The rise of marketing democracy
In fact, we are looking at a true revolution in customer behavior. No longer subject to the whims and dictates of a given brand's marketing agenda, the customer has his hand on the spigot and can turn the flow of interaction on and off depending on his level of interest in your product or service at any given moment.
I have dubbed this phenomenon the "marketing democracy," and believe me, these elections won't be won based on who sends the most newsletters or gets the most clicks. People engage with you only to get something of value in return. If you are still sending generic newsletters or even tweeting to all your followers that product X gets out stains like no other, you are out of touch with your constituents and likely to lose the next time they vote with their pocketbooks.
Preferences, expectations, needs -- these are all the most difficult things to gather and understand about customers. Even more difficult is the ability to act on that understanding once you have it. Lots of algorithms and software exist to help you get there, but if you think about my simple apparel example, that was nothing more than a bit of text with some common sense behind it.
If this description of the cold supply-demand, buy-sell reality of today's marketplace leaves you cold and you are still committed to providing that soft experience, there are still ways to do it well using a multi-channel approach. One interesting example is Homemadesimple.com, by Procter & Gamble. The site incorporates the web, Facebook, and Oodle (Google's marketplace) to capitalize on the huge DIY trend and compete with the likes of Etsy and Real Simple in providing an experience that lets users get creative ideas, post their own creations for feedback, and even sell items directly on Facebook using the Oodle marketplace. Customers get a value-add multi-channel experience, and P&G gets to incorporate many of its brands into an editorial point of view that showcases their ongoing relevance.
Another example of newsletters done well comes from HP. HP's website contains a preference center where users can actually see their preferences come alive in a newsletter that is built in real time. The result is a highly relevant, tailored set of deals, usage hints, and personalized product recommendations that comes when you want it to, be it weekly or once every three months.
It is critical to give some deep thought as to why your customers engage with your brand, especially in today's environment of multi-tasking and short attention spans. Imagine ways in which your customers might value a fresh approach. A well-known automotive brand recently held a photo contest on Facebook to celebrate a significant anniversary of one of its models. Whoever submitted the most popular photo with their beloved car would be selected to take over the profile picture of the brand. Special tabs are created on the profile for topics that trend most strongly among user-contributors so that it is clear where to go to get the latest information. Updates from the brand are frequent, relevant, and clearly valued by the followers. Even more interesting is that when someone posts a complaint on the wall of that brand, other users are likely to step in and defend the brand before the company even has time to react.
Your customers don't have the time -- or the energy, to be honest -- to engage with your brand except for those exact moments in time when they have a need and seek to get it met. When they do have the need, they want to be listened to, and if that doesn't happen, they will quickly tune out. The communication needs to be two-way, not force-fed, and more importantly it needs to be remembered. The sooner you can realize this and tailor your communications accordingly, the more likely it will be that you will succeed.
Today, we can't simply point to a stack of catalogs and think of marketing as a game of chance. In a marketplace where everything can be measured and customers are extremely savvy, the brands that are flexible, open to feedback, and have the mechanisms in place to listen, learn, and act will be those that stay alive in the race.
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I'm not suggesting there's a great content bubble that's about to pop. In fact, visual content will only continue to grow as the top medium for how we communicate. However, it's become very apparent that in the race to feed the beast more visual content, we're overlooking some critical issues that will continue to pile up. We're well on our way to creating a mess for ourselves (like tossing the clutter into the closet before the guests arrive). If we don't address these issues now, it will spell trouble later. Do we really need a visual content apocalypse?
Here are five suggestions for what your company can do to avoid an impending disaster.
Hire a chief visual officer
Given the dramatic increase in significance of visual assets, someone in your company operating at a high level must be responsible for translating your brand strategy into a comprehensive visual strategy. I first read about the idea via Paul Melcher's Kaptur. As I talk to large organizations about optimizing their visual asset strategy, the need for a CVO -- and the pain points a role like this might address -- continues to frequently arise.
Think of all the many different channels you're producing content for today -- likely you're experimenting across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Periscope, and so on. The CVO will tie it all together and dictate the strategy for how visuals will be used to enable successful audience engagement. This means finding someone with a strong photography background capable of determining the most powerful way to tell your story visually. However, the necessary skills extend far beyond producing photo shoots, editing, and selecting imagery or videos. A CVO should be mapping out the full ecosystem where you need to be communicating, how you'll source those visual assets most appropriate for each channel, how you'll deploy them on a channel-by-channel basis, and how you'll generate the maximum return on your content investment over the long term.
