What do Ninja Turtles, Facebook, Hush Puppies and Pokémon all have in common?

The answer reveals the secrets to creating a viral marketing machine.

Back when I worked on the Hawaiian Punch business for P&G, we spent a fair amount of time analyzing how “fads” became popular with kids. We tried to understand what ignited meteoric “viral” success. We learned some ingredients of viral campaigns –  ease of acquisition, transmission and novelty –  but we never really cracked the code of how to predictably recreate a viral marketing engine.

For the last few years, there have been a host of books presenting research on how to create a viral marketing engine. These texts add insight into the dynamics of viral marketing, but they fail to define how to execute viral marketing well. How, for instance, do you realistically and reliably identify influencers or content creators or mavens?

Then, just as these concepts were making their way into marketing models, newer work by Duncan Watts seems to suggest that many previous models are not, scientifically speaking, valid. He argues that influencers are not all that influential after all. For something to go viral, he believes, is a function of among other things – “right time and right place,” he says.

How then can marketers effectively utilize this seemingly arbitrary dynamic? While researchers like Watts are still experimenting with new models, I’ll offer my own. My model lacks any published scientific study, but it is a theory grounded in understanding that breakthroughs happen when we blend science with human nature. So here goes.

When we think about wildly popular trends, from Pokémon to Facebook, they have a few things in common. They were all easy to share, they all presented a novel experience and the activity was largely democratic – easy for most people to participate.  But they also share one other, very important ingredient – they all powerfully satisfy our insatiable human need for “fun”. Yep, that’s it.

Now before you reject “fun” as being too lightweight in strategic value to drive business, it will be instructive to look at the iconic viral success stories for answers.

Let’s start with Ninja Turtles or Pokémon. Their success was grounded in the fact that their fun was incredibly engaging on many levels. They provided different modes of play (cards, video games etc), the fun was easy to transport and play could last hours. “Fun” explains the venerable viral success story of Hush Puppies because Hush Puppies reminded us of when we were kids and fun ruled. Fun by association works as well.

Now let’s look at, arguably the most successful viral engine ever – Facebook. When we apply the “fun” filter we see they carefully baked “fun” into every crevice of the user lifecycle – from encouraging friends to find each other and once found, to the plethora of fun ways for the friends to remain connected.

With this new understanding of balancing the latest scientific thinking with the human element of fun, here’s what a workable viral marketing engine might look like:

  • Enable easy content distribution.
    • Bake in the “6 degrees of distribution” as Watts demonstrated to ensure that messages can be easily transmitted.
  • Elevate “fun” to a strategic initiative in customer lifecycle management strategies.
    • Concentrate on creating a fun experience throughout users’ experience – from the moment you try to acquire them through every interaction with you.
  • Promote as broadly as possible.
    • Duncan Watts advocates for mass reach in digital campaigns because without enough reach, you may not have enough “fun distributors” to get the job done.  Tonnage is one of the secrets of viral success (counter intuitive as that sounds).
  • Timing can improve the odds of viral success.
    • Until the day that some clever researcher can scientifically figure out how to time “fads” (and maybe the stock markets too), this is probably the most challenging element in this model to execute. To stack the “timing” odds in your favor, troll the edgy blogs to see what’s percolating.
  • Create community to extend the fun.
    • Create an opportunity for people to relive the fun via community building programs, whether this is a Facebook group or a formal community. Done well, it is a powerful brand extender.

So there you have it – the new viral marketing engine based on the dual foundation of scientific research coupled with the pure joy of delivering fun. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Facebook people. They made “friend requests” fun and built an empire.

Reprinted from a MediaPost article on October 13, 2009

Judy Shapiro

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Brilliant marketing made simple – Trust the creative heart.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Einstein

I got a recommendation from someone to read the book by Martin Lindstrom, called “Buy·ology; Truth and lies about why we buy what we buy”. It describes the new neuromarketing sciences exploring how the brain’s physical reaction to our thoughts, sensory stimulation or even rituals can evoke  brand loyalty or apathy .  According to Lindstrom, this new understanding of the biology behind our unconscious mind’s ability to make “decisions” faster than our conscious mind, represents a, “…historic meeting between science and marketing. A union of apparent opposites.”

