Some of my colleagues have made predictions about the year to come, so I thought I’d chime in. Here’s what I think will be important in 2010.

Social media identity crisis continues (for most)

The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine certainly appealed to the subversive counter-culturalist in me, but I don’t think social media is going anywhere. Businesses (especially small ones) will continue to wrestle with how to use it as an effective marketing and PR tool. We should have already learned the lesson that fans and friends can easily smell a fink. (I.e. proceed with caution when hiring a “social media spokesperson”, especially if he or she is not intimately involved with the daily affairs of the organization.) The best deployment will be those in which new technology is used to accomplish traditional tasks: to form relationships (albeit somewhat virtual) with customers, learn about their perception of you and engage in a genuine conversation.

…A word of caution with regard to viewing social media – and the internet at large – as a form of low-cost mass media (sung to the tune of “let’s compare Facebook to television”): Delivering a message in the context of an established media channel (as in t.v.) has some advantages, because an audience is already provided to you; on the internet, you have to build your own audience. Otherwise, you’re basically shouting into the darkness. Building an audience comes easy for some companies/brands, but many overlook this idea altogether.

Philanthropy is “in”

As humans, we often don’t develop empathy until we’ve experienced pain of our own. 2009 brought pain to a lot of businesses and individuals. Out of this has come a shockwave of philanthropic sentiment. In light of this, Disney for example, is right on target with their 2010 promotion “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day”, in which anyone can volunteer to help a selected non-profit for a day, and receive a free park ticket. Many organizations have been doing this consistently for many years (hats off to you); for those who haven’t, 2010 will be the year to ramp up philanthropic initiatives. And, be sure to tell the story when you do.

Strong words and images are your trump card

Not a new idea around here, but one I’ve yet to articulate. This opinion is reinforced by 10 years of observation. The old adage is true “good advertising only makes a bad product die faster”, so before I go any further, bear in mind I’m assuming the product/service is good and fills an actual need. Acknowledging all of the variables that go into a successful marketing or sales promotion, one thing is true: well conceived, designed and executed words and pictures are a silver bullet. Scrimp in the area of graphic design, illustration and copy writing, and you will be left to rely on luck, bad eyesight and ignorance. Men and women alike are visually stimulated, appreciate creativity and fun, like to be surprised, and – despite what you may believe – can quickly identify and appreciate when you have poured your love and creativity into something, and when you haven’t. Time doesn’t permit me expanding into a conversation on positioning and differentiation, except to say that this is an area where I have seen one company with similar products and quality to another, create the perception that what they were offering was a better value – essentially beating their competitor on an even playing field.

Working class blues

My comments here are admittedly not based on statistical data, but rather anecdotal and experiential evidence. There seems to be a growing divide between low and high-priced products/services. The “middle class”, as it applies to marketing, may be vanishing. The restaurant industry provides a good example, where diners are increasingly divided into two camps: those that choose the low-price option, often fueled by couponing, and those for whom price isn’t a factor – in basic terms the poor vs. the rich. Establishments that have traditionally existed in the middle price-point are discovering that their market is shrinking. (I suspect a similar phenomenon is happening in business-to-business markets.) I’m chalking this up to the impact of a down economy on the working class. The rich are still rich, and in many cases price isn’t a factor in their buying decisions. The “not-rich” class, though, is sort of consolidating. There’s always exceptions to the rule (e.g. people who spend money they don’t have, products that inspire heightened emotion or passion, or wealthy folks who got that way by pinching pennies), but in essence, if you find yourself in that Jan Brady price point or brand positioning, it may be time to plot a course change in 2010.

Power to the people

Again, this is not a new concept, though I’m surprised at how many companies seem to ignore it. Many marketers will toss around the statement that word-of-mouth is the most powerful form of advertising. But it’s true. It’s been proven to be true. Add to the mix the fact that we live in a world that is increasingly “connected” in terms of convenience and speed, and you have the recipe for a well oiled word-of-mouth machine. This machine is not something you created, and there’s not much you can do to control it. The best you can do is acknowledge that your customers have opinions about your product/service (ok, omit the crazy emails you occasionally get from those with obviously too much time on their hands – that’s not what I’m talking about). Then take steps to get involved in the conversation that’s already taking place. Here’s where social media tools really shine. Organizations that continue to plug their ears and sing “la, la, la, la” at the top of their lungs will eventually run out of breath, and customers.

Back to basics

Overall, I think 2010 will see a continuation of getting back to fundamentals. This usually starts with an organization uniting in some way to ask/answer some simple questions. Questions like

  • “What do our customers like about us?”
  • “What do our customers hate about us?”
  • “How can we reward faithful repeat customers?”
  • “What price point will help position us properly amongst competitors?”
  • “Are we saying anything relevant or clever in our advertising or sales promotions?”
  • “Is it clear to our audience what sets us apart from competitors?”
  • “Is anyone on either side of the cash register having any fun in all of this?”
  • “How do we move from informing people to inspiring people?”
  • etc…

In addition, those who focus on the fundamentals of good communication will flourish: Well written copy, effective hierarchy, good storytelling, beautiful and creative images, consistent brand representation, kind and helpful customer service…

Smell the roses

This idea is already embraced at Cardwell Creative, and is at the top of our business plan. 2009, for many, was a year that brought the volatility of business – and life – into sharp focus. I’ve personally become more aware than ever of the beauty and tragedy occurring almost daily, all around me, and I’m irresistibly moved by both. Here’s the bottom line: life is short, and business is not the most important thing in it. (Don’t get me wrong, you won’t find a stronger advocate of the entrepreneurial spirit – providing jobs, acting as an outlet for creativity, building perseverance, etc.) This year though, I highly recommend you step away from the desk and put serious thought into ordering (or re-stating) your life’s priorities. Build in more time for faith, family, friends and charity. I’m constantly reminding myself that, though I wear many hats, I live one connected life; compartmentalization is an illusion. You may have to give up something to gain another, but I’m convinced it will be worth it.