Originally published November 6, 2008.
While everyone in my world has concerns about future spending in the digital media space, I worry even more about how budgets are being spent on social media. In my experience working on campaigns engaging bloggers with brands, PR agencies, and media buyers, I've seen a siphoning away of well-intended dollars due to redundancies, miscommunication, and lack of alignment among these marketing groups. In many cases they haven't yet found ways to coordinate their efforts in social media contexts, and so they don't always achieve the best outcome. This could hurt the industry more than the economy could because it gives social media a bad rap as unaccountable and ineffective.
Don't get me wrong; we've seen great things happen; but when they do, it is inevitably a result of PR, media, or a brand extending their responsibilities beyond their usual scope. In a review campaign created for JC Penney's new furniture line, Linden Street, my company engaged bloggers to review the new line by providing them with gift cards for shopping excursions. The bloggers then wrote balanced reviews of their experiences, and those posts were promoted via media. Now, blogger outreach is typically done through a PR agency, but in this case the recruiting was done by us and planned with the media agency, who allocated budget for the promotion of the reviews.
In other instances PR firms such as Ogilvy, Edelman, and Weber Shandwick have allocated portions of their budgets to media impressions we could run on our blog advertising network. Now, PR firms typically don't get media budgets, but increasingly we're seeing firms build this into their budgets, or PR firms are working with a brand's media buyer to enhance the reach of their efforts. As they say, does an amazing PR campaign really happen if few blog about it? (Well, as I like to say, anyway.) These "non-traditional" campaigns are leading the way to real innovation, both in terms of social media marketing and inter-agency collaboration, but such collaboration or cross-pollination, if you will, typically doesn't happen.
Let me be specific about what doesn't work by using a typical scenario: A corporate brand manager is keen to market her product to a targeted social networking community. She encourages her PR firm and her media agency to begin engaging that community. The PR firm initiates a blogger outreach program; the media buyer includes specific social media properties or ad networks in the RFP process, but never shall these efforts be coordinated with each other.
I'm encouraged when I see brand, PR, and media teams banding together and building on each other's efforts. Do I have the magic formula for how this can work from within these organizations? For how these people can avoid tripping over each other? Nope. I can only tell you that when this coordination happens, it tends to work.
Several years ago I cooked up a cross-marketing fantasy that I still hope to help a customer achieve: I was speaking with a buyer for a packaged food company that wanted to engage both mom and food bloggers, and I suggested a recipe contest. With a media buy, we could easily promote the contest across blogs that were relevant in the space, I told the client, but, I warned of two things: 1) You need to allow dollars--on the media and/or PR side--to promote the winner. The blogosphere wants to see the end of the story; not sharing, or allowing others in the community to talk about the winning recipe, is dropping the campaign before it has a chance to really take off. And 2) You need a really good prize.
When the firm suggested a simple cash prize, I said no, suggesting, instead, that "it would be great to promote the winning blogger's recipe offline, say, on the packaging."
The suggestion was well-received, but, given that it was 2006, and we were talking about this questionable entity called the Blogosphere, and the media budget couldn't extend past X date, and such groups as the PR agency and brand operations would have to be called into play, the idea was placed in proposal purgatory.
Still, a girl can dream …
The PR account manager promotes her branding effort by relying on a relatively inefficient process of reaching out to individual bloggers, posting and responding to posts on community networks, and hoping that influencers will adopt and ultimately write about the product. Eventually the PR manager may see that the only real way to effectively promote her branding effort is to achieve more scalable reach across the targeted community--on the social media site or across relevant blogs in that community, but she doesn't have the media dollars to do that with scale.
Meanwhile, the media buyer is able to broadcast messaging out to millions of relevant members of his target demo, but not with any real engagement. He would love to tie in his program to an event, or something that will trigger real interaction, maybe even generate a coveted comment or product recommendation on Twitter. But all he has are media impressions and maybe a short call to action to prove a message was received. Anything additional is unlikely, and frankly not part of the required metrics, even if it means exponentially more than a click-thru.
The brand manager can see that her PR firm could use media budget to support and promote an engaging outreach program. She also sees that enabling the media buyer by expanding the definition of measurables to include blog posts, comments, Flickr uploads, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, Seesmic responses, and Tweets, while not tying into a nice neat metrics package, do indicate engagement. But her management is still demanding traditional measurable outcomes, and she only has budget for specific "one-off" product initiatives, like a launch, not ongoing engagement. She'd love to coordinate with other brand groups to build a sustained effort, but the timing of her initiative doesn't match those of her colleagues, and they have a totally different strategy anyway.