Listening is brand-building currency.
I just returned from Los Angeles where I moderated a panel on blogs at OMMA West. I'm quite tempted to wax poetic about the big themes, such as online video, social networking, and, my all-time favorite, consumer-generated media (CGM), but I won't.
Not this time, at least. Quite frankly, a far bigger issue caught my marketing eye while in LA: the unprecedented mass mobilization on March 25 of over half a million people in the streets of downtown LA protesting proposed immigration legislation. How could anyone ignore this?
More to the point, how on earth did the organizers -- the event marketers -- manage to mobilize twice as many engaged participants to march in downtown LA as the estimated 250,000-strong 1963 March on Washington, the seminal event at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech?
Moreover, what key insights might we draw from the event about Hispanic marketing, new immigrant outreach, or even media planning in general?
First, a few caveats. Having worked on California immigration policy in the early 1990s, I certainly have a point of view on the proposed federal legislation that triggered the mass protest. But I'll reserve that debate for the politicians and pundits. Let me also make clear I don't believe for a second there's such a thing as a "monolithic" Hispanic/Latino community, a point reinforced to me while developing Hispanic marketing and media strategies for one of Procter & Gamble's (P&G's) top brands and earlier as press secretary and policy consultant to one of California's leading Latino elected officials. There's a wealth of diversity within this community. We all lose if we over-generalize.
The Great Los Angeles Marcha
So what contributed to the jaw-dropping numbers at a march originally pegged to draw 20,000 participants? Could it possibly have been the power of the Web?
Not in this case. Though the Web played an important role as communication and organizational tool (there are thousands of Web sites, blogs, MySpace pages, online photos, and other forms of CGM reflecting the experiences of rally participants), it was more peripheral than core to this mobilization effort.
Perhaps the single biggest factor was offline word of mouth, fueled by a combination of shrewd organizing and heavy doses of traditional media, especially radio. In particular, active promotion of the march by key influencers in the Spanish-language community, notably locutores, or Spanish-language disk jockeys, made a huge difference in producing the big numbers.
The Role of Radio
Radio, like TV, is one of those mass-media vehicles for which we just love to write obituaries.
The reality is radio is one of the dominant communication channels for California's immigrant community and, by logical extension, for the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group. Indeed, key Spanish-language radio stations rank among the most popular in the nation (English or Spanish).
While at P&G, I dedicated a sizable portion of my Hispanic marketing budget to Spanish radio, especially in the greater LA area. It consistently proved quite effective. One reason was it triggered high levels of "conversational passalong," another term for word of mouth. This was particularly important in new immigrant communities where trusted recommendations of friends and relatives play a disproportionate role in the awareness, trial, and repeat purchase of products.
Radio also helped us reach new immigrants at the key inflection point, where they were open to new (or first-time) decisions about brands. Similar entry-point marketing principles apply to first-time parents, college kids, and newly married consumers.
The Role of Key Influencer Locutores
As with TV-based telenovelas, Spanish-language radio boasts, beyond already impressive reach levels, high levels of listener engagement. Much of this is fueled by dominant radio personalities who most of us in "traditional" marketing haven't heard of but who rival Howard Stern in popularity.
Such key influencers figured prominently in the immigration rally mobilization effort. According to coverage in the "Los Angeles Times," rally supporters (churches, labor and community groups, immigration activists) all credited key Spanish-language radio personalities as critical catalysts in drawing the crowds.
One personality who played a key role is KHJ's Humberto Luna, host of the daily four-hour "La Ranchera" program. Luna is also well known in TV and film circles.
Another personality who figured prominently in the mobilization is KSCA-FM's Eddie Sotelo, also know as PiolNn (Tweety Bird), who, according to Arbitron, boast the number-one syndicated morning talk show among nearly 650 Spanish-language stations nationwide. PiolNn, an immigrant himself, has an unmistakable gift for connecting with an LA audience that is now 50 percent Latino, so much so that he tops even KIIS FM's Ryan Seacrest in popularity. In fact, he has the hottest morning show in the U.S., period.
Making It Relevant and Meaningful
So, yes, influencers matter. Personalities like Luna and PiolNn were not only effective at drawing the crowds but also in shaping the conversation and the key messages. They took calls from listeners, explaining the details of the proposed immigration legislation; outlined key march logistics; and constantly urged participants to march peacefully.
"I told them that it was important to wear a white shirt, which means peace, that we should be out there with our families with flags of the United States because we live in this country and we love this country," PiolNn explained in an interview with the "LA Weekly."
Whether or not we agree with the proposed immigration legislation, there's no question the Spanish media, including TV stations like KMEX and Univision, connected with their audience on this issue.
Indeed, the vast majority of marchers were genuine stakeholders in the immigration debate. Their jobs, futures, and self-identity were on the line. March organizers effectively reinforced that point, appealed to "what's in it" for each participant. They also provided am important outlet for the participants' voices to be heard.
Of course, the notion of being heard transcends the immigration debate. It's actually the glue (and the fuel) of social networking, CGM, and Web 2.0. Whether through blog strategy, CRM (define) tactics, or invitations to consumers to help create advertising, we're all looking for better ways to bond, connect, and become conversationally relevant with consumers to make our messaging and brand value propositions more conversationally relevant.
Listening, we're starting to recognize, is brand-building currency. We all know if we can just get our finger on the pulse, we'll reap great rewards and dividends -- or at least keep our detractors in front of us.
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Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."
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