This article was adapted from Chapter 3 of Courtney M. Barnes' recently released book, "Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications," published by McGraw-Hill in July 2009. For more information, click here.
In October 2006, when the broader business implications of Web 2.0 were still in their nascent stages, a man by the name of George Wright faced a challenge. As the newly hired VP of sales and marketing for Blendtec, a Utah-based blender manufacturer and seller, Wright needed to find a way to raise the tiny brand's visibility on a shoestring budget. But besides budgetary limitations, he faced additional challenges: a target audience that was difficult to narrow down, the absence of a specific messaging hook, and a product portfolio lacking the sex appeal that made for creative ad campaigns.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Blendtec is widely known as the little blender company that could, having reached a level of stardom that never would have been possible in an era of traditional marketing. So, what catapulted the brand to superstar status? A blender, a rake, a hand-held video camera, and a little Website called YouTube. Click here for the video interview.
Poison that Needs No Antidote: Viral Marketing Brings Corporate Messages to the Masses
Within a few weeks of joining Blendtec, Wright stumbled upon the room in which CEO Tom Dickson tested blender upgrades by seeing if they could turn two-by-two boards into saw dust. Wright saw an untapped opportunity. Collaborating with the company's Web master and video producer, Wright put together a marketing strategy that hinged on the potential for Dickson's extreme blending to go viral online.
Dickson agreed to a $50 budget, which Wright used to purchase a white lab coat, a rotisserie chicken, a six-pack of Coke, a bag of marbles, and a URL called WillItBlend.com. Then, armed with a video recorder and a Blendtec Total Blender, the team turned on the camera and told Dickson to start blending. The result: five video clips of Dickson engaging in extreme blending, which the team uploaded to WillItBlend.com. The campaign took off almost instantly, with the video clips popping up on YouTube, blogs, and even traditional news outlets. Dickson became an overnight celebrity, making appearances on the likes of NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the History Channel's Modern Marvels series; Blendtec's sales skyrocketed accordingly.
This anecdote encapsulates a new reality for marketers, defined by the emergence and subsequent proliferation of digital communications platforms such as blogs, social networks, and Twitter. No longer able to rely on traditional top-down, one-way marketing models, these professionals have had to completely revise their approaches to engaging consumers. Likewise, consumers themselves have been empowered by social media platforms to "talk back" and impact brands—and bottom lines—accordingly.
Initiatives such as Blendtec's fall under the umbrella of "viral marketing," one iteration of modern marketing that leverages social media to engage these empowered consumers. The love child of digital platforms and integrated marketing communications (IMC), viral marketing uses preexisting online networks to disseminate messaging and increase brand awareness. As a communications technique, it has all the key ingredients: stakeholder engagement, mechanisms for building relationships, and platforms that enable audiences to "talk back." And, while it and all its variations—buzz, word of mouth, guerrilla, ambush—are tagged with the "marketing" moniker, these disciplines universally fit the IMC bill.
If You Love It, Set It Free: Releasing Social Media Marketing Campaigns into the Virtual Abyss
Despite early resistance to social media adoption, most marketers—the successful ones, anyway—have accepted digital platforms' importance. But that's not to say they fully understand how to effectively leverage social media channels; engage consumers; and, in turn, influence their decision to support the brand.
Indeed, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for successful social media marketing endeavors, but there are several best practices that apply across the board:
• Set marketing objectives in the context of the overall communications goals: Marketing and PR/communications have a history of tense relations, but social media's emergence as a core business strategy has forced a truce—not to mention a necessary ongoing collaboration.
Specifically, when setting the goals of a marketing campaign, these executives must communicate with their PR counterparts to make sure they are aligned. After all, brand and reputational management are now the purview of both corporate communications and marketing, so it behooves both departments to work in tandem from beginning to end.
• Identify the brand's most influential online audiences: While the very nature of viral marketing makes it difficult to predict what will take off and what will fizzle out, one thing is certain: The preliminary step in any communications initiative, viral or otherwise, requires having a thorough understanding of the target audience, as well as their consumption habits.
The crux of this understanding comes in the form of research. Interchangeably referred to as customer intelligence and customer relationship management, markets acquire this research by gathering and analyzing data about a specific audience—a process made infinitely easier by the array of analytics built into social media channels.
Specifically, tools such as Technorati, Google Blog Search, and Twitter Search allow marketers to assess the activity and authority of different audience segments online. Finding out where the brand's most influential audiences converge in social media is critical to effectively targeting them with subsequent messages.
For example, when HBO execs created an integrated marketing campaign around the launch of its True Blood series, they spent massive amounts of time and energy finding the best online influencers to then turn into evangelists. Because the show's premise centers on vampires who are integrated into normal society, they had several niche audiences—both alternative and mainstream—to consider.
"In terms of finding [our target audience], it was a matter of researching where the conversations were taking place and then categorizing the types of conversations—on goth sites, for example," says Gregg Hale, partner at Campfire, the interactive creative agency that was tapped by HBO to help develop the branded media campaign surrounding the launch of True Blood. "We followed the path to where these people are and then built a map. In True Blood's case, we wanted to start with something that was different enough to cut through the clutter and make people take notice."
• Shape marketing messages to resonate with online audiences: Once marketers have established a specific target audience and, through market research, done due diligence in understanding their consumption habits, it's time to shape the messages that will connect the brand with these targeted stakeholders.
Not only must these messages be consistent, they must be authentic to the brand's identity and that of the target audience. In HBO's case, this meant executing several marketing efforts to engage each audience: dead language mailers for serious vampire enthusiasts, supplemented by more accessible components including microsites that hosted vampire-related conversations and storylines, a vampire dating Website, a blog "maintained" by in-story characters, video teasers with behind-the-scenes information, and an online "True Blood" serial comic book.
"To the extent possible, we wanted to emulate the experience of a world in which vampires had come out of the coffin, so to speak," Hale says. "We needed a rabbit hole into this world, digitally; we wanted to have multiple sites where people were getting multiple sides of a complex story." • Disseminate marketing messages via the appropriate online channels: The final tactical piece of online integrated campaign development is choosing the proper mix of distribution channels because social media marketing inherently implies the use of multiple platforms that work together to deliver unified messaging to a target audience. Without this synergy, organizations will do more harm than good to their brand identities and corporate reputations.
Blendtec's use of video-sharing platforms was most strategic given the visual nature of the central marketing theme: That Blendtec blenders can blend anything and everything. For HBO's True Blood campaign, different channels needed to be chosen for distinct audience segments, but all of them needed to facilitate an interactive experience. The chosen mix of platforms—microsites, community forums—enabled audience participation and fed the fire of conversation by unveiling components of the campaign incrementally.
"It's critical to consider the depth of the experience you're providing. Offering consumers the ability to truly immerse themselves in a rich and deep experience across multiple digital platforms can transcend marketing and become true entertainment—storytelling through marketing content," says Zach Enterlin, vice president of advertising and promotion for HBO. "At the same time, it's important to realize the detailed, immersive experience isn't for all consumers, and the surface-level mass vehicles are just as critical in reaching a broad audience."
Ultimately, the variety of successful social media marketing efforts will only continue to multiply alongside the emergence of each new platform. For marketers, the only guarantee is that traditional models are no longer viable in a communications environment that demands dynamic content and two-way conversations.
Courtney M. Barnes is the coauthor of "Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications," published by McGraw-Hill in July 2009. For more information, click here.