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The best marketing advice I've ever received

The best marketing advice I've ever received Doug Schumacher

Stewart Brand said, "Information wants to be free." Spend a few minutes on Twitter, and you'll realize the same could be said for advice. The trick seems to be weeding out the good from the stuff that will steer you over the cliff. So here then are some of the digital marketing points of advice that I've picked up over the years and feel are most relevant today.

Pay attention to risk/reward ratios.
Engagement is the marketing buzzword of the decade, and it's a remarkably powerful concept. It's also way more than most marketers have ever asked of someone in the media. Watching a 30-second commercial requires very little investment from viewers. They expect it, they know it's footing their entertainment bill, and they know it's over in 30 seconds. Simple.

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Compare that to someone who comes to your Facebook Page and is greeted with a welcome tab offering some sort of interactive experience. The time and effort you expect that person to go through to get that experience had better be adequately rewarded, or you're making the assumption that their time isn't very valuable. That's a pretty annoying thing to communicate to them.

Note that making this mistake often shows up in the wash, usually in the statistics involving engagement and conversion rates. Seth Godin wrote a nice piece on this concept recently.

Remember: You cannot not communicate.
This is a line that I first came across via designer David Carson. It shouldn't need a lot of explanation, and it serves as a useful reminder to brands: If you think running boring communications is a way to avoid making a strong statement, it's quite likely having the opposite effect.

A great example of a brand that understands this concept is the pre-flight safety video on Virgin America. How many miserably sterile versions of that same message have I sat through on other airlines? And then one day, I get on a Virgin America flight, and it's like a breath of fresh air. That simple, animated video did more for my impression of an airline than any $300,000 commercial I've ever seen.

I also equate this bit of advice to brands that think they can avoid being the focus of conversations by staying out of social media. All they're avoiding is the awareness of the conversations they should be at the center of.

In a single video, Virgin America did a great job communicating that it is different from other airlines.

As a marketer, you need to start thinking more like a startup.
The lines between startup business model, product idea, and brand experience are pretty thin these days. For brands, that presents the double-edged sword of having an opportunity to develop big, market-making ideas, but also realizing that a high school kid could produce the same thing in his bedroom over spring break. (You probably heard that a 14-year-old recently built an app that knocked Angry Birds off the top free game slot in Apple's app store.)

We're in an era in which individuals or small groups are producing things that formerly only large companies or well-funded startups could. (This is something I report on frequently in my weekly Creativing posts.)

So how do startups and small companies succeed where so many brands fail?

If you read any of the venture capital bloggers (Fred Wilson is one of my faves), you'll start to see a term come up frequently in their lists of what makes a great startup company. Adaptability. The old "speed boat vs. oil tanker" analogy.

What they're seeing in business after business is that things change. Frequently and abruptly. Often, successful businesses go through multiple iterations before making it to a successful model. And it's not like the marketing world is changing at a snail's pace these days. But for various reasons, ranging from a risk-averse culture to overly centralized management, many brands have trouble adapting.

Social media is one example of how brands are adapting. It's hard to imagine a network TV spot running without a high-level marketing person approving every last word. But some Facebook brand pages are reaching comparable numbers of people. Yet there's a lot of messaging going out that can't possibly go through the same approval process. The only way that can happen is by distributing responsibility across more people within the company.

She's probably creating the latest gaming craze.

Recognize that content is the new marketing.
The content a company produces is probably the most accurate form of marketing communications a company can deliver. If the company really understands its industry, then it should be able to produce good content. If not, it will show. Another plus to content development is that when your content is remarkable, you've already answered many of the questions around what your marketing messages should be.

One challenge with the content direction is that, upon mention of it, the client team worries that the CEO is going to have to be pushed to blog, and the agency creatives think they're going to get to create a sitcom. Usually neither idea is the right one.

If a company really feels it has strength in a given industry, yet isn't producing content that supports that position, then at the best the company is leaving some money on the table. At the worst, it's leaving itself vulnerable to someone coming in and grabbing that valuable leadership position.

What's also interesting about content marketing is that some of the companies that have been really good at traditional TV advertising seem to get the content game intuitively. Both Nike and Apple have demonstrated that content runs an extremely broad gamut. Consider a product like Nike+ and its complete digital experience, as well as the conference presentations of Steve Jobs, which pull millions of views. Both are forms of content that are very tough to compete with.

Don't bet against building 43.
Building 43 is where the web spam team at Google is housed. This is a building packed with some of the smartest people in the business, all working to preserve the value of Google's most precious asset: its search results.

