A Checklist for Reinvention in a Recession

Who Knows, It Could Spawn a Digital Renaissance

By Published on .

Ian Schafer Ian Schafer

Marketing innovations during recessionary times have been proven (and reinforced by smart folks at places such as Harvard Business School) to lead to increases in market share, shifts in brand loyalty, reinforcement of core values and better opportunities to learn more about your customers. In fact, some of the best brands and products have been launched successfully during recessionary periods. MTV, the iPod and Crest White Strips are but a few examples of those.

That's why many experts suggest the thing you shouldn't do during a recession is cut back on ad spending. But it happens nonetheless. Hey, the bottom line is the bottom line. And when that happens, everyone feels it. Publishers, agencies and, of course, advertisers -- both traditional and digital.

Historically, it's the time when everyone starts talking about direct response, search engine marketing and every other bottom-of-the-sales-funnel, ROI-attached ad tactic as "the responsible thing to do."

But while those may be important components of a holistic advertising strategy, what often gets left on the cutting-room floor is a budget for everything else marked with the scarlet letter E (for "experimental"). Display advertising, promotional microsites, social media and other forms of interactive marketing often get that E label.

But don't forget a big reason these tactics are "experimental": most advertisers have been late to a party that consumers have been hosting for quite some time. As an industry, we've been slow, tentative and overly deliberate -- and consumers' usage of digital media is outpacing that of marketers.

Instead of under-investing, think of this difficult economic climate as a potential golden age for digital marketing innovation. It's only just now that technology and talent have come together in a way that can really make it all happen.

Many marketers are apparently looking to take advantage of it. According to a recent study by the Association of National Advertisers, when asked how they would adjust current marketing and media plans to account for the recent downturn in the financial markets, 27% said, surprisingly, that they would spend more.

If they do in fact spend more, their spending will no doubt be scrutinized. At a time when all advertising spending is being scrutinized, there are several recent but proven methods that have been successful at not only saving budgets but actually making those budgets go further within digital media.

Foster relationships through social media.
Now is the time to focus efforts on re-establishing, reinforcing and reinvigorating the relationships you have with your current customer base. Think of it as an investment in your future at a time when the present is probably on pretty shaky ground. The beautiful thing about social media is that the stickiest of sites are not just media properties. They are platforms for communication and connectivity that bring people closer to brands -- and each other. Don't just create a promotional, temporary outpost but a permanent area where people can interact with your brand in ways that they want and will benefit from.

According to the aforementioned ANA study, 32% of respondents were asked to name their "preferred social media site for driving brand growth." The largest percentage, 32%, said "none." There's no better time to take advantage of slow movers than right now.

Leverage the "social coefficient."
But that doesn't mean build for whomever might show up. Build for those you think will be able to benefit the most and might espouse the benefits and share them with others. Think evangelists and apostles -- not just influencers. Your efforts will be more appreciated, more refined and yield better returns, creating more powerful customers who are better at singing your praises. Initially recruit through highly targeted advertising and then grow through a "social coefficient" -- the multiplicative factor of a successful social-media communications strategy where the solicited actions of your customers both passively and actively lead to content created -- and shared -- around your brand. Think the Facebook News Feed effect. And each subsequent action can reduce your effective CPM, if you can measure it.

Make your content available everywhere.
Whether you like it or not, content travels. If you don't do it, consumers will do it for you. So coordinate your own efforts to ensure the best quality, accuracy, distribution and availability for that content, whether it be to support videos, widgets or applications. The best part of this strategy will be having the ability to measure its effectiveness. When working with the right partner(s), this is a very cost-effective way to track consumption, engagement and pass-along. If the content is not necessarily time-sensitive, this strategy of ubiquity may even mitigate the need to spend as much in media dollars to support it. This is precisely the reason why media planners and public relations professionals can benefit by working more closely together.

Leverage APIs, and provide improved value and practical tools.
If there's a web technology out there, chances are it's got an API (application programming interface). And if it's got an API, it's probably quite useful. A successful branding strategy should always involve looking at good experiences that consumers are already having and figuring out ways to make them better. Think of it as better branding through technology. It saves you from having to build something from scratch (e.g. Facebook applications), which would force you to not only market your brand but also a new product. Take a long hard look at Facebook Connect, OpenSocial and the LinkedIn, Amazon, YouTube and even Best Buy APIs. These can play a pivotal role in enhancing experiences and spreading messages.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. And if we need to spend more efficiently, we need to figure out ways to make our money work harder. The tools, partners and solutions are out there. Seek them out and implement them. There's one thing you can put your money on: 2009's most successful campaigns will be the ones that leverage these strategies the best. Think about this as a humanistic revival. One that will take us out of digital brand advertising's medieval period and into one that will actually catch us up to our consumers.

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