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3. Connect with customers right now

Finding ways to interact with customers in real time is something of an art form. But if you have the right creative approach, social media can make communication instant, easy, and free.

Albion Cafe in Shoreditch, London, sends a tweet (Twitter ID: @albionsoven) when baked goods come out of the oven. “Freshly baked crumbly Chocolate Chip Cookies stuffed with oozy chocolate chips,” said one (see bakertweet.com/m/721 for a photo of the cookies). Locals subscribe to the Twitter feed so they know exactly when to pop over.

The café was the first to employ BakerTweet, a wall-mounted device that makes it easy for bakers to post when the goodies are ready. A busy worker simply has to turn a dial to select the product and then press a button to generate an automatic tweet, complete with a sumptuous description.

Admittedly, few of us are in the cookie business. But many of us could use a way to alert potential customers to something new coming hot out of the oven.

4. Tap the crowd for ideas

Crowdsourcing involves using online social networks to put many people to work on a task that’s usually performed by one or a few. In marketing, it can replace weeks of internal head-scratching or eliminate hefty fees paid to a specialist agency. Take a shortlist of possible product names vetted for trademark compliance, for instance, and ask your Facebook fans which ones they like. You could come up with a winner.

When Kodak was trying to name its new waterproof video camera, thousands of suggestions came in on Twitter and in comments on a company blog post. Mike Colbourn of Williston, Vermont, entered the name Play, and Jim Culver of La Mesa, California, suggested Sport. They won a trip to the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to join Kodak in announcing the new name: Kodak PlaySport.

5. Create a policy for real-time communication

If employees are to feel free to engage customers and the marketplace in real time, a clear policy must be in place throughout the organization. Train it, demonstrate it, discuss it, and review it until it becomes second nature to everyone.

IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines, for example, provide rules to help employees use this kind of communication effectively and responsibly. “A big part of being engaged in the community is feeling comfortable with what you can say and what you can’t say, so we wanted to establish the boundaries,” says Tim Washer, head of social-media productions for IBM worldwide.

I’ve talked with people all over the world who are struggling to adapt to this approach, and most are not at all comfortable with it. In fact, many dismiss quick response to opportunities and threats as “reckless” or “risky.”

These ways of thinking are so ingrained that even with an iceberg off the bow, companies persist in choosing slow and cautious over quick and nimble. Way too much time is spent checking, getting permission, researching, and running ideas past “experts.” By the time a decision is finally reached, it’s time to head for the lifeboats.

The conventional approach favors a “campaign” (note the war metaphor) that requires people to spend weeks or months planning to hit “targets.” Agencies must be consulted. Messaging strategies must be developed. Advertising space or time must be bought. Conference rooms and refreshments must be prepared for press conferences. Do we serve sushi or sandwiches?

In planning ahead, marketing and PR teams commonly look back. What were we doing five or six quarters ago? What happened at the trade show last year? As a result, they ignore what’s happening right this instant.

If you’re the leader, work to tear down the command-and-control mentality. Recognize your employees as responsible adults. Empower them to take initiative. Give them opportunities to hone their communication skills, and offer clear guidelines as to what’s appropriate and what’s not.

Scale and media buying power no longer offer a decisive advantage. What counts today is speed and agility. While your competitors scramble to adjust, you can seize the initiative, open new channels, and grow your brand.

David Meerman Scott is author of the best-selling The New Rules of Marketing & PR. He is a recovering VP of marketing for two publicly traded technology companies. Some material in this article is adapted from his new book, Real-Time Marketing & PR (Wiley, Nov. 2010).

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Tagged: Business, Business Impact, Twitter, IBM, digital marketing

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