Clique-Through: Deep Reach With Small Audiences

The advertising industry’s focus on viral marketing belies our obsession with reach, sometimes at the expense of effectiveness.

Consider Pete Blackshaw’s recent comments on the “Snakes on a Plane” phenomenon. He covered a number of opinions as to why this movie, which had an enormous amount of online buzz, failed to achieve stellar opening-weekend results. “What happened?” we media and marketing watchers wanted to know. Many of the opinions Pete captured seemed to latch on to one key idea: Buzz doesn’t always translate into results.

People talk about tons of things. Online, the channels and occasions of communications are multiplied exponentially. The demand for chatter-fodder goes up, and naturally so does the supply.

But we’re marketers, right? We’re in the business of getting products into the hands of consumers. Why have we instead become obsessed with being the winner of the most-talked-about-thing-of-the-week award? It’s pure insanity: we firmly believe reach (and its close cousin, frequency) are the necessary ingredients for a successful campaign. We believe this even in the face of very explicit evidence to the contrary.

Break Your Market Into Cliques

First, we must admit we’re hamstrung by the notion of reach. I’m not condemning the concept, of course. Reach is a necessary factor in advertising planning. But we must move past a place where we are intensely focused on it. To do that, we must shift the notion of viral into a new context, so we think of it differently. We mustn’t think about a campaign spreading across the entire world. Instead, we should think about a campaign spreading deeply into a small, focused group of highly qualified consumers.

I spoke about this approach in the ClickZ track at the recent Search Engine Strategies (SES) conference and called the concept “clique-through.” This approach to viral marketing doesn’t try to capture the interest of the entire Internet. That would be detrimental to success. Instead, the advertiser identifies as many small groups (cliques) as possible to which her message would be relevant. The more groups, the better, but only if they are well defined and reasonably distinct. The example given at the SES show was tax attorneys and merger-and-acquisitions (M&A) attorneys. The groups share many things in common, but each would have its own interests and discussion groups.

If you identify a large number of cliques, you may then be able to categorize them in ways that make your market look like a series of very valuable pockets. You could create a metacategory called “attorneys,” of which tax and M&A attorneys would be subsets. There may even be a sub-subset: tax attorneys that focus on nonprofits, for example.

This is a new approach to segmentation. Traditional segmentation assumes each group is discrete and names them as such. You have “soccer moms” and “Nascar dads,” “active achievers” and “lazy loafers.” Clique-through is a different approach. At the end of this segmentation exercise, you have a consumer taxonomy, with traits that are shared among several groups within a particular category.

The next step is to examine each group’s communication habits. Since you have a taxonomy, you will most likely find some leverage. Perhaps all attorneys visit a particular community site, then break off into different discussion areas. By using your taxonomy as a guide, you can begin to find not only the places where discussions happen but also the people who are the most prominent in those discussions. These are the influencers, the most important people for you to connect to.

The communications strategy, then, is to begin seeding your messages into these cliques, often by connecting directly with those influential members of the community. This may be as straightforward as a media buy, but more often there will be some kind of a relationship program put in place. The rise of blog networks certainly helps in this effort.

By the Numbers

The thing about a traditional viral campaign is your composition (the percentage of the audience who are qualified consumers) sinks. That is, the larger the audience in an untargeted campaign, the more dilute the audience becomes, so your qualified prospects are lost at sea with pretty much everyone else.

You can argue that it really doesn’t matter, since the qualified group gets the message. But people get burned out in situations like that, and branding campaigns for high-value products in particular suffer from composition dilution.

The clique-through approach isn’t designed to spread your message like wildfire. It’s more of a rebellion against that way of thinking. It’s designed to spread your message deeply within valuable communities, an approach that may prove far better at achieving real results in the long run.

As always, the conversation continues at

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