The most exciting aspect of marketing in the digital age is change
Nothing stays the same for long. We need to be ready for the next “big thing” birthed by technologists, nurtured in the arms of consumers and laid upon the doorsteps of commerce. Marketplace adoption of technology begets needs brands had not previously considered; recent examples include community management and content development. We are introduced to these juggernauts as “trends” but they soon mature into business requirements. The ability of a brand to adapt and address these needs reflects its likelihood to gain or retain relevance in the digital world.
It is time to add a new need to the list: Audience Building
Historically, the notion of developing an audience has been the sole province of the entertainment media not brand marketers. Record companies, television networks and movie producers continually hone the craft of audience development. Brands, through advertising and sponsorships, happily validate this approach while bearing no direct responsibility for the audiences. Safe distance is kept between brand and customer by having a media intermediary.
The distance, of course, is diminishing. Digital connectivity and interoperability bridge the safety zone. Consumers can openly talk to (and about) the brand, while brands can build direct relationships with the customer independent of traditional media and advertising, forcing digital marketing strategies to mature from a position of exposure to one of engagement. Success requires addressing the consumer expectation that the brands themselves have something meaningful to say. Many don’t (at least not anything truly of interest to the customer). This is a perilous position for a brand to be in.
The next wave of digital winners is already emerging with a solution: establish the customer relationship upon a bed of relevant content experiences that foster long-term engagement and frequent contact. In other words, build an audience for your brand. The benefits pay off in the short term with increased brand relevancy and in the long term with deep customer engagement.
Content that fosters audience building creates an emotional bond that goes beyond the tangible nature of a product or transaction by aligning the brand interests and customer purpose. Brands targeting young, active consumers have been quick to recognize the power of these audience-based relationships (think GoPro, Red Bull and Mountain Dew), but the opportunities apply across segments.
Successfully transitioning to an audience model requires a behavioral shift on the part of the brand. Typically, the customer only engages when they are thinking of the brand, while the audience engages because the brand is thinking of them. It is the difference between saying “we are here when you need us” or “we are here, we want you with us now.” That’s more than a slight nuance, moving the brand from a passive to a proactive stance.
The long-term commitment audience building demands forces brands to depart from the familiar territory of viral one-offs or individual campaign flights, while challenging the tradition of marketing budgets parsed quarter by quarter. Audiences grow over time, fostered by a consistent and persistent flow of content across relevant channels; budget models and management commitment need to reflect this.
For brands willing to play the long game, a change to the audience model opens doors to customer engagement opportunities that would otherwise remain shut (or become the domain of competitors). It may sound like a dramatic adjustment now, but the concept of “audience” will become part of the toolset for brand marketers worldwide.