THE GOOD, THE GREAT, THE ENGAGING.
What makes strategic planning good, great or engaging – in a digital world.
Traditionally a good brand knows where it’s going (market position), what it is aiming for (in terms of sales, loyalty, perception, role in the public sphere…), whose attention it is seeking (certain categories of individuals or groups as ordered by age, revenue, location, professional and leisure activities, …).
Therefore a good brand will need to have a good understanding of its market, in other words a clear bird’s eye view of the overall lay of the land. A good brand’s captain is sitting on a hill atop the battlefield, equipped with spotless binoculars, surveying its competitors and enemies, thinking its strategy in terms of overall trends and movements. A good brand, like any good sovereign, makes good use of sociology, the social science that speaks to the prince as to what the structure of the society it purports to govern is. Just like it is enough for a good — as in efficient — sovereign to learn from Durkheim that suicide is more prevalent in certain groups than in others so as to start dealing with this issue, it is enough for a good — as in efficient — brand to know that middle-class adults live in designated areas such as suburbs, have two cars on average, have children who play a mix of sports (football, baseball, soccer, …) and musical instruments (piano, guitar, …) while they practice running or play tennis.
Thus a good brand may sell the chocolate it makes, the cars it builds or the hotel nights it offers to the right persons, with the right messages: “A chocolate bar for the way home”, “The car that gets you home” or “The rest you deserve from home” — please appreciate the 1950’s overtone that there is to these.
This is good — as in efficient — strategic planning.
Traditionally a great brand knows where, what and who too; and it knows why. Why should or can it have a given role in the public sphere and in the eyes of consumers, why it is positioning itself against its competitors, why it will all matter in the end.
Therefore a great brand will need to have a way to enter the psyche of the individuals (psychology) and the groups (social psychology) it interacts with. A great brand’s general will walk on the battlefield in the wee hours of the morning, both after a night of battle and before everything begins again, listening to what is said, feeling the morale of the troops, asking some questions, fielding some answers. A great brand, like any great sovereign, knows what the opinions of its consumers or constituents are. Just like it is enough for a great — as in efficient — sovereign to feel the pulse of public opinion through polls, public visits or town hall meetings, it is enough for a great — as in efficient — brand to gauge consumers uses and attitudes through surveys, panels or focus groups.
Thus a great brand may sell the chocolate it makes, the cars it builds or the hotel nights it offers to the right persons, with the right messages, with some sense of purpose: “[chocolate] For the tasteful”, “[cars] For the unimpressed”, “[hotel nights] To live like you should” — please appreciate the 1980s-2000s personal status overtones that there are to these.
This is great — as in meaningful — strategic planning.
Traditionally there is no such thing as an engaging brand. Such a brand knows where, what, who and why as well, but it does not really know how yet, it is still learning to position itself in a moving landscape.
Therefore an engaging brand will need to find venues to enter the spaces where its intended audiences are, to observe their ways, to learn from them instead of learning about them. Indeed much of the tools available to good or great brands — or sovereigns — are approximations or constructs, rarely actual in vivo observations drawn from ever-updated behaviours, conversations and interactions. An engaging brand’s teacher will ubiquitously venture into every corner where their intended audiences are, understanding the habits and meanings of the various rooms, corridors, hallways, alleys, squares and fields of the land, just like Marcel Mauss and many cultural anthropologists have shown us to do.
Thus an engaging brand may sell the chocolate it makes, the cars it builds or the hotel nights it offers to the right persons, with the right messages, with an exact sense of purpose: “#chocolate For The Mindful”, “[cars] For The Free Riding”, “Room To Live Like A Local” — please appreciate the Instagram-friendly overtones that there are to these.
This is engaging planning, also known as engagement planning, which should simply be called strategic planning, as it should be done today.
Learning to be Engaging (research)
In order to steer an Engaging Brand, one must know where and what to observe.
