Fulfilling your brand’s destiny through technology

Mashable continued its “future of social media” series last week with a story about ad agencies and technology, proselytizing bold advances in location-based marketing and group buying. The most interesting of the trends highlighted in the piece, though, is this: software is the new medium.

Software – and, by extension, the underlying technology from which it is derived – will be the single key contributor to a brand’s success from this point forward. The role of a brand manager is rapidly evolving along with all of the agencies that serve it into a blend of IT manager, brand marketer, consumer relations expert and PR person. There are so many ways that technology can boldly empower an organization to become an exciting, customer-driven entity. Agencies, too, are morphing into fascinating shops where hack-a-thons, aggressive experimentation, applet development and software engineers join brand experts to bring true innovation to their client work.

I have picked up some tips in my career that are useful for navigating these new territories, experience applicable to both agencies and brands. In no particular order, summarized in a concise 3-tip package:

1. Know thy limits
As cliche as it sounds, the ideas and engagements enabled by technology truly are essentially limitless and know no bounds. However, the ability for a brand and/or its agencies to execute them generally is not limitless, and is bounded by a variety of externalities. FTC disclosures, privacy policies, time, budget, the economy – all of these can have a direct impact on the ability to push an idea from inception to execution. I’ve seen so many outstanding ideas die simply because they were not grounded in reality.

Agencies can be particularly guilty of this tendency. For example, in the rush to pitch new business and wow a new client, an agency team will devise a devilishly-smart campaign comprised of some pretty advanced technology that does not exist in the marketplace. The new client, impressed by the agency’s creativity and bold thinking, signs on for the work only to find out that the team who pitched it didn’t do a reality-check. Either their capabilities to build it were overstated, or in truth it’s far too advanced for time or budget to allow and would require an army of developers. The idea then gets stripped down to a simpler core that the client feels less inspired by but is obligated to fulfill. Now, you might be saying to yourselves – “technology doesn’t evolve without ideas that push the envelope of absurdity and cause disruption,” and I could not agree more. What you need to be asking yourselves is this – “is my organization (or my client) that bold pioneer?” And particularly for agencies, know precisely how you will scope out and execute an idea before risking your client falling in love with it.

2. Know thy consumer
Technology does not abate the need for all those smart segmentation insights you’ve amassed over the years. An Apple consumer will have very different technology needs and interests from a Clorox consumer although their motivations may be similar. Innovation only works when it’s executed in direct alignment to your consumer and sometimes you have to be willing to just ask them what they’d like.

For example, if you’ve started to think about the role of mobile in your brand’s story arc you need to understand the platforms that are of interest to your consumer. Are they iPhone users who are heavy gamers and would salivate over a sexy game that you give them for free? Or, are they household organizers who relish saving time in their chores, and would respond to a simple SMS-based daily tips program? Brands left and right are launching iPhone apps, when in truth they might be faced with a consumer who skews more to being an iPod Touch and flip phone user. The success of the technology you deploy will be dependent on these insights so be aggressive about discovering them.

3. Be nimble, not obsessive
The thing that excites a lot of people about technology is the pace of its evolution. In the computer chip industry there is a law – called Moore’s Law – that defines the capacity of the processors that make up computing devices. Essentially, the capacity of these chips doubles every two years meaning that their associated functions – such as processing power, memory and speed – double with that capacity. That means the chips you are developing software for today will be replaced in 24 months with something twice as fast. It also means that whatever cool tool you’ve developed today will have an exceptionally limited shelf life, probably much less than 24 months. How can you use this insight to your advantage?

Think in terms of outcomes. There will always be something faster and newer and there will be new devices that require altogether new formats. You can leverage this to your advantage by creating a brand organization that values this innovation versus seeing it as an obstacle, and creating an agency network that isn’t steeped in just one technology. What you want to be looking to achieve is the creation of an innovation ecosystem in which amazing ideas develop and marching orders are written to go find ways to get them done. What you want to avoid is getting too invested in any one platform that will force your hand in future decisions, and prevent you from porting over all of the innovations you have amassed.

These are three pretty simple insights but they’re areas where I consistently see brands and agencies going down the wrong path. Time will sort out a lot of this noise but by consistently asking these questions you will keep your brand (or client) centered and steady.

