Unlocking Your Market Potential

Traditional corporations: collaboration, community, and maintaining the brand in a web 2.0 world

April 17, 2009.

Some companies are born into the internet world - the portals, search engines, social networks, and widget makers. They provide the platforms for people to define themselves, voice opinions and create their own communities. The most adventurous web companies open up their platform to let their customers develop their own application features and extend functionality, taking customer ownership of their corporate brand to a new level.

Other software publishers are following the success of companies such as Saleforce.com and adapting their software onto a SaaS platform, embracing agile development and incorporating customer feedback in rapid cycles to improve software usability and services.

Stuck in the middle of this maelstrom are those corporations whose core business have more traditional roots and who are trying to catch up with what’s happening around them. And there are two aspects to this: how to use new tools to increase collaboration and productivity within the enterprise, and how to maintain control of customer relationships and brand image outside of the corporate firewall in a world increasingly subjected to web 2.0 forces.

Social collaboration is moving into the workplace in products such as Microsoft SharePoint. The confusion of endless email threads and passing around of different document versions is being replaced by more centralized communication platforms with open discussion groups. Document repositories and better project management processes provide greater visibility to resources and status and enhance team engagement on a personal level.

But outside of the corporate firewall is where the real challenge lies. Traditional companies whose core business is not directly related to the web are finding that mass marketing is less effective with a more individualistic population consuming different types of media, and their branding, marketing and customer relationships are influenced by consumer opinions expressed through social networks, peer review sites and blogs.

This shift is particularly challenging for ad agencies, who take a major role in defining and promoting the brand of the large traditional corporations. A strong brand is one of the most valuable assets of a corporation, and that brand has been pushed onto consumers through mass media.

Online, the mass identity is disappearing, with fragmentation into individuals who follow their own particular interests on a myriad of long-tail websites. People are now much more engaged with their own personal brand, and resent unwanted intrusions into their online social space.

They value peer opinions and authentic content.

An image that came up during several different presentations at the recent O’Reilly web 2.0 conference here in San Francisco was of a marketer bellowing through a bullhorn at point-blank range at a young consumer wrapped up in earphones and an iPhone, oblivious to all external influences.

Advertising agencies responded by working with ad networks serving up ads targeted to people’s web-surfing behavior. But these agencies are motivated by big media spends on a broad media channel, focusing on a few ways to reach a large amount of people. Audience fragmentation and the shift towards one-on-one conversations with consumers, and devising a lot of ways to reach a small amount of people does not fit in with their revenue models.

PR firms also need to respond to these shifts, but have a tough task ahead of them in tracking and responding to blogs and opinions on the internet. Getting in on the conversation is like skating on ice as the dialogue has to be authentic and sincere, which is difficult if you’re part of the PR machinery. Disguising the source can backlash, exposed fake bloggers and their employers accused of deceptive tactics, labeled as floggers and content spurned as flack.

Moving corporate control in-house begins to make sense. Advertising and PR agencies can provide high-value strategy and advisory services but brands themselves have to become publishers and find new ways to talk to customers. Companies are creating specific roles such as Director of Social Media to handle this internally. That person certainly has a lot on their plate, coordinating internal resources and using an array of specialist external vendors and tools, while ensuring consistent brand messaging.

With social engagement the opportunity is to create loyalty rather just awareness. Here’s a few things on the to-do list:

Start a corporate blog. You’ll see what’s going on and can get experts within your organization who are passionate about the product to provide a more authentic response to issues.

Track what’s happening on other blogs with blog tracking software that finds references to your company.

Search is now crucially important. Consumers who search on a particular term are already engaged with the subject. If they land on your website through a search then there’s an specific intention behind that visit compared to the more casual curiosity of an ad clickthrough. Search Engine Optimization and Marketing needs input from within your company and advice from specialists to make this work well.

Understand what’s driving traffic to your site using web analytic and consumer metrics tools.

Create interactive microsites for your products and communities for your product owners.

Become publishers of expertise within your industry

And good luck creating a viral video. Authentic is again the key ingredient as goofers and geeks within the company seem to have the most success. Will it Blend? and the CERN Hadron rap are classics. Crack that one and you’ll be a star yourself.

Keith Rayner, Kemarra Inc: April 2009


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