For me, 2017 was a disruptive and disrupting year. The year was like a long drawn battle where it demanded every ammunition for us, and literally seem to fly by right before our eyes. There are many disruptive changes in the communications industry, and it would be wise to be prepared for the new year. There are some observations and some forward projections that fellow marketers would surely have noticed from their own work. Let me briefly articulate some of them.
What did we observe for 2017 and perhaps a couple of years before?
1) Public Relations (PR)
PR is undergoing major upheaval, primarily because of two things – (a) the democratization of media, and (b) the decline of mainstream media.
With the advent of open source blogging platforms such as WordPress and Drupal, and also hosted versions such as wordpress.com and others, blogging steadily emerged as the citizens’ platform for content creation and distribution. Sure, the readership may pale against large mainstream media (TV, radio and print), but the ease of content creation and publishing made blogging permeate to every corner of the world, and into the hands of millions, reaching the very same millions – essentially empowering consumers reaching fellow consumers at zero to low cost.
Adding to the fray is the rise of social media such as Facebook, which allowed the sharing of personal ideas and imagery to friends and families, and you have yet another content creation and publishing platform.
At the same time, because of social media and blogging, and with the changing content consumption habits of younger generations (e.g. the millennials), the mainstream media began to suffer in terms of readership and retention. The cost of subscribing to mainstream media is also a tremendous burden on consumers, as the declining economy affects consumers the most, and extraneous expenses like print subscriptions will often be foregone first. At the same time, digital natives are beginning to consume news on mobiles, which means that traditional mainstream media no longer attract these audiences. The easy availability of digital mobile-centric content for free means yet another death knell for subscription-based media. Some traditional media are beginning to revamp, such as South China Morning Post, where readers can consume news for free.
PR is also moving from simply securing coverage, to maintaining and improving the brand and reputation. This means more social listening, more community outreach, more altruism, more knowledge sharing rather than pushing products or solutions, and more engagement with the larger pool of stakeholders such as regulatory agencies, educational institutions, non-profits, and so on.
What does this mean for PR practitioners? First, there is a need to reach out to digital natives who are mobile-centric. If the mainstream media you are targeting does not reach out to consumers on mobiles, you will need to find ways to reach them, either through other media which focus on mobile consumers, or push content to social media and blogs, either as original content, or rely on third-parties who are content creators to review your products, interview your clients, etc. Let me not mince words. PR will become extremely challenging, with rapid response (newsjacking) as the norm, with a continued decline of the use of news releases, while a continued rise in branded content newsrooms (microsites).
2) Social Media
Social media channels like Facebook and Instagram have emerged as contenders to Google and the traditional media. However, much has changed even in the social media ecosystem.
For example, Facebook has started out as a “friends and families” social network, and then leaned heavily towards content creators and publishers (i.e. brand owners). When Facebook leaned towards brand owners, the users started to lose interest and shifted from the platform to the dark social platforms like Whatsapp, Line and others. Facebook then took an about turn and focused on “friends and families” as a social network again. This means that brand owners now need to pay a lot more money in sponsored content as organic reach become nearly non-existent for smaller brands and a lot less for major brands. Other social media platforms may be doing the same.
So, don’t park all your marketing budget into social media, as many big brands have also realized that not all that engagement or visitors are useful or legitimate, and that the costs are also escalating. Learn to discern and spend wisely, as social media will not save your business it is not viable in the first place, and that social media can and will only be part of the marketing pie.
Events engage people, because consumers can get close to your brands and products, and vice versa. Events are great for ABM (accounts based marketing), and are one of the most effective B2B marketing vehicles for demand generation. Events are experiential, and consumers crave for close contact experiences.
Granted, events are not cheap, and there are many costs and concerned parties involved. However, depending on the theme, such events are worth the trouble. For example, B2C companies who need to get close to the ground and their consumers, would find absenteeism from the events scene a problem, especially if their retail presence is limited or absent as well. In the declining retail climate where consumers move to e-commerce marketplaces, retailers might be tempted to simply go digital and forego a physical presence. However, having no visible mindshare through highly visible retail shops (essentially outdoor advertisements) or other forms of outdoor and overt advertising, branding and mindshare will decline quickly, as consumers are fickle. Therefore, events are useful to kickstart or rejuvenate mindshare and branding with consumers. How many events depend on your locale, your industry, and how fickle your consumers are.
What should marketers do? You can either go solo, or if budgets are limited, join hands with other brands to form co-branded events. You can also work with media and event partners to launch branded or co-branded events. All these can alleviate your pains in planning and executing events, and may even save you costs. And if your brand is languishing, remember that creative and innovative public events can jumpstart your sagging brand quickly, even if they can be expensive. Leverage on technology as much as possible to extend and expand your event campaign, whether through social media, mobile, registration, video marketing, etc.
Offline advertising is not dead, contrary to what online advertising touters would have you believe. Already, online ad fraud is very real, where bots may be inflating your statistics and skewing you to pay a lot more and getting very little in return. There are many news that discussed ad fraud, involving all types of digital ads, including programmatic or AI advertising (see articles on Forrester, Digiday, Wired, and lots more through searches).
With offline advertising on the decline, the cards are back on the hands of marketers. Media owners are more than willing to work out preferential programs and packages for advertisers, and so you may be getting more for the buck compared to a decade ago. Surprisingly, traditional media, including TV and radio, are still very useful, especially for certain communities and consumers, including the older working adults, and the “silver hair” generation. At the same time, there are younger consumers who frequent theaters, and cinematic advertising would capture this captive audience.
