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Slay big old Goliath with social media

The May 11th, 2009, issue of The New Yorker features an article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “How David Beats Goliath.  When underdogs break the rules.”  Gladwell reviews principles by which the weaker of two competitors, who under normal circumstances would surely suffer defeat, can shift the odds to come out the winner.

One of the key principles will be familiar to anyone who has read Adam Morgan’s marketing classic, Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders.  Morgan says that in order to succeed, small-share challenger brands, as he calls them, have to change the rules of the game — for example by breaking the conventions of the category.

A great case study of a challenger brand (although I’m not sure it’s mentioned in Eating the Big Fish) is Felix Cat Food.  Originally the number 4 or 5 cat food brand in the UK, Felix advanced up the ranks to challenge the market leader Whiskas with an unconventional, consumer relevant creative approach and by using newspapers as its primary medium, rather than TV.  TV was where most of the other cat food brands were putting their money.

In The New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell’s signature case for this principle is the story of David and Goliath.  Gladwell writes:

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath.  But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said … and picked up those five smooth stones.

When the David’s of this world choose to play by different rules than the Goliath’s, more often than not, they win.

iStock_David&GoliathSmall

Another great example that Gladwell writes about in some detail is the story of a girls’ junior high basketball team, whose players were neither especially tall, nor especially gifted, but who nevertheless made it to the national championships.  They did it by utilizing a strategy that is basketball’s equivalent of David reaching for the five smooth stones.  It’s called the full-court press.  Many basketball teams practice the full-court press a few minutes at a time, but the Redwood City girl’s basketball team pursued it relentlessly.

There is a convention to playing basketball that most teams follow.  When Team A makes a basket, they immediately run back to their own end of the court to await the approach of Team B, who now has possession of the ball.  As Gladwell explains, this convention favors good teams:

Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end.  Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

The coach of the Redwood City’s team — who, by the way, had never played basketball or coached a basketball team before, and therefore had no preconceived notions of the game’s conventions  — took a different approach.  He coached his girls to exercise the full-court press constantly.  Rather than retreating to their own side of the court after they scored a point, they aggressively challenged the opposing team for the possession of the ball on that team’s side.  Instead of standing behind the single opposing player she was assigned to shadow, to impede her if she received a pass, each Redwood City girl maneuvered herself in front of her opponent, to prevent her from even receiving the pass in the first place.

Often this meant the opponents would lose possession because they would fail to advance the ball across the mid-court within 10 seconds, a rule of the game.  This helped the Redwood City players to regain possession close to their opponents’ basket, which meant they could score more often with an easy lay-up, rather than going for lower percentage, long range shots, which demanded greater skill.

They also aggressively tried to block the inbounds pass, which is when the opposing team throws an out-of-bounds ball back into play.  Most teams don’t bother with this, but the Redwood City girls did.  This often forced the opposing team either to exceed the five second limit for getting the ball back into play (and lose possession) or, panicking, to simply throw the ball away.  In general, the opposing players simply lost their groove against the Redwood City team’s tactics.  Flustered and frustrated, they couldn’t take advantage of the strengths that normally made them so powerful.

iStock_girlbasketballSmallSo what does this have to do with social media?

As I read Gladwell’s article, I began to see interesting parallels between advantages of the full-court press strategy for the Redwood City underdogs and the use of social media for a challenger brand.

First of all, social media is not the conventional choice most big brands will use for communicating with consumers.  They aren’t comfortable with it and continue to focus their efforts, and their budgets, on the standard TV, radio and print media they already know.  But just as Felix replaced TV with newspaper, which was the unconventional medium for the time and the category, a dedicated commitment to social media and the power it has to forge brand-consumer relationships can be a potent strategy for stealing share from the big guys.

