Monthly Archives: September 2009

Said the advertising to the academic, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”

I’m a little late to this one but I’d like to share some thoughts all the same.

Last March, Eric Clemons, who is a professor at the Wharton School, one of America’s top business schools, wrote a post on TechCrunch entitled “Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet.” It caused quite a stir.  Professor Clemons’s key thesis is that online advertising will ultimately fail.  There will be less of it in future because in today’s interconnected world, people don’t want, need or trust ads.

While the piece’s title refers to online advertising, Professor Clemons goes further:

“… simple commercial messages, pushed through whatever medium, in order to reach a potential customer who is in the middle of doing something else, will fail.  It’s not that we no longer need information to initiate or to complete a transaction; rather, we will no longer need advertising to obtain that information.  We will see the information we want, when we want it, from sources that we trust more than paid advertising.  We will find out what we need to know, when we want to make a commercial transaction of any kind.”

Earlier in the post he asserts that “the ultimate failure of broadcast media advertising is likewise becoming clear.”  So he is not talking about the eventual demise of online advertising only, but of advertising in general.

There is much in Professor Clemons’s post with which I agree, as well as some excellent perspectives that really got me to stretch my mind.   Especially thought provoking is his description of paid search as “misdirection,” because it sends consumers to pages that are not necessarily the most valuable to them, but rather to the sites of companies that cough up the most money.  (For this reason he believes Google’s business model is probably unsustainable.) Anyone who knows this blog also knows that I not only recognize, but am inspired by the changes web 2.0 and social media are bringing to fundamentals of marketing, communications and brand-consumer relationships.

Still, I am not convinced by the good professor’s thesis that advertising’s role in the marketing mix — online or otherwise — is necessarily doomed to oblivion.  The reason is that Mr. Clemons has a very info-centric view of advertising, as you can see by the previous quote and in the definition of advertising below that he offers in his post (passages in bold are mine):

“Advertising is using sponsored commercial messages to build a brand and paying to locate these messages where they will be observed by potential customers performing other activities; these messages describe a product or service, its price or fundamental attributes, where it can be found, its explicit advantages, or the implicit benefits from its use.”

The rumors of my death have been wildly exaggerated

The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated

If you believe that the only role of advertising is to provide information about a product or brand, or for that matter, that a person’s rational evaluation of a particular brand’s attributes and benefits is the only basis for the choice of that brand over another,  than his thesis makes perfect sense.  But of course we all know that human beings are not especially rationale creatures, especially in their brand choices, and that advertising in many categories plays a role beyond simply conveying product benefits.  It may be out of style to say it, but the truth is that even in an online world where we have easy access to all sorts of information about brands, people are still influenced by other factors in their brand choices than a simple assessment of the benefits received relative to the price paid.

We all know that brands have dimensions beyond the attributes and benefits they offer.  Brands can represent an idea, connect us with a feeling, signify a particular attitude toward life, or express a value with which we personally identify.  Advertising plays a role in shaping those dimensions in our minds, and when the product attributes and quality of two brands are more or less equal, it can be primarily those emotional qualities that determine whether someone chooses one brand over another.

I doubt this will ever change.  It’s in the nature of who we are as human beings.  I remember reading somewhere that it is in our psyche to ascribe human characteristics to inanimate objects.  That’s what’s at the heart of our propensity to ascribe emotional and image dimensions to brands.  It’s through those associations that brands are one of the ways we define who we are to ourselves and to others.  And that’ something else I see no sign of changing.

This doesn’t deny that a brand’s image today is driven much more  than in the past by the thoughts, opinions and impressions that people can now share with thousands of others on line.  But even though online conversations play a bigger role than ever in shaping the collective perception of rational and emotional brand dimensions, this doesn’t mean that brand communications, created by marketers, no longer have any influence at all.  Brand perception is shaped by a myriad of sources — online conversations, ratings and reviews, personal experience, comments from others when we use the brand, our perception of others who use it, and — yes — brand communications.  Just because that last factor plays a smaller role than it did when we lived in a marketing world dominated by one-way messaging from marketer to consumer, it doesn’t mean it plays no role at all today or will play no role in future.

But even if you come from the information angle, I think there is still a role for advertising.  Just because I’m not actively looking for information about a particular product or category, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want information to find its way to me.  I’m a Mac fan.  I’m happy to get “uninvited” messages about a new Mac product or an upgrade to my current one.  Or even to hear about a new flavor of my favorite tooth paste brand.  (I’m a flavored tooth paste junkie.)

One of Mr. Clemons’s arguments is that advertising will fail because people don’t feel it is a trustworthy source of information.  But in future, it’s quite possible that advertising will gain in credibility because marketers will be forced to provide a higher level of truthfulness and integrity in their messages and claims, precisely because in a web 2.o world, any inaccuracies or attempts at deception will be quickly exposed and shared mercilessly.

