E-Marketing Effectiveness: Think Lowest Common Denominator

Borrowed from mathematics, the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD) is a unifying element that reduces large and complex sets of fractions to smaller, simpler sets. This applies to e-marketing, especially when dealing with user-generated content and its impact on marketing and advertising. As marketers, we no longer live in a world of mass wholes. We live in a world of fractions.

When building a Web audience, most planners adopt a mass view. In fact, community building is better done based on a niche view. Enter, LCD. Looking for the lowest common denominator means seeking patterns, beginning with individuals or very small groups that can be combined to create larger super-groups. Campaigns can then be developed in support of the interests and passions that extend across these groupings, restoring some of the reach and efficiency associated with a “mass” approach while retaining a distinct and genuine individual element.

Look at a typical Web traffic report that details the “exits” from an underlying page. The report lists immediate exits, or people who looked at the page and then left for another site, as well as the top exits to a page within the site. For example, the report tells you that 12 percent of the visitors left the site after viewing your home page, 17 percent moved from the home page to the “special holiday offers” page, and so on.

As a consultant, you can often see the macro issues in addition to the case-specific micro issues. One trend that consistently emerges is that a whole lot of people do very specific – and unique — things online. Looking back at traffic reports, the Long Tail, or the power of niches, becomes apparent. Quite often, more people exit via all other paths than by the total of the top exit paths, let alone any single specific exit path. This actually matters.

When dealing with social networks, most people accept (rightly or wrongly) that MySpace has the current lock on impression potential. At the same time, suddenly at the head of the “What did you estimate that network was worth?” value race is Facebook. How’d that happen? For starters, MySpace still follows a top-down, centralized approach (its most recent announcement notwithstanding) built around mass, interruptive advertising. Create a place where millions hang out, and then serve ads as often as possible with one eye distinctly focused on managing the economic value created by those ads for the publisher. The same approach is being readied for the online “The Wall Street Journal,” (which if done will save me $29 each year.) The basic equation of “free” equals “more eyeballs” equals “more impressions” equals “big bucks” is again at work.

By comparison, Facebook takes a bottom-up approach: create applications that do something specific for a self-selecting audience subset, and then let that audience grow the use of (or reject) the application based on its merits and value. Suddenly, this is being viewed as the winning approach. Hallelujah.

What does this mean for you? Combine traffic analysis and Facebook’s bottom-up approach: Create a campaign that one person would find useful. That person can and will extend the campaign to friends based on its perceived value to those friends. Self-interest (aka, the preservation of social capital) ensures that friends won’t spam friends. Next, build another campaign that is useful to someone else and look for the same extension effect. Of course, if you try to generalize this you’ll quickly run up a rather large tab, knocking out one-off after one-off.

Look at these prototype campaigns. Examine what they have in common and then figure how to use that to build a more efficient campaign. The same applies to traffic data. Aside from the top exits (typically via “special offers” or high utility-value paths ways like “search”) determine the common motives of the visitors going to each of the links that aren’t the top five or 10. Find that theme, and you’ll see an efficient emotional or task-driven linkage to manageable groups within your audience. You will have uncovered the LCD, the thing that more broadly connects your offer with an actual need rather than simply connecting your desire to sell to your customer’s wallet. The former is all-powerful when it comes to serving savvy consumers. The latter is background noise.

Ironic though it may seem, Adbusters, started in 1989 by Kalle Lasn, has become a brand. People identify and find personal basis with it, just as they do with Apple. This illustrates a central reality for contemporary e-marketers seeking to tap social media in response to the growing frustration with ad delivery: it’s not the fascination with brand at the root of consumer push-back, but rather our hyper-excited you-need-to-buy-this-now approach. Consumer-driven ad avoidance is propelled in large part not by advertising, but by mass advertising. Advertising, at its simplest, is one way people learn about things that may be useful. We need to know about this stuff. By comparison, advertising to the masses suggests that someone needs a service or product because one’s just like everyone else — and they all have one. We detest being treated like that.

It may be true that in China being one in a million means there are 1,000 people who may share the same interests. But seriously, are these people really the same? Are we all just programmable wallets with legs? Most creative types wear something black most days of the week. But are they really all alike? Of course not.

The rise of social media and word-of-mouth is testament to the fundamentally unique characteristics of each of us. Consumer-driven ad avoidance approaches the problem of consumption frenzy from a reactive point: Shut off the ads. Social media, including the notion of building campaigns one person at a time, approaches the same problem proactively: “If not for mass communication, how do I learn about the things that might actually help me? I know, I’ll ask my friends. One of them has the answer, or at least a part of it.”

Add it all up and what do you have? Start with the individual. Begin way out on the long tail. Look for the LCDs and combine similar behaviors, motives, and sensibilities to create groups that will accept your message and re-craft it as their own. Instead of pushing a mass message, offer an individual message. Then empower people to spread it for you.

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