Centralize visual content planning
From our recent survey with the CMO Council, we learned that very few companies have evolved toward a centralized content planning approach. In fact, more than 60 percent said they leave content planning to individual teams to handle independently within their smaller organizational silos. Digital media teams plan their content acquisition and usage independently and with little connection to advertising and PR or physical channels like in-store, partners, and sales teams. When content planning occurs in silos, the customer experience becomes fractured and inconsistent. Plus, severe organizational inefficiencies arise. Undoubtedly, multiple scattered investments are made in the acquisition and production of unique visual content to feed the beast, without regard for how these investments can be maximized across teams.
It's not too hard to fix this problem (especially if you hire a CVO with responsibility to do so). Once you've decided on the holistic customer experience, you can establish content development processes that bring these channel owners together to plan and agree on visually engaging experiences relevant to each channel, and the content that's needed company-wide to make the strongest possible impact.
Get savvy about your content sources
Savvy means making smarter determinations on where to go to get the content that will best tell your story. Your primary choices include your crowd, stock photo and video agencies, commissioned shoots, and even hiring staff. Don't underestimate the difference that sourcing will make in your visual campaigns. For example, are you aiming for high production value or gritty authenticity? Do you want the audience to "see themselves" and literally participate in the story which lends itself to crowdsourced content, or do you want to engage the audience in a more aspirational vision (i.e., using models and great lighting, often the purview of lifestyle photography professionals). Do you want a consistent style and feel to every campaign touchpoint? If so, you'll likely find yourself commissioning a shoot and building a library of approved content rather than sourcing from an agency or your crowd.
Getting savvy about sourcing also means it's time to worry more about usage rights and permissions, and proper compensation of creators. Just as brands like Whole Foods and Chipotle seem to take a greater interest in the producers -- the folks actually making the raw product that helps the company succeed -- it's time to take good care of the content producers too. For example, if you're crowdsourcing content via social media, are you truly acquiring the rights to use these photos in advertising just because people used a suggested hashtag? (Ask your legal department.) Are you using agencies that pay artists fairly for their content (if not, check out Pond5). And if you're producing the content internally, it's time to recognize the power and importance of this end product and budget appropriately to hire or commission professionals. Progressive new brands, like Derek Jeter's venture The Player's Tribune, seem to have expertly mastered this mix of employing social content and hiring professionals to produce owned content.
Get serious about visual asset accessibility
So, we've already established the overwhelming importance of using visual assets to communicate, and how we all plan to make more visual content as time moves on. However, a surprisingly significant number of respondents to our survey -- over 40 percent of marketing executives -- admitted that central management of the assets has not been a priority. Essentially, top marketers say that making more content is a top priority and that content strategy occurs haphazardly across teams, yet centralizing the management of this content is barely on the radar. Right about now some serious alarm bells should be going off (perhaps in the CFO's office, especially).
Let's start with the obvious marketing implications. Your team needs access to visual content in order to operate nimbly, especially the folks handling social media, who must be empowered to act/react in real time as opportunities arise. So, if you're serious about enabling your team to do their content-related jobs as best as possible, you need to get equally serious about having a system (or library) of approved content that's well-tagged for searchability and accessible to those who need it. This is where status quo solutions like shared drives, your designer's desktop, your third-party agency, and even Dropbox fall down in comparison to a centrally administered, cloud-based, searchable content library with robust access control permissions.
There are serious financial implications to consider as well. Letting content sit scattered across an organization -- especially in an environment where content planning is relegated to silos -- invites massive duplication in effort. If I can't find a photo or video I need for this month's campaign, I may waste precious hours ferreting through the organization to find it. Or perhaps worse, I'll turn outward to pay to have it produced independently (again). This stuff happens all the time. It's totally avoidable if you acquire the right visual asset management tools, create processes to centralize the content, and help your team find it.
Know where the bodies are buried
The beauty in the way content spreads online, across channels, and is then distributed by evangelists is that you have millions of new opportunities to engage new audiences. Yet, as content ages and becomes outdated, the way it has spread so nicely can also present some dangers to your brand. Take, for example, that mobile app launch video from 2012, or the photo of your CEO with Donald Trump. Designs and styles change, as does public opinion, and sometimes you need to roll back some of your content or replace it with updated work. So knowing precisely where your visual content resides is a huge help. This starts with understanding who has accessed content and how it's been used in campaigns. This can't happen if you simply have your content stored on individual hard drives or the company shared network.
The visual content apocalypse is coming, and those organizations who don't prepare now are going to find it hard to catch up as the pile of content assets continues to grow. Taking steps to better strategize and centralize planning, sourcing, and management of visual content will undoubtedly show benefits in both audience engagement and maximizing content investments.
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Television image via iStock.