The search engines we query, whether Google or YouTube, reveal a lot about our behaviours— which can be observed from tools such as Google & YouTube Trends (to get an overall view of topics in a comparative and historical mode), Google AdWords (to get into the nitty-gritty of each keyword string) or Answer The Public (to obtain the exact semantics surrounding any keyword string). I personally abide by the following heuristics when I try to observe such items and infer behavioural patterns therefrom:
– Using Google, try several keywords around the topic at hand and write down the Google Suggest results (the most popular user-made queries around a keyword) – and don’t forget to have a look at Google Images, although I’m still waiting for a tool that will automate some of the collection and analysis of the most popular iconographic representations behind each keyword or query;
– Using Google Trends, try several keywords and queries around the topic at hand to get a sense of the corresponding trends over the past few years; explore the associated and popular searches that appear below the trends;
– Using Google AdWords, verify the volume of monthly searches and seasonality around each identified keyword or query, and explore the long tail of related queries (ones usually searched in association with the ones already at hand);
– Repeat the process as needed.
This approach may reveal very large nationally aggregated insights into the needs, interests, expectations and ways that people have around a given category of products, industry or brand.
The many devices we use — and the operating systems, social platforms, browsers, cookies and apps thereon — reveal a lot about about what we read, what we watch, what we shop, where we go, how we feel, who we’re connected to… As opposed to aggregated Google data that can be easily leveraged, these data usually rest with the manufacturers of the devices and operating systems (Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android versions) and publishers (websites, apps, content streaming platforms like Netflix or Spotify, ecommerce websites like Amazon) that may or may not share in a structured and explorable manner part or all of the data that comes into their custody.
At this point in the post let me depart for a brief moment into the inevitable controversy around the data collected and often poorly protected or leveraged by digital platforms, to a large extent, and digital publishers, to a lesser one. I believe that users should have much more control over the (personal) data they share and should be much more associated to the policies governing the (derived) data they create through their digital labour. I am confident that through a mix of public regulation (like the GDPR or e-privacy directive in Europe) and tech-enabled control (like Do Not Track or Blockchain based protocols) we will achieve a much fairer data compact between users and data custodians — although there’s still a long way to go at the time of writing this article, I’ll leave it at that for now.
Finally the many social platforms we use put in plain sight what we think, what we say, what we show, what we share. I personally use tools such as Radarly or Netbase to monitor, sort and analyse these platforms with the following features in mind:
– Forums and like-featured platforms (e.g. Reddit in the USA, Doctissimo in France) offer windows into qualitative reasonings, arguments and communal experiences;
– Blogs and conversational platforms like Twitter, owing to their openness coupled with community-dynamics (birds of a feather flocking together), offer windows into public opinion dynamics on a broad range of issues, from current events to hobbies or even the mundane talk of the town;
– Image-oriented platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, owing to the democratisation of self-representation (something once the preserve of the few) they have enabled, offer windows into everything we long for, everything we project, everything we want to be, obtain or achieve – images carry so much power don’t they; – As for the enormous public square (with hundreds of millions of small semi-private spots) that Facebook has become, for what WeChat engulfs (every little thing in one’s daily life), for the millions of chat messages we share with one another on Messenger, What’s App, Snapchat or Instagram: most of it is — for good reasons — outside of our reach.
Being Engaging (spaces, channels & formats)
It won’t come as a surprise to the reader who’s come thus far: the final part of this post does not offer ready-made strategies for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. First, this would be a very perilous endeavour as these platforms are in constant flux, as well as the formats they carry. Second, and much more importantly, as engagement planning is — or at least should be — nothing less than strategic planning to its full extent, there should be no Facebook strategy, there should be no Instagram strategy, there should be no Snapchat strategy, there should be no What’s App strategy, there should be no Twitter strategy, there should be no Facebook Messenger strategy, there should be no WeChat strategy; should I continue? I’ll simply add this: just like no one would base their approach on a TV strategy or a radio strategy, no one should base their approach on an Instagram strategy.
