Last week I had the privilege of touring IBM’s Design Lab, a floor of the iconic Madison Avenue offices that reports to the head of marketing for company. My tour guides, Ethan McCarty and Laurie Friedman, showed me how IBM, at one time one of the biggest spenders in B2B advertising and marketing, has created an entirely new model that blends a rigorous examination of its customer communications and experience with systematic attention to freeing up its own considerable content.
The tour started from the Eames-furniture studded reception area (McCarty pointed out that IBM was one of the early sponsors of Charles and “Ray” Eames ) where McCarty told me a bit about his background. A 13-year IBMer, McCarty first worked on migrating several of the IBM print magazines to digital. His own career exemplifies how IBM has morphed from a 1.0, content-producing powerhouse with its vaunted research studies -- which McCarty also worked on -- to an inter-active, 24/7, social world where content is constantly iterating and connecting. Originally developed under the leadership of the visionary Jon Iwata, the senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications, the Labs treat IBM’s marketing as if it were a new software release, or as if marketing were itself a product that was not a reactive corollary to the company’s innovation, but a leader of it.
To take on the task of creating marketing strategy in real-time, the IBM team has assembled global, agile teams around its primary business categories such as big data analytics, social business, mobile, and cloud computing. The teams resemble nothing if not a software development project, comprised as they are of a content strategist, designer, developers. information architect, social business manager, and "scrum master" (aka project manager) along with subject-matter-experts (SME’s) in Communications, HR, or representatives of any of the other relevant business expertise required for the category.
The strategy is two-fold: to treat marketing like an innovation exercise, typified by the Agile approach in software development, in order to capture and harness the explosion in social and web-based activity and sharing. With a spare set of basic guidelines, IBM's Lab personnel are then liberated to pursue marketing projects within their respective categories, using blogging, open platforms, and more direct tools like those provided by CRM, all with the the category in mind and with engagement and conversion as the goal. A typical "pod" in the Lab has a team working white boards and sticky notes, but instead of those media revealing new sofware code, there are references to publishing sites like IBM's own Smarter Planet, or to specific content contributors or themes.
The second part is centered around the IBM Select strategy, and IBM Voices, which seeks to leverage, and then to measure, the enormous capacity that IBM employees have for content creation. There are hundreds of thousands of IBM creators and curators who write in many different languages and on local as well as global platforms. Those who roll out this strategy work in concert with new data mining tools that can measure its effectiveness in terms of engagement and ultimately, conversions.
IBM Select is basically a mentoring program where a social communications specialist on McCarty’s global team connects with one of 15 SME’s to help him or her understand how to connect socially and then to report in on a monthly basis on the key criteria set out for the SME. A home-grown tool for the marketing team to see how the river of IBM social content is being produced and shared is the Voices platform, a simple-enough and compelling visual display of the reach and engagement of its SMEs.
Although IBM has always been one of the first companies, along with SAP and others, to understand the power of individual company bloggers (in fact, I wrote a case study about this in early 2006), and to liberate its blogging resources (around 10,000 external bloggers worldwide when I wrote the study), look at how capacity has exploded:
What has IBM’s Design Lab meant in terms of overall investment in Marketing? Clearly, IBM has been slashing traditional advertising spend for years, although it still leads in B2B outlays. While no one would comment on what the Lab has meant as a replacement to traditional advertising, two things are clear about what is going on there: it’s very much an IBM-wholly-owned project, as opposed to one provided by an ad or digital agency, and its whole approach is as individuated as you can get, from the one-on-one influencer strategy with the SMEs to the confluence of individual content contributions in the Voices platform.
What are the implications of this direct engagement of IBM’s smart people with their followers? It’s listening at scale, knowledge gathering as well as disseminating. Further, where will it take IBM in the future?
"The future of the Lab is a great unknown -- and I say great, because that's half the fun -- we'll continue iterating and learning our way into better digital experiences for IBM and IBM clients," said McCarty. "Our method is a learning method -- we create, we observe, we test, we analyze the data and we iterate -- and so the future looks great, and we are enjoying the journey."