In a desperate bid to win back its fans, the National Hockey League announced a number of changes in 2005; changes that they hoped would make the game more competitive, more memorable and ultimately more engaging. In a similarly desperate bid to connect with their target, brand marketers took a shot at a number of innovative approaches in 2005, ranging from branded entertainment to blogs, alternate reality games to consumer created content. While the lasting effect of these changes may not be clear for some time, 2006 will definitely be the year of the marketing face-off, as the traditionalists hold on to the tried and true while the innovators continue to shout, “Change or die.”
But before we skate into predictions for 2006, let’s do a reality check on 2005. Exactly 12 months ago, I ventured out onto thin ice suggesting that CMO’s would lose their jobs, pop-up stores would be all the rage, direct mail would ignite as email tanked and discounting would dominate retail as the economy slowed. I even went so far as to suggest that a select group of marketers would demand and get ideas—really big ideas—ideas that slid gracefully between the offline and online worlds. So, sure enough a few CMO’s did get pink slips and several engaging pop-up stores popped up like the Self Center and Soave’s Salons. Direct mail did grow as email open rates continued to drop (down 24% vs. 2004). Discounting did dominate one major retail category, automotive, as “employee discounts” propped up Detroit’s sales efforts. And finally a few, really big ideas like Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty emerged with great fanfare, forcing other marketers to ask, “Why didn’t our campaign do all that?”
My predictions aside, 2005 was a year of experimentation for a few, courageous marketers. Big TV buyers hedged their bets against commercial-zapping DVRs by shifting traditional TV dollars into product placement and so-called branded entertainment properties. Even modest-budgeted brands like Lamborghini and Marquis Jets raced into the product placement. Others tapped into the blogging phenomena, creating their own (GM’s Fast Lane blog http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/ ) and advertising on others (www.gawker.com). Alternate reality games like “I Love Bees” for the Xbox game Halo and Audi’s “Art of the Heist” caused a big buzz among marketers and consumers alike. And consumer created content, like the Converse “gallery”, became all the rage as pundits suggested that marketers needed to relinquish control of their brands to their customers.
2006 promises to be another exciting year both on and off the ice. For hockey fans, the subtle rule changes should result in faster, higher scoring games, hopefully melting away any residual anger over the lost season. This nod to the fans parallels heightened consumer sensitivity in the marketing world in general. More and more marketers will undoubtedly yield to “brand democratization” finding ways to involve the consumer in their marketing programs. While this is theoretically a good idea, those who hit the puck in an unexpected direction will be the ultimate winners. Copycats to the Converse “gallery”, and there will be lots of copycats, will attract smaller and smaller audiences much like those who tried and failed to replicate the success of BMW films.
Blogs To Become Standard Equipment
Expect blogs to be standard items in marketer’s playbook in 2006. Corporate blogs will continue to proliferate, some earning kudos for honesty and insight, others being ignored as obvious, homogenized propaganda. Content blogs (like www.AfterHoursCity.com) will deliver “street cred” for marketers smart enough to create their own slice of aggregated info and brave enough to let the consumer-generated content run unfiltered. “Blog Monitor” will be the newest job in corporate communications as marketers try to stay up on both the positive and negative buzz in the marketplace. Dell found out the hard way the importance of this role as Jeff Jarvis’s Buzz Machine shamed them into replacing his malfunctioning computer. Consumer blogs will continue to multiply as mobile devices like Sony’s AIBO and Nokia’s LifeBlog support blogging on the fly. Blog networks like WebLogsInc will make it easier for marketers to advertise on these sites, especially the ones that attract consistent audiences with quality writing.