The new consumer purchase funnel

Image: GfK Custom Research

One of the marketing mantras that I have long struggled with is the traditional sales funnel, which lays out the journey a consumer goes on in the purchase of an item.

I say struggle not because this funnel is difficult to understand. Indeed, as a consumer myself I can see how this is a common-sense approach to the selling process and it helps frame marketing decisions against consumer insights and drive investments.

Where I struggle is that in our modern era this sales funnel just does not make sense. The funnel does not account for the rapid nature of today’s marketplace, and it doesn’t accurately reflect the new consumer or the touchpoints they use in their purchase decisions. It also skips an important element at the base of the funnel – advocacy. After purchase, don’t you want consumers to then tell others about their experience with your product?

Havard Business Review published an outstanding article this month that puts forth a new consumer journey. The new model places greater emphasis on loyalty and advocacy and better reflects the dynamics of today’s market. Instead of a funnel, the consumer journey looks more like rings of concentric circles. The inner core is made of brands to which the consumer is loyal, will advocate for or bond with online. The outer circle is essentially everything else.

One of the most important elements of this new approach to the consumer funnel is the role of the marketer. If we’re not there to initiate awareness of our product then what are we do to?

As HBR puts it: orchestrate. Organize resources as a utility to your consumer and make their job easier. Align internal marketing resources around the narrative of your product rather than the traditional functional areas and ensure that you are selling not just a product, but a product lifecycle. Know that your consumer will have a consistent experience before, during and after purchase so that you can break into that inner circle and join the ranks of brands for which that consumer will become an advocate.

The other important element: marketer as publisher. Think about the many ways consumers research and touch your brand and products. For example, in the consumer electronics space product reviews truly are the killer app. To meet that demand, consider putting unbiased, honest syndicated consumer reviews straight into your website so you can encourage consumers to do all of their research in one place. There are many other ways marketers can leverage the wealth of content already in existence, and there are plenty of opportunities to create new content that is meaningful to the consumer.

Clearly none of this is without challenges. In many cases this fundamentally alters the way a company is structured and how it executes marketing programs. Still, it takes a champion to begin making the case for change and if not now, when?

You want to be building the quickest possible purchase experience for the consumer and the easier you can make their job, offer them a product that delivers on the promises made in the marketing mix and keep their brand loyalty at its peak. This new approach to the sales funnel is helpful for directional guidance. Where you go from here is up to you.

Status updates, get your status updates! For sale here

Note: this is cross-posted on the Threshold Interactive blog.

Facebook today launched a new feature for advertisers that repackages certain social actions on the network – say, a check-in at your favorite retail outlet – into a “Sponsored Stories” ad unit that will run in the right hand column on the site. Facebook has attempted to sidestep privacy criticisms by building a users’ privacy settings to the ad distribution – that is, only those friends within your network who would have already seen your check-in or other social action will be eligible to see the ad bearing your name and likeness.

This is a big step for advertisers as they will be willingly absolving themselves of the creative unit – context and content will be determined by the user who penned the status update in the first place. That is a fairly significant mindset shift for a lot of advertisers.

The bigger question here is the potential impact of this announcement on users. Facebook has a track record of challenging privacy issues including its now infamous Beacon program that was shuttered in 2009. Sponsored Stories is bound to draw criticisms stemming from the inability to opt out of being featured in an ad, and questions about whether Facebook can sell and profit from the written word of its members in this manner.

Of particular note to that last point – Facebook expressly prohibits users themselves from leveraging their personal profiles for commercial gain. This is a clause from its current Statement of Rights and Responsibilities:

So Facebook can sell status updates (or the sponsoring of said updates) to an advertiser, but users themselves are not allowed. There is a delicious irony there that is bound to be the target of attention in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for the ensuing debate.

Here is the full Facebook video with additional details.

Minding the talent gap

One of the frustrations I have long had with the “social media” industry is the insistence, by some, that social media is a separate entity and therefore requires a separate agency or internal function. I’ve written about that recently and firmly believe that the best social media efforts are part of a bigger strategy and live within the marketing mix, and don’t require a special team internally.

