Nearly two decades into the 21st century, it’s useful to pause and reflect on just how fundamentally digital technology has transformed the way we conduct business and live our lives. These last 20 or so years will be remembered for the way they transformed the world into a form that has come to be described as “virtual.” The first half of the Internet’s initial two decades witnessed a focus on the technology itself. By contrast, the second half has been characterized by a sharpening of that focus toward technology’s true power: the ability to maximize and support relationships and build communities. Hard to believe it was only at the outset of the Internet’s second decade that revolutionary social media platforms along with the mobile technologies of smart phones and tablets upon which they rely, began to emerge. Today those tools have become so globally embedded and deeply acculturated, it seems they’ve been around forever.
The application developers were the ultimate beneficiaries of digital technology’s second wave. eBay, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Pandora and the countless thousands of other real-time commerce and entertainment engines transformed pretty much every aspect of human endeavor in a timespan less than half a cicada’s life cycle. Facebook, the poster child of social media, has become an Internet within an Internet, creating and growing communities of interest at the speed of light. And there’s Google. Think of a time, if you can, in the history of mankind’s endeavors, when a single entity could own the ability to exert such astonishing influence over access to global knowledge, commerce, artistic, moral, and political discourse. All of which brings us to the matter of BRANDS and their relevance in the digital age. If a couple of keystrokes will connect a searcher to everything the Internet has to offer in a matter of a few seconds, what makes a brand or a brand name any more than a commodity?
The sole purpose of a brand is to serve as a tool for distinguishing or differentiating a product, a service, a company, or an individual from other, similar entities, thus improving its competitive position and (ideally) enabling a premium price or a premium position. Or both. It does so by acting as a stand-in, a kind of shorthand for superior features, proprietary technology, history, philosophy, innovation, and personality that comprise the entity the brand is designed to represent. In fact, the concept of a brand has become so overarching it is often used as a generic substitute for the word “company,” “business,” or “organization.” As in, “the brand was forced to declare bankruptcy after three decades in business.”
A brand is a comprehensive, dynamic, and strategically important mix of factors that stretch from a boardroom to the living room. A brand is – or should be – the manifestation of a competitive strategy that theoretically influences every step in a value chain until it reaches the end user. Along the way, if everything falls into place, a brand will earn the loyalty of that user, along with millions of others, each with his or her own reasons for why it is relevant.
Communicating such a complex set of messages would be a pretty tall order in any age. Way back in the pre-digital era, TV and radio, newspapers and magazines, celebrity testimonials, promotional events, and a far less cluttered media landscape combined to build brands, but required a great deal of time and a whole lot of cash to do so. That’s OK, back then we seemed to have plenty of both. Not so much now.
Today, thanks to a worldwide Internet, mobile platforms, social media and a profusion of content, people can actually market to themselves. Barriers between media and types of advertising are crumbling, leading to unprecedented opportunities for building brands via interactivity. Creating and building brands comes down to telling stories, and in today’s interactive world there are a limitless number of ways to create those stories, and more channels for delivering them than ever.
The challenge with so many channels that disseminate brand messaging: How does a brand break through the “noise”? Imagine on a typical day, a person is blasted with thousands of digital messages: email marketing, social media, display networks, ads on their favorite online music stations, remarketing through social and web, the list goes on. Then there is a blast from traditional forms of media like cold calls, billboards, magazines, and newspapers. The number of messages is overwhelming and vast. For a brand to find success and break through the noise, they have to create compelling emotions-based storytelling.
To do this, storytelling must connect with a human at the primal level. New York Times Best Seller Donald Miller talks about this in Building a Story Brand. “All great stories are about survival – either physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual. A story about anything else won’t work to captivate an audience. Nobody’s interested. This means that if we position our products and services as anything but an aid in helping people survive, thrive, be accepted, find love, achieve an aspirational identity, or bond with a tribe that will defend them physically or socially, good luck selling anything to anybody. These are the only things people care about. We can take that truth to the bank.”
The power of telling a brand’s story is less about visually arresting websites, and more about engaging diverse audiences efficiently and cost-effectively, delivering high quality content that touches a person on an individual level. Digital technology offers unique and powerful new tools to support these forms of relationship building.
CONTENT. ENGAGEMENT. MEASUREMENT
The opportunity is greater than ever. But the emphasis must be on integrating an organization’s activities and ability to deliver value according to individual preferences. That means you not only must have a firm grasp on technology and its power, but you must also know how to 1) articulate your brand’s value through relevant content creation, 2) engage audiences by deploying your branded content in all appropriate channels and, 3) measure success at acquiring, converting and retaining customers.
