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Rather Than Cut, Go Digital
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Conventional wisdom says that in tough economic times you take out the scalpel. You cut jobs, budgets, and programs, especially in the areas of advertising and brand-building. Well, for the first time in marketing history, there's an option that will increase rather than decrease your horsepower.

Take advantage of the built-in branding efficiencies offered by digital technology; innovative tools and tactics that let you brand smarter without all the slicing and dicing. In the course of doing research for my recent book, BrandDigital, I interviewed some of the brightest people in the fields of marketing and technology who provided incredible insight on how digital technology could be used to operate smarter and with greater effectiveness.

It seemed an appropriate time to share some of these insights, with specific focus on my conversation with Bob Pearson, vice president of communities and conversations at Dell. While Dell is, by nature, digitally savvy, the ideas Bob and I discussed can be adopted by any organization, no matter what size, industry, or technological aptitude.

1) Precision drives efficiency

As the economy gets tougher, precise targeting and messaging becomes more important. There is no time or money for second-guessing who your most valuable consumers are and what they want. Digital tools and applications give marketers the ability to listen to consumers better than ever before and actually track and measure their buying behavior. This, in turn, enables them to target better, to communicate with greater relevance, and to deliver spot-on brand experiences.

Bob talked to me about a section of the Dell Web site called IdeaStorm, established with the express purpose of listening to customers and gauging which ideas are most meaningful to them. This online forum lets consumers provide feedback on current products, but more germane to operating efficiently, offer thoughts on products still on the drawing board. Dell considered IdeaStorm an incredible advantage while developing its Latitude line of personal computers.

In asking and listening first, Dell was able to make critical design choices before the manufacturing process began, significantly reducing costs and time to market. Dell has created what it calls a "listening culture," a benefit to every organization in such a ubiquitously communicative - and transparent - society.

2) Customer collaboration drives efficiency

Consumers are an incredible and, too often, untapped source of branding power. One of the most efficient ways to sell a product or service these days is to get a "buzz" going. Put the word-of-mouth dynamic to work. In addition to the inherent desire people have to share with each other, the enormous success of YouTube and social networks like Facebook and MySpace is due to the terrific technology that makes spreading the word so useful and so easy.

Smart companies use digital applications to capture eyeballs, free of charge, but they also use these innovative tools to engage consumers as a ready, willing and able source of help. With this in mind, Dell created Accepted Solutions, a site which gives customers the ability to ask questions or pose problems they're having with specific products and have other Dell customers provide answers based on personal experience. Dell engineers assess the "solutions" to verify their accuracy.

Since its launch, Dell has posted over 15,000 Accepted Solutions with an average of 350 views per solution. In addition to getting people engaged with the Dell brand, the beauty of an application like this one is that it saves the company the expense of fielding thousands of phone calls and hiring extra customer service representatives.

3) Picking the right battles drives efficiency

Digital technology has significantly increased the number of branding channels. It's also put a magnifying glass on where consumers are hanging out. While it's always been important to track where marketing dollars are going, in this economy, it's critical. To help them determine which branding efforts will yield the greatest return on investment, I advise my clients to create a map of the customer's journey with a brand.

This helps them identify which branding initiatives are cost of entry and which clearly differentiate the brand in the marketplace, especially with the most valuable targets. Among the essential cost-of-entry applications is a review site, confirmed during my talk with Bob who said that the customer reviews posted on the Dell Reviews site are among the brand's most cost-effective marketing tools.

Following the customer journey a bit farther a field, Bob discussed an interesting program his team has taken on with Salesforce.com and their force.com platform. An enterprise-level software service, it has "turbo-charged" the efficiency of the Dell sales force by putting all of a customer's information at their fingertips, including the specific digital channel on which the customer prefers to get information and product updates, both practical and consumer-focused.

People use digital technology to make the things they already do more convenient. In today's perfect storm of an economy, smart companies are using it to drive efficiency while they increase customer loyalty. There's no need for scalpels if you use digital tools and tactics to their advantage.