In a world where audiences circulate content through a greater number of looser ties and across multiple communities and platforms, companies have to change the way they operate. Rather than turning conversations into data, companies must put themselves in their audience's shoes to think about what will truly delight them, what might turn them off, and what must be done to recalibrate the organization to make it truly "social."
A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of being part of Social Media Explorer's Explore Nashville event. As I listened to the other speakers, I was excited to find people I'd not met before who were of a like mind about where marketing is and where it's headed. In particular, I wanted to highlight six key points (which seems to be my new magic number for Fast Company columns) I heard during my time in Nashville which resonated with me:
1.) "Dunbar's number is thrown out the window because the definition of a 'relationship' is changing," said Edison Research VP of Strategy and Marketing Tom Webster, demonstrating how people are using new platforms to increase the frequency and duration of their communication with acquaintances. These days, most of us are maintaining weaker ties, following the opinions of old elementary school friends, that woman we had Biology 101 with a decade ago, a friend-of-a-friend we met at a pancake supper, or the guy who we bought some junk from at a rummage sale. And, through those weak ties, we are all playing an increasingly prominent role in circulating media content to one another, meaning that even the content produced by companies and media producers are increasingly as likely to come through us via friends and acquaintances as they are through traditional media distribution.
2.) The spreadability of messages has to be considered. Webster also pointed out that social platforms like Twitter are far more influential than their numbers indicate. That's because news and content which originates on such sites frequently gets picked up and spread by Twitter users to other destinations around the web and picked up by traditional news media, the blogosphere, and other media outlets. In other words, it's no longer sufficient to just look at direct membership or traffic to a site to understand the impact of its content. Older models of "success" are not reflecting the way people really spread information in an "information age," in ways that fluidly cross platforms and communities. (See more here.)
3.) Hearing and listening are not the same thing. In her opening keynote address, SideraWorks cofounder Amber Naslund made the distinction that companies often think they are listening to their audience because they collect a lot of data. This is what I like to frame as the difference between hearing and listening. In interpersonal communication, we understand the difference. "Hearing" refers to physically receiving a sound. When we ask, "Did you hear that?" we are typically asking if one's ears received a sound. "Listening" indicates an active attempt to hear and to make sense of what one has heard. (That's why my wife is prone to say that I may have heard her, but I wasn't really listening.)
Companies invest in hearing aids that help them collect data about what audiences have said about them, but they often do little to make sense of all that data. Sure, they might display it in some pretty charts and graphs, but they do little to actually put us in our audiences' shoes. (See more here).
4.) Understand people well enough to know what wows them. In a particularly memorable moment during the conference, Alabama Power's Ike Pigott demonstrated he knew "sexy" by singing to us in his undershirt. His message was well received, whether or not his vocal performance was: Companies need to find what will get people excited about their brand. Jason Falls put it another way: The job of marketing is to find what makes people say, "Holy Smokes! That was..." What both were explicitly acknowledging in their talks was that companies can't really elicit that response from their audiences unless they know those audiences intimately and unless they can see the world from those audience members' perspectives. Wowing people isn't a magic formula, or creating content that will infect people by mysteriously "going viral." It takes truly understanding the audience experience and knowing what will really stand out to audiences because you can see things from their eyes.
5.) ROI—defined too narrowly—can be a destructive force. Something in Brand Against the Machine author John Morgan's talk reminded me that one of the greatest shames of marketing is how "return on investment" gets so narrowly defined as "ROI." Spammers, email blasters, mass distribution press releasers, and the like all operate on the idea that the low cost of distribution leads to success because of a mathematical formula for ROI. Yet, this narrow view of return on investment doesn't take into account the damage also done to one's reputation through potential customers turned off by just such an approach. (See more here and here.)
6.) Digital communications/social media can't "belong" to marketing or any other particular department. Amber Naslund's talk focused on the importance of thinking about social business, not just social media marketing. Digital communications has been taken up by the same siloed approach that has long defined the corporate world. Once social media is deemed "primarily" a tool for marketing messages at people or responding to customer complaints (or a combination of the two), the ability the channel has for listening and for comprehensive business intelligence becomes limited, its potential shaped by the narrow perspective of the organization. From an outside view, the company is typically thought of as a whole, not a series of disparate departments. Companies have to take the same perspective internally and step out of their internal, fragmented mindset. (See more here.)
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. He was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Sam is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.
[Image: Flickr user Steven Depolo]