It’s time for a quick reality check: How many digital platforms does your brand play across today?

You probably have a website, so we’ll count that as one. Facebook? You probably also have a brand or business page, so that’s two. How about Twitter? LinkedIn? Let’s be generous and assume you’ve been on these platforms since day one, so that’s four. Heck, we’ll even throw in Snapchat and Tumblr for good measure.

All told, that’s six platforms your brand plays across and six potential avenues to engage with the stakeholders most important to you. Sure, it’s hard work to juggle it all, but it probably feels good to be ahead of the curve – a sophisticated digital marketer, reaching consumers where they are versus making them come to you.

Well, here’s the kicker. Even if what we described above sounds like you, it turns out (as is often the case) consumers are one step ahead.  A recent study of online and mobile users revealed that roughly 25 percent of multi-platform users are on seven or more social platforms, and that doesn’t even take into account all the other digital platforms they’re engaged on.

It’s unlikely the digital landscape is going to get any less crowded or complex. Case in point: the failure of giants like Facebook to fully “own” the social lives of consumers online. No matter how many other platforms it snaps up – Instagram, Friendster, What’s App – Facebook can’t pin down consumers, who seem increasingly comfortable to adopt a “many” mindset and compartmentalize their digital worlds, using specialized platforms for specialized needs. In fact, the same study that revealed the common use of seven or more social platforms also revealed that consumers have very distinct ideas about what each platform is good for: Facebook for interacting with family versus Twitter for people with similar interests; LinkedIn for personal finance tips versus Pinterest for personal style advice. Most often, these use cases are more about what consumers want than how each platform wants to be known.

What’s a marketer to do?

Be Active but Not Reactive

The knee-jerk reaction to such a phenomenon can be to chase what’s next, sometimes at the expense of what’s already working. In a recent conversation with a Fortune 500 brand team for whom Greenhouse Partners manages social marketing, we were asked, “Should our brand be on Tumblr?” This was only moments after being asked, “Is it time to pull the plug on Facebook?” – a platform on which we had spent the last five years cultivating strong engagement.

This reaction isn’t surprising or entirely unwarranted given the pace of change. We see faster consumer flows between technologies, steeper adoption curves, and oftentimes, playing on a new digital platform means taking advantage of a relatively uncrowded space. The next new thing doesn’t replace the old thing, it simply gets added to the mix (until a strategic evaluation indicates that there truly isn’t value to your brand on the old thing anymore). Consumers aren’t afraid to juggle complexity, and so marketers must not be scared to deal with it either – but we must not deal with it by racing to adopt the latest and greatest digital tool simply because it’s there.

What’s needed is a new way of thinking that replaces old questions – which new platforms should I be on? how soon? – with a clear strategy for managing brand as an organic, holistic entity online. In this context, it doesn’t so much matter how many platforms you are on, as long as the experience you are creating is the right one for the right people. For some brands, this might mean sticking with fewer established platforms and practicing tried-and-true methods of cultivating engagement. For others, it might mean identifying new spaces where trendsetters and cultural icons reside and tapping into these platforms early and often. But this decision should be driven by a central digital strategy for your brand versus a mentality of “keeping up with the Joneses” (or the Oreos and Old Spices of the world, as the case may be).

Optimize From the Right Foundation

Too often today, we see teams get distracted from solid principles of brand and marketing, as true today as ever, by all the bells and whistles of technological innovation. You can sink all the time you want into analyzing data, making highly sophisticated, programmatic media buys, and being extremely active online, but if your underlying brand strategy and associated digital strategy aren’t grounded in marketplace, customer, and brand insight, and if you don’t have a clear, differentiated, relevant promise that you are organized to deliver on, you’ve lost before you’ve even started.

What is truer than ever is the need to embrace a plural notion of what your brand can mean to match the “multi” mindset of consumers. As mentioned previously, consumers today have strong notions about how they want to segment their digital worlds, and they don’t necessarily want brands telling them how to interact on each platform. In this context, marketers need to get comfortable with the idea that a single brand can demonstrate distinct facets on different platforms, so long as the holistic brand experience remains true. The first step to embracing this way of thinking is admitting that (gasp) brands live beyond the full control of marketers and must be monitored, understood, evolved, and influenced rather than controlled. This is not a new thought but one worth pinning to the wall as a daily reminder in the digital era.

This can be a scary proposition, especially for organizations with lengthy legal reviews or those in highly regulated industries. One misstep and you can end up the next #McDStories – stuck with the fallout from a campaign you thought you could control until consumers sunk their teeth in and made it their own. It’s one thing for this to happen if you’re a restaurant and the fallout is stories of poor service or subpar food; it’s another if you’re a financial services firm and you risk swift legal action if you attach your name to a campaign that takes on a life of its own, with you along for the ride.