That being said I think entire brand strategies can be built around a social world, around a world where consumers do not sit idly on the receiving end, where they interact amongst themselves without much concern for brands, or where they make theirs, in good or ugly ways, what brands add to their social spaces. In a world where 2.2 billion users spend 40 minutes per day on Facebook, where 1.5 billion users spend 40 minute-watching-streaks whenever they go on YouTube, where Netflix has more viewers of night programmes than US TV channels do, where Instagram creates spaces for self-expression whence new cultures emerge, where Snapchat has enabled everyone — and many competitors — to tell Stories with and of themselves; in this world it would be utter nonsense to create brand strategies that depart from these social truths, in this world it would be absurd to try to get into these social spaces without having started therefrom, without having based everything else thereupon. There should be no Instagram strategy, but there should be brand strategies made within the context of an Instagram world.
Being engaging is a strategic issue that needs to be laid upon carefully contemplated social spaces; it entails (i) thinking in terms of marketing objectives and (ii) leveraging different social spaces, channels and formats to further different ends. Although this is almost always an exercise that must be done in concreto, I’ve bundled generic approaches for three key kinds of programmes or campaigns: Awareness, Immediateness, Cultural.
When a brand aims to build up its visibility among its intended audiences it traditionally resorts to mass media channels such as TV, outdoor and print publishers. Digital and social media offer such a reach (70-90% of national populations in most mature markets) coupled with more and more time spent there (2 to 3 hours per day on average) that they are now used for pure awareness purposes, often in conjunction with the aforementioned channels.
Nevertheless there are certain format constraints that must be obeyed so as to maximise the engagement of an awareness campaign, along the following lines, on the following platforms:
– Google AdWords, carefully chosen (see research steps above), are a must in any awareness campaign – probably in any campaign for that matter.
– Facebook’s newsfeed is the space which is given the most attention by the higher number of users. Owing to the quasi disappearance of organic visibility, a brand should build its awareness approach like it does any campaign, paying for its visibility through promoted or even dark posts— for these intents and purposes, it does not matter whether a brand has a Facebook page or not. Many Facebook formats are available: video posts (best if they are 10-15 seconds or less and if they still make sense with the sound off), image posts, image carrousels, …
– Instagram may be used, within an awareness campaign, in a manner similar to Facebook. However slight differences in uses should be kept in mind, most notably the rising importance of the Stories format that call for a variety of short videos, images and graphic or textual annotations combined in a playful manner.
– Although YouTube has slightly fewer users than Facebook, it commands a lot of our collective attention, probably in a more undivided way than Facebook — one is most attentive when watching a YouTube video than when perusing a feed. The now notorious skip button and its 5-second threshold, with the recent addition of the mobile-only unskippable 6-second bumper videos (to be treated somewhat like animated print ads / GIFs / Stories), are the main formats that must be leveraged.
It can obviously be supplemented, notably by display and native advertising formats, but this mix of spaces and formats makes for the basis of an engaging — as in attention-catching — awareness campaign.
A brand often seeks direct responses to its marketing campaigns in order to support the lower part of the purchase funnel, that is to say the moment when a consumer is expected to act upon what is presented to them, either to purchase an item, subscribe to a service or simply use or download some — free or paid — digital product emanating from the brand. TV and, mostly, radio and direct mail have long been the channels of immediateness. Digital and social platforms are nowadays more and more preferred for such brand activities.
One can identify three categories of immediate campaigns that can be used separately or cumulatively, depending on the brand’s objectives:
– Call To Action campaigns typically ask for a download, a subscription (newsletter, streaming service, license, …), a purchase. Search formats (general, video or App Store) formats, IAB display formats (banners), social display formats (often in the form of digital cards like the ones offered by Facebook, Instagram, YouTube — alongside videos — or Twitter), CRM channels (customer databases), messenging apps (Facebook Messenger or WeChat ads for instance) and evident social commerce formats like the ones put forward by Instagram and Pinterest are all appropriate ways to achieve these objectives, especially since they allow for numerous data-based segmentations and scenarios (e.g. users who have or don’t have an app, users who have certain types of interests as told by who and what they follow, etc.).
