Social Team 6

As we fast approach another Super Bowl marketers may recall one of the few (only?) corporate social outreaches that achieved mass awareness – Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” post. The Ambility team, after much discussion, decided that that was the last example of a social post getting wide airplay that we could remember. We also felt it was a good time to ask “Why?”

There’s an old saying that war is months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.  It’s likely that someone has said something similar about the marketing world (particularly if they’ve spent time within agencies) but situationally there is no justifiable metaphor between battle and the world of marketing. There are, however, perhaps some lessons marketers can learn from those who practice combat well. Beyond the rigorous physical training (including the Seals’ famous, though studiously unconfirmed, Hell Week when trainees must run, swim in cold water, and crawl through mud almost non-stop for up to six days with only a total of four hours sleep during that time to restore them) the bulk of time spent in elite fighting forces is dedicated to practicing scenarios again and again on the off chance that the same or a similar situation will be confronted. In fact it would not be a far reach to suggest that the mission success of these elite fighting forces is as much about anticipating a situation and preparing for it as it is about training their minds and bodies to function under duress. And here is where marketing teams can look for lessons.

Anticipation & Preparation

The greatest opportunities for marketers to surprise and delight in the social spaces on a mass scale come from being prepared to respond quickly during events that have mass appeal. The Super Bowl, of course, is an example of something people schedule their day (even year) around, but what can be overlooked in this age of time shifting TV watching is that there are plenty of events that Americans seek to enjoy live; events that appeal to our desire for collective engagement, where the very timeliness of social networking can stand out and create mass impressions.

The examples of corporate posts or tweets that achieved mass awareness during such events so far are very few indeed, but those that have are less examples of amazing creative than they are operational success stories. That so few brands even appear at all with timely social messaging around mass events is also more an operational failure than a lack of creative juice.

Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” post during the 2013 Super Bowl after the lights kicked off and delayed the game for over a half hour is a great, though unique, example of when the preparation and creative action came together to take advantage of an unexpected situation and gain enviable positive brand perception. No one, I think, has suggested that 360i (Oreo’s social agency) anticipated a loss of power to the 2013 Super Bowl but they did recognize that America’s biggest sporting event offered a real opportunity to make a positive brand impression at relatively tiny cost.

It’s Operations Not Creativity

All these years later there are arguments about how well that tweet drove business for Oreo. Oreo’s sales growth has indeed gone from the low single digits to around 20% per year for the last couple of years, but a lot of that is explained by expansion into emerging markets. More notable is that it remains an exception all these years later. It’s clear that this is due not to a lack of creativity on the part of brands and their agencies, but rather the lack of effort in anticipating opportunities and streamlining operations around mass events.

Don’t get me wrong, the meat and potatoes of social engagement for brands is rightly focused on problem solving. In both Gizmodo and HBR’s rankings of brands that practice social media well, they focus more on companies’ use of social networks as customer service channels than brand messaging platforms. The heavy lifting social engagement provides through almost one-to-one exchanges when problems or questions are posed is a very effective way for brands to show what they stand for, gain valuable customer and product insights, and are great opportunities for turning bad brand experiences into positive ones. LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, who frequently engages with customers and his development team publicly on the platform, wins compliments on his posts responding to user’s comments, exhibiting both a high level of executive engagement with the core product offering and pretty effective brand-building. But social channels as mass media branding mechanisms is still a largely unexplored opportunity.

As Facebook’s monthly active user base approaches 2 billion (it’s now over 1.55 billion and counting) and Twitter’s remains over 300 million (and holding) social media’s potential as a mass media outlet relevant for brand building will inevitably be explored. For marketing departments and agencies advising them, the top task should simply be to anticipate opportunity, assemble a few good creatives, prepare a streamlined approval process among decision makers who commit to be available, and then review the attributes of the brand you want to reinforce should an opportunity arise. Then cross your fingers, which is safer than sabotaging the electrical supply of a major sporting venue…

In-Sourcing and the Value of Disruption – Part 2


Part 1 of this post described some of the systemic attributes of a business landscape where technological change and the dynamics of the marketing agency world combine to create an environment of disruption. Part 1 also described some of the advantages brands should expect when they take their interactive activities in-house rather than working with agencies – particularly in the forms of internal ownership of the customer journey and responsibility for buyer behavioral insights.

Part 2 suggests the elements of the disruptive environment that are essential for internal digital teams to recognize and build into their own processes to ensure that the benefits of in-sourcing (or stable agency relationships) don’t come at the loss of the benefits of disruption.

Good Disruption, Necessary Disruption

Borrowing Georgia Congressman John Lewis’s “Good Trouble” directive, for digital professionals it is useful to recognize that certain types of disruption are good and necessary. While challenging, customer environmental disruption is a given. New hardware, software, and apps are put to use differently by empowered consumers and businesses everyday – well beyond the planned intent of the tools – with significant implications for marketing and service delivery groups (at least).

History has some big examples of products and services that were built with one use in mind only to be transformed by users who saw them satisfy other needs. Play-Doh was originally marketed as a wallpaper cleaner and Listerine a treatment for “sweaty feet, and soft corns, developing between the toes.”

More recently we’ve seen Google+ fail as a replacement social network and hub for all things Google but it seems likely that components will continue as customers demonstrate appreciation for their photo storing platform and its Hangouts for communications ( I have two clients who seem to meet only through the Hangouts, even with people in the same office, keeping them at their desks and minimizing ineffective time moving between rooms.

