These 'aint your momma's channels

Leveraging the same, tired traditional media tactics within emerging channels is like trading in a mule for a Ferrari - and then attempting to bridle it, saddle it, and ride it home while sitting on the roof.

It boggles the mind that a lot of companies actually do this. However, it's an all to common occurence. In my experience, it seems that the ones that behave in this manner are also the same brands that seem to be experimenting in new channels in a way that may be hazardous to brand health.

I've been thinking about this and there are a number of reasons this may be occuring... some more lame than others. Please add your own in the comments.

1. We didn't know what we were signing up for.
Truth be told, many of us have been caught off guard, but that's no excuse. There's enough information out there to test the waters of emerging channels in an intelligent manner. If you're still being caught with your pants down on say, Twitter -- the lack of preparation is your fault -- not a result on an untested medium.

I tend to agree with Jeremiah Owyang's assertion that Twitter will become a CRM tool. I'd submit that we should be thinking about all emerging - or "agile" channels like we would think about CRM tools. This is important because the transparency created by emerging media naturally demand the resolution of key, customer-facing issues. This entails a unique mix of customer service, operational and/or IT skills, and a little PR... although some issues may be related to larger, operational challenges.
Many stakeholders assigned to digital and social media just don't have the level of empowerment or create resolution or influence change at a level that might be necessary. When people are not empowered to answer and resolve tough customer questions in a timely manner in emerging media channels, it becomes highly evident to the brands social newtork.

Unfortunately, instead of resolving this problem with better oversight, coordination and collaboration, many companies react by moving customer facing issues solely offline and manage the digital channels in a more opaque, non-relational manner: Treating the channels as outbound communications vehicles, rather than customer service medium, and limiting individual engagement with customers online. This is a huge mistake.

Emerging media channels need structure and oversight -- but not at the expense of neutering the channel - or of applying common sense. Having thinking workers at the helm who can provide carefully worded and high enough level responses to diffuse risk, and make participants feel valued and respected are essential to keep the "flow" going in favor of the brand. Analysis paralysis is the enemy in what I'm starting to call "translucent culture" (Thanks to @bethharte brain hockey and comment). It's important to find the balance between enough structure to keep things manageable -- and enough flexibility to facilitate agile response.

2. We didn't come along willingly
I've talked to executives from a few major brands who feel they have far too many, vocal detractors and skeletons in the closet to succeed in the use of digital and social media. In fact, the head of customer analytics for a major airline laughingly described Twitter to me as "Pandora's Box" late last year. Many are hesitant to expose present business realities to a broad audience base. Others don't know if they want the exposure something like a blog, Twitter, Facebook or You Tube might create because they might just have more to lose than to gain. Some, frankly, feel social media engagement is a huge waste of time. The point is simple: digital and social media are simply not a priority to everyone.

At the same time, many reticent companies (including the airline I mentioned) have become active in emerging channels anyway. Why? In some cases, a high level executive mandate was issued. In other cases, they were pushed hard by consultants, agencies, industry analysts and overzealous agencies. In some, they merely wanted to reserve user names ... and things cascaded from there.

Whatever the case, the activity of these brands doesn't indicate a fully sponsored, well organized presence. It doesn't indicate alignment, or buy in. It doesn't suggest the individuals managing the digital media presence entered with an understanding of the potential up-side of participation, what they might be in for, or knowing how to manage things, well. It doesn't mean proper resources were allocated to doing social media the right way. Perhaps they came in kicking and screaming, and they're still reeling as they figure things out. This might be more common than you think.

3. The wrong people are steering!
  • A lack of executive understanding, oversight and/or leadership of emerging channels
  • Poor interdepartmental alignment and coordination of the emerging media presence

  • Unempowered or unskilled individuals managing (and advising) the social web
These are bad things. Why? Because the lack of leadership and oversight are plainly evident to every bright individual within a brand's social network.
Case in point -- I recently audited the tweets and posts of a national brand that is a former client. I was disheartened to find the brand's formerly engaging, relational tweets and posts replaced by self-promotional, broadcast-driven messages, with no sign of interaction. I reached out to my contact to ask what happened.

