“Toad sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road, his legs stretched out before him, and stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor-car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured ‘Poop-poop!’”
(‘The Wind in the Willows’, Kenneth Grahame)
A vital attribute for a marketer is to be open-minded, receptive to new ideas and ways of looking at things. The downside is a tendency to become – often temporarily – obsessed with the latest shiny new-new thing. Whilst this has always been a potential problem in marketing, due to the huge array of new tools and channels that have become available in recent years, it seems to have become an endemic issue. It is often reinforced by an unfortunate herd mentality, where there is an unquestioning tendency to use the same media as everyone else irrespective of much (or any) assessment of appropriateness or effectiveness.
A related issue is a growing tendency for marketers to outsource more of the strategic thinking to external agencies. This is partly a result of the sheer complexity of the communication channels available these days, and thus the difficulties in making choices. It is often also the result of an insufficient level of strategic marketing thinking within the marketing function, reinforced by a complete lack of understanding as to what marketing is really about in higher levels of client-side management.
The problem seems to be particularly acute with social media. Its arrival has heralded a very powerful means by which organizations can fulfil a range of important tasks far more effectively than was previously the case, in particular its personalisation potential. It is also potentially an effective channel for two-way engagement with a range of stakeholder groups, including – critically – customers. This, in turn, can help to build relationships and influence opinions, and enable a company to deal swiftly with customer service issues. It can also be a vital listening device (and help forewarn of potential crisis management issues) and a useful source of intelligence.
As a brand-building or sales medium results are rather more mixed: much depends upon the product or service category and the audience that is being engaged. An audience of computer gamers is likely to be highly responsive; an attempt to engage a large number of toilet cleaner users rather less successful. In any case, it is crucial to recognise the vital fact that the audience secured via a social media channel is often unrepresentative of the total market segment being targeted by the brand overall. Additionally, the content being created to fill these channels is growing exponentially, yet audiences will increasingly have less and less time available to consume each new piece. The commercial value to be derived from a great deal of social media activity is very much in doubt, with valid ROI metrics (i.e. that can demonstrate impact on brand equity and/or sales versus other media) frequently absent.
There are many significant issues surrounding social media’s effectiveness. Much still has to be discovered about the longer-term impact of exposure to social media content compared to more traditional offline forms of communication – if we are comparing apples and pears we need to recognise that fact and find a satisfactory means of resolving the common measurement dilemma. We seem to know too little about the different ways in which information is absorbed through different media, about what ‘engagement’ really means (and how to measure it satisfactorily), and how a snatched few seconds of an intrusive social media ad compares, for example, to an engaging 30-second TV ad, a full-page print ad or a cross-track tube ad contemplated whilst waiting for a train.
It should not need stating that a critical skill – perhaps THE critical skill – for a marketer is to be able to understand and empathise with groups of customers, and other stakeholder groups, very different from themselves. It’s what should immediately mark out the marketer’s perspective in an organization from those of her/his colleagues, who will often struggle to grasp the different world of these customers from their own ego-driven world view. Yet, pertinently, in an article late last year in ‘Marketing Week’, senior industry executives felt it necessary to make statements of what should be obvious, but increasingly appears not to be:
“Because they tend to be younger than the average person and have a greater awareness of the different forms of media, advertisers are not representative of the wider population and therefore should not base marketing decisions solely on their experiences.”
“Advertisers should fully understand the audience in order to ensure they reduce the amount of money being wasted on channels their audiences are not actually watching.”
I suspect that in years to come we will wonder how, like Toad, marketers became so mesmerised by the siren call of social media that it came to take up such a large share of marketing budgets, even where its appropriateness was very dubious. For some brands, and their managers, it is a wonderful and highly relevant tool, for others a useful ingredient in the mix, and for still others a blind alley. What is so often lacking is the strategic insight to be able to distinguish one from another, and – where social media use is appropriate – which actual channels to deploy.
Marketing plans should be led by the strategy, not by the tools currently fashionable.
Further discussion of this topic is welcomed.
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