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Hello, my little niches

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this nifty video, which I feel compelled to share.

In this panic-stricken economy, many companies are looking to new media for a solution to their branding problems. Some people found it: Twitter. I’ll admit that I have a Twitter account, and I’m not nay-saying the tool. However, like the above video argues, I’m reticent to latch on to this platform while it’s still in its “escalation” phase. This means that the buzz is greater than the quality of the content, and use of the platform is still largely experimental.

Still, certain marketing luminaries believe this is the answer, and I haven’t experienced many discussions about where Twitter, in particular, is headed. To wit, when I asked Scott Monty, head of Social Media at Ford, to share insights about how he feels Twitter will evolve once the buzz has passed, he had this to say: “No one knew how the telephone or email would grow, but look at them now.” When as I asked him if he could be more specific, trying to come across as not a skeptic, but rather an interested party (in his defense, probably inadequately, since this back-and-forth was via Twitter), he replied: “As I implied – akin to the phone & email. It’ll be a part of daily life.” [ed. note: Scott Monty has since personally responded to this blog entry and provided helpful feedback to the discussion. Please take the time to read below.]

Meanwhile, marketing speaker David Meerman Scott feels that social media is the best way for brands to merit their customers’ loyalty. In one of his blogs, he argues that you can “buy” attention through advertising, “beg” for it through PR, “buy” it with sales, and “earn” it with social media. While he’s not explicitly saying that conventional marketing methods should disappear, his rhetoric appears to be in favour of social media. [ed. note: David Meerman Scott has clarified his stance on marketing methods in a comment below. Please take the time to read it, and by all means, visit his blog. We might not agree on all things, but he's pretty gosh-darned brilliant.]

Maybe I’m too cautious, which is why I’m reluctant to experiment with something that’s still, in my opinion, an infant.  Though some might think me a scoffer, I’m actually looking forward to seeing how Twitter will grow, and especially what it’ll mean to use it intelligently. For now, I feel that David Meerman Scott’s theory seems to apply rather suitably to individuals (e.g. celebrities), but to what extent does it help products and services (e.g. cars)? There’s also something desperate about a beach ball manufacturer creating a Twitter account to tell anyone who’s listening what’s playing on their iPod, in an attempt to humanize themselves. During a recent speaking engagement for airline companies, Satisfly CEO and founder Sergio Mello questioned the effectiveness of social media when a company or brand has over 500,000 followers. How do you keep that many people on message? How do you maintain an intimate connection with them?

And really, how do you keep customers satisfied and engaged in your brand? It used to be about uniqueness, quality. Now, it seems to be more about consistency. Delivering on the promise, rather than promising to deliver. While I’m still unconvinced about Twitter, I can’t deny that customers’ proximity to a company has largely increased, and that really informs one’s experience of a brand. Personally, I’m all about the Mom ‘n’ Pop shops because they know who I am and can customize their services accordingly. Isn’t Twitter just providing a macrocosm of the very same idea?

So all this got me thinking about a company with a marketing and business model I’ve long admired: Lomography.

Why Lomography rocks

There are many things that I love about Lomography. First, and most importantly, they’re talking to a very specific market: lo-fi photography lovers (amateurs and pros alike). They know who they are, they know who their market is, and they don’t try to please the masses. They’re quite content to deliver a quality product and service to their niche.

Long before Myspace, Facebook, and now Twitter, Lomography’s website existed primarily to support the Lomo community. When you get any Lomo product, you’re encouraged to create a personal profile on lomography.com for free and upload photos regularly, sharing them with like-minded folk who can add you as friends and become part of your international, photographic network. In fact, the website served this purpose even back in 2002, ages before we’d even started to identify “community-building” as a 2.0 activity (which, incidentally, was more like a 1.0 idea).

What’s on the homepage? Though it’s undergone a recent redesign, the basic principles are still there. New and exciting products (which, as a Lomographer, you’ll be excited about; it’s a simple preacher-choir equation), photos taken by fellow Lomographers, a Lomo profile of the day (inciting visits to someone you might like to include in your network), and the latest “magazine” (which is really a blog) article. What I like about this set-up, so far, is that Lomography doesn’t waste any time with boring introductions. You’re just thrown into the fire, with no precursor, and they figure you have the wherewithal to know how to find what you’re looking for. If you’re not a newbie to the Lomo world, you know exactly what’s in front of you, and you’re already salivating.

