Planning & Research Adapting to New Digital Communications Era

We are approaching an inflection point in the way that brands and communications are created and implemented.  Consider these shifts:

  • Time, place and context are becoming as important, if not more important, than the message itself.
  • Where you are— physically or online — increasingly defines who you are for purposes of marketing.
  • Product-defined brands are giving way to lifestyle-defined brands.
  • Targets defined in terms of individual need and brand affinity are giving way to targets defined in terms of influence and communities.
  • Messages used to judged in terms of consistency and focus; now “content” (not messages) is skewed and tailored to a specific media and community to encourage conversation and value. One size fits all no longer works.

These are radical shifts. Not that long ago, the process of creating brand communications started with deep research into the consumer’s attitudes and the way they made decisions about the category and the brand.  Agency planners and market researchers labored long and hard to discover a polished diamond or two of ‘insights’ which could be translated into a brand platform and compelling message.

Now, the speed of deploying digital marketing ‘campaigns’ has made research and the strategic development process, if not less important, at least less prominent.

Deep research and immersion are giving way to an iterative process of digital experimentation.

Experimentation makes sense when it costs less to ‘just do it’ than invest in upfront research. Direct mail, in-store programs and commercials are expensive, even before the cost of media placement is factored in.  In contrast, digital media provides a vast experimental laboratory for marketers. Failed ideas are not an embarassment, they are just ignored. The “Your Father’s Oldsmobile” campaign, an epic fail of the early 90’s, wouldn’t have lasted a day in today’s social media environment – it would have been laughed off the social graph and fallen into oblivion.

Who needs a traditional planning process when it costs only a few thousand dollars to create a viral video, embed a tweet or launch a Facebook application that could become the next Coke Open Happiness or Dove Evolution? With so little at stake, at least financially, the potential ROI on new efforts doesn’t justify the upfront investment in exploration. When Office Max developed its ELF Yourself Christmas promotion, it was just one of ten ideas that were deployed. Any one of them could have won.

Research isn’t going away, but it needs to adapt. The future communications planning model will be immersive and concerned with broader themes and contexts, not ‘messsages’.

Although digital campaigns may be less costly, they are not free, especially when one factors in the human capital required to create and execute them.  So there is still a need to reduce risk through research. In a digital model, research will no longer be a protracted upfront process focused on understanding ‘brand perceptions and decision drivers’.  It will no longer be searching for the one, true magical golden insight.

Here is the BBH planner, Heidi Hackemer, from her blog, @uberblond arguing against the idea of a ‘frickin’ insight on a frickin’ pedestal’.

“The traditional brief should die. traditional way: planners go off into their magic black box of thought and perception, ponder the philosophies of society and our world, and then emerge triumphant with the golden insight and magical one true thing. and i get the allure of that, both from the planner feeling like a hero and the creative having the assurance of the safety buoy of a brief. but as i do more immersive brand planning that’s geared for today’s realities, digital and not (which is different than being a “digital strategist”), my role is radically changing.”

Edward Boches, echoes the idea that the brief as we knew it is no longer relevant from the perspective of a creative director in a post on his blog, Creativity Unbound.

“The brief has remained unchanged for years, almost always answering the question, “What do we have to say?” Better to answer questions like, “How will we get this brand talked about?” “What can we create of value?” “How will we get people to participate?” “What can we make, invent, build that’s worthy of being advertised?”Ask those kinds of questions and see what you get back.

Understanding of the user, their interests and lifestyle, will be more important than understanding of their brand perceptions and motivations. As Boches puts it, what matters now is “understanding a customer’s relationship to content, technology and community — not just to a category or even the brand – and finding a way to add something of value.”

In the future, research will also be more embedded in the actual communications development process, with faster turnaround times and iterative experimentation to weed out losers and identify potential wins becoming the norm.

Mike Doherty, President of Cole Weber United, dubs Millennials and its affinity for the latest, greatest idea, “Generation Prototype”. Doherty believes that the best way to ensure products get Millennials attention is to include them in the development process.

“Because Gen Yers personalize everything, they are very comfortable pulling apart (both literally and figuratively) what isn’t working for them, refashioning a different version and presenting it to their comrades in experimentation to see if it flies. This makes Gen Yers great partners for innovation.

One way to engage them is through tools that provide Market Research Online Communities (MROCs). These communities enable consumers to stick their toes into the primordial soup of new products by trying out the latest and greatest and then providing feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

In terms of mobile, we’ve also found surprising success by throwing down the gauntlet of time. Rather than focusing on time, money and whether the idea is worthwhile, consider developing mobile phone applications using a simple “App in a Day” rule. A time constraint can often push teams to develop quickly and cleverly. Risky methodology? Perhaps. Surprising rewards? Absolutely. And at worst you’ve invested two or three days in a great learning experience.”

Introducing ‘Flash Reads’

The approach Doherty advocates for product development is easily adapted for feedback on digital communications.  Access to a standing customer group or database makes it possible to leverage feedback tools in the form of polls, surveys, forums, online focus groups or co-creation groups.  Many companies have these ‘MROC’s’ available.

Brand Amplitude’s Millennial marketing unit is experimenting with a proprietary, standing Market Research community (MROC) ( of our ownRather than gather a unique random sample for each project, the idea is to have an on-call community composed of Gen  ‘super consumers’ ready to respond to your latest initiative. Each participant is active in social media and either works in or is studying digital marketing, communications or PR. The hand-selected participants were chosen from hundreds of Gen Y bloggers and tweeters for the quality of their ideas and thinking. They have already started actively sharing ideas about brand marketing. Soon, we hope to open up to allow brand marketers to access the community and to introduce focused topics of conversation or concepts for feedback or ‘pre-testing’.

For now the community is private, but if you are interested in joining or engaging the community on behalf of your brand, we’d love to hear from you.  Otherwise, stay tuned, you’ll be hearing more about this fabulous group in future posts.