Now, I deeply respect Mr. Lindstrom’s work, but TBH, these types of branding books are a marketing person’s nemesis. They are often recommended to us by CEOs with the implicit expectation of; “Read this so you know which buttons to push. And tell me what you think in 4 days. Thanks.”

If a CEO were to ask me summarize the book, it would pretty much boil down to:

1) Our subconscious mind is much much faster than our conscious mind to take in stimuli and make “snap” decisions.

2) The line between alternate outcomes (dare I say alternate realities) in a situation is as thin as a single thought. If you believe that a ritual or a treatment is going to work – it more probably will. A potent principle in marketing when applied to shampoo or shoes or new technology.

3) If understood correctly, there are fundamental mechanisms in the brain that can be used by marketing to evoke immediate and lasting impact in current and future purchase decisions. Highly useful, no doubt.

4) Finally, the book nobly tries to empower us to make better decisions because we are “armed” with information. I must say, this Mr. Lindstrom’s weakest moment. Being armed with “conscious” rational information does not particularly seem efficacious if we are to believe the bulk of the book which explains in rich detail how driven we are by mechanisms that transcend rational thinking.

But as informative as the book was, I think it misses a big part of the branding story. Mr. Lindstrom, like many others who are drawn to the razzle dazzle of new mind mapping technology, often overlook the real nuts and bolts of what makes marketing really great.

Being great in brand building, IMHO, does not start with technology, but starts with the power of a creative heart. Unlike Mr. Lindstrom who believes that till now marketing and science were “apparent opposites”, I can tell you that much of what Mr. Lindstrom described in the book as powerful branding techniques were not new to me. Why? Because great creative minds in the agencies were using these techniques all along, we just didn’t have the technology or the fancy names to label what we knew anyway.

Some examples:

  • The book refers to “Sensory branding” (page 142) whereby attaching multiple senses to a branding program works a lot better than only  one sense. It also demonstrated that if two senses were inconsistent with each other, (e.g. an image of a lemon has the smell of vanilla), this combination was the least effective in creating a positive brand association. Twenty five years ago we simply called this principle “cognitive dissonance” and any good creative mind knew enough to avoid it without any SST brain scan.
  • Then there’s the very cool idea of mirror neurons, where if you just see an experience, it can feel as vivid as though you are doing it. This mechanism explains the deep satisfaction we get watching spectator sports or theater. Again, back in the 1980s, we knew about this phenomenon even though we did not know the name. We knew about the principle when we created Folger spots to linger lovingly on the brew process so that you could “almost smell” the fresh brewed coffee. We knew this was a powerful marketing technique even if we didn’t have the benefit of science to inform our work.
  • And also we nailed the importance of “Rituals” years ago. Duncan Hines focused on the ritual of making cookies with your kids and Folger became “the best part of waking up”. Again, these principles were masterfully utilized by creative people doing what do they naturally.

We must remind ourselves that neuromarketing or even taken further, the latest new digital marketing technology are tools for the artists and creators. And the best of these minds were using these “latest” ideas decades ago. There was no tension of “opposites” Mr. Lindstrom alludes to, but rather we used our talent to intuit the “science”. The best creative minds already knew what science is now telling us.

I believe Mr. Lindstrom would endorse for a balanced approach. In today’s techno-rich, techno-dense marketing world, it is so very easy to let technology blind you into thinking that there are silver bullet answers in creating powerful brands, (could this account for the stupendously low average tenure of a CMO of about 23 months?)

Instead, let’s turn the model around. Rather than promote the new science as the way to brand vitality, let’s demote technology to its proper place – as a means to an end. Let’s celebrate the creative mind as the primary force that animates it all. It’s about recognizing that for great marketing to live and breathe; even the most amazing new technique won’t work if there is no creative expression of it or if that message is inconsistently applied.