Unlike traditional storytellers who passed on information using a verbal tradition, digital storytellers rely on portability, video, and instantaneous transmission to deliver content. Gone are the days when “appointment TV” was king. Social media has transformed how people consume content – Facebook, Facebook Live, Instagram, Instagram Stories, Twitter, Nextdoor, YouTube, Vimeo, Snapchat … content can be consumed at home, office, school, on the fly … just about anywhere the urge to view arises. The ability to connect and communicate through platforms and apps like Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger – and thousands of more – are demanding interconnectivity and constant availability. What’s more, where we used to simply download, in today’s world we have the power to “upload,” to provide input, feedback and to simultaneously share those interchanges with others in our communities.
The upshot is that, where once brands were a spectator sport, today they invite participation. And that can be unnerving for organizations that insist on exerting total control over content, messaging, channels, and measurement.
The millennial generation and their older siblings are avid consumers of both content and brands. However, putting both in front of them has to be on their terms, and in their chosen channels: smartphones, tablets, and via complex social circles. The content has to be spot-on authentic, entertaining, current and constantly changing. And the people who deliver it need to be of the same generation and communicate similar values. That fact has given rise to influencers – recreational and professional videographers, producers, event promoters, athletes, musicians, and celebrity representatives who authentically live the millennial lifestyle, all while delivering corporate and product brand content as compensated proxies.
The profusion of channel opportunities, combined with the drive for fortune and fame are vastly expanding the opportunities for producers, athletes and brands to develop content on an unprecedented scale.
Todd Jones, founder and president of Teton Gravity Research was lucky to start his company at the dawn of the Internet age. Almost immediately, he started trickling content continuously on his website, transforming his production company into a media juggernaut virtually overnight. Jones avoids the term “sponsor” when he discusses his business model. “We prefer to call them partnerships,” he says. “In this day and age, with the changing media landscape, our partners invest in and get behind a film. These films are the Holy Grail, the grand stage for the athletes and audiences to follow these sports. With the bigger partnerships we plan out distribution on a massive scale. The opportunities are broad reaching: TV, film, live events, and multiple web touch points. We’re syndicating a lot through our channels, throwing our YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and various other site presence and profiles and pushing all ours and our partners’ content out to these channels. So what we’re really doing is completely maximizing the scale, costs and efficiencies in time and money.”
Successful media athletes acutely appreciate their obligation to themselves and their sponsor-partners in this model. It’s a responsibility to constantly place theirs and their sponsor brands in the best light–especially if they want to continue to get work. Todd Ligere, a professional skier who has appeared in sponsored content, fully understands his role. “As an athlete you’re personally motivated to give your best,” he says. “For smaller projects, it’s becoming more common for brands to create their own content. In that case the brand has control over what they put out. But then there’s a whole middle ground where athletes are creating content. In this case the brands leave a lot of the decisions up to the athlete. Whether or not you’ve been successful, well unfortunately you won’t get that feedback until it comes time to re-sign the contract.”
So as long as the rewards continue, mutually beneficial relationships will thrive among brand owners and brand enablers. In a digital world, those rewards come not just from endorsement contracts and cash register sales, though. Brand value is measured by four primary metrics: awareness, associations, perceptions of quality, and loyalty. And in a digital world, one thing drives all four of these measures in ways that would have been previously completely out of reach: engagement.
In this environment brands place a high priority on engagement, thanks primarily to the proliferation of platforms that enable participation and feedback. This requires them to operate at a higher emotional level, naturally making some matter more than others. Studies show that emotion drives behavior: ads and messages that engage viewers on an emotional level are the ones that are more successful at driving business. That fact compels a brand to have an authentic cultural purpose, a mission that is interesting to people. Otherwise, why should anyone care enough to engage in the first place?
In Story Brand, Miller says there are only three questions audiences must be able to answer to engage in a story:
- What do you offer?
- How will it make my life better? (emotional connection to primal human traits)
- What do I need to do to buy it?
A strategy with this in mind is necessary to engage and sell across various technologies and online channels. Engagement is an ongoing process designed to acquire active leads, convert them into profitable customers, and retain those relationships through a continuous evolution of community-building.
