In Edelman’s special report on brand trust amid the coronavirus pandemic, 62 percent of respondents said the country will not make it through the crisis without brands playing a critical role in the challenges we face. While adjusting to the new normal, how well brands heed the voices of consumers coupled with the strength of their audience-first mentality will influence their fate later. Ayzenberg president Chris Younger emphasized this notion in a recent company leadership meeting. We spoke with Chris about what makes a strong audience-first approach and the pandemic’s impact on brand behavior in an increasingly virtual ecosystem.

How does Ayzenberg approach an audience-first mentality?

How the company is built and what we do day-in and day-out is designed to engage with audiences. We spend just as much time talking about what we’re making as we talk about who we’re engaging with. Engagement for brands and for marketers is about time, so we ask ourselves, how is that time being spent and where are they spending it? And why does it matter? At our agency, we manage over 300 million relationships for brands. We prioritize understanding how consumers are spending time, then we develop our message.

Storytelling is still extremely valuable and is at the core of our message, but the format of the stories has completely changed. As we all know, we’re no longer constrained by a limited selection of fixed platform formats as we are only constrained by our ability to think differently in this digital first, social forward landscape. 

We’re an agency that last year alone produced well over 20,000 pieces of content. So what does that agency look like? Old planning meant buying your share of voice (SOV) in key markets on network television, radio and print. Today that isn’t how audiences behave nor how brands buy. They once had to buy that way because they didn’t have any other way to understand how to reach audiences. 

Today those audiences either garner their first impression or their last impression in social media. They’re influenced through friends and they’re looking for validation on the decisions in ways that don’t live in an ad platform. So our job is to ensure we are making an impression and engaging with audiences when that intersection takes place.

If you want to be in the business of having relationships with audiences, you better understand what you’re curating and understand how to navigate it. We’re spending a lot of time listening right now because the playbook is being rewritten. The rules of engagement and work time spent are being re-evaluated. The type of content, experiences and stories that are being told are being redefined.

What are some characteristics of an effective audience-first mentality?

Being able to actually operate within an audience-first mentality requires a great deal of rigor, patience and sharp listening skills. Listening is the key to achieving a foundation that allows the services, the creatives and the currency by which you’re communicating with, to create these assets and has extremely high value when done right.

So it’s about listening and then the ability to act on that listening. There’s the data and the insight and then there’s acting on these details in a way that connects back with the audience, connects back with a brand and connects back with the entire value proposition.

How can brands get better at listening?

It’s being able to know what part of what’s being communicated should impact their business. Like anything, it takes practice. You’re probably never really running into anything but more so acknowledging. And once you get to that point, you start forming a very comfortable relationship like you would with a good friend over an extended period of time. Eventually you’re able to finish each other’s sentences and thoughts. 

For a brand to get there will take time, talent and chemistry. We also have to acknowledge that like not all relationships, not all brands are for every individual in the audience. So it’s also important to know when those are a good fit, know where your place is and where your place isn’t in certain dialogue and certain conversation. People respect that.

What makes great content right now? What we’re noticing in very early insights is this idea that as human beings and for society as a whole we’re going through an incredible experience right now. So being truthful and transparent and adopting a tone that relates to your audience will drive a positive journey for those you wish to maintain a relationship with in the future.

If done right, these actions can leave a lasting impression because consumers don’t forget how brands treat them. As we often say in our business, it takes two years to develop a relationship and it could take two minutes to lose it. You might not have necessarily done anything wrong, you just didn’t take a moment to pause and listen or you failed to acknowledge.

I can see a whole new genre of content, strategy and relationship building coming out of this pandemic. I don’t think there will be a “light switch” moment where everything goes back to business as usual. We’re going to start seeing trends of people actually showing more of themselves. The virtuality this pandemic has created will make people yearn for reality more than I think anyone realizes.

Some brands believe that now is not the time to pull back on ad and media spend while others continue pausing or reducing budgets. What do you think is the best approach here?

First off we all need a great deal of resilience during this time and until the economy becomes stable, everybody is making decisions and predictions in the dark. Assuming that the economy becomes stable to a degree of logical predictability, brands that have invested in budgets and reinforced their consumer relationships by adding value to their consumer will end up ahead. We’re going to find out who are the true expert marketers and leaders in this marketplace. However there is no baseline now. It’s being all reset.

In what ways do you predict marketing will change after the pandemic is over?

There are some incredibly polarizing conversations happening about the ability to build relationships and service your audience in ways that brands couldn’t fathom prior to coronavirus. How do virtual presentations of your brand, your experiences and your products take place in this setting? If you’re a consumer products company, you’re relying on that last point of sale to make that final purchase decision. How do we develop that in a virtual space? How are we creating touch points?

I don’t have clear answers, but there are clear trends that are going to open up the palate of marketers to explore, experiment and drive more in a virtual connected ecosystem, one that embodies a social-forward, mobile-first approach. This will ultimately allow marketers and our budgets to be more accountable. 

Being in lockdown has caused digital fatigue—how do brands cut through the noise?

I think most commercials running right now are all some form of capturing people coming together and connecting. But there are always a select few brands that keep coming up and the reason for that is, these brands take the time to listen, create and curate very powerful, very engaging pieces of content. Some of it doesn’t come down to budget but rather strategy and vision. 

This isn’t a race to who gets the most content out there wins. And it really isn’t a race to who creates the most viral piece gets the award. This is a journey for those brands who want to get the right quality over quantity, the right story over a snippet. To be able to move a message that when any one of us talks about a product or service, we have a shared experience of our understanding of what that means.

How can marketers avoid coming across as tone deaf?

It’s about letting your audience know, we know you’re being impacted by these types of experiences and we want to share where we’re at in the journey and we have these types of resources to help you get through it. It’s a really powerful thing to share in a way that isn’t manufactured. Share in a way that is true.

Are there any don’ts when it comes to leveraging an audience-first mentality?

I would say that knowing it’s okay to not be in every conversation. If you’re a brand that understands your audience has many relationships then you also understand and respect the balance between where their time is spent and knowing that your time with them is quality time. Don’t feel the need to react but do feel the need to ensure that the time you’re spending with them is quality defined by the values you set.

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