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Listening, Not Shouting

In 2008, I read a paper titled “The Connected Agency” by Mary Beth Kemp and Peter Kim, for Forrester. The sub-head is “Marketers: Partner with an agency that listens instead of shouts.” It is a smart, insightful and important paper. It changed the way I think about what I do as an ad agency leader and the direction that the agency world needed to take. I believed then, as I do now, that the idea of “listening” is even more important if your goal is to engage consumers over the age of 40.

Make a better “agency”
Simply put, as agency leaders we must create better agencies. The idea that we can still shout at consumers with a :30 television spot — especially older consumers — is absurd. Yet we still have creative and new business teams that believe this is the central tactic in a campaign strategy.

In the mature consumer space, we are both agency and strategic advisor because many companies are unsure about how to navigate the demo. That requires the infrastructure and expertise to do both, and the investment in the right people to deliver on consulting projects — like defining the needs of an aging population and designing product strategies that align with a company’s goals. At Continuum Crew, we have broadened the idea of engagement from only communication to a true marketing approach.

Learn to nurture consumer connections
It isn’t enough to simply listen in on conversations about products, categories and brands. This new breed of agency knows how to nurture connections with consumers and is central to facilitating conversations. Traditional research and ethnographic studies are cost of entry. To be a true connected agency you must be completely integrated into a community. Johnson & Johnson has done this on the brand side with www.babycenter.com; it owns the motherhood life stage because it has conversations with moms, it listens to moms and it aligns product and communication strategy accordingly.

We are doing this with our recent launch of Crew Media and the acquisition of www.eons.com and the Eons Boom Media Ad Network. In just a short month of owning the site, we have a clear idea of what people over 40 care about, where their passions and interests lie, and what they do and don’t want in a community.

In the Eons community, consumers are the publishers. They are setting group protocol and behavior and, most importantly, filtering out brands that don’t share the groups’ values. We have always advised clients that peer endorsement in mature consumer demos is far more important than pushed out messaging. Until Eons, we haven’t seen the social proof so clearly and profoundly.

Insights, Networks and Incubation
Consumer listening isn’t very meaningful without the knowledge to turn it into an insight that creates a consumer moment. We encounter brands every day that have spent mega-dollars on studies with no actionable outcome. And there is the corollary — companies with great insights and no idea what to do with them, or no innovation infrastructure to support moving the insights forward.

Whether this is a problem of silos, funding or lack of leadership, it is becoming harder to move insight-driven ideas through large companies. Connected agencies can and should act as both a catalyst and a shepherd. The catalyst will create strategic partnerships for client companies that result in networks of organizations engaged in their success and who have consumer data to share. The shepherd will drive the work through the process of integrating consumer-driven data early in the product/service design and development process.

We believe that this model should result in virtual incubators inside of connected agencies, supported by the network. Now that our online community exists, this is our next adventure. There are pilots in market now!

This post originally appeared as a guest blog post on MediaPost’s Engage:Boomers, May 23, 2011