February 26, 2009

An interview with Martin Oetting of Germany’s trnd

Chris AbrahamAs part of my exploration of branding and communication around the world, I am starting a series of interviews with as many European and world-wide movers-and-shakers as are willing to submit themselves to my barrage of probing questions.

I was inspired to start this series of interviews while at lunch with today’s interviewee, Martin Oetting, partner and director research at trnd. We met at a bistro in Prenzlauer Berg, a trendy neighborhood in Berlin, where Martin lives. We ate and talked and realized we had both a lot of thing and a lot of people in common. After we both pedaled away on our bikes, it occurred to me that it would be super cool to be able to share all of this great stuff with you – and it would be great to be able to ask a bunch of questions to as many people in the branding, new media, and communications as possible.

With no further ado, here’s my interview with Martin Oetting:

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1 — Martin, would you please tell me a little bit about trnd AG and what services you offer?

Sure, and first of all: thank you very much for your interest! trnd AG is the brain child of Rob Nikowitsch, who was creative director in the web agency H2OMEDIA in Munich. In 2004 he started to believe in the idea that brands should actively work with their fans and enthusiasts, to support and inspire word of mouth, as the most convincing form of brand communication. On a train ride between Munich and Salzburg (in Austria), he sketched out an approach which trnd is still using today. When he arrived in Salzburg, he was thrilled – feeling that he had invented a revolution. However, he then conducted some online research and found out that similar approaches had already been developed and launched in the US a few years earlier – so, slightly miffed but overall rather encouraged, he launched trnd, together with co-founder Torsten Wohlrab.

trnd is a word-of-mouth marketing platform – it has its own community of nearly 100,000 members. For a campaign, we select those members most suitable and most enthusiastic about the project and the brand, and we invite them to test, experience and share the new product with family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. (And they often end up even talking to strangers!) Additionally, we encourage them to report to us what they think, what their friends think, how the product is perceived, and – importantly – to how many people overall they spoke about it. That allows us to measure, analyze and report the results of the campaign.

2 — Would you tell me a little bit about what you do as part of the TRND team?

I am one of the shareholders, and I have two responsibilities. On the one hand, I try to spread the word about what we do. Word-of-Mouth Marketing as a discipline does not yet get the same attention and interest in Germany as it does in the US. So it needs its own Word-of-Mouth Marketing… The notion that Word of Mouth is something you can actually work with, have an impact on, and should make one of Marketing’s responsibilities, is only slowly catching on. So in order to help market our services, I spent the past two years speaking at conferences and with potential clients, talking with journalists, and blogging about what WOM Marketing is, how it works, and why it’s useful.

My other job deals with the data we collect. In any given campaign, we collect several thousand reports from the participants, and we conduct several surveys that our participants fill out. Turning all this data into meaningful results that show our clients what the campaign has delivered is very important. I am working with our campaign teams, to constantly improve the quality, analysis and presentation of our data.

3 — Isn’t TRND a little like BuzzAgent in America?

It is indeed, and BzzAgent is one of the companies that Rob discovered after he initially thought he had uncovered a secret no one else knew …

In 2004 already, I had the pleasure to meet Dave Balter (founder and CEO of BzzAgent) at Ad:Tech in New York, and today we are having a fairly frequent exchange of ideas and best practices with BzzAgent. Particularly because it is very interesting to see where approaches in the US differ from the ones we have in Germany, and where they are similar or even identical. This exchange of ideas has been so fruitful that we just launched the next step in our collaboration – jointly with BzzAgent and Buzzador from Sweden, we can now offer our services as a combined network with 750,000 members, through whom we can directly reach upwards of 9 million consumers in 10 countries. Which is something no other WOM marketing organisation can match, — something we are really excited about!

4 — What do you think makes the German market unique?

On the one hand, it’s the biggest European market – so there is a lot of potential.

On the other hand, Germany has a culture that does not embrace (marketing) innovation easily. There is a lot of “has this been tried and tested?” being asked, and a lot of the “not invented here”-syndrome is going on. And people don’t like it very much when you speak too openly about your own product or service – quickly they perceive you as “too commercial”, as “too salesy”.

