Certain individuals make content marketing strategies out to be some sort of magic wand that will instantly transport your company into the Fortune 500. As those of us who work in marketing know, there are no magic formulas for instant success, and time-honored business practices – like hard work, excellent customer services, and a deep knowledge of your customers and what they want – are not only as necessary now as they’ve ever been, but even more so.
Augie Ray, of Experience: The Blog, has been involved in the marketing industry for over 20 years, acting as a director of Voice of Customers for a Fortune 100 company, and countless others. He’s seen countless trends come and go, and is quick to dispel myths while taking advantage of the opportunities that are available.
Augie Ray took a moment to tell us about Experience: The Blog, as well as differentiating hype from powerful business strategies.
For people who haven’t visited, can you describe Experience: The Blog?
My blog is intended to explore how brands are built via authentic customer experiences. Before the digital and social eras, brands succeeded via messaging in mass marketing, but over the past two decades, as media has splintered and social media has risen, there has been a shift in the ways brands build and strengthen relationships with consumers. The power of advertising is shrinking, word of mouth is rising and newer technologies such as social and mobile are having a profound impact on businesses and brands. My blog explores the ways brands build products and services, collaborate with customers, invest marketing dollars and evolve to meet customer expectations in a world where customer experiences increasingly drive awareness, consideration, purchase and loyalty.
The thing that inspired me to start the blog is not, ironically enough, what inspires me to keep blogging today. When I launched the blog, I did so to help promote the thought leadership of an agency at which I worked. As it turns out, a leader at the agency did not support the plan, so shortly after launch, I rebranded the blog from a company one to a personal one.
When I launched the blog, I was based in Milwaukee. I’ve since worked for Forrester in the Bay Area, led social media for USAA in San Antonio, and now work on Customer Experience (CX) and Voice of Customer (VoC) programs in New York.
Who is your main audience, and how are there particular needs met by Experience: The Blog?
My primary audience has been marketers, particularly those with a specialty in social media. I have focused a great deal of my research and writing on the ways social media does and does not change marketing, customer experience management and brands.
Interestingly, the longer I write the blog, the more I find myself speaking to issues of leadership, culture and product management and less to marketing or social media strategy. While brands continue to focus a great deal effort on what they say in social media, it is hard to avoid the reality that it is not what brands say but what they are and do that builds strong customer relationships. That may seem pretty obvious, but when one looks at the huge increase in content marketing budgets or the way marketers and marketing media goes gaga over a clever tweet that goes viral, it is evident that marketing leaders are looking for the easy fix and not the hard work it takes to build meaningful customer experiences and relationships.
That is what I hope my readers get out of my blog – the data, insight and examples that demonstrate brands are built with authentic customer-centric experiences and not witty content. (Yes, content can be part of great customer experiences, but it is the customer experience strategy that must come first.) Whereas many other blogs will celebrate a strategy that collects a lot of Facebook fans, I ask if the right fans are being gathered and how they’ll be advanced through a brand journey. While many other blogs jump on every current “social media PR disaster” as examples of how they damage brand relationships, I try to return to the headline-making social media blunders of the past to see if and how they actually impacted the brands. And while many blogs hold up every viral campaign as an unquestionable success, I try to explore if all that reach translates into any changes in attitude or behavior that benefits the brand. I feel like the role of my blog is to keep marketers and others grounded in what really matters to building brand success today.
In your bio, you wrote “In an increasingly social and mobile world, brands are created not by the ads they broadcast but by the experiences they offer – ones that create empathy and loyalty, build trust and relationships, allow collaboration with and between consumers and employees, encourage advocacy and provide even greater value to customers in innovative ways.” For starters, can you talk about why a flashy marketing campaign is no longer enough, and why companies need to deliver real value to their customers? Secondly, can you talk about some methods a company might go about fostering empathy, loyalty, and trust?
Flashy marketing campaigns aren’t going away, but anyone who keeps even half an eye on Adweek or on the commercials on their screen will quickly realize most of them fail. For every Dove Real Beauty or Old Spice “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign, there are hundreds of costly campaigns that fail to move the needle.
