A couple of weeks back I got the opportunity to attend the awards ceremony for the EACA Euro Effies. These are essentially advertising awards (or more precisely awards for advertising agencies) that are not judged by creatives for their creativity, but judged according to how effective they are in meeting the clients’ business objectives. (Should there actually be any other types of awards I ask?). The interesting thing was how little actual advertising featured in many of the winning entries. It reminded me of the sage words of Lou Capozzi , former boss of the MS&L PR network, who – on looking at the changing marcoms landscape – declared “it is all just become PR with zeros added to the budget.”
Even those winners that were more ad-focused had submissions that were surrounded by a blizzard of ‘social media engagement’ and some of the more memorable appeared to be almost entirely social media-based, with no actual ad either produced or deemed worthy of featuring in the case study presentation of ‘the work’. Examples here included a campaign for Mercedes-Benz about an invisible car, a stunt recreation of Felix Baumgartner’s famous Red Bull jump in Lego and a campaign to get people to visit Iceland in the winter based around an invitation to visit ordinary Icelanders in the homes.
I found all of this quite confronting, not least because I spend all my time telling people to forget the idea of using social media to reach audiences – pumping out lots of content – yet here were examples of just that, which were winning awards for effectiveness.
I guess there were a couple of issues here though. First, in most instances the social media ‘coverage’ was just a metric of success – or certainly should have been seen that way. If you do something interesting, your social media needle will twitch as a result (or even go off the scale). The problem starts if rather than seeing your social media engagement as a by-product of a good idea, or something that you will use to measure the success of an idea, you look to create good ideas in order to generate social media engagement: creating social engagement thus becoming the objective, rather than the measure of success. This may seem like exactly the same thing – but it is not and here is why.
My former life was in a PR agency. The biggest problem we had was not so much coming up with good ideas, it was getting those ideas in front of enough people to make them worth doing. This was a problem the advertising folk never had, because the client was always prepared to buy the channel necessary to put the ad idea in front of lots of people. The advertising problem was that because this channel was very expensive, their idea had to pack a punch and also to fit into 15 or 30 seconds. This is rare skill and it is why creative directors earned a lot of money.
But then this thing called social media came along – which looked like a free channel to reach consumers. This seemed like a win:win situation because it allowed creative directors to think beyond 30 seconds (their content could become liberated from a restrictive means of distribution) and it also gave PR types access to a form of media that didn’t have a parsimonious gate-keeper you had to take out to lunch. I guess this is why these two disciplines have sort of fallen into a mutual embrace, creating the situation Lou Cappozzi thus described.
But here is the problem: social media gives you a place, or a channel, you can put your ideas into – but (to return to the original PR dilemma) does this channel reach enough people to make it worth doing? In some instances it does reach a lot of people and this is when the idea goes viral. Quite possibly these Effie winners represented the examples of when this actually happens (on the Effies website, the videos are called ‘web films / viral’ almost as though these are interchangeable terms). For sure the Mercedes-Benz invisible car achieved viral status, as did the Lego Red Bull rip-off. But there are a couple of problems with virals.
The first problem with the viral is that it represents the tiny tip of success that, by necessity, sits upon a giant iceberg of failure. This failure, of course, sits below the water and thus we never see it. By definition, social media failure is invisible (except in the instances where the activity is so ill-conceived it creates a viral backlash). In advertising, on the other hand, you pay good money to make failure horribly visible – another reason why creative directors are paid a lot of money. The reason that viral success will always sit on an iceberg of failure is that it will never be possible to lift anything more that the tip above the water-line of visibility. Suppose it was as easy to make a viral as it was to make an ad – then the world would be full of virals: a situation that could actually never occur, unless we all gave up our jobs and sat around all day watching YouTube. Virals (like all traditional media content) are also imprisoned within a restrictive means of distribution, it is just that this is not defined by the expense and scarcity of the channel, it is defined by the boundaries of sanity. There are only so many cute cat videos that even a lover of cute cans can stand. So there will always be viral successes, but the chance of creating one is probably in the region of 1 in 1,000 – and it is not a sensible business strategy to place time and money on a 1,000 to one bet.
The other problem with virals is their relevance to the brands that sit behind them. To make something go viral a brand often has to do something that is quite distant to what it is the brand actually does or stands for. It therefore becomes mostly a badging exercise. “Here is a really cool thing, brought to you by brand x.” It is a bit of sponsored content, if you like. I must confess, I saw the Mercedes-Benz video because someone ‘shared’ it with me. I looked at it and though “hey, someone has made a car invisible – that’s cool.” But by the next day, I struggled to remember the name of the car manufacturer that did this, or even that it was a car manufacturer rather than, say, a camera or LED screen manufacturer. The Red Bull rip-off was actually for the Vienna Toy Fair – I am sure very few people who viewed and shared the clip would have logged that one.
I think what these awards showed is that you can use social media to distribute a great idea – but this happens very rarely and it is the strength of the idea that creates this, rather than something that is intrinsic to social media itself. Also, if you have a great idea that you want a lot of people to see – it will probably be a good idea to put conventional, high reach, traditional media into the mix somewhere. And also, you need to be very careful in assuming that what looks like impressive social media statistics can be used to validate the success of an idea. One million YouTube hits is impressive in the context of YouTube, but it is pretty poor in the context of traditional media reach. OK, it is ‘free’ but doing something that is ineffective just because it is cheap is rarely a good idea.
Now, in the Mercedes example, that brand managed to create nearly 19 million ‘impressions’ with a media value of €2.2 million, all for a production cost of €130,000. Impressive stuff. But could it be that we are actually handing Mercedes-Benz an award because they have managed to achieve that rare thing – a social media campaign that has managed to do that which we can achieve with relative ease and frequency with traditional media? It is hard to create audiences in social media, but does that mean we should hand awards to organisations that manage to do this? Is the Mercedes-Benz example really just the marketing equivalent of the You’ve Been Framed video – something that is fun to watch, but not something you should try at home?
In my opinion, the usage of social media, within a conventional marketing campaign, should really be focused around understanding how people are reacting to a campaign, or allowing them a greater level of interaction with the campaign, or even using a campaign as an opportunity to recruit a very small number of people into establishing a highly valuable relationship with a brand (the superfan idea). This is value that you can create that is reliably dependable and therefore strategically sensible. It is not spectacular, but it is something you can try at home.
As an addendum – this muddle that the viral creates between high reach (traditional) and low reach (social) media is also having an adverse effect on advertising itself. It is giving rise to the ‘faux-viral ad’ – i.e. an ad that has been designed to look like a shared content, or a video shot by a non-professional, featuring supposedly ‘real’ people reacting ‘authentically’ in order to try and borrow credibility from the social space. Funnily enough – look at the Mercedes clip and I suspect that the reaction shots are a mixture (shall we call them a mash-up to sound more authentic?) between genuine people and staged ‘wow’ shots. I am not a fan of this approach, either because it is not genuinely authentic or because it takes you to the place where you are just producing sponsored advertising – and brands can sponsor many things, but I don’t believe their own ads should be one of them.