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Marketing Online: A Guide


Marketing textbooks often describe the fundamental task of marketing as making decisions about the "4 Ps:" Product, Place, Price and Promotion. What product (or service) will I sell? Where will I sell it? What price will I charge for it? And how will I promote it to the consumer?

Neat, straightforward, linear in its logic, but the new digital world is neither neat nor linear. Consider how the 4Ps can begin to reflect this new complexity.

Choice 1: Product

The old question: What product will I sell?

The new question: How do I develop products that meet the diverse needs of demanding consumers?

What's changed?
My wife and I went furniture shopping last week, and we saw a coffee table with a sleek design that we found unique and appealing. Yet it wasn't just right, nor were the other tables the retail store stocked from the same Italian company. So I went online and found that the company actually exported a wide range of tables, with various selections available from various retailers, including many who sold online. Like Goldilocks, we found one that fit our tastes just right. It didn't come from the original retailer.

The digital world lowers consumers' costs of searching for diverse products. It enables producers to find consumers online that were previously too costly to reach. My original furniture retailer faces inventory constraints, especially given the high costs of space in Manhattan. His offering of tables, from multiple sources, was impressive but incomplete.  In contrast, online furniture stores, individually and collectively, can, with virtual inventory, accommodate a much wider range at lower costs. 

The online model also affects product by opening the door to more personalization, or even mass customization. So I can find the precise design I want. Or another consumer can customize her own PC, or her own fragrance or cosmetics. Business models that offer customization are hardly a sure thing. Dell has been a success, but P&G's Reflect.com closed after failing to build a viable business in personally customized cosmetics.

Managing a response:
Product diversity has always been constrained by costs. New digital capabilities lower these costs, and by so doing can revolutionize product decision making. Marketers can reach a more diverse set of consumers and can even use consumers' purchasing choices to help select the optimal product range. Marketers don't have to design or divine ahead of time the one ideal product; there could be many. 

Choice 2: Place

The old question: Where should I sell my product?

The new question: How do I expose my product to the right consumers?

What's changed?
A mid-size foods company celebrated when their product secured distribution in Wal-Mart. A "Prestige" fragrance executive shuddered when she saw her brand on sale at TJMaxx (a discount store).

Wider distribution is better-- sometimes. The more consumers the product can reach, the more it can sell. Yet, for many products selective distribution is central to the marketing strategy. "Prestige" products are defined by selective distribution. If they are widely available, they are not prestigious. Complex, service sensitive products, e.g., high-end audio components, may also benefit from selective distribution. By screening distributors, manufacturers can ensure that sellers offer quality advice and information to consumers, and in a setting that supports the product's image.   

The internet adds a new channel of distribution. The channel has some special features. It is good at providing information in written, graphic, pictorial, even audio form. It can be a good forum for learning about diverse product features, e.g., the ranges and costs of car models or cameras. It can be managed at lower costs.

This virtual channel is less effective when a real world connection matters. Marketing success may depend on consumers' actually test driving a car, or smelling a perfume. The sale may depend on providing expert advice. In such cases the internet can either complement or complicate distribution. It can lead buyers to the sale. Or internet sites can "free ride" on the service and features of offline points of sale, with consumers going to a high service store for first hand experience and advice, and then buying from a lower priced outlet online.   

Managing a response
The internet broadens product availability. Certainly, a marketer can still choose highly selective and controlled distribution (e.g., consider Bose). As she expands distribution, however, in the quest for sales, the marketer will find it more and more difficult to control. The interconnected world will ensure that new avenues open, new points of sale emerge. "Place" still matters, but the other 3Ps will have to reflect these new conditions. Moreover, marketers would do well to focus less on selecting and restricting specific channels and more on designing strategies that reconcile and complement the activities across channels. 

Choice 3: Price

The old question: At what price do I optimize profitability?

The new question: How do I assure profitability in a more price-transparent world?

What's changed?
Basic economics demonstrates that for a seller, maximum revenues come from charging each consumer the maximum she is willing to pay. There are often practical, and sometimes legal, constraints in doing this, but extracting what economists call the "consumer surplus" (the excess of what consumers are willing to pay over the market price) is good for profits.

