The New Word-of-Mouth Marketing Infrastructure?

This article was originally posted on Powered’s blog, The Engaged Consumer.

The role of a proprietary community environment for the purposes of marketing (or social marketing program) has been hotly debated among brand marketers and social media insiders. We know that social sites are more engaging (people spend more time on them) than non-social, and marketers want to tap into that power.

So as a marketer, do you build your own community, or do you join others’? If you decide to build a community, what is the best marketing application – a community for your Loyalty Program, a community for building Insight into consumers that Market Research uses, an educational community for those considering your products that is more of a Direct Marketing play?

But it seems like brands are benefiting from building AND joining . . . and we’ve seen applications for social marketing that are generating value along each (and in many cases, all) of the above dimensions.

Something I learned long ago is that if your questions have multiple correct answers, then you might be asking the wrong questions.

The range of marketing value propositions that a branded online community can serve indicates that the community isn’t really appropriate for just one of them – after all, separating “loyalty program” from “acquisition program,” “pre-purchase” from “post-purchase,” is something that marketers do for ourselves. Consumers don’t classify interactions that cleanly. Plus we’re seeing social tools being applied in almost every dimension of a company’s customer-facing business . . .

Ecommerce – Social Commerce / product presence through ratings and reviews by providers like Bazaarvoice

Support – Enhanced Product/Service Support Forums by providers like Lithium

PR/IR – Blogging and corporate presence platforms by providers like Awareness Networks

Focus Groups and Research – Formal deep online market research environments from providers like Communispace

The problem with the above applications is that while they are powerful when a consumer is ready to hear about what you’re selling, they suffer from what I call the “dinner party egomaniac” problem. If they are the only social applications you have, you risk sounding like the person at the dinner party who is only willing to have conversations about themselves – your products, your company, your brand. And if your product or brand isn’t particularly sexy, that problem is exacerbated.

This makes it remarkably difficult to drive brand engagement from third party social environments to your properties. On those sites, consumers are busy talking to and relating to each other about the things that matter to them. They are not in a transactional mindset, and the invasive brand-centric presence there will be no more effective than, and probably less effective than, a 30-second TV spot.

What is needed is a transitional space, a place where consumers can go from third party social engagement to brand engagement naturally. A place that “changes the subject” at the dinner party in a way that Emily Post would approve.

This is where a branded online community can enter in – as the platform that reaches into third party social sites, converting third party social engagement into branded social engagement while retaining the context of consumer needs and aspirations. Branded communities need to be focused at the lifestyle and category level for this reason – it’s where the brand connects to consumers and their conversation.

What makes this easier are technologies that most third party social sites are implementing that allow users to take their identity, relationships, content, and features seamlessly from an unbranded environment to a branded one: like Facebook Connect, for instance.

word-of-mouth-infrastructure

So perhaps all of these things begin to function together in a new-media word-of-mouth marketing infrastructure, as above. Social enablement of the brand presence in all dimensions, and then a social marketing program where the brand connects with the relevant aspirations and needs of the consumer – and which fields participants from social destinations in powerful new ways that wildly outperform more traditional broadcast marketing channels.

Immediate accountability

modern-sikhThis past week I had the pleasure of meeting and having coffee with a sharp younger guy who grew up in a very successful family business, and as a result had the opportunity to shoulder a lot of responsibility in that business at a very young age. He seized that opportunity, and as a result he has developed life and business experience well above the average for his age. But despite his accomplishments, he maintains a kind, humble nature and a good sense of humor.

But these are all things I learned about him through an almost hour-long conversation. What I learned about him instantly upon meeting him is that he is a practicing member of the Sikh religion.

Sikhism is a religion that grew out of the Punjabi region of India (and is where most Sikhs live today), and is based on the ideals of honesty, equality, fidelity, meditating on God, and never bowing to tyranny. Despite conflicts with both Hindus and Muslims in the past 100 years, Sikhism is historically a very tolerant religion that has co-existed with other religions for centuries.

But the most striking foundation of the Sikh religion is that Sikh men are required to wear uncut hair, so most Sikhs you meet will have a long beard and a turban on at all times.

The best part of our conversation was when this gentleman told me about his work with the Sikh Research Institute, which is not an evangelical organization, but seeks to spread understanding about the Sikh religion and people in an era prone to religious intolerance.

