In the past, the marketing model was often likened to a bowling game. The marketing instrument (in this case, the ball) never bounced back after it had reached customers (the pins). But in today’s digital marketing era, when “marketing is better characterized as a pinball game”, as Henning-Thurau wrote, the ball will likely bounce back with customers’ feedback and improvement suggestions that benefit your brand (Henning-Thurau et al. 2010). Sometimes these balls may actually turn out to be golden balls, when customers give positive feedback or recommend your brand on their own social channels. So, in a perfect marketing world, your customers turn into your brand ambassadors.
It’s of course not always that easy. Fundamentally, social channels offer nothing more than two-lane communication over the old one-lane “bowling alley” (Henning-Thurau et al. 2013). It’s then our job as marketers – in this case, the pinball players – to drive the ball down the right strategic lanes to earn the ultimate reward, the golden balls.
Making customers talk about your brand online
Let’s look more closely at potential methods you can employ to make your customers talk about your brand online. For a persuasive proof point, look no further than Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. The company has had tremendous success on social, especially Twitter, and, Huawei’s efforts are earning recognition, too: The latest Global Web Index ranks them atop the customer advocacy list, with 60% of users advocating Huawei to peers, ahead of other heavyweight tech brands like Samsung or Apple.
Lessons learned from Huawei’s social media strategy
The first lesson learned from Huawei is that marketers – like pinball players – need to consider how they should throw the ball. In this case, when the ball is thrown from an open hand, the marketing message should be appreciative: Acknowledge the customer and their expertise. For instance, B2B companies may choose to compliment other brands without harming their own. You achieve this online by celebrating your customers’ leading position, while also highlighting your brand’s contribution.
To this point, Pardot comments, “The types of content you should be sharing customer stories, testimonials, case studies, and other assets that physically show them the reason why they should buy your products or partner with you.” (Pardot, 2017)
Huawei also uses such an approach successfully, for example when Philips showed as being the leading brand in the Cloud AI healthcare project, and Dongfeng Communications with their custom cloud platform (they are leading in ICT with Huawei’s support). Huawei then effectively threw the ball at two targets simultaneously: Firstly, by highlighting its work – and success – for these two top brands. Secondly, by encouraging the customers’ marketers to retweet the post, thereby promoting Huawei on their social channels.
Thinking digital in content creation
There is a second key lesson we can learn from Huawei: When you create content for your social channels, it’s time to comprehensively think digital and not just in terms of channels. Your customer’s marketers will care about their social channels as much as you do. If you create good digital content, you’ll simply get more content-sharing opportunities on your customers’ social channels.
Let’s assume you’re the expert in your specific industry, but your content is not really digital-friendly or attractive. As a result, you will compromise your opportunity to be shared or retweeted on your customers’ channels. So, no matter which area you’re an expert in, you also need be an expert in digital content production.
Huawei already is. In fact, scouring Huawei’s twitter feed, you’ll find a wide variety of smart digital-friendly content formats, ranging from GIFs, infographics, three-second videos, whitepapers, to pictures with customer quotes. These content types are something customers’ marketers literally crave, so if you can feed them this content, they’re more likely to share/retweet.
Bringing your brand to your customer
Thirdly, remember that customers are closer to you than ever. You don’t need to wait for face-to-face meetings to engage with them – they are there on social channels 24/7. And if they don’t mention your brands, start bringing your brands to them and their channels by posting comments, replies, or tags. Huawei, for example, likes and retweets every brand-related post coming from so-called KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). In doing so, your customers’ marketers – who are the minds behind the brand account – sense the engagement and interaction, and continue the dialogue.
Challenges and opportunities of pinball marketing
The new pinball game of marketing surely brings opportunities, but also challenges. If you have a failing strategy or even worse, no strategy at all, the ball’s movement will be unpredictable and may not hit any pins.
As Henning-Thurau et al. suggests “pinball requires new methods and measures” and new organizational processes and structures may be needed to adapt to the altered rules of the game. We are now in a sharing economy, meaning B2B companies must move away from traditional silo-structures, instead building a collaboration-based culture that trains and allows employees to interact with customers in social media (Weinberg et al, 2013; Malthouse et al, 2013).
Given how quickly a message reaches the market, it will have a much longer impact when not just told by your brand, but also by your customers and other stakeholders.
Hennig-Thurau, T., Malthouse, E., Friege, C., Gensler, S., Lobschat, L., Rangaswamy, A., and Skiera, B. (2010), “The Impact of New Media on Customer Relationships,” Journal of Service Research.
Hennig-Thurau, T., Hofacker, C., Bloching, B. (2013), “Marketing the Pinball Way: Understanding How Social Media Change the Generation of Value for Consumers and Companies,” Journal of Interactive Marketing.
Pardot (2017), “The Complete Guide to Social Media for B2B Marketers,” Pardot.