A new Age of Discovery (navigation series, post #2)

Today’s new publics create a whole new world of influence pushing corporate communicators into a new Age of Discovery where our traditional instruments of navigation are of limited value. Let’s see why.

Traditionally, corporate communications worked mostly from the inside out. We started with introspection: we thought hard about our brand, what it stood for, what its promises were, and which messages we wanted to convey. Then we pushed the message out to the media, since the media was the best amplifier we could use to reach our target audiences. Working with journalists we tested our message, they challenged us on the news value or credibility of our pitch. But if it resonated with them, we got our message out to our audiences who read, viewed or listened to the media we worked with. Accordingly, measurement was focused on “coverage” reports analysing reach, quantity and message alignment.

While this approach still is important, it just doesn’t work as well with today’s new publics, since mainstream media has lost its monopoly on public information. The new publics are empowered to use many other sources. If our story smells like spin or marketing talk, or if it doesn’t fit exactly what they want, they don’t have to just sit there, listen and be our “target audience”. They have options. They can raise their own voice and connect with others who share their specific interest and who are credible to them, people like themselves.

As a result, the experience of our brand will be less shaped by “key messages” we put in front of anonymous “eye balls”, but by many little conversations between people who share an interest in something that relates to our brand. For instance, they could get involved with a Facebook group of disgruntled employees who give insider reasons for glitches in our product quality. They could read a profile of our brand on Wikipedia that might not be “on message” because we couldn’t control it. They might have an exchange with a blogger who wrote about a bad customer service experience. They might find videos on YouTube showing one of our executives talking off guard while being recorded by a mobile phone. There might be kids on MySpace who laugh about our brand being so totally not cool while we think it’s youthful and fresh. Or there might even be avatars in a virtual world like Second Life redesigning virtual copies of our products for their own purpose. Of course, we might also find that all these people are raving about our brand, because their experiences are consistently thrilling at all touch points. We would want to know that too, wouldn’t we? Whatever they are saying or doing, they are influencing the reputation of our brand. We can’t afford to not know what’s going on there. We need to switch on the light in this black box of new influence, in particular if the brand experiences expressed by people there are not aligned with the “official” messaging.

The fact that the new publics can tap into many sources of information on our brand beyond mainstream media creates a huge pressure for authenticity. If there is a gap between the company speak and the way people experience the brand, they will talk about it and the brand reputation will suffer. In other words, the consistency has to come from the consistency of the brand experience, consistency of our messaging is not enough.

In summary, there is a world of influence emerging at a rapid pace that presents us with a new Age of Discovery where explorers are needed to map it all out. Nobody can have all the answers, since this world is evolving, but those who command map and compass will certainly be better off than those who don’t. By the way, the map I used as background of the chart on the left was created one year ago by the geekily funny physicist and cartoonist Randall Munroe. It is pretty outdated already, though. E.g. it doesn’t incorporate new social networks in microformats like Twitter or new social aggregators like FriendFeed. And today Facebook would have to take a much bigger share on this map. So, how would a compass look like that could help us navigate through this world populated by the new publics? I will try to provide a first answer to this question in my next post.

Georg Kolb


3 thoughts on “A new Age of Discovery (navigation series, post #2)

  1. Another interesting post, Georg. I’m finding, as I look into this, that the people leading the navigation charge make things VERY complex. Maybe they need to be complex, I don’t know, but I find the influence models out there, based on twenty year old econometic models, unnecessarily confusing. With the ‘old world’, we tended to focus on the TARGET AUDIENCE – let’s say it is CIOs – and we would look at circulation figures combined with knowledge and experience acquired over years to come up with a list of the most ‘influential’ titles. In the online world, most of the tools look first at the ‘conversations’ – in other words, the input is not the ‘target audience’ but some content keywords. How, then, do we know if the conversations are relevant?

    I am beginning to form the view that navigating the media – online and offline – need not be as complicated as this. And every now and again we should sit down with CIOs and ask them what influences them. Otherwise we are in danger of being swayed by the ‘buzz’ and its intrinsic volume.

  2. Thanks, Matt, keep your comments coming, they are great!
    On your relevance question: I think we already made progress when realising that we need to ask this question in the first place. The new publics live in a blind spot of traditional media analysis. That’s why we need to explore them. Now, what makes them relevant? Simply spoken, they are the real thing! It’s not “public opinion” as interpreted by traditional media that we hope will influence the “target audience” in the right way. It’s real people talking about real experiences with our brand. That alone makes their conversations relevant.
    But how can we find them and analyse what they are saying and doing? There is a technical and an ethical side to this. On the technical side, there is an increasing number of developers coming up with new tools. But as far as I can see, none of them can do anything meaningful without human analytics added to the mix. I will write about some of them in my next post. I believe that we will soon see pretty amazing stuff that goes far beyond key word searches.
    The ethical side is trickier and I expect it to become a big topic within the next year or so. There is a fine line between people wanting to be listened to and feeling under surveillance. Marketers talk a lot about “behavioural targeting” these days, and new business models are being built on it, but I don’t see a contingency solution for the situation when people simply don’t want to be behaviourally targeted. I wrote about some of this a while ago: http://text100.typepad.com/hypertext/2008/01/privacy-and-dig.html
    On the complexity question: I agree, ultimately, it should be easy to just listen to the people that are important to our brand. However, for the time being, as long as the world of the new publics is evolving at this rapid pace, as long as we still need to explore where it is that we can listen to them online and what the right listening tools are, there will be some complexity involved, I’m afraid.

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