In the old world sellers could more easily extract some of this surplus. Consumers faced high search costs in discovering prices and were sometimes unaware of lower prices. Or they didn't want to incur the inconvenience of arranging purchases outside a local area. Prices in the digital world are now more transparent, helped by agents like PriceRunner, and consumers can easily capture the lower prices online. Online selling is joining Wal-Mart in creating immense pricing pressures on manufacturers.

Managing a response
A classic response to price pressure is cost-cutting. This is, of course, helpful, but the only way to secure and sustain higher profit margins in a more competitive world is through innovation. The innovation then needs to be exploited through creative pricing strategies. Google's unique auction algorithm for search placements has proved profitable. Apple's iPod pricing reflects an awareness that early users of new products are different, and notably less price sensitive, than later users. 

Choice 4: Promotion

The old question:  Where do I spend my marketing dollars?

The new question: How can I break through the clutter to engage the consumer?

What's changed?
My furniture retailer is already in regular contact with me, along with my online camera retailer, eBay, Dell and a host of others. Now that I've signaled that I'm a (potentially) valuable customer, they're trying to build a relationship and extract value from it.

These marketers have broken through the clutter, partly with my compliance. At the same time, other marketers are reaching out to capture their share of my modest spending. Consumers are now exposed to more marketing messages per day than at any time in recorded marketing history. Who's listening?

Managing a response
The old line, "I know that half of my advertising is wasted; I just don't know which half," is often cited as an enduring insight into the nature of marketing. In light of the increasing message clutter, one might even be tempted to view the statement as overly optimistic. Yet, increasingly, the perspective the quote embodies seems dated and destructive.

Sure, reaching our consumer has never been harder. It has also never been easier. We know who she is and where she is; we know a lot about her. We have marketing tools and channels our marketing forefathers didn't dream of. The challenge for marketers is to put it all together. This is partly an issue of marketing education and knowledge-- like the physicists, we lack a "unified field theory." More practically, it is a matter of finding ways to leverage the old and new tools with creative insight and first-rate execution. That's something that hasn't changed.

Find the right influencers

This may seem obvious, but the first step in any successful influencer outreach campaign is to accurately identify those who are most likely to be interested in what you're pitching. Unfortunately, this vital first step too often doesn't get the time and effort it deserves.

Perhaps the primary reason for this deficiency is over-reliance on subscription media/influencer databases.

PR and marketing pros have access to all sorts of tools that enable them to create expansive lists of influencers in seconds by inputting just a few search criteria. No doubt these tools are very valuable when used correctly, but relying on them entirely can yield a list that's simply too broad and unfocused (i.e., filled with influencers who won't give a damn about your pitch and will feel inclined to disregard any email you send them in the future).

With such a list in hand, it's easy to paste your pitch into a form and hit "send all." Of course this carpet-bombing approach yields poor results, and whatever time you save on the front-end not refining your list will be wasted later as you try to follow-up with up with all of those disinterested contacts.

It's a hassle to narrow down such a broad list to find just the influencers most appropriate for your message, but it's worth the time and effort. An off-target list results in an off-target pitch akin to junk mail, and it's destined to get junk results.

Action item: Don't rely entirely on subscription media/influencer databases. Do your homework!

Reach out before you're ready to pitch

Today's most sought after influencers exert their influence via social media, so it's easy to figure out what turns them on. It's also easy to connect with them and start building a rapport. The key is to get on their radar and earn their interest before it's time to hit them up with a pitch. This approach should seem like common sense in the age of social media, but it's often ignored.

Action item: Don't wait until you need an influencer to make a connection. Start building a relationship today!

Keep good company

There's a social networking theory called Triadic Closure. It asserts that if person A and person B are close friends, and person A and person C are close friends, the two who are currently not friends (B and C) are also likely to become friends once they discover they have a friend in common.

Having such a friend provides a shared point of reference for bonding and a reason to trust each other. Most people (especially influencers) also thrive on building their social circle and closing gaps within their network. 

If you're having trouble connecting with an influencer, check out whom they're talking to, and then reach out to these "friends of influencers." Twitter makes it easy by allowing you to see entire conversations and join in directly. You can also connect on LinkedIn and other platforms. Then when you reach out to the influencer, there's a good chance she/he will notice that you have friends in common.

