In the past, channels delivered messages to audiences. You either owned the pipe or paid to use someone else’s. You controlled the message all the way through that pipe.
In a digital and social age, pipes are less important. People are the channel. You don’t own or rent them. You can’t control them. You can only serve and support them.
This new world is disorienting because pipes and people work very differently as channels. Pipes flow out; people flow in. Content is pushed out through pipes, but pulled in through people.
This reversal is shifting the balance of power. Individuals have access to information, tools, and resources once reserved for institutions. Externally, this means a shift in the relationship between customers and brands. Internally, this means breaking down the silos that once divided functions and departments. What used to be a hierarchy with the company at the top is now a network with the customer at the center.
For marketers, this of course changes everything. As part of an awards program that one of us (Cara) created and the other (Mark) helped judge, we had the opportunity to see how hundreds of top marketers in Silicon Valley are engaging customers and growing revenue in this new era. The two most important principles that emerged are that customers make the best brand advocates, and entire organizations make for the best marketing teams.
• Externally, empower your customers to be brand advocates. Laura Messerschmidt, Vice President of Marketing at Outright (a GoDaddy company), discovered through extensive customer research a new tax law that would significantly affect millions of customers and prospects. Instead of creating a campaign, Laura created a movement. She developed compelling content to educate customers, prospects, advocates, and influencers on the new law. She organized a roadshow meeting with local small business groups in ten cities. She reached out to 5,000 top customer advocates and invited them to share the content on social networks. The results? Monthly sign up rates went up over 225% in just two months and the cost to acquire customers decreased by over 40%.
• Internally, treat your entire organization as your marketing team. Chris Borr, former Vice President of Marketing at McKesson, was responsible for launching a major new campaign for one of McKesson’s divisions. On the belief that everyone in the division would need to support the campaign to make it successful, he spent as much energy cultivating internal ownership as external engagement. Focusing on the division’s 7,500 employees, from the night shift workers to the executives, he looked at every customer touchpoint and ensured everyone understood their new role as it pertained to the brand. The results? $600 million in new business the first year the program launched.
Some key skills and strategies accelerate the shift from pipes to people:
1) Don’t talk, listen. Brent Remai, CMO at FireEye, was hired into a small, venture- funded company with several years of moderate results. His first task was to spend significant time with dozens of customers to understand their problems and the language they use to talk about the issues. He used this information to formulate a marketing strategy that spoke to the customers in a language they understood. He then tested his strategy repeatedly with customers until it truly resonated. The result? In 2012, they were ranked as the 4th fastest-growing tech company by Technology Fast 500.
2) Don’t push products, solve problems. Laura Fay, Vice President Integrated Campaigns and Strategy at Cisco, has helped the global marketing organization rethink the way it approaches marketing. For years, the company had been focused on product launches to create splash, buzz, and engagement. Instead, she implemented an integrated planning process that started with the top customer issue and then created an integrated solution that crossed business divisions. The results? The integrated campaign resulted in Cisco’s share of voice for Cloud computing going from No. 5 to No. 1.
3) Don’t stop at 1-to-1, think many-to-many. Antonio Lucio, Chief Brand Officer at Visa, created a customer engagement strategy for the 2012 Olympics. Instead of pushing out messages, the company used social media to connect fans with each other and with the athletes they were cheering for. In exchange, fans got exclusive behind-the-scenes stories. The results? The most successful campaign in the company’s 26 year history of Olympic sponsorship, resulting in significant brand equity lifts, 13% claimed product usage and 470 million earned impressions in 26 markets.
Ironically, the shift from pipes to people is made possible by intensive use of technology and data — not only to automate but to analyze, personalize, and socialize. Technology brings speed and scale to what previously was impractical or unaffordable. Many of the most innovative marketers cited how social media monitoring enables them to listen and respond on a global scale. In addition, customer and employee communities enable them to identify real problems in real-time. Finally, relationship and content management tools enable them to make connections and capture user-generated content achieving both reach and relevance.
Counterbalancing this use of technology and data is a shared mindset that emphasizes reciprocity in the relationship between a brand and its customers. Top marketers know that they can’t put one over on the customer, nor can they control the message or their customer’s behavior. It takes humility, appreciation, and an orientation towards openness and inclusion.
So what’s the recipe for results in marketing today? Choose people over pipes, and mix one part technology with an equal part humanity.
Mark Bonchek is the Founder and CEO (Chief Epiphany Officer) of Shift Thinking. He works with leaders and organizations to update their thinking for a digital age. Sign up for the Causeit, Inc. newsletter and follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkBonchek.
Originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. Reproduced with permission from the author.