In the end, neuromarketing techniques may tell us that yellower yolks makes eggs more appealing, but ya still gotta get them to buy the eggs in the first place!

Why Google Reminds me of AT&T – Take 2. Can you spell DOJ?

Many of you will remember the July 7 article in AdAge on Why Google Voice Reminds Me of AT&T, where I broadly outlined how Google, like AT&T before it, can be undone by its ambition to dominate a key “infrastructure” sector, like the web. I contended in the article that, much like AT&T’s quest to dominate information systems, Google’s quest to dominate web services can divert precious resources from core businesses leaving it weaker not stronger.

The article generated, uh, considerable conversation; some polite, some not – but most were incredulous that I could even dare to make such a comparison.

Now, a mere 3 weeks later, Fred Vogelstein of Wired Magazine chivalrously comes to my defense (however unwittingly on his part) with his article; “Keyword: Monopoly …Why is Obama’s top antitrust cop gunning for Google.” where he explores the Department of Justice’s newly launched anti-trust investigation of Google (see where this is going?).

The article explains why the DOJ is going after Google now:

“Recently, Google’s size and ambitions have begun to obscure its halo. Advertisers watch nervously as the company’s share of the search-advertising market have jumped to 75% from 50% …Google’s largest problem isn’t what the company is today; its what is plans to become. Google aims to create a world in which web services replace desktop software.”

Does this not sound familiar?  The government gets nervous whenever one, very large, commercial enterprise wants to dominate any key infrastructure, whether it is software, information or the web. It was why AT&T and Microsoft were targeted in their day and it explains the DOJ timing now.

This investigation is yet another element demonstrating the parallel between the two companies. Sadly, the DOJ investigation changed everything for AT&T and it is likely to fundamentally change how Google does business, even if the case is not brought for years.  You see, once the government had a “virtual” seat at the AT&T table, the lawyers started running the show. It slowed us down, blunted much of our competitive bite and even restricted which technologies we considered. It simply took the life out of AT&T. Google seems prone to face similar constraints.

At this point, I hope most of you can at least understand why I saw and continue to see a pattern repeating itself. The real question becomes what’s in store for Google? What can Google do better/ differently than either Microsoft or AT&T when they were at this critical crossroads? Maybe nothing – I don’t know. Yet, that does not seem to sit well given Google’s well earned reputation for its Google genius. So for a moment, using history as our guide, let’s consider “out loud” some of their choices – together.

In the face of a potential anti-trust suit, Google can follow the path of Microsoft to fight to keep Google whole. It can use the legal argument of “anyone can go to any number of competitors with a better mousetrap” strategy. But that approach is not without peril if the lesson of Bill Gates’ now infamous court testimony with the resulting loss of Microsoft public good will is any indication. Poof – in a virtual moment, a decade of good will was gone. And the irony of following in Microsoft’s legal footsteps is rich given Google’s corporate culture of being as much anti-Microsoft (e.g. their “Don’t be evil” mantra) as it is “for” anything.

Google has another option; one that celebrates what Google what it does most brilliantly; innovate with new business models to create sustainable, profitable and ethically oriented corporate growth. It is an option that follows the contours of AT&T’s footsteps (read on before you all descend into an epileptic shouting fit), but avoids its failures.

Here’s what I mean.

AT&T ended breaking itself up into seven companies (the 7 Baby Bells of which three are still around) after a lengthy and costly battle which left AT&T very much weakened in the process. Maybe, just maybe, Google takes the first, brave step to focus on getting smaller and better – not necessarily around becoming bigger. Google can consider innovative ways to spin off smaller, more sustainable businesses via a consortium or community of like-minded companies. This community of companies model was first tried successfully by the Bell Labs New Venture Group in the late 1990’s. It operated with a structure that let connected businesses share basic, scalable overhead services like HR or marketing, but they remained relatively small to allow for innovation and ideas to flow freely. I was there that time and I can attest to the fact that with this model, we were able to more quickly assess and launch new technologies with successful outcomes.

