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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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Twitter feels more and more like just another media channel

There’s a lot of online buzz lately about teens not using Twitter.  And there’s quantitative data to back it up.  In a recent report, Nielsen provides data showing that 25-54 year old’s represent the biggest age segment of Twitter users. What’s more, it’s this segment that has fueled Twitter’s astronomical growth in recent months.  In contrast, the 2-24 age group accounts for only 16% of Twitter users.  (I don’t know any two-year old’s on Twitter, come to think of it.)

Twitter by Age Group

This isn’t surprising when I think about my own experience on Twitter lately.  It seems like an ever increasing number of new follows come from people trying to sell me something, many of them hawking the latest “get rich quick” scheme.  I can’t recall any of them being from the under-25-year-old set or late Gen Xer’s.  I suspect the huckster segment correlates pretty closely with that smack-dab-in-the-middle age group.

One hypothesis for the dearth of young Twitter users is that Twitter is a social network for meeting new people, and this isn’t what teens use the social web for.  They join communities that help them keep up with friends they’ve already made “in the real world,” which is why they are well represented on Facebook, whose functionality is more suited to that.

But I suspect it has just as much to do with the fact that Twitter feels more and more like just another media channel for selling stuff.  And because it costs nothing, even the crummiest of wares get sold there.  You don’t have to be under 25 to feel like that’s not a place you want to be.  Of course it’s easy enough to filter the garbage out of your Twitter feed.  But still, I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be more agreeable, and useful, for there to be two Twitters — one social, one commercial.   When I’m using Twitter to make social connections I would log into former.  And when I’m in business mode, I’d log into the Twitter that feeds me commercial tweets, which I am happy to receive when I’ve got my business, or customer, hat on.

That might not only get more teens interested in Twitter,  it might make it a better experience for everyone.

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Slay big old Goliath with social media

The May 11th, 2009, issue of The New Yorker features an article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “How David Beats Goliath.  When underdogs break the rules.”  Gladwell reviews principles by which the weaker of two competitors, who under normal circumstances would surely suffer defeat, can shift the odds to come out the winner.

One of the key principles will be familiar to anyone who has read Adam Morgan’s marketing classic, Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders.  Morgan says that in order to succeed, small-share challenger brands, as he calls them, have to change the rules of the game — for example by breaking the conventions of the category.

A great case study of a challenger brand (although I’m not sure it’s mentioned in Eating the Big Fish) is Felix Cat Food.  Originally the number 4 or 5 cat food brand in the UK, Felix advanced up the ranks to challenge the market leader Whiskas with an unconventional, consumer relevant creative approach and by using newspapers as its primary medium, rather than TV.  TV was where most of the other cat food brands were putting their money.

In The New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell’s signature case for this principle is the story of David and Goliath.  Gladwell writes:

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath.  But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said … and picked up those five smooth stones.

When the David’s of this world choose to play by different rules than the Goliath’s, more often than not, they win.

iStock_David&GoliathSmall

Another great example that Gladwell writes about in some detail is the story of a girls’ junior high basketball team, whose players were neither especially tall, nor especially gifted, but who nevertheless made it to the national championships.  They did it by utilizing a strategy that is basketball’s equivalent of David reaching for the five smooth stones.  It’s called the full-court press.  Many basketball teams practice the full-court press a few minutes at a time, but the Redwood City girl’s basketball team pursued it relentlessly.

There is a convention to playing basketball that most teams follow.  When Team A makes a basket, they immediately run back to their own end of the court to await the approach of Team B, who now has possession of the ball.  As Gladwell explains, this convention favors good teams:

Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end.  Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

The coach of the Redwood City’s team — who, by the way, had never played basketball or coached a basketball team before, and therefore had no preconceived notions of the game’s conventions  — took a different approach.  He coached his girls to exercise the full-court press constantly.  Rather than retreating to their own side of the court after they scored a point, they aggressively challenged the opposing team for the possession of the ball on that team’s side.  Instead of standing behind the single opposing player she was assigned to shadow, to impede her if she received a pass, each Redwood City girl maneuvered herself in front of her opponent, to prevent her from even receiving the pass in the first place.

