It’s not about the network, it’s about you.

The first premise to this post is that I’m allergic to debates about the internet killing this or that, of the kind that seem to regularly get online pundits excited, but fail to produce sound thinking.

Consequently, the second premise is that I’m not going to ask “Is the internet killing strategy?”, and I really didn’t think I’d have to write a post such as this: I’d expect that we’d all get very excited with the new toy, and at the same time we’d keep in mind that while marketing is fundamentally changing, the fundamentals of marketing are not.

But then I read “From consumer insights to network insights” (via @BBHLabs) by Patricia McDonald (@PatsMc) and I start feeling uneasy: her core argument is that, because we live in a society that is more connected than ever, we should worry less about “consumer insights” and more about network insights, ie. who is sharing what, why and how.

I think this argument is partially right, and substantially wrong. Consumer insights and network insights are both valuable and they serve two different purposes at different stages. Seeing them as conflicting fails to acknowledge how three pillars of marketing have not changed:

  1. Competitive strategies are more important than ever. With the explosion of digital, it seems like brand and creative agencies took some time off strategizing: we’ve been experimenting with the new challenges and opportunities set forth by digital, and that was enough to keep us busy. Moreover, doing the right thing for the new digital age was enough to be distinctive and credible: Ideastorm made Dell stand out as a different brand brand because it was the first one to start a frank dialogue with its customers. That’s now one of the rules of the game, like being open, participative, useful, innovative, reactive… We can argue whether these are necessary conditions for a brand to thrive in the XXI century (I don’t think they always are), but they’re definitely not sufficient. It still boils down to how your participative brand is different from all the other participative brands out there. We realized a long time ago that a market where brands try to come up with ever more ingenious ways of telling the same story isn’t as rewarding (and profitable) as one where different brands tell different stories. That is still true today.
  2. A strategy is about what you stand for. Whatever it is (a message, a vision, a product…), a strategy is first and foremost about you. Because that’s what people are interested in, or not. We can fool them by hanging out in the cool places where they hang out, and using the cool language that they use, but ultimately their interest for  us depends on the story we bring to the table: that’s why we have to start from there. The more distinctive, credible and relevant our story is, the more compelling it is. That’s when consumer human insights are precious.
  3. Your strategy precedes and informs your network. Advocates of propagation planning are putting great effort into crafting a framework that helps brands engage with networks (view this to find out more) and that’s having a positive contribution to campaign development. However, the celebration of networks can go too far, leading some to the rebuttal of the concept of media-neutral. While we can all agree that the deployment of a strategy should be devised in a way that best leverages media, I believe that the origination of strategy itself should not take that into account, for a very simple reason: if you base a strategy on the network, you end up with a strategy about the network. And that’s not what you want unless, well, your brand is the network. We have way too many examples of brands offering what proves to be popular social currency online, but failing to produce any value whatsoever for the business, because that social currency is not rooted in a competitive advantage. Let’s be completely honest: whatever brands do, must be beneficial to the business, and the underlying assumption that successful businesses offer products and services that benefit consumers is there to ensure that at the end of they day everyone’s happy. Our job is to use the network to benefit the brand, not to use the brand to benefit the network. If our competitive business strategy is relevant, we’ll make people happy in the process.

 

***

 

A framework of reference

U.S. Presidential Elections are possibly the most complex and advanced form of creative campaigns, as they deal with many of the new and old challenges that we have to face every day, but in a condensed and frenetic fashion: engage different, sometimes conflicting, demographics; steer influence; orchestrate a multi-channel plan;respond to unforeseeable events in real time; change people’s mind and lead them to action…

The team tasked with making sense of this complexity is essentially headed by two figures: a strategist and a campaign manager.

The strategist is in charge of the message, ranging from the overarching campaign theme (what we’d call a brand idea) to the candidate’s stand on policy themes.

The campaign manager is in charge of  the plan: what States are required to reach 270 electoral votes, what resources are allocated to win those States, what team is required to manage those resources.

The two clearly work together, but it’s the message that frames the campaign, and for a very good reason: if you let the message lead, you set the agenda; if you let the network (eg. the media, the activitists…) lead, you’re at the mercy of their own agenda and end up being defensive and reactive. This is neatly summed up in a quote from the West Wing (s07e02): “People think the campaign’s about two competing answers to the same question. They’re not. They’re a fight over the question itself.”

That’s why you need to lead with a message that is based on your competitive strategy: because the question that you want people to ask each other should be the one that is best answered by your product or service.

Replace “strategist” with “brand/account/strategic planner”, “campaign manager” with “media/comm/propagation planner” and “agenda” with “brand strategy” and you have a model that creative agencies can easily relate to.

 

***

 

I’ve never met McDonald, but based on her stellar credentials I’m pretty sure she knows all this. I also believe that she’d agree with the very uncontroversial points I made in a post that I wasn’t even thinking would be worth writing.

If I did, it’s because something has been bugging me for a while: if we spend our time talking mostly about a side of our work, we can end up fostering a culture that believes that that side is what matters most; if we make our case with generalizations, we can end up fostering a culture that is generic.

That puts everyone who writes about, well, anything in a very difficult position, because we don’t want details and exceptions and clarifications to clip the wings of our insightful and inspiring words. At the same time, we have to keep an eye on what the industry is talking about, and raise warning if we think we’re not doing justice to the complexity of an argument.

Every single thing we write online is a new chapter in the planning handbook that people open every day to find some guidance in the choices they have to make. I’d rather put too much into that handbook than leave something valuable out.

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4 thoughts on “It’s not about the network, it’s about you.

  1. patsmc says:

    Hey Stefano, nice post-anyone who quotes The West Wing is okay by me…and Season 7’s for the die hards!

    I don’t disagree with a lot of what you’re saying-I think where we’re slightly at odds is that there’s a distinction for me between brand positioning (or brand strategy) and communications strategy. I don’t for a minute think that the network should dictate a brand’s fundamental positioning, but then I’ve never thought that consumer insight of any kind should inevitably drive that-versus product insight, commercial insight, competitive insight, etc. It does in some cases of course, but I think there are lots of divergent places that differentiated and effective strategy can come from and the consumer is just one of them-and as we increasingly all have access to similar research, perhaps not always the place to start to look for differentiation. In terms of communications strategy (where and how we communicate), I do personally find a portrait of an individual increasingly less helpful than a sense of how that individual operates within a network-how they share and spread content. It’s less about the network shaping the message than about the network shaping how and where the message is expressed if that makes sense. But hey, it would be dull if we all agreed on everything…..

  2. I’m afraid I’ll have to be dull🙂
    I agree with you that the source of inspiration can come from anywhere; I also think that it becomes relevant if (and only if) it relates to a broad human insight, otherwise it’s just information. (And I’m afraid this is also dull, as you probably think the same…)
    And yes, in most cases a pen portrait doesn’t tell the whole story, and never has.

    What concerns me is when the industry starts putting so much emphasis on one aspect of our profession, that we may lead people to take a shortcut and believe that sorting that one out is the key to success.
    I’ve seen a lot of work that was about “doing the right thing for Facebook” or “coming up with something that people will share” and that didn’t benefit the brand or the business in any way because it wasn’t rooted in it. In this sense, we may send an ambiguous signal every time we claim “one zillion views on Youtube” as a metric for success…
    I know that’s not what you’re suggesting, but so many award entries and agencies press releases seem to be about that, and I believe that we, as an industry, should be conscious of it.

  3. […] mentioned before that US Presidential Elections can be considered the most complex and advanced form of persuasive […]

  4. […] sums up very neatly that major problem for advertising today: it’s not the recession, it’s not commoditization, […]

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