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When it comes to companies hoping to create ambassadors of their brands by offering "friends and family discounts" and "refer a friend" benefits, the attempts have been somewhat successful. In fact, a study from the Wharton School of Business found that a referred consumer is 18 percent more likely to stay with a company over time than the average, off-the-street consumer.

But imagine that, in lieu of this passive introduction, your brand "passionates" could more significantly impact your top-line growth. For companies looking to stimulate incremental purchases, encouraging "gifting" might be the key to unlocking sales growth. As the following examples show, inspiring those who have affinity for your brand to actively promote and generate trial by buying your product for themselves and buying for a friend can translate into exponential growth in sales and a foundation for a stronger base of loyal consumers.

Share

What Coca-Cola started in Australia in 2011 has spread across the globe to the U.K. and now the U.S. The "Share a Coke" campaign replaces the iconic Coca-Cola labels with 250 popular names, such as Andrew, Miguel, Nicole, and Brittney, and encourages drinkers to buy two: "one to keep and one to share." Can't find your name in store? The "Share a Coke" tour will be traveling across the country to allow visitors to personalize two mini cans -- again, to keep and to share. Through its campaign, Coke gives consumers the opportunity to gift a relatively low-cost product to spur delight at the receiving end, ultimately leading to incremental sales and positive sentiment.

Donate

Slim Jim is taking a slightly different, more comedic, route by likening the giving gesture to a rescue mission. Developing a campaign targeting those suffering from "Male Spice Loss," Slim Jim is recruiting "meat donors" to give the gift of meat. The meat sticks and jerky brand is looking to help men everywhere cure their most embarrassing "spice loss symptoms" with a Slim Jim. Men are encouraged to "grab a Slim Jim, then grab another Slim Jim" for a friend who could use the "man-medicine." As a result, the givers experience a feeling of doing some "good," and the receiver is encouraged to spot another friend in need. Though all in good fun, Slim Jim benefits from a chain reaction and exponentially greater sales of its product as they are shared and shared again.

Gift

When Nestlé first discovered that its chocolate wafer bars, Kit Kat, sounded roughly similar to kitto katsu, meaning "you will surely win" in Japanese, it didn't expect the success it would eventually achieve. The practice of gifting Kit Kat bars as a form of good luck wishes before higher-education entrance exams has become so widespread that Nestlé has paid keen attention to this market, developing unique flavors that cater to the Japanese market: Green Tea, Sakura Cherry Blossom Green Tea, and Red Chili are just a few. By marketing its products as simple gifts, Nestlé has been able to imbue Kit Kats with greater meaning. In addition, the tradition of passing along Kit Kats to a friend has lasting potential since the receiver may reciprocate the favor or share it forward with someone else.

Whether you call it sharing, donating or gifting, by encouraging your consumers to buy incremental products to "Share it Forward" with a kind gesture of giving your product to another, brands can achieve a trifecta of business objectives: they can reach new consumers in a more personal way, generate incremental sales and strengthen loyalty. Leveraging this marketing tactic to motivate your consumer base to do the job of spreading awareness and effectively sampling in the name of your brand can be more impactful and effective than a typical referral campaign. The personal connection the giver has with the receiver through a simple gift creates a greater likelihood of developing more loyal consumers in the long run. Uncovering the benefits for both end users will be the key to success for this tactic. As you craft marketing plans, consider what benefits might motivate the giver and also add value for the receiver, who then may be encouraged to do the same in the future. This next-level, word-of-mouth tactic can be a powerful tool to unlock incremental sales and build the next group of brand passionates.

Tammy Chung  is a brand strategist at Anthem.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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It's an advertiser's dream to build a loyal and passionate fan base for their brand, and it's even sweeter when it happens organically. Through social platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Reddit, and WeHeartIt, brand enthusiasts are going farther than posting comments to a brand's profile, and creating dedicated fan accounts, blogs, memes, and art that celebrate the brand and products they love.

5 brands with the craziest fans 
The following brands have reshaped consumer trends, dictated fashion styles, inspired the imaginations of multiple generations, and they all have crazy, passionate followings!

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Since brands like Volkswagen and E*Trade started teasing out their campaigns about five year ago, the Super Bowl has grown from a single Sunday to an advertising season that stretches weeks before and after the game.

