Where digital initiatives succeed

While corporations understand they need to embrace and no longer ignore the digital frontier, how do they effectively integrate and leverage the new media - such as blogs, podcasts and message boards - as well as monitor and protect their corporate reputations?

While corporations understand they need to embrace and no longer ignore the digital frontier, how do they effectively integrate and leverage the new media - such as blogs, podcasts and message boards - as well as monitor and protect their corporate reputations?

While corporations understand they need to embrace and no longer ignore the digital frontier, how do they effectively integrate and leverage the new media – such as blogs, podcasts and message boards – as well as monitor and protect their corporate reputations? We interviewed four corporations and one major association – IBM, Toyota, Hyundai, Allstate Insurance and American Business Media – to understand how different industries are implementing digital initiatives to connect with audiences as well as protecting their reputations.

Is the digital frontier a “friend” that allows corporations to connect differently with their audiences and expand their reach?  Or, is it a “foe” that is too overwhelming to manage?  What are the lessons learned?

Making a Connection

Before understanding how to connect with your audience, it’s important to understand if your audience is engaging in digital mediums, what type and how often.  It’s also critical to understand that your company cannot state the same key messages via digital media that are allowed in other marketing initiatives such as advertising.  With digital, the customer is in complete control.  You need to understand how to communicate and connect in a new environment in which you have little or no control.

Christopher Barger, Blogger-in-Chief at IBM, says “It’s not just our target audience that’s moving towards nontraditional media.  It’s all audiences that are moving toward new media.  We are seeing that audiences don’t want to be communicated to in the traditional way since there may not be trust there.”

How do you gain trust with audiences through digital initiatives?  Barger says that “companies have to be out there all the time.  They have the opportunity to influence those conversations.  Some companies don’t get involved in blogs or other new media until a crisis happens.  Well, they’re too late.”

Barger continues by emphasizing the importance of the content. “Blogging and other new media are not about relaying core message points.  It’s about affinity and relationship building.  If you hit up your audience with traditional messages, they will reject them.  They want relationship building.  If you do that, they’ll listen more.”  Barger also states that it’s critical to give your audience news that resonates with them; not news about the company, but news that they feel is useful information.

While the insurance industry is not typically considered innovative, Allstate Insurance is innovative in a number of areas, including digital initiatives.  However, the company believes that the public, in general, is slow to engage in digital.  According to Peter Debreceny, vice president of Corporate Relations at Allstate Insurance Company, “The average consumer is not at that point yet in terms of using these new technologies.  However, we want to be ahead of the pack but not too far ahead. It’s definitely a challenge balancing what new digital technologies to incorporate and when to incorporate them.”

Since the insurance industry isn’t known for innovation, who does Debreceny use as a “role model?”  “We don’t focus on what our industry and competitors are doing as much as we look at what the PR industry is doing.  PR uses digital tools better than marketing.”

Steve Ennen, Director of Communications for American Business Media, the industry association for business-to-business information providers, is in a unique situation in that his organization’s mission is to beta test digital initiatives for the association’s 290 member companies.  “There is a reasonable number of our members who have embraced the new media.  However, I have been surprised by those who just don’t want it or don’t think it’s worth anything.  These tools are not only a way to disseminate information, they provide a way to expand your audience.”

According to Irv Miller, group vice president of Corporate Communications for Toyota Motor Sales, Inc., “Toyota’s general consumer base is more in tune with what’s going on and are more prone to using digital.  But, everyone is struggling with digital initiatives now.  As we move beyond our current positioning, we will have to get more creative.  We cannot abandon traditional print media in favor of online; we’re looking at ways to do both.”

Chris Hosford, vice president of Corporate Communications at Hyundai Motor Company, has a different perspective on his company’s audience.  “At Hyundai, we think the idea of even calling media which are not radio, TV or newspaper/magazine ‘nontraditional’ is ridiculous.  Video games, text messaging, podcasts, vblogs, personal Web sites all are seen as not just mainstream, but traditional by those who have grown up with these media in the last decade, probably more traditional for them than the Today Show.”

Managing a Company’s Reputation

Losing control over the messaging and protecting one’s reputation are keeping companies up at night. 

Barger states that not having control and power in the digital community is frightening to many companies.  “The shift is a shift in the balance of power.  The consumer is now being empowered.”

Miller agrees.  “The beauty of a blog is that it entitles people to free speech and their own positioning.  The other side is the lack of policing, the lack of being accountable.  We use the same tool, meaning a blog, to correct misinformation and/or direct consumers to credible or third party organizations.  Blogs, by nature, are an individual’s opinion. Our biggest concern is that that they are often very misinformed opinions and they travel with great speed.  Getting on top of it is a real necessity.”

Hosford’s greatest concern is that with digital media, “today anyone with a computer can be an ‘authority’ in about 20 minutes.  Just monitoring to catch attacks on the brand and products is difficult, yet critically important.  We’ve recently upgraded our media monitoring:  first, to improve our ability to track and measure our performance.  Second, to improve our ability to quickly catch and analyze negative comments about our products and brand.”

“Companies need to know what’s being said about them and they need to monitor blogs,” said Debreceny.  “You need to understand what’s being said, but then you need to determine what tactical approach makes sense and how much time you want to spend on each issue.  Companies need to think of the long-term approach and impact rather than focus on all short-term approaches.

Barger’s greatest concern is in the communication.  “While we’re encouraging blogs and podcasts, there will be communications people who don’t fully understand the rules and do it wrong.  If we don’t convey that the rules are different, we’ll do more damage than if we did nothing at all.”

Lessons Learned

It’s clear from the above-mentioned companies that the digital frontier is both friend and foe. This environment provides an exciting opportunity to connect in new ways with audiences, but a single misstep can be completely unforgiving. 

So, what can other corporations do to ensure they are leveraging the digital frontier to their advantage?

1 Understand the rules.  Embrace digital initiatives and understand how to communicate differently in this environment by building relationships and trust.

Be consistently involved in digital initiatives, don’t jump in only when there’s a crisis. 

Do not replace traditional media with digital; rather, expand your marketing initiatives to include digital.

Be ahead of the pack, but not too far ahead of your audience.

Monitor…monitor….monitor…know what’s being said about your company, but know when it makes sense to react.

Familiarize yourself with what your audience cares about.  Give them news they can use. 

According to Barger, “Companies need to think of the content by saying to themselves, ‘If I didn’t work for the company, would I care?’”

Deborah Brown is a partner and senior director at Peppercom


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