While getting “smaller” may echo back to the AT&T “breakup”, that’s where the similarities can end. AT&T never really embraced the notion that smaller companies could be stronger and more profitable. Perhaps Google, by staying true to its very DNA to “be a force for good on the Internet” can free us from outmoded business models where bigger is automatically assumed to be better. Google can keep its cool by being a role model for a well balanced company that’s big enough to stay strong and innovative but not too big that it drowns in its own grandeur and bureaucracy.

It has not been done yet. In this respect Google reminds me of no one. And maybe this is what saves them.

Judy Shapiro

This is a reprint from Ad Age DigitalNext column.

The Alchemy of Digital Marketing As Inspired by Renaissance Masters

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.. Einstein

I was reading Thomas Cahill’s exquisitely written “Mysteries of the Middle Ages”, when it occurred to me that to be brilliant in marketing today is more like being a Renaissance man; trained in a broad range of skills that mesh the rational with intuition and the quantitative with imagination.  Not only that, though, I chose to plant this post in the soil of “alchemy” and the renaissance tradition precisely because the central theme of a Renaissance man that applies to us here is their ability to traverse between the rational and imagination effortlessly. They afforded equal vigor to the pursuit of scientific truths as they did to philosophical contemplation. This paradoxical and improbable juxtaposition created the fertile soil for brilliant minds like Francis Bacon and Thomas Aquinas to shape the foundation of our modern, techno-rich, hyper-fast digital world.

This is the context then within which I profile the “digital Renaissance marketing man” of today. We need to be broadly trained across a wide range of skills, yet also be trained at blending the rational with the “ephemeral”. We must learn to command quantitative statistical theory, exhibit sound creative judgment, understand commerce requirements, demonstrate keen graphic sensibilities, provide key insights on sociological trends, follow emerging Internet technologies, be sensitive to the platonic-sized demographics shifts and be masterful influencers.

In seeking to achieve such competency, we can be guided by the example of our Renaissance teachers through our commitment to a rigorous learning path inspired by the noble goal of learning simply for learning sake. In keeping with this tradition, I will advocate understanding digital marketing for the sheer joy of learning, without thought to commercial gain. With true inquiry as our motivation, truths are discovered and once insight is achieved, these newly acquired skills are yours to command to rival the accomplishments of any marketing scholar.

The philosopher’s stone of marketing

The philosopher’s stone was the legendary, magical substance supposedly capable of turning base metals into gold. I like the illusion for our purposes here, especially as it is consistent with our renaissance inspiration.

So suspend your modern sensibilities for a time so that we may begin our training into the secret alchemy of turning ordinary marketing tactics (base metals in our alchemy world) into marketing gold with the philosopher’s stone, embodied in digital marketing. Indeed, I contend that digital marketing’s transformative power similar to the philosopher’s stone can be activated if one learns the secret blend which is, in equal measure, rational analysis combined with creative intuition to use digital marketing to engage us.

That’s the rub though. Achieving this magical balance can be as elusive as catching the unicorn in the thick forest – and no wonder – it’s very difficult. The first problem we encounter is that digital marketing is so new that it cannot be analyzed with rational metrics. Then there’s the very practical concern around risking resources with new programs where it’s anyone’s guess as to how they will perform.  On the creative side, you have to rely on digital agencies or small technology companies to interpret the technology into a creative concept, often clouding your instincts given the sheer novelty of the medium.

But again disciplined training will help us rise above the challenges because we can learn new ways to evaluate these new media, and in ways that let us merge rational metrics with intuitive sensibilities. How we do it? By making a study of the Big 6 – the primary elements or ingredients of successful digital marketing.

6 Elements That Unleash the Transformative Power of Digital Marketing

I put forth what I think are the six main elements of digital marketing, as key to us today as the four  “roots” or elements of earth, air, fire and water were to Empedocles, a Greek philosopher and scientist  who lived in 5th cent BC Sicily.  With these 6 primary elements, one can begin spin magical digital marketing programs reasonably and reliably (notice that I continually merge the magic with the metric – a skill that comes with deliberate practice).