The benefits of pre-game seeding -- building excitement and awareness -- were seen early on, and brands adopted the strategy. According to Visible Measures' assessment of more than 200 Super Bowl advertisers and 350 different creative executions over the past five seasons, campaigns with pre-game content released before the game drove 175 percent higher viewership, on average, than campaigns that promoted the content on game day only. As a result, 75 percent of brand released Super Bowl content in advance of the game last year, an increase from 5 percent only four years earlier.

But there was a consensus that there wasn't as much pre-Super Bowl noise this January as we've seen in previous years. Was it a result of fewer auto brands advertising in this year's game? Or was it a bit of pre-game seeding backlash?

Maybe it was a little of both, but my hypothesis is that we have just experienced another shift in how brands are thinking about the Super Bowl. For most of the history of the game, all of the emphasis fell on the 30-second game day spot, and pre-game seeding could be as simple as a 15-second teaser or a longer cut of the spot. Now, the spot is just one piece of a more integrated content campaign.

Brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Toyota are thinking about their Super Bowl sponsorships as the chance to create full stories, which include video, native, and social amplification, and build a narrative to support that full-length game day spot. The new name of the Super Bowl game is extending consumer conversation by extending the storyline, not just releasing content further in advance of Super Bowl Sunday.

One of the best examples of this new Super Bowl outlook comes from Budweiser.

Budweiser was the No. 1 brand on the January iMedia Brands in Video chart, where it generated a True Reach of 58.7 million views during the month. More than 76 percent of that viewership was garnered by the brand's Super Bowl campaign, "Lost Dog," which was the most viewed campaign of the Super Bowl.

A sequel to "Puppy Love" -- the winner of Super Bowl XLVIII -- "Lost Dog" continues the story of an unlikely friendship between a golden retriever puppy and one of Budweiser's iconic Clydesdales. In the full-length spot, the cuddly puppy goes missing, while trying to tag along with his equine friend, and ends up in real danger. Try as you might, it's hard not to get choked up during this video, no thanks to the cover of The Proclaimer's "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" that plays under the story.

While the campaign generated 44.8 million views during the last week of January, it has now accumulated more than 61.9 million views, making it the third most-viewed Super Bowl campaign of all time.

The popularity of the campaign can be attributed to several factors:

  • There was anticipation. "Lost Dog" is the sequel to one of the biggest campaigns in Super Bowl history. Viewers were looking forward to seeing the next chapter in the story, which might be because the story stars an adorable puppy.
  • The content elicited emotion. Heartfelt emotion is one of the strongest drivers in the engagement and sharing of online video. "Lost Dog," like "Puppy Love" before it, has it in spades.
  • There was controversy. Budweiser's spot was not controversial. But GoDaddy.com released its Super Bowl ad, a spoof of "Lost Dog," on the same day as Budweiser, and it certainly was controversial. GoDaddy's ad was promptly pulled after viewers complained about GoDaddy.com's twist, which inferred that the puppy was from a puppy mill. That controversy drove headlines, which seems to have helped Budweiser more than it helped GoDaddy.com.
  • The brand used new platforms effectively. Budweiser's use of Facebook as a platform contributed greatly to its viewership. The most-viewed asset of Budweiser's "Lost Dog" campaign was the full-length spot, and more than 50 percent of those views were garnered from the brand's video on its Facebook page, where the brand ran almost all of its teaser material as well.

In addition to all of these factors, though, Budweiser was one of those brands that thought not only about the Super Bowl spot, but also about the whole story of America's favorite puppy. The brand started building the "Lost Dog" story long before it released the full video online. It released teasers -- both videos and images -- on Facebook that generated interest in the idea that the puppy was lost. There were behind-the-scenes videos of the adorable puppies running around the set. Budweiser even extended the story offline, posting "lost dog" posters on the streets of major cities.

While all of those extra tactics -- native, video, social, and promotion -- might not have driven as much viewership as the feature Super Bowl spot, they did help to create a deeper level of engagement in the brands' Super Bowl stories. And, at the end of the day, it is engagement that creates affinity and loyalty in consumers and moves business.

