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FutureNow Article
Friday, May. 30, 2008

How to Avoid Marketing to Yourself

By Robert Gorell
May 30th, 2008

You were the Time magazine person of the yearWhat ever happened to “You”?

You were on a roll. Just two years ago, You were Time magazine’s person of the year. When Web 2.0 changed everything, You were there. You did it. You turned the Web into the “interactive” medium we always knew it could be.

You changed the rules. You took control.

So what happened? Lately, it seems that marketing and advertising executives are either blind optimists or furrow-browed skeptics about social media marketing. Are we — the marketers, the bloggers, the people who read and post comments on blogs and message boards, the 2.0 digerati — overestimating our audience’s desire to interact?

In a Copyblogger guest post, Hoffman/Lewis advertising CEO Bob Hoffman insists we’re marketing to ourselves. (Et tu, Bob?)

Marketing to “Me”

Bob’s article is a must-read, especially for marketers who are self-proclaimed “Facebook addicts”, “Twitterholics”, or the like, because in it he claims that You, the aforementioned social web-savvy, are the only ones who actually know how — or care — to interact with content online. (He defines interactivity as “the ability to interact with the content of the medium, not just the medium.”) According to Bob, for most people, the internet is a passively interactive experience, like TV but with a mouse for a remote. The net effect is that marketers are living in their own web-savvy bubble and are now guiltier than ever of marketing to themselves.

While I agree with most of Bob’s piece, I wholeheartedly disagree with his conclusion:

Don’t kid yourself. As an online marketer, you are facing the same challenge that every marketer since the beginning of commerce has faced: How do you attract the attention of people who are actively trying to avoid you? The methods currently in our arsenal just aren’t good enough.

It would be lovely if the “social network/conversationalist” crowd were right and interactivity between marketer and marketee would evolve as a caring, loving relationship.

I’m officially skeptical.

Fair enough, but who ever said that social media marketing has to be a forced interaction? The problem isn’t that the methods in our arsenal aren’t good enough, the problem is that “social media marketing” is a misnomer.

Social media marketing should be a largely introverted activity, one where the marketer spend more time listening, researching, and refining their message than they do actually pushing one. It should be about creating environments, and playing in existing ones, where you learn juicy details about what’s actually important to your customer segments. Yet for most, it seems “social media marketing” has come to mean the tactics by which one goes about hunting down customers and annoying them under the guise of “friend”-ship.

Of course push marketing tactics don’t work well on the social web. They never did so well in Web 1.0, either. The problem isn’t social media. The problem is marketers putting tactics before strategy and expecting different results just because the technology and format are new. That’s what’s laughable.

In a recent interview with Josh Bernoff, co-author of the new book Groundswell: Winning In a World Transformed by Social Technologies, we discussed the need to put people before objectives, strategy and technology (just remember the acronym P.O.S.T and you’ve got it). Keep that in mind when considering these other stats about the online population* from the book:

  • 25% read blogs, visit social networking sites, and/or read customer reviews
  • 20% regularly update/maintain a profile on a social networking site
  • 18% contribute to online forums or discussion groups
  • 14% comment on someone else’s blog
  • 11% post ratings/reviews of products or service, publish, maintain or update a blog, and/or listen to podcasts
  • 8% use RSS
  • 5% use Twitter

*Figures represent percentage of online U.S. adults participating at least monthly.

Bob is right to a degree. Most people online aren’t involved in social media. But, as Seth Godin points out, the “who” matters more than the “how many,” and if someone is willing to give you free insights about your products, services, or brand, shouldn’t you listen?

A Sea of Irrelevance

Neil Postman, a notoriously cranky (and brilliant) theorist of the mass media era, came to mind after Bob outed himself as being “cranky” and “skeptical” about social media marketing. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman defers to two other media skeptics, both famously crankier than even Bob Hoffman or Neil himself:

What [George] Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What [Aldous] Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

Orgy Porgy, Centrifugal Bumblepuppy, Stumbling your Friend Feed, Twittering your Facebook in public. Anyone care to explain the difference? Point is, Orwell’s vision came true in 1933 (16 years before 1984 was published) and Huxley’s vision came true somewhere between 2005 and last Tuesday.

