Campaign Promotion: The power of the swarm

As communities grow online, the consumer now has more power than ever over brands. DDB's Chuck Brymer believes the time has come for a new role: chief community officer.

Every company, every brand, every chief marketing officer now faces the same challenge - how do we engage consumers to become brand loyalists and advocates?

In this new era, successful brands will be built through brand communities. This broader view of marketing needs to resonate from the top of an agency downward. Someone at a very high level needs to take responsibility for guiding marketing efforts to reach and influence these communities.

This is why the era of digital community demands an entirely new job function: the chief community officer.

In my view, we need to rethink the "box" that we tend to put marketing in. We traditionally frame the marketing process around the endgame of selling products, to the point where "sales and marketing" is considered a unified discipline by some. Open a marketing textbook from 30 years ago, for example, and you will see a focus on the traditional "four Ps": product, price, place and promotion.

Getting from the four Ps to the three Cs of conviction, collaboration and creativity will take us a lot closer to the original meaning of the word marketing. Its Latin root mercatus means to trade or share; in other words, create a transaction within a community. In this world, a chief community officer ideally oversees the relationship between your brand and this community, and not just the narrow confines of the point of purchase.

There are at least four key roles for this person: changing thinking at the organisational level, understanding and managing points of leverage, monitoring and responding to the community, and then going a step further and serving as a community agent. Let's look at each of these roles in detail.

Role 1: Change thinking at the organisational level

The term "chief community officer" correctly implies an advocacy to the community. A good chief community officer must serve as an evangelist who works hand-in-hand with companies and their chief marketing officers (CMOs) to develop a much better understanding of the communities that will help advocate their brands.

Forward-thinking CMOs have started to see the world through the lens of community, and a chief community officer can help formalise this advocacy role. Let me walk you through how it compares with the traditional view of marketing:- Instead of simply helping companies plan products and services based on what the marketplace is telling them, a chief community officer makes sure that customers have a voice in this process.- Rather than simply creating ad campaigns, a chief community officer builds a community around your brand, using multiple channels among which herd advertising is just one.- Instead of focusing on pre-sale activities and seeing areas like service and support as tacitly "someone else's job", a chief community officer takes great interest in what customers are telling the company and each other.- A chief community officer goes beyond disseminating an organisation's brand message to make sure your organisation is living this message in its interactions with its customers.- A chief community officer's primary job is to advocate listening to the voice of the community as much as communicating to members the herd.- Traditional marketing advocates for the consumer, while the chief community officer views the community as the new consumer.

Role 2: Understand and manage points of leverage

A chief community officer should be someone who understands all patterns of influence online and offline, in much the same way a media planner understands patterns of media consumption. This means knowing the touchpoints of your brand community, studying their wants, needs and lifestyles, and using this data to inform your marketing efforts.

How does this differ from traditional marketing? The mindset of a traditional CMO is to look for influencers: to create "buzz" among the media, the power users, the bloggers and the industry experts. Buzz is a great thing. But today it is no longer enough.

One of the core principles of swarm marketing is that you can find influence and leverage everywhere, and a chief community officer should ideally be a student of how these patterns emerge and dissipate. What happens when a hot new product erupts online, or a public relations fiasco draws thousands of people to the blogosphere to comment? And how should you respond to these stimuli?

The chief community officer needs to become a student of "new buzz", the kind of influence you cannot necessarily wine or dine, or influence with a press release. Your key points of leverage were once journalists or bloggers, but today they also lie in the community's gathering places. So now you are also looking at things like what you say in a product forum, or how you "seed" new products to consumers who will talk about them, or how you handle service recovery knowing that someone could be recording the call.

This is why Clorox focuses on educating and listening to customers directly. Its own blog, Dr. Laundry(R)'s Weblog (www.drlaundryblog.com as of 22 March, 2008), answers questions from consumers and keeps people abreast of new products, in much the same way its customer service team serves individuals, but in a form that keeps Clorox(R) visible in the search engine results that influence its target consumers the most. (Incidentally, this blogger is a real scientist who has worked with Clorox for more than 30 years.)*

Old buzz is not going away any time soon. If a large newspaper runs a positive story about you, or the blogosphere starts talking about you, or Oprah Winfrey chooses your book for her book club, people will flock toward you. But when you multiply this kind of exposure by what happens when people talk to each other or engage their social networks, you start reaching beyond response rates and getting small points of leverage to lead communities to flock toward you.

