Road Rules for Brand Management in the Modern Media Era

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The media landscape is evolving at warp speed. Social media networks, video sites, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and virtual worlds have all exploded onto the scene, transforming the relationship between producer and consumer. Consumers are now architects of ads, news, products — even their own celebrity.

According to a new report by eMarketer, 64 million web users created content online last year, and by 2011 that number will shoot to 95 million. To stay connected to your customers, you must be awake and alert to these rapid shifts, or risk running your business off the road.

Marketing, once a one-sided outbound communication, is now a dialogue involving full participation of the customer. Word of mouth, as old as the grapevine itself, is suddenly a fresh concept in the context of user-generated content. We’re no longer sitting in our offices dreaming up and churning out campaigns, products, and taglines. Instead, we’re finding ourselves face to face with our customers.



This exposure terrifies some. Others embrace it as a prime opportunity. No matter which camp you fall into, you need to recognize this reality and make it work for your business. It’s a new world, but already some best practices are beginning to emerge.

Step Away from the Glass

As business owners, marketers, and PR practitioners, we sometimes get too close to our product or service to properly assess its value and position in the marketplace. Step back and listen to customers to get an objective point of view and work from there. Smart executives recognize the golden learning opportunity that burgeoning user-generated content provides.

Be Authentic

Once you’ve identified the real story, you need to anchor it with specifics and tell it truthfully. Inspire customers to spread your message, but don’t pay them to do so. If you earn a reputation for honest, straightforward communications, when (not if) a misstep occurs, you’ll be able to tap into the goodwill you’ve built and recover quickly. When a problem arises, rapid disclosure is key.

Know What’s Out and What’s In

Not long ago, PR professionals would talk about establishing thought leadership and positioning clients as industry experts. While these objectives are still relevant, they reflect a top-down, inside-looking-out approach. Think about it: Time magazine’s person of the year is ''You.'' Barack Obama out-fundraised Hillary Clinton with an innovative social network strategy tapping hundreds of thousands of small donors. It’s time to admit the game has changed. It’s inclusive, it’s democratic, it’s collaborative. Get on the bus.

Be Interesting

As Andy Sernovitz, a marketing guru and former CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, said, ''if you want someone to talk about you, you have to give them something to say. It’s like stone soup: everyone throws something in, and the message gets richer and richer.'' Home in on what’s different about the product or service. Buck conventional wisdom, and you’ll have a better shot at standing out and sparking a conversation among your customers.

Make It Easy

This generation of multitasking, BlackBerry-using addicts demands an easily digestible message. If it’s interesting but not well packaged, it’s a missed opportunity.

Loosen the Reins, but Don’t Drop Them

Many marketers are afraid that if they relinquish their brands to their customers, terrible things will happen. First, whether you’re launching a product or rolling out a service, you have to give up some control. Second, you can facilitate co-creation in a managed way. For example, the marketers behind the Broadway hit Spring Awakening appealed to their audience by offering them a chance to go on stage when they texted a message to a code. Everyone who sent the text got a Spring Awakening ring tone and wallpaper. Winners got a coveted reward — a chance to create something with the actors — and the show reinforced its brand and provided tools for fans to spread the word.

Pick and Choose

The fact that an initiative taps user-generated content doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea or that it’s right for your brand. Witness the fallout from Bud.TV, a spectacularly expensive effort that generated spectacularly negative word of mouth. Similarly, some companies venturing into the much-buzzed-about virtual world Second Life have had a taste of this themselves. For instance, Nissan’s online marketers had to clean up the mess when a helicopter crashed into one of the car maker’s buildings, starting a fire that left several avatars dead. Certainly not the tragedy an incident like that would be in real life, but not an image enhancer either.

Look Ahead

Today people are creating ads, contributing to campaigns, and providing their input on products because it is novel and gives them a voice, but we’re moving past the early romance stage. Peek around the corner, and you’ll see the novelty beginning to dwindle. People will continue to create content online, but they’ll eventually become more selective with their efforts. To keep the customer-engagement vehicle on course, executives, marketers, and entrepreneurs will need to up the ante in terms of creativity and incentives.

About the Author

Victoria Grantham has a dozen years’ experience counseling recognized brands, including Absolut, Consumer Reports, Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, Weight Watchers, and Meredith Publishing. She is the managing director of Rose Communications, a strategic public relations firm that helps clients manage their brands and share their stories. For more information email vgrantham@rosecomm.com or visit www.rosecomm.com.
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