Forrester’s Li: Marketers Must Give Up Some Control

NEW YORK — Senior analyst Charlene Li raised an interesting issue yesterday at Forrester Research's Consumer Forum 2005: What do blogs, RSS and search engines have in common?

Her answer confirmed the fears of interactive marketing executives attending the two-day event focused on innovating in a consumer-driven world: “They require marketers to give up a degree of control.”

Marketers soon may have no option if they want to build lasting relationships with consumers. Social computing has changed customer behavior and brand loyalty for good. However, marketers still haven't tapped the power of consumer-to-consumer connections.

Li had five rules for marketers interested in running blogs and other social computing tools.

First, engage in a conversation. Microsoft's Channel 9, for example, lets developers interact with the brand via posts. Maytag created a site for the mostly male customers of its Skybox vending machine for dens, or man caves. This audience now evangelizes the product online.

Second, enjoy the conversation. Customers are often smarter than the marketer. They can smell fakery. Third, make customers tell marketers what they want. Apple Computer has several RSS feeds to let customers customize the content they want.

Next, place the ability in the hands of users. Burger King filmed a guy doing 400 different actions in a chicken suit. The firm used that imagery on its Subservient Chicken Web site. Consumers could make the chicken sit, stand or dance, among other things. The site recorded 14 million unique visitors in its first year, and the brand impact on sales was considerable.

Finally, marketers should admit mistakes. An apology soothes ruffled feathers. General Motors Corp. vice chairman Bob Lutz apologized March 4 in his blog that a particular Cadillac model was suited not to the United States, but to Europe. That helped save its reputation.

So how do marketers get started with social computing? They should decide how involved they want to get with it, Li said. Listen to the consumer.

For example, a smart Unilever executive read a blog post from a consumer who couldn't find a deodorant made by his firm. So he posted the addresses of two stores that sold the product and also sent a year's supply for free.

Second, start small. Get people used to the mindset. A recruitment blog is a good place to start. HR executives can have a dialogue with people who want to discuss career-related issues. Offering company press releases via RSS feeds is another beginning. Fifty percent of journalists get RSS feeds.

Third, place earnings calls in podcasts for media and analysts to access after a call. Fourth, market these tools and create awareness with the targeted audiences. Finally, deploy the metrics necessary to measure effectiveness to cover the posts generated in a blog or e-mails received.

Li admitted risks are involved in social computing — a trend where the consumer gains more control of the message or the brand with every tool. For instance, employees or executives may badmouth the company. Or they may utter words that the company would rather they not. But that is beside the point, Li said.

“If you can't trust your employees and executives to have open discussions,” she said, “you have bigger issues on your hands.”

Another risk is the effect of negative comments on the brand. But it's better to have control of that feedback on the inside rather than on other sites.

Then there is the fear of losing control of the brand. But that isn't a new worry: When do marketers really have full control once the brand is out of their hands?

Finally, there's the stock corporate response to blogs, as Li put it: “We'll get sued if we do this.” To ensure they don't see the inside of a courtroom, marketers must ensure confidentiality isn't violated. Also, a review process should ensure all actions are in legal compliance.

An issue facing most marketers today, and a question asked of Li, was responsibility for writing the blog. She said the people who write the blog should run it. For instance, Yahoo has a blog for its executives. The online firm's PR, investor relations and legal departments don't edit it, but give it a look-over for compliance and legal purposes.

Another major concern of the audience was return on investment. Li said the investment levels in a blog are low. In some instances, it costs as little as $15 a month to run a blog. The issue is whether the individual has the time to write. Blogs should get the same ROI treatment as other marketing.

“How do you measure the benefits of public relations and branding?” she said. “How do you measure loyalty?”

Without doubt, it's difficult to directly link blogging with a sale. But GM executives told Li that anecdotal evidence suggests the level of consumer engagement has increased over time.

“It's not how many people have you sold,” Li said, “but how many people have you influenced?”

Mickey Alam Khan covers Internet marketing campaigns and e-commerce, agency news as well as circulation for DM News and To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting

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