Another point Gladwell makes about the full-court press is that it takes much more physical effort than the conventional way of playing the game:

It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing.  We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity.  It’s the other way around.  Effort can trump ability … because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

In other words, it’s easier to create and produce a flashy 30″ TV commercial and stick the thing on air, than to be out there in the social media space day in and day out, talking like a human being with individual consumers, engaging with your brand enthusiasts and building your brand’s reputation one consumer at a time.   As my friend Joseph Jaffe says:  in the world of new media, “Marketing isn’t a campaign, it’s a commitment.”

And finally, consider this quote from the Gladwell article:

Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one.

Putting a positive spin on it, the inbounds pass is the point in a game where the weak team is as powerful as the strong team.  The same can be said for social media.  It doesn’t require a mega-budget for a brand to put together an effective social media effort.  Unlike conventional broadcast media, the playing field in the online social media arena is fairly even, whether you’re the market leader or a smaller challenger brand.  Social media is the place where great ideas can catch on and spread without big budgets, thanks to the connections people have within their communities and their passion to pass on content they love.

So to all you small players out there in the marketing world — think like David and the Redwood City girls basket ball team.  Consider how social media can help you shift the rules of the game to your advantage, and slay big old Goliath.

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The Chaos Scenario — Chicken Little was right!

In his current episode of the podcast Jaffe Juice, Joseph Jaffe talks to Bob Garfield about his latest in a series of Ad Age articles on the death of media and advertising as we know it (“Future May Be Brighter, but It’s Apocalypse Now,” Advertising Age Online, March 23, 2009).  In this most recent piece on what Bob has called The Chaos Scenario, he presents growing evidence that the business model of traditional media, based on content creation funded by advertising revenues, is coming undone faster than anyone may have imagined.

The written word is a wonderful thing, but actually to hear Bob discuss and elaborate upon his perspectives in the interview is an eye opener.  Those of us who think about social media already know a lot of this, but to listen to the man who still reviews the Superbowl commercials every year predict the demise of the 30″ TV commercial really makes an impression.  You can’t help but feel Chicken Little was right.  The sky really is falling.  (And in a few years I may be out of a job!)

Here are some of the key points that stuck in my mind:

The old advertising model is dying, if not already dead, because it’s built upon  two pillars that are crumbling:

1) Good content is scarce, 2) You can force people to look at advertising in exchange for that content.

YouTube has already taken a big bite out of the first pillar, and the adaption of TiVo and DVR’s is eating away at the second one.

Still, consumer generated content alone will never replace professionally produced content like Lost and Grey’s Anatomy.  And while newspapers in their current form are clinging to life, there will always be demand and a need for objective, well-researched reporting and journalistic excellence.  Indeed a democratic society depends upon it.  Gen Y’ers may ascribe to the philosophy that content should be free, but it isn’t.  Or at least much good content isn’t.  Talented directors and serious journalists also have to eat, buy clothes and support families.

Right now it’s easy enough to say good content should be free because there’s still plenty of it around that you can get for free, even as the revenue sources and models that fund the production of it are drying up.   But imagine a day when there are no newspapers like The New York Times, no magazines like The New Yorker, and nothing on TV except low-cost production reality shows.  If that day ever comes, people will be starved for something better.  And they’ll pay for better fare in one currency or another.  But it will no longer be by subjecting themselves to advertising that bores and irritates them.

We are observing a sea change — a major upheaval on a par with the industrial revolution and other historical movements that changed society forever.

I think this is true.  And as Bob points out, it will effect every part of society, not just marketing and communications.  The power has truly shifted from the top of the pyramid, to the bottom — the crowd, thanks to the digital and social media revolution that is enabling people to connect and wield collective power like never before.

People are still interested in products and brands.  They’re just not interested in advertising.

I don’t completely agree with this.  People are not interested in advertising for products in which they have no interest.  I have argued elsewhere on this blog that the 30″ commercial is actually a very efficient tool to learn quickly about a product and its benefits.  The problem is an ineffective distribution system that places too many commercials in front of the wrong people.