But there are more functions of the site that are interesting. Besides being able to create profiles, Lomography also has a series of incentives for its community. For one, there are many ways for any person to win prizes, including monthly “missions” (basically photo contests), having your profile highlighted as “home of the day,” and submitting useful tips for handling certain cameras. Rewards usually entail either Lomo products (usually cameras) or Lomo piggie points (coupons you can use to get rebates at the Lomo online shop). What’s notable is that the incentives are rather minimal, when you think about it, and yet, participation is quite sizeable. Plus, each incentive-based activity actually promotes the community. A “home of the day” generates thousands of views to your profile, and interest in your photos. Contest winners are always interviewed, again generating views to the victor’s page. It seems less about winning and more about seeing new photos and meeting the person who took them.

But what I really love are the microsites. Lomography manufactures and distributes many lo-fi cameras, and for most of these, there’s a microsite that reflects the camera’s “personality,” complete with a nifty photo gallery displaying the given camera’s range. When you consider how many cameras Lomography distributes, it’s actually a tall order. But there you have it: Lomography is as devoted to their cause as their customers. If you need further convincing, check out the microsites for the Supersampler, the Lomolitos, and the Minox. What’s more, each of these microsites is constantly being redesigned to include new photos, usually submitted by the community.

And then there’s the fun part: buying a Lomo camera. Why is it fun? It starts with the packaging. Every Lomo camera comes in a unique package that, once again, mirrors the camera’s idiosyncrasies. Plus, there are special editions to some of the more popular models, which means you’ll again find neat new “containers” for the content. As the proud owner of 6 Lomographic cameras, I distinctly recall the package each came in (to the point where I had trouble getting rid of them). My Holga came in a lovely box, with yellow and white rays, right out of 1940s communist propaganda posters, and a gorilla planted square in the middle. Why a gorilla? Because once you open the box, a leaflet explained that the Holga is a big, clumsy piece of plastic that somehow takes some of the most beautiful pictures imaginable. My Colorsplash came in a translucent, multicoloured plastic box. And my Diana came in an action-figure style container, with the camera wrapped in moulded plastic, surrounded by designed cardboard.

Then there’s what’s inside the package. Each camera I’ve had the pleasure to purchase comes with the usual warranty and instruction manual, with an important difference. The “how-to” is written by a bonafide copywriter, who really underscores what makes the product fun,  rendering the whole thing accessible. In one funny (and honest) example, the Holga instructions warned that the little wire that controls the “automatic vs. bulb” switch usually breaks after one year, but that this adds to the camera’s excitement. However, what really makes me want to buy Lomo cameras are the little picture books inside each box. These neat little books show off some lovely photos taken with the camera you just bought, providing enchantment, inspiration, and insight. I particularly like the photo book that comes with the Holga starter kit; it boasts eye-popping visuals while explaining the techniques behind them.

Recently, I got a Diana F+, which came with a little photo book, as well as a thicker, hardcover book, containing short stories and more pictures. In this hardcover book, Lomography states that the content will be ever-changing to include new stories and photos by fellow Lomographers. What a delightful way to engage the community…again!

Lessons from Lomography

  1. Don’t try to be everything to everybody: Know your audience, and embrace it.
  2. Spend time making your product rock: Urban Outfitters first started to distribute Lomo cameras because they tend to like all things retro, but Lomo’s success at Urban Outfitters is largely due to the cool and fetching packaging, and the repeat consumerism is due to satisfaction.
  3. Make your product the incentive: If your product is great, you won’t need to lower your price or host a contest. Apple/Mac provides the best example.
  4. If you host a contest, you don’t need to give everything away: People like to participate in contests for the chance to win, and regardless of whether or not they’ll win.
  5. Redesign and refresh to reflect the evolution of your community: And I’m not talking Facebook’s fear of Twitter, and changing its homepage to look more like it. I mean ways of making it easier for your community to find what it’s looking for.
  6. Never assume that your product is perfect: Be open to improving it as necessary. It tells your community that you’re listening.
  7. Be honest: While you can strive for perfection in your product, most things aren’t built that way. Rather than skirt the issue, why not admit to the flaws (like the Holga shutter wire), and remind people of the complementary benefits. There are many folks out there running around with non-automatic Holgas, and they don’t seem to mind. Barack Obama’s transparency also comes to mind.
  8. Reflect your product’s personality: That’s essentially what a brand is supposed to be. If your brand were a person, what would it say? How would it act? Lomography products are fun, and so is the brand. If your product isn’t fun, no biggie. That doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting, and it most certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own unique story.
  9. Don’t try to control your community: Just give it the proper means to propagate itself, and it’ll find a way to take care of the rest. Any interference on your part will be ill-received, not to mention futile.
  10. Build your community in a way that makes sense for that market: A photographic product should allow users to create their own photo galleries and view other people’s pictures easily. It’s not rocket science.
  11. Market your product in a way that makes sense for that product: Twitter isn’t the answer for everyone or everything. It’s a tool, like many other tools. Incidentally, Lomography doesn’t advertise anywhere, but it’s built such a solid word-of-mouth machine that it doesn’t need to. Still, we can’t forget that because its community thrives in and revolves around photo galleries, beefing up the website to support this function made sense for this product. This doesn’t work for every product, especially those that don’t have much to offer in terms of an online experience.

