People love to decry the end of marketing. It’s a good attention-getter. While those who shout about the coming of the end of marketing from their soapboxes are usually guilty of lacking realism or using poor logic, they do make us think about the future and that can be a learning experience. Let’s take an example…
Knowledge @ Wharton recently published an interesting, albeit narrow-sighted and overly apocalyptic article about the end of marketing and what, according to the author, will be the very narrow opportunities to engage audiences that will remain in the future. The author does a very good job of identifying trends but a very bad job of predicting what the future will likely look like, but both the good and the bad provide important lessons and highlight valuable opportunities.
First, the trends. No reason to discuss these much because most should be more or less obvious to anyone reading this.
- People would rather listen to other people than brands.
- People are going to greater lengths to avoid the onslaught of advertisement.
- Marketing technology “cannot truly understand the complexities of consumer intent” and therefore hitting the trifecta of the right message on the right channel at the right time is exceedingly difficult. (This I would actually say is up for debate. It’s a gray area. A discussion for another time, perhaps…)
- Marketers are overwhelming digital channels, further driving users to avoid marketing out of simple necessity. See point #2.
And here are the author’s four corresponding points of how he envisions the future:
- “As consumers bypass media with greater ease, the social feed is the wormhole to the entire online experience.”
- “As consumers outcompete marketers for each other’s attention, every piece of media contained in the feed is not only shareable, but shoppable.” – basically, he’s arguing that social channels become capable of performing transactions.
- “As the individual controls the marketing experience, communication shifts from public to semi-private.” In other words, people move from things like Facebook to things like Snapchat, where there are fewer ads and more privacy.
- Only two types of marketing will remain: discounts / sales and transparent sponsored content.
These predictions amount to a wild fantasy.
The most obvious flaw in the author’s reasoning is that somehow a completely shoppable social media ecosystem would evade the rules that everyone else has to play by – namely that when marketing becomes overwhelming, the audience will block it out or leave. This also ignores the plain fact that the large majority of the things that people buy are not found organically via social media. There is no shortage of people who shop. Decisions may be influenced in the social sphere, and perhaps some impulse decisions both begin and end there, but those are the exception; the overwhelming majority of purchasing decisions do not occur entirely within the social sphere and that would not change if social channels were empowered with transactability.
The real world contains a great deal of equilibrium. The ability to target people and their ability to tune it out is a balancing act. It is a cat and mouse game. Technology works both ways, and as new channels and technologies are born there become more ways to reach customers. However, as channels are flooded, the impact of each individual effort diminishes. Marketing self-regulates by decreasing its own ROI as utilization of any particular channel increases.
So What Will the Future of Marketing Look Like?
There are definitely many channels that will continue their trend towards ineffectiveness. It’s increasingly likely that audiences, fed up with maddening digital display advertising techniques, continue to adopt ad blocking technology and erode the potential of that channel. Email, while still rated as a high-ROI channel, is looking like it may have a perilous future as email service providers become better at filtering out promotions. Social media will certainly take on a larger share of permission-based marketing, but it will remain a risky business to rely too much on “rented” audiences. Increasing utilization of content marketing will continue to add noise and, in turn, increase its own cost by requiring better and better content to obtain the inherently limited resource it seeks to obtain: the audience’s attention. Increased use of social media may, if adoption increases as we project, fall victim to a similar effect, limiting brands’ ability to market effectively using social channels.
Not all developments will be bad. A decline in interruption tactics will lead to a fundamental shift in how marketing is viewed from a tool to generate demand to a mechanism to deliver value to audiences and a source of strategic advantage. Customer-centric resources and other owned platforms will proliferate as companies seek new ways to deliver value to customers while increasing the affinity level between customer and brand. These companies with strong brand affinities will create sustainable advantage for themselves as they shortcut and compress the customer decision journeys. Additionally, new and yet unknown channels will develop, and at increasingly rapid pace. Consider that until about 20 years ago, no digital channels existed at all. Accelerating technology development will continue this trend and also enable more personalized, coordinated, and targeted marketing in a manner which is more accessible and usable by companies of all sizes, budgets and capabilities.
