What's the next big thing in online marketing?


About Chris Lake

Chris Lake is Director of Product Development at Econsultancy. He manages the content / social / content marketing team, steers product development and programmes events.Econsultancy helps digital professionals to do their jobs better, via its vast research archive, as well as its training, events and digital transformation consultancy services.

What's the biggest single change in online marketing since you started at Econsultancy?

I started here about a decade ago and at that point most people – and brands – were still licking their wounds from the dotcom crash. Some people suggested that the internet was all over, but of course that was probably more hope than expectation.

In 2003 Adwords was still a baby, Myspace was barely out of beta, SEO was all about stuffing keywords onto pages, email marketing was a four-letter word, and a lot of major brands had yet to embrace e-commerce.

So I guess the first big thing to happen was the mass realisation that e-commerce was here to stay. Lots of organisations subsequently restructured their teams – and hired lots of new faces - to make the most of it. Mercifully, techies no longer get involved in copywriting on product pages, as they once did!

Nowadays there is a lot of focus on data, and on ROI, since internet marketing is so measurable. Attribution modelling helps no end, and that’s crucial if you run a multichannel business. I also think that marketers have realised that you don’t need to measure everything in minute detail.

Social media has already made a major impact on digital marketing. How mature is the market? Are most companies good at it already?

Most of the top brands have now claimed their profiles on the major social platforms, and are busy developing their networks. Lots of good work is going on, though what’s perceived as ‘good’ differs from brand to brand, and sector to sector.

That said, there is much work to do. It’s still early days, relatively speaking. Most brands weren’t remotely social as recently as five years ago and many are still trying to figure out how to engage with their fans and followers, in a meaningful way (i.e. one that is going to positively affect the brand metrics). It’s not rocket science, but lots of companies aren’t set up to be as agile as they could be. It’s really important, in the social media space.

Many large firms have yet to get to grips with social as a service channel, whereas this is much less of a struggle for smaller companies that are socially-savvy. The bigger companies still have a lot of thinking – and reorganising - to do. It’s a headache for many, and as a rule I think most firms are about two years behind where they know they should be.

Are there any general principles for brands approaching social media?


There are tons of them. I think the main thing to remember is that social is not a broadcast platform. After all, sending one-way messages isn’t very social, is it? People expect a fast, meaningful response, from a human being.

The other big thing is transparency. It is harder than ever for brands to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Old school PR whitewashing campaigns just don’t work any more. We live in an anti-BS age, which is tremendous. Social media platforms allow consumers to shout ever louder, and companies are being held to account like never before. Many brands want to be perceived as ethical, and that’s a trend that’s going to rise in the years to come. It’s a nice side effect of social media.

What else? Well, companies need to secure the right kind of buy-in from stakeholders, if they’re to make the most of social. They also need to get their ducks lined up, to some degree, before they start shooting. That means a) defining social / brand guidelines, b) figuring out what kind of tone to use, c) creating a content strategy, and d) assigning people to look after this part of the business.

What are the big trends in social media for marketing, sales and/or customer service? Where is all this heading?

We’re seeing a lot more agility, more campaigns generated specifically for social audiences, earlier media placements on social channels vs traditional marketing channels, and better customer engagement on social than ever before. But there is still a long way to go, and a hell of a lot of opportunity for brands.

The paid / earned / owned media pie chart has changed in the past few years. There has been a reprioritisation of media channels. TV remains the daddy, in terms of ad revenue, but consider the world’s biggest TV ad event: the Superbowl. Only a few years ago we’d see ads premiered during the event itself. Nowadays, the most effective campaigns (such as VW’s ‘The Force’ ad) were first seeded on YouTube and other social channels in advance, to build momentum and raise awareness. Doritos crowdsourced its TV ad creative via Facebook.

This kind of thing is making the most of the earned media opportunity, and the network effect. The ad creative is specifically being devised to appeal to social audiences. The most authentic campaigns always do the best, and generate the best buzz per buck.

As for social service, this is something that brands need to pay serious attention to. Customers turn to social channels because traditional customer service is typically broken. Some people will use social media to ask questions simply because it’s easy (15% of 16-24 year olds turn to social first for service – that number will rise in the years to come).

