Organic social media is dead: but was it ever alive?

It appears to have become an article of faith that organic social media reach is dead. The reason for this, so the idea goes, is that the social space has become so cluttered that achieving cut-through is now too difficult. From this it proceeds that the way forward is to look at paid for solutions, or at least to ensure that any organic activity has paid for boosters attached.

My question though is this. Was organic social media reach ever alive? OK there may have been some examples where brands have managed to get themselves in front of a large number of people in the social digital space, but I would contend that these were, and will remain, the exception. I don’t think the social media space has ever delivered reach on a consistent basis and all that has changed is that we are waking up to that fact. For example engagement levels, on average, with brand Facebook pages have always been abysmally low. This is not a recent phenomenon, it is simply that we haven’t wished to believe this.

It has nothing to do with the fact that the space has now filled up, or, as has been suggested, we are arriving at an impending content shock. The trouble with this type of thinking is this leads to the conclusion that we simply have to make our content more engaging / competitive in order to achieve sufficient reach when, in fact, what we should be doing is abandoning the idea of reach altogether.

You can only create value within the social digital space by realising that you will never be talking to an audience-sized group of people: only individuals or small groups (and an individual is not simply just a very small audience). The social digital space is a world of the individual not a world of the audience. It is therefore much more about how you respond when members of your audience wish to reach you, rather than trying to reach out to them as members of an audience.

Social media, unlike traditional media, was never designed to deliver reach. Social media is a medium of connection not a medium of distribution. Social media almost never delivers an audience because, unlike traditional media, it does not have an audience built into it. Trying to add an audience (reach) to your social presence will always be an exercise in swimming against the tide.

So don’t let the supposed death of organic reach lead you to the wrong conclusion. It has not been killed by content shock, it was only ever a fantasy creation conjured-up to give social media agencies something to sell and marketing directors something to buy.

What next after content marketing?

(Way) back in 2008 I wrote a rather lengthy paper on the theory of social media.  Interestingly, it has become the blogging equivalent of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in that it has hung around in my list of current popular posts ever since.  Within this I suggested that the key assets for operating in the social media space were content, conversation and community.  I also proposed that we were likely to move through these in sequence: content being the easiest thing to deal with, followed by conversation and ending up with community.

Well – we certainly have embraced the content thing.  So, if my theory holds – could the next big thing be conversation marketing?

Presentation1So I turned to Google Trends.  What this showed (see blue line in the diagram above) is the extent to which content marketing has exploded over the last two years (albeit four years after I proposed it in my paper).   Interestingly, this is plotted against Facebook marketing (green), which we can see peaked as a subject of interest in late 2011 and Facebook engagement (purple) which peaked a little later.  We now talk more about content marketing than we do about Facebook engagement (at last).

As an aside, the content marketing that brands are doing, doesn’t really correspond to the type of content marketing I envisaged.  I was proposing an approach to content that was about creating a network of information threads within a brand’s relevant digital space, not simply ramming the channels with stuff.  However, I think we will come around to my way of thinking in time – possibly as brands become more conversational, and thus more in tune with what content (information) consumers want, as distinct from the content brands want them to have.

However, Google Trends didn’t really turn up any evidence to suggest that conversation or community might be the next things.  In its (or my) defence, this is probably because we haven’t yet created ‘the word’ for what conversation or community based marketing might be.  Key to the birth of any new thing is christening it with a name.  So I guess we have to look elsewhere for evidence.  Here I would return to the post I wrote a few week ago about Edleman’s Brandshare Report.  Here we see very clear evidence that consumers want to have conversations with brands, albeit conversations that start with the issues consumers want a response to, rather than the issues brands might want to have conversations about.

Content marketing, even when you do it right, is actually very easy.  It doesn’t involve changing the model of marketing or actually involving the consumer too much.  That is why I suggested content would be the first big thing to arrive (once brands had got over their initial obsession with Facebook and Twitter).  Conversation marketing is harder because it involves seeding an element of control, if only in terms of letting the consumer decide what conversations they want to have.  It involves changing the configuration of marketing resources with a shift towards investment in people and processes, rather than agencies and media.  It also involves recognising that you can’t have a conversation with everyone all at once – and thus you only create positive ROI by extracting much higher value from a much more limited ‘reach’ (subject of the e-book I wrote last year).  In fact it involves abandoning the idea of reach as a sensible metric altogether. It also corresponds to what I am calling the concept of ‘Hot Marketing’ – the creation of genuinely valuable (hot) relationships, albeit much fewer of them at any one moment in time than when were creating (cold) relationships with entire audiences.