To make the point about what drives brands nowadays, I ask people to name brands that have come from nowhere to become household names in the past two decades. The list includes brands such as Ebay, Amazon, Uber, Nest, Square, Flip Video, Google, Krispy Kreme, Zappos, Tesla, Facebook, Jawbone, Angry Birds, PayPal, Evernote and Dropbox. Which ones of those predominantly built their brands with advertising and content? And which ones were built by offering a product or service that delivered real value and so delighted customers that trusted peer-to-peer word of mouth built the brand?
Too many companies seem to feel that empathy, loyalty and trust can be built with donations, campaigns and content, but charitable donations, touchy-feely ads and Facebook posts do not build meaningful relationships. Empathy, loyalty and trust must start with leadership and culture, which then spreads into every product, customer interaction and program. The importance of purposeful, ethical leadership is underscored in Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer report, which finds that the biggest gaps companies have are in attributes such as listens to customers; treats employees well; is ethical, transparent and open; and puts customers before profits.
Banks are among the least-trusted business categories, yet year after year, USAA Bank is at the top of the Temkin Group Trust Ratings. It’s a brand that only embraced national advertising campaigns in the last several years and before that was built on word of mouth since 1922. It represents a great example of how to build trust, loyalty and empathy, because USAA did it by obsessively focusing on customers, putting them first, treating employees well and reinforcing the purpose of the company at every possible opportunity. I am lucky to have worked at USAA because it gave me a front-row seat to seeing how a legendary company builds trust, loyalty and empathy.
You’ve been with working with digital and brand marketing for over 20 years. How have you seen the field evolve in that time? Are you optimistic about the way things are going?
I’ve been a consistently disappointed optimist for twenty years. Since the advent of digital, I have been hopeful of a change in the way businesses and marketers operate. I am certainly not alone in this – the Cluetrain Manifesto, published in 1999, defined a new way to conduct business and marketing in a connected world. Yet, while digital, mobile and social have fundamentally altered the way businesses operate, marketing seems ever more obsessed with short-term metrics such as reach and acquisition rather than longer-term metrics that measure brand reputation, loyalty and business.
Nowadays, many large companies have Chief Customer Officers and Chief Experience Officers, and their existence outside the Marketing Department points to the failure of many CMOs to broaden their vision and deepen their impact within the organization. The CMO always should have been the voice of the customer and leader of customer experience, but the marketing organization’s obsession with acquisition, traffic and conversion led to a focus on prospects over customers, on the top of the funnel rather than the bottom, on broadcasting messages versus listening and engagement, and on interruption marketing rather than powerful end-to-end customer experience.
Perhaps this is changing. I recently saw a survey where marketers by a wide margin believed they would be focused on customer experience in the next five years. I hope it happens, but there is no path from here to there if success will only be measured in impressions, clicks and conversions. A recognition of the importance of CX is good to see, but it will take a big shift in mindset in the Marketing Department to realize this change.
You have expressed a rather controversial stance on the push for more investment in content strategy. For starters, could you briefly give an example of what you mean by content strategy? To follow, some of your stated reasons for this lack of enthusiasm are “a lot of brands ramping up content strategies at a time when organic reach in social is dying, consumers have little trust or desire for most branded content.” If this isn’t working, what methods do you recommend to raise awareness and the value of your brand?
I have taken a rather provocative and contrarian view on the enormous growth in content marketing strategies in recent years. I have an exercise I will do with people to drive this point. I ask them to estimate the number of brands with which they interact on a monthly basis – add up the brands in your refrigerator, kitchen cupboard, closets, medicine cabinets, purses, cars, desks and devices. Most people estimate they interact in the real world with 300 to 500 brands each month, yet how many of these brands do you really want to see content from in email and in social networks?
Most people do not want to engage with content from more than a dozen brands, yet most brands are increasing their content investment as if consumers are hungry for their content. Add to this that Facebook, where most consumer social media time is spent, is seeing a profound decrease in the organic (i.e., unpaid) reach of brand posts, and I think it’s fair to ask a simple question: If almost no one sees what brands are posting in their newsfeeds (or visit corporate blogs or pay attention to brand tweets), how can the Marketing Department validate a return on its content strategy investments?
Obviously, content is important – this interview is content, my blog is content and the TV show I will watch this evening is content. I am not anti-content, and every brand needs a certain amount of content to market, sell and provide support. My concern is with the enormous increase in content marketing spending that was spurred by the growth of social media. I do not see evidence that consumers are more receptive to brand content today than they ever have been, which means marketers will struggle to gain the attention and return necessary for their increased investment.
