I've been writing about how the next evolution of the Internet might just be an advertising revolution, and how corporate IT can stay involved as the enablers and providers of the technologies that make this possible.
My last post was about how brands can engage with and reply to customers in real-time. Today, I'll talk about a different approach. I call it finding the water. The term is based on a business book I read long ago. The book is long gone, and I could not get Google or Amazon to summon it, but I remember the strategy.
The water strategy
Pretend for a moment that your company is a tribe in the desert pursuing some life-giving substance (like a product or customer lead generation). Traditionally, your shaman decrees where the water is, and then you organize all your resources into a big project to find the oasis and tap the water. There's one problem: You don't really know if the water is there. Market research and focus groups may help you, but they won't be sure.
If finding the right marketing mix is like looking for an oasis in the desert, then how can IT help?
If you aren't certain where the water is, you might be better off forming a dozen or more small groups, sending them in every direction, and having them report back. In modern terms, conducting many small experiments to find value is known as a Lean Startup approach. In his book by that title, Eric Reis suggests experiments for finding the product, but our experiments will be about how to use our marketing IT time and effort.
Here's where it gets interesting.
Cheap, democratic, social advertising
What if we got a stable of interns and had them try a bunch of... stuff online? These interns would create articles, videos, and animated gifs and then tweet them. They'd link to the content on Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, and every other social media-like outpost on the web.
Most of these sites are democratic in nature. If content is good, it gets upvoted, more people read it, and they upvote it some more. If content is bad, readers ignore it, and it stays at the bottom. When you figure out what is working, you do more of it -- a basic finding-the-water strategy. You could replace the classic right-and-true approach -- in which a single agency (with a budget of 7-9 figures) puts together a single ad campaign -- with 10 teams of five interns each producing anything from a well-executed video to hundreds of tweets and microblogs every day.
This is happening often enough that Ryan Holiday of Betabeat is complaining about "media manipulation" on Reddit. He cited what appears to be a fairly bland photo -- and clearly an ad for Domino's Pizza -- that made the front page of Reddit. Most of the 200 comments wondered how it got on the front page. He also cited Reddit posts that were basically information from the Costco corporate website and garnered 40,000 upvotes. (Of course, Costco employees are known to be incredibly dedicated to the company.)
You might criticize this as companies trying to advertise for free. I am certainly sensitive to the argument against using your own employees to upvote content, but at its core, most online attention these days is democratic. If the material is not good, people don't share it. I would rather have content that is earned, not bought, but I am the first to admit that there is ethical work to be done here.
Most companies aren't set up to be successful in this strategy. They need infrastructure. That's where we come in.
Making the strategy work
First, we need ways to measure and track the success of campaigns across a variety of platforms. That way, we'll know what we should be doing more frequently or less frequently. Ideally, those measurements would go all the way from visitor count to lead generation. Beyond that, teams will need guidance, oversight, and general IT help. We may need to build tools for submission, rules, and process. We'll also need more than a little reputation management to protect the brand when people make mistakes in the moment.
It's all very new and speculative, but this idea means new kinds of analytics and systems. It's one thing for Joey the intern to write a blog that he posts to Digg, but recording, tracking, and institutionalizing that process will take someone with a different skill set.
Will that be the next step in the evolution of IT? I don't know, but I'm keen to find out.
— Matt Heusser is principal consultant of Excelon Development.