This additional level of difficulty is the reason I think it is going to be a couple of years before brands really get to the place where they understand how to create value from conversation.  I also think brands will need to get over the current obsession with ‘brandfill’ content strategies before they will have the operational space to move onwards.  I guess this puts the concept of community marketing back to at least five years’ out.  This is a shame, especially since I have spent most of this year banging on about forms of community!  However, effective communities involve creating a much greater level of shared interest and collaboration between brands and consumers than most marketing folk are prepared to countenance.  In fact, we will probably only get to the community phase by reinventing the concept of marketing as we know it.

Looking back at my 2008 piece, I am still pretty happy with its core conclusions.  I would stand by everything I said within it and I think what I predicted is basically panning out – although perhaps not as quickly as I thought it might.  But there again, I am aware that one of the features of any revolution is that one tends to overestimate its impact in the short term, but underestimate its impact in the long term.

 

 

Artificial intelligence: Stephen Hawking is wrong (sort of)

The revered physicist, Stephen Hawking, issued some warnings last week about artificial intelligence.  His analysis follows the lines taken by most techy types, or at least was represented as such by the technology journalists that reported on it.  This story basically predicts the creation of some all-powerful machine that will be smarter than a human, able to replicate itself  and thus able to out-compete humans or relegate us to the status of slaves.  A super-smart version of a human, in fact.  The reason we have such a machine-based vision is because the people who talk about artifical intelligence also like building machines.  They therefore believe that the future of artifical intilligence will be machine-based (Hal from Space Odyssey etc.)

But this is not how artifical intelligence is going to arrive.  In fact it has already arrived.

The selfish algorithm

Forget the technologists’ machine-based vision.  We should be looking to the biologists and geneticists.  The future of artificial intelligence will be built genetically – indeed in the same way we humans are built.  The genetic code for artificial intelligence will be written in algorithms.  Billions upon billions of algorithms, each one of which will be responsible for determining some micro-function of society.  And given that the key feature of algorithms is that they learn and can thus evolve, adapt and react it is quite possible they will start to shape the society they contribute to in a way which will ensure their own continuation – in the same way that genes shape the behaviour of the organism of which they are a part in order to ensure the survival of the genes (rather than the organism).  The selfish algorithm in fact.

This isn’t so much about intelligence – the algorithms won’t necessarily posses intelligence or even come together in a way that might produce an entity we would recognise as being intelligent.  Instead it is more a question of replacing or surplanting human intelligence and decision making and thus control.  Algorithms will replace what it is we used human intelligence to do and human society will be relegated to the status of being a host for algorithms, in the same way in which the human body is really just a host for genes.

This is basically the nightmare scenario and there is not some super all-controlling machine, or ridiculous robot, at the heart of it.  And it is a nightmare that is stealing upon us.   There are already millions of algorithms out there which are starting to shape our world.   The introduction of Big Data and the internet of things is only going to add exponentially to their number.  Within a few years there will be almost nothing which happens that isn’t based upon something an algorithm has determined for us.  And if the algorithms start to take control, we will not be able to see it, in the same way that until recently we have not been able to see the way our genetic code controls our own destiny.  In fact we will probably not be looking for it, because we will be looking instead for the emergence of ‘the machine’.

Professor Mark Bishop has challenged Hawking’s analysis, but this critique is based on the idea that AI plus human will always be better than AI on its own.  This may be true, but  algorithms essentially hollow-out the idea of human intelligence: they replace the human requirement to understand why things are happening in order to understand or control what is happening.  This suggests that the triumph of human plus algorithm over the algorithm on its own might be a phyric victory – at least for humanity as a whole, if not necessarily for the individual humans who believe themselves to be in control of the algorithms.  Who (or what) is controlling whom being the key question.