Role 3: Monitor and respond to the community

Just for fun, try doing what your customers do some evening: get online and see what people are saying about the products and services they use.

Search for a product by name and see how people rate it. Put in the name of a service provider and see what people are saying on discussion boards and comments about it. You might even try entering the name of a company with the word "sucks" after it and see what comes up in your search engine.

Then go visit some of the sites devoted to discussing consumer problems, like Consumerist.com or product discussion forums. Often you will see gruesome tales of poor service, indifferent employees or bad products. More important, you will often see posted comments on how the rest of the swarm feels about these brands.

Now, try something else: see how companies respond to these comments. Once in a while, some of them will actually post a reply explaining their side of the story or apologising and making things right. More often than not, you will see no response at all. In my view, a chief community officer should be aware of what the swarm is saying and then engage it appropriately.

Not everyone shares the idea of engaging customers in cyberspace. Organisations are similarly divided on how to handle the many corporate "hate sites" that have cropped up from disgruntled consumers or activists. According to the UK risk management company mi2g, these have grown from one site in 1995 to more than 10,000 in 2005. Many companies simply ignore these sites, others quietly monitor what is happening on them and respond to disgruntled customers, and still others try to actively placate the site owners and get them to take their sites down.

You might expect me to say that responding to bad things about your brand in cyberspace is a key role for a chief community officer. You are only half right. If you do a search on Google and your company has three times as many complaints as your competitors, a chief community officer first needs to do some internal advocacy to fix the problems. But then I do feel that one must engage consumers so that your company is part of a dialogue, not a faceless bureaucracy that guards its response like Fort Knox.

Role 4: Serve as a community agent

Moving from brand messages to brand communities is one of those goals that sound good to just about everyone. So how do you actually make it happen? This is where the chief community officer really comes in: creating an environment where swarms of customers interact with you and, ideally, each other. One of the key roles of a chief community officer is to proactively engage in community-building and community-maintaining efforts for your brand.

This is not the way senior marketing people usually think. For most people, being the "voice of the customer" means analysing safe, sterile numbers that are far removed from customer contact. What I am proposing is that a chief community officer must learn where these customers live and move there, at least figuratively.

Sometimes harnessing a brand or product community even has an immediate cost benefit. Take customer support as an example. Some companies, like Apple and Dell, are harnessing the energy of their own best consumers to provide peer support on top of their regular customer service, through community forums that are monitored and moderated by employees.

Product communities like these do much more than reduce the cost of service, however. They harness a level of collective knowledge that few companies alone could muster, in much the same way as resources like Wikipedia emerge from the input of its users. They provide a sense of how the community is feeling about specific products and services. Most of all, they help people who identify with your product to establish their own voice.

A good chief community officer should also be the guardian of your online presence. Specifically, this person needs to know the difference between being on the internet and getting people to flock toward you.

For example, right now I can hear the same phrase being uttered in boardrooms around the country: "Let's create a blog." Of course I think blogs are great things. Some of our most senior people weigh in on them at DDB. But to me, one of the first orders of business for a good chief community officer is to help people understand the purpose of things like blogs in the context of your brand community.

Moving from the blogosphere to the real world, the role of a chief community officer encompasses communications with the swarm at all of its touchpoints: pre-sale, point of purchase, customer service and beyond. It particularly involves being present where the people who use your brand congregate. If someone says something about you in cyberspace or people call you with concerns, or there are emergent opinions about where your brand should head in the future, are you listening? You should be.

The most important thing about having a chief community officer in your organisation goes beyond a job description - it is a mindset. It means looking at the relationship between you and your brand community in much the same way you look at your own family or community, as a relationship that needs to be nurtured. Marketing is a very young profession in the context of history, and I see the emergence of a role like the chief community officer as an evolutionary step toward creating authentic community-level relationships that lead to self-sustaining growth.

*Clorox(R) and Dr. Laundry(R) are registered trademarks of The Clorox Company. Used with permission.

Chuck Brymer is the president and chief executive of DDB Worldwide. This article is published by Campaign on behalf of DDB. It is adapted from Brymer's new book, The Nature Of Marketing, which was published in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan.