Brands must consume to create.

We have that phrase in big letters on one of the slides in our Percolate presentation and it occasionally raises eyebrows. But it’s more than just a statement meant to shock: it’s an idea that sits at the heart of how we believe brands must behave in social.

We believe consuming content is the only way a brand can create content at the scale now required on the internet (what we like to call “social scale“). This is not a new concept for us as individuals; we consume interesting content all day and turn it into tweets, posts and pins. But this is a bit of a scary concept for brands who have been disciplined in creating controlled messages, for controlled media, based on very slow moving trends and defined insights.

This new world of consumption and creation for brands is leading us into the next phase of digital marketing, where brands no longer have special boxes (ad units) and are expected to act (and create content) like people on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

In this next phase, for a brand to create content, they need something to work off. They need inputs, what we like to sometimes call, “brand brain“, an “interest graph” or even a “content intelligence layer“. (The last one is the toughest to swallow but people get excited sometimes when you put content and intelligence together.) Each one of these terms resonates a little differently with our audiences but they all mean the same thing: brands need to consume in order to create.

What I’m starting to get excited about is marketers running with this concept and many are bucketing it under the term “listening.” For example, Brian Wallace, in an interview with Forbes Magazine talks about how Samsung is positioning itself as being emotionally and culturally relevant with its customers.

From the interview:

You can out-innovate your competitors, but that’s only going to get you so far. I think that’s where Samsung was a year ago. But to compete with some of our competitors that have very strong brands, we need to have an emotional, culturally relevant perspective that Samsung didn’t quite have in this market. And we, in the last six to seven months, have aggressively changed that with great success.

Rather than close ourselves off in a room and get a bunch of data to figure out what perspective we wanted our brand to have and then go tell the world that, what we’ve been doing is actually listening to the conversations that are occurring around our category and then quite simply reflecting those conversations in all the broadcast messaging.

I’m reading a bit into this quote (I didn’t have a chance to talk with Brian before I wrote this), but I think what he is saying is important and a bit different than the “listening” we traditionally think about digitally. Brian is looking to make Samsung relevant with their market by listening to the passion points and emotional connections that their potential consumers have with each other.

Traditionally, listening online has been about listening to what your customers are saying about the brand. This listening is critical for all sorts of key metrics, but most of the time it isn’t going to make you more interesting and relevant to people that may not already have you in their consideration set. Imagine, for instance, if we as people simply listened to brand mentions of ourselves. How interesting would we be on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr? Now, the argument could be made that we, as people, don’t have constant mentions of ourselves on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, so the metaphor is a little jumbled but this is more of a blessing than we might think. As a brand, if you only listen to your fans or followers, then you cede control of your own brand to someone else’s notions of what you are, rather than driving an emotional or aspirational link with the people you want to make new connections with. If you only feed off of others’ opinions (that are based off of what you’ve done or created in the past), you’ll remain static. Great people (and by extension great brands) aren’t limited by someone else’s thoughts or opinions; they build, create, and inspire on their own.

On the static note, the big issue with this type of traditional listening is that it has generally been used to analyze past performance. If we focus on the key challenge marketers are facing, how to create content at social scale, what a marketer needs is inputs that “prompt” them with what they should do next. Brian explains that here:

It was really a reflection of the social media conversations that we were tracking. And, again, this is where I think marketing needs to go. I think a lot of marketers make the mistake of using social media to track what has occurred versus using it to pre-inform what they should do.

We are focused on this world Brian is talking about. A world led by brands being prompted to create content based on a smart understanding of what their consumers are passionate about. A world where you as a marketer, no longer have a special box on a webpage, but are expected to created alongside consumers in real time.

Listening to understand, producing to be relevant.

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