1) Seek knowledge – not just information.

A researcher once told me to be suspicious of any analyst who said numbers were objective. He helped me understand that data can provide the answer to any question – the trick is to know how to interpret the data.

I make this point to highlight how important it is in any quantitative exploratory that you be absolutely clear about what you want to know going in. You can drown in data without having learned how to do anything better. To avoid the “data analysis paralysis” trap, be disciplined and work on getting data that you can clearly see driving to a specific business result. It requires a lot of self discipline not to accumulate all types of data, but it will cost far more in a lack of focused answers than all the mounds of data will be worth. So seek out knowledge – not information.

2) Create solid information systems.

Building on the point above, creating solid business information systems is sadly often, overlooked and neglected, especially in technology companies (ironic – no?).  This is a great pity because solid information systems are a key touchstone of any successful digital marketing campaign, arguably any business.

Eventually, though, every company comes to the “OMG, we need a system to track campaigns” moment. Then “all of sudden” there is a flurry of urgency to buy or build systems that are dicey and prone to data glitches. This is a recipe for disaster for a couple of reasons.

First, building information systems takes discipline, patience and a creative approach to information architecture. If ever there was a time to spend money on outside help, this would be it. Get an information architect or business analyst to help you create a system with a management dashboard to get at high level, mission critical information quickly. Time is not your main consideration here – creating a solid system is.

Second, know that information systems take time to mature to work out the kinks. If the success of any program is wholly dependent on the data from these new systems … hold your breathe and be extra sure to manage everyone’s expectations. It is as likely to fail as it is to work in the first try at it.

If you find yourself in this “OMG” position, take firm hold of this project and drive it an actionable conclusion. Do not leave it solely to data architects or business analysts. Apply your judgment to create an information system that permits you to give data its due without ever being enslaved by it. If done correctly, this type of infrastructure will illuminate your business because you can trust the information to be solid and reliable without ever blinding you in the process.

3) Every program has a purpose and a place.

Yes, there are loads of new technologies out there and more to come and in greater frequency too, so it becomes difficult to evaluate all of them. To stay head of the curve, learn to apply the “rule of purpose” to each new idea. This rule requires that before any new technology is considered, it is linked to a specific marketing program or goal. By applying the “rule of purpose” you will evaluate only those programs that can drive business results today without wasting a lot of time on programs that are cool but not useful at the moment.

4) Use common sense in evaluating new approaches in digital marketing.

We’ve all been there. The sales person, properly groomed with the right amount of product to sculpt his perfected coiffed style, is giving you all the right promises; low CPA, low CPM, low CPR or high conversion, high efficiency or high impact.

But by the time he is done, it sounds almost too good to be true. If you find yourself getting that, “too good to be true” feeling, that’s your first red flag. Your common sense is trying to tell you something and you should listen with an appropriate amount of skepticism. Ask for business cases, be clear about how the program will be measured and include a contingency in the contract if something goes wrong.

Yet, the seduction of these programs demands we consider them seriously. We can heed the call only if the programs adhere to some basic requirements:

  • It can not divert more than 3% of budget in terms of time, cost and labor
  • It can not exceed your cost per acquisition metrics – and in most cases, these programs should beat current CPA metrics to make it worthwhile to divert efforts
  • The program does not rely one just one business metrics – but includes at least two success metrics
  • There is a clear “out” clause

Finally, after you have done your due diligence, be sure to apply the good old common sense filter again to the mix. If the program can withstand that scrutiny, then give it a whirl. Win or lose – you win because you learned something.

5) There’s no substitute for “hands on” experience.

Sorry to say this but nothing replaces personal experience. Renaissance training required lots of experimentation and we would be well advised to follow their lead. Unfortunately, sometimes agencies insulate us from this practical, real world experience much to our disadvantage. If they are a digital agency, then they advocate programs that are very technical, so no real personal learning is gained.  The larger agencies kinda avoid the whole mess by sticking to the mass media programs they can execute efficiently within their fees (labor intensive programs like social media is a nightmare for larger agencies given falling fees).