There seem to be a whole bunch of people making extremely black-and-white statements about the future of marketing and communications these days, about whether advertising as we know it (or knew it) will fail or succeed, evolve or be doomed to oblivion.  No one really  knows, but certainly a lot of people seem to act like they do.  Rather than channeling all this energy into debate on these questions, which is a bit of a tempest in teapot, we should focus more on exploring and sharing what’s working, what’s not working, and how old and new media potentially work together.  And then see what happens.

Does that mean that this is the last time I’ll ever raise my voice in the debate?

Probably not.

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Why are we so afraid to say “I don’t know” the ROI of social media?

Olivier Blanchard calls a spade a spade.  And he calls ROI, ROI.  I like that.  He takes to task those social media strategists who try to get around the question of measuring social media ROI with nebulous assertions about how it’s now all about “return on involvement,” or ROI is for the nerds and the number crunchers.  Many of the assertions made by so-called social media experts are so fuzzy around the edges, or just so intellectually sloppy, it’s enough to raise the “BS” antennae of even the most trusting of listeners.

Click-through rates, positive mentions, blog posts, re-tweets, celebratory customer reviews, etc. are all very nice things and important to measure, but they are not return on investment.  Return on investment is money — nothing more, nothing less. It’s the cash that comes into your business as a result of any effort above the dollars invested in that effort, as determined by material costs, man hours, overhead and other charges.  It amazes me that anyone writing, speaking or advising clients about social media for business needs to be reminded of that.

I don’t know why so many thought leaders in social media, when asked, what was the ROI, are so afraid to say, “I don’t know”?  It’s not a crime that we don’t know.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t get better at knowing.  And it doesn’t mean we have no indication of the contribution social media is making to our businesses or that we should stop doing it.  But instead they hem and haw, go off on some tangent, or otherwise attempt to circumnavigate the question.

Recently, Chris Penn asked Mitch Joel this question when he interviewed him on Marketing Over Coffee.  Now, I love Mitch.  He’s a great guy, a great thinker, blogger and speaker, produces a terrific podcast, Six Pixels of Separation, and has just published a book of the same name.  He is one of our greatest standard bearers for social media.  But when asked this question, he equivocated for 5 minutes — okay maybe I exaggerate — but it felt that long to me, and as I listened I couldn’t help thinking, “Mitch!  Just say you don’t know!”  He finally did.

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Okay, so we know what social media ROI is, and what it isn’t, and we know we need to get better at measuring it.  To this end, Olivier Blanchard has uploaded to Slideshare a very good presentation on the basics of social media ROI called Social Media is Not Free.  It covers some fundamental thinking and data one needs to track in order to measure social media ROI.  However, I think we need to go further than what Olivier provides here, because the metrics he takes into account are virtually all within the digital space and don’t consider the  competitive environment.

Without factoring in other elements of the marketing mix, both one’s own and competitors’, it’s difficult to determine the specific role of social media in driving business success.  I can see Olivier’s design would work, perhaps, for a company whose sales, marketing and communications take place mainly on the web.  But for many other businesses, we won’t be able to get to a true measure of social media  ROI without taking into account other factors like advertising, media weights, distribution, in-store activities, promotions, events, etc. — both for our own brand and our competitors’ brands.

That’s a much more complex task than the one Olivier suggests.  (In all fairness, he does say these are the basics.)  I’m not a statistician, but it probably requires statistical and other analytical techniques that can help determine the different roles and contribution to sales that each element in the marketing mix plays.  This isn’t a new challenge.  It has always been hard to determine the precise ROI of each component of the marketing effort — even before the internet and web 2.0.

So why are we so afraid to say “I don’t know” when it comes to the ROI of social media?

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A funnier Facebook profile you never will read

I have a friend on Facebook.  He’s a friend according to the old definition.  We met in New York years ago, before email, before the world wide web, even before Mark Zuckerberg was a twinkle in his father’s eye.  In the meantime our lives have taken us on different journeys, and we now live thousands of miles away from each other and from the city in which we originally met.

Although my friend has just joined Facebook, he has made a grand entrance with one of the wittiest, best written profiles I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.  It makes mine read like a prayer book.  He completely takes the piss out of the info page because he’s made the whole thing up virtually from start to finish.  No tedious lists of his favorite books and music, no platitudes about life or love, no career history.  Just a parody worthy of the best of Saturday Night Live.

The odd thing about it — although you receive almost no true information from this info page, you get to know him better than if he had provided his life story.

