Getting over ourselves, or why advertising works

AdvertisingI work in social media marketing, and as a result many more traditional marketers expect me to have a low opinion of  old school advertising – which is usually characterized by the “30 second spot.” It’s common to find social media purists decrying the state of marketing, knocking advertising as too interruptive, too noisy, disempowering of consumers, and in general a plague upon humankind.

It’s true, I do favor social as a marketing approach – but for those who mistake “social” as “marketing on Facebook,” it’s not about where you play. It’s more about how you play, and the philosophy of empowering consumers, trying to produce great experiences for them and do things on their terms, weaving yourself into the fabric of people’s existing lives in an appropriate and low-impact way. These two philosophies and how the people who espouse them approach social venues are summed up very well in this recent post from my colleague Jen Van Der Meer.

In her post, she refers to the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, a seminal book that continues to define the social media side of the argument, admitting that they were wrong when they wrote “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it”:

“That was clearly wrong,” Locke said. “Advertising isn’t going to work? Yes, it can. Google is the biggest brand and company going and they’ve made it completely on Internet advertising, and so checkmate.”

I like that Locke admitted he was wrong, but Google seems like a weak concession. What about the billions of dollars still getting spent on TV, outdoor, even direct mail? Stuff much older than Google is still rocking along.

Why is that? And why does it appear that advertising in some form will always exist, until the end of time?

It’s because we need to be interrupted.

Most human beings are prone to routines. We find ruts and we get in them. It’s a natural mechanism that helps us cope with the risks in the world around us –  a deep survival instinct. Cavemen found the most sabre-tooth-tiger-free path from cave to water source and took that path every day, starting a chain of behaviors that would eventually lead to me taking the same way to work every day.

We even encourage routine in others because we need them to be predictable, to lessen the perceived risk in our world. Sure, there are some folks that are on the surface more adventurous than others, but even adventure can start to be a rut.

Advertising, in many cases, serves as the interruption that nudges you in a new direction. When this happens, we appreciate it, and so do the advertisers. Explore the wine country in Michigan? Sure, good idea. Enjoy a Stella Artois? Hmm, a beer does sound good this morning. Buy that Lexus and put a big bow on it? I was just trying to think what to buy the family for Christmas!

Ok, perhaps those examples are a bit over the top, and I do believe that advertising spend will be generally lower in the future. But regardless of the form it eventually takes, interruptive marketing will always have a place and will always work because we have to get over ourselves. We need the help. Without it, the world would be reaching out to us to try something new a lot less.

The problem at Facebook: their business model

The tide of concerns around privacy is rising at Facebook, as they try to leverage the personal information you’ve given them (who you are, who you know, your photos, your notes) to make money. They try to sell it, they try to offer it to other websites who can use it to attract your attention, they try to use it to target you for ads on their own site. Why are they acting so . . . evil, as many have put it?

You haven’t given them anything else.

You haven’t paid them cash. You don’t like ads on the site and don’t pay attention to them when they run them – you certainly don’t click on them. What’s a Facebook to do to keep the doors open and the investors happy?

It’s not really your fault. Facebook started doing what they’re doing with no real plan to make money, a common form of hubris among many start-ups these days. Over the past decade, it’s been all about getting people’s attention online – and the slam-dunk advertising model (or the idea of it) was always there to help cash in on that attention.

But it’s not a slam-dunk any more. People have sipped the sweet elixir of ad-free business models and developed a taste for them. $15 a month for ad-free HBO or satellite radio? Sure. Downloadable iTunes music, apps, and more? Sign me up. Netflix and now streamed movies through On-Demand services? Yes.

The heart of Facebook’s problem is their business model. You (we) are the ones getting the value, but we aren’t willing to pay for it in the way they are asking us to . . . but could they ask us in another way?

What if Facebook charged you $3 a month, locked your data down (no more privacy issues), and focused all of their energy on providing more features and value for you (vs. building out fan pages and hiring sales people to attract money from brands)? Would you pay them? I would, actually. But a lot of people, perhaps most people, might not.

But don’t underestimate what Facebook could do if it were the first subscription social networking site and was suddenly only serving one master (you). They are big enough and have enough resources that they could steadily and rapidly absorb the capabilities of every other networking site you use – and serve you at a higher level than any of those other sites, many of whom are still clinging to the empty promise of the ad model also.