Traditional media advertising is bought and sold based on how many viewers will have the potential to see the ads. Interactive communications, on the other hand, has the power to engage audiences, enticing participation through content, promotions, social causes and other compelling mutual interests. Ideally engagement exploits the power of interactivity to transact business, then retain a base of loyal customers who, presumably, will be persuaded to purchase long into the future.
Audiences engage through a variety of digital marketing channels including search engines, social media, social advertising, display, affiliates, events, content, PR, apps and more. A “relevant” brand chooses to participate in the channels most favored by its audiences. Brands can quickly test and identify those channels that generate traffic most effectively, meaning audiences are sufficiently inspired by content or the conversation to click through from the channel to the brand’s website for a deeper engagement. Now comes the tricky part.
Phase two directly involves the content quality of a website and the landing pages themselves. A typical question is, “We engaged the audience with a marketing channel and brought a visitor to the site—now how effectively can we keep them engaged on the website and ultimately get them to complete a desired action on the site?” The answer is about relevance. First and foremost, content displayed on a landing page should be an extension of the marketing content that brought a visitor to the site to begin with. In other words, it’s a brand’s responsibility to personalize a user’s experience based on what is known about them — where they came from, what they were looking for, and the content (video, photos, blog, etc.) they may have just witnessed.
Effective measurement comes down to two critical questions: How can we measure the level of engagement our content is generating? And, from what channels is the brand generating the greatest amount of traction? Long gone are the days of ad campaign roulette. Digital marketing best practices should include a thorough use of web analytics to measure what all this recently-acquired traffic does once it lands on a website. Web analytics software enables the tracking of every visit and every page view that occurs on a website. This process empowers a vast understanding of what marketing channels drive the greatest amount of traffic and the most engagement to a site. Beyond that, tracking success events like downloads, video views, contact submissions, social media or newsletter signups, orders, revenue, likes and shares provide key details to measure campaign success.
Along with growing site traffic and engagement, it is critical to measure brand awareness and growth in that regard. Metrics like brand mentions, brand searches, social likes/follows, direct traffic, referral traffic, backlinks, etc. provide a vivid understanding of brand awareness and awareness growth over time. Is content being viewed and shared? What are the demographics that engage the most with that content, and what are the most productive forms of media for a brand?
We are all challenged to help build the success of the brands that we represent. But, those who can develop compelling content, engage, convert and retain customers, and measure successes (and failures) are the ones who will learn from both, and ultimately win the digital branding game.
Social media empowers a brand to participate in an online conversation wherever – and at the precise moment – it is taking place. Of course, that means that defining an authentic brand strategy and incorporating a social media content and publishing strategy on that foundation is a prerequisite for success. Social media can be wildly effective when used properly. It can be just as fraught with risk if the rules are ignored. Here are some things to remember about social media:
- Look before you leap.
Do everything to fully understand an audience before engaging. This means doing a deep dive into hashtag searches, identifying key influencers, monitoring the social web conversation, and analyzing competitor pages and campaigns. Start with a social audit of your brand vs. competitors. Then, don’t blunder into the conversation, prepare a strategy built from a brand foundation that thrives on storytelling. Add value to the conversation with thoughtful, quality content with the primary objective to create community, and secondary objective to continually grow brand-loyal fans and followers that will turn into long-term customers. Most of all, be a guide to your fans and followers through storytelling and content with the goal of making them feel like the heroes and show them why your product and services helps them survive and thrive.
- Quality beats quantity.
A well organized, high quality content inventory (aka: content hub) is the essential starting point for driving social media success. A finely honed, professional brand strategy provides the structural framework for a content hub: history, mission, vision, values, positioning, value proposition are all critical reference points for segmenting your audiences. Don’t pummel your audience with an overbearing pitch that screams that the brand is the hero of the story. Instead, engage with humor, useful content, and good quality multimedia. Make sure everything presented draws context to real world and relevance to the viewer. Remember, it should always be about how the product or service benefits the fan/customer. Make them the heroes, and only then will they engage and become loyal customers.
- Plan your work. Work your plan.
Once you understand your audience (see Step 1), you’ll know who they are, what they’re looking for, where they’re most likely to go to find it, and when. And, finally, you begin to appreciate why they would be interested in your brand. From that, you can develop a detailed content publishing schedule – driven by business objectives, brand, analytics, etc. – to define a deliberate, targeted posting strategy. Only allow trained publishers to post approved content, and only according to a schedule. Finally, tie reporting to ROI. Metrics can include KPIs such as conversions, website traffic, page growth, engagement, and other key data.