Challenging Conventional Thinking

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UPDATE: As I was writing my post, Fast Company came out with their piece, The Future of Advertising, which has generated a great deal of conversation the challenges facing the advertising industry. What’s interesting is that the same challenges facing the biz were probably said when we moved to from print to radio; from radio to TV and every time something new arrived. I recently wrote:

Of course, there’s no mention of creating better commercials that people actually want to watch. And that’s the challenge with any ad that’s delivered without consumer control. As long as they don’t have any choice, we don’t really worry much about the content.

I wonder what would happen if agencies got paid based on the Nielsen ratings for their commercials. If most people skip your commercial, you don’t get paid. If it draws big numbers, you get paid a lot. Betcha’ that would change the industry a lot.

Yes, technology is changing things. But have you seen any movies set in the future, say Blade Runner or Minority Report? What do you notice about those films as it relates to the future of advertising? Yep, that all of that time in the future and advertising is still pretty pervasive. In fact, it’s even more pervasive then it is today. Think of those giant billboards from Blade Runner or the famous (or infamous, depending on your POV) scene where retinal scanners welcome Tom Cruise to the Gap. The only future world I can think of without pervasive advertising is the one from Brave New World and there, they train you in-vitro to be a consumer. That’s pretty pervasive.

While we talk a lot about the measurement of advertising, one thing we don’t do is connect advertising to sales. Yea, it’s not always a direct connection, I get that. But at the end of the day, business is about selling things. What we do in advertising has to have a positive impact, doesn’t it? Many of the recent hits in advertising seem to have created better opportunities for the agencies that created them then they did for the brand.

So it’s time to challenge some of the conventional thinking about SM and the ad biz in general. Too often we just accept things as truth without really questioning them. In the end, we may find out that they in fact are true, but let’s do some questioning for a few minutes, shall we?

  • Really, You Do Control The Message. I think this where I disagree most with conventional thinking. Sure, you may not control the distribution of the message, but you start the message. You have all of the control based on the experience you deliver. People amplify the message you start. You want people to pass along a good message, give them a good experience.
  • SM in business isn’t really about friendship, it’s about business. We wrap SM up in the language of friendship, but more often then not, it’s about generating business. If you’re following more then a few hundred people, do you really have a relationship with them? Or are these new tools just another distribution channel to get our information out? Look at how many companies still use Twitter or FB as a one-way communication tool, not And BTW, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s OK to conduct business, that’s what businesses do.
  • There is no such thing as word of mouth marketing. WOM is not a marketing strategy; it’s the outcome of a great product telling a great story. And let’s not forget that many WOM programs start with the brand telling something to someone. WOM doesn’t occur in a vacuum where the product just mysteriously appears and people start talking about it. If you’re paying people to talk about your product, that’s called advertising.
  • Do we really want to be part of a tribe? I think that there are really just a small number of brands that inspire people to join their tribes. They can be big companies (like Apple or Urban Outfitters) or smaller companies (like Moosejaw or maybe a local bookstore). But I’m not sure the vast majority of companies will ever inspire people to join their tribe. We usually just want the products we use to do what they’re supposed to do. By pretending all brands can create tribes, we’re creating a set of expectations that the vast majority of companies just can’t deliver.
  • More then most industries, the advertising biz thrives on the shiny bauble syndrome. We can’t wait to play with the latest tools and too often, we declare them the future of advertising. We jump from tactic to tactic all the while pretending that they are really strategies, not tactics. Just in the past few years, ad agencies have transformed themselves from ad agencies to Second Life agencies; branded entertainment companies; WOM marketing agencies and now social media agencies.
  • Too many companies are using SM only at a surface level. Yep, companies like to talk about the consumer being in control, transparency and all that stuff. But are they making changes that matter throughout the organization? Whole industries — like banking or airlines — continue to operate in complete disregard for what’s in the best interest of their customers. Their policies and procedures still show how they really feel about the people who buy their products. Hiring some folks to Tweet or handle your FB page doesn’t change your business. Putting your employees and your customers above everything else, that changes your business.
  • It’s easy to get people to talk about you, it’s much harder to get them to engage with you. When I’m speaking at events, I always joke that if I were doing my presentation naked, I could get everyone in the room to talk about me, but probably not as many people who would save a place for me at lunch. Too often we confuse talking about with engaging. Talking about can lead to engagement, but only if there’s real connection behind it. Are you really delivering on your message or do you say things simply to get people talking.
  • SM is a new way to engage. The tools we’re using today are new, but SM is as old as people. The first cave drawings were SM. Pamphleteers were SM. It’s faster and broader today, but the underlying concepts are the same as they’ve been for thousands of years.
  • Advertising is the cost of being boring. Nope, advertising is the cost of doing business. Zappos does advertising. So does Apple (I’ve seen at least six Apple commercials while I’ve written this article). They’re not boring brands, are they? Yes, some companies, like Urban Outfitters, don’t do traditional advertising, but again, they’re pretty few and far between. And is it advertising that’s really bad or is it how we do it?
  • People don’t mind advertising, they mind how we deliver it. I talk a great deal about just in time marketing in my presentations. People want information about brands and products, but more and more, they want it on their own terms. What we don’t want is the constant interruption of advertising. It’s everywhere and it never stops. Companies that spend their time looking at how to captivate, instead of capturing their audience, will be the companies that people want to hear from.
  • Social Networks + Advertising = Amway. When I was a kid, everyone knew at least one AMWAY salesperson who never stopped looking for a sale. They were constantly trying to sell you or convince you to become an AMWAY salesperson like them. We didn’t like it in person and we don’t like it in SM.
  • If you think that listening is new, then you’re already in trouble. All too often, I hear people saying that the really cool thing about SM is that it lets you listen to your customers. Some companies have even added Chief Listening Officers. But thinking that listening to your customers is a new way to engage just shows how out of touch most companies are.
  • You can’t force listening. Have you ever been in a conversation and you really didn’t want to listen? You nod politely, you occasionally say something, but mainly, you’re planning what you’re going to say next. You’re not really listening and having a conversation. You’re simply exchanging sentences. You can’t force someone to listen. And if you look at how many companies still operate today, they’re not listening.
  • Legacy vs. history. This will someday get it’s own post, but there’s a huge difference between history & legacy. Legacy holds you back. It’s what keeps those policies & procedures in place, even when you know they’re not right. It’s the walls that you put around creating a better experience. History guides you to the future. It’s knowing where you came from.
  • Few like to co-create. Many like to complain. Yes, there are brands that have created tribes that want to help co-create your brand. But more often then not, people like to complain when you’ve done something wrong. And complain they will. When you’ve wronged them, they will make sure that anyone who listens will hear about what happened. Remember United Breaks Guitars?
  • No man can serve two masters. In the battle between doing what’s right for customers or doing what’s right for the investors, the investors usually win. Again, there are a few companies who buck this trend, but mostly, companies do what’s best for investors or shareholders. Banks continue to add fees to boost profits. Airlines nickel & dime customers every way they can to add to the bottom line. It’s OK for companies to make money and to make even lots of money. But when they do it at the expense of customers and employees, that’s when things are wrong.

For over 10 years, I’ve been talking about the need to create authentic, relevant and compelling brand experiences and it’s even more important today. And yes, I think SM and all of the new tools available to advertisers today can have a very positive impact on business. But let’s put them in the right place. Let’s question what we’re hearing today and really see how these tools can make our businesses better. And if you want to think that this is a new way of business, then really change your business. Lip service doesn’t really do service to anyone.

Image by: gtrwndr87 

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