In brief : communication and marketing often feel helpless as the malleable mass becomes a wise crowd able to support or thwart their plans. Businesses must learn to put their ecosystem under a positive tension, what means understanding new levers and adopting postures that are not natural to them.
I’ve been waiting for years for my friend Alexis Mons to “commit” a book. In the digital universe some can anticipate trends, others analyze them and others put them at work. Few can do all of this and Alexis is a part of them. Now that’s done with “Marketing and communication standing the test of wise crowds” ( Le marketing et la communication à l’épreuve des foules intelligentes : éloge de la tension in french), a short essay that’s easy to read with deep thinking and wise pieces of digital common sense for brands.
It starts with a simple acknowledgement. In their communication, postures and actions businesses face what Howard Rheingold cames “wise crowds”. A mass of people that looks incoherent at first time but can get informed, mobilized and self organized in order to act when it receives a signal. And this signal is most of time send by the enterprise, purposely or not.
Businesses can have 3 attitudes in front of these crowds :
- incredulity : they don’t understand that what used to be a malleable audience used to listen to the message and follow the direction it was told to is now able to question a company’s strategy and words.
- interest : when these crowds gets mobilized to support the company. That’s the attitude crowed used to be expected to have, having been considered as flocks by marketers for decades.
- fear : to see these crowds act against them. Nothing worse that seeing one’s audience hunting in pack…most of all when you business or product is the matter of the hunt.
Now that crowds are able to organize their thinking and actions through the web, they can arbitrarily decide to be either supportive or aggressive toward brands. or even refuse to react. The fact crowds can make autonomous decisions makes that businesses can’t ban some attitudes or make them invisible as they used to when they were the only ones to drive initiatives and had a kind of proprietary leadership on conversations.
Welcome in a world of tension
Businesses need to understand of these new balance of power works and adapt to it instead of trying to control it. Create the conditions of a positive feeling and mitigate the risks of mistrust.
According to Mons it implies to understand the mechanisms of tension that exists between brands and their wide ecosystem. Tension is the difference between the way a brand is perceived by its audience and the way it operated. Businesses are at the center of many tensions : with consumers, employees, and public opinion.
As a matter of fact, opinion is not made of consumers only and the artificial barrier that allowed to treat consumers and employees differently has collapsed. There’s no place for dual discourses and actions anymore when technology is making the world transparent and barriers porous.
Tensions exists and brands have to do with. The lack of tension meaning disinterest or even the non-existence of the brand. Tensions depends on many factors and can be positive (lead to supportive behaviors), negative (lead to mistrust) or neutral (symbiosis). But neutral tensions, what are supposed to mean the absence of risk, can’t stay long : that’s, as paradoxically as it seems, a cause of regression.
Managing tension by communication.
So the challenge is to use the right levers to cause a positive tension and deal with negative ones when they exist. That’s what Alexis explains in his book, exploring tension-generating mechanisms by the example and the way to impacts them.
Doing so he offers a precise and articulated analysis of the relationship between a brand and its audience, going beyond simplistic ideas we read too much on marketing and digital communication caused by a lack of understanding of influence and innovation mechanisms, to name but a few. We can read (with interest and pleasure) that relying to much on visible bloggers and twitterers to the detriment of real customers does not pay and mislead brands on how their message is perceived.
In fact tension lies in the change brought to a system by its operator. In the case the brand. Change in price, in value or image attribute, in products… It’s the misunderstandings about such changes that can lead to a negative spiral caused by the negative reaction of the audience. And, quite ironically, the cause of these misunderstandings, is often the same : brands are either incapable or unwilling to explain why they change the system. Or forget to do so before the change happens.
The examples mentioned by Alexis Mons are eloquent : between supportive attitude and mistrust, it’s all about transparency in communication. When one changes the rules he must explains why. When he can’t or does not want to do so, or does it too late, he alienates his audience in a way that’s sometimes irreversible and the only solution can be to step back even if the change was a good and purposeful idea who could have met success if it has been explained.
Note that the same principle applies to employees : trust and transparency are indispensable to their engagement beside brands.
Stop proclaiming the “what” and explain why instead.
Finally the lesson is simple for marketing and communication people : after having spent years contenting themselves with proclaiming the “what” they now need to focus on explaining “why”.
A short and very insightful essay that will help marketing and communication professionals to understand the world they live in as well as the new players in their ecosystem and how they act and react towards the stimuli they receive.