Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Opening the Pandora’s box: marketing and branding strategies at the beat of Network Analysis

Network analysis is a strategic approach to marketing and branding, stemming from a well-established method called Actor Network Theory. Actor Network Theory (ANT) is extensively used in Sociology, Economics and a wide range of social sciences to understand and predict human behavior. Its specially advantageous because it takes distance from explanations that focus, either on social rules or individual beliefs as exclusive determinants of behavior: group or social explanations tend to argue that cultural, political or other environmental factors determine individual behavior, while individualistic explanations argue that individual belief systems or values override cultural factors in explaining behavior. Both approaches tend to fail, because instead of explaining why individuals behave the way they do, they too often end up presenting assumptions about individual behavior as causes of that same behavior—a situation not dissimilar from the chicken and the egg dilemma. Empirical studies on human behavior tell us almost unanimously that humans tend to behave differently, depending on contextual cues and individual perceptions and expectations. The lesson, simply put, is that human behavior can be influenced by the right factors, but not predicted—at least not in the way we can predict that the sun will come out again tomorrow.

Traditional marketing and branding strategic analysis, surprisingly enough, tends to adhere to either individualistic or cultural explanations of behavior. Yet, as digital media became the dominant sphere for marketing professionals in the 21st century, the traditional tools have begun revealing their serious limitations.

“Not entirely convinced?” Let me explain, by focusing on three specific cases: 1) Interaction with consumers, 2) Content Marketing and 3) Branding.

Interaction with consumers has gone from being all about human-to-human interaction to being about a myriad of different kinds of interactions: consumers interact with companies across a variety of channels, which still include face-to-face contact, but where it is the mediated interactions (mediated by different forms of media, from landing pages to social media or email) that have become pervasive. Consumers behave differently, depending on the kind of mediated interaction, and traditional forms of analysis fail to explain the role that each media plays in the formation of consumer preferences, aspirations and expectations.

Content Marketing has become systematized: content systems or content grids are today the most structured ways in which companies can manage their content marketing activities, thanks to their promise of increased control and greater responsiveness. From a strategic perspective there is to this day no clear approach to content systems, that is, there is no consensus about the right way to ensure that companies reach their most common content marketing objectives: streamlining of content, identifying factors influencing engagement or optimizing the process of content creation.

Branding has become all about identity, connectivity and shareability: brand building used to focus exclusively on increasing brand equity and, as such, could be safely ignored by small and medium size companies. This has completely changed with the dawn of digital marketing. Today, digital marketing activities require higher engagement, better communications targeting and to put an emphasis on customer nurturing and lifetime value. Traditional strategic approaches to branding tend to focus on psychological profiling as the preferred way to identify those values that companies share with their customers. Such methodologies tend to carry strong presuppositions that confuse aspiration with expectation and brand identity with group-identity.

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