Updated on December 10, 2020 to include tips to create a solid IMC strategy.
Halfway through one of my college marketing classes, I noticed a small quote on the bottom right-hand side of the whiteboard. It said, “Which raindrop caused the flood?” My teacher never referenced it once during the duration of the course. However, ten weeks later, it all made sense.
What is Integrated Marketing Communication?
There are a few definitions for integrated marketing communications, but my favorite is from the Northwestern School of Journalism: “IMC is a strategic marketing process specifically designed to ensure that all messaging and communications strategies are unified across all channels and are centered around the customer.” Simply put, it is the principle that marketing is most effective if every marketing channel has communication that aligns with the same core brand positioning.
Like many good marketing strategies, this initially seems like a “duh” principle. Clearly, you don’t want to have marketing that makes your brand look like it has some sort of split-personality disorder like Gollum from The Hobbit. (“No, not social media! / It will cheat you, hurt you, LIE! / But, social media is our friend!”) But getting all your marketing communications aligned is trickier than you may think.
Why is Integrated Marketing Communication Important Now?
IMC is not a new concept, but it’s more important than ever, as there are now more marketing channels than ever before. Back in the ’50s, marketing campaigns relied heavily on simple traditional media channels like print, radio, and television. It didn’t take much to keep these aligned.
But now, with digital media, we have an abundance of channels ranging from digital PR to influencer marketing to the wild west: social media. Our marketing tool sheds are filled with new and effective tactics that range from broad messaging (your website’s homepage) to targeting more niche groups (via Instagram). But not only is there an abundance of new channels, there is consumption like never before. Media is hyper-accessible and consumed at much higher rates. It’s not about the morning paper or evening television; it’s about constant consumption all day.
In bigger companies, each marketing channel will have a different manager, which is all the more reason to make sure that high-level IMC strategies are in place.
What Are Some Examples of Integrated Marketing Communication?
An IMC expert once told me that when he first engages a client, he would audit their entire property. This included all of their obvious marketing channels, but also included things that they might not expect.
In the case of a restaurant, he’d visit the restaurant and bring a notepad and paper, taking note of everything from the condition of the parking lot to the personalities of the waiters. If the brand messaging of the restaurant is elegance and fresh foods, it really doesn’t help if the dumpster is viewable from the parking lot. Every little piece that contradicts your brand messaging is a step back.
Likewise, let’s take a look at a brand that seems to come up on everyone’s list as the gold standard for marketing–Apple. Apple stands for innovation, simplicity, and style. Not only do their commercials, print ads, and website all share the same design aesthetic, but they bring the same qualities to their retail stores and even their products. For example, their customer service center–the Genius Bar–is set up to be simple, easy, and effective, just like an iPad.
What’s Bad Integrated Marketing Communication?
One of the most common pitfalls for brands in terms of IMC is the use of too many tools for social media. Some brands have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Foursquare, Yelp, etc., when their audience only really pays attention to one or two of those channels. What ends up happening here is that although one channel looks nice and engages in meaningful conversation, the others look like a barren wasteland that ignores their audience. Not good.
But even when you have someone concentrating specifically on your social media, they need to not only be aware of the messaging they are trying to convey, but the manner in which they are conveying that message. Sometimes, it doesn’t always go well (See Exhibit A and Exhibit B below).
Here’s a post from ZzzQuil early in 2014:
And here’s one of the many responses they got:
And again, what seemed like a genuine post from Gap:
And as you’d expect, it didn’t get the best response.
Another thing that sometimes brands forget about is that even though you may not be able to directly alter the messaging for external sources, you still need to be aware of it and try and shape it as best you can. This can be done by how you choose to respond to audience communication. If this is done improperly, it’s the same as having poor communication in the first place.
How Do You Develop an Integrated Marketing Strategy?
The simple answer is to start small and expand over time. Don’t try and manage too many channels and too many different messages at once. Focus on what works for you and get it right. Here are my tips for a solid initial integrated digital marketing strategy:
- Create a foundation of solid, meaningful marketing goals. You should have one or two main objectives that are easily measurable and directly contribute to the success of your overall objectives. This is your north star for your entire marketing strategy. If your tactics don’t align with this, then you may need to reconsider and adjust.
- Clearly define your core values and create a voice and tone guide that reflects those values. All your marketing content must align with the same voice and tone, or else it will look and feel disjointed and contribute to distrust.
- Determine who your core audience is. Who are you trying to reach and what channels do they prefer to consume information on?
- Create simple key messaging points for each stage of the funnel. More than anything else, what does your audience need to know at each point in their journey?
- Choose the marketing channels that match your core values and are used by your audience. Start small and make sure you have at least one or two for each stage of the funnel. Start small, master them, and then expand.
- Create a clear content calendar to determine a good cadence to connect with your audience. Make sure your communications for each channel are regular and are realistic for your marketing team. Don’t overcommit, and don’t ignore a channel.
- Track performance and have regular business reviews to identify weak channels and possible new channels.
It’s worth noting that this is less complicated for small and medium businesses to create and execute a marketing plan. For bigger businesses where there may be many different teams that all have a stake in messaging and performance, it is vital that marketing efforts are transparent and collaborative. It’s important that product teams are able to have a voice in how they want to talk about their product individually while adjusting for the bigger picture as a brand.
The point of IMC is to make sure that every piece of marketing is paid attention to. If every piece is in harmony, the overall result is much more powerful, and the audience will be able to hear what your brand is trying to say. Each piece, no matter how small, shares the same responsibility in providing a strong brand identity.
So, going back to my college marketing class, which raindrop caused the flood? Each and every one of them.
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