Taking Marketing Beyond Advertising

Today’s unprecedented access to information, demand for transparency, and empowerment of social recommendation speed the transition from mass marketing and toward more relevant and personalized communications: in short, digital video content.

Advertising improves selling, but video content improves communication. Of all kinds. Which in turn, improves sales. That’s why it’s where marketing is moving.

Make no mistake; I love great advertising. And great advertising still builds brands. But it’s no longer the only way. Because it’s not just brands that need building; businesses and organizations of every kind need to reach audiences with compelling messages.

So there’s always another story to tell.


Building Brands By Sharing the Keys: Not Just A Good Theory, It’s A Proven Truth

Many marketers find it hard to let consumers drive. It feels so counterintuitive. Command and control language permeates this business; we create ‘strategies’ to reach ‘target markets.’ So it stands to reason we’d have a hard time ascribing value to the opinions of a target. You hit targets, you certainly don’t listen to them.

Which explains why the Web 2.0 marketing revolution has been so slow to develop. Old habits die hard. Selling client brands? That’s our job, not the public’s.Dennis Ryan, Advertising, Olson

But make no mistake. This attitude is based on habit, not truth. Because since 2007, the very first year the smart folks at Nielsen initiated their “Global Survey of Trust in Advertising”, the recommendations people make to their friends and family have topped the list of the most trusted form of product endorsement. This year, after canvassing nearly 30,000 people in nearly 60 countries regarding 19 types of media including paid, earned and owned, once again, word of mouth tops the list. And it’s been steadily climbing, up 6% since the survey began.

Yes, paid media still has a place, and an important place too. But those at the head of the marketing curve understand the crucially fundamental role public relations plays in brand marketing today. Because PR focuses on stories, on determining what people want to talk about today.

Today’s savviest marketers understand that it’s no longer just what you say. It’s also how you help others say that for you, how you make your brand message worth sharing.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson

Brand Communities, Recommendation, and Going To School On The Other Guy’s Putt

If two golfers reach the green around the same time, neither wants to putt first. That’s because it’s always instructive to watch the other player’s ball roll; it susses out hidden breaks and the speed of the green.

Dennis Ryan, Advertising, OlsonThat behavior is not unique to golf; shoppers look to learn from their peers as well. As part of their participation in the Consumer Electronics Show last week, PR giant Weber Shandwick released a study that found the greatest influence on electronics purchase decisions comes from consumer reviews, not professional ones. In fact, electronics buyers value consumer reviews over editorial reviews by a more than three to one margin. Perhaps more importantly, they found that on average, buyers checked eleven consumer reviews before committing to a purchase.

All of this merely confirms the power of recommendation. As Paul Rand, President of Omnicom word of mouth shop Zócalo Group, asserts quite regularly about buyers; “92% say that the recommendation of a friend, family member, colleague or expert is the single most powerful influencer of their purchase decision.”

So it only makes sense for marketers to leverage this phenomenon and encourage reviews. But sales are a competition so there’s always someone looking to bring performance enhancing drugs to the race. Last Summer, Forbes ran an article concerning authors who anonymously pen self-promoting book reviews, or worse, slams on the work of rival authors. Around the New Year, the Huffington Post ran a piece on view count inflation on YouTube music video counts and a subsequent adjustment in those numbers.

People innately seek the opinions of others they respect and trust. And well tended brand communities provide forums for sharing those opinions. Weber Shandwick’s  report even closes with suggestions on how marketers can protect their recommendations’ legitimacy so they stay effective. But as long as there is money involved, some dirtbag will try to Lance the system and scam some bucks.

Yet another reason why authenticity is such a valued commodity these days.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson

Hostess May Become Bimbo To Save Twinkies, Ho Hos and Ding Dongs

Dennis Ryan, Advertising, OlsonIt sounds like a synopsis of a Nintendo game. Seriously, this stuff writes itself.

It’s also not particularly true. Stories like these are one of the less-productive outcomes of ‘citizen journalism’. Thanks to always on social networks, sensational notions spread very quickly based on nothing more than how talk-worthy and readily sharable they are.

If you heard this rumor, you understand why every major marketer should be cultivating their brand community. Opinion and recommendation is a whole new media platform.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson


You Might Not Understand Word Of Mouth Advertising, But Chances Are You Practice It

I’m a huge believer in word of mouth advertising.  The power of recommendation to close a sale makes the kind of intuitive sense that renders quantitative analysis expensively redundant.

Particularly when you read a story like the one printed in Section D of yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle.  It outlines how Facebook now directs more online users to content than Google does.  What they refer to as “friend-casting” information makes Facebook a huge force in directing the flow of web traffic, particularly to major portals like MSN and Yahoo.

This simply proves that when we make small talk on social media, we like to share what we’ve recently seen, read or heard (“The “My Sharona” guy from the Knack just died! http://nyti.ms/cuVwxD”).  And since we’re talking to friends who know our interests, we’re likely to click on those links (“Oh my gosh–I didn’t know his brother was Dr. Kervorkian’s lawyer!”).