That pretty much leaves you on your own. So to understand this stuff, you gotta simply roll you sleeves up and play with it yourself. Use social media (be safe please) to tweet and twine so you can experience the interplay within the digital social world. Explore how Facebook is viral but within a limited sphere. Try new approaches within semantic and real time search engines.

It’s critical to stay curious and maintain a willingness to experiment and play. As we all know, play is a great teacher, so avail yourself of this powerful method of learning.

6) Celebrate the creative mind.

For those of us on the marketing front lines, we want silver bullet marketing answers. For instance, Martin Lindstrom’s book, Buy-ology, is highly seductive because it gives us a well organized list of mechanisms that can be used to evoke specific purchase responses. Yet, his well documented set of markers and triggers obscures the real art of creating successful marketing – the creative spark that draws us in and compels us forward in the purchase process. This creative magic is the powerful pixie dust we all desire in our marketing programs, but make no mistake – it is creative magic steeped in science. Really? You bet and here’s how it works.

First, learn to trust the accuracy of your inner voice to guide your judgment of a campaign. Love or hate – allow yourself to first appreciate your reaction and then try to understand why you reacted as you did.

Next, marry your creative instincts with the science of digital testing. Exploit the internet’s ability to let you test incessantly and iteratively. It provides a great learning laboratory for new ideas and combinations. This is how art can be realized through science and how we can bring the best of both the rational and the creative to work together.

Finally, utilize all the new learning in neuro-marketing courtesy of Lindstrom and others to add a fully integrated and optimized approach. Mix it all up and you get the magic potion that transforms mudane marketing into marketing that sustains businesses in these transformative times.

In conclusion, dear students, we are reminded that in the Renaissance, men understood how to merge the ethereal, sublime nature of art and magic with logic and rational thought. With that as our model, we can create the new “magic” of today’s brilliant digital marketing world.

Men of science are men of art living on the edge of mystery… borrowed from J. Robert Oppenheimer

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

PS – Given my training as a historian, I am deeply grateful to (and envious of ) Thomas Cahill for his clarity and precision with which he brings the lives of people from 800 years ago to life with relevance in today’s seemingly removed culture.

I hope the tone of this post is appreciated for its attempt to playfully discuss challenging problems in marketing.

Making the Magic of Digital Marketing Work

If you follow many of my posts here, you’ll know I advocate a balanced approach when thinking about how to introduce new marketing technologies within a mature, marketing planning model.

That’s easier said than done because there is fundamental disconnect in understanding how to use new technologies and in knowing what the business value of these technologies are. Often, there’s simply no way to know what they’ll do.

And that’s the hard core problem – these newer technologies are often time hogs with unknown results. If you do them, you are diverting precious resources from proven programs, but if you don’t, you could be missing great, new efficient programs that could really help.

*sigh* …

Agencies don’t help much either. If they are a digital agency, then they advocate lots of great ideas – but often the client has to execute (no small investment). The larger agencies kinda stick to the mass media programs they can execute these efficiently within their fees (labor intensive programs like social media is a nightmare for larger agencies given falling fees).

So for those of us on the firing lines in the marketing world, let’s learn to become magicians. We have to learn create a solid foundation upon which we can create new “magic” program that brilliant marketing is all about.

 What this means is that we do a thorough “kick the tires” discovery of the new technology. Then decide where it “fits” in our marketing engine. It is meant, for instance, to “improve” the efficiency of how we spend marketing dollars as in remarketing programs. Or, is the program useful for adding new qualified emails to your database.

 No matter what you think the main objective is for the new program, be sure it delivers at least one other value beyond the key performance metric you have in mind. You may, for instance, do a co-reg program but it should also has value to you for improving the quality of your customer database. In short, don’t put your all marketing eggs in one metric basket because there’s a 50/50 chance that at least one thing will go wrong.

