I don't usually write out remarks for the speaking that I do, but given I was Skyping in, I thought it best to do so. Here they are.
September 20, 2008
“Engagement” is certainly an important concept today in the fields of marketing and communications. We seek to encourage it and measure it. But what is it? What does it mean to engage someone? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that to engage is to attract and hold by influence or power, to induce to participate. Let's repeat: to engage is to attract, to hold, to induce – but what? First, attention, then participation. We do this through influence, through persuasion – the core competencies of PR. And this is what hasn't changed in the fact of social media. In traditional communications schemas, influence and persuasion were and remain key. What has changed is the structure of power that informs how we work with influence and persuasion. With the movement from command/control models to distributed or networked models, power has increasingly moved towards the consumer. But not totally, of course. There still remains the tension between institution and its stakeholders that has to be negotiated everyday by professional communicators. This has made our jobs more challenging, but has also opened up new opportunities. Today, I'd like to speak to you about two opportunities I have identified. The first has to do with persuasion itself. The second with branding.
Studies have shown that there are three pillars of persuasion: competence (qualification, expertness, intelligence, authoritativeness), trustworthiness (character, sagacity, safety, honesty) and goodwill/intent toward receiver. I have written that the first two factors of persuasion, competence and trustworthiness, are arguably covered adequately by traditional marketing/communications techniques and tools. However, brochures, ads and press releases are not tools for handling the third factor: goodwill. The latter is handled much better via social media tools like blogs and social networks, for example, because they tend to embrace the human voice, and because built into those tools are mechanisms for communicating understanding, empathy and responsiveness.
So why is goodwill important to persuasion? Because it is a "means of opening communication channels more widely" and is a significant factor in believability/likeability overall. (I am relying here on McCroskey & Teven's article on goodwill.) According to them, there are three elements of goodwill: understanding ("When we see someone exhibiting behaviors which tell us they understand our concerns, we feel closer to them."); empathy ("This involves behaviors indicating that one person not only understands the other's views but accepts them as valid views, even if he or she does not agree with those views.") and responsiveness ("Responsiveness is judged by how quickly one person reacts to the communication of another, how attentive they are to the other, and the degree to which they appear to listen to the other. We tend to see people who behave responsively toward us as caring about us.").
So, what does this means for persuasive communication using social media? Used in conjunction with traditional tools, they can quite possibly increase the persuasive impact of your campaigns. And let's remember, these new tools can also support the first two factors: competence and trustworthiness. I would argue that in order to address the situation we are in with this large degree of lack of trust in institutions, we need to encourage goodwill more than ever before.
The second opportunity I'd like to speak to you about – and I think Dell is well on its way towards doing this – is the opportunity for brands to become media.
What is a brand? It’s a promise: information from a firm promising you a set of costs and benefits from the consumption of a good or service. Brands shape your expected value. The challenge facing brands today is that a brand can no longer be only a symbol or a promise; it has to become much, much more than that. This doesn't mean it stops being a symbol – its shorthand promise will remain important, simply because not every consumer is going to have the time or desire to read and interact with all of the incredibly rich detail located behind the brand. My argument is that brands have to become media itself – the medium or platform on which the symbol is co-created with its consumers.
So what do I mean by media? First, the dictionary definition states that media is “a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression”; whereas medium is “the means of effecting or conveying something” (a channel, environment, or mode). Let us define it this way: “media is a platform for shaping expectations.” By platform, I mean a place for the production and distribution of information. I think we can agree that this meets our usual thinking of what media is (a newspaper, TV station, radio station, even social networks). This brings us to a few important questions:
- Who owns the platform?
- Who shapes the expectations?
- In what directions does the information flow?
The answer to these questions are quite important in characterizing the media/medium, because as we have known since Marshall McLuhan, the medium itself is a message (especially about power).
In traditional mass media, publishing companies owned the platform and publishers, editors and journalists shaped the expectations (under the influence of readers, of course, but often not directly). The information, for the most part, flowed outwards to readers, with limited incoming channels for interaction. Brands purchased space/time on these platforms in order to distribute their symbols.
Today anyone can produce and distribute information. Anyone can be media: “a platform for shaping expectations.” This is an important opportunity for brands to become something far more than just a symbol; they can become the means for shaping expectations. Media is the platform where producers and consumers interact. (Here I am following Umair Haque, director of the Havas Media Lab, definition.)
This brings me to another angle on the story: investment. Haque tells us that traditional branding activities, especially advertising, imposes costs on consumers. Costs of interrupted attention, time spent waiting for a TV show to resume, polluted visual fields in cities and countrysides, and so on. Culturally, consumers are now expressing their increasing resentment of these costs and refusing to pay them (and technology is giving them ever more tools to easily do so). Haque argues that brands today must invest in consumers instead. What does investment mean? First of all, listening. Then thinking about how communications can benefit consumers.
This is a tricky thing for brands, and requires a dramatic shift in thinking. To restate: One cannot think only about how a product or service benefits its users, but how branding activities themselves can be beneficial. As long as the only option for brand awareness to achieve scale was buying space/time on other platforms, their freedom to create new experiences was limited. When a brand is itself a platform, worlds of possibilities open up. Notice I didn't say, “when a brand owns a platform.” It is very important that old ideas of ownership and control don't pollute this framework. Rather, brands must invest in consumers by providing the infrastructure needed for the co-creation of the platform. The development of the expectations, the development of the promise, must come through the relationships being formed on that platform between (co-)producer(s) and consumers. In fact, the answers to the questions stated above become:
- Who owns manages the platform: Everyone
- Who shapes the expectations: Everyone
- In what directions does influence flow: Everywhere
This is engagement.
Let's put it another way: the platform I am speaking about is where value is created. Brands invest in the creation and management (with a light touch) of the platform, thereby “investing” in consumers. The return on this investment is the value that consumers add, by contributing content and ideas, mashing up information – basically by investing their attention and participation. Think about it: the platform receives investment from both sides! The total value created can then be channeled into new products and services. Branding platforms as value generators has a really nice sound to it (and important implications for measuring the impact of branding activities, to say the least).
I've identified two opportunities for a new level of engagement with stakeholders 1) taking full advantage of the pillars of persuasion and 2) brands becoming media themselves. There are, of course, serious issues that have to be thought through here, such as transparency and objectivity, and I've written about them on my blog if you are interested. However, I remain convinced that used appropriately, social media tools can help institutions generate new relationships with stakeholders, leading to new levels of value for all concerned.