Ben McConnell speculates on the future of all the buzz marketing agencies and reckons the losers will be those who try to mechanize evangelism or develop incentive programs to build word of mouth. The winners will help companies listen better and build loyalty through customer communities.
Here’s my rambling way of saying I agree with him.
For the mechanisers I always remember Woody Allen’s satirical ambition to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. And then see if I can get them mass-produced in plastic.” Of course everyone wants to use the power of technology to leverage yadda yadda… but when we try to aggregate the myriad voices out there into just a set of metrics we risk to deluding ourselves about what’s happening and risk cutting ourselves off from the messy reality.
Brand pulse charts are fine as far as they go… but without the verbatim comments they are arid and dull. They may have some intellectual curiosity but they don’t have the impact that the real bits of customer conversations do. And I think most of us have a pretty good ear for sensing the difference between a real conversation and a fake one…
And if that fails we have an ever-smarter network for spreading the word when conversations are faked. Just ask Cillit Bang. Well actually, just ask Tom Coates about them (he’s currently the fifth item when you google that brand.)
As for incentives: in the workshops I do with James, there’s sometimes a lightbulb moment for clients when they realise that engaging customers needn’t cost money. In fact, if you do it right you tap into people’s natural desire to belong, to participate, to learn. A quick read of Punished by Rewards will also demonstrate how financial incentives often diminish engagement.
James made the point the other day that part of the new paradigm for marketing is to really allow the possibility that your customers are intelligent. It’s worth listening to them because they actually know more about their needs* than you do. You know your product… they know about their lives. If you want to spend a fortune trying to be more clever than your customers, well good luck. On the whole it might be cheaper and easier to assume they have some idea about what they need and want. And then ask yourself if you’d like to hear their feedback straight, or muddled up with the hired voices of a few carnival barkers your agency has recruited?
(Oh, while I’m on this point, would you like to hear it for free online in unmediated conversations, or would you prefer to pay for it to filtered via an “expert” focus group moderator.)
I do think there is a role for agencies in all this. I don’t think they are inherently evil. Conversations can be facilitated even though they can’t be controlled. Put it this way: if I go to a party it’s nice if someone has arranged some food and a band to play. I don’t care whether the party host did it themselves or hired someone to do it for them. But if they hire courtesans to get me to buy champagne, I’m outta there.
*BTW this knowledge may not be explicit so it won’t come out in focus groups.