7 Must-Have Plays to Change Your Online Marketing Game

How To Win The Game of Online Marketing

Online marketing is an increasingly important venue in a business’ epic battle to win customers. The constantly evolving technologies and methods for playing online, however, can make it difficult for executives to know—with confidence—how to make a play in the game. As a result, they’re left playing defense instead of offense. The purpose of this article is to share what the real game is all about and the best ways to win the play and the customer.

The Fundamentals of the Game

Before we create our playbooks, there are five fundamental truths you must understand for why “offense is the best defense” for your business:

  1. Brands matter. There is no doubt that the need for brand investments has never been higher. In a world where access to alternatives is wide and the ability for new brands to break in is improved, brands can play a significant role in creating clarity for buyers. Plus, shoppers are still purchasing brands versus private labels. As retailers expand their private label portfolios, however, the need to create strength and distinction in independent product brands will grow.
  2. Ingredients matter. Marketers clearly recognize the importance of ingredient branding. This takes on two primary forms: branded ingredients, which have been an important part of the co-branding experience (think Heath bars inside a Breyer’s ice cream), and ingredient-based product attributes (such as gluten-free). Companies such as Whole Foods built entire businesses on this principle. The need for effective communications about these attributes has never been higher.
  3. The conversation is forever. People forget; the Internet does not. This is a critical distinction. In the old days, a bad customer experience that used to be shared between a cloistered set of moms had very little impact on a given brand’s sales. Perhaps the brand reputation lost a little luster to a few people for a short period of time. Today, that same dialogue could have a 1,000-foId greater negative effect through social media sharing. Plus, the visibility of negative comments is magnified. A negative comment is rarely removed from online forums—even if a problem is fixed. This creates a more-than-normal negative characteristic to brands versus offline.
  4. Everyone can have social influence. The social influence of one person within their peer group is flattened and widened online. In the physical world, a small peer group typically discounts a crazy person’s opinions. Online, they are not necessarily discounted. An online reader has no way to determine whether the reviewer is a person to be believed and followed. And there may not be a lot of time to make the distinction before impact is felt: Online, it can take an instant and within a single day, a negative experience can become a major event.
  5. You’re in control. The whole idea of controlling the conversation is no longer feasible. The idea of bombarding consumers with broadcasted marketing messages and controlling the conversation is out the window. Consumers control the conversation now. Plus, with the advent of these new social media amplifiers, they have a better ability to control the conversation than brands do. Any company that tries to shut down a negative conversation merely moves the conversation from obvious public places within the brand’s view to less obvious places outside of their view. Moreover, these aggressive tactics creates great animosity among current and prospective buyers. This is true even when the comments are completely fictitious. Often, competitors will put fake negative reviews on company’s sites to harm the brand in some way. This is no different than when competitive ingredient brands sponsor academic research to besmirch alternative ingredients and promote the benefits of their ingredients. Yet, again, online the issues are amplified, forever.

The Plays for a Winning Offense

So, now that we are through that fun news, what can we do? Actually, a lot. Here are seven plays you can make to regain footing and move toward an offensive (and practical) game plan:

