plugging the strategic void

Over the past week, I’ve participated in three marketing and social media conferences, as a speaker at two and moderating a panel at the other one.

Digital and social media has, of course, evolved significantly since I first started out in the industry over 13 years ago. The creativity expressed in brand activations has, over that time, lept forward significantly, just as the technologies that support them have evolved into sophisticated platforms for managing content, building participatory frameworks, and tracking behaviours.

But there’s still, I feel, too often a gaping void where strategy and measurement of progress towards meeting strategic objectives should be.

I’m not the only person to observe this. Back in January, Robert Philips, former EMEA CEO of Edelman and an astute observer of the PR and Marketing industries, wrote:

“I suffered some sobering moments recently, while judging a clutch of industry awards. There was so much ’stuff’ (aka output) but so few genuine ideas. Worse still, the essence of PR had become badly polluted: here was a blancmange of ad campaign amplifications; phony product launches; ’news’ stories around, well, news; and a clutch of celebrity embarrassments. There was a sad but noticeable lack of original thinking – no genesis the likes of a Marks & Spencer Plan A, an Eco-Imagination, a Nike+ or a Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, conceived by PR folk – and a weird disconnect persisted between the commercial need (awareness, loyalty, sales etc) and the idea itself. We seemed to have grown ourselves into a vacuum. The PR industry – our profession – needs to think about where have all the big ideas gone and what is now closing our minds to their generation? We must re-connect the big idea with commercial need.

Philips describes, in that same post, from which I’ve selectively quoted from below, what he refers to as the Four Heels of Achilles:

1. Outcomes over output: “PR needs a unified and coherent measurement system. It must be Outcomes based. This should be urgently adopted as a global standard and endorsed by all the professional bodies. The measurement must be scientific, provable and defensible. It must be delivered to scale and speak to convergence. Advertising Value Equivalence and/ or Opportunities To See should be banished forever…”

2. The truth of data: “…(readily accessible) data must now become the foundation stone for fresh insight and for the evolution of analysis for the always-on conversation; it must speak to communities and to networks and should be used in real-time in order to drive relevance and resonance…”

3. The imperative of organisational design: “…No PR campaign will therefore be complete without strong and sensible guidance from experts in organizational design – as businesses turn themselves inside out and as both states and industries begin to look at themselves, if not from the bottom-up, then certainly through a more relevant and democratic lens…”

4. The triumph of ideas: “…We have mistakenly grown to see platforms not as ownable sources of creative energy and monetisable idea flow, but either as transient technology channels or as confluence points for otherwise random tactics. Innovation has become more about a rush to market with piecemeal thinking, than about building a sustainable programme for competitive brand or corporate advantage….”

Perhaps 4-5 years ago, I expected to see brands shift from rolling out tactical “activations” towards using digital and social media to make progress towards a set of defined strategic objectives – not social media objectives, but the grown up stuff coming out of the board room – and measuring progress towards meeting those. But far too often, I’m still seeing social media “strategies” that go something like “launch lots of channels and, over a period of time, increase the number of fans and followers”.

That’s not a strategy.

In the presentation I gave at two conferences last week, I used an analogy to try to illustrate the point. “Eating something” is a tactic. Following this tactic means that, on the way home from a boozy evening in the pub, you stop in your local takeaway and get something greasy to soak up a bit of the alchohol and alleviate your immediate hunger. It’s seems like a great idea at the time, but the next day you start to wonder if it was a great idea afterall. If you follow this tactical approach – eating something – as if it’s a strategy, so pop into that same take away with regularity, the effects will, over time, probably be negative to your health and wellbeing.

“Living a long and healthy life” is a strategic objective. To meet it, you need a strategy that includes things like eating a well balanced and healthy diet, getting regular exercise, etc. Your success, attributable mostly, but not entirely, on following your strategy, is measurable in terms of your sense of physical well being, the comments of others about how well you look (your “brand reputation”?), and the length that you live.

Many brands are, when it comes to social media, still merely counting their collection of a gazillion fans and followers, notching up new retweets and likes, and tracking sentiment. Creating a whole new lingo for measurement and reporting does no one any favours – and is likely to, eventually, erode the confidence that the boardroom has in the ability of these activities to drive progress towards tangible and organisationally meaningful objectives.

It’s about time for those of us working in the digital and social media industries to start being more strategic, focus on real outcomes, and develop measurement and reporting mechanisms that have meaning in the board room. Awareness and reputation are, of course, important outcomes, but we also need to focus on demonstratibly impacting sales, driving applications from high value recruitment targets, reducing the number of customer care calls fielded, increasing customer satisfaction, and gaining insights that lead to new product and service offerings. That’s all possible, but only if we start with a strategy rather than a tactic.


[The views expressed in this post are my own. In my next post, I’ll describe how Social Business provides a process to help brands and organisations become far more strategic in their approach to digital and social media.]