Harvard Business Review

Facebook's New Golden Rule


Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 16, 2010 8:40 AM

You don't often attend an NFL game to bring home a profound insight about marketing. But that was my good fortune last week at Massachusetts's Gillette Stadium, where 50 or so CMOs and CEOs gathered to discuss the impacts of digital, social, and mobile media on marketing.

This heady event was sponsored by Arnold Worldwide, Marketing50, and Spencer Stuart. Participants came from retail, financial services, packaged goods, and high tech. And, yes, celebrities were present: "The Donald" showed for a pre-game photo opp with Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren at the 50-yard line. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, arrived with talent, Rachel Maddow, thinly "disguised" in slacker garb. Pats owner Bob Kraft blessed the proceedings. And, oh yes, the Pats won. (Pats, 45; Jets, 3. Ouch.)

The star of the evening was Facebook's Kevin Colleran. He's called Global Account Lead, but his real claim to fame is he's Facebook Employee #2. That's #2 after founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Kevin was "Zuck's" room-mate in the bungalow in Palo Alto; he's 29 and a billionaire (on paper). The panel included Jeff Levick from AOL, Cindy Jeffers from Huffington Post, Chris Stutzman from Forrester, and me.

In the midst of a useful, if tired, debate about "digital natives" and "digital immigrants," Kevin offered a compelling suggestion: Try living a day in your customers' media mix.

For example, if your target customer spends five hours a day on Facebook; sends 120 text messages and half a dozen tweets a day from a smartphone and posts photos, videos, and blogs around the clock; "checks in" regularly using Foursquare at favorite retail locations to become "mayor"; relies on a plethora of mobile apps like Google Maps to get from one place to another, RedLaser to check prices on SKUs at Kroger or Best Buy, and Fashism to crowd-source advice from others while shopping; goes online at RueLaLa and GILT for flash sales just when the boutiques open; and subscribes to Groupon or LivingSocial for alerts on local deals, there's a good chance you might want to know what it's like to live a life like that. There's an equally good chance that (and this was Kevin's point) knowing what it's like to live your customers' media might change the way you use marketing and media to reach, influence, and interact with your customers. It might even change what you do radically.

On its face, this may seem obvious. Sure, most of us target audiences 18-to-34 years of age or, if we're building fast-fashion or youth brands, we target audiences 14-to-24 years of age. Of course, we know these consumers use media and devices in new ways, be they Millennials or, very soon, members of Gen Z. But do we really have any idea what it's like to live as they do?

The Golden Rule ("do unto your customers...") is an old chestnut of the marketing world. Credit card issuer MBNA (now Bank of America) was known in the 1990s for its corporate mantra, "Think of yourself as the customer." That proved to be an effective guiding principle for a large-scale service organization, wherein boosting customer satisfaction and, in turn, lifetime value was strategically paramount.

A couple of generations of inspirational leaders made the Golden Rule, and its corollary "know thy customer," a staple of services. In the 1970s and 1980s, Herb Kelleher, founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, personified it. He would serve drinks and what he called "filet of peanut" on short-haul flights to stay in touch with passengers. In the early 1990s, Scott Cook made every executive spend a day a year fielding customer calls about Quicken and QuickBooks. This year, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, embraced the Rule in his best-selling Delivering Happiness, providing his vision of how to build a company insanely obsessed with service and satisfaction.

Still, most companies don't operate by the Golden Rule. That fact supplies the lifeblood for shows like CBS' reality TV series, Undercover Boss. Why are so many CEOs out of touch? The show's answer is a little glib: CEOs just don't know the "real" work of their organizations. A more insightful answer is also more subtle: many CEOs have never taken time to learn how it feels to be their own customers. No episode illustrated this better than the Subway executive who confessed that, after 22 years at the company, he had never actually "built" a Subway sandwich. It doesn't take Tony Hsieh to tell you that guy's got a problem—and so might the "service" culture at Subway.

But Kevin's point was not simply a restating of the Golden Rule. His was a new conception of it. It could read: "Interact unto others as they would interact unto you." Or, to put a finer point on it: "Interact unto others as they would interact with others like themselves." Marketers who ignore Facebook's Golden Rule will do so at their peril. You'd better trying living your customers' lives and experiencing the immersive realities of their media mix. Then, and only then, determine yours.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.


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