Larry Weber explains how to communicate more effectively in the digital world
Lisa Leslie Henderson writer
Boing Boing. Wine.com. Twitter. Facebook. Revolutionary online social media “environments” like these have been the biggest game changers in Weston resident Larry Weber’s thirty years in the business of marketing and public relations. As Chairman of W2 Group, a global marketing services firm that focuses exclusively on digital strategy; founder of the Weber Group, a public relations firm focusing on technology; and co-founder of the Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange where he now serves as Chairman of the Board, Weber is a well-respected expert in the field. His bestselling book, Marketing to the Social Web: How Digital Customer Communities Build Your Business (John Wiley & Sons, 2009) captures Weber’s experience and describes how marketers can build customer communities by taking advantage of emerging social media strategies.
“Media is changing more rapidly now than it has in the last 200 to 250 years because of the emergence of social media, those online places where people with a common interest can gather to share thoughts, comments, and opinions,” says Weber. These include chat rooms, message boards, online e-communities, and social networks that are increasingly available on a variety of platforms including PCs and mobile phones.
What is so revolutionary about this latest development? “Social media has brought an end to the one-way mass communication of the broadcast era, or what I call the era of intrusion,” explains Weber. In its place, social media has ushered in what is commonly referred to as “peer-to-peer” conversation, where highly democratic, multi-directional conversations among companies and their customers and potential customers take place. Weber describes this paradigm shift as “everyone-to-everyone” communication.
This multi-nodal communication has prompted the emergence of self-selected communities of interest that are becoming a primary center of activity for people. “It’s how people shop, plan, learn, and communicate,” Weber explains. “It will soon be the first place people turn for news, information, entertainment, diversion—all of the things that the older media supplied.”
As an example, Weber describes a recent experience while placing an order for a book at Amazon.com. His purchase took him over an hour and a half, not due to the slowness of his connection, but because he became so engaged by the Web site’s content whose sophisticated database provides a highly individualized encounter. He read some book reviews, posted one of his own, watched a video about the life of one of the authors he had queried, was invited to a Q & A session with the author, and, oh yes, even purchased a book. It was a convergence experience—e-commerce meets education and entertainment—a powerful encounter and a taste of things to come.
The Conversation is Even Different Now
This dramatic democratization made possible by developments in technology is literally changing the conversation among organizations and their constituencies. After decades of being hounded to purchase products via numerous broadcast media messages, today consumers are tired of being sold and are opting out of the noise. An increasing number of devices and services allow people to bypass traditional marketing messages—think DVR or TiVo, XM Satellite Radio, and pop-up blockers and spam filters. What is a marketer to do in this environment of consumer indifference or even antagonism? Become a steward of the conversation.
“Marketers should participate in, organize, and encourage social networks to which people want to belong,” says Weber. The winning strategy is for organizations to learn how to weave their brand into their customers’ culture and conversation—in an honest way. “People want news and information about the things they care about,” Weber explains. “And they want to be able to find out about the things they care about now.”
One of the ways marketers can do this is by providing compelling content on their Web site. Consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson has done just that with Johnsonsbaby.com, which embeds product descriptions and special offers among expert advice and easy-to-use educational guides. A second tactic is for organizations to go out and participate in dialogue already taking place in the public arena. For example, Genzyme, a global biotechnology firm, has established an “active comment” policy where it tracks and engages in online conversations about diseases for which Genzyme is developing treatments or where a treatment is already underway.
Titles are beginning to change in organizations that are adopting an active digital strategy. Increasingly, Weber is seeing “Vice- President of Community” or Content instead of “Director of PR” or Advertising. But Weber encourages companies to dig deep into the range of voices available to them, beyond the marketing professions, to tap the experience of managers, employees, senior executives, as well as customers. “Now is the time to arrange extensive training for managers, bloggers, corporate communicators, human resource professionals, Web strategists, and others who will be engaging in the social web activities,” Weber says.
It’s a Two-Way Street
“The social media world is very different from a traditional communications environment,” says Weber. “It used to be that your organization controlled content creation and distribution. In the social media world, you have little to no control over content and distribution.” Companies across a variety of industries are opening themselves up through these discussions. Paul Levy, President and chief Executive Officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, writes a blog in which he discusses the issues in running a hospital and on which he posts readers’ comments. And a Southwest Airlines blog describes and discusses new routes as well as delays with customers.
This openness can put many marketers and CEOs in a panic—isn’t there a danger in allowing everyone to have a voice in public? And while Weber agrees that there is a role for screening out some “irrelevancies, obscenities, and liabilities,” he points out that in many cases those conversations that we fear happening are already taking place out there in the public sphere. (He suggests typing “complaints” and the name of your company into a Web browser to see what is being said about your organization and your products.) “It makes sense that a company should be actively engaged in shaping the conversation, rather than just pretending it is not going on,” Weber explains. This also gives you the chance to change any misperceptions or rectify any legitimate complaints. “It’s difficult to give up control completely, but realize that reviews, such as user-generated content, serve to demonstrate your company’s transparency,” Weber says.
Transparency is the New Black
Transparency in this emerging digital world means more than just posting customer reviews on a corporate Web site. “Organizations are going to have to have a moral purpose; they are going to have to offer value—great products at great prices—and act ethically and transparently in the process,” Weber explains. This includes the company’s effect on the environment, its diversity in employment, and the way it treats its stakeholders. Consumers will essentially demand goodness of the corporations with whom they interact or they will stop the conversation and the potential for future transactions.
The New Marketing Mix
This past year marketers spent approximately $168 billion on traditional media and $21 billion on digital media. This expenditure breakdown is an enigma to Weber, whose experience shows that the social web permits companies to have dialogue more efficiently and less expensively than ever before. A strong learning curve, institutional skepticism, and a lag between awareness and budget changes provide friction in organizations’ shift to digital.
As for a first move, Weber suggests that marketers take time to observe the landscape. “Use free tools like Technorati (an Internet search engine that indexes social media) to understand the conversations that are taking place before you do anything,” Weber advises. Determine who is talking, to whom people are listening, and what is being talked about. A second step involves determining spokespersons for your company. Reach out to them to create compelling content for your own Web site. Consider offering podcasts, webinars, or videos of customers, executives, and industry experts talking about your products, services, or organization. Third, Weber suggests that you evaluate social media platforms in light of your marketing goals—start a blog, e-community, social network, or some combination of the three. Participating in the conversation that is taking place on someone else’s blog about your organization’s industry or products is a good place to start. Lead the discussion to your Web site where people can download those podcasts, view the videos, or participate in your upcoming webinar. Then keep the conversation going.
In addition to his book, Marketing to the Social Web: How Digital Customer Communities Build Your Business, Weber has some tools to guide you as your find your way. His weekly talk show, Market Edge (which airs each Tuesday at noon on Webmasterradio.fm with podcasts available any time), explores this emerging marketing landscape via interviews with thought leaders and players in this realm. Watch for his new book, Sticks and Stones: How Digital Business Reputations Are Created Over Time and Lost in a Click (John Wiley & Sons, 2009), due out this June, in which he provides guidance on how companies can learn to manage their reputation in this open, digital era.
“It’s a fascinating time to live in the media and marketing world,” Weber says enthusiastically. “Ultimately marketing will become the center of any business, because the key will be the relationship companies have with their customer base—the stronger the dialogue, the stronger the brand. The power of distribution is going to be amazingly powerful in the next decade to come—it’s going to be great for our kids.”