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The Future of Digital Marketing

Alex Hunter knows a thing or two about marketing and branding in the digital age. The self-described ‘digital ninja’ cut his teeth at Virgin America, where he built a successful grassroots marketing campaign that saw coverage in Time magazine, CNN, and CNBC, amongst others. Subsequently, he served as Head of Online Marketing for the Virgin Group, and has been a mentor at the annual SeedCamp venture capital event in London.

Alex’s work has since taken him on to more digital pastures, and he is now a noted public speaker on the related fields of digital marketing, social media, and branding. The social media evangelist believes in the power of Twitter and Facebook, amongst others, as a business tool, and is optimistic on the potential location-aware apps like Foursquare might have on brands.

TAXI Hi Alex, could you share with us how online marketing has influenced the traditional marketing sphere?

Alex Hunter I think the single biggest change has been the reaction time. Twitter has become the ultimate customer platform, for better or worse. As a customer or user, I can walk out of a restaurant, movie, airplane or shop and immediately share my feedback with hundreds of millions of people. Traditional marketing has never had that instant response or magnitude to cope with and it's definitely leveled the playing field for a certain demographic who look to their peers for recommendations.

It's fundamentally changed word-of-mouth marketing and made it a hundred times more powerful and relevant. Many massive brands have been caught out by this but on the same hand there are several (jetBlue, Starbucks, Dell, Victoria's Secret, etc) who have married their traditional and online marketing efforts beautifully.

TAXI Could you share with us the process of coming up with a creative plan for a project?

Alex Hunter The first step is research, research, research. What's the overall brand perception? What are people already saying about the brand/product/experience? WHERE are they saying it? (i.e. is the audience using online tools to share their thoughts, if so, what types of sites are they doing it on?)

Then it's putting the measurements in place - how will we know if this project is a success? What are our targets? What are we trying to achieve? Once those foundations are in place, only then can we get into the nitty gritty of defining what the project will actually look like.

TAXI What are the common problems in online marketing, or things that marketers are not paying attention to?

Alex Hunter I think the biggest mistake marketers, especially traditional marketers, make is not listening. Look, people are talking about you and your company whether you like it or not, and tools like Twitter and Facebook have given users a platform to do that. The first step to success is to find out where people are already talking about you, listen to what they're saying and then start to become a part of the conversation.

TAXI With social media taking off in a huge way, what do you foresee will be the trend in online marketing in that area?

Alex Hunter I'm very bullish about location-aware apps. Mobile applications that know where you are and where you've been. Gowalla and Foursquare have done a great job of harnessing game theory by encouraging users to "check in" to real world places and receive virtual prizes and goods for doing so.

To me, this is the holy grail for real-world marketers because you have all this behavioral data as well as knowing that you can push a coupon or promo to a user who's actually standing in your store. Smart brands like Starbucks and McDonald's have already realized this and are partnering with the leaders in this space.

TAXI How differently should marketers approach their audience in online marketing, compared to traditional marketing methods?

Alex Hunter In this connected world we live in, sharing information, thoughts, etc is so easy - and marketers need to remember that. The messages they create must be portable, they must be shareable. If I see an interesting ad, promo, video online I can so easily share that with another person or millions of users with a few clicks. If I came across an interesting ad in a magazine or newspaper and wanted to share it, I'd have to cut it out, mail it, wait days for a reaction....and that's only sharing with one person.

The other key to engaging with an online audience is be sure to keep it honest and real - web users are VERY good at knowing when a marketing message is infiltrating an otherwise legitimate conversation, they know when something is being spun. Be honest, be real, be sincere and your users will react positively.

TAXI How do you tell if an online campaign has hit the spot?

Alex Hunter One of the biggest mistakes companies make is to kick off a marketing campaign without the proper tools in place to measure success. Let me say it very loud and very clearly - MEASURE EVERYTHING. How can you know if you're being successful or if you've invested your marketing budget wisely if you haven't defined the metrics for success? The web allows us to measure the effectiveness of a campaign with great precision, as well as tweak the parameters of the campaign on the fly.We can also be very granular in the way we define "success" - instead of just measuring "conversion", we can define what "conversion" actually means to our business - is it a clickthru, is it a sale, is it an email newsletter sign up, is it a repeat visit? That's all good data and it's all easily measurable.

TAXI What are some of the memorable online projects you’ve seen recently?

Alex Hunter I'm a big fan of data-visualization - taking boring, linear data and making something that's not only useful but absolutely beautiful. There have been a couple of recent projects that really exemplify that. The first is a short video that shows air traffic over Western Europe before, during, and after the recent volcanic ash debacle. It does a beautiful job of illustrating the magnitude of the closures and also reminding us of the ubiquity of air traffic that we so often take for granted. http://bit.ly/dvRnYO

The second was born out of a pet project at Panic, an American software studio. It's an absolutely gorgeous status board that's designed to give the entire company an "at a glance" overview of project status, milestones, assignments, etc as well as weather and local bus times, topped off with a real-time twitter stream that shows what people are saying about their software. Brilliant. http://bit.ly/bwqS0a

TAXI In this age of oversaturated markets, how should marketers build brand loyalty?

Alex Hunter Forget brand loyalty for a second, the thing to focus on is loyalty in its purest form. When a customer is faced with a purchasing decision, are they going to come back to me? Are they going to recommend me to their peers? Did they leave my store/restaurant/website/airline not just satisfied but HAPPY? If not, why not? You can't build loyalty on a mediocre product, that's a no-brainer. But once you do have a good product that people are using, how do you build loyalty? Create transparency.

People cannot have an emotional connection with a logo or a tagline or a building. But they can have that connection with a person, so elevate the people inside your company, get them blogging, get them on twitter - names and faces of real people that I, as a user, can connect with. Hold meetups with your users, invite passionate brand advocates to meet with your leadership team, etc.

TAXI How can marketers stay ahead of trends to hit on the next big thing?

Alex Hunter There's always the temptation to try every new technology and platform that comes out and try to force your brand into it. More often than not, that fails. When a brand is first dipping its toes into social media, the temptation is try and be on every platform and in every community - that just isn't sustainable and very few brands have the resources to maintain that level of engagement so the overall experience, and therefore the brand perception, is damaged.

Initially, I think it's important for brands to focus on their industry and innovate from within. If we're honest, the best way to stay ahead of the trends and hit on the next big thing is to CREATE the next big thing. It's important, as Apple have taught so well, to constantly innovate and improve. Set aside some time, budget and brains to innovation and experimentation. After all, Google's policy of allowing engineers to spend 20% of their time on pet projects has yielded such game-changers as Google Maps and Gmail.

TAXI In terms of new technology, what do you think will be the next step in digital media?

Alex Hunter As I mentioned earlier, I think location is going to play a massive part in the next 18-24 months. Facebook are implementing location features soon, with McDonald's being the first big brand to embrace them, with functionality allowing users checking in at McDonald’s restaurants to show featured food items in their Facebook posts. It will allow marketers to get very granular with their messaging, almost down to the individual-level. Couple that with the terabytes of behavioral and profile data that Facebook has on all of us and you have an incredibly powerful marketing tool that almost every industry can take advantage of.

TAXI Before we end this interview, tell us, where would you like TAXI to bring you?

Alex Hunter Anywhere where's the enthusiastic, energetic, creative people who want to work hard, riff on fun and interesting ideas, and have a good time!


Alex Hunter will speak next at ad:tech Singapore 2010, an interactive advertising and technology conference and exhibition.

TAXI is a proud media partner of ad:tech and this interview was made possible in conjunction with ad:tech.
 
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