New Media, New Strategies

September 9, 2008

[Editor’s note: This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for To see the original, go to]


Media watchers will look back on the Republican National Convention as the week when citizen journalism really came of age.

With a barrage of tweets on and real-time video by Web sites like The Uptake, citizens and activists often were ahead of traditional journalists in conveying the events of the gathering. It was an event that really showcased the capacity of the new media.

But digital marketing hasn’t yet had its RNC moment. While everyone is trying to figure out how to market in the digital world, the rules are still being made and there are few hard-and-fast answers.

Everyone would like to know how to make their message go viral, but nobody has a sure-fire formula for doing it. Virality remains an unpredictable phenomenon, although people are trying to measure it by means of tools like the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (below):


My head hurts.

Meanwhile, companies put up cultural and technological barriers to free exchange on the Web, and are often reluctant to invest the time and money it takes to build the foundations for communication in the new media.

There’s also the control factor. Businesses are used to controlling their own messages, and the advent of the Internet has meant a loss of that control. If someone wants to start a blog called “I Hate Company X,” they can. Yet rather than jump in and join the discussion, many companies simply hunker down and hope nobody notices them. That’s hardly a recipe for successful marketing.

I discussed this with Greg Swan, a digital strategist for Weber Shandwick, the Bloomington public relations firm. Swan was a pioneer blogger and often speaks to professional groups on digital communication.

“All of your customers and stakeholders can communicate now,” Swan said. “That’s great if they love your product. But if they have a complaint, they can instantly find hundreds of others who feel the same way and band together.”

The answer, Swan said, is PR 101: communication and relationship-building.

“I ask companies, ‘Do you have someone participating in the online world?’ Companies should have a community manager– someone whose job it is to engage and represent the company online,” Swan said. Sprint, Microsoft and Disney are among the companies that have created such positions.

Getting your message out also requires the proper tools, he said. Companies need a social media room– a place where information about the company, its products and its messages is easily accessible to anyone who wants to use it. If a reporter on deadline is looking for a product photo, she doesn’t need to call anyone– she can download one from the social media room. (My colleague, Amanda Mark, recently helped our client Marvin Windows and Doors put together a nice social media room.)

Swan said he recently visited a major company that had strict Web filters. Employees couldn’t access MySpace, Facebook or Gmail. These are today’s crucial communication tools, and blocking them to employees makes about as much sense as limiting which area codes they can call.

New media also require an investment of time. In the old days, a company could send a press release to the newspaper and count on reaching everyone who mattered. Now, getting that message out might mean slowly building relationships with a dozen bloggers who bristle the moment they think they’re getting pitched.

But the effort can pay off big. Bloggers and their readers tend to be passionate about their subject matter, and the use of tracking software has begun to reveal how broad their reach is. The head of a major Twin Cities ad agency recently told me that his researchers had determined there were 10 bloggers about breast cancer who reached 10 million people within four degrees of separation.

Think of that: By reaching 10 bloggers, the ripple effect could get your message out to 10 million people.

Stories like that show just how much media and marketing have changed, Swan said.

“Three years ago, there were lots of stories about how important blogs were becoming,” he said. “No one’s talking anymore about how blogs are important. It’s understood.”