Mallory Russell is content editor at Visible Measures.

iMedia's Top 10 Brands in Video chart, powered by Visible Measures, focuses on aggregated brand view counts across related social video ad campaigns. Each brand and campaign is measured on a True Reach basis, which includes viewership of both brand-syndicated and audience-driven video clips. The data are compiled using the patented Visible Measures platform, a constantly growing repository of analytic data on close to 400 million videos tracked across more than 300 online video destinations.

Note: This analysis does not include Visible Measures' paid-placement (e.g., overlays; pre-, mid-, and post-roll) performance data or video views on private sites. This chart does not include movie trailers, video game campaigns, TV show, or media network promotions. View counts are incremental by month.

Learn more here.

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You've probably heard the old expression that says an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It's attributed to Benjamin Franklin, a renaissance man of the 18th Century who had no idea that his wisdom on the subject of health would be important for the 21st Century programmatic media market. Let me explain.
 
For those of us who have been observing the development of the digital media market, it's pretty clear that much of its growth is being driven by programmatic innovations. Quite simply, programmatic lets buyers reach a larger pool of sellers more efficiently. In this case efficiency means faster transactions conducted by machines working 24/7 with no time off for vacations, meals, and bio breaks.
 
The number of impressions being processed through RTB is staggering and the speed of an RTB transaction (200 milliseconds) is quite remarkable. Yet the speed and the volume of the process can lead to questions of abuse. With this abuse becoming an increasing part of the digital media buying and selling landscape, it's something agencies and marketers are dealing with every day.
 
This is not to imply that there is more fraud in programmatic versus non- programmatic buying and selling.

What we can say is that there is technology to help reduce ad fraud in the programmatic stack quite effectively.
 
Here are two ways you can do it right now: 
 
You can score impressions for risk in the pre-bid stream. This is a pretty simple statement, but it's quite hard to do technically. Currently, you're looking at more than 1 trillion bid requests monthly and are scoring every one of them for fraud risk. For the potential buyer of an impression the data provided offers a very binary decision: Should I bid on this impression or not? If you bid and subsequently buy a fraudulent impression, it's never going to do anything positive for your business. It's never going to get anyone to buy anything nor influence them to buy something in the future. What's more, if you buy that bad impression you also may decide to re-target it at an even higher CPM than you paid originally. This is like throwing good money after bad.  Or as Ben Franklin once said, "An investment in knowledge pays the most interest."
 
Speaking of knowledge, tagging ads can offer even greater insights into ad fraud. Clearly, you can't factor in things like device forensics or ad stacking in the pre-bid. So tagging provides you with a much richer set of information. With the data you get after an impression is served, you'll catch even more fraud and then use the knowledge so that you won't make the same mistake twice.
 
Programmatic media buying and selling is going to become a larger part of the digital media equation. What's encouraging is that it's an equation where companies can subtract useless, fraudulent impressions. This can be accomplished with available technology that's very easy to implement and inexpensive to use.

To pull it all together, eliminating ad fraud from the digital ecosystem is good for everyone (except for the fraudsters). Marketers will get better results from their digital investment and will spend more on what works. Publishers will get improved results from their fraud free inventory leading to greater demand and higher CPMs. Plus, programmatic sellers who deliver fraud free inventory will benefit from a more robust, better valued marketplace. It all adds up to significant savings, better ROI and can lead to dramatically better results today.

So here's the new age expression: Invest money on fraud free media that delivers better ROI. Invest more money. Sell more. Repeat.

Dean Harris is chief marketing officer at Forensiq

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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Understanding digital attribution to a direct purchase

Some CPG brands have it lucky and can easily track a marketing action to a point of sale. Starbucks, Chipotle, and others with direct line-to-purchase can see how promotions affect business and traffic. For other brands, however, it's not so easy or so clear. One of these companies is PepsiCo. With millions of individual products on shelves spanning dozens of iconic PepsiCo brands, it's incredibly difficult to have one point of sale and attribute it to a marketing effort online. If this is the case, how does PepsiCo measure success for multiple online campaigns?

Engagement rates are one valuable insight. The time spent on page and other analytical actions that indicate consumers are interested in certain products and promotions are very helpful in dictating campaign effectiveness. Marketers have been hearing the mantra "engagement over clicks/impressions" for years. PepsiCo actually takes a firm stance in its importance. It has to. PepsiCo also works closely with retailers to learn purchasing behavior on a case by case basis. These things all help create a new model of ROI metrics.

