Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Losing Control of Marketing

As I’m thinking about what might be next for me, I’ve been spending a lot of time on social networking sites like Digg, Facebook, StumbleUpon, You Tube, and a variety of blogs.

It is amazing how much marketing has changed in just the last year or two. You Tube is barely three years old, and yet it has become the holy grail for marketers. Almost no corporate blog goes back more than 1-2 years, yet having one (or not) has become a symbol of whether a company “gets” the new rules for customer interaction (or not).

Every day innovative companies are tapping social networking sites to speak directly to their customers – and more importantly to allow their customers to speak directly back to them, completely unfiltered.

The best marketing campaigns have now become relay races where a company tosses out an idea or discussion point – which may not be fully formed – and then customers react...Hopefully start passing the idea-baton themselves within their online communities, and in a best case scenario, the company completely loses control of the idea and it emerges 10 million views later as the top video on You Tube.

The entire campaign could play out in one day.

One sign of success is the company completely losing control of its own marketing, freeing it to take on a life of its own.

Losing control of marketing must be a scary thing for many companies, and is certainly a departure from the old days of careful corporate image management, sanctioned talking points, and endlessly tweaked key messages. I wonder if companies can afford to take time to be scripted anymore, with things moving so quickly in the online world.

For young startups, or unknown companies trying to establish themselves, the inherent risk of losing control online is a no-brainer. Social channels are a low cost way to reach a wide audience, and unleashing the right content can catapult a company out of obscurity. Gone are the days when it takes millions and millions of consumer marketing dollars to build a brand.

I wonder how much You Tube and Facebook spent on marketing in their early days? Not much.

These companies have transformed viral marketing into social networking.

With the right blend of interaction and contribution of authentic content, people will agree to become your online “friend,” and when you say something, people might listen, talk back, and pass it along with their own spin. Loss of control.

Despite the seemingly pervasive nature of blogging, You Tubing, etc., a quick survey of the Fortune 20 showed that they haven’t dipped more than a pinkie toe in the water – only 3 of the 20 have blogs on their corporate websites. You Tube fared slightly better with 4 out of the 20 having their own channels. However, most of the top 20 have RSS feeds and several offer podcasts. This is a step towards the direct information access that is much-valued in the online world, but it is a one-way step. A way to keep control over marketing.

You have to hand it to the brave companies who have dived-in and put themselves out there. Some of the comments posted to their online blogs are brutal. From telling GM that their car concepts suck to hammering on IBM that their customer service is nonexistent. Customers are definitely talking back. It must take a brave PR person not to hit the delete button on some of these comments. I think the smarter companies realize that creating a company-sanctioned space for this honest feedback will enhance brand loyalty. A topic for a future blog might be to ponder what companies should be doing with these comments.

Some companies may feel compelled to try to keep control to protect their brand, but I’d argue that marketing control might be gone forever, and this is a good thing for the customer. Smart companies are figuring out how to embrace this. It is also worth noting that the majority of the companies who may think they are holding onto marketing control are the inspiration for independent You Tube channels and blogs of their customers making fun of them...

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