If marketers want to succeed in this Web 2.0 world, they need to follow their audiences, not the technologies, says Steve Rubel. That might sound like surprising advice, coming from someone who spends at least two hours a day sifting through and digesting news regarding the latest in digital marketing platforms. But if there's one thing Rubel has learned in tracking more than 500 RSS feeds related to digital marketing, it's this: It's not about the channel. It's about how you use it.
Steve Rubel is senior vice president and director of insights for Edelman Digital.
Rubel should know. As a digital marketer with more than 15 years of experience, he's seen a lot of platforms come and go. And as senior vice president and director of insights for Edelman Digital, it's his job to identify emerging digital marketing platforms and gauge which ones are worth his clients' investment.
In an industry where a shiny new application seems to be born every minute, it can be easy to get lost in the minutia -- a tendency, Rubel notes, that can hurt a brand's overall marketing campaign.
"A lot of marketers focus on individual sites and technologies," he says. "They focus on Facebook strategies, they focus on Twitter strategies. And it's very easy to get caught up in that and be very tactical and not think about how all these different genres integrate into a holistic system. I think that's the biggest disappointment today. A lot of people are doing a lot of great work -- very tactical work -- but not thinking about how all this comes together and how it works together."
The changing face of PR
As an executive at the world's largest independent PR firm, Rubel has a keen sense of how public relations interacts with traditional and digital marketing platforms to form the basis of a company's outward persona. He also recognizes that new digital platforms have greatly changed -- and will continue to influence -- the role of public relations in the overall marketing mix.
In July, when the SEC announced that it would recognize corporate blogs as public disclosure, some industry observers predicted the imminent death of the press release as we know it. But according to Rubel, rumors of the press release's death have been greatly exaggerated.
"I see press releases having an important role in a few areas," he says. "First of all, they communicate a message very quickly to the press, which is something that a blog or a feed really can't do. And they reach a large number of people, particularly investors. Also, they can have a high impact on search engines, and I think that's important to look at."
That said, Rubel notes that companies' dependence on press releases may decrease going forward. But, as with many traditional communication vehicles, the press release is more likely to respond to emerging digital platforms with adaptation rather than extinction.
Blogging into the future
Beyond providing a new channel through which to distribute company disclosures, blogs and bloggers are changing the face of public relations and marketing in many ways. And, daunting though it may be to consider that there are 25 million bloggers in the U.S. alone, Rubel says marketers and PR professionals need to embrace the blogger community as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
"There are a lot more places we can now go with smaller stories than we could before, more micro-niche audiences and more targeted outlets that focus on a unique segment of the market," he says.
Rubel notes that in order to effectively communicate with the blogosphere, PR professionals and marketers need to bring their A games. "We can't be spamming bloggers, and I think a lot of that is still continuing," he says. "I'm disappointed in the industry in that regard, and I think we have a ways to go."
Taking advantage of the huge opportunity presented by the blogging world requires PR professionals to think differently and leave behind some of their traditional tactics, Rubel says.
"PR people have typically been behind-the-scenes people, and I think that has to change," he says. "The people who participate online the most and do that regularly are the ones who are most trusted. It's easier for them to build relationships with the community." Going forward, he notes, PR professionals must be prepared to build relationships with journalists and bloggers in a very transparent way.
If anyone can attest to the supreme importance of transparency within the blogosphere, it's the folks at Edelman. Back in 2006, the firm received a virtual flogging when it was revealed that it had spearheaded a less-than-forthright campaign for client Wal-Mart. The campaign -- in which Rubel played no personal role -- involved a blog called "Wal-Marting Across America," which was presented as the tale of a couple that was traveling the country in an RV, spending each night parked in a different Wal-Mart parking lot. But, as it turned out, Wal-Mart was underwriting the bloggers, one of whom was a Washington Post photographer.
Following an outpouring of outrage among bloggers, Edelman quickly stepped up to the plate and acknowledged its error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. And as Rubel reiterated in his immensely popular Micro Persuasion blog, the firm is committed to the transparency guidelines that it helped the Word of Mouth Marketing Association develop. Since the 2006 episode, Wal-Mart has continued to tap into the power of blogging -- but with a much more upfront approach, evidenced in the company's Check Out blog.
The need for transparency extends to all facets of marketing, particularly in Web 2.0, Rubel says. He notes that, on occasion, he's had to talk his clients out of creating and posting their own articles to online resources such as Wikipedia. "Sometimes they really can't quite understand why at first," he says. "But I've found most times they're often very receptive once I point to evidence that really underscores the ethics of the community. It's pretty hard to dispute that."
Digital best practices
Overall, Rubel says that online social networks present significant opportunities for marketers -- if they know how to put this medium to work for their brands. Interactions and campaigns on sites such as Facebook and MySpace should develop naturally, he says.
"When a company can determine what it wants -- and that overlaps with what a consumer wants -- and you participate in a meaningful way in a social network to make that happen, I think that's very credible," he says.
As an example, he points to a program that Edelman Digital is running for Brita called Filter for Good. Tapping into consumers' concerns over the impact that their bottled water habits are having on the environment, Edelman worked with the filtration giant to develop FilterForGood.com, a website where consumers who pledge to give up their bottled water can enter a contest and vie for prizes. "We activated that inside Facebook and helped execute an engagement program among people who are very green within Facebook and enthusiastic for these topics," Rubel says. He notes that the campaign is a perfect example of a win-win situation in which a social networking tool helped to align a company's interests with existing consumer interests.
In conclusion, Rubel reiterates his overall philosophy when it comes to interactive marketing. "Talk to consumers," he says. "Study your audience and know how they interact with the web and what they like to do." In the end, after all, it won't be marketers who determine how media look and act it in the future -- it will be the consumers.
"At this point, no medium has really replaced another, but I think that's not an infinite loop," Rubel says. "That has to stop at some point because people are so time pressed." Rubel doesn't claim to know which technologies and platforms will ultimately flourish and which will fade into oblivion, but he does know this: "Everything has to adapt in some way."
Lori Luechtefeld is editor of iMedia Connection.