Integrated Marketing Communications

Over the past couple of years I have kept a keen eye on recruitment advertisements for marketing staff in my local area.  Many of these advertisements are wholly focused on digital marketing, in particular social media account management.  It seems that many businesses in my area see social media as the main plank of their marketing activity.  I suspect that they view social media as a cheap and easy way to market their business, often at the exclusion of more traditional marketing communications channels.

I also meet many individuals who offer services as social media account managers on a freelance basis.  Often these individuals are good at the physical operation of social media platforms.  Often however, they fail to grasp the strategic goals of social media use.

Now there is no doubt that in certain markets social media is an important marketing communications channels.  If your target audience is consumers under the age of 40, and you are selling fashion or digital gadgets, social media is a perfect channel to deliver your marketing messages.  If your target audience is pensioners or you are selling to a business audience, your use of social media has to be different.

I have also found that many of the local businesses using social media channels do not do so strategically.  They have no underlying goal as to their use of social media beyond advertising their goods and services.  They do not measure the outcomes of their social media use.

Social media has yet to be shown to be a good sales channel.  Before using social media, you need to understand why you are using it as a marketing channel and you need to measure usage against predetermined goals.

The main of social media in marketing is not to directly advertise products.  It is a two-way communications channel.  You use social media to:

  • Retain existing customers by moving them up the relationship ladder (from prospect to advocate or partner)
  • To emphasise your Brand identity (brand personality)
  • As a signpost to your website or to your physical locations
  • to develop electronic word of mouth

Recently, I have seen recruitment advertisements for marketing staff from firms operating in business to business markets.  Again, there seems to be an over-riding need to use social media.  Yet the target audiences for these businesses tend not to be individuals but discreet buying groups made up of a number of people who take purchasing decisions collectively.  Social media tends to be communication from one individual to another, not an individual seeking a group to make a collective decision.  Again, there is little evidence that social media is an effective channel in such circumstances and the use of more traditional marketing communications channels may prove more successful.

It is also misleading to think of social media channels as a cheap and easy communications route.  To use social media effectively, often takes greater physical and  financial resources than traditional marketing communications channels.

So if you are tempted by claims that social media is the answer to your marketing communications delivery, beware.  Before jumping on the social media bandwagon, examine your target audience, define the purpose of your social media use and set clear goals and don’t expect miracles.

Over recent decades marketers have focused on perfecting mass marketing; selling highly standardised products to the masses.  As a result they developed mass communications techniques to supports such strategies.

Companies would spend large quantities on mass media advertising, television or print.  A single advertisement was able to reach millions of readers or viewers.

In recent years, marketing communications have changed.  In fact the media industry has changed.  Promotion has becomes the most altered part of the marketing mix.

Marketing managers have had to face the realities of the changing promotional and media landscape.

Consumers are changing.  We live in a digital connected world where consumers are better informed and they are communications empowered.  The recent Fake News crisis shows that consumers can be targeted almost on a personal basis and messages can be designed to fit with their preconceptions and beliefs (even if those preconceptions and beliefs are not true).

Consumers no longer rely solely on information provided by retailers and manufacturers.  They can easily find other sources of information through the internet or through their peers.

Consumers can connect more easily and as a result peer pressure may form a greater element in purchase decisions.  Consumer ‘tribes are fragmenting. This has created micro-segments in markets

Marketing strategies are changing.  Mass markets have fragmented.  Firms must now use focused micro-segmentation strategies.  This has resulted in a move away from mass marketing strategies.  Products are increasingly personalised.  Henry Ford may have said of the Model T, “you can have any colour you like as long as it is black’.  Compare that to the modern mini or the Brompton bicycle where consumers can ‘build’ their car or bike from a vast range of product options.  The Mini has over 1600 product options from in-car accessories to choice of wheels.  This means virtually every Mini that comes off the production line is unique.

There has also been a move away from one-off sales of products to using marketing communications to develop a relationship between the producer and the consumer.  Customer retention and customer advocacy are key.  Often the aim is to turn consumers into brand advocates.

There have been sweeping advances in communications technologies.  From mobile smartphones to interactive televisions.  This communications revolution has had a huge impact on marketing communications.  The dominance of traditional media is collapsing.  Newspaper circulation figures are falling.  The wide range of television channels means audience numbers are declining.  A prime time television programme in the UK would often gain an audience of 12 million in the 1970s.  In 1989, the BBC cancelled Doctor Who with an audience averaging 7.5 million.  Today, such a size of audience is seen as high and the programme considered a hit.

So now the modus operandi of marketing communications professionals is to use a broad selection of more specialised and highly targeted media to reach smaller customer segments.  This involves the creation of more personalised and interactive messages.  It is less broadcasting and more narrowcasting.

Increasingly consumers are in control of media exposure.  For example some video streaming services offer the opportunity to skip advertisements.  TV advertising is still a dominant channel in terms of media spend but such spending has stagnated whilst promotional budgets have shifted to new media channels.  Advertising spend in radio and print advertising has fallen sharply.

We have moved from a position where advertising is force-fed to consumers as a mass and interrupts their activities to a position where marketing communications interact with smaller groups of consumers.

Regardless of your choice of communications channel, the key is to integrate media in a way which best communicates the brand message and which enhances consumer experience.

Marketing communications is no longer simply placing advertisements.  You are managing brand content and developing conversations with your customers over a fluid mix of communications technologies.

The result is that you need to integrate marketing communications across a range of communications channels.  Failure to do this produces a hodge podge of communications to consumers which do not provide a single marketing identity.

Consumers today are bombarded with messages.  Marketing professionals may differentiate between different channels, e.g. social media, television, print, direct mail, but consumers do not.  Your promotional activity needs to present a single consistent message. A single broad image or concept.

You cannot send out one message and signal in print media which is different from the message and signal given by electronic communications.  Mixed signals from different media blurs brand perceptions in the minds of consumers.

The challenge for communications managers is to bring together brand concepts and messages across media channels in an organised way.

This is where the concept of integrated marketing communications comes in.  IMC requires the careful blending of communications tools to create a compelling, clear brand messages.

Brand messages and concepts are no longer in the sole purview of marketing departments.  They take place at every interaction between a firm and its customer base, from sales presentations to after-sales service and complaint management.  They are the responsibility of all stakeholders in a firm.  You need to identify all the customer touch points with your organisation.  Each of these is an opportunity to convey your brand identity and message to consumers. Careful coordination of your brand message is required throughout the organisation.

You need to think not just of the message you want to convey but the best method to get that message to your target consumer.  You also need to define the unique role each function of your business has in passing on your brand message to your customer base.

SOme readers may see a contradiction between the goals of integrated marketing communications and my views on the use of social media.  I see no such contradiction.

My complaint is not that firms use social media.  It is that all too often it is seen as a magic bullet.  A simple and cheap way of meeting promotional goals.  Yet far too many businesses treat social media as a form of mass marketing communication.  They use the old rules of promotion in a new media.  They fail to take account of the changes in society and technology.  Most importantly of all, they fail to set identifiable goals for social media use and they fail to measure whether those goals have been met.