The only means of control we will have is to make transparent the algorithmic code, in the same way that we have now made transparent our genetic code.  Algorithms behave best in the open, when they operate in the dark they have a trendency to get up to bad things (see high-frequency trading for a good example).  We underestimate the power of algorithms at our peril and we have to build transparency into the model from the start:  build our own social algorithmic genome project as we go along, rather than try and uncover it in retrospect.

2015: The Year of Hot Marketing (you heard it hear first)

Marketing has always been a cold business.  We may not have realised this in the same way that our ancestors in the Ice Age didn’t think it was especially chilly.  As they were huddled round their fires, drapped in layers of woolly mamoth skin, they were not dreaming of laying out on a sunny beach in their fur-lined swimwear.  We only call it the Ice Age because we are looking back at it from the perspective of a warmer world.  We can now see that pretty much eveything our ancestors were doing in the Ice Age revolved around the fact that keeping warm was difficult, but to the folks at the time, this was just business-as-usual.

Marketing is the same.  The rules of marketing were established to deal with a ‘cold’ environment where distributing information (like staying warm) was expensive and difficult.  But because these rules applied to everyone, we didn’t notice them.  Instead, we simply focused on playing the game better.

But marketing (especially consumer brand marketing) is now in trouble.  In fact, I think 2015 is shaping up to be a very tough year for marketing.  The reason for this is that the brand climate is warming up, and brand marketers haven’t got themselves a hat and some sun-screen.  Instead, to continue to stretch an already rather mixed analogy, they are trying (unsuccesfully) to make a fur parasol.

The social digital revolution is melting the problem that marketing was based around.  It is now not a problem defined by the difficulty of distribution, it is a problem defined by the opportunity for connection.  It is not a world defined by relationships with audiences, it is defined by relationships with indivuduals – and relationships between individuals are always going to be ‘warmer’ than relationships with audiences. We may have believed that we could create a warm relationship with a ‘target audience’ but that was only relative.  The best audience-type of relationship can only ever be at the warmer end of a fundamentally cold scale.  It may have seemed like a warm relationship to us at the time, but only in the same way that 1 degree above freezing might have seemed a pretty balmy day to the folks in the Ice Age.

Any strategy or set of tactics designed for a cold world will become increasingly less effective as the world warms up.  This is the problem we see with marketing.  Everything we know about how to ‘do’ marketing still works, it just works less and less effectively as every year passes.  And this is why marketing directors are tearing their hair out and coming under pressure from finance directors and CEOs – pressure which is then translated to their agencies.  It makes no business sense to keep pouring progressively more and more money into something to compensate for the fact that it is delivering less and less.

But – there was a Great Hope.  We could all see that the problem seemed to be coming out of the digital space, so we therefore assumed that the digital space would offer up to us a solution.  The tools, the things, the channels that came out of this space would deliver for us the results that the old tools and channels were failing to do.  Or so we believed.

The reason I think 2015 is going to be the year of reckoning is a dawning recognition that the Great Digital Hope (in all its iterations) – is failing to live up to the promise.  It might be delivering a bit, but it is not delivering enough.  Indeed, in many instances it is turning out to be an even more unproductive environment in which to spend traditional marketing dollars.  For example, we have now realised that ‘organic reach’ in social media is no sort of reach at all.  We can bolt advertising solutions onto this, but this advertising works less effectively than it did when we were doing it in traditional media.  We can become more targeted in our approach, but the more targeted we become, the less receptive people are to being targeted (or less responsive to what we have to target them with).  The metrics we have all been chasing: engagement, followings, ‘likes’ are turning out to be both hard to achieve at any sort of scale, and also pretty worthless if you achieve them.

Of course it is not the digital environment that is failing to deliver, it is simply that the old approaches don’t deliver in this new environment.

In the new world, you don’t deal with audiences, you deal with individuals.  But, you can’t deal with individuals all at once (or else they become an audience again).  So if you can only deal with a small number of people at any one time, the value you have to extract (the heat if you wish) has to be dramatically greater.  And generating sufficient heat will inevitably involve ceding elements of control back to the consumer, because productive relationships have to be balanced.  Brands have not been giving consumers what they really want, they have been giving them what it is economically efficient for them to provide.  But while brands are all playing to the same rules, it can appear as though we are responding to our consumers – when all we are doing is being a tiny bit less-responsive than the next guy.