Also, generally speaking, marketing as a profession does not get a lot of attention. It is very difficult to place interesting new approaches in other media than the trade press. Sometimes a story would merit the attention of a wider circle of people, but people tend to think “Marketing? That’s only advertising, get outta here”.

The upside to this is: if you have the perseverance and the stubbornness to keep at it, you can actually establish a good business – once you have managed to cut through the skepticism and the rejection. But it takes time and patience. And a lot of passion, to weather the initial difficult years.

Another thing that people should bear in mind: we do not have a blogosphere (and twittersphere) that has the same level of maturity as in the US. In the US, it makes perfect sense to reach out to the social media space and try to build exposure for a brand or product that way. Here, it’s mostly a waste of time. For two reasons:

One, as described above, anything overtly commercial gets quickly torn to shreds.

Two, you get no reach. Here is an illustration why: today (6th of January 2009), Germany’s biggest blogger Robert Basic (with the highest number of inbound links) thought publicly about selling off his blog, and starting something new. Again, we are talking about the biggest and best-known German blog. (Population: 80 million.) When he himself was judging how much he thought he could pocket from selling the blog, guess what he thought would be the range: 10,000 to 100,000 EUR.

Whack.

That is nothing. Blogs are no real media properties here. Imagine what people expect to make who would be selling the biggest US blogs – even in a time of crisis? Of course I do not know if Robert is right; and his blog is very closely linked to him as a person. And yet, it shows you the difference in magnitude.

This is why, by the way, we at trnd focus on offline word of mouth for now.

5 — What do you perceive the difference is between doing this sort of WOM work in Germany as opposed to the united states?

You have to use a slightly different tone. Considering what I wrote above, about being perceived as “too commercial”, you have to adopt a much more cautious voice. The exchange with the participants in a WOM project has to be more about a joint fun experience, in which the participants see very clearly what is in it for them.

I sometimes get the impression (which may be entirely inaccurate) that in the US – at least in some cases – you can almost get away with enthusiastically extolling the virtues of a product and then telling people ‘Now tell all your friends about it!’. Which would totally and devastatingly backfire over here.

6 — Is there anything that frustrates you about the European/German market?

Yes – in Germany, there is too much talk and too little action. You won’t believe how many blog posts lament, discuss, ponder, consider, … the various ways in which social media marketing could actually be conducted, and how it should be measured, and what good it would do.

And then compare that with how few people actually DO something in the field. It’s really frustrating. And when you join the discussion on a blog and start talking about what you have DONE, and what you have LEARNT, someone will invariably accuse you of “just pitching your stuff” …

Again, it’s not easy to market experience. You’re very quickly suspected of being too commercial.

7 — Since you’re a WOM scholar in addition to being in the WOM business, how has marketing and promotion changed in Europe over the last several years? Ten year?

I see a two step process, really. There is always the avant garde which gets over-excited about something very early, very quickly. They are usually much too quick to adopt, too quick to build hopes and expectations. And then there is the vast majority who are really slow with the adoption. And they only adopt if you show them a working solution. Yet when they do adopt, it can get pretty big. The trick is to find the sweet spot right between the two groups, where you can establish the business, let it mature, and then be really ready when the market wakes up. We are secretly hoping that we might have managed to do that with trnd.

8 — Where do you see your Market, Germany, evolving?

Right now, any development is difficult to predict. Germany is so very different from the US in that no one over here actually owns shares. The German people is not a shareholding people. So unlike in the US – where a sharp fall in stock values immediately affects everybody … and I mean EVERYbody – here that isn’t so.

You see a falling index curve on TV or in the papers, and then you go on your merry way, because that is “just banker stuff”. So the average man on the street is not yet affected. We do, however, get affected once the world stops buying our stuff. This entire country lives on exporting our goods all around the globe. So when orders are canceled and other countries don’t buy anymore, then the German every-woman and -man will feel it, too. But that is happening more slowly. Maybe slowly enough so that we can get through it without being severely affected, before things pick up again … maybe?

A factor that plays against us are the media here. They are hell-bent on making everything look as gloomy as they possibly can. So in December, while people were busy buying up everything they could get their hands on in the Christmas season, the papers were almost getting annoyed with Germans who wouldn’t, despite clear orders from the media, behave recession-like. (I am exaggerating. But only slightly.) My fear is that, if nothing else, the media will soon make everyone switch to recession mode … Because after all, we’re not an optimistic people. Quite the contrary. Things are always bad. And after that they will get worse. Naturally.

