Big brands and their digital plans – in the firing line!

Yesterday afternoon a last-minute arrangement saw me on the keynote panel at the Search Engine Strategies event in London.  The panel was billed as, “Big Brands and their Biggest Plans Yet“, and I was alongside companies such as Yahoo, the British Museum, Local.com and SAP, with some agency representation as well.

At the end of a long day I thought the room would be fairly empty, but the promise of cocktails after the session must have kept people hanging around – and Aaron Kahlow of Online Marketing Connect, who was chairing the panel, prompted the audience to go for a “no holds barred” approach to their questions.

Following are some of the questions and responses from the panel (paraphrased from memory!):

  • If you had to put all your money on a single digital tactic, which would it be?

The almost unanimous response was search (both SEO and SEM).

  • Were companies focused on bring digital in-house or out-house ?

This had a mixed response.  SAP and IBM were both moving to bring more skills in-house.  For IBM, this is particularly with regards to our search capabilities with some significant investments in technology to assist us internally.  Some other brands were focused on a mix of in-house and out-house.  The British Museum were looking to outsource their digital marketing and saw the growing number of integrated agencies as a key driver in enabling this move.

  • When it comes to social media, what role do you see agencies playing?

There was a mixed response to whether companies would use agencies or bring these skills in-house.  I’ve seen a number of agency proposals which have jumped straight to social media tactics/vehicles, without regard for the objectives, approach, and metrics to demonstrate return/value.   James Meers, of the British Museum, suggested organisation’s run a small social media pilot to see what works and learn lessons in a “suck it and see” approach.  I have to agree – how can you appraise an agency proposal without first having an understanding of what’s involved and the metrics available.  There are too many agencies out there who are over-charging for services that can be done at low-cost or free.  Understand your objectives and then invite agencies in to pitch.

  • How are you leveraging social media?

With regards to social media initiatives, understanding who your gurus are is key.   SAP recently trained all their marketing people on how to leverage social media, what language to use, and how to engage with people.  At IBM we have numerous internal tools available to trial social media in a risk-free environment before trying to engage external audiences.  We also use internal communications to seek out subject matter experts who are already active online.

  • What can small businesses do to beat the big brands on Google?

Local.com suggested looking at Geo targeting for search.  Large organisations are often approaching search from an advertising perspective – it’s about reach and impressions rather than targeted messages to niche audiences.  Small businesses can often steal a march on big brands by narrowing the focus of their advertising messages to a specific segment.

  • What role does social media play in the sales funnel?

An earlier pitch had suggested that social media didn’t play in the sales funnel.  I would disagree.  Depending on your objectives there is definitely a role.  LinkedIn has great suggestions for sales prospecting, and we’re also piloting extending the scope of our telesales teams to include “listening” for opportunities on social media (e.g. Twitter) and engaging directly with customers and prospects.   My counterparts on the panel also felt that social media played across the board.  From customer service to prospecting.  Don’t think about social media just in terms of “campaigns”.

  • What’s the future of social media?

Laura Lippay of Yahoo suggested that the rise of mobile devices, RFID, and digital technology embedded in EVERYTHING would mean that social would become ubiquitous.  It would become the way we do business, offering us the ability to engage with customers on a 1-2-1 basis, rather than being about marketing campaigns or advertising.

  • What about governance?

SAP have a social media council made up of their key social “Efluencers” who vet agency proposals and try to reign in the “spray” approach where every marketing department has dipped their toe in the water.  At IBM we also have a social media council who, amongst other things, are exploring such issues as managing intellectual property, building education programs and establishing social media blueprints.

All in all it was a great opportunity to field the burning questions from agencies and organisations and hear, first-hand, what other big brands are doing in this space.

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