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Consumer Communication: A New Media Road Map
 

Now is the time to dive into the murky realm of blogs, podcasting, and RSS feeds because the online audience is growing and not yet jaded.
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Technology flies by at warp speed, blinking past so quickly that most people simply give up on figuring out how all the pieces fit together and fall back upon what they know.

This is bad news for most companies for two reasons: it keeps them from fully utilizing their capabilities to control their messaging and it leaves them in the dark about advances within the "new media" space.

However, now is exactly the time to dive into the murky realm of new media because the online audience, while growing, still hasn't matured to the point where a direct action campaign, even one that connects with the audience, necessarily turns into big dollar figures across the bottom line. (If you don't believe me, check out the box office numbers for Snakes on a Plane, the biggest Web phenomenon in quite some time.)

If you make a mistake today, you still have time to change directions without too much collateral damage. In five years, maybe less, that won't be the case.

Now matter the size of your company, it's important that you understand how multimedia blogs, blog search engines, podcasting, and RSS feeds and readers can work to your benefit. Your managers need to become engaged with these software applications, understand how the end users interact with them, and formulate intelligent plans that capitalize on the technology.

Here's an example:

Your company, ACME widgets, releases an upgraded widget. For the release, your media strategy involves putting out a press release along with a few phone interviews with journalists. The problem, though, is that it's difficult to explain exactly how the upgrade changes the user experience, because this iteration simply makes it much easier to use the widget.

Selling that story to a journalist and marketing that widget to the end user are difficult.

However, you have an innovative marketing and communication staff. During the months leading up to the launch, they've been using their RSS readers and blog trackers to find the places where people discussing widgets. They didn't engage those users right away. They read what people were saying.

A few weeks before launch, they got involved, asking this community to test-drive the company's latest widget. In exchange, they asked those who were participating to post their thoughts on a group blog -- one that has RSS feeds built into it. Because ACME is forward thinking, their product manager decided that the developers would spend time each day responding each post.

This is, of course, a no holds barred discussion. Anything goes -- within the bounds of decency, which is scary to the ACME CEO, because the message is out of the company's hands. However, she has faith that the product is solid and the conversation is worthwhile.

The marketing department sees trends emerging from these conversations, specifically around features that amazed the bloggers. They decided to film a few three-minute videos (using Apple's Final Cut Pro software) demonstrating those features. Those videos are then added to the product blog.

ACME's product group, having responded to the blogs, decides there are some modifications that are needed. The public relations department works with them to record a weekly three-minute audio podcast (using the open-source Audacity software), which keeps the community up-to-date on what developments with the new product.

Two questions likely arise in this scenario: why would I ever want to invite this kind of scrutiny on my product and how are we supposed to take time away from over-worked employees to make this happen?

The first answer is that you'll be facing this type of scrutiny whether you invite it or not. It's a fact of a digital culture. People can now much more easily communicate with each other these days. Consumers can find out what people think about your products. Journalists can dig up facts you don't want them to find out. It's best to meet these critiques head on, engaging in the dialogue, rather than sitting back and appearing to be out of touch. It's a philosophical decision, one that will, like or not, influences the way people think about your company.

The second is more difficult. If you haven't spent the time hiring people with cross-platform skills, it's not easy to make this happen. The simple solution is to hire an outside firm with the expertise to manage this process. The hard solution -- but the one that benefits you most -- involves sending your employees back to school. Make them take basic media courses at local colleges so they can learn how to use audio and video editing software, enabling them to work with the IT and programming departments on these projects.

Brad King is an assistant professor of media informatics at Northern Kentucky University, and he blogs about technology and culture at MIT's Technology Review.

Last updated: Oct 1, 2006




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