How do you build brands in the digital age? We spoke to John Battelle, Founder and Executive Chairman, Federated Media Publishing and gained his perspective on how digital has changed the way brands are built, what it means in practical terms for marketers, and how digital has influenced traditional marketing. He praises brands that engage across channels while keeping human beings central, and warns against dismissing TV - and those who are online while watching TV.

January 2012

John Battelle, Founder and Executive Chairman of Federated Media Publishing, explains why brands need to join, guide, and lead the conversations that shape their perception online.

Think with Google: Has digital changed the way brands are built today?

John Battelle: The core of what makes a brand is the same - people perceive some premium value in the product or service that they ascribe to the brand, and that brand comes to encompass that value. What has changed is that brands are now built online by consumers. Brands are what people say about you when you're not in the room, and that room has gotten extremely big and extremely digital. The result is you can't assume that if you engage in the same strategy and tactics in a post-digital world that you will build your brand in a competitive way.

I used to do this thing when I was presenting to marketers where I'd go up live on the internet and Google a brand. You instantly see how conversational they've become. Content that goes up on Twitter and Facebook does the same thing - real time has changed everything now. What digital has done is given control to consumers.

Brands are what people say about you when you're not in the room, and that room has gotten extremely big and extremely digital.

TwG: What does this mean for marketers practically? What are the opportunities?

JB: Today, you have to join, guide, and lead conversations that shape your brand perception. There's a little bit of marketing in all business. A prime example is product the copy in a software program, application, or a web site: Every time a consumer might encounter an error message, that's a product interaction. It's also a marketing opportunity to send a message to the consumer in a voice that adds to the brand. Any time a customer could potentially come into contact with a brand, that's an opportunity to be there, respond, and increase your product value.

There's even a branding opportunity in search. People tend to go to search when they are in an investigative mode, have a question, or have intent, particularly when they are thinking about purchasing and or they hear about something that interests them. These people are asking Google to organize the world. If you only think about that as a potential opportunity to convert a sale, you're missing the point that there are people forming an instant perception of you higher up in the media funnel. The messaging you display in search results has to support the sales message but also speak to brand values.

TwG: How do you see digital influencing or intersecting with 'traditional' marketing?

JB: Digital brand building will teach brands to do better in the physical world. The two will come together through data, and brands will gain the ability to quickly understand that this is an instance where they want to rethink what they are messaging. Every company should have a databank of information and data-driven profiles that help them respond in a certain way in the next five years. These should bridge physical and digital, so marketers can see a complete 360-view of the customer helping them satisfy the consumer's intent. With Google, you can put in two to three words and the entire world reorganizes around them. That intent is such a powerful concept, and consumers have become accustomed to that responsiveness. Marketers need to adapt.

TwG: What's the biggest challenge or obstacle they face?

JB: Digital is so fractured, there are so many places where people are talking about brands, and all of those places have their own 'native' approaches that allow you as marketers to get into the conversation.

It's a big problem: The ROI is out of whack; there are too many native advertising formats. Right now, that's the cost of doing business. Brands need to be on digital because they need to engage with consumers at the moment decisions are being made. They need to meet people where they are. But we're due for consolidation so we can scale our efforts as marketers across digital. Having a conversation at scale takes work, it means rethinking our overall approach to marketing and rethinking what it actually is - from a specialized vertical silo that just sells things to it being more of an integrated horizontal practice.

TwG: So what's working?

JB: Brands that actively engage across channels with human beings are working.

The larger message is to make sure you are engaged in the conversation wherever it might be at a certain scale that merits your investment. Get it right and you can end up with evangelists as your employees, for example, according to the Zappos' methodology everyone that works for you is an ambassador for your brand. Understanding, listening, and responding can only make your business smarter, so it's important to maintain a nimble, customer-driven ethos. That is working for a lot of companies.

Marketers have become content publishers at scale. Some have always been great publishers, but it's a different ecosystem in digital and content flows through it like water - whether it's shared, liked, +1ed or whatever. You can't be absent from that; you have to be part of it. For major content publishers like Red Bull the focus is filling an underserved niche; others want to be seen as supportive of a certain philosophy. For example, GE's support of green and clean tech - across a number of platforms ' made a difference, whether it was underwritten or brought to you by GE. That's a smart way to change the perception of your brand.

AMEX has done an extraordinary job with OPEN, where flashes of genius such as Small Business Saturday used online to drive offline behavior, with TV spend to tie it all together.

TV is important. Something that people are missing about TV is that they get stuck in the model that TV is a segregated box - that it's not digital - but it increasingly is. Once you have that TV experience tied into an online experience, then you will start to see how these efforts can be more efficiently combined. The ability to tell impactful emotional stories in a lean back context will be amplified by digital - more measurable, more local, more integrated, etc. That's why this business is so exciting: What's possible is right in front of us.