 Becoming a magician can be great fun and a challenge. But it can be done because it is really a function of practice, patience, persistence and a keen eye on the end game. Stephen L. Carter succinctly puts it, “Words are magic. We conjure with them.”

Start conjuring … but be smart about it.

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

What’s alternating current?

I recently became fascinated with understanding how and why alternating current works better in electricity delivery than direct current. The improvement of efficiency of power delivered via alterating current is staggering. I never knew …  and it got me thinking about places where better power management (as AC was to DC) can make a huge difference in many industries and applications.

Then I began to ponder how to apply this efficiency model in a broken business model, the model called marketing services and the agencies that deliver these services to clients.

As an ex-agency person who has been on the client side for a dozen years, you’ll notice this blog is punctuated by postings that rant against agencies. “They don’t get it. They live in their cool worlds without having business experience.” And I am not alone in my thinking. Nearly every client friend I know complains bitterly about their agency. I even had one ex-client call me about a year ago (we have not worked together in over 20 years) to say she missed me. She missed me as her account person. “They just don’t get it” she said. She meant her agency.

But I love this industry. I worked as a VP at an ad agency for over a decade (NWAyer for those old timers who remember this agency with affection) and I see a failure of power delivery. I see a failure of imagination that would have allowed agencies to evolve in the increasingly complex world that clients live in.

I want to create a place where clients and agencies can cooperate to create something more productive, more efficient. Help me create a more efficient way to deliver power (aka business ideas and services) to clients.

What’s the alternating current paradigm shift of our business?

I don’t yet know what form the “alternating current” power model of the marketing industry will be.To that end, I will be creating a virtual group where we will be able to address real issues and provide practical solutions. Perhaps we create a new standards body to address technology integration issues. Perhaps there is a need for agencies to have a consistent approach to online identity management?

So to join me … just email me. I am starting with a small gathering soon. Watch this space.

Judy Shapiro

Whatever.

Pity the poor agency person pitching me. I have actually felt sorry for them at times, until they start their pitch and then I remember why agencies infuriate me.

You see, I spent a dozen years at an agency before jumping to the client side. I know all the agency speak phrases that are meant to pacify clients that ask too many questions. I’ve been reminded of those phrases lately because I have been hearing lots of these phrases in lots of agency pitches in the past four months.

I miss the days when agencies prepared real proposals (“pitches”) with real tactics and costs. I don’t think most of these creative directors even know what a storyboard is anymore. Pitches nowadays seem to be have the “same” vague, unclear promises such as one promise that came from a social media agency where they claimed that “our article will be seen by 60 million people with hundreds of back links back to your site”.

Oh my — such big promises. It would make any inexperienced marketer sign up. I would.  But when you pick apart what exactly will they do get this level of activity, well the vague plans become even vaguer.

“Ah” – you say – “but my big agency does campaign plans, strategies and analysis”. I bet they do. And I bet you have lots of great looking strategic documents with very little specific results to show for it. And worse, the cost actually makes you think twice every time you pick up the phone. Unfortunately, based on feedback from my friends at large companies like Siemens and Avaya, I know full well that big agencies simply move too slow, are too late in picking up new tech trends and cost too much. Pity – because Paltalk is exactly the type of client where agencies can do the most good.

So after hearing countless pitches, I have come to the conclusion that either agencies are too clever for me or they never encountered a client who is an “Industry veteran” (as Forbes described me when I started at Paltalk), who knows what she wants and knows that agencies should be able to deliver it. When I question proposals (gasp — how dare I), I keep getting a vague air of “Trust us … you can’t get it … you’re not cool … only we cool agency types can get it”. This attitude is what gets my blood boiling. To add insult to injury, they act like clients should be grateful that they (said agency) even agrees to service them at all!

So what’s to be done? I love this industry too much to leave well enough alone. I propose that agencies must do nothing less than change their business model and it involves evolving to mirror the business of marketing that clients have to confront today!

