Marketers, It's Time to Become Specialist Generalists

Five Strategies for Brands to Become Experts at Holistic Marketing

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One of the most profound trends of the last decade is the specialization of the marketing workforce. The growth of digital channels, it seems, has created a huge demand for experts who are deep in the smallest of niches.

All of this seems to be good for the advertising industry. Ad Age reported last month that U.S. ad agency employment is at its highest level since 2001. This is an indication of how the agency business is successfully navigating marketing's transition to digital.

That said, there are now several major ecosystem challenges that loom large. And these are impacting how content is discovered, consumed and monetized and will make marketing even more difficult.

Specifically, these trends include:

Media proliferation: infinite content, yet finite attention.

Social personalization: content flowing via the lens of friends.

Advertising frustration: ad blocking, viewability and bot fraud.

Taken together, this will make it harder and harder for brands to get their message across. And it creates a need for a new class of marketing jedis -- those who will thrive as generalists.

Specialist generalists, as I call them, are integrators who can see the entire ecosystem as a whole. They are deep at one thing: extending the lifecycle of a narrative via the right mix of paid, earned and owned tactics.

How does one become such a specialist generalist? It starts with studying how consumption writ large is changing and embracing systems thinking.

At our firm, we are cultivating this by codifying a view of the ecosystem we call the Edelman Cloverleaf. This framework is comprised of two overlapping spheres of influence: those who create and publish content and a more dominant group of technology platforms that distribute it.

Publishers, in this context, include traditional and digital native news organizations, video and other digital influencers and brand storytellers.

Platforms, the larger sphere of influence, includes social networks, search engines and newfangled mobile apps and other content curators.

It's our view that increasingly, content from these three groups of publishers is only visible if it makes it out to the platforms where most of the time, attention and dollars are now going.

The specialist generalist lives and breathes this or a similar holistic worldview. And he or she constantly studies it to cultivate systems thinking and how the right mix of strategies come together for maximum impact.

Based on our recent research, here are five strategies marketers will need to embrace to help ensure that their messages will travel, given the aforementioned challenges:

1. Develop social storylines. Social media is now the primary means of means of discovery. However, news you read is often different than news you say you read. This requires embracing a social-by-design approach to storytelling from the outset that can elevate a consumer's identity.

2. Embrace distribution-centric thinking. This means that brands will need to partner with publishers, influencers and others to scale a program's digital surface area.

3. Drive to earned media. Build programs that create owned media for the primary purpose of driving earned media. Original content is increasingly the "lead domino" that knocks over others and begins a virtuous cycle of conversations.

4. Create a single narrative. Ensure that a singular narrative is carved up and hand-crafted to fit in the spaces where it will ultimately be discovered, shared and consumed.

5. Focus on creating canonical content. High-interest, high-quality stories that are unavailable anywhere else often will find an audience because it is scarce.

The case is growing for the specialist generalist who is indeed a master of not many disciples. Rather, he or she is knowledgeable about all of them and how to mix both tried-and-true and emerging strategies such as the above into holistic communications and marketing programs that will scale.