Antony Mayfield of Brilliant Noise recently drew my attention to this piece by Peter Abraham of Econsultancy. Antony is one of the relatively few people in my Thinkers Twitter list because he is one of the relatively few thinkers in the social digital space that are any good. However, in this instance I have to disagree with his thinking because Antony called this a great piece.
I actually think it is just another piece of blah blah from a marketing or digital agency that is struggling to maintain relevance in a space they either do not really understand or do not want to understand. Harsh words indeed – but hear me out.
The set-up for the piece is that “Marketers are seeing their organisations undergoing massive transformation due to the impact of ‘digital’. Marketers and brand guardians no longer have to find a reason to do something digital”.
This is the first misplaced assumption. Digital has been around for years, the transformation is being caused by the impact of social digital – and social digital is totally different to digital, even if it uses digital tools. The big change in the social digital space is that it is no longer defined by audiences, it is defined by individuals. Everything that we have come to understand about marketing (including digital) to date has been shaped by the requirement to talk to audiences, because audience-based channels were the only ones available. The social digital space is defined by individuals or small groups – and you don’t treat individuals as just very small audiences.
The second misplaced assumption is that this new space is characterised by confusion. As Peter puts it, “As the ‘internet of things’ progresses, connections with the consumer are further dissipated; more devices, more touch points, more responses, more data, more interactions and engagements. All of this feels like less control for the marketer and business”. He also references a colleague in the US who talks about the need to move clients from a thousand points of confusion to a single platform. Such talk reminds me of the sage words of @BigDataBorat when he tweeted “Consult company Deloitte say #bigdata is last frontier, anyone hire Deloitte get lost on frontier with only Deloitte have map”. Substitute #bigdata with #socialmedia and Deloitte for eConsultancy (or any other digital consultancy) and you get the picture (or should that be the map).
This new space is ruthlessly simple, certainly when one looks at it from the perspective of the important people within this space – not the agencies or brands, but consumers or citizens. As I have written about previously, if you continue to define the social digital space as a channel and message space, it will look confusing. Because the numbers of available channels / tools have exploded, as has the potential for messages / content, what was once simple has now become complex – so the thinking goes. But the social digital space is not a channel and message challenge, it is a behaviour identification and response challenge and the numbers of behaviours you have to identify and respond to are very small. In essence consumers and citizens are very clear about what they want brands or institutions to do in this space – it is to listen to them, answer their questions and respond to their requests. End of story.
Which brings me to the third misplaced assumption – the understanding of consumers’ appetite for this thing called engagement. Peter puts it thus, “This is a change defined by consumer appetite for engagement, with each other as well as with brands and businesses, in ways that suit their needs at that very moment”. Now I will give Peter a break here, because at least he recognises that this engagement can be with each other, as well as with brands, and he recognises the importance of real time. But the reality about engagement is that this is not some sort of balanced scenario, where consumers will engage with each other as well as with brands: the vast majority of engagement out there is between consumers or citizens: engagement with brands constitutes but a tiny fraction of the space. And what people want this engagement to consist of is for brands to be listening to them and responding to their requests or complaints. They don’t want content or any of the audience-based marketing stuff that brands and their agencies are pushing at them. And it is not a case of them not wanting this stuff at all, it is a case of them not wanting this stuff within the social digital space, the world of the individual. When consumers are in the world of the audience they are happy to receive content, but they don’t want it when they are in the world of the individual. Go to a Coldplay concert and you are happy to watch a performance, but go to a concert and find you are the only person in the audience and it wouldn’t work. Nor would you want the band to sing, you would want them to talk to you.
The harsh reality for agencies in the social digital space is that their role is highly restricted. As Amanda Wheeler of Starbucks has said, in this space you cannot outsource your voice. Everything that Peter is saying about how agencies need to respond is simply a variant of “do what you have always done, but try and do it a bit better”. Econsultancy’s Codes for Growth is little different from a standard list that I have heard variants of time and time again in my 20 years in agencies. At one level this isn’t a problem, because the audience space is not going to go away – and it is a big mistake for agencies and their clients to believe they are shifting from one world to another: they are not. The challenge is how to be in two spaces at the same time – because this is what consumers are doing.
There are, however, two aspects where I would agree with eConsultancy. First within their Codes for Growth they talk about finding truth in data. You may not be able to outsource your voice but you can outsource your ears – and these can be both algorithmic ears and human analytical ears. There is a huge opportunity here, although algorithmic listening is an area fraught with reputational danger. But, as Peter acknowledges, this is an area where competitive advantage lies with conventional management consultancies, the creative and content based skills of marketing agencies don’t cut much ice.
The second area where I agree is with the focus on people and process. Successful social media strategies are business process strategies, not communication or marketing based strategies. Businesses can use social media to make their operations more efficient – not just simply their marketing operations. But again the problem here is that management consultancies will always have the upper hand.
Top line: marketing services agencies have a business model developed to work in the world of the audience. You can’t drag business models from this space over the digital divide into the world of the individual. The newspaper, music and even the financial services businesses are proving this point on a daily basis. You can try and tweak them a bit, but this is largely a delusional exercise. Agencies therefore have an interest in keeping their clients in a state of delusion (or confusion), but that is a strategy with a use-by date. What they should do is stick to the knitting – recognise that they are all about audiences and remind their clients that the audience is still out there waiting for the band to play. Someone needs to go and talk to people like Coca-Cola who are laying down a challenge to their agencies to move from creative excellence to content excellence. Sacrificing quality for quantity is another way of putting this – a disastrous approach, in my opinion. Especially as it is a quantity of something that no-one actually wants.
Anyway – more in a similar vein in this article on the Huffington Post and also in my book – Social media and the Three Per Cent Rule: how to succeed by not talking to 97 per cent of your audience.