The logic behind ‘hot marketing’ is pretty compelling, in much the same way that the logic behind global warming is pretty compelling.  It is also relatively easy to start to identify how to create value through the power of connection (rather than distribution).  But, as with global warming, recognition of the problem doesn’t make the solution easy – because it involves surrendering the old certainties and doing things differently.  This isn’t going to happen overnight.  However, the first step is for brands to understand the rules of ‘hot marketing’ as well as recognising how fundamentally cold the previous rules were.

My mission for 2015 is therefore to be an evangelist for Hot Marketing.

 

Don’t blame Facebook: it is simply killing what was always a stupid idea

Let’s be honest.  Using a brand Facebook page to reach your consumer audience was always a stupid idea.  Organic reach, as it is now called, has always been a waste of time.  It hasn’t been Facebook and its actions over time which has made it so.  By finally making Facebook a pay-to-pay venue, Facebook has simply done the decent thing and killed something that should never have been brought to life in the first place.

Now Facebook’s motives for doing this can be questioned.  They say it is to improve the user experience, I say it is to improve the shareholder experience – but that is a subject for a whole new (old) post.

Facebook has form in this respect.  When it introduced Timeline a few years back it killed off the idea that the objective for brands was to try and make your Facebook page look like your website.  Do you remember that time?  We even had respected digital consultancies lauding those brands that had overcome the ‘static format’ of Facebook in order to create ‘brilliant’ Facebook pages.  I guess the logic went like this: here is this thing called Facebook which we don’t really understand.  Here is this thing called a website which we do understand.  Make our Facebook page look like our website and ‘hey prestos’ we can therefore understand Facebook.  Stupid, but none-the-less a lot of digital agencies made a lot of money helping brands do this – so not so stupid from someone’s perspective I guess.

Again, Facebook said it did this to allow users to tell and record their life stories within Facebook.  I say they did that to encourage users to input more data into Facebook – but that is the subject for a whole new (old) post.

Social media is not a space where audiences naturally exist.  Creating audiences in social media is always going to be a fruitless task.  Engagement rates with brand Facebook pages have always been miniscule, expressed as a percentage of your total ‘target’ audience (this dates back way before Facebook started making it difficult to create ‘engagement’ with ‘organic’ posts).  Social media is not a medium of distribution, it is a medium of connection.  The name of the game is not channel and message / reach and frequency – it is about behaviour identification and response.  The world of social media is a world of the individual, not a world of the audience.  Traditional media is a high reach but low engagement space, social media is a low reach but high engagement space.  You can only use social media effectively to deal with very small numbers of people at any one time, but the value you can (must) create from these contacts therefore has to an order of magnitude greater than that when all you were doing was pushing content at them.  This has been the subject for a whole old blog.

So don’t blame Facebook for finally killing your organic Facebook engagement content brandfill nonsense strategy.  Facebook is simply doing you a favour.

Content marketing: reaching for the stars (but reach is yesterday’s game)

16245948997364302024I am content marketing’s biggest fan.  I am content marketing’s biggest sceptic.

As a fan …

In May 2011 I gave a presentation to finance directors from major communications agency groups for the EACA.  It was about how agencies could survive in the world of social media.  I concluded the presentation with six (slightly tongue in cheek) recommendations, one of which was “hire a bunch of journalists and get them to do outsourced content creation and editorial management”.*

Before that, my mantra was (and remains) that conversation, content and community are the three platforms of any social media strategy.

Looking back at my presentations from seven years ago I see I was encouraging brands to drive a network of content threads into their relevant digital space with the exhortation to “get it a link, get it out there, get it working for you”.

One would therefore have thought that on reading this cover story about the rise of content marketing from the Columbia Journalism Review, I would therefore feel vindicated.  (Incidentally, I was sent this piece by Stan Magniant, fellow social media traveller from way back, who now heads up Coca Cola’s digital and content operation for Northern Europe).  But I don’t feel vindicated, I feel disappointed. This isn’t the sort of content I was talking about.