I’m not going to try to pinpoint detailed specifics – I’m not claiming to be a psychic and it would be a waste of your time to read simple conjecture – but there are things that we can be fairly certain of given current trends, a bit of logic, and a hint of foresight. Marketing isn’t going anywhere, and while in the future it may not look quite like it does today, it will still be something that Philip Kotler would distinctly recognize.
A very telling thing happened in October. YouTube, in preparation to release it’s paid subscription service, Red, told its top content creators that “any ‘partner’ creator who earns a cut of ad revenue but doesn’t agree to sign its revenue share deal for its new YouTube Red $9.99 ad-free subscription will have their videos hidden from public view on both the ad-supported and ad-free tiers.” (ref: TechCrunch). In other words, if content creators who are getting revenue from their YouTube videos don’t agree to Red, their channel will go dark. All those subscribers will mean nothing if they can’t access your content.
This should be something of a reality check for marketers. On YouTube or any third party social channel, your audience doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to the channel. Those Twitter followers? Twitter owns them. All those Facebook likes? They’re not your property, they’re Facebook’s. Any one of those channels can do anything they want with them at any time. Feel insecure? It is.
What if Facebook removed access to people who have liked your page unless you pay for engagement? There’s no reason they couldn’t. Or what if the social network that you’ve poured so many resources into in order to develop a large following were to fade away – perhaps people start abandoning Twitter en masse for Snapchat (or whatever comes after Snapchat)?
You don’t own your social media audiences. In many cases, you don’t even own the content you’ve shared on that social channel. You definitely don’t own your advertising audiences or any other audience which is rented. Any and all of these audiences can be taken away. If you’re looking to develop an attentive and loyal audience that’s both engaged and secure, what can you do?
Building an Owned Audience
Building an owned audience requires that you create a platform for audience growth which is under your full control. Any audience on a “rented” channel belongs to the channel and not to you.
Building an owned audience also requires that the channel you create offer sufficient value such that people want to engage with it and return to it. Getting someone to hit the “follow” button on a social platform is very non-committal. Getting someone to sign up for an entirely new platform is a higher bar. You need to ensure that you sufficiently understand and address genuine audience needs in order to for them to commit. Furthermore, unlike social media, you need to provide enough value that the audience will go back just for the value your owned platform provides; there won’t [necessarily] be many other people and brands drawing them back into it, giving them reasons to return and engage. While yours may be just one of 100 liked pages and 500 friends competing for space on a Facebook user’s feed, that may be enough to provide you with the opportunity to grab for their attention. There may be a lot of competition for that attention, but there are also many reasons for the users to continuously return to the channel; the burden of reeling the audience back in is widely distributed among their many connections and the platform itself. On an owned channel, you must make it entirely your responsibility to entice to engage and continue to reengage over time, but each time they do you own that attention. You write the rules.
That begs the question: What do you need to do to build an owned channel?
The form that the owned channel takes is irrelevant. The form should simply be a response to audience needs. It can be as simple as a blog or as complex as anything you or I could imagine. There are only three requirements:
- It has to provide genuine value to the target audience. That’s what is going to attract their attention. Understand what problems your customers are having and focus on helping to solve them. Your platform has to be primarily about your customers.
- The value has to be sustained over time. An audience that only pays attention once doesn’t do you much good. While the audience itself can sometimes be leveraged to add value to the platform, don’t plan on it happening. Expect that you’re going to have to be the one to continue to add value to the platform over time. If that seems like an unsustainable effort, it may be time to go back to the drawing board.
- It has to meaningfully connect the audience with your brand.
By creating a platform which enriches the lives of members of your target market, you’ll find yourself growing a willing, captive, and secure audience – on your terms.
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I want to take you on a trip into the future of life science marketing, not because I’m some kind of prophet (I didn’t come up with these ideas, nor did anyone in our industry) but because if the predictions of many marketing futurists come true, and if trends continue, the future will catch you by surprise and it won’t be a pleasant experience. It just could threaten your entire ability to be successful as a marketer.
Before we go into the future, to give us some perspective, let’s take a very quick look at where we are today and how we got here.
