Monday, January 31, 2011

Connecting with the audience (or "Where marketing gets it wrong.")

Take a look around and one thing is easy to see ... everyone's got something to sell.  Companies everywhere are all vying for a piece of that consumer pie, but they're all so focused on what they think is the finish line, they lose sight of fact that real commercial success is a marathon, not a sprint.

In my role as a pop culture writer, I've seen companies come and go.  I've seen great projects fly so far under the radar, they may as well have been tunneling underground.  I've also seen projects backed with a huge media blitz collapse under the weight of their own hype. So how can projects fail so spectacularly but in two totally different ways?  Believe it or not, they've got one thing in common ... they've forgotten all about the human element.

Too often, companies seem to have a "fire and forget" mentality when it comes to the consumer.  In their eyes, once the initial push is out of the way, they never look back.  Sure, this might work in the short term, but it's a formula for failure over the long haul.  You see, in order to have a long term success with any project, you've got to build a rapport with the people and make them feel that they've got a vested interest in its success or failure.  You've got to make them feel like they're part of the team because, and here's the important part, they ARE.  Without the support of your customers, you're doomed to fail.  Some places call this nothing more than brand loyalty, but it's a lot more than that.  It's building an honest to goodness community around what you do.

Take a look at the video game industry in particular, and you'll see a lot of talk about community.  Why is community such a big deal in gaming?  Think about it.  Most development studios spend years working on a project with hopes that it will succeed and quite possibly set up a solid foundation for building a franchise (either through the release of sequels/prequels, DLC, or expansions).  And since a lot of time developers have already started work on the next addition to these franchises even before the first title is released to the public, they've got a lot riding on striking a chord with the audience.  It's important enough that most studios have community managers in place whose sole purpose is to be the linchpin that connects the corporate side of a project with the general audience.  It's these specialists that are responsible for bringing the marketing, the PR, the development team, and just about every other facet of the company together in a way to say to the audience "Hey, this is what we're doing! What do you think?" while also playing on the other side of the fence and relaying to all those departments "This is what they think. And this is what they want instead."

When it's done right, a community can be a phenomenal tool for a company.  It gives a level of transparency to the company and earns the trust and respect of the consumer.  It also provides a valuable source of feedback that can better help the company reach its target market with a higher degree of success.  Even more importantly, though, when it's done right, a community makes its audience feel like they're part of the family.  It makes them feel like they have a real voice and a say in how things are being handled.  The audience feels more like a person and less like a statistic.  They end up wanting to see the company succeed and, in many cases, will even go out of their way to help promote and support the company's projects long after the initial shelf life.  Build a strong and loyal community, and you've never got to worry about handling the heavy lifting of marketing alone.

Most people with even a cursory knowledge of marketing know how important it is to get people talking about your product.  So why can't these same people realize that you can't get people talking, if you never give them a voice?  That's where a good, solid community comes into play.  So if this is such a big deal, why don't we see more of it elsewhere?  Sadly, the truth of it is, most places simply don't think past the initial push.  It's like I said at the start of this post, they see the success of a project based on the immediate returns on investments (a sprint) instead of the beneficial dividends of long-term support (a marathon).  Ultimately, this leads to a lot of overly or underly hyped projects that no one ever really cares about.

So, do I have all the answers on what it takes to build a community the right way?  Nope.  I never claimed to either.  I've got a lot of ideas, though, based on direct and indirect experiences throughout my career.  That, plus a little common sense.  Depending on the feedback I get from this, I might share some thoughts on what it takes to connect with people.  For now, though, I just felt the urge to pull the old soapbox out of the closet, dust it off, and step up to discuss what I think is missing in the market, whose voice needs to be heard ... and how under-appreciated the people trying to bridge that gap between corporate and consumer really are.

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