Digital marketing: Why communities – not technologies – are the future

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Communities are the future. The bleeding edge of digital marketing is less about technology
than how organisations use it to become more social, believes PR pioneer Stephen Waddington.

Given the accelerated and exhilarating evolution of digital, it is easy to be so distracted by the rapid changes around us that we mistake technology for innovation.

Omnipresent smart screens, an ever tighter mesh of networks, and the exponential growth of internet access – 6 billion people are likely to be online by 2030 – offer marketing and PR professionals unheard of analytical power and potential, right?

But as Stephen Waddington points out, the bleeding edge of innovation in marketing right now is less about technological developments – which nonetheless continue apace – and more about how we use tools already at our disposal.

“Technology moves really fast but organisations change slowly – so there is a paradox there,” he explains. “For most marketing organisations the bleeding edge of technology is still email marketing and web marketing – branded forms of media are essentially a push form of broadcast, and that’s going to remain the way for some time yet.

“But if you look at the technologies that have been around for five to 10 years, they are starting to be used in innovative ways within organisations, in particular by helping them to become truly social.”

Waddington is partner and Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum, responsible for driving the digital and social capabilities of clients’ engagement with the public.

The most innovative organisations, he says, are those that are creating communities around every aspect of their business. “They are opening up the business socially so that social isn’t just marketing, it isn’t just communication – it’s also human resources, sales, product development and so forth.”

Waddington cites the example of Giffgaff, the SIM-only mobile phone network, as an innovator almost completely driven by community – its own users. It has no customer service lines and non-account specific problems are raised via online message boards and answered by other Giffgaff members, who receive benefits in exchange.

Other community pioneers include clothing company Patagonia and Lego, whose customer service and much of its R&D is also provided by its dynamic set of communities.

“That’s where I see the bleeding edge: where these social technologies are starting to be adapted properly by organisations,” says Waddington. “It isn’t a bleeding edge in terms of technology, because the technology has been around for some time, but in terms of organisational design.”

Originally an electronic engineer, which has equipped him well to stay abreast of digital developments, Waddington took his technical expertise – and considerable inquisitive energy – with him when he entered journalism. He moved into technology PR, founding and running several award-winning agencies.

A key characteristic that has shaped his professional journey, he believes, is an “open mind” – something he says he inherited from his grandfather – as well as a missionary zeal to equip the growing and dynamic £13 billion PR industry in the UK to perform even better.

“If you sit in a room with people in the UK and ask them to get their devices out, most people will have two or three on them at any one time – the saturation is amazing,” Waddington says. “With so many people in the last 20 years coming on to the internet we are able, unlike ever before, to research, listen and understand people’s motivations and their behaviours.

“So our job has, on the one hand, become much more sophisticated – but we also have the opportunity to be a lot smarter in what we do and how we deliver RoI to organisations.”