Informal Influence

A new article in Fortune magazine, "What's Your OQ," (7/23/07) talks about the importance of reaching employees through their informal social networks rather than through the formal chain of command. These networks are seen as key in persuading employees to make needed cultural changes.

An old article from the New York Times, "Brand Blogs Capture the Attention of Some Companies," talks about informal channels of influence that people have on brands (such as Starbucks and Netflix) by starting blogs dedicated to those brands. Other consumers read them and the brand owners themselves sometimes turn to the bloggers for advice.

What both of these articles have in common is the recognition that formal corporatespeak, and formal rules, regulations, and channels of communication, are a turnoff. People want to hear from other people like themselves--that's what motivates them to listen and possibly change their behaviors. As the NYT article says, a Yankelovich marketing survey found that

"a third of all consumers would prefer to receive product information from friends and specialists rather than from advertising."
This is something to keep in mind for branding, whether internally or externally. Employees and consumers alike want to hear from real people, not the PR department. So the marketing has to be doubly sophisticated...recruiting regular people to spread the word virally. Now even as I write this it sounds like old news, don't we all know that already. But how many brand initiatives actually turn to real people to spread the word? For example, how many companies have set up internal and/or external blogs/wikis/communities of practice dedicated solely to letting real people discuss the brand?

You are thinking that the reason they haven't is the fear of nasty words. If we open the floodgates, the fear goes, people will rush in to destroy the kingdom. But that fear is not well founded. As the NYT article mentioned, even in a blogging environment, people are likely to steer the discussion in a balanced direction. And as I heard at the recent Government Communicators Conference, this includes correcting others who seem to be veering off the path. I also recently heard presentations by IBM and STRATCOM (U.S. Strategic Command) to the effect that they have numerous internal blogs and have never had a problem with inappropriate comments.

So let's get to the real fear--the fear of not being good enough. Branders are afraid that they are not executing well on the brand promise and that is why consumers (and/or their own employees) can't be relied upon to act as ambassadors in informal settings. So they turn to marketing collateral like advertising, posters, brochures, newsletters and the like to try and "control" the conversation and the impressions that people get. The truth is, all of that may succeed in getting someone initially interested in the brand. But to keep the brand going, there has to be independent validation of it by the target audience.

A good example of this is the iPhone. Great great ad campaign leading up to its launch. But then people started questioning whether it lives up to the hype. I saw one blog posting talking about the hidden costs behind the contract that AT&T imposes for using the service. Another question arose about how well the internet connection worked. A third issue I heard about was the keyboard--not a great typing experience. So for me the initial impression was great, but subsequent informal feedback made me want it a lot less.

How could Apple do better? How about addressing all these points through public usability testing...set up a news conference or create an ad and let us watch people work through all these issues. For goodness sake, even have the AT&T rep on hand to answer questions. And then if the issues are persistent, redesign the phone or the AT&T contract or the internet connection to work as well as the initial hype suggested.

That's good branding in a nutshell--keep your promises and let the public keep you honest if you aren't.

Going back to the subject of influencing employees--as was recently noted, one thing Apple did right with its employees was to give them each an iPhone for free. This is not only a gesture of goodwill but also of confidence in the product...because if they don't like it or can't use it they won't be able to sell it. Smart--even though it remains to be seen how it pays off.