Customer service is so massively underrated. Smart business people focus on long-term profit, but most businesses incentivise staff on short-term goals. Personally, I’d make customer retention the number one priority and all staff bonuses would be heavily linked to that. Not customer acquisition, which can be gamed, which isn’t always profitable, and which doesn’t recognise the role customer service staff should play in a healthy business.

So I’m hopeful that the social media revolution (if that’s what it is) will result in lots more companies focusing on their existing customers. These people are so very valuable, and will do your marketing for you, if you treat them right.

Are there any social channels or platforms that you feel are under-valued? Over-valued?


It really is horses for courses. What works for one brand might not work so well for another. For some brands, Pinterest will be amazing. For others it is Facebook, or YouTube. All of them have their merits. All you can do is measure the effects of social on actual business metrics, to see what works best for your company.

As a publisher, Twitter is great for what we do, though I’m less bothered about how Twitter helps to drive page views on Econsultancy as I am about the quality of the audience, the interaction rate, and what these people subsequently do on our site. Some will look at our product pages. A proportion of them will become registered users. Others will buy a subscription, to access our research archive. We track all of this, to see what kind of content works best, and then we produce more of it. We then attribute value… in our case around 20% of sales are directly influenced by social, to some degree or other.

Creating content that's widely shared seems to be the new currency of online marketing. What makes content shareable?

Great headlines and quality content, pretty much, with lots of sharing triggers (which are typically ‘emotional’).

Headlines should be persuasive, and they should mirror the content, but they don’t need to be as descriptive as they did five years ago, when SEO was of paramount importance. Nowadays, content that is widely shared will have a chance of ranking well. This has changed the way in which we approach headlines… it’s not all about the search optimisation.

Emotional triggers are simply the things that elicit some kind of reaction from the reader (or viewer, if it’s a video). Content might be funny, or shocking, or upsetting, or sexy, or useful.

Content should be well-written, typo free, and formatted in the right way. Tone of voice is important. Content that entertains or educates the reader works well. Try to add value and deliver above expectations, and people will stay tuned in, and they’ll happily share your content to their networks.

Social media makes every enterprise a lot more open and porous. How should brands be trying to control and manage all these new outlets?


With a great deal of planning, and a lot of internal communication. Most companies need to restructure their teams. Who owns social? The marketing team or the customer service team? Or both? In our case it is the content team! This is going to change from business to business.

In some cases social has been outsourced. I’m inclined to think it should be controlled from within the business (with the help of agencies on a tactical level). A centralised approach is absolutely key, with lots of support from senior managers, and ideally buy-in at board level. It’s a bit like web analytics… five or six years ago brands started hiring in-house staff, when previously they relied on outsourcing. Social media needs to be managed and owned in-house, even when third party agencies are involved.

We live in a transparent world and people like to take the path of least resistance – this is why we see so many complaints on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. Myopic brands have made it far too difficult for customers to have a reasonable one-on-one conversation with them, so nowadays people just post status updates or send public messages to companies, in full view of their network. This is a good thing, of course. It means that brands are being forced to invest in the provision of service via social media. That should make for improved service levels, which in theory will help to delight customers and increase customer retention, and advocacy.

Does every brand really have to become a publisher these days? What if budgets are too small?

Kinda. I really believe that every company needs a great story, or great content. If you have a great story then producing content is going to be relatively straightforward. If you don’t, then you need to figure out what kind of content will appeal to your target audience.

Content can help your business in so many ways: brand, search, social, marketing comms, etc. All of these things have a value. Budgets are always tight, or non-existent! Think about ROI, over the long term, and build a business case around that. Take search as an example. The key to doing well in organic search is to produce lots of quality content, and to build an audience of fans and followers.

If you don’t create quality content, then what happens? You end up spending a fortune on Google AdWords to be visible. Last month Google sent us around 275,000 visitors, which would cost us around £68k a month at a lowly average of 25p a click. Big money. I’d sooner invest that in content, which is like a gift that keeps on giving.

You can win big by producing content in a tactical way, by understanding what makes your audience / customers tick, and by taking a long-term view. But, if you are really struggling for budget then I suggest you avoid going down the content creation route and instead opt for curation (I wrote a guide to help people become efficient content curators).

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