Mike Scafidi, director of digital marketing operations for PepsiCo speaks with iMedia about how his brand works to understand when consumers have products in hand, and gives agencies valuable advice for navigating the new marketing landscape.

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Article written by media production manager David Zaleski and video edited by associate media producer Brian Waters.

"SWINDON, UK - JANUARY 25, 2014: Can of Pepsi cola on a bed of ice" image via Shutterstock.

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It has long been established that companies such as Red Bull and Coca-Cola have produced some of the most highly successful videos. These companies, however, are no longer standalones when it comes to standing out in this highly competitive field. In this article, we are going to take a look at eight different brands that have utilized video as a primary medium for building their brands.

These eight companies span a wide range of industries. Some are large corporations and others are small businesses. Their video topics run the gamut from being deeply serious and personal to rather lighthearted. The one common thread among all of them -- and ultimately the crux of their success -- is the use of the videos as part of a larger, fully integrated marketing campaign.

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Rosser Reeves, the accomplished advertising executive credited with coining the term "unique selling proposition," once said, "The people who read and remember your advertising may buy less of your product than people who are not aware of your advertising at all. Your advertising, in other words, may, literally, be driving away customers." With this reality in mind, some brands have cheekily taken to using anti-marketing sentiments to their advantage. Newcastle routinely makes fun of its own advertising, even boldly describing its own Facebook page as "Your place to complain about our ads."

When marketing thinkers talk about "the death of traditional advertising," they may not only mean the shift to digital, but a much larger transformation to alternative methods of genuinely reaching the consumer. According to Indrajit Sinha and Thomas Foscht, authors of "Reverse Psychology Marketing: The Death of Traditional Marketing and the Rise of the New 'Pull' Game," reverse psychology marketing, pull marketing, and anti-marketing may not be familiar buzzwords yet, but there is a global change happening in terms of defining the most effective ways to communicate with consumers and increase sales. To accomplish these goals amid overwhelming noise in the digital world, it often takes the most daring ideas.

For London department store Selfridges, that daring idea was to actually remove branding. The No Noise project of 2013 centered around the re-launch of the store's Silence Room, first created by founder Harry Gordon Selfridge in 1909, to allow customers to "take a moment to pause and switch off." This inspired move drew in customers by offering them a place to shop that was intentionally devoid of advertising. Of course, the brand behind many products remained recognizable, since a shell of its logo often remained present. Regardless, minimal advertising is beginning to draw in modern customers as well. Though not yet as popular in Europe and the U.S., the Japanese are already calling it "zen advertising."

In terms of alternative marketing, capitalizing on psychological principles is certainly not new territory. Leveraging reverse psychology can be a controversial choice, and certainly a risky one, but even church billboards  have seen success with this simple tactic. Reverse psychology can be loosely defined as a method of getting someone to do what you want by pretending not to want it or by pretending to want something else. This is largely tied in with reactance theory, the idea that people who feel their sense of control is being taken away from them will grab it back by not doing what they are asked.

Blogger Jens-Petter Berget writes, "The reason why reverse psychology in marketing works is that it generates curiosity." For this reason, it is not a technique that can be drawn upon frequently and still remain effective, as it will quickly lose its magic. However, once in a while, there are special moments when an ad's message of forbiddance succeeds in not only coyly tricking a consumer, but doing so in a way that isn't off-putting, but even a source of amusement for the consumer.

Here are seven examples of advertisements that leveraged reverse psychology.

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The reputation of a brand can be an irreplaceable asset, or an immense burden to a business. In a world where 90 percent of customers are influenced by online reviews, it's imperative that the online reputation of a brand is a positive one.

That's not to say that there won't be some bumps in the road. All brands face reputational issues from time to time. It's how brands meet those challenges that can shape the brands' success for months or years to come.

The long game

Reputation isn't just what other people think about a brand. It's about what the brand is seen to do -- how it interacts with people, the tone of voice its uses, what values it claims to have, and how it responds to challenging events and negative reviews.

If you have a communications and content strategy that the entire company follows, it becomes easier to manage your online reputation. Mistakes will still happen when running a business, but your employees will know how to respond in a positive manner -- a strategy that can turn a potential reputational crisis into a success story.

The key is to have a proactive approach to reputation, and not managing a team that gives out contradictory brand messages, or worse still, a team that doesn't respond at all.