9 — How was the Internet and mobile computing changed the marketplace?

Big question. Hard to answer. The Internet is really changing everything upside down, isn’t it? The most important change brought about by the Internet is that it so drastically reduces the cost of interaction. I, as a single individual, can today keep in touch with roughly 2,000 people through my blog, Twitter, and a couple of social networking sites. Now imagine a company with thousands of employees that encourages every employee to use these tools … Man, if you use the web the right way, mass marketing could be over, and companies could build their brands entirely through conversations. The potential is immense.

And about mobile computing – I used to be very skeptical about it all. Until the iPhone. Once there is a platform that links everything together as seamlessly as this, it becomes so incredibly compelling. I am not an expert in mobile marketing, but finally, after so many years of empty announcements regarding the mobile space, it seems that the future is finally arriving.

10 — What do you wish companies would think about before considering WOM campaigns?

Oh man, thanks for this question! I wish they thought more about their products! More than any other approach, WOM marketing needs something worth talking about. When you want word-of-mouth marketing to work, an advertising creative who’ll “engineer some talkability” into an ad is no help at all. Because talkability of an ad gets you nowhere. You need talkability of a product. People can talk about ads until the cows come home, but that’s not going to sell products!

So my plea to any marketing company is: with every new product you put out, let there be something in it that is worth talking about. I don’t mean that you have to make the next iPhone. But there has to be something that your product does better, quieter, faster, cleaner, more eco-friendly, … anything that people can really experience. Something that they try and then say “Hey, this works!” Because then they do what’s best for your marketing – they share it with their friends!

Word-of-Mouth Marketing can only facilitate this, and organise it on a large scale. But the initial potential has to be in the product.

11 — What are the biggest mistakes that companies make when they enter the WOM space, be it online, in street teams, etc?

There is one that I hinted at above – some believe that a boring (or bad!) product can get fixed by the campaign. Never. In this space, the consumer calls the shots. You can only identify the people who love you, or who believe that you have something exciting to offer, and then let them decide what’s worth saying about your product. No “communications platform”, no scripting the conversation. It’s all about excited consumers with a product to share. Period.

The other thing is related to the above: some think they can actually control the message – either by allowing or not allowing comments on certain webpages, or by hiring people who act undercover and pretend to be consumers, and try to infiltrate networks and social environments. First of all, undercover stunts most likely blow up in your face anyway, they are disrespectful, and in Europe, they are also being banned legally. But more importantly, marketers need to understand that message control is over. Actually, it never existed in the first place. Because even in the good old days, when four people would sit in front of the TV and patiently endure the commercial break (?), they would dissect the message:

“The actor looks silly.” “Do you think that product does what they claim?” “Nah, that’s just marketing spin.” “Hate the music. So annoying.” “I think the neighbor has one, she says it’s not so bad.”

So insisting on controlling the communication that’s out there in the market is just not useful. What you can do instead: be transparent, get involved, participate, listen, and give consumers every possible opportunity to talk about your product – in the way they see fit.

12 — Is there any advice you could give marketers and advertisers that you have learned in your experience as a WOM scholar and in your time at trnd?

If you asked me to describe in only one word what word-of-mouth marketing is all about, then I’d say: “Listening.” As soon as companies start to listen to what their consumers want to tell them, and show them that they do listen!, the whole playing field starts to shift. It is very difficult to really describe the effect it has on a fan when the brand actually turns to her and says “Hey, so that is what you think? Tell me more!”

For some, that’s as if the lead singer of their favorite rock band came down from the stage and said to them directly: “So, tell me, what should my next song be about?”

The problem is: what is the last thing that many advertising creatives or marketing directors want to do? Exactly, listen to thousands of consumer voices. That is still perceived as so much less cool than designing the next million dollar ad campaign. Which is what many people went into the business for. But it all goes back to message control – the consumers are in control, and it’s time to give their message design the attention that it deserves. Because they keep spreading it, 24/7. Which is why Pete Blackshaw said: “We must reposition customer service as the new media department.”

13 — Is there any advice you could give companies who are interested in trying out WOM?

