Learning to say no

16 Dec 2010

Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s relevant – online leadership is as much about saying no to the wrong channels and embracing the right ones, says Gareth Dunlop.

Sometimes when I first meet potential clients an ashamed, ashen-faced marketing manager will pull me to one side, take me into a darkened room and, in hushed tones, admit a truth so shameful he or she can hardly speak it: “I have to tell you something: we don’t tweet or use Facebook.”

I work hard to put their minds at rest by admitting my own guilty secret that iON doesn’t use TV advertising, radio advertising, direct mail or telesales in its marketing mix. In the online world, neither do we use price-comparison websites, affiliates, webinars or photo community websites. Oh, and I don’t tweet. My name is Gareth. I am an anti-Twitter-aholic.

This disgraceful parsimony is because we cannot enjoy a return on investment on those channels for our target customers.

Appropriate channels

There is a sobering tale in John Cassidy’s excellent book DotCon, which chronicles the boom and bust of the internet industry in the late 1990s, particularly on both coasts of the US.

Buoyed by the overly optimistic revenue forecasts from Alan Greenspan and his disciples, the board of a 100-year-old American media corporation met to discuss a potential merger with a five-year-old up-and-coming internet company.

Despite seeing neither a strategic fit nor a revenue return on investment, they reluctantly agreed to pursue the acquisition opportunity because they knew that the perception of not being involved in online would impact their share price too negatively.

So they took a decision which they knew to be a bad business one because they had to protect their reputation.

Ten years after the ensuing dotcom crash and realignment of online business projections, the decision can be viewed with hindsight for what it was.

Second Life

We got another warning a few years ago when the virtual environment ‘Second Life’ was in its pomp. Global brands such as GAP and Levis were buying virtual high street stores not for virtual tens of thousands of dollars, but for real ones. A few short years later, GAP and Levis are still stuck with their expensive virtual leases, but no one ever visits their shop or thinks more of their brand because of that.

What both mistakes have in common is that the decision makers took their eyes off their customer and fixed them on the new thing, whether that was a channel, a device or a platform.

Now, more than ever, online communication needs ruthless, commercially focused leadership; a generation of marketers who are obsessed not with what’s new, but with the one constant of marketing – the poor old forgotten customer.

In 2010, it’s unlikely that you will be tempted to get your organisation some virtual real estate on Second Life. But perhaps you feel that your organisation should have an iPhone App because everyone has one.

Or you reckon you need to start tweeting because it’s a new channel. Or you need a YouTube viral video. Second Life, anyone?

Online leadership is as much about saying no to irrelevant channels as it is about embracing the right ones. In advertising agency parlance, a media buyer who bought media and used up project time and energy to communicate in a channel where no prospects existed would quite rightly get fired. We need to apply the same level of rigour to our own online media planning.

Our market budgets are finite. Our people and cash resources are finite. Our customer’s attention is finite. The need to focus, and to lead rather than follow, is more acute than ever. Let’s say no to the irrelevant channel, no matter how new and shiny it is, and use the time and cash resources it frees up to communicate more effectively to our customers on the right channels.

Gareth Dunlop is managing director of leading digital consultancy iON, which has customers in 15 countries, including The Commonwealth Secretariat, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Oklahoma Publishing and Goldman Sachs.

Read more by Gareth Dunlop: 

Enough of your patronising social media heroics, please

Online crimes of passion

New Media Opinion: Online reputation optimisation

Offline marketing isn’t dead …

The unaffordable cost of irrelevancy

Urgent need for new online metrics   

Electricity and the gold rush

The real reason the recession is good for marketing

The class of 2009 wants your job!

Firms need to be customer zealots, not technology zealots

Firms need to put aside their fears and embrace the web

Online advertising overtakes TV advertising

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.