Rewarding reviewers

One way that brands try to tackle this is by encouraging customers to leave reviews.

For annoyed customers, leaving a negative review allows them to tell the world about how annoyed a product or service has made them feel. But what do those who are happy with their purchase get out of the review process?

It wouldn't be ethical to offer rewards for positive reviews, but if a brand asks customers to take the time to review a purchase or service, it can't expect many satisfied customers to heed the call -- unless they're given the tools to do it immediately. Asking someone to write a review a month after they received the product or a few weeks after returning home from a holiday is not going to work. Put a tablet on reception at checkout, or give one to the sales assistant so customers can review the service there and then.

How to get things right

In today's world, if a brand -- or a person working for that brand -- makes a mistake, that mistake is at risk of going viral and being all over the internet in a matter of hours.

There are a few basic principles to follow:

Always appreciate the concerns of the audience
Brands that are dismissive about people's concerns can quickly attract the ire of social media users. Joy, a U.K. High Street retailer, was taken to task about a greeting card it stocked in its stores.

The store's subsequent responses made it look insensitive and crass:


 

This isn't the first time a store, or website, has been called out for selling something people deemed to be offensive. Urban Outfitters faced a similar issue back in January, but reacted in the opposite way and tweeted to say that it was removing the item from sale. The response was quick and appeased customers with limited damage to reputation.

Your team may find something amusing and quirky, but it's the customer's opinion that matters. What Joy did was take quite a small matter, and make it much worse by its response. It generated national media coverage, for something that could have been solved with a polite response and an apology.

Don't try to control people
Negative reviews serve a valuable purpose for brands. They provide honest feedback that the brand can learn from, and give the business a chance to try and fix the issue, turning a negative into a positive.

What's more, brands that do try to control what people say about them inevitably end up making the situation worse. Samsung had an issue in 2013 when it tried to reach a settlement with a customer whose phone caught fire. He posted a video of it, and the brand offered him a new phone, in exchange for taking down the video and a host of other things. His reaction was to post a new video about the brand trying to silence him, which has now been seen by 1.5 million people.

Don't take too long to do the right thing
RadiumOne and the NFL faced similar issues this year. RadiumOne's founder and an NFL football player were both charged with domestic violence offences. RadiumOne took a while to respond to the situation, while the NFL has been accused of being too lenient in its choice of punishment.

Neither issue was originally of the brand's making, but each could control their responses. The NFL has been fighting its battle since February, and there's no sign of it getting better soon.

Be approachable and friendly, even when times are bad
U.K. bakers, Greggs, faced an issue in August when Google started displaying a spoof version of its logo on its Google profile. Rather than getting frustrated at the situation, Greggs sent a friendly request to Google U.K. via Twitter, which Google U.K. responded to in a similar fashion.


 

Not only was the situation resolved, but both brands received positive press mentions for their interaction.

Bad things happen to good brands. It's often the response to these events that help define a brand, by shaping its reputation and influencing consumer trust.

Richard Harrison is managing director at Reputation.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection @iMediaTweet.

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As a research analyst covering digital technology, companies routinely (to the tune of up to a dozen per day) reach out to request briefings -- even if that's not the terminology they use. It might be an "informational meeting," "our CEO would like to meet you," or "an advance look at the new product-or-feature we're launching."

You can call them what you want to. In the analyst community, they're briefings. The best ones provide value on both sides: to both the analysts and researchers, as well as to the tech firm (or in my case, agency or publisher, too, as I cover advertising and media).

We analysts conduct briefings to further our research agendas. We constantly monitor developments and companies that operate in our sphere of coverage. We're looking for trends and patterns, for case studies, and often, to make introductions or connections between businesses or people operating in the same sphere who really ought to know one another. (This has more than once led to investments, acquisitions and partnerships.) Analysts are influencers and a form of media; we might write about your clients or business model, or highlight one of your case studies in a speech or webinar.

The big tech players have analyst relations departments to keep the briefing machine well-oiled. Yet a surprising number of start-ups and even well-established firms are unfamiliar with the briefing process. So herewith, some insider tips to get the most out of this very important component of a communications strategy process.