– Place-Specific campaigns have been made much easier by digital platforms. They entail creating an interaction between a brand and its customers in a specific location like a shop, a restaurant, a sports arena, a designated public place, etc. For instance a brand that sponsors sports events, one with a chain of restaurants or shops that wants to attract visitors or keep them longer, or another one that aims to engage audiences known to be in certain neighbourhoods shall all leverage Snapchat geofilters or lenses, Waze banners and points of interest, and all IAB or social display formats that live on mobile phones (mostly in-app formats which allow for fine-grained geo-targeting). – Time-Specific campaigns around an ongoing or live event often leverage Twitter’s ability to be the first platform to launch public conversations. Twitter having become the « What’s happening » rather than the « What are you doing » platform, thanks to what its users have decided to do with it over the years, it is best used when laid on top some real time, live or unfolding-in-time component. A TV appearance, a live sports event or ongoing tournament, events happening during a trade show or an exposition, these are all events that can leverage numerous Twitter formats like the Auto-Response Tweet or the Retweet for Reminder ones. Facebook shall obviously not be discarded, notably owing to its Facebook Live format which does not always gather wide audiences, but that does yield high engagement rates.
Digital and social platforms were born distributed and horizontal and are therefore very well positioned to create interactions between a brand and its audiences, to engage the latter.
This third and final category of brand programmes will serve as the final and concluding part of this long enough post. This is the point at which we touch upon what these platforms are at their very core, social spaces that have upended the public spaces and media environments we had grown accustomed to in the XIX and XX centuries.
Cultural programmes or campaigns aim to establish a brand as an icon, a symbol, a totem around which people like to be seen (seeking status), to come together (seeking inspiration, common codes and meanings), to belong (seeking actual communities). This is an important triptych inside the cultural programme bracket : status, inspiration, community.
Because of their social essence, of the widespread — and often misplaced, including in Mark Zuckerberg’s own words — use of the word « community », brands have tended to apprehend digital platforms as spaces where community management shall be done, no more and no less. This is both very reductive and arrogant. Reductive because, as we’ve seen above, these platforms can be used for various marketing purposes, as a matter of fact for pretty much everything that marketing aims to do — in conjunction with other channels. Arrogant because very few organisations or brands are actually able to enter, let alone create, communities.
Social platforms can help strengthen or sometimes create great cultural brands, notably, along the lines of the long tail-ification (i.e. fragmentation) of our world, great « sub-cultural » brands:
– The ability to represent oneself on Instagram or Snapchat (with the addition of lenses and stickers) have turned these spaces into the preferred ones for cultural status branding.
– The delicate design of visual canvasses on Instagram (from pics to Stories) or Snapchat (from Stories to the whole Discover section) have positioned these as the go-to networks for cultural inspiration branding – beside finely selected publishers who can offer native advertising formats that are going to embed a brand in a flow of inspiring contents.
– And finally, striking a core chord, after 18 months of turmoil, fake news or privacy breaches controversies, Facebook’s recent algorithmic changes and decisions that encourage actual conversations rather than like-baiting may establish it as a relevant space for community branding — alongside forums, blogs, Twitter, Reddit, gaming spaces, Twitch, comment zones on community-based websites, etc.
In the end I would say that community management can be the sign of two things that sit at both ends of the engagement spectrum: the lousiest brand, or the best. How do you tell the difference? By examining whether said brand got there skipping everything else, or checking all the boxes before arriving at the pinnacle of engagement, community. Before a brand gets to the bottom of this engaging journey, of this cultural communication bracket, before it purports to do proper community management, it should plan everything engagingly first.