How we got here…
Once upon a time there was no internet and everything was print. (Last time I checked, CROs and manufacturers of lab equipment weren’t advertising on TV or the radio, so we can ignore those.) Then there was the internet, and marketers saw that it was good. They could easily reach large audiences at very low incremental costs. There was email marketing and banner advertising, and those were very successful tools for a long time. We could put ourselves directly in front of our target audiences, seemingly at will. Marketers got fat and happy, feeding off the plenty that the internet provided for them.
But customers got tired of interruptions. They responded with spam filters and ad blockers. They became numb to the constant barrage of ads and learned, consciously or not, to tune out the ads that marketers were throwing at them.
Marketers sought to save their valuable channels, and came up with new ways of increasing ROI. The rich media ad was born, as was the native ad. Clickthrough improved, and marketers breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Email was never the same. Marketers couldn’t keep up. Where unsolicited email was once extremely popular, now most marketers use double opt-in lists. List sizes shrunk precipitously.
…and where we’re going
We’re in the midst of the death of unsolicited email marketing and opt-in email marketing is by no means future-proof. Display advertising is threatened as well. What comes after native? Maybe there are more evolutions of display (and / or text) advertising to come, but we can’t just keep filling webpages with junk. The audience – especially our well-educated and knowledgeable audience of scientists, will find a way to take back and protect their valuable attention. So what happens when they do so to an extent that the traditional marketing-by-interruption approaches are no longer effective?
Email and display advertising goes away. You can’t go back to print: we already know that’s not effective, and who actually reads things on pieces of paper anymore? Content marketing is valuable, but that doesn’t solve the problem either – it may help keep the audience’s attention but you still need to get their attention in the first place. Conference attendance is steadily declining and an opportunity that only comes once a year isn’t enough to prop up a marketing program. So what’s left?
Barring new channels being invented between now and then, it leaves search and social media.
The value of search is abundantly clear to most marketers, and while its value increases as it becomes more difficult to reach people through other channels, search won’t necessarily enter a new paradigm because of it.
Social media marketing, on the other hand, changes immensely. Social media essentially becomes your new permission-based marketing. It’s a group of people who you can actively reach out to with your marketing messages. You expand your list disseminating valuable, share-worthy content. The rules and best practices of social media won’t change so much, but its role without your marketing program will transform. That’s why it’s so important to start building your audience now, while you can still pull people to you with advertising.
Growing an audience organically takes a lot of time and effort. Right now you can “cheat” with social advertising, but how long will it be until that becomes ineffective as well? Start growing your audience now and you’ll be prepared for the future of permission-based marketing.
A lot of companies focus heavily on short-term demand-generation efforts. For small start-ups without venture funding, that is often out of necessity. However, many companies do so even when it is not necessary, and in these cases an overly short-term focus carries an unintentional long-term cost.
As we’ve discussed previously, a buying journey can be thought of as a quest to minimize risk. Scientists want to be certain that your product or service will fill their need. The more certain they are, the more likely they are to purchase. One factor which weighs heavily in the perception of risk is trust. If you have not established trust with your scientist-customer, the customer will be less likely to believe that your product / service will fill the need or, at minimum, will require more convincing. Conversely, if there is an alternative which is provided by a trustworthy source or brand, then this option will be given preference.
Short-term demand generation campaigns largely ignore this reality. This is especially damaging for lesser known brands, or brands with which the customer may have limited interaction. (Note that it is possible to be “well known” but not “well experienced” – in other words, for customers to know who you are without ever having any meaningful brand experiences.)
As an illustrative example, pick your favorite home appliance brand. Imagine there is a new appliance which you don’t currently have but which your favorite brand sells. Given that, how responsive would you be to a brand which you’ve never heard of which also makes that appliance? Unless they have a way of getting in front of you early and repeatedly in your buying journey and present a compelling message, chances are they wouldn’t have much of a chance against your favorite brand – or even just a popular one which you’ve heard of repeatedly.
This is why audience-building is so important. It creates a group of potential customers who you can repeatedly expose to your brand, building familiarity and trust with them over time. This trust then translates into a greater likelihood of your products and services being chosen when it becomes time to make a purchasing decision. It engages and influences potential customers before they have a recognized need, building advantages which translate into value once a relevant need is recognized.