We are living in a sea of irrelevance, but don’t let it bother (former person-of-the-year) You! The constant hissing of digital white noise only makes relevance that much more valuable a commodity. After a day of swimming through mental 2.0 excrement, even a fleeting sip of relevance tastes like champagne.

And that’s our job as marketers; to keep the campaign champagne coming.

Ah, but if only it were that easy. How do you know when to recommend a Sicilian Syrah blend, an earthy Chilean Cabernet, a crisp-and-buttery New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or maybe a reserve bottle of South African Pinotage? What if an ice-cold Budweiser will do? You’d look pretty stupid offering some fancy-pants varietal to someone who just wants a Bud.

And that’s exactly how social media helps us. It gives us new data to plug into existing methods. But as Postman warns, “there is a limit to the promise of new technology . . . it cannot be a substitute for human values.” Very true, especially considering that I lifted that quote from Wikipedia.

So I wonder, if Neil Postman were an “interactive” marketer, and still alive today, how would he ensure his message was getting to people distracted by the technology that’s come to define them, when it should be the other way around? My guess is that he’d use personas.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m in the Persuasion Architecture business and my target customers are marketers and business owners who read blogs and occasionally comment. Your social media strategy might look very different from mine.

UPDATE: Brian Clark, the editor and founder of Copyblogger, has made a brilliant contribution to this discussion: “The Five Essential Elements of Effective Social Media Marketing“ 

. .

About the Author: Robert Gorell is the Editor of GrokDotCom. If you enjoyed this post, he invites you to subscribe or, like, totally join FutureNow on Facebook.

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Comments (18)

  1. >>listening, researching, and refining


  2. –”The problem is marketers putting tactics before strategy and expecting different results just because the technology and format are new.”–
    In many cases, the strategy is entrenched. They are built into products & companies & brands. You can think of it in Darwinian terms. TV is vast grasslands and most big US consumer products are herds grazers. If jungles suddenly sprout most of the herds won’t do as well on leaves.

    With TV/Radio/Print mega brands those who succeeded are those who could make the most of using that thing that they had control of: 30 seconds packets of semi-aware, general publics’ attention. (demographically segmented etc., but that so blunt it’s a detail)
    Since TV/Radio/Print as a whole had (and still has) a lot of available ‘attention’ those brands, companies & products that could utilise this resource thrive.

    In contrast, smaller sources of ‘attention’ developed different (ecosystems?). Door-to-door was the staple of products, companies, brands etc. that could take advantage of fewer richer packets of attention. A requirement for door-to-door is excitement, immediate actionability etc. You can’t sell coca cola door to door either. You can (could) sell encyclopaedias vacuums.

    PPC (Google mostly) already has a young ecosystem around it. But it still doesn’t work for launching a new flavour of Coke.

    Many of the newer sources of attention are well, new. They have immediate value to those companies that live on different sources only inasmuch as they can serve the existing companies, as they are. It’s likely that full advantage of these new sources, can only be be taken by companies that do not yet exist. Maybe the old companies will adapt. Probably a bit of both.

  3. I agree social media shouldn’t be forced. Unfortunately with my schedule I have to force myself to participate in more social mediums. I understand its benefits, especially the contacts I could make. Obviously as the data shows, its potential.

  4. Robert,

    Excellent article! Spot on in your analysis as well. So many marketers are enamored with the technology, but forget the people.

    Great observations, and above all, thank you for invoking the name of Neil Postman, who is prophetically more relevant in the Internet Age than he was twenty years ago.

  5. Absolutely brilliant!

    This is something I should have written. Question is, why the hell didn’t I?

