In my writing over the years, you’ve all heard me rant about the inadequacies and inefficiencies of traditional advertising and rave about the virtues of “digital.” But even more important than the channel and tactics themselves are the opportunities made possible by digital and best practices made requisite by it. Let me explain by way of examples.
You can launch without a large advertising budget.
There have been dozens of examples over the years, but some of the most recent and most wildly successful include Foursquare and Groupon, both of which surged into the millions of unique visitors a month in well under a year. These are both fresh iterations on what was previously attempted – Dodgeball (location-based social networking) and Mercata (collective buying and couponing), respectively. New products or services with as little as a single innovation can leapfrog into public consciousness in record time due to social amplification – friends sharing with friends using always-on, always-connected tools.
The landscape has advanced and tools available to users (e.g., mobile devices with GPS) have come a long way. But more importantly, the habits and expectations of users have evolved to include sharing and instant-gratification. In the past, product launches required the support of large quantities of ad dollars to achieve awareness and then hopefully sales (e.g., Pepsi spent upwards of $60 million on the failed Mr. Green, Coke spent countless millions on the failed New Coke, etc.). Today, the key is in identifying and incorporating that single, critical innovation that everyone wants and their friends will also want, and ensure social amplification methods and tools are built in so users can easily help it spread – with little to no ad budget involved.
You should think of the ecosystem around your product, not just the product itself.
Palm’s done it before. Apple is currently doing it with great success. It’s leveraging a huge community of developers to create tens of thousands of apps across every imaginable category; all at zero expense to Apple, but all of which adds tremendous value to users of iPhones or iPads. Similarly, Amazon.com has created an ecosystem for e-commerce; it’s not just an e-commerce site for books any more, because it enables sellers to easily sell; buyers to buy from Amazon or any other third parties; developers to create Facebook apps and other uses for its data via APIs (application programming interfaces), etc. The ecosystem around motor oil could include oil change retailers and auto-enthusiast clubs. The ecosystem around digital cameras could include photo printers, online photo services (make a book or a mug), and photo-sharing sites. The ecosystem around salad dressing could simply be other related products that round out an easy-to-prepare meal – for example, Kraft has very effectively used :60 TV spots on Food Network to feature multiple products in a how-to format: salad dressing, mac and cheese, and Jell-O pudding go into an easy three-course dinner.
The modern consumer has dozens of potential touchpoints – points of intersection with your product. Advertisers need to have relationships in place and presences already established in “venues” because consumers will look for them (i.e., “pull”) and “pushing” a message out via one-way ads (TV, print, radio, etc.) is becoming a smaller and more insignificant piece of the puzzle. The key is that you don’t necessarily have to build or pay for everything in the ecosystem; in fact, you can leverage complementary products and services of others to achieve awareness and boost the usefulness or value of your product or service.
You can pilot an imperfect product and let your customers perfect it for you.
In the past, products were created in research and development departments and then agonizingly market-tested by way of focus groups and surveys, in hopes of identifying optimal feature sets, target customers, price points, marketing messages, etc. Despite these excruciating efforts, it’s a well-known fact that greater than 99 percent of new products fail within the first year – e.g., consumer products, grocery store items, etc.
In the digital realm, new tools and processes make it possible to launch imperfect or incomplete products deliberately and then leverage actual customer feedback to further refine and perfect the product or service. Obviously, I don’t mean feedback by way of surveys or online focus groups. I mean real data such as whether they actually purchased it or used it, whether they recommended it to a friend (or not), and what they actually said about it in forums or online reviews. The feedback is pretty much immediate and most definitely real – e.g., “I love the low-light shooting ability of this camera, but the new touch-screen interface is so hard to use compared to the buttons on the older model.” Obviously, it takes longer and is harder to innovate and change physical products (compared with Web applications or services), but the key here is speed – not only the speed of listening to feedback but also the speed in incorporating the best ideas, faster than competitors.
You should let your best customers do your marketing for you.
Marketing and advertising used to be done by brand folks with budgets. But if you consider all the trends that have been at work for years – such as continuous decline in the effectiveness of TV, the shift of trust from advertisers to “consumers like me,” etc. – your customers are likely to be influenced by someone other than you. Further, if you put yourself in the shoes of a customer, in the context of a 15-second elevator pitch, consider what single feature she would cite when telling a friend about your product. And what words would she actually use? Of course, your product has dozens upon dozens of features; but what one attribute would your customer talk about? Or would she talk negatively about you and your product?
In the current digital age, customers will talk – good or bad. And what they say could impact lots of future customers. They may choose to emphasize only one of many attributes; they may choose different attributes for different occasions – for example, I told one friend about the quality of the produce from FreshDirect, another about the free delivery, and a third about the bulk products section. The key is to observe what attributes are most often shared and what words the actual customers use in describing your product or service. These will give you important clues about what matters and how to tailor marketing messages.
Digital channels and tactics have been useful additions to the marketing mix. But the changes in consumers’ habits and expectations and the shifts in the landscape caused by digital are creating new opportunities for launching new products, speeding innovation, and even optimizing marketing.