When was the last time you had a ‘conversation’ with a brand?

For me, it was yesterday, when a red mist descended and I wrote a rather fruity tweet to Great Northern for cancelling a train to London that I was already sitting on. Facebook thumbs down

OK, so we all know social media is great for mouthing off. But is it any good for marketing? Can it ever communicate, you know… positive stuff? Stuff that might actually get someone to buy your product?

Aa lot of people are telling you that it does, and that it represents the future of marketing. My view is rather more nuanced.

Speaking personally, I know I’ve never ‘engaged’ with a brand enough to tell them that I loved them (unless I was being paid to do so). And as a matter of principle I wouldn’t share on social media the make of, say, toilet paper I buy, because I’d look like a narcissistic idiot.

And when it comes to business-to-business products like drains, or farm antibiotics, or industrial cleaning equipment – simply to mention the product categories is to know that consumer social media like Facebook are utterly irrelevant.

I also know, as an ad man of some long standing, that people hate being sold to. Which is why, throughout my career, I’ve had to charm my audiences, shock them, excite them, interest them, whatever them, into noticing my messages and hopefully, at some point, acting on them.

But in that time I have never ever based my criterion for success on a reader actively cutting out my ads and sending copies to all his friends.

As the refreshingly acerbic Professor of Marketing, Mark Ritson, has written: “In the happy, completely detached world of digital marketing there is a common fallacy that the sarcastic, brand-hating bastards who populate the planet are actually an army of jovial optimists who simply cannot wait to engage with your organisation on social media.

Indeed. People hate being sold to. They hate traditional advertising (with some notable exceptions). But what they really, really hate are marketing messages poorly disguised as FUN CONTENT! that beep and pop up and clutter their screens when they’re actually trying to enjoy their social media.

Now, maybe – just maybe – someone goes online every so often to say something nice about a product. But it’s rare and it’s spontaneous and it’s something that is almost impossible for your average marketeer (let alone your average tweeting intern) to control.

A Pepsi bottleEven in the world of consumer marketing: even when rich, interesting, already-famous brands are using social media to spread some sort of almost-relevant message, the numbers reached are a tiny, tiny percentage of the people they could have got at through traditional mass marketing. Just ask Pepsi, who diverted all their ad budget into getting ‘Likes’ on Facebook, only to see their market share drop by 5% in a year. (They did get an awful lot of ‘Likes’, though).

But it’s not my purpose here to defend mass consumer advertising. I work mostly in business-to-business marketing, where the internet has decimated the trade press and advertising is now very much less viable. No, what I want you to understand is that the false promises made for social media and other digital delights are having an actively destructive effect on marketing – and sales.

Look, I know how it is. When the cold wind of an unprecedented media revolution is blowing through your career, you naturally want to huddle down with the herd. And do what every other marketing person seems to be getting away with.

Which is fine if you want a quiet life. But it is not a short cut to prosperity.

Copying your competitors should be the very antithesis of marketing. You may have a better product than them, but that’s irrelevant. Unless your product is different, or you market it differently, no one will take a blind bit of notice.

The danger with the digital slops bucket of content marketing, social media, email automation and the like, is that it simply adds to life’s daily clutter, and therefore gets ignored. The metric of success then becomes the number of tweets, likes and shares you can achieve, rather than how much your sales have gone up.

In our crazy internet world, faced with more information, more noise, more distraction than ever before, human beings have become living, breathing spam filters. So if you actually do want your sales to go up – rather than your likes or shares – then a ruthless, single-minded focus on your product’s point of difference is now more important, not less.

It’s not easy working out what makes you different. You have to consider your competitors, your audience, and a host of other factors. It takes careful thought, lots of research, and maybe even a little bit of testing. But you should always have reached some sort of conclusion before you even consider how to communicate your message (the creative), or where to place it (the media).

However, once you’re armed with that differentiation, everything afterwards becomes so much easier – whether it’s working out what Google searches to optimise for, or writing the home page of your website.

A big differentiating idea–let’s take Volvo’s ‘safety’ as something we can all remember–can feed every aspect of your marketing and will persist for years in the memory. As a brief for Volvo it generated great ads for decades, but more importantly, to this day, if you type “what is the safest car?” into search engines, it’s still Volvo that comes out on top.

The Volvo badgeImagine a social media campaign today that focused on Volvo’s vehicle safety (because social media is a wonderful, albeit shark-infested, PR medium). Imagine the impassioned tweets, the stories of lives saved, the launch of new safety features – all working towards one message. That really could work, wouldn’t it?

Instead, Volvo discarded safety, tried to look like BM, went bust, and were bought out by the Chinese. I’m scanning their current Twitter feed right now: “#Volvo #V40 City Weave | Combining a contemporary urban look with a warm, Scandinavian feel.”

WTF, as they say in social media.

So, next time you hear a self-appointed expert spouting guff about engagement, conversations, and the like, just remember: people hate being sold to.

But also remember: if you have something different to say that’s interesting, they might just be prepared to listen.


By Jon Shallcross


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