My contact reluctantly and apologetically confessed to me that the team was swamped and decided to pass the management of emerging media channels for the summer to an intern. After sucking in my breath to temper my response, we discussed the ramifications of their decision in rather frank terms. They assured me they'd turn things around. They certainly know better, and I hope they do get it right.
Another interesting aspect to this story is that their executive management doesn't know any better and hasn't challenged the team on this approach. The executives think it's enough for the brand to be present on Facebook, Linked In, Twitter and blogs - so there's no pressure to engage or do anything differently ... no urgency to remedy the issue. It's important to understand that being present in emerging channels isn't the same as having a meaningful presence. Meanwhile, there are a myriad of constituents who have befriended this brand online who were hoping for more than a press release.
This is just one tiny case study that demonstrates the points above. This brings me to the this next point:

4. We jumped in with both feet, but had no plan
It's easy to engage in digital and social media channels without a lot of forethought or up-front planning. This happens more than we might think -- especially in light of a strong internal executive push. However, make no mistake -- digging in one's heels and jumping in with reckless abandon can result in just that -- reckless abandonment. More than a few companies have been forced to refocus or retrench to properly manage customer communication in emerging channels, and in many instances, transparency was not a friend of the brand.

When there's no plan in place that helps companies manage the digital footprint, build relationships, align resources, govern communication, oversee communication and monitor reputation and feedback, the presence becomes unmanageable, difficult to monitor, coordinate and measure. Unfortunately, many brands don't know enough to create a cohesive governance, workflow and management plan. Further, many of their agencies - while active promoters of digital and social media -- are unskilled and untested in the channels, themselves. So, the brands continue on auto-pilot, learning as they go -- often in an inefficient and unsustainable manner.

5. We are really MOST comfortable doing what we KNOW...
Preach all you want about the benefits of digital and social media. Train your team on channel best practices and how to build a successful network. Just remember this: these lessons are easily forgotten in light of a hectic schedule, competing priorities and the unanticipated number of hours it takes to manage the emerging media presence. Business stakeholders may fail to apply their training and revert to more "familiar" tactics. While these may vary from company-to-company, or even department-to-department... you might see the status quo in action, in the form of the following:

  • Working around problems, rather than fixing them
  • Resorting to spin, rather than engaging and managing meaningful conversation
  • Focus on broadcast "push" messages, rather than building relationships
  • Slapping constraints on the use of new channels, rather than harnessing opportunities
  • Staying within the "silo" rather than working cross-functionally to meet customer needs
This isn't the kind of culture successful brands want to reflect to the critical public in emerging channels. This is another reason sticking to a plan, putting in proper oversight, and investing in continuous learning and reputation monitoring (read comments on this post, too!) are critical for success.

It's time for a Reality Check!

Sooner or later, the smoke clears and you won't fool anyone. For the brands that suffer from one or more of the symptoms above... take heart. You don't need to hold up mirrors and a smoke machine to mitigate risk and create positive impressions in emerging channels. It's time to get real about your digital media footprint, and the impression it gives.

Your degree of preparedness is evident to customers online. While some executive leaders may not know the difference between being present and having a presence -- your customers will. Don't need to treat emerging channels like broadcast media - and don't allow ignorant people to narrow the emerging media presence so much, their potential is nullified. You need the right approach, commitment, tools, tactics, communication, expectations and management. That requires education by specialists who understand these channels.

Applying old marketing tactics to emerging media channels is abuse - it hurts your brand, your customers and subverts dynamic channels. This doesn't work in anyone's best interest. These channels work best for building relationships, fostering dialog, promoting good will and generating brand advocacy. Winners know this and adapt!

The truth is -- everybody's watching - and waiting, to see if you'll evolve in to a semi-transparent, customer-centric company, or stay stuck in the stone age. If you don't - people may shift to a brand who does adapt.

You can make digital and social media your friend.
The writing is on the wall. While medium of communication has never replaced other medium of communication, new channels do trigger consolidation and impact use and investment. While we still have signs, print, the phone, and recorded music... we also have television, video, video-on-demand and networked computing. New mediums and channels will continue pave the way to the future of interaction while the old channels continue to serve their perhaps more limited purpose. It's important to remember that emerging channels can work against us, becoming an enemy when they are ignored, abused, poorly managed or misunderstood. My advice? Make them your friends, instead!

For a lot of brands, it's time to work harder to refocus and rebuild what may be a shaky foundation. It's okay. It's still early. Most of us are very forgiving... and often forgetful of past mistakes. After all, we've all made mistakes - especially in the online medium. We all face challenges! Want an honest example? This site design has outgrown its purpose... I'm working on a redesign between client obligations... and I can't move this along fast enough.

Developing a digital presence that matters is so important -- much more than spin, or hype or words. Your dedication to customers and improving the business will translate across the social web in a manner that reinforces trust and builds brand affinity. Companies just have to ditch that saddle, and learn to drive!


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I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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