Audiences can be built on almost any platform and through almost any means. An opt-in email list can be an audience. Social media followers or groups can be an audience. However, in order to create value for your company, you need to create value for your audience, and that comes via product-unrelated value (usually content).
Building an audience takes time, and so does creating familiarity and trust within that audience. By starting early, and putting in the effort to create value for your audience, you’ll be building long-term value for your company which will continue to pay you back over time.
A lot of life science companies create social media accounts for the wrong reasons. Some do it strictly for demand generation (bad idea – scientific products are not impulse buys), some do it because they feel like they should, and some do it because they have some unrealistic expectation that social will make them the next big thing (not to ruin your dream, but your chances of your content – whatever it may be – going viral are very slim). While we’ve always been proponents of social media marketing so long as expectations are realistic and the focus is on brand-building, there is an increasingly important reason to engage in social media: SEO.
As search engines, and in particular Google, have aimed to find ways to improve search results, they are effectively crowdsourcing their rankings by relying more heavily on social media. In what I believe to be a clear indicator of the increasing importance of social media in SEO, a recently released study by SearchMetrics correlated 44 factors to Google Rank and found that social signals correlate with Google rank better than any other type of factor. In fact, the seven social factors investigated all ranked in the top eight Spearman Correlation scores. Keeping in mind that the SearchMetrics study is a correlation study and not a causation study, due to the complexity and opacity of search engine algorithms, determination of causation in search engine rankings is effectively impossible so correlation is as good a measure as we’re going to get. Despite that Matt Cutts himself stated in an interview that “Links are still the best way that we’ve found to discover [how relevant something is]”, there is little doubt that social has become very important in search engine rankings and will continue to become more important in the future.
Does this mean every company should be active in social media? Certainly not. First of all, SEO itself is not important to every company (although it is important to most) so jumping on the social media bandwagon isn’t necessarily important even within this context. Secondly, you have to have the resources and dedication to do it right. Having an unused, abandoned or spammy social account, or even one simply devoid of meaningful content, can hurt your brand. Social media is mostly about content, so if you don’t have anything of value to say then don’t bother. This isn’t to say that you need to devote large amounts of resources to social media.
If you do want to engage in social media for SEO (or “social media optimization”), the rules to follow are mostly the same as for social media in general but with a few exceptions. Most notably, while you can help build your brand by sharing the content of others, social media optimization is much more effective when you post your own content as the ultimate target of the social sharing will be your own site. You will need at least a partial focus on content creation.
Search marketing is arguably the most powerful tool for most life science companies to generate demand, and search engine optimization is a key part of that. In the rapidly evolving search engine algorithms, social media is playing an increasingly important role. Companies relying on search to generate demand should be looking to social media optimization to make sure that they can get to the top of the rankings and stay there.
We get a lot of people asking us how they can better use LinkedIn for marketing or business development. It seems an almost universally accepted fact that LinkedIn, and in particular LinkedIn groups, can be a powerful marketing tool. We agree – that’s why we started the Marketing of Life Science Tools & Services group. Now, however, LinkedIn groups are a mature feature, well-used by scientists and suppliers / service providers. There are usually multiple groups for any given area of interest, and “copycat” groups frequently don’t catch on. You can create a more niche group, but that may be of interest to only a fraction of your audience and you may have problems growing it to a critical mass. Quite frankly, the best time to have started a LinkedIn group was probably 2007 – right before the early adopters started using them. At that point, you could have been the founder of the “Molecular and Cell Biology” group (currently 6,725 members), the “Genomics: Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS) and Microarray” group (15,554 members) or the “Structural Biology” group (3,817 members). Wouldn’t that have been nice?
Well with every new platform comes new opportunities, and last month Google launched their equivalent to LinkedIn Groups: Google+ Communities. It’s very early in its life-cycle, so most of the popular terms are still available as community names. It’s way too soon to know if Google+ Communities will ever reach the level of adoption that LinkedIn Groups have, but it’s not much of a risk to snap up a name and occasionally seed it with some content. You might be glad you did later.
Need to do a product launch on a shoestring budget? Is your ad budget almost expended but you wish you could do more? Don’t start worrying quite yet… There’s a few avenues to leverage FREE life science marketing that you can take advantage of at just about any time. All you need is some content.