But as a sceptic…

First there is the whole issue of ‘independent’ journalism being replaced by ‘sponsored’ journalism.  But I am not too worried about this because journalism was always sponsored and all that is happening is that the sponsor is becoming more apparent.

My main issue is with the concept (and value) of reaching consumers in comparison with the value of being reached by consumers.

The justification, and measurement, for most of these mega brand content operations is primarily reach.  As the CJR article highlights, some of the content that brands are producing is matching (sometimes exceeding) the reach achieved by traditional media channels.  But there are two issues here.  One is consistency.  A traditional media channel, generally speaking, guaranties a particular level of reach, whereas brand content is much more hit and miss.  But the bigger issue is that reaching someone is the lesser part of the game.  What really matters is what happens when you reach someone (or what happens when they reach you).

In ‘the old days’ we tended not to think about this too much because we knew we were putting messages in the channel that had been specifically designed to trigger a valuable response (i.e. advertising).  If we were reaching people, we were therefore creating value: reach was therefore a proxy for value creation.  Or alternatively, our PR messages had the benefit of carrying with them third-party endorsement conferred on them by the channels which adopted them.  But brand channels don’t carry this endorsement and their availability means brands can easily fill them up with huge amounts of stuff, in the quest to ratchet-up the reach score.  When it is easy and cheap to pour vast amounts of content into a space, it is not difficult to accumulate high aggregated levels of reach.  But should that not indicate to us that reach is becoming a devalued currency?  Reach is a function of distribution, and the social media revolution is all about the separation of information (content) from distribution.  Being a channel, being the distributor, creating reach, carries less and less value (as the traditional media is discovering).   Reach, in and of itself, is yesterday’s game.

Chasing reach is simply a new variant of the (now belatedly discredited) exercise of manufacturing Facebook likes and Twitter followers.  You may have reached a whole lot of people, but so what?  What does this actually mean for what these people think about your brand and how does this translate into improved sales or reputation scores?  How much credit is the brand actually getting for being seen as the supplier of this content?  Is supplying this sort of content what your consumers are saying they want you to do?

I keep coming back to the recent Edelman Brandshare report, which is a crystal clear manifesto for brands, presented to them by consumers.  There is no ambiguity here about what it is consumers want from brands.  In terms of content, they want answers to their questions.  And they also want brands to demonstrate that they stand for something in addition to the generation of profit.

It seems to me that brands are at a crossroads.  They can decide to jump on the content bandwagon and pour huge amounts of stuff into the ever-expanding content universe, collecting their ‘reach points’ as they go in the belief that they can redeem these for something worth having.  Or they can decide to give consumers what consumers are telling them they want – which is a content strategy which matches brand answers to consumers’ questions in real-time.  And a marketing strategy that is designed to convince consumers that they are a brand worth reaching.

 

* The other five were: fire all creatives over 30 and put a £45k salary cap on the creative department, fire all your planners and hire social data analysts (and sell social data analysis as a product), sell your independently branded digital and media businesses (while you can still get a premium price) but pull the function in-house so it becomes a facilitation function not a client facing specialism, buy a change management / innovation agency and get it to develop a brand socialisation product, recruit some “Baby Bells” (i.e. people like Tim (Lord) Bell who can act as CEO counsellors).  So, a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I would still stand by them.

 

US Mid-terms: the role of social media in the Republican’s success

I would not consider myself to be a fan of the Republican Party, but I am a fan of this comment by Lori Brownlee, social media director for the Republican National Committee (RNC).  Commenting on the success of their recent campaign she said “rather than simply using Twitter and Facebook as a broadcast tool,  we centered our plan around using social as a strategic listening and data collection tool.”

Check out this article just published in AdAge for more details.  There is so much that brands could learn from this approach – especially the ability to understand, in real-time, what people are talking about or asking.  Social media is a real-time game and it requires that a brand design real-time processes to play it.  This is not a game where you sit down and plan your content in advance – you plan your process in advance and this will then tell you what content you need to have out there right now.  A content strategy needs to be seen as a process that matches brand answers to consumers’ questions in real-time.

Neither do you plan your influencers in advance, people become influential because what it is they are doing or saying right now, and you therefore need to identify them in real-time.  Someone who is influential today, is not necessarily going to be influential tomorrow.

