Ask any marketer what she does and you’ll get a different answer. That’s because marketing is a hard discipline to define. We don’t cure people like doctors or build things like architects or even blow up the economy like those slick Wall Street guys.
The truth is what marketers do most of the time is meet and discuss… endlessly. We discuss the brief and trends and the consumer mindset and just about everything else you can imagine.
Crucial to these discussions are buzzwords, which serve as shorthand for more complex concepts that nobody really understands. They save the time and energy that we would otherwise spend actually thinking about things. The problem is that some of the ideas buzzwords represent are themselves nonsense and lead us astray. Here are four of them:
Engagement is a prototypical buzzword because it is so marvelously sublime that nobody can actually define what it means. Basically, it is a very vague way of pointing out that what you do should interest consumers and not bore them. It is, in essence, a value distinction and not a strategy.
A much more operable term is value exchange, which can either be related to the product (e.g. Apple), content (e.g. Michelin Guides, American Express Open Forum, etc.) or social experience (e.g. a local pub, Zynga, etc.).
While not a perfect term, thinking about value exchange leads to more serious strategies for building assets in the marketplace, rather than optimizing for questionable metrics such as tweets, likes and video views.
We have to get away from speaking about engagement as if it were a definable quantity. If consumers perceive real value, they will be engaged.
Ever since Malcolm Gladwell formulated the Law of the Few in his bestselling The Tipping Point, marketers have been obsessed with identifying “Influentials.” These magical people, so the story goes, have “rare social gifts” that enable them to set trends for the rest of us. Look at any social epidemic, Gladwell argues, and you’ll find Influentials at the center.
As I’ve noted before, Influentials are a waste of time. We know this because a vast body of empirical research has found no evidence that they are either necessary or sufficient to produce the long viral chains that we know as social epidemics. Further, a common sense appraisal of events like the Arab Spring shows that influence is, at best, a moving target.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that some people don’t have more influence than others. Certain groups, like celebrities and heads of state, wield influence through mass media and powers of their office. Others, like managers and moms, have influence over particular purchase decisions.
Yet we don’t need any mysterious terms for people like this. “Celebrities”, “managers” and “moms” are perfectly sufficient. In truth, social epidemics are driven by networks of people who are passionate about an idea and these can adequately be identified through conventional targeting methods.
Marketers love loyalty and are quick to point out that it’s easier to retain a customer than to win over a new one. So when sales are suffering, it’s tempting to try to inch up loyalty metrics rather than to increase market penetration. After all, even a small improvement in loyalty will be leveraged across the entire customer base.
Alas, the truth is that market penetration and customer loyalty are highly correlated, so the best thing you can do to improve loyalty is to sell to more customers. While this may seem counterintuitive, it makes sense. High selling items tend to get more shelf space, so strategies likely to increase initial purchases are likely to increase repeat purchases as well.
Further, there’s not much marketers can really do to increase loyalty. Studies show that loyalty programs are generally not effective and that the most important factor for instilling loyalty is customer experience, an area in which marketers are only tangentially involved.
So don’t get caught up in the loyalty trap. Your time and effort will be much better spent promoting advocacy through effective social marketing and value exchange than devising gimmicks to promote repeat purchase.
When Jack Welch first took over at General Electric, he decided that every business must be #1 or #2 in its category or it would be divested. It was a successful strategy for a while, until his managers got wise and simply defined their category in such a way that they would appear to be leaders.
Marketers like to play the same game with “unique selling propositions,” narrowing down the product definition so that they are unique in a category of one, like “the very best nail salon with a blue awning on the west side of town.” This is a complete waste of time.
First, you’re probably not unique in any significant way. Second, if you were, it would be obvious enough that it wouldn’t take a long drawn out discussion to uncover just how unique you are. Finally, research suggests that differentiation plays a limited role in purchase decisions anyway. After all, how many “unique” items do you buy?
So while buzzwords can be useful and are sometimes even unavoidable, they shouldn’t blind us to simple good sense. If you able to identify viable markets, offer true value and communicate effectively, you’ll do far better than most.