How ordinary marketers can generate extraordinary ideas
by Josh Bernoff
This is my column this month from the American Marketing Association's Marketing News. Some of this and some other insights were also published in a recent Forrester document called Lessons from the Groundswell. (full content accessible to clients only).
I just completed a tour of North America, giving speeches and running workshops for companies that want to build strategies for social technologies like blogs, communities, social networks, and wikis.
I visited a mobile phone maker, a beer company, two investment firms, a shipping company, a bank, a software company, a TV network, a cable operator, a travel services company, a credit card company, and a company that makes medical implants. All of these were large companies. Every single one was full of people who had no experience with social technologies. And the same thing happened at every single one.
People became inspired and began to plan innovative social applications.
The conventional wisdom says that thinking about these social platforms is counterintuitive. We’ve all been told that giving up control is hard – that entering an environment in which the customers have the power is challenging. This is all true. Corporations that embark on this path have a lot of learning to do.
But what I saw in the last few months is that given the right frameworks, nearly anyone can begin to think this way. Most marketers know their customers pretty well: what they want, how they think, what their problems are. What I’ve seen is that if you give them the tools to think differently about how they can connect with those customers, the results can be amazing. I expected the TV network and the software company to be creative in their embrace of customers in the social world. What I didn’t expect was the powerful innovation that came from people that sell prosaic products like credit cards and medical devices.
It was as if I had given them permission to break out of the marketing prisons in which they had been locked up forever. Stepping into the sunlight, they were dazzled momentarily. Once they got over the shock, they realized they could understand and relate to their customers in a new way, and they began to generate ideas.
From watching these people, I’ve learned a few things. Let me share them with you.
First, we’ve been telling you to start by thinking about people (the social capabilities of your customers) and objectives (a firm idea of what you want to get done). These are the P and O in the POST process (people, objectives, strategy, technology) that is at the heart of Groundswell. I’ve learned more about why this works. It’s because when you think about a blog or a community, you bring preconceptions with you about how they work. When you start by empathizing with your customers, your thinking goes down a whole lot of different paths, many of which can connect effectively with those customers. By expanding your ideas of what is conceivable, you may hit on a very different strategy than you would by focusing on whatever tool or technology that’s hot right now.
Second, I’ve seen how naysayers can turn into allies. At the investment company, the legal department worked with the people running their community to come up with a streamlined process that didn’t require legal to check every post. At the medical company, everyone told me the regulatory affairs guy would say no to anything interesting. In fact, he was one of the most engaged members of the workshop, and reached out to make sure others knew he could collaborate with them on how to get ideas to pass regulatory muster. Conclusion: if you involve the people who typically say “no” at the start of the process, you’re more likely to be able to get started successfully.
Third, it’s not about you. One of the most powerful lessons people took away came from my story about Procter & Gamble’s feminine care products group, which created a highly effective community for adolescent girls. This community, beinggirl.com, works because it is about girls and their challenges, not about tampons. This message hit home everywhere I went. Marketers designed applications about pinching pennies, trading stocks, or getting the most out of your HDTV set – rather than about their own products. I expect customers to embrace these applications because they solve problems, instead of just selling.
And fourth, and most importantly, I saw the power of management opening marketers’ eyes. At one of the investment companies, the CMO kicked off the day by telling everyone they had to learn to embrace this new way of thinking – and sure enough they did. The head of branding at the cable company gave a similar message, and emphasized the importance of the day by bringing together folks, not just from all of his divisions, but from all of his advertising agencies – and they all worked together. At the credit card company, the day started with the COO of their ad agency entreating these marketers to overcome their fear. This group started out timid and quiet, but by the end of the day they had overcome their fear and amazed me with their insights.
Social technology thinking – or as we call it, groundswell thinking, isn’t just for the 25-year old whizzes in your marketing group. It’s for everybody. You just need to open up your mind to it. Are you ready?
More importantly, what are you doing to get ready?