Often this meant the opponents would lose possession because they would fail to advance the ball across the mid-court within 10 seconds, a rule of the game.  This helped the Redwood City players to regain possession close to their opponents’ basket, which meant they could score more often with an easy lay-up, rather than going for lower percentage, long range shots, which demanded greater skill.

They also aggressively tried to block the inbounds pass, which is when the opposing team throws an out-of-bounds ball back into play.  Most teams don’t bother with this, but the Redwood City girls did.  This often forced the opposing team either to exceed the five second limit for getting the ball back into play (and lose possession) or, panicking, to simply throw the ball away.  In general, the opposing players simply lost their groove against the Redwood City team’s tactics.  Flustered and frustrated, they couldn’t take advantage of the strengths that normally made them so powerful.

iStock_girlbasketballSmallSo what does this have to do with social media?

As I read Gladwell’s article, I began to see interesting parallels between advantages of the full-court press strategy for the Redwood City underdogs and the use of social media for a challenger brand.

First of all, social media is not the conventional choice most big brands will use for communicating with consumers.  They aren’t comfortable with it and continue to focus their efforts, and their budgets, on the standard TV, radio and print media they already know.  But just as Felix replaced TV with newspaper, which was the unconventional medium for the time and the category, a dedicated commitment to social media and the power it has to forge brand-consumer relationships can be a potent strategy for stealing share from the big guys.

Another point Gladwell makes about the full-court press is that it takes much more physical effort than the conventional way of playing the game:

It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing.  We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity.  It’s the other way around.  Effort can trump ability … because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

In other words, it’s easier to create and produce a flashy 30″ TV commercial and stick the thing on air, than to be out there in the social media space day in and day out, talking like a human being with individual consumers, engaging with your brand enthusiasts and building your brand’s reputation one consumer at a time.   As my friend Joseph Jaffe says:  in the world of new media, “Marketing isn’t a campaign, it’s a commitment.”

And finally, consider this quote from the Gladwell article:

Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one.

Putting a positive spin on it, the inbounds pass is the point in a game where the weak team is as powerful as the strong team.  The same can be said for social media.  It doesn’t require a mega-budget for a brand to put together an effective social media effort.  Unlike conventional broadcast media, the playing field in the online social media arena is fairly even, whether you’re the market leader or a smaller challenger brand.  Social media is the place where great ideas can catch on and spread without big budgets, thanks to the connections people have within their communities and their passion to pass on content they love.

So to all you small players out there in the marketing world — think like David and the Redwood City girls basket ball team.  Consider how social media can help you shift the rules of the game to your advantage, and slay big old Goliath.

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Compare the Meerkat — brilliance or borrowed interest?

compare-the-meerkat

Everyone seems to be singing the praises of Compare the Meerkat — an integrated marketing campaign for the UK price comparison site comparethemarket.com featuring “spokes-critter” Alexandr Orlov.  Alexandr engages with us on TV, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and his own microsite.  The campaign is bold, funny and distinctive, but is it working?  This is a genuine question.  Does anyone know?  I haven’t been able to find any business results or analysis.

As much as I admire comparethemarket.com for expanding beyond the comfort zone of traditional media, I remain skeptical about the campaign’s effectiveness.  It has undoubtedly generated a tremendous amount of buzz and good will.  Furry Alexandr’s Facebook page boasts 342,567  fans and he has 11,179 Twitter followers, including me.  This should theoretically boost top-of-mind awareness for the company, which is nothing to sniff at in an online category that has grown fat with more or less indistinguishable offers.

But most of the talk seems to be about the campaign and not about the brand.  In fact, the heart of the idea is Alexandr telling everyone that if you’re looking to compare prices, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Okay — most of us who spend any time thinking about this marketing and advertising stuff get the point, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a sizable number of potential customers don’t.  If there’s one thing that often misguides marketers and the agencies that create their communications, it’s the egotistical fantasy that the general public spends as much time thinking about the brand and its advertising as they do.  In fact, most people couldn’t give a “meerkat’s ass” about most brands, and aren’t ready to invest more than a millisecond of their brain power figuring out advertising that isn’t clear about what it’s selling.

On the other hand, I could see a possible strategic rationale in keeping people engaged with comparethemarket.com through the ongoing entertainment value of Alexandr and his various meerkats.  When the time came that a particular customer entered the market for insurance, comparethemarket.com would be the destination of choice.