AdWeek’s Closing the Tech Divide did a great job exploring the convergence of creative, storytelling and digital taking place in the industry today. If you are an agency reading this it should be a clear signal to develop critical social media and digital skills internally in the immediate future, as clients will be looking for shops that can deliver on that promise. That may not always mean you have a full production team – it could mean a partnership with another digital agency or a blend of internal team and external partnership. But if clients perceive that you don’t bring this expertise to the table, you’ll not likely be a first choice.

Houston, we may have problems: Facebook ad engagement

Reports are circulating today of a new AP/CNBC poll citing that vast majority of survey respondents (82%) say they “hardly ever” or “never” click on Facebook ads. Houston, we may have a problem.

The promise of ads on Facebook stems from its massive reach – nearly a billion users – combined with nearly unprecedented targeting options that should enable marketers to be very specific about when and by whom their ads are seen. This should lead to all sorts of advantages including:

  • a lower-cost basis for ads (never serving an impression to someone who didn’t need to see it)
  • better engagement rates (since it’s highly-targeted, the end-user may be more likely to take action) and
  • improved conversions compared to non-targeted ads

It would appear, based on this new research that this model may be flawed. There are several reasons why this could be happening.

The vastness of Facebook’s network combined with abbreviated amounts of time a consumer spends on any one Facebook page pretty much guarantees exceedingly large numbers of impressions served for an advertiser. In contrast, it also pretty much guarantees a low CTR compared to other mediums and the AP/CNBC research would seem to support that theory. Consumers may be less likely to click on ads in a Facebook environment, but that does not mean they did not take note of the message and given the propensity for people to spend inordinate amounts of time every month on Facebook, chances are good they will be exposed to an ad many times over.

Problems emerge, then, when marketers put unreasonable expectations on a Facebook media buy and assume it will be perform like a search environment. In search there are generally pretty clear indicators that someone is searching for a brand or category based on the search terms they have used. On Facebook, that connection to the path-to-purchase is much less clear and marketers should not have the same expectation of engagement. That’s one problem.

The other problem is that marketers may also be misunderstanding the nature of Facebook’s network. People may be more likely to click on an ad if it keeps them within the Facebook network, and may be less likely to take action if an ad leads them to a page elsewhere. In campaigns I have tested for clients I have found this premise to widely supported and creative that is directed to Facebook engagement – such as fan acquisition – generate better and more consistent results than those going off-site to another destination. I have seen that trend hold particularly true if the destination is an e-commerce site.

Part of the issue then is the nature of the creative unit itself. If the focus needs to be on generating awareness and engagement within the Facebook environment, the capability of the Facebook ad units in their current incarnation do not make it easy to stand out. This is evolving and in Facebook’s defense they have introduced some interesting ad units to help brands overcome this hurdle, but much work remains in this space for the ads to effectively generate awareness for a brand when the ad units themselves seem designed for immediate call-to-actions.

All of this frames why some brands – like General Motors – are deciding to suspend advertising on the Facebook platform. However, if you are a brand looking to establish and grow presence of your content on the Facebook platform, paid media within that platform remains one of the strongest ways to support your goals. Organic and earned media alone will not propel you to achieve those lofty KPIs you set out to accomplish!

If you find yourself questioning the nature and continuity of Facebook within your media strategy, perhaps start by reconsidering some of the elements discussed here to see if you can revise your creative to optimize it for engagement on the Facebook platform. For the time being, at least, that seems the surest way to take advantage of the capabilities of the Facebook network. And if you’re looking to learn more, this BusinessWeek story does an excellent job.

Using the full power of the medium

CCI puppy and friend practice waiting.

What exactly is it about social mediums that make them so powerful for stakeholder engagement?

Is it that they humanize a brand? Yes, they can.

Is it their speed? This certainly impacts content consumption.

Is it that they give everyone an equal share in the opportunity for discourse? Certainly a factor.

But I firmly believe that the real power of a social medium for many organizations – particularly non-profits and those serving a social need – lies in its potential for something much more profound to an organization: storytelling of a visual nature. Humans are naturally drawn to good stories. We’re captivated by the stories of hardship shared by grandparents, the stories of our youth shared by our parents, and the stories of people we’ve just met which help us come to know and appreciate one another. Stories shape our social interactions and as much as technology has empowered us to increase our connections, it’s the stories that we share that give the medium a sustained presence in our life. They provide us with unforgettable moments.