Rather than taking no steps at all, however, this just means that companies must work harder than ever to understand deeply the factors that impact their brands – customer sentiment, competitive dynamics, performance of campaigns, curve balls coming your way, etc. – and keep up with them daily. Marketing in the digital era does not work on a quarterly, monthly, or even weekly cycle. The not-so-secret secret about the world of digital marketing is that the seemingly serendipitous wins we all read about in AdAge from time to time – the famous tweet during the Super Bowl when the lights went out, for example – came about as the result of having an established process and the discipline already in place (for example, swift legal review of content on a Sunday) to even be able to take advantage of an opportunity.

Measure What Matters 

The good news is that the same innovations that make the marketer’s job more complex today also make it easier than ever to operate in real time. Of course, operating in real time requires knowing where you want to end up, which is why a critical component to any digital strategy is identifying the metrics that matter to your success.

This requires diligence and the ability to look through lots of noise. All too often, companies track the wrong metrics in digital because they are the easiest. How many fans do I have? How much traffic am I driving? These are good questions, but only if they align with your true objective. Just like Moneyball-era baseball scouts looking past home-run kings to find the on-base wizards who win games, marketers must look past the metrics we’ve been told matter to the ones we can demonstrate do matter.

So, a starting place is to figure out what metrics will identify those consistent base hits. Sure, we’d all like to run campaigns that become viral home runs – and as such, we might target extremely high share rates – but we also know enough by now to see that what “going viral” requires is frequency and a little bit of luck, not an all-our-eggs-in-one-basket approach. A better place to start with a digital campaign is to look at your brand and business objectives and map out all the ways you could measure your success in achieving these objectives.

As an example, when we launched (a company founded by members of the senior team at Greenhouse Partners), we knew we needed to grow traffic to the site swiftly, but in a way that would drive loyalty and repeat visits over time. We also launched with a limited budget and needed to maximize reach by ensuring we invested in promoting content from the site that would spread the farthest at the lowest cost. In other words, to revisit the baseball metaphor, we needed to treat each piece of content like a player and understand its performance beyond what we could obviously see (the home runs) to pinpoint a more nuanced “player rating” that could predict success.

As such, we built a model to analyze the organic performance of content from our site across digital platforms. Then, we spent the next several months tracking, monitoring, and learning. At the end of those months, we realized that we could combine click-through rate with consumption rate (that is, how many times an individual engages with the same piece of content) in order to get to a good measure of how successful that content would be if promoted. This clicks-meet-consumption metric was proprietary to us – and required a little digging to identify – but has allowed us to grow from several thousand visits a month to over 500,000 visits a month in less than a year, sustaining roughly 40 percent repeat visits month-over-month.

We apply this same type of thinking across every client engagement in the digital space. In every instance – whether we’re talking to a financial services firm about using digital to support thought leadership, or a beverage company about how to increase incidence through robust, content-driven inspiration around use occasions – we start with a strategic step back to understand business priorities, marketplace and customer dynamics, brand realities, and how we will define success. Only once we have these questions answered do we begin to map out the path forward.

Moving Forward

What that path looks like for you will, of course, vary based on how you answer the important questions yourself (or with the help of a good strategic partner). Perhaps appropriately, given the complexity of the issues we all face as marketers, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to approach digital marketing. But if you take something away from this exploration of brand in the digital era, it should be this:

  1. Your brand is a living, organic entity that exists across many platforms simultaneously – oftentimes meaning different things to different customers at different times according to the ways they engage with the digital world.
  2. Rather than letting this complexity distract from core brand principles, it should be a rally cry to revisit the fundamentals, ask the right questions, and to make it your number one priority to create the right brand experience – no matter where and how it gets delivered. Better to create an amazing and on-strategy experience for some customers than to reach all your customers with the wrong experience.
  3. This mentality should free marketers from chasing what’s new and allow them to focus on what’s working. If you find yourself asking, “Should we be on new platform X?” also ask yourself, “Have we really accomplished superior execution of our strategy on the platforms where we already play?”
  4. Knowing what’s working – or will work – isn’t a simple exercise. You must allow time to track, monitor, and learn. Give yourself a chance to get it slightly wrong and revisit, then repeat. Build a framework that allows you to see clearly what’s working and commit to daily, proactive management of your plan (yourself or with the help of a partner) so you can make real-time optimizations that improve results.
  5. Don’t fall into the trap of observational bias. Just because the big wins are easy to see, doesn’t mean these wins should define the metrics you set. Dig deeper and find out what your “base hits” in digital will be. Base hits win games.

While these tenets just scratch the surface, they represent a starting place from which any brand – from the biggest Fortune 500 to the smallest entrepreneurial start-up – can build.

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