Judging by the comments and topic discussions on Alexandrs Facebook page, his fans certainly seem to be engaged — with Alexandr, with meerkats, and with all sorts of things relating to that.  The one thing they don’t seem to be engaged with is comparethemarket.com.  I don’t have the impression that anyone remembers that Alexandr is connected with the service, if they ever even noticed to begin with, or even cared.  There’s a ballooning cult behind Alexandr.  It appears a star has been born — but it’s not the brand.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of social media for brands.  (Why the heck would I write this blog if I didn’t.) But I’m not sure that Compare the Meerkat does justice to the potential of social media to connect consumers and brands, nor that it will be anything more than the bright blaze of a social media fad that will eventually sputter out.  I’d be happy to be proven wrong.  I would love to see evidence that this isn’t just borrowed interest, but brilliance indeed.

Does anybody out there have it?

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The Chaos Scenario — Chicken Little was right!

In his current episode of the podcast Jaffe Juice, Joseph Jaffe talks to Bob Garfield about his latest in a series of Ad Age articles on the death of media and advertising as we know it (“Future May Be Brighter, but It’s Apocalypse Now,” Advertising Age Online, March 23, 2009).  In this most recent piece on what Bob has called The Chaos Scenario, he presents growing evidence that the business model of traditional media, based on content creation funded by advertising revenues, is coming undone faster than anyone may have imagined.

The written word is a wonderful thing, but actually to hear Bob discuss and elaborate upon his perspectives in the interview is an eye opener.  Those of us who think about social media already know a lot of this, but to listen to the man who still reviews the Superbowl commercials every year predict the demise of the 30″ TV commercial really makes an impression.  You can’t help but feel Chicken Little was right.  The sky really is falling.  (And in a few years I may be out of a job!)

Here are some of the key points that stuck in my mind:

The old advertising model is dying, if not already dead, because it’s built upon  two pillars that are crumbling:

1) Good content is scarce, 2) You can force people to look at advertising in exchange for that content.

YouTube has already taken a big bite out of the first pillar, and the adaption of TiVo and DVR’s is eating away at the second one.

Still, consumer generated content alone will never replace professionally produced content like Lost and Grey’s Anatomy.  And while newspapers in their current form are clinging to life, there will always be demand and a need for objective, well-researched reporting and journalistic excellence.  Indeed a democratic society depends upon it.  Gen Y’ers may ascribe to the philosophy that content should be free, but it isn’t.  Or at least much good content isn’t.  Talented directors and serious journalists also have to eat, buy clothes and support families.

Right now it’s easy enough to say good content should be free because there’s still plenty of it around that you can get for free, even as the revenue sources and models that fund the production of it are drying up.   But imagine a day when there are no newspapers like The New York Times, no magazines like The New Yorker, and nothing on TV except low-cost production reality shows.  If that day ever comes, people will be starved for something better.  And they’ll pay for better fare in one currency or another.  But it will no longer be by subjecting themselves to advertising that bores and irritates them.

We are observing a sea change — a major upheaval on a par with the industrial revolution and other historical movements that changed society forever.

I think this is true.  And as Bob points out, it will effect every part of society, not just marketing and communications.  The power has truly shifted from the top of the pyramid, to the bottom — the crowd, thanks to the digital and social media revolution that is enabling people to connect and wield collective power like never before.

People are still interested in products and brands.  They’re just not interested in advertising.

I don’t completely agree with this.  People are not interested in advertising for products in which they have no interest.  I have argued elsewhere on this blog that the 30″ commercial is actually a very efficient tool to learn quickly about a product and its benefits.  The problem is an ineffective distribution system that places too many commercials in front of the wrong people.

I do agree that advertising in future will be a small part of a rich pallet of consumer-brand interactions, enabled by the internet and social media, that shifts the relationship between the brand and the consumer from one-way telling and selling to collaboration, dialogue and partnership.

The Chaos Scenario — soon to be a new book and a platform for conversation.

the-chaos-scenario2Bob will soon be packaging his thinking into a suprisingly old media form — a book.  He’s also created a web site — www.thechaosscenario.net — that he promises will be more than just an online promotion for the book, but a place for people to come together and share thinking on the topic.  It’s not active yet, but you can already go and sign up to receive updates as the project progresses.  I for one will be watching, listening and participating.

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