Commentary

Invitation Marketing: Rules of Engagement

Always picture the person you're writing the ad for before you write the ad. I'm not sure whether this came from a textbook, an advertising professor, or my first creative director, but it's something I always do before starting a new campaign. Now, I put hundreds of different people in my head before starting. That's not daunting, it's liberating.

If we're on top of our game as marketing people, we should be comfortable by now with this fragmented, complex, consumer-controlled, user-generated new media landscape. We should embrace the idea that where, when, why, and how we talk to customers has changed forever.

What hasn't changed is that people still respond to brands that treat them as people and to ideas that engage them. The difference is that those brands and ideas are no longer held captive by 30 seconds, a printed page, a limited media budget, someone's location, or the time of day. Instead, great ideas can be supported by experiences that invite greater exploration.

Think back to Apple's groundbreaking "1984" Super Bowl ad and imagine how that idea would have played out today: the long-form film capturing Big Brother's world, the online demos of the Mac, the chat, and the ability to replay and share the commercial instantly.

While media fragmentation may create havoc for traditional media metrics, it's an amazing opportunity for creative and media teams to come together to create the ideas and plans to support the intimate dialogs that make true engagement possible.

Let's get back to those 100 different people we should have in our heads before we start to create. One hundred isn't a hard number, but it's a large number. It's intended to force us to think. It forces on us the discipline of talking to individuals, instead of marketing to groups. It forces us to avoid the mushy middle of appealing to everyone. It forces relevance - finding the intersection between what a brand wants to communicate and what a customer wants to hear.

Here are some specifics:

Über-consumers: While account planning and psychographics have already helped us tighten our approach to media and creative, the new landscape demands that we apply even finer filters. GenY isn't a target market, it's a target continuum. Ideas need to reach individuals across that continuum. Consumer involvement also needs to be factored in - ranging from highly engaged "prosumers" to traditional consumers.

Talking vs. marketing: Our audiences are incredibly sophisticated. They understand the marketing context of communications. Not only do they know there's a man behind the curtain, but they know his motivations. Let's be upfront with the people we're talking to and not try to disguise marketing messages. Let's continue to create ads and online experiences that get people involved.

The mushy middle: This is work that plays to the common denominator and, in so doing, diffuses the message. Example: For a technology brand, the mushy middle comes from an idea that straddles the tech needs of a smart IT person (with a finely tuned BS meter) with the broader needs of a manager who is interested in the business benefits, not how the technology works. In the mushy middle, the it person is left seeing "fluff." The business decision-maker is often left confused.

Relevance: It's the antithesis of the mushy middle. Relevant ideas address the individual's needs with detail and language that rings true. You run the risk that many people won't "get it." But the ones who do are the ones you want. (Best example: ESPN's long-running "SportsCenter" TV campaign. The more obscure the reference, the more rewarding the experience for viewers.) Relevance has to be integrated across campaigns. A spot-on ad is missing huge opportunities when the landing pages, Web sites, e-mail and direct campaigns aren't supporting it with the same level of thinking.

The result of this approach? More intricate media plans, more individualized creative executions, more precise message maps, and more enriching rewards for people who choose to take the next step. As campaigns move from macro to micro, the ability to measure their impact also needs to be adjusted. Engagement metrics need to be expanded to reflect the true value of the time spent by users and the content areas that draw their attention. It's the start of a dialogue. Actually, hundreds of them.

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