I don’t think Facebook would ever do this, they are making some good money from advertisers and are rushing in that direction guns a-blazing. They have too many cooks in the kitchen to change approaches now – and I know if I was in their shoes and I read this blog post I’d think “yeah, easy for you to say dude.”

So does the subscription model opportunity exist for another fledging general-use social network? I think so. Facebook’s second (and perhaps final) hubris would be to underestimate users’ willingness to switch to an alternative who is solely focused on user needs. Ultimately, two masters – the users and the advertisers – might be one too many.

Social media budget is Soylent Green!

Soylent Green Movie PosterCatching up on reading the blogs of some of my respected friends in the social media biz, and I came across this latest one from Adam Cohen where he reacts to the thought that social media at companies is too labor intensive.

He’s right. A quote from his article:

As these [social media] tactics become more successful, they become more expensive.  These tactics require long term effort and can certainly can do more damage if abandoned.  But it takes more effort to continue to manage, build and grow, and that can mean more costs internally, at a minimum.

What he touches on but I’d like to put the emphasis on is that social media represents a shift in thinking on where the money goes . . . from ad space to people.

A real world example:

My brother Jim works in local politics as a campaign manager (and for the record, his record is now 3-0 starting with his work on the Obama presidential campaign). He has found an interesting new formula for winning which others have been very slow to pick up on. He takes much of the budget that would normally go to ad buys, which even for small local races can be in the hundreds of thousands, and he hires and trains a small team of young field operatives who go door-to-door every day for months on end and have real conversations. Now he does leave some in ads for the final get-out-the-vote push, but most he shifts to the ground effort. Most campaigns don’t do this, they get hired guns to work a few weekends and all they really do is leave door hangers, never even knocking.

The odd thing? His approach actually saves money. For instance, for the campaign he’s working on now, back-of-the-napkin math revealed that the repurposed available media budget would allow him to knock on every door of every registered voter that could vote for his candidate three times. Three conversations per voter. He doesn’t even need more than one in many cases.

In my brother’s last campaign, he beat a wealthy candidate who had many more endorsements and much, much larger ad budgets. It took a run-off, but he did it. Is there a fundamental change at work here? I think so.

This post’s title is a reference to an old science fiction movie where the horrific reality behind a popular consumer product, Soylent Green, is that it’s made from people (as in, people’s bodies, yikes). The last, famous line from the movie is the revelatory “Soylent Green is people!”

The reality behind social media budgets that grow as conversational efforts become more successful? They are people! But it can be cheaper than an ad-driven strategy, and you’ve just created new jobs at a time when those people could really use them. That isn’t horrifying at all.

Why my grandfather gets social media

On a recent trip to Norman, Oklahoma to see my grandparents, my grandfather and I got into a conversation about where I work and “what I actually do.” I would highly recommend to anyone who works on the web to go through the exercise of explaining his or her job to the oldest person in his or her family. It’s a challenge that makes you strip what you do down to the bare essentials and explain things in plain language. This is something I wish more people did more of the time, particularly in the buzzwordy world of marketing.

Oddly enough, I found it was easier to explain social media and how you use it to market to people to him than it is with others.

Granddad, in the time when you grew up how did you decide who did business with? You listened to your friends, found trustworthy people who did great work, and you forged personal relationships with them over time, right? Well, once radio and then TV came on the scene, marketers found that it stopped being about who did the best job or who was the most trustworthy, and it became about who could spend the most money buying the most advertising. The people being advertised to lost all control. But now, people are using the Internet to communicate with each other, recommend things to each other, build relationships. People are taking back control. What I do is I help big companies who have spent 50 years living in the world of mass media understand how to function in that new world, which is really just a much bigger version of the old world.

My grandfather is nodding. He is over 80 and has been an independent oilman all his life. When he talks about the banker who backed him through his successes and failures he talks about a guy he knew personally, not an ATM. When he talks about anyone he ever handed money to, he talks about them by name and has at least one meaningful story about them – good or bad. He remembers the dawn of mass media, and watched as technology separated us from each other slowly over time. Now, in many ways, it’s bringing us back together. And while he still has an assistant who prints out emails so he can read them, he gets that.

The reason why I love working in social media is because I’m a part of that change. In some cases driving it, in other cases riding it, but always a part of the wave.

Have you ever had to explain what you do to someone much older than you and found yourself explaining it in better ways than you ever had before? Interested in hearing about it in the comments, if you are inclined.