Parting thoughts

Traditional marketing methods still work like magic for certain products. TV advertising, for example, are still an effective way to get a message across about cars, since you can see the car in action, which, due to its mobile nature, makes sense. The fact is, each brand or product requires a customized solution. Each is different, and each is valuable. So to nay-say conventional marketing activities, at this point, is somewhat heretic.

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18 thoughts on “Hello, my little niches

  1. I vaguely recall a brief back-and-forth on Twitter. I believe I was referring to social media being as pervasive as the phone & email – not Twitter specifically. The tools will always change; it’s the concept of fluid online conversation that will be embraced.

    I’m not suggesting that a marketer get on Twitter (or any other social network for that matter) and begin to blindly share mundane details. If any marketer worth his/her salt is doing their work, they’ll have spent time understanding where their customers are communicating online, join them there, and spend a lot of time just listening before joining in.

    Is advertising an effective way to sell cars? I’d argue that advertising doesn’t sell cars – it creates awareness. And just as people have always relied on the advice of friends, family and peers for car buying advice, they’ll seek it out online as well. And *that’s* where social media will enhance the marketing experience.

    Scott Monty
    Global Digital Communications
    Ford Motor Company
    @ScottMonty

    • Hi there Scott!

      Wow, firstly, thank you for reading and responding. And secondly, thank you for clarifying. I will make a note in the blog to reflect it and point readers to your comment.

      I couldn’t agree more with your point on marketers blindly sharing mundane details. It’s just about the worst idea ever. However, in this “escalation” phase, that’s what many are doing. They’ve latched on to Twitter without doing what they would do for any other medium: etch out a solid strategy that serves the medium, the brand, and the audience. As far as what you’re doing for Ford via social media, I wouldn’t know for certain what it adds up to in terms of measurable results (then again, many marketing activities can’t be measured against sales either). However, I have to commend you on creating a bridge between yourself and high-ranking Ford officers (I believe you were taking questions today for one of your colleagues). Transparency is certainly a fantastic way to improve customer service, and maybe even (eventually) pave the way to customized service. This is something that’s being brought to the table thanks to social media. My point is just that until certain platforms, like Twitter, are past that escalation stage, it’s unclear what the lifespan of any of these strategies will be, and who they will benefit, in the long run.

      Rightly, you ask if advertising sell cars. Maybe so, or maybe not. I still think TV ads are a good way to send a message, especially about the feeling a certain car is supposed to give. And that’s what TV car ads do so well. It helps that the music in car ads has gotten better too. Does that sell cars? No, but people aren’t buying just the car either. They’re buying a part of their identity, combined with their needs. That’s what the ad sells. That said, TV car ads shouldn’t be the only thing sending the message about a given car. Many media should be considered, and catered to accordingly. I’m just saying let’s not give up on TV and print ads just yet ;-)

      In the end, what I’m saying is that each marketing medium requires thought, and certain marketers are going about this social media thing willy-nilly. As well, each product or service doesn’t benefit from each and every medium or platform that’s out there. Still, what the Lomography example shows is a thoughtful, fully integrated strategy, taking into account many media and how the audience is bound to interact with each, can go a long way.

      • Thanks for taking the time, Olivia. I think we’re in violent agreement about most points – particularly that any tactic is useless without a sound strategy first. At Ford, our social media strategy is to connect consumers to Ford by humanizing the company, and to allow them to connect with each other.

