Wednesday, 9 September 2009

"Social Marketing" - Telemarketing in a New Guise!

You know, the hype (Google hits) about "wikinomics" died off quickly.  Same thing with "micro-targeting", but the hoopla surrounding "social media" is just grinding on and on, like a rumor about buried treasure.  (A not inappropriate analogy...)
Here's a thought to start off.  "Social Media" is not a new media category.
The first social medium (in its broadest definition) is eyesight: a happy face, a flirty glance, a 'back-off' look.  The next is touch: a handshake, nose rub, punch in the nose.  Then we have face-to-face speech, then the introduction of technology, like leaving marks behind for others to figure out stuff about our current socializing feelings ("Oh-oh, head on a stake!  They're not feeling friendly!"), or writing letters.  The telephone is a technological social medium, as is voice-mail.  Video-conferencing is a social medium, as are emails, texting, blogs, Flicker and many of the other emerging media.  

But is any 'social medium' really advertising-appropriate?  We know that TV, print, radio and banner ads are appropriate -- free content we want/like/are interested in paid for by sponsor companies -- but is interrupting or manipulating any social communication between two people, or many, appropriate?

I read an interesting blog post yesterday: "Is This Social Media Bubble Deadly?" that I thought was remarkably level-headed and introspective for someone with a vested interest in "social marketing".  David Spinks is basically asking if people related to the business are not so entirely entranced with the wonder and mystery of working in an emerging media space that they cannot see that it has nowhere near the intrinsic value to justify the money being spent on it.

The early days of website development saw designers who'd yet to graduate from school getting paid gazillions of dollars to put up websites that really were of no more benefit to the corporations than a Yellow Pages ad.  Profit margins were running at 90% for a while there!

Same is true of any new, and therefore both unknown and seductive, media.  Clients have no idea what the cost should be, but need to execute a program fast or be seen to be lagging their competitors, so they shift $1 million to a new budget line and ask if that will be sufficient to get the job done.  Ecstatic 'emerging media' entrepreneurs put $900k in the bank, then gleefully proclaim that their newly invented 'medium' is the second coming and blog rapturously (and tweet endlessly) about it as they fly coast to coast and back again to attend and speak at 'forums' with like-minded enthusiasts.  

Folks, I'm not against entrepreneurial types from making a quick buck.  (Hell, I like to think that I'm entrepreneurial -- not!)  What I'm definitely FOR is fair and reasonable value for money.  Value. Value for my clients, for their brands and value for the newly empowered consumers out there.  

A couple of years ago I read an equally ecstatic rave (it wasn't a rant!) about Second Life from a Creative Director. He went on and on about how it was the world of the future and exhorting that anyone not spending most of their waking hours living a virtual second life online in the person of an avatar was missing the boat.  Not sure if he still has his job, but after a bunch of companies spent way too much money opening virtual stores, offices and islands on Second Life I haven't heard much more from the cheerleaders.  As an experiment in new technology, and in the science of human behavior, Second Life remains an important and illuminating experiment, no doubt about it.  I wouldn't include it in most of my clients' marketing plans, however.  There just wasn't any value in it.  (It never was an advertising-appropriate "medium".)

So back to my initial point.  Injecting marketing efforts into social media has been tried before.  It's called telemarketing.  Think about that for a moment before tearing off on a tangent about how the technology/milieu/etc. is vastly different -- it's not.  The experience is identical: people conversing with friends and family about things they're interested in during their leisure time.  Sometimes you use the phone for work, or to buy something, but no one interrupts you mid-call with a marketing message, ever, as it would not be appropriate (or accepted).

Google is nothing but the online equivalent to the Yellow Pages -- an entirely advertising-appropriate medium.  As more and more people disconnect their land lines, Google has also become the de facto replacement of the White Pages (and Google Profiles are about to become the universal, life-long, personal cyber-address for many of us), a now-dead medium that was always, as a free service, advertising-appropriate, although the business model had not been set up that way (a free directory produced and distributed by the obscenely profitable phone company monopolies to encourage us to find more people to call).  