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.

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.

Carmax, Twitter, and the open conversation

carmax-logoMy wife needs a new car. After nearly ten years in the salt-slicked Winter streets of Chicago, her current car is rusted out and destined for the scrap heap.

It’s been over ten years since I’ve bought a car, and while chatting with her about our options she brought up CarMax, the “no haggle” used car lot that seems to be redefining used car-buying. I did a little research and like what they’re saying. They do a 125-point inspection on everything they sell, they flat-price their cars at something that appears average about 10-15% premium over the car’s private-buyer blue book value (which seems reasonable, and half the premium of a standard dealership), and they don’t commission their employees based on individual car sales. Sounds pretty good, but why not ask Twitter? I posed the following question to people that follow me on Twitter:

Me: Anyone have experience with CarMax – good/bad/gotchas? Going to hit them up this weekend.

And the generous Twitter folks got right back to me. Here were the responses:

Dukethug: @DougWick buddy of mine got burned by some BS from carmax a few years ago. Should be interesting to see how desperate they are.

Baldman: @DougWick We bought Sarah’s car at CarMax and loved the experience, including the trade-in of her old one. We’ll buy our next car there.

ScottIngram: @dougwick My CarMax experiences have been positive. Sold a car to them a couple weeks ago. My in-laws bought their car there and are happy.

Atxryan: @DougWick My friend @atxkat bought a car from CarMax and the clutch went out less than a month later. Was not covered by their warranty.

Doogsatx: @DougWick sold my 2002 Protege5 there for the same price I bought it for a year earlier (from diff dealer), so I can’t complain too much…

Ok, so three positive, two negative. I messaged my friend Josh (Dukethug) to get a little more detail on his friend who got burned:

Me: @Dukethug what was the nature of the burning? bad car? pricing? financing? just want to know where to keep my eye . . .

Dukethug: @dougwick iirc, it was a promised service arrangement that was not honored.

Dukethug: @dougwick as in, the car ended up having some problems carmax refused to fix.

It seems like both Dukethug’s and Atxryan’s friends got saddled with a car that probably shouldn’t have passed the 125 point inspection. Well this is where things got really interesting. At this point I receive a message – “CarMax Chris Wilmore (@CarMaxChris) is following you on Twitter.”

Clicking through to @CarMaxChris’s profile, Chris’ Bio reads “CarMax PR rep interested in sharing information about the nation’s largest retailer of used cars, car buying info, automotive content and social media trends.” Wow, so someone from CarMax “heard” me talking about them and reached out to me. So I take advantage of this access:

Me: @CarMaxChris Does CarMax allow inspection of vehicles by third party mechanics prior to purchase?

CarMaxChris: @DougWick Not prior to purchase, but all used CarMax cars can be returned for any reason within a 5-day period with our money-back guarantee

Well that seems reasonable, and plenty of time to get the car to a mechanic for our own third party inspection.

In the end, I got five great pieces of feedback from my network and a connection to the service I’m thinking about using who took the opportunity to address my concerns. I already like CarMax even though I haven’t set foot in one of their stores. This all transpired in the course of just about 3-4 hours.

This is a practical example of how an open publish:subscribe model for the world can become extremely powerful, and why it might be worth it to join Twitter.

Now think about if a mechanic in Austin had heard me mention “mechanic” and checked my location data to know that I live in Austin? They could have chimed in and potentially won some business. Or someone from my local CarMax to ask which car I’m looking at? Insurance providers? Financing? The DMV? They might all someday add value to this conversation because I raised my hand started talking about needing to buy a car. Good marketing – the kind I want to hear because of what my needs are right now.

The cardinal rule of Twitter is that you show your network some gratitude when they help you out:

Me: Thank you @atxkat @atxryan @doogsatx @dukethug @ScottIngram @baldman and of course @CarMaxChris for the CarMax feedback. Twitter FTW!

CarMaxChris: @DougWick You’re most welcome. Hope to see you in soon.

Atxkat: @Dougwick I would definitely recomend having a third party give it the once over… @drosko would agree

Now while I was going to go to CarMax anyway, and it was nice that he answered my question, there is a big opportunity for CarMaxChris to go above and beyond. He could track down @atxkat, @drosko, and @dukethug’s friend (it would just take a few minutes) and try to win them back as customers. That is where the real power of listening into the network, from a company perspective, is so powerful – and could change everything about how companies market in the future.