This works especially well if you want a specific influencer to attend your event. Start by inviting their online friends.

Action item: Build your network to include friends of the influencers you want to reach. Be social!

Go offline as well as online

We tend get so caught up in our digital relationships because we're constantly looking at our smartphones. Alerts from Twitter, Periscope, Facebook, etc. are a constant distraction. Perhaps that's why we forget that nothing beats the original form of social networking -- face-to-face communication.

One of the best ways to make in-person connections is to attend networking events that appeal to the influencers you want to reach. There are all sorts of digitally-oriented groups nationwide that stage great networking events; Kevin Winston's Digital LA and Jessica Lawrence's NY Tech Meetup are two of the most prolific that come to mind. Both offer recurring events that are fun, informative and filled with influencers. 

Perhaps the most valuable offline opportunities for brand marketers are the more niche events targeted at a specific group of influencers, such as my company's traveling TECHmunch Food Blogger Conference. Each year TECHmunch stages a series of events in cities across North America to bring together top influencers and content creators, including many who are eager to work with brands. When it comes to such events, PR and marketing pros are welcome to attend, sponsor, and join the conversation.

Action item: Step away from the screen, and attend targeted offline events!

Solve their problem, not yours

Top influencers are inundated with correspondence from marketers eager for attention. In addition to dealing with all the off-topic and inept product pitches, they're also under pressure to produce a steady stream of quality content that informs and/or entertains their audience. Feeding the content beast -- whether it's a blog post, YouTube tutorial, Snapchat story, or Instagram pic -- is their single biggest challenge.

So rather than pitching them an opportunity that solves your problem (promoting your product), try pitching them an opportunity that helps them solve their problem (creating great content). Help them, and there's a much better chance they'll help you in return.

This tip can be illustrated through a couple of sample pitch subject lines:

Subject Line No. 1: "We launched a new line of pans. Would you like a sample?"

Subject Line No. 2: "I read about your burnt eggs. Our new pan can help with that." 

Which email would you rather open? The first one is clear, but it doesn't tell a story (and therefore doesn't suggest that the pitch will help solve the influencer's problem). The second one demonstrates real knowledge about the influencer, and is more likely to spark his/her imagination.

Before you reach out to an influencer, stop and think about your product and what you're really offering. Is it something the influencer could go out and buy on his or her own? Is your $20 lipstick really worthy of a blog post?

Food blogger Jerry James Stone adds, "I hate it when brands sound like they're doing me a favor."

One way to make your product and pitch more valuable to an influencer is to send it with everything required to use it. The influencer will appreciate not having to make an extra trip to the store for the cake batter to fill the new cake pan you just delivered. Your extra effort and attention to detail will be noticed, and chances are the influencer will actually try the product.  

Action item: Make your subject line (and the rest of your pitch) about the influencer... not your product. Appeal to the influencer's ego, their wants and needs. Once you have captured his or her attention, you're halfway to the finish line.

Cut to the chase and size appropriately for the small screen

According to EmailMonday.com, nearly half of all emails are read on a mobile device, and the number is growing. So it's likely your pitch will be read on a small screen while the influencer is multitasking.

This means that your pitch has to be concise and easy to scan. Start with a clear and compelling subject line and don't bury the lead. Address the who, what, where, when, and why, and state clearly how you can help satisfy the influencer's needs.

Food blogger Donna Currie says, "Don't make me have to ask a dozen questions to find out what you want. Who is your client? How do they want to work with me? Don't beat around the bush. Tell me all, and I will respond. Tell me nothing, and I will assume it's something shady. If there's no budget, say there's no budget. Leaving that detail until last is not going to make me feel warm and fuzzy. It's perfectly fine to say, 'we have no budget for cash payment, but we can offer you…' and then spell out what you will do."

Action item: Be clear, concise, and upfront about what you're offering!

Babette Pepaj is founder and CEO of BakeSpace, Inc.

On Twitter? Follow Babette at @BakeSpace and iMedia at @iMediaTweet

"I don't want to listen" image via Shutterstock.

Tony Romeo is Executive Vice President of Poptent, where he is responsible for client services.His experience includes more than 15 years with Unilever.  He was founder and chairman of Unilever´s Interactive Brand Center, where he led the...

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