Marketing: it’s just a joke

Following the publication of my Stop and Think (think) piece I have been having an email conversation with Stan Magniant. Stan is Digital & Social Communications Director, Western Europe, for The Coca-Cola Company – i.e. a player. I used to work with him at Publicis when we were both bright-eyed early adopters of the whole social digital thing.

One of the issues we got into was the question of what constitutes an audience and specifically what size an audience is. As Stan put it “ to marketers, an audience is synonymous with scale: as big a group of people as I can expose to my brand, synchronously or asynchronously. I’m not clear, in your argument, whether you invite brands to explore new creative ways to gather large audiences (through paid or earned tactics? Likely both), or whether it’s all about aggregated niche audiences (a more “long tail” approach).”

This was a good question and in trying to answer it I stumbled into the analogy of joke telling. The point I was trying to make is that an audience is not defined by size, it is defined by behaviour and/or context. The reason that, to marketers, it has become synonymous with scale is a question of conventional mass-marketing economics.

If you are telling a joke, the person or people you are telling it to is an audience. This is something that implicit in the nature (behaviour) of joke telling. What is also implicit is that a joke, even if told to only one other person, is based on an element of universal relevance. A joke that only one person finds funny isn’t really a joke, even if you are telling it to the person who is meant to find it funny.

So, the audience for a joke can be one person, or millions of people. However, when it comes to deciding the optimum size of the audience, this is down to the money. If you are a stand-up comedian who has invested time and effort in developing a set, you need to get as many as people as possible into your audience. Brands are like stand-up comedians. Their material (campaigns) is time consuming and expensive to produce – which is why a brands definition of an audience has become synonymous with scale.

The joke analogy also helps explain why the concept of aggregated niche audiences doesn’t work. As a stand-up comedian you wouldn’t tell a series of five jokes, each of which would appeal to only 20 percent of the audience. The only way this would work is if you first dis-aggregated (segmented) the audience into those five groups and put each into a separate room – so that when you told the joke 100 percent of the people in each group would find it funny. An audience of aggregated niches may look like an audience in terms of size, but it doesn’t behave like an audience in terms of how you make it laugh.

As a brand you can have an audience of one, but not if you then try to create a joke that only that one person will find funny – which is essence is what most ‘mass personalisation’ strategies try to do (one reason I view these with scepticism). Mass (joke telling) is important, personalisation is important – but mass personalisation could be one of those things Seth Godin has called a ‘meatball sundae (ice cream)’.

But to be the thing we call a brand, you need to make people laugh. Which is why preserving the concept of an audience remains critical. Most social media campaigns (and many digital strategies) are the equivalent of a stand-up comedian telling their jokes to people one person at a time – i.e. a waste of time.

Anyway – a brand manager, an advertising executive and a consumer walked into a bar …

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