The Digital Rules of Engagement

Reading Twitter recently, I came across a great quote by Tom Ajello (Meat99), who said Twitter is like “an army of deaf people shouting into a canyon.” This also describes the current state of traditional marketing.

If ads are losing effectiveness, is the best solution to create more ads, increase frequency and heighten disruptiveness? Should you continue using the same words but louder? The problem is consumers no longer speak the language of traditional marketers. Instead, they speak digital. They control the messages they consume and filter and navigate the media landscape with a new kind of freedom. Instead of screaming to get attention, advertisers need to create a positive experience that consumers will freely seek out and enjoy in their own time.

At EVB, we’ve experimented with new media, failed a few times, learned a lot and enjoyed some achievements. Looking back, each successful initiative shared specific tactics. These commonalities have become our core principles.

1) Practice participation marketing. The key to engagement is participation. Consumers are empowered to engage in the content they choose; if they don’t “care” about a campaign, they’ll avoid it. When executed in a welcoming, nondisruptive manner, digital content invites consumers to engage on their terms.

Before digital content is developed and released, it’s integral to ask why the consumer should care. A simple question, but not one marketers have historically considered. In today’s marketplace, marketers don’t build brands — consumers do. Our job becomes providing consumers with the content, message and tools that enable them to create a personalized experience to share with others.

A great example of participation marketing is the “Freak your mind” campaign created for the third-season premiere of A&E’s Criss Angel MindFreak. Users provided a friend’s name, phone and e-mail, and a video featuring Angel performing a personalized magic trick was sent to the friend, taking them from e-mail to video to mobile, ending in a mind-boggling scare. Once someone was “freaked,” he or she passed it on tenfold. In weeks, the campaign garnered millions of visitors and resulted in the show’s highest ratings to date.

2) Think “working production.” The terms “working dollars,” to define media, and “non-working dollars,” to define creative and production, have never made sense to me. For engagement marketing, such terms are irrelevant. Instead, emphasis must be put on the “experience” created to draw consumers and retain their attention. By elevating the importance of creative and production, unique consumer experiences are born, and consumers become brand ambassadors willing to share your content with their digital networks.

I’m often asked for seeding strategies “to make something viral.” The truth is, if the content doesn’t strike a chord, no amount of seeding or advertising will make it viral. Campaigns like “Elf yourself” and “Freak your mind” each started with an e-mail to a select group of “influencers,” who took it upon themselves to contribute to its success. Next are the blogs; they are the tipping point. If the blogs ignore your content, it has little chance. After blogs comes the digital press. From there, the traditional press furthers the spread of content.

3) Create liquid content. At this point, all marketing is digital. Why should a great idea be constrained by the boundaries of the Web? To create “liquid” content capable of moving freely among platforms, start with an overarching idea and then find the best way to distribute it. No message should live and die in a single medium.

The recent 2K Sports campaign was built around the core idea of “football resurrected,” marking 2K’s return to the gridiron video game arena with All-Pro Football 2K8. The campaign launched with a dynamic digital component and expanded to TV, print, street teams and a national concert tour that together celebrated the return of “real” football gaming.

4) Simplicity is key. Digital consumers are “snackers” and choose to be reached on their terms with quick and satisfying content. They lead fast-paced, multitasking lives with only enough time for content that serves a useful or entertaining purpose. It should allow them to briefly engage and move on. A campaign should give more to the consumer than it takes in return. Many assume that “digital marketing” must use a lot of high-tech bells and whistles. In fact, simple, useful content is more effective and more welcome.

5) Integration is never an afterthought. Forcing together disparate parts and shoehorning creative doesn’t make a campaign “integrated.” Instead, strive for ideas that are integrated at the core and work gracefully together between platforms.

The Adidas soccer campaign around the 2006 and 2007 Major League Soccer seasons utilized an integrated idea with powerful results. In 2007, the campaign, called “MLS represent,” commissioned 12 rising bands to write and record original anthem tracks for each MLS team. The tracks were made available for free download. Concert posters were created for local postings and used in print media. User-generated videos were created online. CDs were distributed at Adidas retail locations and events. Anthems were played in stadiums, some live. Music videos were filmed and later used for TV and online advertising.

The days of one-way communication are behind us. Speaking louder will only further separate you from your audience. In fact, they aren’t your “audience” anymore; they are an “active participant” in the content you create.

Daniel Stein is the CEO of EVB.