The Customer Is (Still) King

The disruptive environment often inherent in an agency client relationship is partly based on regular review cycles that bring new agencies into the mix, performing research and submitting new ideas for how to better connect with and serve customers.  Even incumbent agencies in the review process take a step back, reassess the marketplace, and eagerly search for new ways to delight and surprise.

The disruption your internal digital department needs most is not in changing personnel but in getting a renewed understanding of the target customers and their use of new and evolving tools. The environment is dynamic enough that every digital department should develop processes for regularly renewing their views and then openly brainstorming messaging and solutions to better serve their customers.

Operationalizing Creative Disruption

For every digital professional building platforms and campaigns nowadays it is essential to continually evaluate planning activities to understand how well they inform greater understanding of the customer and how the interactive environment that serves them has evolved. The inputs to answer these questions differ by sector as the digital environmental disruption is incredibly varied.

Salesforce is transforming how partnerships are marketed, created, and managed in the B2B space but has little impact in helping Starbucks sell coffee. The internet of things has already provided huge benefits to heavy industry but, so far, has had limited impact on retail customer interactions (expect that to change soon).

Developing your own map of the players and technologies impacting the online experience of your specific customers is essential and not likely something you can buy off the shelf. It has to be built into a regular planning process. Although the speed of change also varies from sector to sector, it’s hard to conceive of a marketplace whose interactive landscape isn’t disrupted at least once a year. Planning cycles should be scheduled accordingly.

Planning Disruption not Relationship Disruption

All in all, whether you work with outside agencies or not the interactive planning process must be disruptive – to your marketing, your interactive platforms, and yes, when necessary the skills and capabilities of your organization. Attention to the practices and behaviors of your customers will guide the way. Agencies can be a great way to augment capabilities and produce fresh insights and ideas, and their clients are better able to assess their agency and internal needs when they disrupt their own thinking about their customers.

Subsequent Ambility posts will further discuss disruption in its many forms – the operational implications of technological disruption to platform and campaign managers, how agencies are and need to continue evolving to sustain the value they offer to their clients and their stakeholders, and the essential skillsets necessary in leaders and teams to keep digital planning activities relevant, just to name a few.

In-Sourcing and the Value of Disruption – Part 1


The recent move by Krispy Kreme to take their digital marketing in house ( continues a long-standing debate about the relative value of in-house versus agency resources for these essential services. In considering this question, a statement by Krispy Kreme about their decision stood out to me as worthy of examination: “Krispy Kreme engaged VML last year to do strategic and foundational work in the areas of digital and social media.  We think that those efforts have set us up for success going forward. As such, we plan to manage digital and social media using in-house resources at this time.”

I expect that statement is half right. VML does great work and Krispy Kreme clearly has a strong strategic platform to work from to deliver digital and social media programs in the short term that will help them drive business. But how much a foundation of success they have “going forward” is an open question, and one that is important for every modern marketer to answer.

Krispy Kreme’s particular situation is simply one of many companies choosing to take critical marketing and communications functions in-house. It’s useful to consider the advantages and risks of such a decision and to, hopefully, identify ways to maximize the advantages and mitigate the anticipated risks.

The Pros

The advantages of taking ownership of digital tasks in-house should be clear. Beyond the (often exaggerated) economies, the key advantage of bringing digital responsibilities in-house is that the ownership and accountability of these critical mechanisms for delivering customer service and marketing messaging are clear, and metrics of success explicitly spelled out. This focuses internal digital marketing and operations teams and provides the avenue for developing real knowledge and empathy with their target customers – a fundamental ingredient of great work.

The Cons

On the flip side, retaining an outside team for key digital responsibilities also has some obvious advantages in the highly dynamic online environment. As the most critical interactive skills have evolved from experience design to media planning to search to content marketing to programmatic, corporate marketing departments have easily switched among agencies whose capabilities better matched the challenges of the day (to the dismay and occasional demise of less nimble agencies). The minimal agency switching costs and hyper-competitive nature of the interactive agency world allows corporate digital departments to adjust to fluid demands in interactive capabilities more easily than they might be able to with embedded resources.

In short, for various reasons the interactive world has been one of constant disruption since its inception. While the environment has been demanding for modern interactive teams, the one clear beneficiary has been the customer. Websites are more intuitive and visual than they were, search gets better and better at connecting customers with relevant offerings, and content (of all forms) has become richer and more effective at telling brand, product, and service stories in ways that are meaningful.

The strategic work we do at Ambility aims to help insourced and outsourced teams focus on high-impact solutions and manage operational risk. We’ve worked with our corporate clients to evolve platform offerings and campaigns to better connect with customer expectations, and we’ve helped agencies adjust their capabilities to better match client needs.

In each case the driving inputs are insights which help us understand how technology and social factors are impacting customer behavior. Understanding how customer behavior is evolving then allows us to better understand what is working, and to uncover new opportunities for brands to stand out from the competition. But each time we recognize that the delivery provides a solution for the current environment – an environment that continues to evolve and be disrupted.

Increasingly we work to organize teams around customers in order to be better at identifying changes when they happen, and to better understand capabilities gaps that need to be filled. Where this post sought to outline advantages and disadvantages of doing this in an insourced world, the next post will provide thinking for how to operationalize disruption within an organization.