Facebook Connect: An Open Invitation to the Party

mashable_sxsw_v1_posterThis post was originally published over on the Powered Blog, The Engaged Consumer.

Have you ever been so steeped in something that you see it everywhere you look? Standing in the middle of the Powered-sponsored Mashable party during South by Southwest Interactive, beer in hand and exploring the various rooms of the Six night club, I started to think about Facebook Connect. Yeah, this is how bad it’s gotten.

Facebook is a party. It’s a huge place where you can share content and news, play games together, engaging in many of the activities you do with friends in the offline world. The problem is that the party, up until now, has really just been for Facebook itself and its users. If you were any entity with commercial interests, the best you could do is give Facebook a banner to hang somewhere for you. This would be like if Powered sponsored the Mashable party but we could only hang a banner inside the bar. How effective would that be for our marketing, over the din of the music and rumble of conversation?

With Facebook Pages, now you can attend the party. You’re just like I was at Six, a sponsor floating around the crowd, having a few conversations and talking about Powered. This is much more effective marketing-wise than a few banners (at least I think so!), but still I’m just one guy and although there were a few other Powered employees our impact at the event was still limited. This was compounded by the reality that people didn’t always want to talk about Powered, a fact that is even truer in the personal-conversation world of Facebook – which is about as far away from an industry party as you can get.

Facebook Connect is really where things get interesting. It allows you, as a brand, to have your own room in the bar. By that I mean you can build your own communal experience and attach it in a meaningful way to the Facebook experience. People can walk into your room, find the people they already know, and message people outside the room about the cool things going on there.

Word-of-Mouth Traffic Flow

This doesn’t absolve brands from creating an engaging experience in their own community environment. You still need to populate your room with interesting content, people, and programming. But it really helps with one of the main problems branded communities have, which is getting people in the door. There is only so much you can do with email marketing, media promotion, and search. Here, Facebook runs the party, and you just hook into their flow. You are instantly rewarded for creating engagement, versus having to create engagement and then work hard to get the word out.

The Power of Context

The reasons why you would build your own room (Facebook Connect) versus just attend the party (Pages) are similar in both the online and offline world. With Connect, you gain context. Everything that happens in your community is in the world of your brand, versus the world of Facebook. Context is extremely powerful in the user’s mind, and it has a lot to do with building people’s brand affinity, advocacy, and loyalty. Does reading this blog entry on the Powered blog make you attribute the value to Powered, or to me (Wick, Doug Wick)? How would that change if you read it on my personal blog? If you walked into the Powered Room at the Mashable Party, how would this be different than just meeting someone from Powered?

Learning Ability

Also, with Connect comes data. Your ability to listen and learn as an organization is significantly enhanced when the technical handoff between Facebook servers and yours happens. What if the Mashable party went on indefinitely (I felt like it might at some points) and you never adapted your room to be more reflective of partier’s preferences or need – or even just freshened things up a bit? If you don’t have the data, you won’t have the visibility into individual behavior on a quantitative or qualitative level. You won’t learn or adapt as effectively, and you’ll start sounding like that boorish guy who’s always at the party saying the same things. Yes, we’ve heard that story about how you went bungee-jumping in Cancun eight times, thank you very much.

So now that you’ve been invited to the party, will you get in there? Or will you sit at home and let other brands have all the fun?

A solution looking for a problem

oldtelephoneIf you were living in the early 1900’s and someone handed you one of the first telephones, I’d bet you stare blankly at that person and say “now how would I use this?”

You’d be so used to communicating by letter, telegraph, or simply in person that you wouldn’t really know how to get any value out of a phone. That is, until you called someone. Then you might realize that there are tremendous opportunities for getting value out of a phone.

I often describe Twitter in the same way. Earlier I blogged about Why It Matters, and I still think bringing the publish:subscribe model to human communication systems will be revolutionary in its own right – whether that communication happens at twitter.com or on some other service.

But for now, people use Twitter in hundreds of different ways and everyone has constructed their own individual value proposition for using it. I use it to track my professional network and my local Austin network. It’s my virtual business card. I think it’s a great way to organize your deep network (the people you don’t know as well and don’t share as much with as your Facebook network).

I’d encourage you to pick up “the phone” and see how you can make Twitter valuable for you.

Can marketing agencies evolve into social?

