Allow me to take a moment to admit something personal: I drastically dislike shopping. I always have, with the exception of bookstores, which I could browse around forever. There are plenty of stereotypes about how men’s version of shopping consists of going in with a list, getting what’s needed and getting out before the dust settles that (again with the exception of bookstores) I would neatly fall into.
This dislike of the shopping experience is partly about things that are directly related to the experience itself: I’m not a huge fan of crowds, the incessant barrage of lights and music gives me a headache quickly and while there are plenty of places to get coffee, the lack of…other…drink options still seems like a drastic oversight on the part of most mall planners. Even more than that, though, is the parking lot. Most parking lots are, in my view, part of a long-running experiment designed to see how far people can be pushed before society crumbles.
Outside of that, though, the parking lot is something that’s essential to the physical (meaning “not online”) shopping experience but is wholly disconnected from the actual experience of searching for, finding and purchasing the item/s in question. My local hardware store has optimized the in-store experience, but MY experience doesn’t begin and end as I walk in/out of the doors. Instead, it’s when I pull into the parking lot.
And it got me wondering: How much of your business relies on infrastructure built by others? It’s a question worth asking whenever you look at program goals and measure whether or not they’re being achieved.
Essentially all of social media is, as we all know too well, built on land that’s not even rented but…I don’t know what the right word is. “Owned” certainly isn’t appropriate and even “Managed” implies a level of functionality and oversight that doesn’t exist on most networks. Instead the businesses that have social profiles are subject to the whims of Facebook, Twitter and others not only in how they do or don’t control reach, engagement and other factors but in how they market the overall experience to the general public as well. In other words, X business has zero control over whether Y network can or can’t market itself and achieve a critical mass of users. Even online storefronts like Amazon and others are not owned in the traditional sense, as sellers there are still only as visible as the site’s algorithm and “featured product” curation process allow them to be.
So the question remains: How do you work around the aspects of the user experience you have zero control over?
When we – PNConnect and Porter Novelli as a whole – talk about content programs we used “owned” when referring to websites that the client (or we on behalf of the client) manage and have full control over. So PorterNovelli.com is an “owned” channel because it’s built by us, for us and can only be changed by us. Owned channels are an important – nay, an essential – element of content programs because because of that fact. No third party is going to pull the plug on your website because its ad-based business model collapsed. And no one can throttle the number of blog posts published to an on-domain site.
But – you knew there was going to be a “but” – discovery and distribution are still largely controlled by others. Search algorithms change regularly and, again, social networks are increasingly dicey propositions when trying to reach the audience. You’re only as findable as the person optimizing your headlines and Facebook copy allows you to be.
It wasn’t always this lopsided in favor of tools outside of the control of publishers and web managers. Before social networks began pulling everyone’s attention, forcing brands to do likewise, the two main points of distribution were 1) Email and 2) RSS.
The first one was totally under the control of the publisher. They controlled the list, they controlled the distribution time and so on. People could opt out, of course, but outside of that this was very much something that was wholly grasped by the publisher. And the second was -and still is – a gloriously dumb technology that, as long as someone took the positive action of subscribing, would send updates to them regardless of how many other feeds they were subscribed to, with items building up until they were ready to read them.
(It’s my contention that if publishers had been better able to explain RSS to the mass audience it would have gone on to form the cornerstone of the social network explosion. Indeed Twitter is largely an XML-based platform. But that’s another post for another day.)
Strategies that emphasizes fully owned channels – on-domain blogs, email newsletters and the like – are emerging as must-haves for brand publishers who are seeing diminishing returns from the social networks they spent years building up audience numbers on. Not that those networks aren’t still an important part of the mix, but they’re just that: Part of a mix. It’s no longer safe to place big bets on one or the other of these non-owned platforms, but to spread bets around, with This being good for conversions, That being good for engagement, The Other Thing being good for distribution and so on. It all comes back, though, to having that on-domain managed channel that is the hub and archive for the program.
In short, you may not own the parking lot and you may never will. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore that part of the user experience is impacting the results of the program you’re trying to manage. Instead it needs to be accounted for and tracked so that adjustments to the elements that *are* under your control can be made.