Last week I had the fortune to attend (and speak at) BlogPaws in Denver. This event is a fascinating coming-together of individuals passionate about animals. Some attendees were vets, interested in how to use social media to grow their practice. Others were deeply involved in animal welfare (either by passion or profession, or both), seeking to network with similarly like-minded people. Others were bloggers with a specific content expertise (sporting dogs, for example) or just getting started and trying to figure out what their unique voice should be.

We all had the fortune to attend a keynote delivered by Pat Callahan of Canine Companions for Independence. Even if you’re not familiar with this organization you’ve probably been touched by their work by seeing a humble dog leading its person through a crowded shopping mall or patiently awaiting their turn for the elevator. The content of Pat’s keynote (see embedded video) could make anyone weep, but it was her storytelling ability and the heavy emphasis on photography that really brought the Canine Companions story to life for the audience. Her keynote alone featured more than 60 stunning images of assistance dogs (and puppies) and their human interactions. Dogs may be unable to speak, but they have an uncanny photogenic quality.

Pat also spoke about Canine Companion’s growing emphasis on social media, and she clearly recognizes the greatest asset in their arsenal are visual in nature and not written. They’re early but eagerly into the social transformation of their organization (they launched a blog at the event) but are headed in an exciting direction. For many non-profits and organizations involved in social efforts, the visual aspects of the story are the best way to bring their impact to life. But it can be valuable for many brands, too. After all, what better way to open your brand up than to embrace it through visual storytelling? That’s working for Domino’s Pizza, and it’s become a differentiator for them.

It’s worth asking yourself – “is my organization doing enough to harness our visual story in social media?” If the answer is not clear, then you’re probably not doing enough. Pose this question – “how can our organization be more visual?” – to your agencies or at your next staff meeting and you might be surprised by the answers.

Here is a short video from BlogPaws and Pat Callahan at Canine Companions. Follow their story as it develops.

The monkey on your back in 2011

2010 wrapped up with the usual suspects putting forth predictions for this year, some of which I already wrote about (particularly where measurement and accountability are involved). An additional possibility for this year that I came across in John Battelle’s latest roundup struck a nerve – that is, the changing nature of the “Web” itself. He frames it as a meme lovingly entitled “the Web Reborn,” which essentially implies that the Web we have all been talking has undergone a tectonic shift driven by mobile.

It’s worth considering John’s point, and I actually fully agree with him. The Web has always been this amorphous thing that brands and agencies try to get their heads around and harness when, in truth, the fundamental principles of innovation are driven by forces that no brand will ever be able to get in front of. These broader driving forces, things like Moore’s Law, promise that innovation will always outstrip our ability to fully leverage the expansive nature of the Web. It’s a bit like painting the Golden Gate Bridge.

How is a brand supposed to feel good about getting in front of trends and memes when they know that the moment they pull a plan together, the ideas may already be outdated?

Maybe it is not so much “The Web Reborn” as it is “The Web, Circa 2011.” That will continue to be the monkey on the backs of brands and agencies in 2011, as it has been in previous years.

Think about it this way. Your investments in commercial innovations will continue to be best utilized when integrated with broader strategic goals for your business. That is, don’t partition social and emerging media into its own budget silo, team and agency. This will help you prevent the groan-inducing “we need to find the next big thing” conversations by focusing on longer term platform investments, ones that you can continue to leverage and build upon. Mobile is a great place to start for 2011, and it’s an obvious area of weakness for a lot of organizations. Just yesterday I discovered that my bank of choice, Citibank, actually has an Android app that’s pretty useful. I have searched for such an app in the Android marketplace on my phone numerous times and while there are apps there for Citibank Hong Kong and Citibank Korea, I never found the Citibank USA app. Lo and behold, I happened to be on their website yesterday on my laptop and clicked on their mobile banking link. Buried several links in was the link to the Android app, which required that I fire my up Android browser and type in the URL to download the app.

Now, I had been perfectly content with Citibank’s mobile site, which is well designed and easy to navigate from my HTC EVO. It may be a simple oversight that it’s not in the Android marketplace. The point here is Citibank has clearly invested in reaching and engaging with their consumers through mobile, and they still have some work to do to make the experience seamless.