The other day I read a great blog entry over on Mediapost that talks about how “The Future Agency of Record Will Be Social.” In it, Joe Marchese of Socialvibe opines:

There is a quiet battle raging in the advertising industry over who will become the Agency of Record (AOR) for marketers’ social media efforts. With traditional media for delivering advertising declining in reach and effectiveness, and an even greater call for advertising efficiency in a down economy, becoming a marketer’s social media AOR can be a huge win and provide a map to a much-needed new business model and revenue stream for agencies.

Later in the article, Joe gets into how basically every possible classification of agency (from PR to Media to Interactive) could potentially evolve into the coveted role as the social media AOR. But by doing this potato-evolutionhe more or less makes the point that every agency will have to evolve to keep their seat at the table, because the social web is changing how every marketing discipline is practiced. But what does it mean to evolve? How does an agency’s DNA need to change to grab the social media brass ring?

I joined Powered a little over a year ago from an interactive agency in Chicago. In that move, I got to transition from one company whose focus is on more traditional (though sophisticated), online programs (corporate/brand web presence, relationship marketing/CRM programs, campaign sites) to another whose focus is social marketing (branded communities).

The transition opened my eyes to some of the evolutionary differences that Joe is surfacing in his article, albeit solely within the interactive marketing space. (Perhaps others can speak to other areas like PR/Media in the comments?) The surprising thing is that although both my current and past company fundamentally build websites – requiring strategy, design, content, front/back end development, project management, and maintenance – they are strikingly, fundamentally different.

Creative Differences

The first major difference is within the creative teams of the respective organizations. Creative within a typical interactive agency is highly focused on elegant visual design. The primary goal is to catch the eye, connect to the user on an emotional level, and engage and convert them with inventive content. Most creative teams in agencies focus on hiring rock-star interactive designers, videographers, and creative writers. The social marketing provider creative teams are far less focused on visual design, and more on delivering content in an approachable way that taps into what users care about and starts conversations. Learning is a key aspect of good community content. Social marketers hire creative people who are rock-stars in journalism, education, and instructional design. Of course, I’m not saying an agency can’t produce content for a community any more than I’m saying a social marketing provider can’t produce content for a campaign site – it’s really more a matter of emphasis in the creative skill set.

Technology Lockdown

The more an interactive program stops looking like a website and starts looking like an application, the more opportunity there is for leveraging a reusable technology platform. Many agencies, especially those who deploy lots of relationship marketing or CRM programs, have developed simple platforms to enable the quick development and deployment of those efforts. In my last agency, we had a relationship marketing platform that we even branded “Backstage.” However, online communities are far more complicated from a technological standpoint and really have to be treated like a product in order for the technology to work reliably. For that reason, a social marketing provider is likely to have a much larger engineering staff (typically with separate product and implementation roles) and an enhanced competency around product management and development.

Experts who Talk, Experts who Listen

The added complexity of an in-market online community is also the reason for additional operational staff to support the effort. There are two roles here that will be atypical in a standard interactive agency. The first is the operations people who are there to watch over a community to make sure user-generated content is moderated and to enhance the experience by corralling resources to interact with users in real time. The second is a social analytics expert who not only understands typical web analysis and data mining, but also gets how to watch, measure, and mine UGC. These roles have to cooperate tightly with the strategic account manager (who also needs to have experience in planning community) to adapt and close the loop quickly as they learn – community members are far less patient than those who are participating in an email campaign.

Must we evolve?

So will interactive agencies choose to evolve into social marketing providers? And even if they choose – can they?

I think all agencies will need to evolve, so the choice is just a matter of timing. And I do think agencies can negotiate the pathway to social – in three different ways. First, I think the larger agencies will likely acquire social marketing providers who were born that way, integrating their capabilities and becoming instant players. Second, other smaller agencies will likely focus on campaign-oriented social media and interactive work (Facebook apps, Mobile apps, Twitter build-outs, UGC campaign sites), choosing to farm out communities to partners. Finally, still other agencies, small and large, might change tack and try to re-invent themselves as social marketing providers.

It’s this last pathway that presents the most danger, but recognizing that community is not just a new type of marketing program – but a new way of approaching marketing and a new organization to support it – is the first step to getting there.

This post is cross-posted over on Powered‘s blog, The Engaged Consumer.

Photo Credit: Originally Uploaded by Narly