This constant digital connectivity has created a modern world of easy, fast and omnipresent recommendation.  With a few clicks, we can get an opinion about that movie we’re considering, a review of that book we heard of, a friend’s experience at that hot new restaurant.

Facebook, as an increasingly frequent touchpoint of our every day, provides a very convenient marketplace to trade those thoughts and opinions.  All of which leads some pundits to predict that social media will become the internet’s next search engine.  Maybe, but I think social platforms operate slightly differently, as a conversational dialogue.

Google informs you about what you find interesting.

But Facebook informs you about what your friends find intersting.

That’s social.  And it drives an increasing amount of choices these days.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Three Good Places To Begin Looking for Brand Stories

Today, brand story matters more than brand strategy.  In a world of product parity and saturation, where consumers consciously dis-integrate and opinion enjoys a powerful mass channel, the single greatest service an evolved agency can provide their clients is to identify and define brand stories.

Clearly identifying and defining brand stories: that seems like a simple, straightforward task, but it rarely is.  we inevitably assume too much.  We consider consumer benefits self evident.  We believe product meaning must be universal.  Far too often we share the mindset of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous proclamation where he admitted how hard it is to define hard-core pornography, but “I know it when I see it.”

Justice Stewart later recanted his hazy view as “untenable.”  It’s the same with Brand Stories; fuzzy thinking won’t stand.  Defining a really great, truly simple and sharable brand story requires deep brand immersion, strategic thinking and cultural investigation.  Here are three places to start that search.

  1. People at the Client With Unique Brand Experience. For god’s sake, not marketing people.  Field salespeople, product developers, longtime employees—these kinds of people can provide remarkably diverse perspectives on a brand and that diversity of perspective is invaluable at the outset.  Our long-running “We’re Here to Help” campaign for Harris really originated from stories we picked up from branch managers, remarkable anecdotes where tellers or loan officers went far beyond the narrow 9-5 mentality to truly serve their customers, often in totally unexpected ways.  Within weeks of launching the campaign, the story of Harris’ commitment to unexpected help was everywhere, from billboards to lobbies to CEO Ellen Costello’s corporate stationery.
  2. The Stories Consumers Already Share On Line. This source is invaluable since Brand Stories exist whether we choose to foster and influence them or not.  People form powerful opinions based on their own experience, peer recommendation, and the powerful cues sent through product and package design; we need to understand these stories before we can optimize them in a way that serves our marketing communication needs.
  3. Historical Marketing Materials. It never ceases to amaze me how many agency and client types assume they can ignore past advertising and just start fresh with a clean slate.  That’s simply ridiculous wishful thinking.  It’s pure hubris to totally disregard the stories consumers already hold (see #2) and it rarely works (Tropicana Pure Premium’s short-lived package redesign anyone?).  You need to assess where you are before you can plot out how you will move to a more advantageous position.

Of course, there are dozens more places to begin the process of carving out effective Brand Stories: competitive analyses help find blue water for parity products, interviews with Brand Evangelists help outline the most meaningful benefits, simply using the product provides invaluable first hand experience for imaginative creatives.

Where do you start?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Three Advantages to Emphasizing Story over Strategy

To a cynic—and yes, everyone in the advertising business does get cynical from time to time—the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘story’ may seem a matter of semantics.  As a writer who earns a living on words, that makes a good argument right there.  But adopting a story-centric mindset opens up marketing in many powerful ways.  Because ‘many’ is a bit nebulous, here are three reasons to start thinking story.

1.  Strategies Centralize, Stories Travel. Any media expert will tell you that the biggest upset of our advertising applecart has been Web 2.0 and the emergence of social media.  This game-changing development changed the way consumers gather and share information.  Moreover, it is frequently mistaken for ‘free media,’ which intrigues resource-strapped clients.

People use social media to share stories, about their lives, their interest, their opinions.  A traditional strategy-driven ad only goes as far as the media plan, and then it disappears.  A story starts with that same media plan but when defined correctly, extends far beyond those finite GRP’s, riding the waves of social media and word of mouth as people spread their own versions of your brand’s story.  We don’t need consumers to create the story, but simply build on them and pass them along.  In an increasingly advertising-resistant society, using story to further recommendation is good business.

We should work brand stories to spread virally, but viral is not a tactic: it’s an outcome.

Clearly, There's a Story Here...

2.  Stories Serve Integration Better than Strategy. Because strategies are centralized, one agency inevitably takes responsibility for it.  They ‘own’ the strategy.  But in a social media-powered world, no marketer really owns how people consider their brands, we can only influence it.  Because consumers have such a hand in defining and sharing brand stories, no one marketing entity can claim dominion: everyone has a hand in defining the story.

A story is not owned, it’s shared.  And that simplifies everything.  For years, each discipline brought separate planning resources to interpret the strategy for their particular specialty, a divisive exercise which more often than not, really amounts to defining tactics.  When everyone knows a brand’s story, the integration process simplifies tremendously.  A promotion either reflects the story or it doesn’t.  A user experience either fits or not.  Instead of an intellectual exercise, integration becomes simpler, more human, more obvious.

