The Press, September 2011

One in eight of every couple married in the US last year meet online, swapping online personals instead of locking eyes across a crowded bar.

‘Mating’ rituals in the business world are changing too. Unless we can build a connection with customers online we’re destined to be wallflowers, was the message from a world class marketer speaking in Christchurch earlier this month.

Former Aucklander Andy Lark, now Chief Marketing Officer at Commonwealth Bank of Australia (owners of ASB Bank) via stints at companies like Dell Computer, Sun Microsystems and Nortel Networks in the US, painted a fascinating picture of marketing best practice, in front of a crowd of 400 at the recent Canterbury Software Summit.

Lark’s core message was that marketing is changing fundamentally as we increasingly go online. The traditional model of marketing, targeting a segment and shepherding prospects through a sales funnel, was collapsing as people could assess and choose what to buy very quickly using all kinds of online tools, from a company’s website through to social media like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Whereas before marketers typically tried to first create awareness of their brand, and then over time a depth of understanding that lead to purchase, the instant and pervasive nature of the internet meant people could make decisions more quickly. The challenge for marketers had shifted to grabbing a busy consumer’s attention, says Lark.

He offered five ground rules for marketers wanting to succeed in this changing world.

One, focus on ‘participation’ with your market, rather than just broadcasting a message - try and engage in some sort of online conversation with people who might be interested in buying your product.

Two, be very aware of the growing importance mobile devices (like smartphones and tablets). The statistics are compelling in terms of the number of people using them, and the amount of their online time is spent while away from a traditional computer.

Lark offered the example of an iPhone application developed by CBA whereby users could simply hold up their phone to any house, and it would give them an instant assessment of its value, last sale and cost of getting a mortgage. A completely new kind of interaction based on the fact people could use a mobile device that was aware of its location.

Three, producing quality ‘content’ was increasingly critical. Not promotional fluff, but useful print, audio and video content that gives customers some real value – in terms of informing or entertaining them.

Four, ‘play’ was an increasingly critical component of online marketing. Introducing online games was an important way to engaging, and actually drives a lot of online activity.

Lastly, having some sort of purpose. Lark said being driven by a ‘reason for being’, i.e. trying to actually make a difference as opposed to simply fleecing people for as much as possible, made a huge different to your ability to build a good online reputation.

Phew! Is all that scary or what? Do we all need to rush to the spotty young geeks that can build all these fancy online apps and tools?

You shouldn’t do any of it, unless you have a very clear idea of who your target customer is and whether they are internet savvy, what need of theirs you are fulfilling and why they should choose your product over any competitors.

Lark’s vision may be scary, but there are a couple of fundamental ways almost any business can improve their marketing online.

Ensure your website is a good ‘platform’ for interaction with potential customers. Instead of spending time and money on designing a beautiful site, make sure you have a clean, functional web presence that is easy to update and connect to with tools like LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

The other key is Lark’s third rule – producing content. Not necessarily rich multimedia production, but at least a bit of information that prospective customers will find useful.

Two trends are behind the shift to what is called “content marketing”. Fewer journalists are expected to produce more content as news outlets battle the growth of free online media.

The other, connected, trend has been the meteoric rise of social media as a source of content for people. Blogs, social networking sites and wiki’s have become second nature to many as sources of information.

This is giving companies an ability to build their brand by providing ‘good’ content, in written, audio and video formats. Not the tired old PR spin of old, but interesting, customer-focussed information that provides the reader with value and isn’t just trying to shove a message down their throat.

A local example is Pivot Software, who create a lot of content and publishes it on their website and through various blogs, social media sites and other online channels. It includes resources like a guide for developing remuneration policies in large companies – useful, factual information based on their deep experience in this area, that human resource managers can use in their day to day job.

Of course Pivot sells software to help with managing remuneration, but the guide doesn’t even need to mention the product. It focuses on giving the reader value, and reinforces Pivot’s brand as a credible provider in this area, as well creating an opportunity to interact with the reader and start a sales relationship when they download the document.

Starting relationships over a hot keyboard is a little less exciting than over a beer at the local, but we all have to adapt to a changing world. Otherwise you risk being left on the shelf.

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