I'm a strong advocate of good SEO practices, and I have big respect for the thought leaders in this space. What those experts almost universally agree on is that one of the best tactics to getting good search rankings is to develop quality content relevant to your business. Furthermore, companies should distribute links to that content to influential sites and publishers that cover the topic, in hopes that they'll realize the value in your content and share it with their audiences.

That tactic works today, and it will most likely work for years to come. Why? Because it's what's best for the consumer. And linking consumers to high-caliber content on the subjects they're searching for is imperative if Google wants to maintain its search industry dominance.

Does creating that content take work? Yes. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Some SEO practitioners would like you to think that, with a few tricks, they can blast you to the top of Google's search results. Just realize that if those tactics do anything other than help the consumer find highly relevant content on your site that's better than anything else out there, you're attempting to outsmart the system. In other words, you're betting against building 43. 

Remember that user experience design is more important than ever.
Several years ago, Facebook was about widgets. Then overnight it becomes about the news feed. The iPad has, in one year, become the most quickly adopted consumer electronics device ever. And by most accounts, tablet sales are poised to explode. We're talking about a computing experience that didn't even exist a year ago.

The percent of the media we consume that we'd classify as new media is expanding every year.

New media is new to everyone. New to the users. New to marketers. New to developers. Figuring out these new experiences isn't easy, but unfortunately that doesn't minimize the need for a great user interface.

User interface is often the difference between accomplishing a task quickly and not -- between satisfaction and frustration. It's the difference between a good brand experience and a bad one. If your project is about creating a brand experience, a bad user experience will only ensure failure.

The long-term trend is for tools to get more and more sophisticated.

Own your content.
Having a Facebook Page is great and all that, but don't put your website in moth balls. And while most brands probably aren't seriously considering something that extreme, I have seen it done. And it can be easier to just publish your content to your social media properties and leave it at that. But there are a lot of compelling reasons for taking the effort to put your content on your website.

  • Improving search rankings: You want to own as many high-ranking search positions for as many of your valuable keywords as possible. Having a website (or several of them) is a great way to do that.

  • More marketing tools: Even a large social media site like Facebook has definite limitations. If your own site is a hub of activity, you'll have another set of tools you can work with to build engagement with segments of your target audience.

  • Easier implementation: Today, there are plenty of tools to facilitate managing content across multiple property types.

  • Better site integration: With web technical advances like Open Graph, a brand's website and social media properties are becoming more and more integrated. That means an experience created around one is more likely to have a ripple effect on the other.

  • Dynamic mobile experience: Facebook's current iPhone app leaves a lot to be desired with regard to brand Pages. If you've been publishing good content on your site, it's probable much of it will translate to a WAP site.

  • Tides shift: There was a time when brands were scrambling to figure out MySpace. Having your content distributed across multiple destinations, including your site, is like having a good content distribution backup plan.

Don't stop thinking about new media opportunities.
At one point, email was a mysterious new media marketing opportunity. So were 468x60 animated GIF banners. Same for Flash sites. The list goes on.

The point is that what were once "new" media can quickly become routine media. And when things become routine, they tend to be the stuff that your competitors can easily figure out -- without a lot of effort.

When The Gap recently launched its Facebook Places jeans giveaway, there were a lot of people asking about the return on investment and what The Gap got out of it. And that's fine, as it has to be considered. But the value to the Gap goes way beyond the surface transactions that happened that day. Consider that the marketing blogs were abuzz with people trying to analyze and guess all sorts of value metrics for the campaign, and how a campaign like that performs. Of course, there was only one company that knew the inner details of the campaign's performance: The Gap.

In today's media climate, leading-edge new media marketing should be considered a cost of doing business. It's a great way to give you and your company knowledge about future trends that none of your competitors are privy to. It's also a great way attract the best and brightest within your field, and keep them engaged and working harder than ever.

At one point, this was some crazy bit of new media. (Image source: Library of Congress)

Doug Schumacher is president and creative director at Basement Inc.

On Twitter? Follow Schumacher at @MemeRunner. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Doug Schumacher is the co-founder of social media content strategy tool Zuum. Zuum reveals a number of key insights into what type of social media content will generate maximum impact for a given industry. His interactive career began in 1996...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Doug Schumacher

2011, February 28


Definitely agree with your emphasis on the 'right' content. Good content requires as much if not more strategic consideration as paid media messaging gets, because ideally, it has a much longer shelf life.

Thanks for reading,

Commenter: Brad McMillen

2011, February 27

Good mind candy, Doug. Among the salient points, what resonates with me in particular is the requirement for marketers to have a startup mentality, and the point that content is the new marketing. With the constant need for fresh content, organizations have to be regularly curating the "right" content (your point about the CEO being pushed to blog). Kudos.