Rather than focus on broadcasting more content, the better strategy is to focus on strategies that get people talking to each other about the product, service or company. What’s key is that last part – it isn’t enough to have a video or tweet “go viral” if it doesn’t change consumer attitude or behaviors. In 2013, the most viral brand video was KMart’s “Ship My Pants” video, but its success didn’t prevent the continued slip in that retailer. In 2014, the most viral brand content was Ellen’s Oscar selfie, but that didn’t prevent the programs’ sponsor, Samsung, from losing an enormous portion of their smartphone market share in that year.
Instead of getting people sharing because the brand does something clever but vapid, we need to focus on how to encourage peer-to-peer sharing and dialogue about the product, service or mission. Once again, this is where the power of Customer Experience management prevails. People don’t talk about Nest’s content, they talk about the product. People don’t praise Uber because it has a viral video but because it offers a game-changing experience. Focusing on improving the customer experience and then activating trusted peer-to-peer word of mouth is more difficult than getting your agency to produce a hilarious video you hope will go viral, but it will drive far more important engagement.
You wrote a blog post recently criticizing a Harvard Business Review article titled “The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Sharing At All.” For people who haven’t heard the term, what’s the sharing economy? Do you see this as a promising development, and what are some ways you expect it to manifest over the next couple of years?
The sharing (or collaborative) economy is an old idea given new power with social, mobile and digital technology. The concept is that, instead of owning goods and consuming services in isolation, we can collectively consume goods and services in a way that decreases costs, increases financial control and minimizes adverse impacts on the world. Instead of everyone owning their own car – which is expensive and goes unused a huge portion of the time – we can now opt to rent a car by the hour from a company (Zipcar) or a neighbor (RelayRides). Depending upon where you live and your driving needs, this can reduce your asset commitment to a depreciating car, minimize expenses for parking and insurance and diminish the impact to the environment of manufacturing and disposing of more automobiles. From office space to household goods to loans to rides to fundraising, we’re seeing the growth of new forms of sharing.
In the same ways businesses first thought the Internet was a way to promote existing products (CDs, books, newspapers, physical stores, etc.) but eventually were forced to evolve their products and services in digital ways (streaming services, ebooks, news sites and e-commerce), the same thing is happening now with social media. Companies that rushed to Facebook and Twitter to promote their existing products and services are finding that collaborative consumption habits are forcing changes on their business models away from buying and possessing and toward renting, sharing and accessing.
iTunes, which sells digital music, is shrinking while subscription music services are rising. Hotels are nervous at the growth of Airbnb, which turns the rather impersonal, generic lodging experience into a more customized, personal and unique experience when renting people’s homes. And automakers and Silicon Valley are racing to produce the first commercial self-driving car, not because people will own and park their self-driving car in their garage but because self-driving cars will revolutionize transportation with rapid, on-demand, pay-as-you-go services. (Why invest in a rapidly depreciating $30,000 asset that costs $1,000 a month for maintenance, payments, fuel, insurance and parking when you can have instant transportation for a fraction of that cost?)
I think the sharing economy will have a growing impact across many industries in the coming years, ranging from manufacturers and retailers of durable goods (cars, lawnmowers, electric drills) to companies that own and rent assets to people (hotels and car rental) to companies that facilitate business between consumers (banks, loans, office rentals) to insurance (where less ownership means fewer things to to insure).
Do you have some good general social media rules of thumb?
The biggest tip I can offer to brands at a time when the organic reach of brand posts is shrinking is to be present for customers on their terms rather than treating social media users as if they are there to help you sell, market and distribute content. The paid opportunities in social media will continue to grow, I believe, but earning attention on Facebook or Twitter will be an increasingly difficult proposition. Being present for customers on their terms means listening, responding, offering assistance and collaborating, not broadcasting and marketing. Moreover, with the growth of the collaborative economy, the time has come to begin thinking of social media not as a platform for brand communications and marketing but as a change in consumer attitudes and behaviors that will force changes in products, services and business models.
For more updates from Augie Ray and Experience: The Blog, follow him on Twitter.