While there are other sites that allow you to upload protocols, the one that carries the most weight is likely Nature Protocol Exchange. You get the gravitas of the Nature name, their signature online look and feel, and protocols are generally posted very quickly. While the benefits are a far cry from that of an actual peer-reviewed methods paper, posting protocols online is easy, relatively fast, and free. Similarly, Nature Methods has a section for suppliers to post application notes.
Have company news? There’s a whole host of sites out there that will either allow you to submit life science press releases directly or through an editor. LabGrab is a personal favorite, and of course there’s our own LifeSciPR, but that’s just a small sampling. More traditional “news” sites such as Lab Equipment Magazine or GEN will often accept news as well, as will many other laboratory and life science news sites. Getting a release published in a printed publication often costs money, however doing so isn’t important. There’s also a huge amount of free press release sites, but unless they’re targeted to the right audience their value is marginal at best.
Similarly, many relevant websites and publications will accept new product news as well. There are even some life science forums that allow companies to post information on new products and services.
When posting press releases or other news items, don’t forget to link back to your company or product website for a little SEO kick!
Have content, will write? When done well, blogging is great for both branding and SEO. You have an opportunity to project your company’s expertise in relevant areas by writing and publishing great content, and there’s no limit to how much you do so! Does your life science company’s website not have a blog? Don’t know how to install one? Don’t worry about it! Start up a WordPress blog and you can port it over to your own site later. If you write really good content of a solid length, consider eschewing the blog post and submitting it to a relevant online & print publication instead (again, I’ll use Laboratory Equipment Magazine and GEN as examples.)
Many social media channels are readily adaptable to life science marketing use. Our favorites are Twitter and LinkedIn. On both, users effectively tell you what their interests are. LinkedIn is particularly good because of groups. You can read more on using LinkedIn for life science marketing here.
The aforementioned methods are far from comprehensive. For instance, if you’re not lacking in time but are lacking in money, you could write white papers, which are a great way to generate leads. Depending on the price and nature of your product, and assuming you’re both a little more sales oriented and sell in the US, you could search the NIH RePORT database for prospects for highly targeted cold calling and cold e-mailing.
While we would never recommend trying to base your marketing around free methods alone, they can be used to stretch a budget or just get a little extra publicity. If you have more time than money, then the above methods can be a very productive way to boost your life science marketing efforts.
Perhaps inevitable given the popularity of content marketing, the long-established importance of branding in the life sciences, and the growing propensity of companies to look for novel ways to create social marketing-style engagement, online communities are becoming all the more popular. Manufacturers, services provides, and distributors in the life sciences can’t be faulted for finding them all too appealing. They can be easy to create; a savvy web designer can have a branded, albeit basic, forum up and running in a few hours. The rewards are clear, especially to companies who already perform content marketing; an online community can provide a far larger audience for your current content marketing efforts and can build brand value through topic leadership / thought leadership. They’re also potentially great for SEO – lots of content. They can also be very easy to manage; a vibrant online community will grow and monitor itself with little effort from the sponsoring company. With so many benefits, why wouldn’t a life science tools company want to start an online community?
. . . Because it’s difficult at best.
People like to rhetorically benchmark against big, successful brands. All too many people who’ve built an online community want it to be the Facebook of [whatever]. That’s a recipe for failure. There already is a Facebook, it’s pretty darned good at this whole social thing, and just because you have a community that’s branded to target a niche demographic, that doesn’t mean that people will use it. It’s also a bad idea to assume that because some megacorp did it that you can, too. Fortune 500 consumer brands have tens or hundreds of millions of customers – many times more customers than there are life scientists in the entire world. To reach the critical mass necessary to create a vibrant online community they need 0.01% of their customers to use it. As a small or mid-size life science tools company, you probably have well under 100,000 customers. Although you can try to reach out to more than just your customers, the difficulty inherent in doing so will likely render you marginally successful in that effort at best. For your community to be successful, you need a much higher participation rate, and therefore your community has to be that much more compelling.
