The words came across the telephone to me in a one-two punch.  The punches weren’t aimed at me.  Rather, I was getting to review the bout on tape delay.  It was being shared with me by a colleague who’d been in the boxing match and gotten a bit bloodied in the process.

Recently, a group of senior executives, including representatives of the marketing, digital, ecommerce, operations and finance teams had a collaborative offsite to discuss revenue and growth strategies.  My colleague was in attendance.

For this brand, traditional advertising, in store promotions, circular advertising and ecommerce still drove the lion’s share of their revenue-and in their minds, drove share of wallet.

The problem it seemed was that maintaining high levels of customer loyalty and stable profitability were a lot harder than generating the billion and change in revenue they seemed to tick off every year.  Today, it was costing more to stay even than ever before.

I began my relationship with this exec about a year ago via LinkedIn.  I shared our 2010 State of Online Communities report with him and later our Content Supply Chain ebook.  He followed my twitter and LinkedIn updates, where I mostly threw over the wall content and ideas I ran across which I found useful.  He’d gratefully scraped some of this content up and passed it on internally to his colleagues.  So when this retreat came up, he was pretty excited.

One nugget he especially liked talked about how many in-boxes and connection nodes we as individuals and companies as brands had to manage.

He posed to me a question, “how many of these connection nodes is optimal for social engagement?”

My response was pretty simple.  “More than one, less than 10,000”.  As I explained to him, contact nodes needed to be relevant to each of his many customer by type.  I added, “think about and manage them carefully.  Be strategic. Be thoughtful. Be consistent.”

You want experience feedback from tech savvy advocates and influencers?  Give them an Android or iPhone app to log their experience in his store while it’s happening and provide them a private forum for interaction with people involved in that experience.

You want your loyal and in-the-know customers to help others solve problems and have a better experience with you?  Fine.  Create a community without walls that has social shop elements.  Be sure to embed reputation and content aggregation tools.

After a while, he asked me what the outcome of all this should be.  “Simple”, I responded.  “You want greater levels of engagement between your employees and customers. You achieving your business goals and your customers achieving their personal goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  You want more sales, less cost with those sales.  They want piece of mind, better insight and a way to be in the know.

An end result of this collaborative engagement is content.  Relevant, detailed, timely and accurate voice of the customer/voice of the SME content.  Robust how-to content.  Brand advocate content.  Subject matter expertise content using all types of media which resides throughout the social web and is linked into the most appropriate connection nodes.

Remember the call to arms from 2002? ‘Content is King?’  it was true then, it is true now.

I said to my friend, “Imagine you are a publisher.  You work with a number of authors and editors to create a hub and spoke venue with associated content streams that are interesting to your target audience.  It needs to be interesting, relevant, timely and faceted.”

Don’t push content to them in a tightly packaged format.  Allow it to be more natural.  The example that came to mind for me was “Saturday Night Live”.  Follow a story line but allow the players to put themselves in it, explore the space if you will.

The idea made him excited.  “So engage with the customer using content tied their current interest set which includes the products and services we sell.  Our stuff is part of the story, like an actor in a good Sit Com, not an Infomercial.”

He was quiet for a moment then said, “Man, we have been acting like QVC for too long.  We sell a lot of stuff, but no one is hooked on us, really hooked.  We need more Modern Family, less Snuggie.

Unfortunately, the following week during his retreat many of his management team did not see it the same way.  During the offsite, advertising teams defended budgets and campaigns.  Operations saw more work and new processes needed.  Finance saw, well cost.

In essence, they saw change and didn’t like it.

“I thought social was supposed to be free”, one exasperated accountant exclaimed.

Several executives who saw where the train was going jumped in to defend the idea.  By reallocating resources and budgets to a more engagement centric approach, they might spend more on engagement tools which might draw the customer more deeply into the brand experience and increase loyalty and repeat purchases. They might also be able to trim traditional advertising costs that had begun to balloon. Yes, more Modern Family, less Snuggie.

Seeing an opening, one of my colleague’s peers pointed out, “content is like an onion, it contains lots of layers.  We can pull those layers apart, reorganize them and use them in all sorts of interesting and effective ways.”

The opening quickly closed when one of the most senior executives in the meeting said, “we can all agree that content is like an onion.  We can all agree that onions also stink.”  Then adding, “Seems like a time and money tar pit.”

Conversation closed.

Currently, this brand is fighting for the second or third slot in a highly competitive market.  My guess is that without change, they will be fighting for the third or fourth slot in another year or two.  They don’t want to change, so the market will change around them.  One day it will be too late for them and they will either get bought up and dismantled, go out of business or get a lot smaller and be a regional player instead of a multi-national.  All very exciting choices.

In the end, customers want to own the brand experience.  They definitely want to own the content or at least big chunks of it.  The question isn’t will you as a marketer let them.  The real question is will the organization?

I doubt very seriously this one will until their platform is really on fire.  It’s not being consumed just yet.

So what about your organization?  Where do you stand?  More importantly, what are you doing about it?

Steve Hershberger

Steve Hershberger