“When I walk into a room, I feel instant accountability,” he told me. “Not just for my business and my family, but for my faith and people.” We talked about how he looks at the outward expression of his faith not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. Everyone remembers him, for better or worse, and he makes sure it’s for the better.

I couldn’t help but consider how this unavoidable feeling of accountability, and his constant sense of being a part of something much larger than himself, must have played a role in making him the charismatic, warm, and receptive person he is today.

I would join a donut community

donutThis article is cross-posted from Powered’s company blog, The Engaged Consumer.

Within Powered, we’ve been mulling over the question “Is Social Marketing for my Company/Brand?” more than usual lately, mostly because we’re working on a white paper addressing that question.

Evaluating your situation as a marketer relative to the social marketing program opportunity is something we’ve addressed a lot in this blog, particularly with Aaron’s popular “Would you Join a Toothpaste Community?” post, along with follow-up posts where Aaron tackled a few challenging products from a community-building perspective. I also sounded off on how the brand is your bridge to community strategy.

But should you build a community? It really comes down to two phases of evaluation. First, is what you’re selling community-worthy? I call this “genetic fit,” because if you’re selling toothpaste, that isn’t going to change overnight, along with other things like your marketplace positioning and branding. Some types of products and services just generate more natural community activity than others.

Second, is your marketing organization and larger company culture in a place where you could pull it off? I call this “cultural fit.” This actually can, and does, change over time – more easily than the genetics do.

But let’s talk about genetic fit, since it’s the one that you really can’t change. And donuts.

I love donuts, but I eat them pretty infrequently – they are something I treat myself to every now and then. Despite my love for the occasional Boston Kreme, I certainly wouldn’t name donuts as one of my passions in life.

So would I (or anyone) join a donut community? Well, maybe for a little while. It would be diverting to go and rate my favorite donuts, debate the virtues of filled donuts over glazed with others, and discover the origin of the bear claw. But would I return again and again over time? Probably not.

Ok, now let’s talk about Dunkin’ Donuts. This changes the discussion a little bit, as I’m now seeing donuts through the prism of a brand. I can visualize Fred the baker from the old commercials getting up and saying “time to make the donuts.” I’m thinking about how good their coffee has always been, along with pretty tasty donuts. Finally, I’m recalling some of the funnier ad spots I’ve seen lately featuring their latest brand campaign “America runs on Dunkin.” Would I join a Dunkin Donuts community? Hmm, a little more interesting than just plain donuts, but again probably not a place where I would return after the initial visit.

dunkin-donuts-logoBut let’s think a bit more about the Dunkin Donuts’ brand. How does Dunkin Donuts get you interested and get you in their store? How do they connect with your needs? A good place is always to start with the tagline – “America runs on Dunkin.” Are they really selling donuts and coffee here, or something more important? Something more basic?

It sounds to me like Dunkin’ Donuts is selling energy. Something that powers you. In a literal sense, the sugar and caffeine is a boost, but energy is something people struggle with – managing your energy level throughout the day is tough. The popularity of energy drinks is escalating rapidly because people are looking for pep. The concept of energy could extend beyond nutrition and the daily grind, too. What about Motivation? Long-term Achievement? Entrepreneurship? These are all principles of energy . . . and things that also fuel the American perspective, a nice tie-in with the tagline. Ok, so what about a community focused on your energy, powered by Dunkin?

Suddenly a fairly compelling community idea is coming into focus that is relevant to the Dunkin’ Donuts brand, and is about something that people care about on a day-to-day basis. I would join this community, and I would come back. Perhaps I would learn and chat about everything from how to avoid the post-lunch doldrums, to the physiological effects of energy drinks, to how to write a business plan for that idea I’ve been trying to get off of the ground. Immediately and over time I would see Dunkin’ Donuts as a bit more than just a brand that makes great donuts, but as the brand that “powers me.” In the end this is what the 30-second spot is trying to do, but this does it in a much more powerful and lasting way.

My involvement in this type of community would significantly affect my Dunkin brand loyalty, and now because the brand isn’t just about donuts to me anymore perhaps they could sell me other things. More products from their expanding home coffee line (perhaps this is the entire initial thrust). An organic energy drink. Baking mixes and cookbooks.

This all started with a donut. And all great brands and businesses start with something that simple. The evolution of your genetics might happen faster and in different directions than you think, dictated by relevant opportunity. Part of understanding what your online community might look like is thinking about what your company might look like, someday.