For Relevance, Think Three-Way

Love Triangle: To Connect With Consumers, Brands Must Intersect With Online Communities, Too

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When the blogosphere mobilized in early 2007 around the tainted pet food that reportedly led to thousands of animal deaths, brands had an opportunity to get it right about an emotional subject -- the well-being of pets. But as news about which brands were affected trickled out from the source, Menu Foods (the manufacturer relied on by many brands), and the Food and Drug Administration, it was a missed opportunity for marketers.
Victoria's Secret Pink: A lifestyle brand that targets its consumers with well-timed and relevant content.
Victoria's Secret Pink: A lifestyle brand that targets its consumers with well-timed and relevant content.
Rather than engage pet owners, most brands let "amateurs" at sites Pet Connection, Itchmo and The Pet Food List, among others, do all the organizing and talking -- and organize they did. Pet Connection even offered live blogging of the food-safety hearing in the House of Representatives.

Conspicuously absent at a time when panicked pet owners were clamoring for news? Purina, Friskies and other of the nation's trusted brands.

Consumer control
Few could have predicted the extent of consumers' overwhelming motivation for and adeptness at making a mark, controlling their experiences, shaping products and sharing opinions. This new breed of conspicuously creative consumer -- these "i-citizens," as we've dubbed them -- have adopted and customized online tools, transforming the online space into a profoundly social ecosystem they can create, control and own.

We now know that traditional push marketing has some serious competition. Far too often, brands are on the periphery of the i-citizenry's shared passions, interests and homegrown expertise. A mere fraction of the videos on YouTube are brand-related. Despite the sophistication of search-engine optimization and search-engine marketing, brands are too frequently unassociated with common search words or phrases that serve as handy and indisputable signs of our zeitgeist. A routine search of "cool jeans for mom" or just "cool jeans," for instance, returns a couple pages of personal blogs and community sites, but not a single brand or retailer, even as a paid listing.

Ultimately, open brand communications have to cast the brand as a member of a three-way relationship where push comes together with pull tactics, and all three parties -- the brand, the consumer, online communities -- meet at the shared intersection of passions and products.

B-to-we
The days of marketing locally to offline communities could have in no way prepared brands for the complexity and scale of the digital community dialogues they must join and enrich today. Most consumer brands are still practicing b-to-c marketing. Now, they have to learn how to connect through a new relationship channel: b-to-we. Communicating with vast and varied online communities whose interests dovetail with those of the brand, companies can tap the connective tissue that binds millions of consumers together.

There are no diminishing returns when brands think three-way, when they "triangulate" to communicate in a b-to-we world. Online communities are an infinite resource bringing not only preexisting participants within the brand's range, but new i-citizens formerly uninvolved until their passions are sparked by a marketing campaign or message that inspires them to spread the love.
Pink pulls together all three sides of the triangle: the brand connects to each girl and the fan community; the girls connect to the brand and each other -- all tied to event marketing as the center.
Pink pulls together all three sides of the triangle: the brand connects to each girl and the fan community; the girls connect to the brand and each other -- all tied to event marketing as the center.

Triangulated communications don't just improve customer acquisition. They help marketers finally identify the different layers of consumers, from those who merely like the brand to those who adore it -- the highest-value i-citizens. They also improve messaging effectiveness. Open brands can glean from online conversations -- forums, message boards, reviews, social-networking profiles -- just what the world is thinking, dreaming and talking about. Not that the best brand marketers don't already have intuitive gifts for divining these currents; they now just have the evidence to back it up, thanks to the chatty, sharing nature of the social web.

So three parties, three vertices in a triangle: this is what constitutes the ultimate open brand relationship. It's a love triangle -- where individual consumers, the interlaced groupings of the i-citizenry and the brand join through shared passions, ideas and interests.

All sides
In the old relationship model, brands ruled the top of the triangle, pushing their messages down to targeted consumers -- but rarely to their communities. Today's consumers and their communities (composing the other two sides of the triangle) are often more engaged with each other than with anything the brand has to say. To start feeling the love again, brands need to seize the online opportunity and flip their orientation from top to bottom, enabling and engaging in a three-way dialogue that moves along all sides of the triangle.

Pink, Victoria's Secret's breakaway lifestyle collection for a young adult female audience, is a brand that pulls together all three sides of the triangle: the brand connects to each girl and the fan community; the girls connect to the brand and each other -- all tied to event marketing as the center.

The recent star-studded PJ Party, promoted through Facebook, street teams and in-store, included flash-mob experiences via SMS announcements about free merchandise and a mobile photo application that enabled partygoers to see themselves on the stage's LED screen, and it culminated in a free Fergie concert. The destination site featured a real-time mobile photo blog from the party and a dance-video-upload contest set to Fergie's latest hit, where Pink fans voted on who should win a shopping spree and have her video featured on VSPink.com. Through triangulated communications, the brand is extended from offline to online, viral and mobile, and to an increasingly "qualified" audience.

The lesson here: Keep your ear to the ground, know what your consumers care about, day by day, and proactively provide relevant content.
Kelly Mooney is president of digital-marketing agency Resource Interactive, a blogger and author of 'The Ten Commandments' and the forthcoming 'The Open Brand: When Push Comes to Pull in a Web Made World.'
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