Ever had a boss who habitually seizes on something another business is doing and says: “Should we be doing that?” Social media is causing the same insecurity complex in the digital immigrant generation. It’s a sort of digital Fear Of Missing Out. Questions often asked include: how many Facebook friends does the brand have? Is everyone moving to Instagram? Will being on Pinterest make us cool? Can we do a partnership with Foursquare? Or, more likely: Now that we have our Facebook page/Twitter feeds/app, how do we monetise them?

This is a bit like walking down the high street, considering everything you see: passing Thomas Cook (do I need to book a holiday?), past the newsagent (do I need a newspaper?), past the funeral director (do I need a funeral?) – other people are in there, so maybe I should be too.

Of course it’s useful to look around. It’s a great source of ideas and it’s good to be aware of competitors’ activity. But only you know your business strategy, your proposition and your target customers. Facebook and Twitter don’t. They have their own. (You’re one of them.)

Yes, many brands are there, including – you can be sure – at least one competitor. On the other hand, your target market is almost certainly different from that of most of the brands that are big on Facebook or YouTube. Maybe it’s right for them. Maybe it’s right for you. But, as David Taylor pointed out in Market Leader (January 2013), the fact that they are doing it doesn’t automatically make it so.

Marketing strategy for a digital world should go way beyond communicating via social media. For businesses with a clear purpose, it’s a great time for creativity that is anchored in two fundamentals: first, who you are as a brand or business; and second, a sound understanding of your target customers. New technology gives us ways not just to communicate or engage better, but to shape the customer experience and deliver better services. This is best tackled from the customer’s point of view so that the new applications are not just techy gimmicks but are fully integrated into consumers’ natural way of doing things. When it’s done right, this isn’t e-commerce, or even digitally-enabled commerce – soon it will all just be commerce.

Many retailers are using location-based services and social media brilliantly, applying tools and tech to be more helpful to customers. Fashion retailers are doing new, sexy things, such as recognising the customer as she enters the store (by her phone, not her face), directing her to her preferred styles or colours and enabling her to take a picture of herself wearing the new item – without needing to try it on – so she can send it to her friends to ask for their opinion. It’s an obvious step to connect what’s in the fashion pages of magazines with retail outlets so that when you see something you like in the media, you can easily locate it, or request it in your size at a convenient branch.

Food retailers are also using tools and tech to make grocery shopping easier. In Korea, you can shop from digital walls of product displays in places where people are already, such as subway stations. You use your smartphone to buy what you want and it’s then delivered to your home. China’s biggest food ecommerce merchant, Yihaodian, is even putting up virtual shops outside competitors’ stores. In the UK, House of Fraser is trialling a real but stockless store. If you are old-fashioned enough to want to visit a store with products in it, Tesco’s shopping app helps to find specific products in an unfamiliar store quickly by directing you to their location.

Our job as marketers is to build bridges from the inside of the organisation to the outside, allowing information to flow both ways. So we need to know how people are living, getting information, being entertained, making choices and buying stuff – much of which now has a digital, and even a social media, element. But the core purpose of a business – the need it meets for its customers, the values it stands for and the benefits it brings – don’t change, even if the route to market does. Knowing what’s happening in the outside world is a vital part of our responsibility, but helping the business to stay true to its customer promise, and engaging in a way that is authentic and relevant for us and for our customers, is even more important.
This article was published in the March 2013 issue of Market Leader.
Comment | May 2013