Detach and distribute to create meaningful connections
One of the most powerful trends shaping the web today is the notion of detaching and distributing content from a central location. Technology keeps coming at us, but for the first time, it is being focused on allowing people to consume content on their own terms.
We, as marketers, are challenged with a seemingly endless stream of new ways to connect with audiences: rich media, RSS, social networks, podcasts, widgets, mobile, in-store advertising. One client of mine at SAP, a giant enterprise technology company, told me about a developer who was running SAP ERP software with his Wii console! These are all part of our reality today. And they all are examples of "distributed" ways audiences are now consuming content and services.
What is distributed content? It's simply the packaging of brand content or functionality and delivering it to audiences wherever they naturally spend their time. For example, people naturally spend time on their computer desktops every time they get on their computer, so a desktop widget is a great vehicle for distributing content to them.
Media plans have traditionally been crafted to lure "targets" to a destination like a website or landing page. Today, people are more empowered, so perhaps it's time for websites to come to them. The implication for marketers is that you need to inject this potentially counterintuitive logic into your plans.
Facebook just announced that it has more than 150 million members. If you believe its statistics, 54 percent of those members log in every day, and spend an average of 22 minutes a day there. That's a significant chunk of time. It's where people live. If brands can have a meaningful interaction inside of Facebook (or LinkedIn or Dogster.com or wherever they choose to spend their time), why try to pull them to another website purely for the purpose of marketing to them outside of their interests?
Websites are not about to disappear. However, their decade in the sun as the exclusive place brands live online is coming to a close. We've always targeted ads to our audience. Now, it's fairly simple to target them with even more.
They key point about content distribution from a user perspective is choice. To have an interaction on someone's own terms means they have to choose you. And nobody really wants to be "friends" with a brand unless they perceive a benefit from it. If you want to be on my iPhone (or desktop or blog or whatever), you better bring it. There needs to be some value there. And that value better be relevant both to your brand and to my life outside the world of my phone or my social network.
Yet, uncovering this relevant value is not easy. It's an art to determine relevance and value for a group of unknowns, just as it's an art to determine what the appropriate distribution vehicle is for this relevant value.
But guess what, agency people. It's now part of your job to figure it all out.
Rest assured, relevant value is attainable. And the depth of customer engagement it can bring is worth the effort.
I'm glad you asked...
Start with a strategy, not a tactic
How does the value you're creating map back to your overall brand message? Being sticky yet irrelevant is not a win -- it's an embarrassing conversation with your boss when you review the results. Great ad campaigns start with insight. Distributed content and services should be no different.
Occasionally, the strategic relevance of detached services is obvious. Your bank providing a mobile app that helps customers find a nearby ATM is valuable, relevant, and pretty obvious.
More often, relevance is elusive. Take Elf Yourself. Brilliantly valuable! People need to send Christmas cards. This little service allows me to create a very funny e-card and send it to people. Awesome! But who created it: Staples? Office Max? Office Depot? I honestly didn't remember (had to look it up to find out it was Office Max). So how does this incredibly viral app support what Office Max stands for? Well, it doesn't. Now, I'm not saying Elf Yourself was a failure by any means. A gazillion people used it. But wouldn't it be better if the brand that funded it got the credit?
Now take another famous digital example: Subservient chicken. Everyone knows it was for Burger King, even thought the BK logo was nowhere to be found. Why? Because Burger King sells chicken sandwiches and they let you "have it your way." Telling a guy in a chicken suit what to do lets you have it your way. It's strategic and, in this case, the implicit message makes a stronger brand impression than saying the brand name explicitly.
Follow the path of the experts
Right now, Amazon is probably the company that has done the best job incorporating distributed consumption into its brand DNA. You probably think of Amazon.com as a destination, but with Amazon Web Services, the company has made it possible for anyone to create an entire e-business on Amazon's infrastructure.
Anyone can click "Build an ecommerce Site," pay $100, pick some colors and upload a logo, and be in business. Amazon's infrastructure handles the rest. If you have a bit of programming knowledge or even if you're an enterprise (like Target.com), you can do more. Much more. So now thousands of online brands are distribution points for the core value Amazon provides: the ability to buy stuff online.
Of course, not all of us can be Amazon. Nor should we try. But we can all think about how we can add relevant value through distributed consumption of our brand. For instance, my agency has a client that sells reusable plastic water bottles. Its customers know they should drink more water, but find it hard to do so. Our agency recommended creating an iPhone app that reminds people to drink water. Simple. Relevant. Valuable.
Use design thinking, not herd mentality
In general, marketers should avoid jumping on bandwagons. And yes, widget is the buzzword of today; last year it was Facebook. But maybe an application-based marketing component is a more strategically relevant place for you to be adding value than a widget on a user's desktop or blog -- or whatever other "next" tactic it is that your boss "keeps hearing about." By understanding the broader concept of distributed consumption, you can take advantage of the underlying trend without getting lost in the clutter of "what's hot" today.
