Why CMOs Need to Experiment

When it comes to digital marketing from a brand perspective, Steven Cook knows his stuff. With top marketing positions at top brands like Samsung, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola, Cook has seen it all. The 30-year global brand marketer and current CMO of live-music tech firm Fankix.com spoke to Digiday about why the number of Facebook fans doesn’t make the brand, why brands need to experiment, and why the hunt for social media ROI is beside the point.

What needs to change in order for brands to really get into digital? 
I remember talking to a CEO about 18 months ago, and he was bragging that he had 100,000 Facebook followers. I said to him, “So what what does that mean to you? I looked at the brand’s Facebook page, and there was a lot of chatter. But how do you know if that translates into advocacy or ROI?” He just stared at me dumbfounded. Just because someone likes you does not mean anything. People like you because they are incentivized in some way. Maybe to get a coupon or find out about a sale, they will like you on Facebook. But that does not really mean they like you. Brands need to migrate from like to love. Brands need to engage with human beings in a way that encourages advocacy and brand love. That’s where things are going. The consumer-adoption curve for social media is allowing a lot of brands to put more money towards social media, but it is relatively small compared to traditional budgets, which is understandable. But it is getting there. In fact, I recently read an article about the Romney and Obama campaigns putting a disproportionate part of their budgets into social media compared to traditional channels. This is probably because they know the engagement is going to be better. People can go viral with good stuff. I think social media is only going to grow in importance.

If you had the opportunity to get the brand managers of all the top brands into one room, what would you say to them? What would be your advice from a digital standpoint?
Experiment, learn and take that learning and do it better the next time. I spoke at a CMO conference hosted by the CMO Council, and the svp of the CMO Council, Liz Miller, talked about digital and social because that is a burning issue. She said if you have not at least been experimenting with social, your career is highly vulnerable right now because the people sitting next to you are doing it. The channel is fast moving, and no one knows the answers yet. But it is important to be there, make mistakes and learn from them because that is going to put you ahead of the game. Reach out to your colleagues. Read. Read Digiday, AdAge and others because this is what is going to make you smart. If you are not doing this, you are a dinosaur, and pretty soon biology is going to take over, and you will become someone’s gasoline.

Which digital channel is a must-have for brands and why?
When I was CMO at Samsung, one of the things I learned is, as electronics get more sophisticated, consumers have greater difficulty figuring them out, unless it is an Apple product of course. The No. 1 reason for people returning stuff is they can’t figure it out. So one of my digital managers at Samsung came to me one time and said, “I want to start a Samsung-sponsored blog and create a place for consumers to ask questions if they are having problems.” I knew that meant we would have negative comments, and it took some time to get my Korean managers to agree to that. But they finally understood that if we don’t do this, the negative comments will get out there anyway. Not only did we provide a listening post for people, but it became a place for brand advocates who were now helping customers figure out their technology. That is a must-have, whether through a blog or another format. Brands need a listening post, and that goes across every single category whether it is B2B or CPG. It is a way to be able to see what’s going on, respond, and get the community talking with one another. The best part is, it does not take a lot of money to start this.

Is mobile marketing a must-have for all brands?
I do believe that having a mobile strategy and building infrastructure and capability around it is becoming table stakes for most brands. This is especially true for B2C brands. The penetration of smartphones is getting close to about 60 percent. My wife, who is a late adopter for technology, just got an iPhone 4s. For her to have an iPhone and use it for Internet and search and voice text is unbelievable. She was a feature phone user for years and liked the user experience of touching a button and feeling it go down, and she was really anchored in the past and did not understand the power of the touchscreen. Now she loves it, and for my wife to be an adopter of an iPhone 4s, to me, means that every brand needs a mobile strategy. She is using Internet, Groupon, and that is very dangerous. If you are a brand and don’t have a mobile format, you are going to lose my wife and other consumers like her.

What’s the biggest mistake brands are making in digital?
Not asking for a modest discretionary budget to experiment with. People need to be courageous in this tough economy. I think another mistake is not reaching out to colleagues and not attending conferences and other networking opportunities. There is no time to be insular. Part of what makes a good marketer is being a voracious learner. You need to find ways to accelerate your own learning curve. Also, share what you can without revealing highly sensitive information. In the marketing community, we have to share and learn from one another because this helps build understanding and credibility for digital. Oh, and, of course, read Digiday every day.

What are your thoughts around social’s lack of ROI?
Brands that are worried about this don’t get social. They are using old-school marketing tools for something that needs a re-think. These people need to take some yoga classes and relax. Then figure out other ways of evaluating success and failure. When I was at Samsung, we came out with a new LED TV. Through the blog I talked about before, we got people talking about their TVs just shutting off unexpectedly, and we got several dozen comments. We talked to the engineers and figured out there was a bug, and we fixed it and shipped the solution to all our retailers and told consumers that if they have this TV, there is a firmware update and that their retailer will give them the thumb drive to fix the bug. So now, think about what we did in terms of saving costs and reputation. Rather than having all these folks return their TVs, we solved the problem. No one calculated an ROI on that. There are other metrics, like soft metrics, that people need to figure out. Figure out why you want to use this particular social media tool, the objective and how you are going to use it and measure it.