In the three and a half years since I joined the Altimeter Group, I've conducted hundreds of briefings with companies large and small, all active in digital marketing, advertising, and media. My Fridays are pretty much reserved for briefings. Briefing calls are scheduled from morning to night, generally starting in Europe and ending somewhere in Silicon Valley. We all limit briefings to 30 minutes to keep them on-topic, and almost never conduct them in person. Most companies requesting briefings ask to do them on site, but travel time is a luxury. It would radically curtail the number of companies with whom we're able to talk.

At Altimeter, we have a system for sharing tagged, cloud-based briefing notes that puts all briefing information at the fingertips of all the company's analysts and researchers. That makes our jobs easier when we're trying to find information on specific types of companies or business, and benefits the companies we speak with, too. They're made more visible to more people.

The above illustrates the value exchange of a briefing. Yet compared with the hundreds, if not thousands, of briefings I've conducted as both a journalist and editor, I'm too often disappointed at how many companies that brief me now that I'm an analyst fail to take full advantage of an opportunity that could benefit us both.

Some suggestions for getting the most out of an analyst briefing.

  • Half an hour goes quickly. I begin every call by telling callers at exactly what time I have a hard stop. Please don't be late. Don't focus on the information available on your website. I've already read it. Too many briefings end with revealing the really new and compelling idea two minutes before our call ends and the next call must begin. Don't bury the lede.
  • Five executives on a call are at least three too many. Again, those 30 minutes elapse quickly. Everyone wants the opportunity to talk. This results in too much noise and very little signal.
  • Provide names, titles, and email addresses of who will be on the call -- in advance. We can look up their bios and LinkedIn profiles. This saves a ton of time on intros, and allows me to prepare better, more focused questions. PR people, take particular note. If your name is on the call invitation, but not your client's, I won't dial in.
  • Provide any deck, presentation materials, or online meeting URL at least one day in advance. The sheer number of companies that send presentation materials literally seconds before (sometimes, during) a briefing is Pet Peeve No. 1. A company did this last Friday via a service that required me to establish, then verify, a new user account in order to download their materials. It's unfair (not to mention impossible) to ask an analyst to do this in what's often literally a 45-second window between two briefings. Let's both agree to be locked, loaded, and ready to go when our briefing is scheduled to begin.
  • Don't assume we're online for the presentation. Probably we are. But it's not unheard of to conduct a briefing from an airport gate or at a conference with subpar wifi. So really do send those show-and-tell materials in advance.
  • Please talk clearly and into the phone. Please talk directly into the phone (not the speakerphone), particularly if one of us is speaking a non-native language. We're trying to understand one another. The analyst is also taking notes.
  • A briefing is not a speech, it's a conversation. In briefings I far too often can't get a word in edgewise, and I'm a person not known to be shy about piping up. Some executives get on a roll and cannot -- will not -- be stopped until they've delivered a message from beginning to end. (Most often, they're working from a deck and a bit nervous, which they try to cover by being overly verbose.) A briefing is a presentation, but it's also a conversation. The analyst has questions, as well as a research agenda. So pause. Make an effort to throw in questions such as: Any questions? Is that clear? Does this relate to any research projects you're working on now? Try to make the briefing even more relevant to the analyst than they hoped it would be when they set it up with you.
  • Listen to us, too. We analysts make our living as strategic, research-based advisors. We're very well connected and ahead-of-the-curve informed about the industry sectors we microscopically cover. A briefing is hardly an advisory session, but we may well make an observation, comparison, or remark that could serve you well. Listen for those nuggets.
  • Go through the proper channels. Every day I send over a dozen canned responses to the briefing requests I receive personally from companies and PRs alike. I won't accept an emailed request for very good reasons. Like most analyst firms, we have a briefing request form that is designed to capture the information we need to determine if we'll accept a briefing. Moreover, the form alerts all my analyst and researcher colleagues to the opportunity, so one briefing (if accepted) potentially goes much further inside the company. It also greatly streamlines the scheduling process on our side.

That's it from me. What about companies out there that are veterans of analyst briefings? How can we make briefings easier, better and more valuable for you?

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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With so many different ways to communicate with customers, companies have to work harder and smarter to build and maintain strong relationships. And that engagement must span not just the buying phase, but the entire customer journey -- from awareness to purchase to implementation and support -- to create an outstanding customer experience at all touch points and channels.