I happily provide some of my favorite excerpts.  Be prepared to fall off your chair.  (I’ve concealed his name to protect the guilty.)

Activities: I have many interests that keep me busy, I regularly attend a spoon-balancing class, I toss dwarves twice a week at IBT’s, I attend a lesbian outreach program (can’t we all just get along?); I have an extensive Beenie Baby collection (3547 and counting!!); I enjoy my Tibetan meditation class and my Linda Evens deep tissue, cell regeneration/60+ femme fatale slow-mo step class, I teach spinning classes because it gives me a chance to yell at people without getting slapped.

Favorite Music: Yoko Ono’s “Mating Cry of the Tibetan Yak” (I know, all her albums sound the same, huh?); and any large African-American woman you-done-me-wrong-get-out-you-bastard song.

Favorite TV Shows: Kill your TV
Favorite Books: Remarks on Color by Ludwig Wittgenstein.  If you read at all I am half way to loving you!

About Me:  My socks always match. Though I gave up a promising career spinning plates on those sharp pointy sticks, I can generally buy lunch without holding up a liquor store, except on Fridays when I do it for sport. I have never bowled, but I have gone skydiving and wished I’d gone bowling instead.  I can do a dead-on impression of Carol Channing auditioning for the role of Hannibal Lechter in “Silence of the Lambs.”

Though I’m no longer soliciting endorsements I remain completely and utterly fabulous and need no reinforcement. If I’m not your cup of tea, I wish you happiness and prosperity on your own personal journey. Did I mention my socks always match?

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I love plaid. Plaid Nation that is

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I fell in love with Plaid today.  Not the pattern, the Agency and its road show Plaid Nation.  Plaid is a small shop hailing from the mega-communications metropolis of Danbury, Connecticut.  They do some cool work creating online communities and social media programs for organizations and brands that include Boehringer Ingelheim, Iron Horse Bikes, Segway, Sony Music, Virgin Records and — how lovely — the Westport Country Playhouse.

I fell in love because everything about Plaid lives and breathes the best qualities of social media.  They’re open, real, honest, charming, relaxed, human.  And frankly I just like the design of their web site. It’s fun and funky.

The way I got onto them, though, wasn’t through the web site or their work.  I’d been hearing for awhile  about something called Plaid Nation on different blogs and podcasts.  I knew it was some kind of road show or tour, with a team that went across country meeting with anyone doing interesting, innovative things — people, companies, NGO’s, even other creative agencies.  But I didn’t know much more than that. Today I finally got around to visiting the Plaid Nation 2009 web site and getting behind the story.

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The first Plaid Nation tour happened in 2007.  It began as an idea for Plaid to generate awareness and PR.  A group of company staffers made over a van in plaid and drove across country to visit — unannounced — brands they liked or would like to get to know.  Since then the tour has become, according to Plaid’s Darryl Ohrt in Ad Age, “a produced ‘show’ that profiles some of the world’s greatest, most interesting and innovated business thinkers.”

Indeed it does.  Go over to Plaid Nation where you’ll find interviews featuring:

  • Scott Monty, Ford’s head of social media, talking about his recently completed tumultuous first year at the corporate giant.
  • Steve Pacheco,  Director of Advertising for Federal Express.  Federal Express’s late-delivery rate is tiny.  But when you consider that Fedex delivers millions of packages on any given day, even a fraction of a percentage of late arrivals can amount to a significant number of complaints on Twitter.  In contrast, no one on Twitter is going to post that his Fedex package arrived on time this morning.  That’s just one reason that Fedex has begun to engage in social media.
  • An inspiring visit to the Make it Right project, an organization started by Brad Pitt to help rebuild New Orleans’ post-Katrina neighborhoods with economically and environmentally sustainable housing.
  • A talk with the people running the The Q Hotel  – the first green hotel in Kansas City and one of only 11 hotels in North Amercia that has been certified green.

And that’s just a small selection.  All in all this year’s Plaid Nation July tour spent time with inspirational movers and shakers in Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Branson Missouri, Jackson Mississippi and New Orleans.  And the tour members shared their experiences through a vibrant combination of videos, blogs, tweets and Facebook posts.

What strikes me most about the Plaid Nation tour is its generosity.  Of course Plaid launched the tour to promote their business.  But  they realize they have the most to gain by giving.  Everyone who visits Plaid Nation profits from the ideas and inspiration they discover there, while Plaid profits from the exposure, sharing the way think and work, and letting potential clients get to know the people who make Plaid what it is.  And of course the people and projects they visit gain through the exposure as well.

Apparently it works.  Plaid says the tour has been a major driver of new business since its inception.

So pay a visit to Plaid Nation.

And to Plaid Nation I’d just like to ask, can we hope to see you in Germany some day?

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