  1. Listen, listen, listen. Most companies don’t listen. Most boards don’t listen, either. This continually amazes me, but it’s a truism. I have worked with some of the largest (and smallest) brands in the world and universally, I see brand executives excusing their brands or justifying why negative perceptions are out there. This is highly problematic and ineffective. The first suggestion is to really listen to the customers. The way to do this is to create a (what McKinsey & Co. used to call MECE or “mutually exclusive, cumulatively exhaustive”) list of all the comments (pro and con) consumers make about the brand. Really strive for as comprehensive a list as possible. Don’t try to discount the comments. Be discrete and thorough. You will be amazed by what customers say about your brand. Once this list is created, try to listen again and understand why these consumers have these perceptions and opinions.  Try to separate between opinions based on misunderstandings and those based upon empirical experiences (even in anomalies). One secret to accomplishing this task it to avoid looking for someone to blame. At this stage, the goal is unfiltered data.
  2. Be prescient. Get ahead of the trouble. Technology is agnostic, but people are not. Social media can be used for good (and evil) and many foes will use it against you. Be aggressive users of technology – both for observing the behavior and opinions of your customers, but also for looking at those who advocate against your position or who have misaligned interests from yours. The benefit of the Internet is you get improved visibility to what people are saying and how they are saying it. Understanding the foe you fight and the weapons being used against you will allow you to better respond—it’s more than half the battle right then and there.
  3. Be in the right. Take a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Are we being real with customers feeding them a little (or a lot) of b.s.? I think most of us would probably admit, if we were honest, that we’ve been acting as spin doctors. But today, this kind of behavior will be called out unfavorably. The Internet makes it very easy for consumers to acquire information you may not wish them to have. If an ingredient is bad for consumers, they will find out about it. If you have an ingredient problem, that problem will not be remedied via some whitewash campaign. Consumers can sniff out whitewash a mile away. The truth will rule the day and your brand will be worse for it.
  4. Build the story. It’s your brand; it’s your story: tell it. Tell it boldly. Tell it frequently. Tell it effectively. Use whatever means possible to get your story right and well understood by your consumers. The best- known brands like Starbucks recognized early the importance of brand storytelling, but many companies still don’t get it. Or, worse, they get it, but the board doesn’t fund it.            These companies complain about how they are perceived, yet they fail to invest in telling effective stories about their brands. As board members, don’t expect brand results without investment. It’s no longer a free ride.
  5. Stay ahead of curve. Don’t wait for the crisis to emerge; educate the consumer ahead of the crisis. For example, I was working with a large technology company that was about to sue its smaller, but most-critical, competitor for patent infringement. They knew many consumers would consider their action anti-competitive. So, as a preventive measure, they created a whole website with FAQs about this action ahead of the legal injunction they sought and launched a highly effective campaign of dealing with these concerns on the day the news broke. As a result, the negative sentiment about their legal action lasted hours and not any longer. Once consumers were apprised as to why the company did what it did, consumers were empathetic to the company’s circumstance. There are many positive lessons here. First, know what will make your consumers mad. Second, if you are in the right (see #3 suggestion), provide the rationale to your actions. Why are you using that ingredient? Is it flavor? Is it cost? Be honest. It will help. Third, diffuse the perception (or misperception) that you are hiding something by being upfront with consumers; this will build trust. By observing actual behavior of many executives, it’s clear to me that many vendors don’t fully believe it applies to branding, but honesty really is the best policy.
  6. Spread the news. The secret to communications is share of voice—how much this negative communication represents as a percentage of overall communications. Share of voice is critical. In the old days, share of voice was solved with broadcast communications. A large company could out-communicate a small group of advocates. Today, it is more challenging. If you don’t work actively in social media, broadcast media, traditional media, alternative media etc., you will lose because this small group may have an equal or even greater ability to communicate and control the share of voice. If you are soft and the other side is loud, you will lose—even if you are in the right.
  7. Give your advocates weapons. You’re not in the game alone; your friends are your best offense team. These are individuals who advocate on your behalf, reseller partners, employees, etc. You must equip your constituents with the best amplification tools like YouTube, SYNQY, SlideShare, Prezi and others to share your story more effectively. Most companies try to control the story with a small team of marketing folks; this won’t do. You must leverage your marketing and provide scalable mechanism to share and amplify your story. If your company has an ingredient that has been deemed problematic, for example, you can provide online tools to explain your position. Then, you can have your constituents trained on where to find those tools and use them to communicate your story to their friends, etc.

Whether you follow all of these tactical plays, it’s important you embrace online marketing as a core factor in a winning game. Embracing it now with an “offense” mindset and approach will help you raise your game for the long haul