3.  Stories Reflect Brands Better than Strategies. Both strategies and stories define their audience.  Both use conflict to build drama.  And both communicate a POV.  But stories go further to embrace tone.  In a parity marketplace, an emotional perspective, a tone, can be a big differentiator and make the story far more compelling.

Strategies largely avoid tone or consign it to a bullet-point at the base.  But the right tone is fundamental to a story’s success: Poe didn’t crack jokes and Hemingway never asked for a hug.  Powerful feelings can drive sales just as much as rational reasons to believe.  In fact, I would argue they are more compelling.  Logic and reason do not trump passion and emotion: we don’t get married or go to war for logic.  This may not hold up to quantitative analysis, but if the ultimate goal is predicting in-market success, consumer research is a rather suspect science at best.

So there you go—three thought starters for the first workweek of the new year.  I will be working with this thought and how it applies to the advertising business over the next few weeks.  If you have any additional points—or counterpoints—I’d welcome them.  Because I have a feeling we share a similar story: advertising professionals seeking answers in a changing industry to help our brands thrive.

Oh, and our careers too.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Happy New Decade! Here’s One Prediction for Advertising in The Teens…

Not a list or a look back of any kind; just one prediction regarding all this industry convergence and confusion about how the advertising business we knew will evolve in the decade ahead…

#1.  The Days of Strategy Are Over.

The Age of Stories Is Upon Us.


That’s not a quote from The Lord of the Rings; that’s a truth that’s become increasingly obvious as we’ve dealt with seismic changes within both our industry and the culture as a whole.  We live in times when great masses of people can organize without organizations (good point Clay Shirky).  We live in times when recommendation drives sales more than any other factor (good business plan Zocalo Group).  We live in times when the way people can experience a brand–has never been more diverse (good luck with integration there, Bub).

Today’s reality renders the notion of a centralized advertising ‘strategy’ quaint.  The conceit that any advertiser controls their message is both dated and dangerous.  Strategies assume centralized authority which no longer exists in an empowered-public forum.  Strategies come from people with a vested interest, but these days, those people are only a part of the in-market dialogue.  Today, consumers have loud voices: socially-networked, extraordinarily powerful and digitally-amplified via Web 2.0 voices.  And their voices will be heard

All of which means that if we want to learn, we will have to unlearn–it’s not about just what we advocate, it’s about what consumers accept.  To lead we will also have to listen–not just to clients but to consumers whose voices are stronger than ever.

We will have to put aside the older ways and accept that to move forward, we will have to embrace one of the most primal and fundamental assets of our humanity: storytelling.  We will not only need to tell stories on our brands’ behalf in the future, we also must shape those stories, enhance those stories, make them more pertinent, more relevant, and more impactful to the people we want to buy our brands.  Sparking stories, guiding stories, monitoring and brightening stories–that will define the advertising business in the coming decade.

And so that will become our daily work.  Identifying the story.  Shaping the story.  Refining the story.  And most of all, spreading the story in a way that others pick up our narrative and spread it themselves.

We are no longer in the advertising business.  We are now in the oldest profession known to man: no, not that–the storytelling business. And it just may be the most antediluvian business at work today–telling stories for the entertainment and edification of others.  But at least it’s honest work.

Come to think of it, the years ahead should be a really good time.  A Happy Decade Ahead to All!

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

In Today’s Participatory Culture, “People Are The Medium”

Picture 5SocialVibe President and prolific new platform pundit Joe Marchese’s most recent blog entry on MediaPost presents a simple, 21st century update on Marshall McLuhan’s original marketing mindblower “The medium is the message.”  In a few paragraphs, he presents the case for “People are the medium” and his thinking is genuinely compelling. Most notably, he cites how people will spend over three hundred and thirty million hours this year on Facebook alone, creating and sharing incredibly vast quantities of consumer generated content.  To McLuhan’s point, this personal stewardship of content and commentary, the highly human context of all these ideas, inevitably influences how these messages are received.

Marchese believes marketers must reconcile themselves to this new truth and respect the revolutionary notion that people are the medium before they can truly work effectively in social media.  Given that our industry currently lacks the infrastructure resources to do that on a large scale, social media could remain broken as a marketing platform for a long time.  At least as far as Facebook is concerned.

One marketing medium that does recognize people as the medium is the rapidly-expanding specialty of word of mouth.  Today, almost all marketing professionals recognize the increased role recommendation plays in purchase decisions and so word of mouth has exploded as an offering, with agencies, PR firms and specialists all jumping in to set up shop and claim expertise.  Our friend Paul Rand at Zocalo Group got into this space early with the balance of assessment and direct engagement required to change mere observation into actionable influence.  Without participating in the discussions out there, word of mouth remains a game of chance, and no one can afford that these days.

Historically, corporations have proven awkward at connecting with people on a personal level.  As we charge headlong into an increasingly hyper-connected future, we will have to address that.  

If we don’t, we will lose one very valuable medium.  And billions of potential consumers.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79