Two things, maybe: one, try to build something talkable into your product, as said above.

And then, two, remember word of mouth for your market research. You can ask a million things in focus groups. But do not forget a couple of simple questions about word of mouth: “Would you talk to your friends about this product? And if so, what would you tell them?” If you only get blank stares when asking this, you might have to go back to square one … without any word-of-mouth potential, it’s difficult to have substantial market success.

14 — Is there any advice you might give American brands before moving into the German (or European) market?

I cannot really talk about all of Europe – too many countries, all of them too different from each other. But in Germany, my advice would mainly rest on what I said above: bring patience, endurance, be prepared for resistance.

15 — You had mentioned the Cluetrain Manifesto.  What is your take on the Cluetrain Manifesto and how well (or how badly) has it aged?

I think when it came out, most people didn’t really get it. Myself included. Today, we are all trying to turn it into marketing reality. It’s still a compass, and a guideline to keep in mind. These guys were way ahead. It’s amazing. I had the chance to meet David Weinberger a few months ago. Follow his Twitter stream, read his blogs & books, if you want to laugh and stay ahead of the curve.

16 — Are there any books, writings, blogs, or people you might recommend reading or following?  Who do you recommend?

Generally, I am not so good with keeping up … I should follow 50 bloggers, when in fact I only follow a handful. I am always kind of hoping that “important news find me”, as some digital native (which I am definitely not) was quoted last year somewhere.

17 — Tell me about what a Doctorate in WOM looks like.  Can you tell me more about your degree program.  Do you recommend this type of course of study?

In Germany, doing a Doctorate is slightly different from the US. Here, a doctorate is still mainly a research project that an individual carries out, writes up into a book, presents to a couple of professors, and then publishes. Business schools here are starting to implement actual Doctorate programmes. My school, the ESCP-EAP European School of Management in Berlin, is one of them. I am grateful to have benefited from their Doctorate programme because it opened my horizon beyond marketing issues, to what scientific research actually means, and how the social sciences have to be critical of themselves.

Whether or not I can recommend it depends on what someone wants, and where they work. I understand that in the US, a PhD is really the path to an academic career. Not so much over here – you will find that here, a doctorate can also help careers in business. My own motivation was a slightly different one – when I decided to pursue a doctorate early in 2004, I felt that very few people in marketing actually knew how word of mouth really works. So I thought I could get a head start by actually doing some scientific research about it. Also, Buzz / Word of Mouth marketing guru Dr. Paul Marsden convinced me at the time that it’s great to be active on both sides of the fence – in the academic realm as much as in the practice of business. I found that he is right.

18 — Is there any shameless plugging you would like to do on behalf of what you’re up to or what TRND is up to?

I do, actually, yes: I’d like to return to our collaboration with BzzAgent and Buzzador. In 2000, as I was starting in advertising, I was getting intrigued by the idea that marketing could be conducted in a different way — in a way that worked with and not so much against the consumer.

Fast forward, to 2009. Today, we can confidently say to clients such as P&G or Wrigley: with our colleagues BzzAgent in the USA and Buzzador in Sweden, we organise for you a transparent open dialogue with consumers in 10 markets – USA, Canada, England, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Through this dialogue, the most enthusiastic consumers get in touch with the brands they love, and become ambassadors who spread the word about them among their friends in a way that is much more efficient than any other media channel. That is a development that I would have never been able to predict. And that’s something which we, at trnd, are currently really excited about offering our clients.

19 — Please feel free to create any other questions that you would prefer me to ask and then feel free to answer them — hell, I am a blogger and not a reporter.

Oh boy, I think I have more than overstretched your and the patient readers’ time. Thanks to everyone who stuck it out this far …

Martin Oetting is partner and director research at trnd AG the real network dialogue, Germany’s first specialised Word of Mouth Marketing network (www.trnd.com). A frequent speaker and an authority on Word of Mouth and Web 2.0, he also just finished his Doctorate dissertation on Marketing and Word of Mouth, at ESCP-EAP European School of Management (Berlin). Previously, he worked for Grey Global Group in various positions, on European and national accounts. Martin has a Master’s degree in Business, after studying in Germany, France and England.Chris Abraham is a partner in Socialmedia.biz. Contact Chris via email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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