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Climate change in the world of marketing

Special Report : Marketing The Family Business

Want to achieve truly cutting-edge marketing but unsure of where to turn among the plethora of new technologies out there? In the age of "on demand", following the customer is the best way to lead the pack, says Amy Syracuse.

Amy Syracuse is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

The winds of change are blowing through the marketing world, and the resulting forecast appears mixed. For traditional channels – things like 30-second television spots and old-fashioned print ads – the outlook is cloudy, as companies increasingly turn to less expensive, more measurable media. Meanwhile, following a flurry of new technologies storming the market, sunny skies are predicted for several online techniques, including blogs and digital video.

Most professionals are still assessing the repercussions of this "climate change", and family businesses are no exception. With more marketing technologies than ever to choose from, selecting the right mix is no easy task. Fortunately, most companies have easy access to someone who can show them the way: their customers. "There's no such thing as a passive consumer anymore," says Richard Laermer, chief executive officer of New York-based RLM PR and co-author of Punk Marketing. "You have to know who your customer is and what they really want."

In other words, the internet has given consumers unprecedented control over interactions with sellers in both business-to-consumer and business-to-business settings – a phenomenon driving everything from the Web 2.0 boom to search engines' global domination. So if you want to successfully implement the latest marketing trends, the best advice is to follow the customer.

Providing instant gratification
The internet has created distinct commonalities in how people find and use information to make purchasing decisions. This is especially apparent where high-speed internet access is prevalent, and will only compound as adoption rates increase.

According to Gartner Inc, worldwide consumer broadband connections will reach an impressive 364 million by 2010. 75% of households in Asia-Pacific and Japan will be included in this number, and 50% of those in North America and Western Europe. Research firm RNCOS puts the Middle East and Africa at just 2% of worldwide broadband consumption, but that could quickly change. Those regions are also the fastest-growing high-speed internet access markets.

Chris Lake, editor of London-based E-consultancy.com, which provides information, training and events for online marketing and e-commerce, summarises high-speed internet access's impact on consumer psychology: "The average man in the street is more prepared to go online to research and buy products … [because] faster connectivity equals less pain."

Accordingly, the web is becoming the first stop for pre-purchase research – especially where high-value products and services are concerned. In the US, DoubleClick's 2006 Touchpoints IV Survey revealed that 18% of respondents were most influenced to buy a new product or service by a website. Corporate websites outranked all other influences, including retail displays, sales people, television advertisements and word of mouth.

Still, some companies have been slow to embrace web-based applications that provide the instant gratification customers seek. "The biggest shift organisations need to make is putting the internet at the centre of their marketing models," says Anthony Campisi, president and CEO of Annodyne, Inc, an American internet business consulting agency. He says a "next-generation website" is critical – one that goes beyond cataloguing information to actually facilitate purchasing decisions.

Online video can be an ideal way to achieve this. "How-to videos might be a good idea," Lake advises. "Anything that adds value … or helps demonstrate your product via thought-leadership."

Bread-maker Warburtons, a top-selling UK grocery brand and 130-year-old family business, actually maintains two separate websites so both consumer and retail users can find the information they want. Its trade site contains trend analysis, new product news and tips on maximising bakery section sales. The consumer site takes a more personal approach. "It allows us a valuable two-way relationship with our consumers and holds content useful for all of the family … including education, recipes and talk-to-us sections," says Roz Cuschieri, Warburtons' marketing director.

Ensuring websites can be found is also essential in the age of "on demand". "Consumers are saying 'I know what I want and I'm going to go and find it'," asserts Andy Atkins-Kruger, managing director of Web Certain Europe Ltd. "The point of search marketing is to offer them what they want … at the right point in time."

This can be done through pay-per-click search engine advertisements or tactics that increase web traffic – for example, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) news feeds and placements on blogs and social media networks. Perhaps the most popular technique is search engine optimisation – implementing content and design strategies that boost a website's chances of appearing in organic search results.

Giving customers feedback
Of course, it's not enough to provide customers with information right now; companies also need to ensure they're providing the right information. This brings many marketers to "Web 2.0", a prominent trend in North America, the UK, Japan and South Korea.

Web 2.0 refers to the propagation on the internet of consumer-generated media (CGM). "Users, customers and prospects … contribute to a company's website, a company's blog and even part of the company's marketing and its messages," explains Mark Ram, marketing manager for Ithaca Business Media, which organises the annual Internet World exhibition in London.

Such content can dramatically impact purchasing decisions. Boston-based Compete, Inc reports that 51% of US automotive and travel purchasers use reviews and other forms of CGM to narrow their purchase choices, 23% use it to confirm a choice and 15% to select a top choice.

But setting up customer message boards or soliciting feedback on social media websites is not without risks. "Feedback can be negative as well as positive … [You] need to have a careful balance to achieve overall positive PR," says Ram.

Blogging offers a relatively safe way to test the waters. "I can't think of a business that shouldn't launch a blog," says Lake. "It is a way of communicating and bonding with customers, developing long-lasting relationships with them and learning from them. What do and don't they like about your business? So long as you allow them to comment, they'll tell you."

Glenfiddich Scotch Whisky, manufactured by family business William Grant & Sons Ltd, maintains a blog dedicated to "uniting whisky lovers across the world". Managed by brand ambassadors Ludo and Ian, the blog shares behind-the-scenes stories and provides details about events where Glenfiddich whisky can be enjoyed. Consumers can also post questions or comments and receive responses from Ludo, Ian or other blog users.

Getting back to basics
Despite technology's advancements, companies aiming for the cutting edge may be surprised to learn that many customers crave a return to good, old-fashioned values. "[Consumers] cannot be fooled so easily," explains Alain Dore, executive creative director of Paris-based branding agency Desgrippes Gobe. "They look for sincerity and genuine products. They want honest, less extraordinary, fairer brands."

In marketing terms, this means simpler messaging – prioritising actions over words. "Don't over promise; over deliver" is Laermer's mantra. He offers the example of TutorVista, an India-based online tutoring company that sought to expand in America. "TutorVista felt the US government had made false promises … they said they were going to tutor kids that needed it and didn't. So I said to their CEO, 'Why don't you … tell the country that you're here to solve the problem?'"

TutorVista provided free tutoring to students in the nation's most rural counties – no strings attached. "That helped the consumer and got TutorVista more attention than any of their competitors," says Laermer. "It's about saying what the customer wants to hear and then following through."

Chris Arnold, creative partner at London-based ethical marketing agency Feel, agrees that most people want to feel good about purchasing decisions. He recommends companies deliver by creating campaigns around causes that resonate with their employees and customers. Just be sure to research and understand the issues. "The ethical consumer is an intelligent consumer," Arnold advises. "You can't just pay lip service to an issue and expect to get away with it."

Running a business with such sincerity and integrity is about more than positive PR. It helps establish an emotional bond – something Dr Sabine Klein, assistant professor at the European Family Business Center in Wiesbaden, Germany, says is especially appealing as globalisation sets in. "With the world becoming bigger and bigger … people are in need of something they can feel connected to," she observes.

Laermer notes a similar trend in North America. "Family businesses are in the best possible place because there is a need in communities to help their own. Any family business that doesn't make a big deal about its family-owned status is making a huge error."

But, perhaps the best news for family businesses is that, whichever way the winds of change blow, their entrepreneurial visions and clear values should help them embrace new trends and effectively adapt. Says Dr Klein: "Family businesses are usually more flexible and faster because they've got a clear set of criteria on which to base decisions."

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