I hate calling companies out publicly, but to give my point some gravitas I’m going to do it here. If you need any proof that an online community is difficult to build and sustain, look no further than EpiExperts. New England BioLabs, a great company with a reasonably large customer base as far as our industry goes, set it up last year as “a scientific social network for epigenetics experts” with the “hope that [scientists] will use E3 as a communication platform to aid progress in the frontier of epigenetics”. It’s been around for about 10 months now. Aside from an NEB employee and a freelance writer who have the paid job of blogging, the site is pretty much dead. They still get a trickle of new sign-ups coming in, but no one feels compelled to do anything. The forum is effectively unused. People can form groups, but there’s only one created. You can add others as “friends”, but the overwhelming majority haven’t done so. Profiles have walls that people can post to, but almost all are devoid of any posts. The worst part about all this is that when someone goes to a community site and sees that it’s unused, that’s a disincentive for them to use it, so that makes it even harder to turn around the community into a vibrant one.
It’s a shame, really. There’s no reason EpiExperts shouldn’t have been successful, except that there’s no reason that it should have been.
Asking people to join a community is asking them to devote a piece of their life to it. In other words, the community that you create needs to have enough value that scientists are willing to repeatedly spend time on your community’s site rather than doing anything else with their time. In order to do that, your community, just like your products or services, have to be differentiated. In fact, it’s even more important that your community be differentiated on value than a product because an online community can’t be differentiated on price since it’s free. Before you decide you want to build an online community, you need to many similar questions that you would in product development, and more:
- What needs do our scientist-customers have?
- How will this community address those needs?
- Will this community be sufficiently differentiated?
- How will we create continuous value for the users? (so they keep coming back)
So how do we create success when building online communities? Thoroughly answer the above questions and you’ll be pointed squarely in the right direction. This post, however, is already too long so we’ll have to take the topic up more another day. Feel free to use the contact form below if you have any questions or you feel like I left you hanging.
In what’s probably half designed to make search results more personalized and half an encouragement for people to use Google+, Google implemented changes to its search algorithms recently. Google+ users who are frequently signed in while performing searches have likely already noticed, but Google+ results and pages that have been +1’d or shared by a connection are now given a massive boost in the search, usually to the front page.
Say your company sells PCR primers. If you mention PCR primers in your Google+ profile or in a post or other content on Google+, and a scientist that you’re connected to on Google+ searches for PCR primers, your post will almost guaranteedly display near the top of the results (assuming the person doesn’t have lots of other connections also talking about PCR primers). Likewise, based on information that Google compiles about a user, it will have “recommended” connections and content from recommended connections get a similarly high-profile
Of course, this type of simplification ignores the difficulty of growing a following on Google+. Unlike Twitter and more similarly to Facebook, Google+ doesn’t let companies follow people who aren’t following them back. Facebook at least partially makes up for it by allowing you to have high customized pages which you can use to incentivize engagement. Google+ has no such capabilities, so building engagement can be somewhat more difficult.
Another thing about the change is that it places a huge premium on social content – posts, links, videos, images, everything. Have pictures of the team from the last conference? Put it on Google+. Was there a news article about your company or products? Put it on Google+. While you’re at it, write search engine optimized descriptions; just keep in mind that people will read them so don’t go overboard.
With that one change, social media marketing for companies with Google+ went from kind of pointless to extremely worthwhile. Just know that like any social media marketing it’s a slow process with long-term rewards, so be patient, provide good content, and do your best to build your network.
Also, expect that Google will continue to try to integrate Google+ into search, so long as they don’t do anything that creates a massivle backlash. The past few days there have been reports of google asking searchers if they’d like to ask their Google+ connections about their search. Not sure if that particular feature will stick, but it’s certainly an indication of the direction Google’s trying to go…
UPDATE: Between the writing of this and its posting, we noticed another change. Google now integrates social results from your Google contacts. This means that if someone in your gmail contacts or from a synced android phone shared something, it will also show up in the new “personal results” section and receive greater visibility, even if you’re not signed up with Google+. Furthermore, if you have a website listed in your Google or Google+ profile, Google’s search well respond as if you’e shared all pages on the site, even if you haven’t actively done so. The screenshot below is taken from a search where I was signed into Google on an account that does not have a Google+ account.