Americans have a complex relationship with big businesses.
Sure, we’ve seen our share of abuses, mishaps, and missteps. We’ve also grown up with iconic brands in our homes, on our clothes, and in our favorite entertainment. Today, many of us trust businesses more than we trust government or media when it comes to brand authenticity, even as trust for institutions across the board is declining.
But as our largest companies continue to grow, audiences have also begun to expect ever more specificity and personalization in their interactions with those businesses. This puts enterprise scale companies in a tight spot: Do they continue to scale their content marketing departments and overhead at the same clip as their audience growth, or dial back on brand marketing, focus on sales, and hope for the best?
If trust in businesses continues to decline the way it has over the past years, it is more than likely that large-scale businesses are going to feel the brunt of that distrust. This isn’t a scenario that rewards complacency—rather, brands that are able to come across as convincingly personal despite size will likely be able to rapidly carve out niches—if not whole swathes—in their markets.
Brand authenticity at the enterprise level is a coordination and scale problem. So how should your marketing team tackle it?
Image attribution: Ryan Tang
There are a number of industries that employ “agents” as a combination of frontline sales and customer service personnel. From insurance to real estate, it’s more than likely that your own household has had at least one agent work for you in some capacity on the behalf of their much larger employer.
I love this organization, both as a concept and in practice. Conceptually, the position of agent suggests something that ideally is true of any employee—that while working, the employee embodies and furthers the ideals of their employing brand. A real estate agent doesn’t just sell you a home, they sell you the idea of an area or a style of living. Insurance agents don’t just sell you policies, they sell you the perspective on safety, security, and risk that their company holds.
This effectively splits the brand marketing work between corporate offices and regional representatives. For corporate, large-scale marketing can focus on awareness and remarketing that makes their audience aware they exist and then hits them with information when they begin shopping policies. Regional reps then pick up leads that walk through the door and embody the expertise and lifestyle that the brand supports.
So what would it look like to have agents help your brand earn trust through content marketing?
On their website, Farmers Insurance describes itself as having “an unwavering commitment to uphold our founding ideals to provide industry-leading products and first-rate services to the customers we’re privileged to serve.” It’s a suitably general statement for a brand company trying to make claims that are true across all of their various verticals. But for the family on the other end of the message, it seems to leave a large personal gap: Sure, service and quality are great, but is that enough for me to place trust in someone who is supposed to secure my car, my home, my family?
That’s where agents like Joe McCloskey come into play. Joe rose to a moment of moderate YouTube fame by doing a “Stinky Fish Challenge” with his kids and sharing it with the world. It was cute, it was fun . . . but what does it have to do with the Farmer’s brand?
Well, everything and nothing all at once.
Peppered throughout Joe’s channel are other fun moments, thoughts on raising a family, and insights into how to approach insurance. In this, the consumer becomes convinced that Farmers is a brand that cares about your family not because of some pruned and preened ad copy, but because the person selling you insurance is thinking about the same questions, hopes, and fears that you are as we shop around. Particularly for insurance marketing, where consumers are moving online and interacting with agents ever later in the process, getting agents digitally present is a great way to keep them relevant earlier in the buying cycle.
It’s a relatively young dynamic in the marketplace that seems to be working organically for now. But what would it look like for a savvy content team to actively support decentralized branding efforts?
Image attribution: Negative Space
The goal of a decentralized content system shouldn’t be to replace the work of your marketing team. Instead, it is a second, passive system that can grow without too much dedicated time or resources, leaving your department free to focus on more targeted, technical, or strategic initiatives.
This presents a level of risk to consider. Giving free reign of your brand to hundreds of thousands of people who aren’t marketers first is a recipe for brand confusion and PR gaffs. If your team builds out a system to only have to do damage control constantly, then your goal is defeated from the start.
Construct your scheme with these five principles in mind to nurture a healthy digital culture for your brand and your agents.
Ever notice how so many professionals on Twitter include “views my own” in their profile descriptions? People tend to understand that they need permission to speak on “behalf” of their company, and social media should be no different. Establish rules with your agents that allows them to identify as working for your brand, while preventing them from branding their content as sanctioned material. A good relationship to encourage would be for them to identify themselves in relation to your company as a mark of expertise, but prevent people from using your logos, slogans, specific products, and other trademarking materials.
With a little distance in place, you can start to support your networks in tangential ways. Create opt-in newsletter lists for your agents to receive tips, tricks, and example content to utilize. Consider hosting workshops or webinars, or even creating a short training track for new agents to attend. The level of involvement you choose is up to your available resources and how closely you want your network to be tied to your brand. Expect that any resources you share will be leaked outside of your brand at some point. (How would your customers react to your training if they knew about all of it?) A living resource like an internal wiki page or a stylesheet that you update regularly is a great resource that requires minimal maintenance and can keep agents aligned with your company’s ideals.
Because each portion of your network will likely serve different audience segments and regional areas, it doesn’t make sense that your whole network should have the same KPIs. Take into account the specific audience served and the age of each network “cell” (cells being subdivisions of your network used for organizational purposes) when determining how to best measure performance and set goals.
There’s nothing like a carrot to go with your stick when it comes to trying to wrangle a large crowd of brand ambassadors. Find ways to individually reward network members for their performance. Creating personalized UTM codes for each agent can help you track individualized performance, and allows you options ranging from simply encouraging them on their efficacy (“Did you know that six of your customers came in through your social posts last month?”) to providing monetary incentives to bestowing awards internally on high performers. The type and scale of your incentives will be dependent on your company culture and available resources.
Effectively managing overhead of your decentralized network happens when your marketing team is able to touch base every week or so while keeping everything moving smoothly. This happens most effectively when your marketers know how to support their portions of the network well. Constructing internal resources like documentation or paying for management training for your team will not only help instill mentoring mindsets that are good for your network but also prepare your employees to support your own corporate-level efforts more effectively while grooming future middle and upper management.
The idea of handing off your marketing to a non-marketing team sounds daunting up front. But when put in place effectively, decentralized content networks help your brand earn trust while rewarding a lot of upfront implementation with a system that self-sustains at low cost. Your marketing team will have some burden of community building lifted off them at the same time they develop skills that will make them more effective leaders into the future. Your agents are given tools and incentives to bring in more leads for your company. But most importantly, your brand is able to develop an authentic human side in the only way proven to work—by actually investing in and constructing your brand on people, rather than marketing artifice.
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.