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