And key to this process are tools and people.  Listening and analysis tools (such as Sprinklr, mentioned in the article), but then places (such as newsrooms or command centres) where the tools can be plugged into people who can then process and share the information and make decisions about what to do.  Rather than spending time and money simply filling up channels with ‘brandfill’, brand should spend time and money creating (and then staffing and managing) command centres.

Edelman Brandshare2014: a manifesto for brand survival, but will brands take heed?

Edelman has just released its latest Brandshare report. It has the rather uninspiring title ‘How brands and people create a value exchange’. It is, however, a very important report: one that every single marketing director should not just read – but read and actually think about – because it presents credible evidence that explains how the relationship between brands and their customers or consumers is changing. In effect, it lays out a framework for what it will mean to be a brand in the future – even if the report itself doesn’t quite go so far as making this claim.  Perhaps more starkly, it makes it very clear that what it is that built brands in the past will not be relevant in building brands in the future.

 

The report starts with the assertion that “people’s needs have changed due to an increasingly complex and interconnected world.” Fair enough – but I think a better way of phrasing this is to say that the world has changed and this is creating new opportunities (indeed requirements) for brands to better meet people’s needs: a fact which ‘the people’ are now starting to realise. The reason I think it is better to phrase the issue this way is that believing that ‘the people’ are changing can often result in an attitude which seeks to blame or resent ‘our consumers’ for spoiling the brand party. Not the right mind-set. People have not really changed (they rarely do), what has changed is the world around them – and it is this that brands need to understand and react to. The people are not the problem here. Anyway – a small quibble.

Edelman then introduce the concept of ‘the value exchange’ and demonstrate that consumers now feel they are not getting sufficient value in this exchange, which I took as ‘strategy talk’ for saying that the relationship between brands and consumers is breaking down. The report identifies three reasons for this:

  • Brands are not really giving consumers what they now want (“there is little value for the consumer in the current value exchange.”)
  • Consumers want actions, not words (“emotional and rational needs are merging”)
  • Being seen as a good corporate citizen is becoming more important (“meeting societal needs delivers real business value”)

More specifically, consumers want brands to:

  • Respond quickly to concerns and complaints
  • Provide ways to ask questions and give opinions
  • Communicate openly about how products are sourced and made
  • Invite people to be a part of the development and refinement process
  • Have a clear mission and purpose at the brand core
  • Use its resources to drive change in the world
  • Let people know the company’s mission and value for the future
  • Take a stand on issues consumers care about.

These points clearly fall into two distinct groups – the first four relate to process and delivery and they are very functional. No BS here about wanting to be ‘surprised and delighted’ by brands or wanting ‘rewarding brand experiences’ – just very clear instructions that are essentially all rooted in listening and responding.   The remaining four cover the more emotional territory – but are equally explicit. They are an exhortation for a brand to demonstrate that it stands for something other than simply the creation of profit.

I think these eight points represent a crystal clear manifesto for what a brand needs to deliver against if it still wishes to be a brand in the future. However, the interesting thing is the extent to which conventional marketing activity  delivers against almost none of these points. For example, customer service has been seen as an issue that is peripheral to marketing and indeed peripheral to corporate activity in general: a cost that should be minimised by outsourcing it to India. Likewise what Edelman identifies as ‘societal needs’ have been marginalised in CSR or CRM activities that are similarly peripheral to marketing and corporate activity rather than being something that is seen as being at the core of the brand.

Perhaps it is worth restating this conclusion more bluntly: what it is that built brands in the past will have almost no relevance to what will build brands in the future. Edelman has not been as explicit in stating things this way – but this the inescapable conclusion of what the evidence collected actually demonstrates.

Of course, brands have paid lip service to these issues to date. Customer service has long been talked about as being an important component of social digital strategies, but very few brands have actually done much about it. It is incredibly easy to address all of the four functional needs through the creation and management of online customer communities – but why do so few brands have them? Most brands still make it incredibly difficult for a consumer to do any of the things the report shows that they want to do (ask questions, get responses, provide opinion, access relevant information). Why? Dell showed the way with its Idea Storm site seven or eight years ago. Why have so few followed its lead?