But how? Well, here are my top 10 things that agencies can start doing differently. They are specific and actionable. I propose them because in these tough economic times, agencies need to either evolve or many will die.

The Agency 10 Step Recovery Plan.

1) Never confuse desired outcome with what you will actually do.

Promising results is fine .. but be clear and specific how you intend to do it. Is it too much to ask for details so when you say, we will have a blog campaign, that you explain how much time will be spent on blog postings. Don’t just promise results and leave the details as a vague “whatever”.

2) Be honest.

Stuff happens in any campaign. But when things go wrong in digital campaigns it is too easy to blame the client’s infrastructure. At least come to the table about what happened but don’t just shrug and say “whatever” (yes an agency person actually said that to me recently when I asked them about a troubling stat.)

3) Know what you know and make sure your client understands that.

Too often in an effort to be efficient, clients ask agencies to stretch beyond their competence – to the frustration of all. Much of digital marketing is technologically challenging – so don’t set yourself up to fail. Passing on business short term will win credibility in the long term.

4) Don’t propose campaigns you know are highly unlikely to be technically feasible.

Ok – this is one of my pet peeves. I ask an agency pitch me on a program with a clear deadline. Yet they insist on presenting ideas that can not be executed within the time frame I have. When I ask why they presented this idea, the answer is often “so you can see our depth”. All I can think is “whatever”.

5) Think about the business end game.

Agencies always “talk the talk” but they actually rarely “walk the walk”. Remember, clients pay agencies to deliver tangible business results – not just to do cool interactive stuff that no one associates with your brand. I even had one large digital agency tell me that they thought creating a highly viral campaign with a strong branding component was not possible. The best viral stuff can not be branded, they said. Obviously, my reaction to this agency was thanks very much but “whatever”.  I kept looking.

6) Create a campaign that engages the entire interaction lifecyle.

For some reason, agencies seem to stop short in their campaigns as though their job is done once the person has clicked or registered or done whatever action the campaign required. I rarely see thinking beyond the direct call to action. I am suggesting that agencies need to consider the full lifecycle management of the prospect; even they don’t have responsibility for executing the full plan. It would be nice to see how the concept extends beyond the banner campaign.

7)  Be humble.

The arrogance of interactive agencies sometimes amuses me but mostly just irritates me, especially since there is often a startling lack of business results to show for their arrogance. Again, recent experience had one agency tell me that they wanted to advertise with a banner campaign an interactive viral promotion to encourage consumer usage of the viral interactive device. When I asked how could you “advertise” a viral campaign that relies on the unexpected nature of the “gag”, I was told I didn’t get it. Another “whatever” moment.

8)  Be a technology leader to your client.

Delivering a traditional ad campaign is well understood by agencies and hence they often do a good job on these campaigns. Its all falls apart when the clients need integrated digital marketing campaigns. Then it gets messy. Very messy. Agencies do not integrate new technologies into their business model easily. Why? Because technology proficiency comes with depth, experience and time. Agency fee structures never ever supported this level of depth.

Clients always had to push agencies to adopt new technologies and nothing has changed. But clients need more guidance than ever – like what to do when PPC effectiveness really does start to decline. When will agencies finally step up to the plate and start leading their clients through the increasingly complex technology marketing game.

9) Clean house.

Start improving the level of skill and experience you hire to represent your agency. Stop hiring “children” who can talk the cool talk but who never lived through a tough business cycle. In the “old days” only the best MBAs from the best business schools were in account management. Real clients deserve real business smarts, not kids.

10) Execute!

Good ideas are nice … but execution is paramount. It is amazing how often campaigns are not to be completely executed. There are hitches, glitches and hiccups. Often, it is the result of a lack of homework and project management on the part of the agency. I find this the most baffling, largely because there is no excuse for it.

I am tired of feeling”whatever” when dealing with some marketing agencies. I want to be inspired. I want an agency to move me. And I have not found the right partner.

But take heart. I usually get what I want. I just have to work a bit harder at it.

Judy Shapiro

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