March 14, 2008

My CEO sparked a group email discussion last week by asking two questions. Following was my contribution to the discussion. I'm being transparent here -- as these are the very ideals and opportunities I aspire to in my own marketing leadership role. Customer acquisition is another major and almost equal responsibility, but these opportunities are the strategic foundation.

What are the three biggest opportunities for growth for brands to leverage interactive and digital marketing?

1. Reputation Is Everything. The hard truth is that the Internet and search make all information easily accessible and capable of becoming viral and ubiquitous in a millisecond. The Web is the new central nervous system of the marketplace, and it's introduced unprecedented speed and efficiency in synchronizing the core truth about who you really are with your actual reputation in the marketplace. The Web is a conduit driving expectations and sensitivity around brands higher than ever. As a result, marketing and brand building is no longer about creating a desirable façade; marketing is now about driving all that is desired into the product in the first place. It's living by the philosophy that the sum of all your actions equals your brand equity -- including the actual product and service you build, to the experience of mundane things like invoicing and returns.

2. Customer Experience Is The New Advertising Department. If reputation is everything, then customer experience is the new advertising department. Happy customers might tell five friends, while unhappy customers might tell many, many more. Regardless, customers and stakeholders -- driven almost entirely by their experiences with brands -- are telling their stories and creating media that settle in the permanent memory of Google and other search engines for eternity. Advertising has long relied on planning and accountability models that presume all brand impressions are equal. However, the Internet has introduced a dynamic of positive, negative and event detrimental impact of qualitatively different media impressions -- driven by customer experience.

3. Web Site As Brand Hub. For most businesses, the Web must become your brand hub. The Web site is the anchor for a range of critical actions in the consideration and purchase funnel. It is where search engines discover brands and where they direct prospects. It is the currency of pass-along when others wish to refer or recommend you. It is where the most engaged prospects learn about your brand, or fail to learn what they need to know in order to engage further. It is often a critical repository for collecting names, demographic information, purchase intentions and behaviors. It is a listening mechanism and interaction platform when customers do wish to engage. For many businesses, it's where transactions actually take place, and services are rendered. It increasingly is where people turn when things go wrong, and the place where problems are corrected, or not. It is where companies have the choice to engage intimately with customers, or instill a cold, faceless façade. As the marketplace increasingly goes digital, the Web site should play a central role in leading a company's key customer performance metrics to drive overall marketing strategy.

What are the three biggest challenges needed to overcome to facilitate growth?

1. Authenticity. The greatest opportunity for brand growth is also the biggest challenge: authenticity. Too many companies still operate in a mode where the façade they're trying to create is incongruent with who and what they really are. A fundamental management and cultural challenge often is needed.

2. Silos. If authenticity, experience and Web hubs represent the greatest opportunities for brand growth, then organizational silos must be broken down to achieve those opportunities. Open, dynamic markets are often paralyzing for deeply held silos because those silos simply aren't equipped to handle new customer challenges. Whose job is it to respond when an influential customer blogs about his great experience with your product? Customer service agent, product manager, PR person? What if a customer reports widely how your product is failing? Whose job is it to respond when searches for "product defect" start driving massive traffic increases to your site? Should you call in the Web master, customer service agent, product managers, or lawyers? Even on a very tactical interactive media spending level, organizational silos are preventing search and branding efforts from truly resonating.

3. Simplicity. Technologies, systems and processes have gotten out of hand in terms of their complexity. Managers and workers are drowning. Everyone in the advertising ecosystem is responsible for doing their part to make things manageable. Without simplicity, everything else is meaningless. Information abundance results in cognitive paralysis and attention deficit -- a sure road to nowhere.

By Max Kalehoff
Max Kalehoff is vice president of marketing for Clickable, a search-marketing solution for small and mid-size businesses. He also writes
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