The ‘strategy du jour’ these days is all about content marketing. But rarely is this content actually aligned against responding to complaints, providing answers to questions, or giving transparency about how products are made and sourced. Rather we have organisations like Coca Cola (my current bête noir in the content space), telling people how to make cups out of crayons. Why?

I guess the answer to this question goes back to the conclusion that what built brands in the past won’t build brands in the future. Perhaps it also helps explain why Edelman stepped back from putting this conclusion centre-stage. What built brands in the past represents a huge set of vested interests that define the world of brands and agencies as we know it. While it may be acceptable to recognise the problem, it is much harder to embrace a solution that addresses this problem. Instead it is far more seductive to believe that the solution is content, or ‘reaching out to consumers’ (rather than responding to them), or creating ‘engagement’ (whatever that means) because this is a solution that doesn’t upset the brand and agency apple cart.

Personally, I take great heart from this report. It gives me the hard evidence to support what I have been saying for a long time: namely that social media strategies need to be based on listening and response, that content strategies should be seen as a process that matches brand answers to consumer question in real time rather than strategies designed to fill-up the channels with brandfill, that the social digital space is a medium of connection not a medium of distribution, that communities will become the new media, that marketing people should forget trying to target consumers and recognise that they need to get consumers to target their brand.

As a brand owner I guess you can take this report in either one of two ways. You could brush it aside as just another one of ‘those’ reports by a consultancy telling me I need to change my business. Or you could see it as a message from your consumers, telling you what you need to do if you still want to be relevant to them in the future.

Advertising is just a big, pink, inflatable, pointy finger

2014-10-10 10.16.29I spent two days last week on the Slovenian ‘Riveriera’ attending the Golden Drums International Advertising Festival (basically Cannes, but for eastern Europe). Slovenia has almost no coastline and therefore appears to have turned all of it into the edge of one gigantic Adriatic swimming pool, complete with chrome steps and handrails, interspersed with a couple of pretty fishing villages. You can almost hear the tourism pitch idea now, “hey, this is not much as a coastline, but as a swimming pool it could be pretty impressive!”

These events are always interesting to see how the practice of creativity and the practice of marketing are currently entwined. Two things stood out for me. First was the familiar problem of category confusion. It was impossible to put most of the best ideas in any one category. For example, there was an idea for the Belgrade State Theatre (I think) which placed actors as drivers in taxis wired up with hidden cameras. In true taxi driver style, the drivers began a tale of lament about their lives, drawing the passengers into the narrative. At the end of the journey they then reveal their true identity and that the story was actually the plot of a Shakespeare play, currently playing at their theatre. Very funny to watch (in the show reel) especially once you were wise to the format and were trying to identify the play.

But the problem was that this ‘event’ was forced into the category of film (because it was filmed) and sat there alongside conventional 30 second ads. However, the event wasn’t in any way a conventional ad. In fact it became compromised by the requirement to render it into the restrictive frame required to create something that can sit in paid-for TV space and that is seen a number of times by a ‘target consumer’. It worked as a show reel (but consumers never get to see the show reel) or it worked if you could get consumers out of expensive advertising space, to a space (i.e. YouTube) where you had sufficient time to tell, or even interact with, the stories properly.

This leads to the second problem – one of scale. Most of the best ideas were small scale ideas, or rather ideas which were not naturally adapted to working at large scale. This was either because, as in the case of the theatre example, it was difficult to fit them into a distribution medium which would give them scale (i.e. a TV ad) or because their strength was in their relevance – often local or cultural relevance – which by definition has limited scale. The most decorated agency on the night was an independent Russian agency called Voskhod. Their stand-out ideas (i.e. the ones I can remember) were all small scale. Actually, they were all PR ideas. For example, they created a poster for a local steak restaurant that featured a picture of a raw steak. One night they ‘grilled’ the steak by actually burning strips into the poster. Result – the restaurant was booked out the following week. And they did a campaign which linked an up-and-coming band with a single fashion shop. Very geographically and culturally specific stuff. And this stuff is the anti-thesis of the generic, international campaign that forms the bread and butter of most big brands and major agency networks. An impending problem there me-thinks.

