Ecosystem management: why marketers must learn to think like ecologists
A view from Ben Shaw

Ecosystem management: why marketers must learn to think like ecologists

Careful management of your brand ecosystem will create a valuable resource, writes Ben Shaw.

Marketers could learn a thing or two from ecologists on the maintenance of ecosystems.

We live in a world of always-on brand communications across multiple platforms and communities that require the same care and attention as the most delicate wildflower. Over the course of time, new parts of a brand’s ecosystem must be created, grown and nurtured, but with careful thought given to the impact these new presences will have on the rest of the system.

Like any good ecologist, marketers know that over-investment and focus on just one organism or resource can leave the rest of the ecosystem malnourished. However, when looking to develop beyond their status quo, new platforms and opportunities are often discarded as a distraction or a gamble compared with the reliability of their main resource.

However, it may be a bigger gamble for marketers to not care for or develop the rest of their ecosystem. What happens when that once fruitful resource dries up?

Organisations are continually encouraged by Facebook to first invest to build an audience and then spend again to actually reach them (thanks to Facebook’s "clever" EdgeRank algorithm). They get an immediate positive return, their fan numbers shoot up and the reach of each post is in the millions.

But then, as they grow, they have to spend more to reach the same audience. And then Facebook tweaks the algorithm and it becomes harder to reach the original audience, so they spend a bit more. Then the original audience gets bored with all the branded content on Facebook and starts spending more time on other platforms. By this time, the brand has invested so much time and money in this one platform, it would be a waste to stop now. Wouldn’t it?

Facebook’s chief financial officer, David Ebersman, recently admitted: "We did see a decrease in daily users, partly among younger teens." Immediately after this, £11.2bn was wiped off the company’s share price.

As audiences develop new behaviours, brands must figure out how to connect with and add value to audiences on those platforms.

Everyone remembers the infamous collapse of previous all-dominating social networks, so, although Facebook is now so big and ingrained it is unlikely to ever become as dried up as MySpace or FriendsReunited, marketers must not take this news lightly. This should be the warning bell for brands to start tracking the shifts in their consumers’ online behaviours and deciding how to change their brand ecosystems accordingly.

Brands should be looking to diversify and experiment across new platforms as their online audiences evolve. Snapchat didn’t exist 18 months ago; now, more photos are shared there every day than Facebook and Instagram combined. This should be the time when brands’ ecosystems are reappraised every month, not every year. As audiences develop new behaviours, for example teens with mobile messaging apps, brands must figure out how to connect with and add value to audiences on those platforms.

This requires brands to build and develop their ecosystem, which takes planning and continued management, not just to ensure the brand is covered at a basic social-hygiene level, but to ensure it is gaining value from all of its activities.

This need is why social-media teams have developed from a sole community manager overseeing a page to a team of analysts, strategists, creatives, and now editors, ensuring a consistent brand presence, experience and narrative across the ecosystem.

Ecologist Norman Christensen defined eco­system management as "management driven by explicit goals, executed by policies, protocols and practices, and made adaptable by monitoring and research based on our best understanding of the ecological interactions and processes necessary to sustain ecosystem structure and function". Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Ecosystem-management tips

1. Track your audience. Pay close attention to where your audience is moving online and decide where to follow it.
2. Experiment before investing. The best brands act like users on social platforms, so follow their lead by cheaply creating content to see what your audience likes on different platforms.
3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. As with any B2B service, it can be dangerous to rely solely on one platform – build your ecosystem across multiple platforms.
4. Look to build retained data. Ensure you’re building for the future and collating valuable consumer data to add value to future opportunities.