-able content strategy, supported across various channels, is an effective way of growing an engaging Pinterest presence. To generate broad appeal across interest groups -- from science to machinery, design, and food -- General Electric is a brand that consistently experiments with new media and types of content. One of its most recent boards, "Brilliance in Motion," leverages GIFs to illustrate science and machinery through moving imagery. Its experimentation with content types across a number of different Pinterest categories helps GE increase its discoverability and relevance to different users.

Philadelphia Cream Cheese, a 360i client, is another brand constantly innovating and exploring different ways to inspire users with fresh, seasonally relevant pins. As a CPG brand, its content is focused on recipe inspiration, but the brand taps into diverse occasions and interests to reach new consumer groups. For example, in the lead up to Father's Day, it created a board specifically tailored to father's day recipe inspiration. For "Thanksgivukkah, "it curated the perfect holiday menu. The brand complements its activity on Pinterest by sharing trending recipes on Facebook and Twitter and driving new traffic back to its Pinterest page.

For retailers that have an in-store experience, there is even greater potential for Pinterest trends to influence marketing activities. Nordstrom leverages its nearly 4.5 MM strong Pinterest audience to influence its in-store merchandising. The retailer incorporates "top pinned items" signage on displays and incudes the Pinterest logo on popular items throughout the store, helping to create a unique shopping experience for its customers.

(Image via Huffington Post)

As a visually centric social media platform focused on providing users with authentic inspiration and unexpected discovery, Pinterest provides brands with unique marketing opportunities. From exclusive previews and new product launches to influencer collaborations, Rich Pins, contests, sweepstakes, and innovative content strategies, brands are exploring and experimenting with Pinterest to help drive ROI and achieve their business objectives. Meanwhile, as the platform continues to grow and move into its next phase of innovation, the potential for creativity and exploration is only just beginning.

Rebecca Sleeman is supervisor of digital communities at 360i.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Start with "why?"

You must start by being honest with yourself. If you can't do that, it's going to be hard to work for the "organization of you."

Ask yourself why you are considering becoming a free agent. For some, attraction to free agency may be a misplaced desire to leave a bad environment rather than a true desire to start out on your own. There may be simpler solutions to your current dissatisfaction, such as seeking out a new team and environment, knowing what attributes you need to be satisfied.

If the desire to break out on your own is honest and associated with positive interest, then evaluate your end game. What is it that you hope to accomplish by working independently? Are you hoping to scale into a team? How will you define success? Financial goals are good, but even more important are those that will motivate you to continue refining your skill sets and seeking out new work when money is coming in.

Evaluate the "organization of you"

When you become a free agent, you become the organization. Key support roles can be outsourced, such as accounting, but the core value proposition of the organization has to be something of which you are capable.

Begin by writing down the basics: your value proposition, your intended target audience, your brand differentiators, and your intended structure (i.e. product, service, pay-on-performance).

Then, interview yourself for the organizational fit, asking questions like:

  • What skill sets do you bring to the table? Do they match those of the organizational value proposition?

  • How unique are your skill sets in the marketplace? In other words, if the organization wasn't owned by you, would you be the only candidate or even type of candidate for the position?

  • How are these skill sets valued in the marketplace?

  • Given your skill sets, what is your capacity (i.e. how many projects can you handle at one time)?

  • Are you available? One thing people don't pay close enough attention to is their employment contracts. Does your current employment contract include non-compete clauses? If so, how strict are they? These clauses can be written in ways that could make it seemingly impossible -- or very expensive -- for you to use the skill sets oriented with your current job as part of your value proposition. There may also be other clauses that keep you from using work created while at your place of employment as evidence of your expertise and experience.

After you've evaluated that you are indeed a strong candidate for the "organization of you," take a step back and consider whether you have a competitive market positioning.

  • Can you compete against the existing and possible new competitors in the marketplace, remembering that the market could be global and may not be human?

  • Can you compete profitably?

  • Can you compete, while staying true to your principles? Ethical dilemmas differ for each of us, but you do not want to create an organization in which your actions, necessary to maintain competitive advantage, were the very things you previously protested against. 

  • Do you have a clear and sustainable trajectory for growth? This is perhaps the toughest question, since your forecast will inevitably be flawed. It's not you; it's true of almost all forecasting. Nonetheless, mapping that trajectory out will allow you to consider how many elements must align in order for you to succeed as an organization. The more elements, the less likely it is to work.

  • Why could you fail? If you can't answer this, you need to keep researching. If you can answer this, your list probably isn't exhaustive.

Once you've determined that the "organization of you" has competitive potential, you must consider your execution path. How will you build this organization? 

  • How will you test your value proposition? Many free agents start out moonlighting, essentially doubling their workload because they are that driven to see if their concept will work.

  • If your expertise is skill-specific, how will you manage client relations? Sales? Operations?

  • How and where will you work? For many, the idea of working on your couch in pajamas is awesome for fewer than two weeks. You need some sort of trigger to make you focus, whether that's a physical location or conditions under which you work. If you need inspiration, check out the strategies employed by the 37Signals team in "Remote: Office Not Required."

Combat island syndrome

 Perhaps the most undervalued part of being part of a team is the embedded network. Every team has room for improvement, but your team members automatically fill crucial roles that a free agent must build for herself. So, you must question who will support, challenge, and provide opportunities for you. And, as with building any team -- including loose networks – quality trumps quantity.

Support takes many forms. When things are hard, you'll want someone to whom you can vent. When things are good, you'll want someone to remind you that celebration is in order and (maybe someone else) to bring you back to the reality that this good time may not continue if you slack off.

When you are working independently, it's easy to become hyper-focused. Then one day, you could look up and realize that your value proposition, which was highly marketable in the beginning, is no longer relevant to current market conditions. On teams, there should be regular conversations about anticipating and being equipped for change. When you're on your own, you're responsible for initiating those conversations. Having a network of people who challenge you is critically important if you intend to remain a free agent for any length of time. Your challengers may be advisors, peers, and even clients and partners.

The people who provide you with opportunities are those who are willing to be your advocates. They are the ones who will introduce you to potential clients and partners. They will make a conscious effort to keep you in the loop on things that are going to make you better, make you money, or make you happy. Building up your network in this area takes a consistent investment of time, but isn't as hard as you think -- as long as you're honest, gracious, and provide real value.

If you do not stay connected, interested, humble, and willing to seek out and listen to others, your free agent days will be numbered.

Confront that free agency is risky business

As a free agent, accountability is inescapable. Once you've validated your intentions, skills, value proposition, and network, you have to circle back to more introspective questions because, although the path forward may seem clear, it comes with inherent risk.

Starting any venture is risky. Depending on who you quote, anywhere from 50 to 98 percent of startups fail. As an individual considering entrepreneurship, you have to confront that proposition. Your likelihood of failing at free agency is high. However, having autonomy and following your passion can be incredibly powerful sources of drive.

So, what you are willing to risk?

  • Financially, how long can you exist as a sole proprietorship without income?

  • What investments will you need to make in order to compete?

  • How much income do you need to survive, short- and long-term?

  • How will your decision affect other family members? What are you asking them to risk?

  • Personally, what will you do if it doesn't work?

  • What will you do if it does?

Becoming a free agent is a big decision. Taking the time to consider whether it is the right decision for you at this time and, if it is, strategically planning your transition can keep you from turning an awesome opportunity into a professional and personal threat.

"Man with laptop on colorful beach of island" by Shutterstock.

Emily Holdman is the co-founder of PeopleKit and The Remarkables.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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