January 17th, 2011
Or: controlling contact points in a changing marketing environment
A colleague recently sent me a link to a blog post regarding the New York Times' celebration of its 80-year anniversary in 1931. It commissioned the leading business, scientific and philosophical thinkers of the time and asked them to predict what the world would look like in 80 years time, so what 2011 would look like. Whilst a selection of these is only available here and I hope more will be released by the NYT soon, some of those predictions highlights are incredibly close, and I'd encourage you to read them at your leisure.
What struck me when reading these was, not that each and every one of them had applied their minds to something so far beyond them as to imagine a world that they would never be able to see, but to understand that all of their predictions came from a fundamental notion that the one constant that they could rely on was change.
Who's going to drive you home tonight?
In 2010, we're so used to change, we perhaps forget that it is happening at all! Incremental change and incremental innovation surround us, perhaps nowhere moreso than within the technology and devices that are inherently changing our lives at a microscopic level. Gesture-based gaming, internet connectivity in airplanes, touch screen smart phones, self-driving cars (OK, some not so small changes in that last one!) have all emerged and crept up on us over the past two or three years, making us think how on earth we survived before they were around.
And yet, in all of this, the need to remember that things can change and change quickly seems to have been forgotten when it comes to our perspective within business and communications. One of very few lone voices caught our attention here at Telnic highlighting the potential concern of forgetting that change is inevitable. A recent post by Tim Schumacher over at SEDO clearly and comprehensively outlined the threat to businesses (and indeed, professionals) of believing in the hype of social networks in being all-powerful and omnipresent and committing brand suicide by "advertising their Facebook landing pages, Twitter handles or even their iPhone applications"on billboards.
Smile and the whole world smiles with you
Don't get me wrong. Social media is fantastic at many things and driving interest, awareness and, in some instances, sales is much easier in the connected marketplace. The reach and acceleration of communication, some good, some bad, has at no other time had such an impact on people's awareness and ability to communicate what they think about particular brands than through social media platforms.
What is not so positive is the level of immersion to which brands, often guided by those who are being paid to promote the business rather than to secure their long-term future, are being held. By ceding control of your direct relationship with your customers, the Emperor's new clothes of today becomes the company that sheds its existing brand and adopts the transparent overcoat of social media, exposing what's left behind and with the salesman of the overcoat pointing and laughing all the way to the next customer!
No brand, large or small, needs to lose control to this extent. Tim's clear articulation of the threat and his summary point to the fact that these are "proprietary walled-garden approaches" and thus are not directly addressable from the open web. This is fair enough and completely true; any independence is ceded to these so-called networks and it is a requirement that in order to connect, you join and play by their rules (which they can change at any time), effectively putting a middle-man in control of your relationship with potential fans or customers. If this is the future of doing business, why are many companies that have previously sold through indirect channels trying to set up direct models now?
Danger, Will Robinson!
Not only is it dangerous to lose control of the point of contact with your customer (and sometimes the connection completely, as per the recent downtime for Facebook - I wonder how many customers were lost to those advertising solely their Facebook pages on television that day?), but it's also dangerous to forget the change factor. Social media is of course today the darling of the web, but just how long is that going to last? Facebook and QQ are dominant networks in their regions, but so is Skype in terms of size (and in terms of the risks that one proprietary network faces – do we see a trend here?). What happens if charging models change for internet access or companies or Governments decide that the productivity of the country or organization is at stake (Facebook is the most blocked site on the internet according to a recent study by one DNS service provider, closely followed by MySpace)? What happens if, heaven forbid, today's social network de jour becomes tomorrow's Friendster or Friends Reunited? Suddenly, your business is a piece of furniture in an empty house where the party goers have gone somewhere cooler, and you're put out in a yard sale.
Time waits for nobody
Back to Tim at SEDO: "Providers can go out of business, and there is no regulative environment in place. Seems unlikely? Remember FortuneCity or Geocities? They were the over-hyped early predecessors of social communities offering easy site hosting. Nevertheless, Yahoo terminated Geocities in 2009 – after having bought it for a whopping $2.87 billion in 1999."
The sad fact is that in the online industry, $2.87 billion is small change in the VC world, but back then it was a significant investment. We're seeing market valuations of ten times that number when we talk about today's leading social network. But we've also seen that even in the case of the largest financial institutions, no organization is 'too big to fail' any more. With the recent down-sizing of MySpace in an attempt to provoke a sale, these timescales for failure seem to be compacting.
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn to face the strain)
So the key to all of this is to accept and plan for change. One way of doing that is to insure against being overly damaged by that change. Ownership of your points of contact, as Tim says, is critical in all of this. It costs little to own your own domain name and renew it annually. It costs little more than time to own and use a .tel as a point of contact whilst still enjoying the noise and fun that participating in social media is today whilst it's free and whilst it continues to drive business. Planning for change is critical to survival. As Professor Peter Drucker wrote, coincidentally in a book published in 1999, "Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm."
Now that's one piece of advice that shouldn't change over time.