Ideally, that journey continues to the ultimate destination -- when your customer becomes an advocate for your company, products and services through social media and other channels. To make this vision a reality, your company's marketing, sales, and support managers need to be able to give your visitors the relevant content they need to make their journey smooth and hassle-free.

Every journey needs a vehicle with a strong engine that can run effortlessly and reliably. In the case of the customer journey, your company needs what we like to call a customer experience engine to seamlessly link together all the many potential customer touch points. Like any engine, the customer experience engine has many moving parts that must all come together to power the customer journey. To be clear, the customer experience engine isn't a product you can buy. Instead it is an operating concept based on using best-of-breed technology integration to connect the dots between people, processes, and content across the customer journey and touch points.

Unfortunately, in many companies, the engine doesn't run very smoothly. This is because the various customer touch points are being handled by different applications under the supervision of different departments. In addition, the content you often see on a website is created by different departments within the company which means the themes and promotions might not be in sync. If the customer content is locked up in different applications and silos, it can virtually ensure that what the customer sees and hears from your company will vary dramatically from touch point to touch point severely undermining the customer experience.
 
Far from the old days of mailing lists and e-mail campaigns, the creation of personalized digital experiences requires knowledge of a customer's buying history, demographics, website behaviors, contacts with support centers, social media habits, and e-commerce and financial systems used to complete a purchase. That covers a lot of applications that need to be integrated in order to give your customer the smoothest journey possible. More often than not, context is lost as people transition from prospect to lead to customer.

So what can be done to solve this fundamental business problem? Let's start with the basics. At the heart of a fully functional customer experience engine is a best-of-breed web content management system (CMS) that can tie all the various marketing, sales, and support components together into a cohesive whole. In a digital world, the experience that customers have when they arrive at a touch point (whether through a browser or a mobile device) is content driven, thus placing the primary burden for the customer's journey on the CMS.

One question we often hear is why can't a CMS suite fulfill these requirements? Simply put, there are too many systems with specialized functionality unique to your organization and your customers that need to be connected. One size does not fit all as CMS suites suggest. Without tight integration across departments, the CMS suite ends up becoming yet another silo while leading to a costly rip-and-replace cycle. On the other hand, a best-of-breed approach means you can continue to use the tools that best meet your needs while allowing you to easily and cost-efficiently add new tools and solutions as needs change or new applications emerge.

While the design and implementation of a customer experience engine may seem daunting, the complexity can and should be managed by first having a big picture view of what needs to be done, and second, a step-by-step approach to implementation based on a well-designed road map.

Here are six tips for creating a customer experience engine that's strong and reliable for the long haul.

Crystalize business goals
What do you want to achieve with respect to customer experiences? Hint: An enjoyable online experience for your visitors should be top of mind.

Never forget that content is king
Make sure your content is engaging, creates emotions and satisfies your customers' needs for information. It is not advertising!

Identify and document all customer touch points, both online and offline
Test the touch points -- focusing on response times, consistency of answers and information, quality of interactions, and follow through. Your customer experience engine should run smoothly at all touch points.

Create "architectures" for the customer experience engine
Architectures are documents that describe all of the component parts, their organization, and interactions. This includes technology solutions as well as the people, organizations, content, and processes that help provide the customer experiences.

Create and use a road map
This map should define the timing and sequence of technology starting with the CMS. Since the CMS is the hub from which most if not all other engine components will be connected, a CMS that fits with your strategy (and not the other way around) should be selected with care.

Have a formal process for evaluating the CMS and other technologies
Use the business goals and architecture documents to communicate with vendors and remember that the more the vendor knows about you and your needs, the better they can respond.

As the core element of the customer experience engine, CMS selection is critical. A CMS that easily integrates with the best-of-breed solutions enables companies to have freedom in selecting just the right tool for a given job from the vast variety of tools and systems available, including those they already own. Those tools go far beyond sales and marketing automation to include e-commerce, analytics, social media, community management, and many others that fuel marketing campaigns for effectively attracting and serving customers.

If you are considering a CMS to drive your own customer experience engine, you too are embarking on a customer journey. Don't be afraid to kick the tires to see how well the vendors you look at understand and can support the creation of a superior and effective customer journey with best-of-breed tool integration to make the road smooth and successful all the way along.

Oliver Jaeger is vice president, global marketing and communications for e-Spirit Inc.

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