There are many other brands that haven’t even dipped their toes into the mobile space yet. Virgin America is one that continues to surprise me given its focus on innovation and customer experience. Not only is the airline lacking a mobile app, they haven’t even optimized their website for viewing on a mobile phone. The act of booking a ticket on their website is infuriatingly complex on a mobile phone. And yet, they’ve been on the front lines of using social media to grow and amplify their brand.

John Battelle summed it up best in his round up – “the web is the foundation of nearly everything we do.” Make it your resolution for 2011 to complete that thought by exploring what the foundation means for your brand, and ensuring that you are investing in those areas.

Why experiences are the new swag

Why experiences are the new swag

I’ve been in marketing for 15 years and have seen every manner of imaginable swag. Koozies. Water bottles. Pens. Buttons. Bags. Free merchandise. Even cars. I believe the era of swag is in major decline, and your brand is probably going to be better off for it.

There are many reasons for people’s shifting tastes. Some people see swag giveaways as wasteful, trading away either money or earth’s resources in exchange for a momentary hit of fading brand recall. “They’ll keep this on their desk,” desperate marketers think, “and remember us when they’re ready to buy enterprise software again.”

What’s really happening, though, is consumer behavior is changing. Research has already proven that the millennial generation is uniformly unimpressed with stuff. 3 in 4 millennials would choose to spend money on a desirable experience rather than buying stuff, and those experiences shape lifelong memories. The millennial generation believes they create lasting connections at live events, bonds that tie them to their community and to the world. They’re not wrong – people who experience something together regularly report it be more satisfactory. My friend Bryan Kramer has a whole blog post about that.

The millennial zest for engaging experiences is dripping over into other generations. New research from a team at Cornell University, led by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, has tracked the confluence of money and happiness for more than two decades. Their findings are startling and defy general convention (that’s called the Easterlin paradox or – simply – that money buys happiness). Gilovich’s research suggests that experiences, rather than physical things, are the root of happiness. Humans will adapt to an iPhone and eventually tire of it (maybe good news to Apple), but they will recall experiences for the rest of their lives and that helps foster happiness.

How does this affect your brand?

Well, clearly, if you count millennials among your target demographic, you already should be focusing on building experiences rather than giving away free stuff. Beyond that, it’s probably worth considering if you need to reset your promotions mindset – are you giving away too much, and creating too few experiences?

Experiential marketing itself has been around for many years and is generally thought of as a live event. But think about the digital manifestation of those experiences and you see how powerful they can become. Humans love to watch other humans react to situations, and experience is at the heart of that reaction. For example, you might recall a video, filmed in a cafe setting, where an angry customer feigned telekinesis to the horror of other customers. It was a stunt to promote the movie Carrie. No doubt for those directly involved the experience was borderline horrifying. The stunt has so far captured the imagination of more than 61 million viewers on YouTube. Experiential does not always have to be a live event to be memorable.

This thinking can completely change the game for marketers. Are you focused on continually giving away product, swag, merchandise or discount codes to keep people engaged with your brand? You are probably experiencing declining returns on that approach. Think instead about how you can use experiences to create enduring memories, and how you can use your digital ecosystem to sustain exposure to it.

If you create a live event experience that only a handful of lucky participants can attend, your exposure will be limited those few individuals and their social networks. That’s probably a weak use case for your budget. However, use your digital ecosystem to make the experience virtual and real. You can even use a tool like Periscope or Meerkat to make it a real-time engagement with your fans.

Experience is the new swag. That’s great news for your brand, and it should have you very excited.

Is Facebook the next [insert failed tech company name]?

The story goes something like this: a brainiac wunderkind (or two) create a technology and make it easy, almost painless, to do something in a creative new way. People are drawn to it like sun on a cloudy winter day. Said wunderkind appears on the cover of Fortune Magazine and breaks into echelons of TechCrunch famedom, only to find his/her platform plateau and be eclipsed by a new brainiac with a new idea that’s just oh-so-much better. The examples cited include MySpace, Friendster, Pets.com (because pets can’t drive!) and Netscape. The slow spiral towards obsolescence is used as a cautionary tale – as in, don’t be the next Netscape, or is Facebook the next Friendster?

