five leading business ideas for 2011

Change happens.  That’s not just a bumper sticker slogan; it’s the state of business today.  Mastering change requires new ways of thinking, talking about, and doing business.

I believe the leading companies in 2011 and beyond will distinguish themselves by embracing these five ideas:

1.  value and values
Over the past decade, we’ve seen the pendulum swing from a focus on businesses’ value propositions to a focus on the company purpose.  Many companies have eschewed a hard core sales- and shareholder-driven mission in favor of one which emphasizes a nobler purpose.  Case in point:  Last month, Ad Age recapped the annual Association of National Advertisers conference with the headline “Purpose-Driven Marketing All the Rage at ANA.

But to emphasize a company’s purpose over its business proposition neglects the fundamental driver of business – filling a customer need well.  Smart companies understand that it isn’t an “either/or” – it’s a “both/and.”  They must offer value and operate with values.

So they base their brand platforms on both the unique value they deliver to customers and the unique way they do business which reflects their values and purpose.  They are as rigorous as about what they do as how they do it.

2. experience channels
A key component of any business model is distribution channels.  Traditionally businesses have been designed around delivering goods and services to customers through channels – whether through retailers, wholesalers, distributors, or more recently direct channels.

But the different ways customers do business with companies is growing explosively – mobile, click-and-pick-up, co-ops and buying collectives, etc.  And the way customers are using these channels is also changing.  In addition to researching and making purchases, they’re comparing, sharing, collaborating on designs, customizing, giving feedback, subscribing, and exchanging.

Leading companies are changing the way they think about, develop, and use channels.  They’re making them open, flexible, and engaging two-way exchanges.  And they’re partnering with suppliers, media, affiliate, and customers themselves to offer differentiated and compelling customer experiences through them.  No longer a simple distribution point, a channel is an experience.

3. customer engagement measurement
While business gurus have been preaching the importance of customer engagement for years, few companies have embraced it as the primary way of thinking about and valuing their customers.  Most are stuck in the mindset of customer acquisition and retention – how can they get more customers?  And, once they “have” them, how can they keep them?

The reality is that companies no longer “acquire” customers because today’s customers can’t be owned.  In this age of access, very few monopolies — even perceived ones – still exist.  Customers often use multiple brands in a single category, even in B2B markets.  And customer loyalty may be fostered but the bonds of loyalty are no match against deep-discounting, breakthrough innovation, and simple customer wanderlust.

Companies wanting a more accurate and appropriate measure of their customer efforts look beyond customer acquisition and retention to customer engagement. They quantify and track the extent to which customers are engaged with the brand — in terms of depth (emotional commitment), breadth (range of products, services, touchpoints), and length (amount of time). They use these measurements to develop and optimize their customer strategies and to track the true health of the business.

4. advocate relations
Leading companies are also challenging the notion of media and public relations. After all, the lines between traditional media and social media have become blurred and an influential blogger has been proven to be able ignite or crush a story more powerfully than many reporters.

Plus communicating to the broader public is important to only the largest, mass brands. For all others, targeting interested parties and influencers is more efficient and effective.  Developing relationships with the select people who will spread the word on the company’s behalf is far more productive than reaching out to all those who can.

So instead of media relations and public relations, companies on the forefront of communications are working on advocate relations.  Advocates are bloggers, experts, social mavens, and other thought leaders who wield strong influence within the company’s target audience.  Like journalists, advocates are proactively enrolled to communicate messages to the broader audience without compromising their integrity – but unlike journalists, they can be openly biased in their communication of that message, praising a company or a product which resonates with them.

That’s why advocate relations is becoming a priority.

5. content supply chain
Several of these ideas speak to the growing importance of content.  Twitter streams, mobile applications, e-newsletters, online videos – these new communications are as valuable to customers as a company’s products and services.  They’re the way companies do customer service, sales and user support, corporate news and information, public education, community relations – oh, and yes, promotional marketing.

But content has clearly become more than a marketing function — content has become a product in and of itself.

In fact, content development has become a core competency for leading companies.  They’re investing in the production and coordination of content development to ensure its quality and consistency.  And they ensure they have the process and systems in place to produce content efficiently.  They have developed and actively manage a content supply chain.

As these five ideas demonstrate, business as we know it is changing. Companies can either lead the change or follow it.  Thinking differently and challenging the norms have always been the hallmarks of leading companies.

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