Don’t write off traditional advertising from traditional media just yet. Be objective and goal-driven, and not blindly follow fads. Good advertising campaigns will be holistic, rather than vertical.
What should marketers look for in 2018? The same old strategies and tactics, or perhaps try other things?
Yes, it is the 21st century and it is already stepping into 2018, and yet I consistently hear of companies who would snort at having a decent website of their own.
Remember that you must always have your own website, preferably built on open source technologies so that you can have a long-term ownership and authorship capabilities, rather than be trapped by proprietary technologies. A website is your own platform, resting on your own domain, with your own content that you can use, reuse, and target to third-party social channels (such as Facebook and LinkedIn). Don’t be trapped by shortcuts which you may regret later, when you need to reengineer your website, looking for people to maintain it, or migrate to a different platform.
There are several good website platforms that you can host on your server, such as WordPress and Drupal, both of which are not too difficult to manage. Having evaluated most common platforms, I would recommend WordPress as it is easy to set up (even if you may need technical assistance to get the backend security and other features configured properly) and easy to maintain content. WordPress is also friendly for setting up for good SEO and social outreach, and depending on the themes, you can easily configure the site to be immediately compatible with mobiles and larger screens.
When developing your website, remember to run your website through free tools such as GTmetrix to have some clarity on your web architecture in relation to SEO and compatibility.
Social media is a great supplementary customer support vehicle to your other platforms. it is not a panacea and should be be your only consideration. However, with resource limitations, many businesses may find it difficult to keep tabs on their social media such as Facebook, and invariably will allow these platforms to languish in disengagement.
One way to alleviate this problem is build your own chatbots. Allow as much information as possible to engage with any perceivable needs and queries of your consumers. If possible, supplement your chatbot with AI (but don’t expect AI to be your savior). For most queries, a well-designed chatbot can help answer most consumer needs, such as products, brands, opening hours, channels, availability, pricing, etc. If possible, your chatbot should work across multiple channels, including your website and social channels. Don’t forget the mobile too – the mobile phone is the go-to device these days for many people. So the ideal solution would be to find a platform that allow you to “author once and deploy everywhere”.
7) Videos and Films
Video, especially on mobile, will be the future. The digital natives are less patient with reading long verbose copy these days, and so to engage the digital consumers, video is a great platform. However, storytelling in a succinct manner is important. Forget long boring corporate videos – nobody watches those. Likewise, as some authors and practitioners discussed, short films with good entertaining stories would work (under 5 minutes), or ultra-short CTA videos (call-to-action) under 15 seconds or less would work.
Unlike TV commercials, online video need not be multi-million productions with special effects (SFX can look extremely cheesy for most videos). Stick to short films that tell powerful human-centric stories, or punchy and humorous short videos that call your consumers to action – such as clicking on a link to your e-commerce site, or call you. Glitzy videos turn your audiences away. Look on YouTube and Facebook and you will notice some of the most powerful and viral videos are produced with down-to-earth budgets. And if you intend your videos to go further with SEO, remember to have spoken videos, because videos with music tracks have no SEO value.
8) Inbound Marketing and Automation
Inbound marketing and marketing automation are getting bigger, and there are many alternatives. Don’t simply gravitate to the obvious choices but dig deeper. There are some that would escalate in costs if your needs become more.
Inbound marketing is mainly about attracting visitors and converting them into leads, while marketing automation is about maintaining and nurturing your existing contacts.
It is important to look for options that would serve your needs now and in the farther future, and still be within your budgets. Additionally, look for options that offer as wide a feature set as possible, which may including landing pages, EDM, contact management or customer resource management (CRM), and even social listening and engagement. In this manner, all you need is a single platform that integrates with your OWN website, and you are set for the future. Remember to cater to GDPR, PDPA and other privacy and data storage regulations around the world.
Surveys and polls are popular with B2B and B2C audiences, and are not expensive to administer. With some platforms, you can also generate attractive infographics to be shared online on your own website or your social channels. Shareable content can help social engagement.
Surveys and polls can be online and offline. Online surveys and polls are hosted on your social and web platforms, and tap on your growing audiences through social engagement or through website signups (EDMs). Surveys and polls can also be implemented offline at your executive events, where you can invite visitors at those events to participate via tablets and workstations, or even through their smartphones by scanning a code on site. Think of such surveys and polls as lead and insight generation programs. As with inbound marketing, remember to cater to GDPR, PDPA and other privacy and data storage regulations around the world.
Obsession and Focus
Before we end, let us stay away from some of the traps of the marketing ecosystem, such as an obsession with data and measurement, and forgetting the prime directive of marketing – that of growing revenue and contributing to profits.
An observation of some of the failed marketing programs reveal one thing – when the business is not doing well, some marketers fall back to the comfort zone of vanity metrics and esoteric numbers, with the feeble hope that the numbers can persuade the top management that things are going well. The reality is that the top brass is only interested in two things – revenue and profits.
Let us always remember that all marketing efforts should be to drive these financial numbers and not empty analytical numbers. Profit is king.
Dr Seamus Phan is the Head of Content and CTO at McGallen & Bolden. He is an expert in branding, marketing, communication, leadership training, crisis management, and entrepreneurship. This article may appear concurrently on his blog. Connect on LinkedIn. ©1984-2018 Seamus Phan et al. All rights reserved.