How is branding changing in the wake of the social media and conversational revolution? What is the new role of content strategist all about? Which tools and techniques can be used to start your brand’s conversation?

Consumer packaged goods savant Steve Addis began his career at Clorox. Now he runs branding firm Addis/Creson in Berkeley, California, with clients such as Intel, Lego, and Smith & Hawken. For him, two things hastened the transition from brands’ being able to “buy” attention to brands’ needing to listen, be transparent, and earn attention:

  1. The discovery that one cannot always trust what companies claim.
  2. The tools of mass communication are now in the hands of anyone with an Internet connection.

He says the result is this: “The contemporary marketplace of infinite choices and instant access to resources has bred a generation of educated, skeptical, and resourceful consumers.”

Addis advises his clients to “define the brand’s point-of-view,” its “reason for being,” to define the “needs and desires it fulfills—brand essence,” and then to join in conversation with its customers with the aim of engendering “such a level of trust and advocacy that it rises to the level of a peer.”

Companies born in the past 10 years, he says, came into being after the mass audiences of network TV began to splinter, so they are more likely to have “cut their teeth on social media”: companies such as Google, Starbucks, and the website Etsy.

Broken nexus
For older brands, the paradigm in which advertising dollars subsidized high quality content in return for showcasing product messages has changed inexorably. As author Steve Rosenbaum writes, “The nexus between big media and big brands is broken. And in between the message and the people formerly known as the audience are curators, whose motivation can’t be assumed to be simply monetary compensation.”

Steve Addis’s branding firm, for example, focuses primarily on clients who are interested in doing things that are “socially good and environmentally responsible.” This is the kind of mission many consumers can get excited about and that lends itself to a “conversation.”

Whole Foods is a firm that, in a sense, is a nutritional curator for its shoppers. Its “whole philosophy” guides its product screening, and it shares this standard with its customers: “We carry natural and organic products because we believe that food in its purest state—unadulterated by artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings, and preservatives—is the best tasting and most nutritious food available. Our search for quality is a never-ending process involving the careful judgment of buyers throughout the company.”

Brands as Publishers
PR guru Steve Rubel works at the ultra-swanky Soho (New York) offices of Edelman PR Worldwide. He says potential customers now leave “breadcrumbs” all over the Web for marketers, when these potential customers read, link, and “like” content.

As a result, Edelman Worldwide decided to enter the publishing business and join in the conversation online quite directly, hiring Richard Sambrook, former head of content at the BBC, to run an operation that will help clients make, gather, and curate content for the Internet—clients such as the American Heart Association, eBay, Unilever, and HP. Imagine having the former head of content from the BBC to help create and shape your brand’s conversation online!

Tools and techniques for getting started
The good news about jumping into this fray is that many of the tools are free, and the techniques for engagement are not necessarily difficult to master. Here is a short description of some of the best tools for creating a content site online, starting with the “platform” and then the “sources” of content to curate and post, ideally, next to your own original content.

(insert Charts here)

Brave new world of content strategists
A new discipline is rising in the wake of enormous changes—content strategy. Kristina Halvorson is a web consultant from Minnesota who wrote the book on this, literally—in her book “Content Strategy” she describes it thus: “Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content. The content strategist must work to define not only which content will be published, but why we’re publishing it in the first place.” Development of the content strategy and of content governance rules is “necessarily preceded by a detailed audit and analysis of existing content.”

She goes on to explain that content governance helps an organization figure out “how to prioritize, organize, and present” the chosen “material in a way that meets your visitors’ expectations and needs.” This can be content chosen from among a host of sources—marketing, sales, research, the CEO’s office, the PR department, vendors and now customers.

By Christine Arrington, published March 2011.
Part 3 will highlight developments in networks such as BlogHer.com, a collection of the best women’s blogs now visited by 20 million uniques per month. We’ll also look at micronets such as blip.tv that hosts 50,000 web series on its network. And we’ll let the naysayers weigh in briefly.