Engage, Empower, Break Through

While thousands of interactive professionals attended Interactive Advertising World last week, over 600 others spent a couple of days with Forrester Research's Consumer Forum, and it's worth sharing a few highlights.

The theme of the Forum was "delivering breakthrough multi-channel customer experiences." Speakers such as Victoria's Secret's Kenneth Weil, Best Buy's Michael Linton, Hewlett-Packard's Vikkie Pachera, and Clear Channel's Brian Becker covered the customer experience in depth, but the presentations and conversations always shifted to advertising. Here we'll take a look at what precedes the experience.

Joe Trippi of Trippi & Associates, known more famously as Howard Dean's former campaign manager, said that since information equals power, we're not in the Information Age; we're in the Empowerment Age. Empowerment is part of the experience. Empowering consumers means letting them own the brand and the company. For L.L. Bean, it means letting consumers vote on the artwork for the Christmas-season catalog. For Hewlett-Packard and Starbucks, it's embodied in the Hear Music partnership enabling customers to burn a customized CD quicker than you can say "macchiato."



It's all about losing control. Trippi suggested a beer company could come up with a handful of names for its next beer, and then instead of dealing with more focus groups and other closed-door methods, the company could let consumers select the name from among certain options. The first round of advertising would direct consumers to a Web site or text-messaging number, and then, once a name is chosen, the product launch could tout, "You voted. This is your beer." The company doesn't control the final selection, but in this scenario, the more it gives to consumers, the more it gains.

Linda Wolf, chairman and CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide, offered her own assessment of the paradigm shift, which she says involves exposure giving way to engagement, interruption giving way to permission, and broadcasting giving way to customization. She was also, at least in her speech, an advocate of how the Internet plays a central role in all of this.

Taking Wolf's comments a step further, she hit on three points where search engine marketing excels:

Exposure - Engagement

First, consider engagement. It's a given that online media are interactive, so some engagement is implicit. Search goes a few steps further. Reading a newspaper article online is still largely a passive activity. Search is 100 percent active. Nothing happens until the user initiates the process, considers the results, and then follows through by interacting with the most relevant listing. Natural and paid listings both hinge on relevance so that the user remains engaged. That's why Google nixes underperforming advertisements.

Interruption - Permission

Then there's permission. Mass media advertising continues to focus on interruption. Any respectable direct mail and e-mail marketing campaign score through the roof on permission (the objective word being "respectable," remember). Search still holds its own, though in an interesting way.

Compare search to television, for example. With TV, the user implicitly gives permission, but the advertising interrupts. With search, there's the same level of permission, but there's zero interruption. The ads are seamlessly integrated into the experience. Even other forms of traditional direct marketing require a degree of interruption, and on further thought, search may be the only medium where there is a level of permission without any interruption. With search, the user says, "I'll accept the advertising, so long as it doesn't interrupt me, and it's relevant to what I'm doing." Ms. Wolf, search is the embodiment of the future you described.

Broadcasting - Customization

The third part of the trilogy also applies to search. The only ads that display during search are those customized to the user's input. Customization will become even more of a factor in search going forward. See the latest versions of Amazon's and Ask Jeeves for a taste of what happens when personalization meets search. This is all happening now. And as users buy in and expect ad models to adapt.

What this all adds up to is the best, most efficient way to deliver a breakthrough experience. Can it be done by broadcasting interruptions for maximum exposure? Sure, and many advertisers go that route and get by. What about a customized program to engage an audience that granted permission? That seems to make quite a bit of sense.

The tools are there. Use them, and break through.

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