Of course all of these ideas were surrounded by clouds of ‘social media’ – i.e everything was YouTubed, Facebooked, Tweeted etc. etc. In fact, these ideas lived much more comfortably in social media than in traditional media. But social media isn’t a channel. Just because something is ‘in’ social media, doesn’t mean it actually goes anywhere – unless you then invest significant time and effort driving people to that social space. Which perhaps provides a clue to the future of advertising and creativity. As I have posted previously, one of the principal consequences for brands and creativity of the social media revolution (which is the separation of information from distribution) is the separation of creativity from the means of delivery. Ideas have to sit above any particular delivery channel. Ideas have to define the channels, rather than be defined by the channels.

The channels themselves only have relevance in-so-far as they have a specific purpose and quite possibly the purpose of advertising in the future is not to actually carry, or even illustrate, brand ideas, but simply to be the big, pink, inflatable finger which points at brand ideas. Advertising is a distribution medium, so that is what it should focus on – bringing attention (scale) to an idea which lives in a (social) space which doesn’t naturally have scale attached to it. And these ideas will in most instance have a degree of specific geographical or cultural relevance that, even with advertising attached, will limit their ability to achieve international scale. It also points to what I have previously talked about, which is that the challenge for brands is to convene an audience, not to target it.

The overall winning idea came from Romania, and it involved connecting a young, relatively photogenic shepherd to the internet via a smart phone, thus allowing him to share his life with the world (or at least that bit of the world which might be interested). Quite a lot of people (in Romania) were interested as it turned out and said shepherd became an ‘internet celebrity’. I think this says more about Romania than it does for the practice of marketing generally. One thing is for sure, we are not going to be handing out awards for this type of thing in five years’ time (except perhaps in Turkmenistan). The brand was Vodafone. Although it could have been almost any mobile network, technology or sheep-related brand.

images_iman_highres__mg_7473Or it could have been Coca-Cola, since pretty much anything can be a ‘Coca-Cola story’ in these halcyon days where the focus has shifted from creative excellence to content excellence.  This, incidentally is what I was there to talk about – our obsession with content marketing, otherwise known as brandfill.  Here I am, in action.  I think I will use this as my new social profile pic, since it pretty much sums up my professional life – waving my hands around telling people what not to do.

There was also one other stand-out. What is it with creatives, beards and jackets which are at least one size too small?

The non-news that is corporate news

FireShot Screen Capture #184 - 'The invasion of corporate news - FT_com' - www_ft_com_cms_s_2_937b06c2-3ebd-11e4-adef-00144feabdc0_html#axzz3EJLHfkd1Last week, the Financial Times ran a piece written by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson on the rise of corporate news and brand journalism. In fact, there seems to have been a rash of interest in this subject of late – as highlighted here in GigaOm. As one would expect of the FT, it was a very comprehensive and considered piece, but it was a perfect illustration of an inability to produce a truly useful analysis. The article began thus:

A population of 100,000 is no longer a guarantee that a city like Richmond, California can sustain a thriving daily paper. Readers have drifted from the tactile pleasures of print to the digital gratification of their smartphone screens…

Tactile pleasures of print versus the digital gratification of smartphones. Has Andrew ever tried to experience the tactile pleasures of reading the FT on a crowded rush-hour tube train I wonder? It is certainly a different interpretation of tactile – one that is in danger of straying into the pugilistic. Far easier to access the same information on a small device you can hold in one hand. That’s not gratification, it is convenience.

But in starting his article this way, Andrew has already compromised its usefulness by tainting it with prejudice and support of vested interest. Change, in an off itself, is never either good or bad. There will be good bits and bad bits. Our ability to ensure that it becomes change for the better will depend on our ability to recognise this and distinguish between the two. However, it is difficult to do this when the debate becomes a competition between those with a vested interested in clinging onto the ways things used to be, versus those smelling a future opportunity.

Andrew’s article makes some good points, but it employs the familiar tricks of subtle distortion: taking extreme cases and nudging them into the norm, conflating issues that are best understood separately, establishing (tactile) angels and (gratificationary) demons, warning of either insidious creeping dangers, or else creating pivots of crisis. But he is a good journalist and these are just tricks of the trade. It is perhaps more informative to consider why he finds it necessary to deploy these tricks with such abundance. Continue reading