        I’m less concerned with the lifespan of technologies and more interested in how we leverage the most important ones as they evolve. To wait for some semblance of normalization is foolhardy. The time to act is now. And you can see from a recent article in Mashable that we’re moving the the right direction:

        As to your claim that TV ads are a good way to send a message, maybe so, maybe not. At this point, we have no way of knowing how many people see an ad – and with technology like DVRs, it’s likely that even fewer people are watching them, let alone engaging with them.

  2. Hi again Scott,

    No…thank ~you~ :-)

    Fair enough on the “semblance of normalization” point. At the end of the day, I like the idea of taking the time to think of a useful way to use a platform like Twitter before creating the account. Maybe there are more imaginative ways of doing it. As a creative, that’s the kind of thing I concern myself with when a client goes, “but what about Twitter?” My reaction can be, “what about Twitter? It won’t be that useful to you.” And for some people, it just won’t. In other cases, it’s the the way they’re doing it that’s not doing them any good. All I’m saying is that as a marketing tool, there’s room for Twitter to be integrated with other activities, and to complement them (your Twitter log is turning into an awesome and unique customer service tool, which isn’t something any ad can do).

    That said, using a customer service tool to advertise to consumers is something they hate. The context is all wrong, as is the timing.

    No one platform does it all, or reaches all. That’ll be the case with any activity. But if all the activities are kind of talking to each other and interconnected (I remember the Axe campaigns from 2005 to 2007; so cogent!), the reach can be massive, and the message can be strong and consistent, from a customer service rep to an in-store banner.

    In all this, I also believe that advertising has to evolve. We’ll probably be seeing more guerilla campaigns (at least, I hope we will), and there are definitely better ways to advertise on the web without using banners that nobody clicks on.

    Anyhow, while we may disagree on most fronts, it’s great to be engaged in a discussion about this. I truly appreciate your thoughts and the time you’ve taken to address these issues. This two-way thing is definitely characteristic of social media, and that’s how you can tell it apart from advertising. :-)

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  4. Hi there Olivia (and Scott).

    I do not say that other forms of gaining attention are going away. If advertising or media relations or salespeople work, great.

    I do think that the skills of advertising, media relations, and sales do not translate to the web. Instead I think that the web is about publishing information to reach buyers.

    David

    • Hi there David,

      Thank you for taking the time to read (I know it was a lengthy one) and to respond. I appreciate your clarification and will note it in the blog entry.

      The web is certainly more direct than other forms of advertising or media relations. As I noted in an above exchange with Mr. Monty, the two-way dialogue is something that’s definitely inherent to social media, and that’s hard to create through other marketing activities.

      What I’m really saying is that there seems to be a focus on social media as an end-all, when I feel it can be as much a part of a larger strategy as more conventional activities. I bring up the Lomography example because they’ve had a fully integrated strategy for many years, which includes a variety of consumer experiences. To wit, they don’t actually advertise, but their activities aren’t limited to the web either. The packaging is a big part of the Lomo experience, and those little picture books have a long shelf life. They’re like a tactile form of advertising, only Lomographers tend to keep those books for ages, which are inevitably viewed by their friends. And of course, there’s the product itself, which incites lots of curiosity (people always ask me about my Lomo cameras when I take them with me to social engagements). I think their approach is actually quite brilliant.

      What I’m getting at is that Lomography, which is quite successful in its own right, sees the value in all types of activities, different media, and sustaining their consumers’ experience beyond the web. I think their product lends itself quite well to this sort of thing, but they still had to think of it.

      Otherwise, I still believe that different products require different solutions. And some are better suited to an online experience than others. It’s important not to lose sight of that, and to give each online strategy some thought (which hasn’t always been the case with companies adopting Twitter).

      That said, there may be some disagreements here, but I want you to know that I thoroughly enjoy your blog. I wouldn’t have been able to write this entry had yours not given me food for thought ;-)

  5. You’re right. Social media is not an end-all. I do not advocate dropping everything and jumping in 100%.

    BTW – Both Scott and I found you because you used our names in this post. Everyone should be on the lookout for people who are talking about them, their company and their products. Sadly, so few people do..

    David

  6. Hi again David,

    It sounds like both you and Mr. Monty are doing your jobs, which is the good news. I just didn’t realize my little blog would come up in a search…Or at least, maybe on page 27 of a search, and few people have the patience to get there. Kudos to you both, and again, I really enjoyed the discussion!

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  9. Great article! I love lomo and their marketing strategies can really teach others a lot through the way they’re utilising email, twitter, facebook and their own site (especially).

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