Sections Supplements

Marketing: Getting Interactive

Stop Thinking About Technology and Start Thinking About Your Target

Some people will read the title of this article and presume that ‘getting’ means ‘understanding.’ Others will assume it means ‘acquiring.’ And the answer is yes — though you need the former before you can achieve the latter. And you can pull the word ‘interactive’ out of the title because it doesn’t add anything to the discussion since understanding and acquiring interactive technology are really just understanding and executing basic marketing practices using some tool sets and features that are enabled by interactive technology.

However, before we get into a discussion of the ‘what to whom,’ (my definition of marketing) I think it bears mentioning that as a person who has worked on both the client and agency sides of the business, I believe best practices in this realm are seldom defined as purely an interactive technology solution alone but rest upon the idea that interactive elements helped achieve the overall marketing goals of the client.

Good interactive marketing starts with good strategic marketing planning. You can’t maximize the effectiveness of technology if you haven’t integrated it into an overall communications plan. Time and time again, the biggest mistake companies make is not thinking about interactive as an integral part of the marketing plan. Instead they treat it as stand-alone effort.

And the second mistake? Ownership. How can a company be effective in getting its message out and connecting with and developing customers if one person or group is handling traditional advertising and marketing programs and somebody else is responsible for so-called interactive technology? Just because the word technology is in the mix often there is a turf war between marketing and IT. These are the ugly barriers to successful implementation.

Once you’ve established the ground rules the next step is relatively simple. Stop thinking about technology and start thinking about your target. An 18-year-old consumes media in a much different way than their grandparents. It’s not an earth-shattering insight. But you’d be amazed how many projects I’ve seen where the objective seemed to be technology deployment rather than improving communication with a target consumer.

If you think of media as a continuum ranging from print through radio and television to interactive, and your tool sets as display advertising, direct mail, broadcast advertising, etc., you can begin to define a set of options around new media. But these options, like everything you do in marketing, have to be directed toward business objectives. Creating a feedback loop with customers, creating a new product launch channel, a cross-selling channel, speed to market, online sales to augment traditional sales – even just a simple way to stay connected – are all valid goals toward which your efforts can be directed.

Bear in mind, interactive can offer some clear advantages. For one, if you include the Web site, your ability to present reams of information and allow potential customers a feast of self-selected details makes the concept of a printed brochure pale by comparison. More important, is the truly interactive nature of the collective technology in that it allows you to open a dialogue in the guise of a self-directed exchange.

Building a connection is usually a function of privileged E-mail. I say privileged, because treated any other way it has the potential to burn you. If you want to communicate directly, you have to ask permission. And if you get the opportunity, you have to meet or exceed your customer’s expectation of your brand. Over-communicating with blatant sales pitches, filler nonsense, or poorly defined content are all ways to tarnish your image. The last time I bought a car they actually asked me if I would find it convenient for them to contact me about service calls by E-mail. So far they’ve kept it to that, and I find it convenient, unobtrusive, and worthwhile.

For a more dynamic example, think of the problem an educational institution has in trying to attract good candidates to its campus. On the first level is the problem of ‘really interested’ versus tire kickers. ‘Really interested’ (RI) will register and give you their E-mail. Now let’s begin marketing by more precisely segmenting the customer base so we can really zero in on their needs. Let’s give RIs several choices as to areas of interest (a,b,c). Once they’ve self-selected further we can connect on the basis of interest with differentiated content being offered to RI-a, RI-b and RI-c. If the potential students continue to engage you can be pretty sure interest is high and knowledge is good.

This kind of segmentation with a potential customer group showcases the granularity of interactive marketing, and though it takes some thinking to programmatically plan, it is both effective and cost-effective.

A well-managed E-mail marketing effort has another clear advantage over traditional media – it is easily measurable. From that standpoint, it’s a bean counter’s dream. Open-rates, click-throughs, conversion rates, unique visits. Yum. Mind you, you have to understand the metrics, watch them, and use them to dial in your effectiveness. The ability to conceive, test, and refine is an inherent part of the value proposition and you should be prepared to take advantage of it. In contrast to traditional marketing programs this flexibility can either be looked at as a burden (someone has to assess and refine) or an opportunity (we’re getting increasingly close to customers).

This leads into another aspect of interactive marketing that some clients find frustrating: it keeps changing. It’s what I like to refer to as the wet edge. That describes the phenomena of constant change and enhancement. Some change is good; other change can easily be a double-edged sword. New technology functionality doesn’t guarantee value creation. Just think of the times you went to a Web site that wouldn’t load because of bandwidth or you couldn’t view it because you didn’t have the latest plug-in. The problem is that purveyors of technology will dazzle you with what it can do and limit the discussion of access.

That’s why any discussion of technology deployment has to be balanced but your target demographics’ use and access patterns.

Sounds like a lot to keep track of, but it isn’t. You just have to be careful about chasing technology or being a beta test. The ultimate objective is not to use the latest and coolest technology; it’s to increasingly cement your relationship with your customers. It’s a gentle balance, and like everything interactive, it changes over time.

On the other hand you have to stay abreast. Certainly the things like keyword purchases in search (paid placement), changing search-engine optimization protocols, the move toward more localized search, RSS (really simple syndication) feeds, and video ad distribution are all trends that will alter the landscape and create opportunity to best your competition. Just be judicious in your thinking — using something totally cool on your Web site isn’t effective if it limits access of or becomes a point of frustration for your target audience. Seems pretty simple, but everyone’s been frustrated by enough Web sites to know how many companies make this mistake.

I realize I have generalized to the most common denominator and perhaps not offered insights specific enough to act on. So here’s some top-line thinking based on my experience with clients about getting interactive. If you’re still questioning whether you really need to investigate this new media option, with all due respect, you’re a hopeless Luddite. On the other hand you have to be very careful to create the balance that matches your market dynamics.

You have to study interactive marketing and assess technology in terms of its ability to meet business objectives within the bounds of your customer’s comfort zone. You should seek best practices, demand metrics and measure value based upon goals in marketing plan.

Above all, remember that technology is not a message in and of itself, though some allow it to become that. At its best it’s simply another, often better way to deliver your message. For no matter how much technological dazzle you create, it is ultimately the message that counts and delivers the customer – and understanding that much is how you start ‘getting’ interactive marketing.

Nathan Winstanley is president of Winstanley Associates and Lenox Softworks, a full-service advertising, marketing e-communications and public relations firm in Lenox, Massachusetts; (413) 637-9887;[email protected].