Is Facebook, which is nothing more than a fun way to keep in touch/communicate with friends, an advertising-appropriate medium?  Absolutely!  An up-to-the-minute, user-friendly, multi-media service to connect with people we like, offered up at no charge to users.  Just like TV, radio and print ads, we can ignore the sidebar ads if we wish.  Are sponsored games, widgets and app-gadgets designed to aid, entertain or enlighten, advertising-appropriate? Why not?  They provide value to us at no charge.  

Banner ads in blogs aren't entirely inappropriate (especially once people realize that marketing's 'Holy Grail', addressable-advertising, arrived once smartphones were in the hands of teens, but no one has had the foresight to switch on the "Holy Grail"), and Twitter is a GREAT place to advertise 'Now on Sale' and new launches (once you get used to the concept of what a 140 character limit does to your messaging and the requirement that tweets had better lead to value for readers).  Look at what Dell and Starbucks have accomplished with Twitter, which is just an instant, global, public, user-generated news service (eventually the novelty will wear off and people will stop tweeting about 'what they're doing at the moment' if it's of no real value to anyone).  Skype is a hugely advertising-appropriate medium, IF they can figure out how to make the switch from almost 100% free, to watching a short video ad before your call goes through (that pesky addressable-advertising thing will fix this problem).

What we are dealing with when it comes to the latest new "social" label everyone is scrambling to 'get on board' with, is not just a semantic issue, it's also a strategic and moral issue.  ANY media labeled 'social' is just that, a means of communication between human beings through which we converse about what we like, or don't; what we're interested in, or are not.  Marketers cannot inject their messages into those conversations without hurting their brands in the long run.  Look at telemarketing.  Look at 'bloggers-for-hire'.  You ruin credibility and brand equity by attempting to sway people either when they aren't open to your message, or they're expecting honesty and get subterfuge.  

This is the reason that so-called "Word of Mouth" and/or "Buzz" marketing is just a load of hooey, a cute moniker that doesn't really communicate what these firms are up to.  What those agencies are doing is most often subterfuge (attractive 'brand ambassadors', unidentified as such, sideling up to you in a bar to demonstrate their new smartphone or buy you a 'free drink' made with X vodka) under the guise of "guerilla marketing".  When they do it appropriately, it is simply experiential marketing -- offering a memorable, on-brand-message experience that people will go off and talk about...  

How do consumers communicate about those brand experiences?  Via social media.  

As I've said before, social media are EXTREMELY important to any brand's communication plans, but they aren't advertising-appropriate, per se.
Social media are vital to monitoring and measuring brand health, to evaluating marketing efforts, to customer relationship management (CRM) and even HR management, but at the end of the day social media are public relations-appropriate, not advertising-appropriate.  What every single one of the self-proclaimed social marketing pundits are actually advocating (see "The Ten Commandments of Social Marketing" or "What the F**K is Social Media") is NOT marketing, it's all PR:  listen to your consumers, engage them in a timely fashion, ensure your brand message is being communicated appropriately through every communication channel, leverage appropriate opportunities to talk-up your brand, etc.

A social media strategy is essential to any brand hoping to succeed in today's evolving marketing landscape, but there's a vast difference between PR activities and marketing activities.  Yes, less money is spent on PR than marketing, but let's call it what it is.  The scientifically irrelevant 'study' currently being bandied about by the 'social marketing' cheerleaders (New Study Finds Correlation Between Social Media and Financial Success) proves nothing more than the brands that are doing well these days on both market share and margin also are the most forward-thinking and active with smart PR activities that are working in concert with true marketing activities to build brand equity.  Let's not conveniently find proof for investing in 'social media' where it suits us.

Where's the real value, folks?  In the case of social media, the value is in listening, learning and engaging, not in trying to find manipulative ways to inject brand messages into the conversations.  

Lastly, I have a problem with the notion that any agency/consultant can be a 'Social Media/Marketing' specialist, any more than they can be 'Word of Mouth' specialists.  What they are claiming is that they're experts at getting people to talk about products.  Really?  Does it mean that every agency that's ever produced a Superbowl ad that incited discussion around the water cooler is ALSO a "Social/WOM" specialist?  

What they're talking about is marketing at its most fundamental: people talking positively about a product, then going out and buying it.  I have a better name for these specialists: 'sales-increasers'.  Doesn't have quite the same seductive, mysterious 'emerging media' cache, does it?

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