A conversation with Dr. Judy Strauss. Originally published March 2008.
Dr. Strauss co-authored Radically Transparent, a study of reputation management in the digital world, with Andy Beal. She teaches in the Department of Managerial Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno, and wrote the first textbook devoted to “eMarketing” way back in 1997 (the fifth edition of this book is due out later this year). Of course, the changes that the Web and other Internet technologies have wrought in the world of marketing over the last ten years have not only been profound, they are ongoing and ever evolving. Speaking with the good doctor the other day, I asked her how these changes had affected not only the things that marketers do, but marketing itself. Here’s what she said.
1. Shifting Power to the Consumer, Part 1: Brand Image
“In our book we say that you no longer own your brand or control your reputation because the Web enables ‘citizen journalists’ to share their opinions and experiences with an amazingly broad audience whenever they feel moved to do so. An individual can now influence the perception of a brand—whether it’s Dell or Target or AOL—with one blog post, and if it gets enough attention from the online community, that one post can bloom into hundreds very rapidly.
“Of course, the company still literally owns the brand and still has control over its own actions, so if it has a good brand and does the right thing, it can certainly create and maintain a resilient reputation both on- and offline. The difference is that maintaining this reputation is now not so much about media relations and celebrity endorsements. It requires a much higher degree of listening to what consumers are saying and responding to their feedback in a positive, constructive, and transparent way.”
2. Shifting Power to the Consumer, Part 2: Product
“The Web has also changed the process of product development. Companies can tap into their customers for insights, suggestions, and feedback that help them in designing new products or improving old ones, such as Dell did with Ideastorm.com. They can also enlist the aid of customers in actually creating new products, as LEGO has done with its ‘Factory’ site, which allows Lego enthusiasts to design, share, and buy their own customized models.
“At the same time, the Web has facilitated the creation and distribution of numerous digital products or new digital versions of old products. This has had an obvious effect on the entertainment and media industries, where music, news, and movies now circulate in purely digital form, for example, thus threatening to eliminate entire retail sectors, like music shops and movie rental outlets, while making possible new channels like iTunes, CNN.com, or Amazon.com.”
3. A Brand-New Marketplace
“As far as the changes to marketing as a discipline are concerned, the effect that the Internet has had on brands and products may be less significant than the effect it has had on the concept of ‘the market’ itself. The Web not only is a new marketplace, it also has fostered the development of multiple new marketplaces from eBay to Craigslist to Freecycle. Looking beyond the exchange of goods, the Web has become a marketplace for partnerships as well. These partnerships can be quite unlikely, such as the combination of NBC, a traditional, relatively conservative media company, with Microsoft, a T-shirts and jeans software company, to form MSNBC, a whole new channel for information aggregation and distribution.”
4. New Opportunities (and Demands) for Marketing
“Ultimately, these changes mean that people who do marketing have to do a whole host of new things. They need to accept that they have an online reputation, whether they are actively participating in the online world or not, and that the creation and maintenance of that reputation is not entirely in their control. They need to understand the risks posed by this new world as well as the many opportunities (for collaboration, for communication, for competitive advantage) it offers. And they need to trust the community of users, both advocates and detractors, who are actively influencing their image and reputation, whether the company likes it or not.
“It’s all undeniably overwhelming and it can freak people out. They say, ‘I can barely keep up with my e-mail. How am I supposed to deal with blogs, YouTube, social networks, and all the rest of it?’ I remind them that you don’t have to do it all. Listening is a first and important step. Set up Google Alerts for your company and for your competitors so you can find out what people are saying about you (and them).
“The more you listen, the more you discover about the conversation already going on. Depending then on the size of your company, the size of your market, the size of your audience, etc., you need to start building a structure to deal with this stuff personnel-wise. Whether this involves designating a company spokesperson, enlisting the aid of staff who are already Web savvy and active online, or even hiring a reputation manager depends entirely on your particular circumstances. However you handle it, you will also need to establish rules and guidelines for dealing with the various situations that can arise.
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, which is why you need to start by paying attention and take it from there. Keep an open mind; don’t hesitate to experiment; give people free rein to try different things; and most of all, don’t be afraid to say to yourself and your organization, ‘This is a new frontier—let’s explore.’”