The past year, although troubling and difficult for many people, has been a fascinating period in advertising. It has caused fundamental shifts in the balance of power between traditional and digital shops and, more important, changed the way that most savvy agencies approach marketing. Results are still king, but budgets are becoming more and more scrappy and if that wasn't challenging enough, the client is standing behind you with a pitchfork just to make sure that you stay on form.
This new marketing climate has businesses and brand teams embracing blogs and open-source content-management system (CMS) platforms to drive their new sites. While this shift is being viewed as a reaction to tough economic times, using tools like Drupal, Wordpress, Ping.fm, Twitter, Facebook Pages and others doesn't have to mean you're trying to take the cheap route. The fact is that these tools embrace open architectures that have a lot of work (particularly social media integration tools) already built into them.
Creating basic blogs, allowing comments and uploading photos is not some new and revolutionary idea. Brands should have been embracing these kinds of initiatives all along. I think the driving force behind this delay was the time it took for many companies to finally get the ear of their internal stakeholders and receive not only their social media "buy in" but also a genuine vote of confidence that this medium could be vital to their brand.
Now the stakeholders are enamored with social media and its ability to enable brand-focused conversations online. The issue is that they are looking to spark dialogue through destination sites and campaigns that have a very short shelf life (i.e. campaigns that allow their brand to stay relevant until the economy improves). What they should be doing is treating them as permanent sites through which they can build a community, provide thought leadership and encourage ongoing discussion.
Now the question is, if conversation is really the goal and low costs are the requirement, what are your next steps? I say you take the conversations to the communities where they're happening. How do you do this? Dedicate a full-time person to engage people in the social-media space by discovering conversations through free tools. This approach will cost less than a typical agency site and I can guarantee you that it will generate more conversation.
Marketers should also be sure to put more emphasis on strategy behind these efforts, as this kind of upfront thinking -- the kind not limited to creative executions -- can save the business money and lay a clear road map for success. Clients are demanding results and are most likely seeking reductions in fees in places like account management and general oversight, places where they don't perceive ROI.
As part of your social campaign, empower your clients to do more work in-house to maximize budgets while enabling them to be successful. This can be achieved by sharing links to free online tools or providing guides or knowledge-sharing tools to handle things like digital engagement. And seek out low-cost production facilities and don't have your agency make online videos for $100,000 when teenagers around the world are making successful ones for free.
Even if your budgets aren't being reduced, you should look at these kinds of solutions. Why? Because right now there's someone trying to get a meeting with one of your clients and they're going to underbid you. But if you can do your work more economically, you can produce more of it and help the client to be exponentially more successful. Inexpensive doesn't have to mean less intelligent.
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Freddie Laker is the director of digital strategy at Sapient. He has also founded the Society of Digital Agencies, a collective of notable digital agencies focused on thought leadership and positive industry change, and blogs at takemetoyourleader.com.