Last week saw the publication of FEED 2009 and an accompanying Ad Age article by its primary author, Garrick Schmitt.

The third year of this annual, US-based report, the 2009 edition makes a bit of a departure, with the emphasis squarely on brands and the degree to which digital brand experiences shape & drive purchase.  It’s received a mix of high praise and some criticism. We’ve found the report itself and the reactions to it thought-provoking stuff, so caught up with Garrick who kindly agreed to mull over a few questions with us. Here’s a run-through of what particularly caught our attention.

1. The numbers, which taken at face value suggest:

i. The growing role of digital brand experiences in driving purchase decisions amongst connected consumers (“digital brand experiences create customers”).

ii. How digital is collapsing & accelerating the path to purchase, not just making it easier to track. As FEED puts it: “social networks become the outlet malls of the future.”

iii. A migration towards more sophisticated levels of participation & interaction (“digital fluency“) in digital media.

2. As we see it, when put alongside other research examining macro trends in online behaviour (from the likes of Forrester, for example), some interesting challenges to conventional wisdom are thrown up:

i. Jakob Nielsen’s 90:9:1 rule (the concept of ‘participation inequality’) starts to look outmoded.  Nielsen has always maintained it’s a moveable feast dependent upon a number of variables, but perhaps the starting point now needs to indicate a much more even distribution of participation.

ii. If *active* online experiences of a brand are key drivers of purchase, this supports brands exploring platforms & programs, leaving display advertising to be deployed as smart sign-posting and/or simple promotional tactics, or, conversely, made as rich and interactive as possible – providing mini brand experiences, if you will.

iii. If the interactions people seek with brands online relate to ‘deals/offers’ and ‘service’ to a significant degree, it follows that:

– the silo walls between marketing & customer service teams in particular need breaking down; they are increasingly one and the same thing, or need to work together as a genuine network or eco-system.

– most provocatively, this challenges a one-dimensional interpretation of what commercial ‘creativity’ means online. Whilst we’d be the first to leap on the figure of c.20% of respondents looking for “entertaining or interesting” interactions with brands, nonetheless we still need to broaden our definition of creativity when the rest are looking for something else entirely. We can’t put this better than a statement Ben Kunz recently made about the nature of creativity in a social media age on Edward Boches’ blog:

“The ability to recast a cold hard brand into a warm human face is a miraculous change, yet it takes immense creativity to pull it off. By creativity, I don’t mean a brand position or message or high concept, but a creative use of a real team of humans to get on Twitter and other channels and present themselves as the real heart of a brand. It’s creativity with a shitload of effort. It’s risk and human souls. Perhaps that’s the most creative endeavor of all.”

Equally, witness the rise and rise of platforms and programs versus short term message-based campaigns.  As Garrick puts it, “the experience *is* the message.”

3. The radical openness with which the data set has been shared.  What would be locked away as proprietary information in many organizations was published front and centre in a freely available pdf and slideshare.  Garrick cites transparency first and second, a desire “simply to share…if our work could help shape the conversation and direction that our industry takes it would be good to contribute.” We would add: this manages to be at once a generous and a calculated, smart move: giving valuable information away in this way serves to accelerate its distribution and is reputation-enhancing for the provider. Sending out hard copies to a few influential industry types clearly didn’t do any harm either.

4.  The debate about coverage bias & how the data has been reported. Some heated points of view here.  We’d agree headlines around the online behaviour & size of the sample could have been brought in earlier in the report, so the reader could ‘weight’ the findings in their own mind from the start.  Nonetheless, we buy the principle that a ‘connected consumer’ is key to many client businesses, historically an indicator of things to come & only swelling in size / representational value.  We also hadn’t assumed purchase decisions would be so heavily influenced by experiences of a brand online, just because the sample are relatively heavy users of the internet – they do have lives offline too…

5. Finally, the care with which the report, its accompanying blog and illustrations were designed (the latter by David Fullarton) and produced, not to mention the story around it.  Easy to dismiss as style over content, but how many reports have we all read which ignore the importance of UX, visual impact, wit & brevity in an ADD-raddled world?


Download the pdf and/or slideshare here