A great tool to help come up with that strategically relevant place is a methodology called design thinking.
What is design thinking? Basically, it's just using creativity to solve problems that humans encounter. It's a process that's often used to drive product design innovations, but to achieve relevant value, the line between what is marketing and what is product becomes blurred.
"Whoa," you may be saying, "I'm not set up for that."
Sure you are. Take the example of the water bottle company above. If creative teams were given a brief that just said, "create an iPhone app," they'd have quite a challenge in front of them. But if that same brief said, "Help people drink more water," you can almost visualize the brainstorm that led to the idea we proposed.
By detaching yourself from a preconceived notion of how you are supposed to reach your customer, you free yourself to reach them in new and better ways. The iTunes Music Store is a great example. When Apple decided to sell music, conventional wisdom would have been to build an e-commerce website. Instead, they integrated the store with iTunes and created the first widely adopted online commerce experience that sidestepped the browser. They solved the problem of having to buy your music in one place and listen to it in another, and they've sold more than 5 billion songs in the process.
Solving a problem creatively -- using design thinking -- doesn't have to be complex. Maybe you push content to a frequent site visitor's desktop through a widget with RSS to solve the "problem" of them having to access your website everyday. Maybe you send them a tweet at 11:45 a.m. each day with a link to a coupon for lunch at your fast food restaurant. The key takeaway is to be thoughtful, not reactionary.
Have a value litmus test
Banks embraced the concept of distributed consumption a long time ago. By looking at the key value their branches provided -- access to your money -- they came up with a way to detach and distribute that value to their customers; they started putting ATMs anywhere you might need money. Then, you could get the value you needed out of the bank where you needed it without having to go to the bank.
You need to make sure there is value in whatever you provide. Value could be a free box of Cracker Jacks, the ability to update your bank account from your desktop, or the ability to poke someone in Facebook while standing on your head. The point is that the end user needs a reason to care.
Most brand efforts in Facebook have been notorious flops. The reason is that no one seeks to be "friends" with an ad. They do add applications to their profile, however. Let's take brands out of the equation for a moment. If you look at the consistently top applications in Facebook, you'll see that they almost all take some element of the Facebook experience and make it better. The "Poke" becomes "SuperPoke!" "Friends" becomes "Top Friends." The "Wall" becomes "Super Wall." The common thread is that they all add value to the experience.
Brands are conspicuously absent from those lists. Why? Discovering your brand's relevant value in this new era isn't that easy. Frankly, many haven't even tried.
Here's the tip. Make sure an idea that is relevant to both your brand and the medium of delivery. Add those two up, and you've got value.
For instance, last year, my agency was tasked with engaging Adobe's college student audience. We knew that students were on Facebook and that Facebook was a fun diversion. We also knew that Adobe makes cool products like Photoshop that allow people to enhance their photos. We created a game called "Real or Fake?" that showed a batch of images each week and asked players to guess whether they had been manipulated by Adobe products. It was relevant to the brand because it showed off a key benefit of their products, and it was relevant to the medium because it was a fun diversion for five minutes each week. And it worked. Thousands of fans played the game, and close to half played more than once. Even more thrilling to us was that in 21percent of games played, users clicked to "see how we did it" and experienced a brief tutorial in how to doctor images with Adobe software. Now, that's value.
Give yourself a litmus test. Ask, "Is this idea valuable?" If it's relevant to both the brand and the means of delivery, there's a good chance it is.
But will it be measurable?
Be thoughtful about metrics
We live in a ROI-driven world today, and of course, it's vital to measure and optimize the programs we create. But it's also important to realize that when distributing content, some of the core principles we currently use to rate the success of our programs become irrelevant -- perhaps even dangerous.
This simply is not direct response. Remember, an application isn't a banner ad or a landing page. Define your key performance indicators, but be mindful of what else you can learn about your audience from how they engage with you.
Most metrics today are conversion-based -- how many clicks, how many leads, how many sales. When you detach content, getting someone to come to your landing page or website is just not the point. By all means, measure engagement and interactions. Just be thoughtful about it so you don't undermine what you're trying to accomplish with an illogical definition of success.
New terrain requires fresh thinking. There are no standards (yet) for measuring engagement, but there are some good efforts in place. Eyeblaster's "dwell time" metric, for example, measures the time that users spend engaging with a rich media ad unit. When they mouse over, the counter starts; mouse off, and it stops. Associating dwell time with media costs can give you an ROI for cost per second of engagement.
It's a financially challenging time in the industry, so for some clients, measuring engagement is not enough. Every dollar of marketing budget needs to be justified by a business case that drives back to dollars and cents. This is particularly difficult when we're talking about new ways of reaching audiences, but of course reaching audiences in new ways is more important than ever.
The big takeaway
Marketing is a "my way or the highway" world. If you don't engage with your customers on their own terms, they're not going to get mad at you. They're not even going to ignore you. They just won't know you exist. But this is also a great time to distinguish yourself and your services by adding relevant value to your customer's life. It's the best opportunity the new world has to offer.