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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What is Network Analysis?

Network Analysis is an innovative methodology, used already by Sociologists, Economists and social scientists, which can be tailored for either qualitative or quantitative analyses, in order to understand and influence consumer behavior. Like the name suggests, the main tenet of Network Analysis is that relationships at large tend be organized in the form of a Network.

Some basic characteristics of Networks are:
  • They are structures made up of elements called actors; and a person, a technology and a company would all be actors under this perspective.
  • They are organizational models (of people, objects and technologies) that are not hierarchical, which means that flows of information are horizontal or can include bottom-down or down-upwards strategies.
  • They are based on the quality or intensity of relationships: they explain why relationships exist and how they exist, rather than presupposing that they already follow a certain logic or purpose.
  • They allow you to capture, from a strategic perspective, the role that different players have within particular networks: this means, for instance, being able to distinguish between the behavior of users that engage your social media against those who do not or between regular customers’ behavior and the behavior of occasional ones.
  • They are dynamic and not static: unlike static structures, networks allow for the strategist to understand the dynamics behind role changes within any particular network: actors change roles through time, occupying different positions within the same network. This is central to analyze things like market trends and dominance, as well as, consumer experience of products with improved features.
  • They are embedded structures: this means that a network can in principle couple with other networks and can itself be made out of other networks. There is no hierarchy that would presume that human actors are the center of networks, but they allow marketing strategies to build networks that place ideal customers, for instance, at the center of a network of consumer experience.

What are the advantages of using network analysis?

From the perspective of networks, relationships are the core of your marketing. With relationships at their core, common marketing themes can be reconfigured or enhanced—Network Analysis gives you a critical perspective on the limitations of traditional approaches, while allowing you to benefit from the advantages that result from network analysis.

The best way to grasp the benefits of this strategic approach is to take a closer look at the way it can impact three common strategic areas in marketing and branding:

Customer experience: instead of seeing customers as the only relevant actor, network analysis enables you to understand products, websites, social media channels, etc., as playing an active role in customer experience. Keep in mind that everything about any actor is defined through the relationships it has, which means that customer experience can, in fact, be seen as a network in itself, bring distinct elements together; each element relating to one another in ways that define its range of movement or behavior.

Content systems and channel integration: each channel has a unique objective, but also a shared one, with your company’s broader marketing objectives—this is what is commonly referred to as integration: consumers build unique relationships with your company through each communication channel you use (from Facebook to Email, to points of sales), which is why a systematic approach is needed to integrate all such efforts. Network analysis allows you to evaluate, both, the quality of your integration and the effective streamlining of your content systems, because it enables your to focus on the type and quality of the relationships that determine engagement and their contribution to your business’ broader objectives.

Brand identity: having a customer-oriented branding strategy means that the purpose of your brand is to add value to people's lives; this is also how you want your brand to be perceived and in this sense your offering is to an extent a continuation of your brand’s promise. Values and meaning do not live in words or slogans, but are the result of relationships or structures of meaning. The emotional content of a story is, for instance, often reduced to a matter of empathy. A better approach would be instead to view your brand’s identity as a network: this allows you to understand how similar emotional content can live in different contexts (places, events, channels) and to understand the relationships between such contexts, as well, as the distinctive role actors play in each. In this sense, your brand’s message becomes a network too: it becomes all about networks of values and meanings, which are shared collectively, but which may also entail differences or gradations, which are not easy to grasp from a cultural or linguistic perspective. Once you begin to see things from the standpoint of relationships, then each value embraced by your company is necessarily linked to others and each emotional response becomes part of a shared event, which allows for individuals to play a role—it allows individuals to internalize your brand’s aspirations, thus transforming a slogan into a personal story.

Do you want to know more about how you can apply Network Analysis to your company’s strategic branding? Then make sure to stay connected to the factish: subscribing is free and I promise no email blasts coming your way. Want a more personalized approach? No problem, I can help. Just send a few lines to my email or get in touch with me through LinkedIn.

By Daniel Vargas Gómez