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Stop "Keeping Up With the Joneses"

When you hear a success story, it might seem natural to emulate it. But who wants to be a lemming? Stop copying and start innovating.
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There's a land rush nowadays by many organizations to be seen as hip, happening, and relevant.

Worried that rivals are outflanking them, top college graduates are avoiding being recruited by them, and key customers are tiring of them, many CEOs are turning to a Facebook page, iPhone App, or YouTube video just to seem up-to-date.

In fact, I can't tell how you how many frantic calls or emails I've received of late asking if we can "do something in digital, and, do it yesterday!?" When I ask the chief marketing officer to catch his breath, I ask him or her why.

"Because," he'll stammer, "Our CEO wants it done now!" And, when I push back a little more and ask why a second time, the CMO will respond by saying, "Because she's buddies with the No. 2 guy at Ford and they're using social media to run rings around Detroit, Japan, and Germany! We need to do the same thing."

Let's step back. That's a terrible reason for beginning—or expanding upon—a social media program. But, it's not at all atypical. CEOs run in a pack and, like lemmings, they possess a herd mentality. So, if one CEO tells another one he changed the corporate logo and experienced a 20 percent sales increase, the other will most likely want to do the same thing.

Keeping up with the Joneses is a bad strategy, whether we're talking about your personal or your professional life. A company should only embark on a social media strategy (or upgrade an existing one) after answering the following questions:

1. Does my target audience use social media to inform, or make, their purchase decisions?

2. Would they welcome my company's participation in their social media experience?

3. Would they prefer to learn about my organization, or its products and services, through a different channel (i.e. traditional advertising, face-to-face meetings, PR, etc.)?

4. At what point does my website factor into a purchasing decision?

How do I actually deal with this situation when confronted with it? The L-word is my No. 1 suggestion when a harried client calls to say he needs a digital strategy yesterday. I tell the CMO he really needs to listen first. He needs to understand:

  • Who is the precise target audience?
  • Where do they congregate in the social media landscape (i.e. Chat rooms? Influential blogs? A competitor’s website?)
  • What are their issues and topics of conversation?
  • How does my organization's messaging fit within the conversation (i.e. if it isn’t genuine and doesn’t add genuine value to the conversation, it will immediately be rejected).

The final answer will determine whether a social media presence, or upgrade, is warranted. Listening intently will tell any CMO what he, in turn, should tell his CEO.

In many instances, it usually ends up being a variation on the following:

Sally, I'm sorry to tell you this, but the agency folks did a really deep dive and we don't need a social media program after all. I know, Sally. I know Ford's No. 2 guy used it to crush the entire auto industry. But, we're trying to reach risk managers, and the agency says very few have a digital footprint and even fewer post comments on blogs! Frankly, having spoken to a sampling of risk managers, they've told us they’d prefer more relevant, printed material from us on a more timely basis. What's that? My solution? We believe an integrated sales and marketing strategy that combines face-to-face meetings at key industry conferences and highly-tailored, industry specific email newsletters is the smartest way to outflank the competition. Why thank you, Sally. Yes, we did it give it a lot of thought. Sure. We’ll get it going right away.

Listen first. Then analyze, then make the right decision. Just like you don't need to lease that extra car or build an addition to the home just to be like your neighbors—who are very different people than you, after all—making business decisions based on other companies' marketing strategies is not only unwise, but could cost you big in the long-run. 

IMAGE: Flickr
Last updated: Apr 4, 2012

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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