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Hey Marketing Team: You’re Asking All The Wrong Questions About Your Digital Strategy

In his newly launched book app, Do or Die, Razorfish chairman Clark Kokich urges brand players to stop trying to change perceptions about products and services, and instead use the tools of marketing to actually improve products and help customers.


Not all that long ago, the VP of marketing would call her minions into the conference room and ask: “What kind of marketing program can we develop to help differentiate us and shore up our ability to charge a premium price?” Down the hall, an advertising manager would ask his ad agency account supervisor: “How much of our budget do you think should go to TV?” Standing outside the cubicle of the newly hired director of social media, an overly enthusiastic PR manager might pose the question: “What cool ideas do you have for building our number of Facebook followers?”

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“Not all that long ago,” unfortunately, refers to seconds or minutes, not years. These are the questions that are still being asked in fluorescent-bathed marketing department conference rooms at this very moment. And they are all the wrong ones.
The focus in company after company and agency after agency remains on changing perceptions about the products and services we’ve been asked to market, when it should be about changing reality. The only questions really worth asking these days are “How can we use the tools of the marketing trade to actually make our product better?” or “What do our customers need that they’re not getting now, and how can we give it to them?”

If improving the very heart and soul of the product offering sounds like something the CEO and operations guys should be worrying about, that is correct. But now, for the first time since the invention of gray flannel suits, marketing people can make as significant a contribution to the actual customer experience as anyone on the org chart.

What happened? Well, digital happened.

In the Pleistocene age of marketing (i.e., a few months ago), the equivalent of a sharp stick and a big rock was advertising. All you could do with it was toss one-way messages over the wall, and hope a shred of knowledge or persuasion would reach the other side. When at its very best (and it has surely been at its very best for advertisers such as Nike, Apple, Dos Equis, VW, and Geico), you could also engender some love. Consumers would see your entertaining or charming ads and come away liking your brand more.

That’s all great, but it’s not transformative–no consumer problems have been solved. When marketing is used as a megaphone, not a mechanic’s toolbox, generating some love and knowledge is as good as it gets.

But digital is different. With digital tools, you can help young football enthusiasts get better at their game by putting training tips from the top players in the world in their hands–literally. You can make it possible for airline passengers to order their meals and libations from their seats whenever they want. You can give car shoppers a chance to come very, very close to an in-person test drive, while sitting on their living room sofas. You can help a young career woman dissect her credit card bills to see if her spending is in line with other women of her age and salary. These are all very useful, transformative things that make the consumer’s connection to the brand very, very different.

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Do not mistake these genuinely product-based and customer service-oriented initiatives with digitally enabled ways of doing, more or less, the same kind of advertising that’s been around for decades. Banner ads with video pre-roll, search engine marketing, home page takeovers, or hyper-targeted display ads on Facebook are not the hallmarks of a digital revolution.

Those tactics, while potentially very effective and useful, are simply new ways to do old-school advertising. They may be more targeted, more involving, or more measurable, but they still rely on the principle of interruption to succeed. They are still, at the core, more about saying than doing.

What is revolutionary is harnessing the power of digital technology to change the product and the way customers experience it. But if you’re to bring these kinds of game-changers to your business, you must also change the questions you’re asking.

So why don’t we? Change is hard, and many of us feel ill-equipped to think in new ways when our fine house in the suburbs, our kids’ college tuition, the black European sedan in the garage, and the title on our business cards all owe their existence to our mastery of skills from another era. We like what we’ve acquired and who we’ve become, so there’s a natural tendency to defend the status quo.

We’re also rightly accustomed to thinking that we can’t effect true change. Let’s say you’re in charge of marketing for a hotel chain, and you have an idea to one-up the old mint-on-the-pillow trick with something a little more astounding. Why don’t we put a hand-written note personalized for each guest on his or her pillow, along with a tiny bottle of Courvoisier XO Imperial?

That would change the experience, eh?

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But here’s why that’s so difficult that you’d be unlikely to suggest it, let alone think it up in the first place. You’d have to negotiate with Fortune Brands to see if they’d cut you a deal on the cognac in trade for the superb promotion you’d be giving them. You’d have to convince the CFO that the cost would pencil out in terms of greater repeat business. You’d have to work with security to make sure all those little bottles didn’t walk out of the hotel in employees’ pockets. You’d have to wrangle the legal department into solving the Rubik’s cube of 50 state liquor laws. You’d have to jump over the extraordinarily high hurdle of convincing the director of operations that her already beleaguered hospitality staff could churn out 600 legible, handwritten notes each day for each property.
So let’s just forget it. Or let’s consider the digital route to a greater guest experience.

What if you gave all the members of your loyalty program a membership card with a magnetic stripe on the back? When they made a reservation on your website, you could capture their flight number and send them a “Welcome to Chicago” text message when their flight landed. This text message could give them directions to the hotel or suggest options for ground transportation.

A calculated number of minutes later, your guests would receive another text message giving them explicit “turn left at the big floral arrangement” directions to guide them straight to the elevator bank and their room. And when they arrived at their room, they could simply pull out their loyalty card and use it as a key card since the door lock would be programmed to recognize that member’s magnetic strip.

You’d need to change your website, come up with the special loyalty program cards, and work with your IT team to make all this happen, but for a relatively few dollars (definitely fewer than a cognac giveaway) you would transform a painful experience still rooted in the era of train travel to one that would have weary business travelers sending you love letters (and more business).
The truly remarkable side of these two approaches to improving the customer experience is that the digital way is not that difficult to pull off. You don’t have to go tell everyone in the company “Hey, I’m changing the product.” Instead, you can shave off just 10 percent of the budget you were going to spend on media and devote it to making the product better instead.