    Seriously though, I feel somewhat vindicated, since I’ve been largely opposed to the idea of social media as a legitimate marketing method in its own right, which hasn’t exactly helped me win friends and influence people in the social media marketing realm, largely because I keep poking holes in their big talk.

    What of social media as part of a holistic strategy? Absolutely. But on its own, it’s a short-term thing that simply isn’t sustainable…

  6. I’m probably marketing myself all wrong but the article struck home with me. All I’ve basically done is write and not really focus on self-promotion. I wrote reviews. I wrote articles and I did that often enough to get noticed. Please NOTE: I got noticed but I did not actively promote myself. Like-minded people (those who already wanted to read book reviews or authors in search of a book reviewer) came to me. It took more time than if I’d promoted myself (possibly, not sure). Yes, I’ve entered the age of Digg and all that but I still find myself veering off to FIND interesting content more often than I try to get my stuff seen. Maybe that is a mistake, not sure. Your take?

  7. Very insightful. It makes sense- if most people listen to radio, watch TV, watch movies, sit in an audience, the ratio of speakers to listeners has always been quite high- that may change somewhat… but maybe not. Maybe the SM people are just the speakers in a new medium.

    People have always interacted “conversed” with their small circle, and may do that online, but how many will want to take the stage? I wonder if many do not comment on blogs because that’s the equivalent of taking the stage and exposing your thoughts for reaction or ridicule.

    This human dynamic may not change online- so we’ll still need speakers and facilitators and provocateurs online- all the listeners and watchers will not suddenly become speakers, will they?

  8. UPDATE (belated): Brian Clark, the editor and founder of Copyblogger, has elaborated on this topic: “The Five Essential Elements of Effective Social Media Marketing

  9. Sea of irrelevance . . . I’m going to have to re-read Orwell, and look at Brave New World.

    As marketer, the goal is obviously to be the one shred of truth in the sea of irrelevance.

  10. Can anyone enlighten me on any real benefit they have had using social media to promote a financial services company? I have twitered around (pun intended) but found it time consuming and somewhat mindless. Your feedback and any tips would be welcome.

  11. you did not tell me any more than I already

  12. Truth is of course that no-one really knows what will work until they try it (although, as you say, there are things that you can do to increase chances of success).

    As per POST, you can put People first (but there’s nothing stopping you making an arse (or ass) of yourself once you come to deliver).

    Or you can skip all the other stages and come up with a blinding brilliant programme of content that you realise will inspire the people you need to speak to, practically builds a strategy by itself and is intrinsically linked to the kind of technologies needed to get it out to the audience (or help them find it).

    My favourite analogy of the moment is social media as a party – it’s time for big companies to stop trying to host parties (which is pretty expensive, especially if you have to pay guests to come and pretend to be your friend) and start being the memorable, intelligent guest at the parties that are already going on. The guest with the most, best content wins.

  13. I think Facebook and Twitter are great models of Web 2.0. However, I find them irrelevant in marketing. I may be wrong, but companies with a more straight forward approach such as Craigslist is more intuitive and a better marketing tool. It just seems like Facebook and Twitter are leaders simply because of lack of something better. They are hot…But their usefulness is waning, at least in my approach to marketing.

  14. [...] suis tombé au début du mois sur un article de Robert Gorell intitulé « How to Avoid Marketing to Yourself » et ça m’a inspiré ce petit [...]

  15. [...] Have you Me’d all over yourself so bad you are now swimming in a sea of irrelevance? Break the cycle with Robert Gorell’s How to Avoid Marketing To You. [...]

  16. [...] How to Avoid Marketing To Yourself [...]

  17. name of and a better marketing tool. It just thank you for invoking the seems like Facebook party – it’s time for big companies to stop any real benefit and social media as a they have trying to Neil Postman, who is prophetically more

  18. This article is spot on. Actually I think that using Facebook or Twitter is an excellent way for promoting your business. Why not benefit from those sites? I mean on social networks you don’t have to go around looking everywhere for visitors, they’re already there for you.

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