Podcasting-Over Hyped Again
Podcasting, perhaps the most over-hyped medium in 2005, will continue to be over-hyped in 2006. Even with the arrival of Apple’s new video-enabled iPod, podcasting as an advertising vehicle will be a shard of ice on a melting glacier, barely noticeable even if you happen to step on it barefoot. Nonetheless, expect every network to rush out “vodcasts” (my term for video podcasts) of their hit programs. Though the initial plan by ABC is to sell Desperate Housewives episodes for $1.99, you can expect the networks will negotiate sponsorship deals real soon. Left out of this discussion is the questionable desirability of watching video on a two-inch screen. After buying six million HD-enabled TVs in 2005, raising the installed based to 16 million, it is hard to imagine TV-centric Americans forsaking the entertainment center of their dreams for a tiny peak at Eva Longoria’s curvaceous…hair. (Important caveat: all bets are off if pornographers figure out ways to circumvent Steve Job’s proprietary licensed electronic code.)
Social Networking, On the Front Line
Social networking, on the hand, deserves some of the hype it received in 2005 and will blossom into an important part of online marketing plans in 2006. MySpace.com has attracted over 36 million avid users in less than two years; FaceBook.com has taken college campuses by storm with millions already on board and a high school edition gaining steam. Professional networks like Plaxo and LinkedIn have close to 9 million users between them. With all these communities reaching critical mass, the challenge for marketers will be to find ways to get beyond the banner and ingratiate themselves with the target. Tickle, one of the largest social networking locales with over 16 million registered users across its network, embeds advertising into its many quizzes, allowing advertisers to engage the consumer without having to leave the site.
New Technology Inspiring Innovation
Just as hockey’s new rules should lead to more scoring on the ice, new technologies will offer marketers the chance to score on the desktop in 2006. Not since the heady days of PointCast have their been so many promising web-based applications that could give marketers on-going access to personal computers. Throwing aside the buzzwords like web 2.0 and AJAX, consumers will have real web-based software to work with, much of it better than the stuff they currently use. Gmail, with its superior interface and huge storage capacity, is already getting marketers front and center. Custom applications like Ding! have not only placed Southwest on the desktop of millions of loyal customers but also allowed the airline to move otherwise empty seats in a matter of minutes. With broadband penetration finally reaching critical mass, there will be no limitations to what marketers can do to engage the consumer on their desktop.
Reality Show Fatigue
Hockey great Brett Hull finally retired in 2005. Could the demise of reality shows be far behind? Probably not but reality show fatigue has definitely set in for a few good reasons. First, it is a simple case of too many players on the ice. Did America really need another version of “Apprentice”? Apparently not as ratings for Martha’s new show are criminally poor. Second, as these shows have gotten better at integrating ads into the content, consumers are beginning to consider these shows as long-form infomercials. This is a scary harbinger for branded entertainment in general as the potential for a consumer backlash looming on the horizon. So, while we can expect one or two new reality shows to enjoy at least introductory success in 2006, TV fans can only hope that the networks re-discovery the joys of well-written comedies like “My Name is Earl” and dramas like “Medium.”
The Rise of the Idea Agency
Perhaps the biggest face-off of all will be between the nimble “idea” agencies and the media-centric giants. Mother, Strawberry Frog, Renegade Marketing Group and the Wayne Gretsky of “idea agencies”, Crispin Porter and Bogusky, are among a cadre of firms that are a building a reputation for delivering innovative multi-disciplined campaigns. In the last few months alone, smaller agencies have taken slap shots to the biggies, stealing away such prestigious accounts as Heineken, Volkswagen, Sprite and British Airways. And while these shifts are newsworthy, we anticipate an even bigger shift in how clients approach their agencies in 2006. Big clients are already starting to see the benefits again of having multiple partners, asking each for “media neutral” ideas. Could it be long before clients designate one firm to be their “idea agency”? This firm would be tasked with coming up with the media & channel neutral idea while single discipline agencies would be tasked with execution according to their specialty. As the president of an “idea agency”, I can assure you that 2006 is like an ice rink after the Zamboni cleans it, wide-open with possibilities and fraught with slippery challenges—so don’t forget to sharpen your skates.