In case you’re thinking “It’s not that easy,” well, yes it is. In the fall of 2007, Stanford professor B.J. Fogg challenged his students to build no-frills Facebook apps, get them distributed, and then see what happened. Working in teams, the 75 students created free apps that collectively garnered more than 16 million users in 10 weeks, generating roughly $1 million in advertising revenue.

Two students in the class teamed to build an app that allowed Facebook users to send each other kisses, pillow fights and 70 other digital interactions. Within weeks, the app was bringing in $100,000 a month in revenue, creating an overwhelming workload for the two partners. Following in the footsteps of countless Internet entrepreneurs, one of the students quit Stanford to run the business full-time. Now, at the age of 25, he’s CEO of a social media company that just nailed down $6 million in venture capital.
What’s instructive in all this is how digital technology has made the distance between you and a game-changing business so thin. Digital makes it possible to improve your product or service without the stultifying effect of dragging the entire organization into the mix. You can effect change. You can turn things around. You can be the hero.

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But you have to start by asking a different question. The old question was “What’s the best thing we can say about our product?” The new question is “What frustrates people about our category, and what can we fix?”

If you’d care to boil that previous paragraph down to three words, try these: say versus do. It’s no longer enough to think up a spot-on messaging strategy, find the right media to get the word out, and then hope the ad creative team is at its brilliant best so your advertising actually gets noticed.

Now we have the power, the tools, and the imperative — especially as traditional advertising becomes less effective — to expend our dollars and brain cells to use digital technology to fix problems, grease skids, and make life more enjoyable for our customers.
When thinking about the monumental shift in what we need to be asking these days, there’s a natural tendency to confuse new questions with new media. Regrettably, some people are asking the same old questions but substituting the new words “Facebook” or “mobile” for “TV” and “direct mail.” Indeed, two of the most inane questions you hear today — and you hear them with maddening frequency — are “What’s our mobile strategy?” and “What’s our social strategy?”

Mobile devices and social networks are tools. They’re channels. And they can no more have a strategy applied to them than a carpenter can have a saw-and-hammer strategy. In construction, the strategy emanates from the architect, the grand visionary. In marketing, the strategy should do the same, coming from a brand architect who’s thinking about a much bigger issue and then asking, “What role does social or mobile play in this product strategy?”

Elevating tools to the strategy level contributes to the sorry state of siloing that’s rampant in business today. Marketers have a digital agency building their website, a PR firm running the social campaign, a little boutique creating mobile apps, and an ad agency turning out the traditional work. Meanwhile, companies have subdivided themselves internally so that the Web group seldom talks to the promotions group, and the IT people probably can’t name a single person on the corporate communications team. Is it any wonder nothing connects or even looks the same?

This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with specialization. It’s inescapable and essential with the depth of technical skill required today. What is wrong is an isolating corporate culture that keeps these different factions from understanding each other and working together to solve customers’ problems in a big way.

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If companies would start with those bigger questions, such as “What can we do to solve the consumer’s frustration?” or “How could we make using our service so delightful that it would be impossible to consider our competitors?” then the silos go away. The silo specialists would all come to the same table to offer up how the tools in their tool chest could address the common, larger problem .
There is so much noise right now about social, mobile, digital out-of-home, gamification, ad infinitum, that it’s made it practically impossible to think — to pull back for a moment here — and consider if you’re asking the right questions. The controversial but eloquent game developer Kathy Sierra urges us to not get swept up by the social media gold-rush mentality.

“He who has the most Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and blog commenters Wins! It’s all about Social Capital now!” she writes on the site gapingvoid.com . “I’ve never understood how any of this made sense, given that very little of what I see brands do on social media is changing the fundamental nature of how users interact with their products.

“It has always appeared that if the product is truly crap your social media strategy won’t save you… But it seems the opposite end is true as well… If the product makes the users awesome, no special secret magic pixie dust sauce is needed either.

“Just make people better at something they want to be better at,” she concludes. “There is a world of difference between helping someone *appear* more awesome and helping them actually BE more awesome.”

What Sierra seems to be saying is do something. Figure out what you can do to be useful, to amaze your customers, or to overturn an old, bad, irritating way your customers are now required to deal with your company.

So, at the risk of flogging a nearly expired horse, be sure to ask some different questions next time around. One could be “What’s my job?” Some possible answers: Be the one taking responsibility for finding ways to give customers a better experience. Be the leader who pulls her experts together to have them address a broader, more meaningful product strategy. Be the person who works on the things that truly matter.

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When you view your job in a new way, you’re no longer relegated to being the person who simply “tells our story.” Instead, you can be the person who changes the story, writes the story, or invents a new story. For people on the corporate side, as well as those from the agency world, the opportunity to make a deep, fundamental difference for your company or your client has never been greater. Spoken from personal experience, it truly is the best of times.

So, as you contemplate your new, more essential role, here’s one more question you should definitely consider: “What are you waiting for?”

Clark Kokich is chairman of digital agency Razorfish. The Do or Die book app is available in the iTunes app store.

[Image: Flickr user ucumari]

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About the author

Clark Kokich has been deeply involved in the digital marketing space since joining Avenue A in the summer of 1999. Under his leadership, the company grew to become one of the largest and most influential interactive agencies in the world

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