These comparisons do not always prove to have parity. The reasons for Netscape’s demise (Microsoft) are very different than the reasons for Pets.com (there was never a business model behind delivering 30 lb. bags of food). But one such query sticks in my mind and is worth exploring – is Facebook the next AOL?

By “next” in this instance what I really mean is this – is Facebook a one-hit utility? Possibly, and I’ll explain why.

AOL has traditionally had its foot in two camps of business – access and content. It has historically provided access to the Internet via its dial-up (and failed broadband) business. It has also curated and published content that has grown increasingly valuable over time. Its Huffington Post purchase is its clearest and most recent signal that it intends to become a content platform and shed its past as an access platform. The problem there is when you think of AOL, what is the first thing that comes to mind for you? Slow Internet access. It’s in the company’s roots and years of delivering annoying install CDs to our mailboxes takes time to undo. I managed the Google Zeitgeist for four years and one of the things that always surprised me is that that people would do a Google search for the word “Google.” That is, they would search Google for Google. Hello, you are already there! People get into routines. They become accustomed to doing things certain ways.

But AOL does have good content, and always has. Remember when brands used to advertise “Go To AOL Keyword: Travel”? That was a curated and walled garden of content, beyond which lay the rest of the Internet. It was for many people the Internet, until they discovered the virtues of the real Internet.

Now back to Facebook, a self-proclaimed “social utility.” Facebook has built its core network on Facebook.com, encouraging interactions and engagement with friends and increasingly with brands and organizations via status updates. It has aggressively opened up its network via APIs to allow others to tap that social ecosystem – the “social graph,” in Facebook parlance – and pursue activities that connect individuals in a variety of settings. Places like CNN, online games, comments sections on blogs. It’s an online identity that goes with you inside and outside the Facebook network.

There are three core areas that challenge the core premise of Facebook as a platform, a trifecta if you will:

  • Marketers: Get big business on board. Big growth means big money. Lots of servers, lots of bandwidth. They have to convince brands to continue investing in the platform. Recently Facebook executive Stephen Haines reportedly said to a group of conference goers that he envisions a future in which so much interaction takes place on Facebook that companies will not bother with their own websites. I can see the logic path he is following with that argument but respectfully disagree with him. Brands have gotten much smarter about leveraging their own media platforms – like their website – since they advertised AOL Keywords a decade ago. They have invested significant amounts of time, money and human resources in building and maintaining websites and while integration of the Facebook social graph can make their website a much richer experience, it probably won’t outright replace the website in the marketing mix. In fact, done right, Facebook should make any website even more valuable to the end-user.
  • Interoperability: Last year Facebook introduced a tool that enables consumers to download their entire history on the platform and archive it for posterity. They even made a nice offline browsing experience for the tool. What they failed to make available are things like contact information for your friends. The Facebook APIs enable very rich social experiences but just like AOL, eventually consumers will want to play outside of that walled garden. You have to give them the tools to remain relevant and valuable to them, and you have to assume that smart people will continue to develop around you. Interoperability is the secret to the rapid growth in Google’s Android mobile OS. It goes beyond APIs.
  • Consumers: This is the critical component and it’s the trickiest of them all. Consumers have demonstrated remarkable adoption of the Facebook platform leading to double-digit growth in users for many consecutive months. Now Facebook must convince those 500 million+ individuals that social graph is so valuable that they need to embrace it across the web. This is what will take Facebook out of the AOL danger zone – a walled garden – and into the broader ecosystem of the Internet. Facebook has shown a remarkable ability to innovate tools but they’ve shown a remarkable inability to read the privacy tea leaves. Changes made to the Facebook platform have left a bitter taste in many mouths. They have to prove to individuals that they are worthy of a trusted relationship. That trust relationship can be perceived to be at odds with making the platform valuable to advertisers. I’d argue that Facebook also suffers every time there is a data breach or loss of personal information reported by other major companies, as it holds the individual back from committing too much of their private information to one platform. I anticipate that Facebook will increasingly struggle with this paradox of what it means to be a true social utility. Are they focused on their users or on driving advertiser value?

There you have it, a trifecta of challenges. What does this mean for marketers today?

