Heard on the grapevine last week: “my CEO friend tells me he only works with a handful of consultants. They’re argumentative and critical but they’ve been working with him for years.” And a day later: “I used to be fed up of hearing all the talk about how the web was going to change the way we operate. But once it had been put into context, I agreed.”

They may be amongst the first things mentioned in any Consulting for Dummies type handbook, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them.

First, you’re far more likely to succeed in the long-run if you challenge the brief. Again and again. Every consulting function that largely focuses on execution eventually becomes a commodity which someone else can do faster and cheaper. You’ll only stay in your client’s good books in the long run through added-value thinking, and that invariably means challenging the client. In short, don’t just agree then execute. Think creatively, challenge, and only then execute.

Second, there’s no point harping on about a channel like the web unless you’re putting it into context. That context should be what someone is doing already: so you’re not selling something new; but rather, you’re integrating a new set of tools and an existing client reality and making it better. In short, the web isn’t great because it’s yet another channel; and a new and shiny one at that. But it may be great for you if you can take what you’re doing already and further improve your reputation, reach, influence, sales (or whatever) through smart integration.

Weber Shandwick recently ran a survey in which they found that UK consumers under the age of 35 are far more likely to be influenced by newspapers than those over 45. By some margin too. So the myth that younger people consume endless amounts of online media but won’t ever be reached offline can safely be dismissed. Another feather in the cap for an integrated approach to communications.

Slight tangent on the topic of demographics and the web: I’d urge you to have a look at Forrester’s Social Technographics graph, which showcases internet users’ behaviour based on how they consume and produce content online, from those that merely read, right through to those who regularly publish. Forrester also have a consumer profile tool which allows you to view the data based on various age groups, sex and country (13 so far.) What am I getting at? That traditional demographic trending used in marketing goes out the window when it comes to the web. If you’re an organisation looking to reach a certain target group online, choosing the right message and channel – and the sort of engagement or other behaviour you can expect – is a far more complex exercise than you might previously have imagined, and requires some skill to get just right.

jigsaw_puzzleThere’s too much fragmentation going on in Brussels. First there’s internal fragmentation of communications within organisations. Marketing are doing this, product guys doing that, issue specialists saying X, PR saying Y. Surely companies need to be better integrated. In particular, marketing and PA especially need to be telling the same story far more. Why? Because selling to consumers and legislators is a lot more similar than it was a few years ago. Marketing back then would have said: we’re cheaper and/or we’re better. PA would have said: we’re providing jobs and innovation. Now? They’re still saying that, but they’re both also saying “our company is a model citizen because of X, Y, and Z” and in this respect, there needs to be a lot more collaboration.

Beyond that, there’s what I’d call external fragmentation on issues, which is totally different, but is still about fragmentation, so I’ll put it in the same post. Call me lazy. What do I mean? That when looking at an issue for a client or prospect, everyone is always struck by the mess: multiple players at national level and pan-European level, public and private entities, associations and pressure groups, old media and bloggers. Even within the Commission say, DGs can have totally different priorities on an issue. People are talking about pharma this week: it’s now largely under DG Enterprise, but DG Sanco want it because surely Pharma is about health, they say. Whatever the outcome, fact of the matter is that their approach would be quite different.

In communications terms, what this fragmentation of players results is in turn a fragmentation of content and story which frankly makes an issue appear far more complex than you as an organisation want it to be. It’s hard to thrive within complexity because your story is one of a thousand; legislators might not have the time, the nous nor the willingness to really understand it well.

So what should you do about it? You create your own story that is tangible and relatively easy to digest of course. In addition, and more importantly, you should be the one player that makes sense of the fragmented landscape, and you can do it online. How? You become your issue’s portal by aggregating and hyperlinking content from all stakeholders in one online HQ available on your site – whether they’re private, public, competitors, pressure groups, media or bloggers.

What’s the point?

  • You’re doing people a favour by making things easier. They’ll appreciate it.
  • Making things easier will also enable people to understand your take on an issue more clearly, as well as understand it within the context of other stakeholders.
  • The base assumption is that your argument is valid and that most of the content you bring in backs up your story. Assuming that’s the case, the outside content you bring in will give you the 3rd party credibility you crave.
  • Becoming the focal point for web content will enable you to own the discussion online, naturally making you a key stakeholder rather than just one of many. Search comes into it too. By becoming an online hub, others will link to you and you’ll get better a search ranking on your key issues.
  • You’ll showcase both sides of the argument (again, assuming your side is strong) and thus prove that you’re a fair and open player.
  • You’ll have taken step one of the the four-step approach to online engagement. I’ll be building on this in the coming weeks, so watch this space.