As an editor and marketer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the “how to”—in other words, how to translate the best and more interesting marketing ideas into truly actionable steps for organizations looking to grow their business.
But every once in a while it’s good to take a step back to take stock of the bigger picture, to put ideas into perspective. For me, the best time to reflect is always November, as it’s the tail end of the fall conference season and also the tail end of the year.
So as you start to look toward 2011, here are a few bigger trends shaping the way we’ll do business in the coming year.
1. Social media.
It’s true that both B2B and B2C marketers are tentatively embracing social tools as a way to connect with customers and grow their businesses. Most businesses have some kind of social presence or say they plan to launch something: Most have attempted a blog or Facebook page, or have peeked at Twitter. For instance, when Guy Kawasaki asked a room full of B2B marketers recently, “How many people think Twitter is stupid?” only two brave souls raised their hands high.
Still, most marketers have yet to truly embrace the full social toolset for their business, especially in the B2B space. Sometimes, it’s because they are unsure of the real value, and sometimes it’s because they aren’t sure how to approach social channels. (How do you foster engagement on Facebook? What’s the value of social-streaming platforms like Twitter, where your content quickly vaporizes? Why doesn’t our blog have any comments?)
One marketer I met at a recent event in Silicon Valley summed up the state of marketing and social media nicely: “We have a blog, but it sucks,” she said. “We’re here to learn how to change that.”
In other words: marketers + social = lots of room for improvement. But just as relationships mature beyond high school, there’s every reason to anticipate a more satisfying partnership down the road.
2. Content is king, but it isn’t enough.
Most marketers have embraced the notion that they are also “publishers.” In other words, they understand that in addition to being in the business selling whatever they sell—be it shovels or security systems—they also need to be producing content as a cornerstone of their marketing, both to engage and educate their would-be customers, and to get noticed by search engines. That’s especially true for small businesses and web-based businesses, which can amplify their footprint online exponentially through the content they publish.
But at the same time, producing any old content isn’t enough. Businesses like yours have to produce the right kind of content: web content that is honestly empathetic and seeded with utility for your customers; content that reflects your businesses core values and is inspired by your unique perspective and authentic “voice.” As blogger and tech evangelist Robert Scoble said last month, “When you are trying to sell something, a human voice does it better."
How do you produce the right kind of content? That bit about being “honestly empathetic” above is the key: Put yourself in the shoes of your customer and consider what you can do to best suit their needs. Be that expert who can help them with their problems and offer solutions. Be a voice of trusted reason in your industry, about whatever problem it is that your service or product solves.
And do it in an interesting way: “Tweet is the new haiku,” as Guy Kawasaki says. By learning how to write a compelling tweet or an interesting blog post, or by creating video or curate information that speaks to the heart of an issue, you will elevate your status from just someone who sells stuff to someone who has an expert point of view and is a go-to resource.
3. Cozy up your website and social media outposts.
Businesses are challenged to improve the integration of their websites and social media presences. Why? Because your home base (your website) needs to have its look and feel more deliberately integrated across any social outpost your business is part of (Facebook, Twitter, and so on), in order to give users more seamless experience with your brand, to more fully support the conversations happening on social networks.
It might radical to think about, but your future web strategy won’t be based around your site, but around people and your online connections.
It sounds obvious that you need to integrate both your site and social outposts, right? But it’s incredibly tricky to pull off, says analyst Jeremiah Owyang, because the teams who maintain each are often different. Then there’s the technology, issue, too: Social platforms are inherently lighter and more nimble, while websites often are inherently “heavier,” with lots of custom programming.
The goal is to move beyond simply slapping Facebook and Twitter icons on your home page (and driving people to those outposts without any sense of a larger strategy) to more seamless integrating the visitor experience and aggregating conversations, so that someone doesn’t see an obvious difference between being on a home base or an outpost.
4. Social objects can spread your message for you.
Those companies succeeding the most with social media innately understand that customer engagement doesn’t necessarily take place on their own web pages, as we talked about above.
How can marketers capitalize on that trend right now? One way is to create “social objects” that allow your prospects or customers to spread your message for you across the social web. What’s a “social object”? It might be a cool digital tool or other kind of content (an interesting infographic, a compelling Slideshare presentation, or a video) that your customers take and can share on their own blogs, Facebook pages, and other social platforms.
But a social object might also be as something as simple as a real-life stuffed animal: Software company OK Labs’ stuffed mascot, Iggy Wanna, has partied at bars in Birmingham and surfaced in Shanghai, as documented by people who have gotten their hands on one and uploaded their photos with Iggy to the iguana’s Flickr page.
What’s the value of getting people to take pictures of themselves with your stuffed icon? It raises awareness and interest in your company and builds a sense of community around your business in a humorous, offbeat, and decidedly human way.
5. Serving is the new selling, and support is the new marketing. .
As I’ve written in the past, smart companies will increasingly be "brand butlers," focusing on how they can help their customers or prospects to make the most of their daily lives (versus the old model of selling them a lifestyle). Brand butlering is not about simply offering great customer service or awesome sales support. Instead, it's about creating relevance and utility for people.
Content is one way that you can meet the needs of your customers—by delivering information that's timely, needed and on-brand, and that helps your customers as we talked about in #2, above. But there are other ways -- through iPhone apps that help customers accomplish certain tasks, real-world support, or simply rethinking whether your website navigation really helps your customers accomplish what they need to do. (Or whether it just offers them marketing Frankenspeak.)
A major theme of Gerry McGovern’s new book, The Stranger’s Long Neck (A&C Black, 2010) is that today’s Web represents, more than anything else, a shift in power away from organizations and to customers. Are you helping and supporting your customers in their goals, or just selling to them?
So those are a few things on my radar this fall. What about you? What trends do you see affecting your business as we move toward 2011?
Photo credit: krossbow