  • Continue investing and building your owned media platforms. As it stands now, even minor code tweaks and policy changes on the Facebook platform can wreak total havoc on a marketing program. Leverage Facebook via APIs and make it part of the broader digital mix versus isolating your execution on the platform as a standalone tactic.
  • Revisit your own privacy statements and ensure that your social engagement efforts truly map to your stated policies. If you promise not to use or collect personal information, make sure that you’re fully in compliance and make sure your agencies are, too.
  • As I’ve recommended in the past – and this applies to platforms beyond Facebook – immediately stop advertising “Find us on Facebook.com/BrandName.” Switch that out for “Find us on BrandName.com/Facebook” so you keep your data pipeline filled. Same goes for Twitter, YouTube and any other platform. Think and act like a publisher.

Feedback and comments are welcome and encouraged!

Innovation in four easy steps

I’ve been meaning to write this post for the last several months because I think it’s an important topic, one that all marketers and PR practitioners can learn from. As marketers we often watch in awe as others dream up ideas so big and so innovative it makes us blush. We hope that some of the innovation will trickle down to our industry, to our sector, providing for each of us an opportunity to experiment.

But here’s the thing: there is a method to how those ideas came to life and became a product, how they evolved from experiment to go mainstream. I watched at Google how innovation sprung up around me and took a few notes on the process, so here it is: Innovation in Four Easy Steps.

  1. Small Groups
    This is the essential element, a basic ingredient that cannot be overlooked. The best ideas often come from within the company and as brand marketers or agency leaders, you have to recognize that the caliber of the people you have chosen to employ will ultimately lead to out-of-the-box thinking and experimentation. To encourage that process you have keep groups small. If you are eager to push experimentation in location-based technology for your brand, assign it to someone who demonstrates a passion for that platform and let them assemble a small team to assess, plan and pilot. Don’t make them create massive planning decks or over-think the justification. The other element to managing your small teams is to avoid dictating the tactics. Instead, brief a team on a strategy you’d like to explore and let them work on bringing that strategy to life. You’ll be amazed at the results when you relinquish that control.

  3. Empower
    Letting teams self-select into small groups is the first step, but the second critical element is giving them the bandwidth, air cover and resources they need to experiment. At Google, engineers famously receive 20 percent time to work on projects of their own choosing and that’s resulted in some pretty powerful products. Things like Gmail, Google News and Google Talk all began as 20 percent projects. Now, you might be thinking that it will be difficult to convince your boss to allow your team one day per week when there is a long laundry list of business-critical items that need addressed. And if you are an agency, you may be thinking how impossible it might be to manage monthly billable hours if you give everyone one day to work on their own stuff (in an agency of 100 people that’s a lot of billable time). The key isn’t in the 20 percent figure, it’s in the unwritten but understood context behind it all and the message is this – “we hired you because we believe in you, and know that you have big ideas to contribute. We want you to feel compelled and encouraged to explore those ideas.” The key is to eliminate the fear factor involved with an employee exploring a project on the side – if they feel empowered to test ideas and experiment with results, they’ll be more likely to pursue them and you will absolutely be the beneficiary of that work.

  5. Deploy or Delete
    This is a difficult concept to embrace because human tendency means we want to see things through, we want a finale to our efforts. But those grand final movements do not always happen and there comes a time in many projects when you have to actively consider whether to continue investing in an experiment or simply let it go. Focusing resources, time and energy on projects that are taking too long cause the engine of innovation to run out of fuel. Employees get mired in the quicksand of execution. Simply stated, if you’ve had a project or an idea on your list for more than a few months and you are still exploring it, asking for plans against it or trying to assess its usefulness for your organization, it’s probably time to delete it from the list and move on. If it’s truly business-critical you should have already rallied resources around it to accomplish the task. Nothing kills motivation faster than a project that is going nowhere.

  7. Recognition
    It’s important to recognize accomplishments of your team regularly. Google did this via monetary incentive with Founder’s Awards and via regular celebrations at their weekly company TGIF meetings. When people work hard to implement even sometimes basic experiments, take time to let others know of the importance of their work. These don’t have to always involve money or cash prizes, although those are motivating too. Just the pride of standing up in front of one’s peers and have work recognized is a reward.

There you have it – four of Google’s key insights around innovation. What will you do to get started exploring these four concepts now?

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