I do agree that advertising in future will be a small part of a rich pallet of consumer-brand interactions, enabled by the internet and social media, that shifts the relationship between the brand and the consumer from one-way telling and selling to collaboration, dialogue and partnership.

The Chaos Scenario — soon to be a new book and a platform for conversation.

the-chaos-scenario2Bob will soon be packaging his thinking into a suprisingly old media form — a book.  He’s also created a web site — www.thechaosscenario.net — that he promises will be more than just an online promotion for the book, but a place for people to come together and share thinking on the topic.  It’s not active yet, but you can already go and sign up to receive updates as the project progresses.  I for one will be watching, listening and participating.

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The antidote for the TV network is called the world wide web

The rumors of my death have been wildly exaggerated.

The rumors of my death have been wildly exaggerated.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse.  But with all respect to Joseph Jaffe (social media maven par excellence and author of two terrific books — Life After the 30-Second Spot and Join the Conversation), I continue to struggle with the widespread assertion that the 30-second commercial has witnessed its heyday and will soon vanish from the face of the planet.  Note that I’m not saying 30-second television commercial.  The reason for the distinction will become clear.

I have written on an earlier blog post about how effectively this old format can tell a product or brand story in a remarkably efficient amount of time.  What’s more, while I am as excited as anyone by the possibilities social media and web 2.0 tools create for brands and “consumers” to engage on a much more personal level, we live in an and/and communications world.  Fact is, there are still times when people aren’t interested in a conversation (much less creating their own TV spot).  Conversation takes time, which is one thing most people have very little of.  If there’s a new, household product out there that is going to make my life easier, or if I’m in the market for a new mobile phone, then I’m not necessarily interested in a conversation.  Right now, I may just want to get a quick overview of the product choices available to me.  I want to hear what you have to offer — fast — and then get on with it.  A one-way message is just fine.

It’s simply not true that people have a problem with 30-second commercials.  They have a problem with bad commercials — ones that are unclear, convey no apparent benefit, or do so with an execution so tedious and irritating, they’d like to throw a brick through their TV screen.  Even more so, they have a problem with commercials, good or bad, for products or services that are irrelevant to them, and that show up as uninvited and disturbing interruptions to their favorite shows.

The problem isn’t the commercial, the problem is the distribution system.  Television networks are simply ineffective at delivering a specific message to the people for whom that message is relevant, and only to them.

Enter social media!

Marketers should think about online communities and networks as a new, superbly effective distribution system for their messages.  I don’t mean they should push commercials into online social networks uninvited, but instead enable individuals online to discover commercials that are personally interesting and relevant to them.  And then pass them along to others — friends, their communities, their blogging audience — for whom they think these will also be of interest.

A mom blogger who discovers a great new kids product will be connected to others who are in the same life situation, have similar needs and will also want to know about that product.  If she has access to a commercial that she thinks gets the product story across, especially if it’s executed in an appealing way, she will naturally pass it on.  All the more if she has tried and was happy with the product.  What she won’t do is share that commercial with her online connections for whom she knows the story won’t be interesting.  In this way the community becomes a self-regulating system that ensures the message spreads only to those people who will get value from it.  How cool is that?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be the traditional 30-second spot, although when people suggest to others that they take a look at a product message, 30 seconds are relatively risk free.  If, perchance, the story isn’t of interest, at least they only wasted 30 seconds of the their friends’ precious time.

So here’s something marketers ought to consider placing on the packaging of their next product launch, upgrade or line extension.  “If you like our product, please go to http://www.brandx.com, upload our TV commercial, and share it with your friends online who you think would also be interested.”  If the expression “TV commercial” seems too pre-web 2.0, then call it a 30-second video if that makes you feel more in sync with the age of “YouTube.”

It can’t hurt.  And it just might get your message to spread across a network of thousands of interconnected, prospective buyers for whom it isn’t an intrusion, but a welcome source of news and information.

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