Why social media has resulted in marketing stalemate

The good news is that almost the half the people on the planet are connected to the internet – one billion PCs and two billion mobile devices.  The bad news is that the people who use these devices are virtually immune to any form of interruption marketing, have kicked off their shoes and are throwing  a party in the social media lounge, to which we marketing people are not invited.

Not so long ago, we could buy their attention with advertising, PR, direct mail, email and exciting gimmicks.  Now it goes right over their heads.  They’re having such a good time, they don’t give a damn about us, our products or our clients’ products – and, frankly, I’m with them.

Social media means that people talk and listen to each other, not to brand representatives.  According to the New York Times, only 14 per cent of people trust advertising while 76 per cent of people trust the recommendations of other customers.

So if you want to market your products, or your clients’ products, to social media users, you have to find a way to get them to spread the word themselves.   There is no alternative any longer.  Viral is all.  The bottom line today is: how the dickens do you get everyone  talking about your product  and recommending it to their friends? How do you join in a conversation between friends when you’re an outsider?  How do you talk to people who aren’t listening when waving a red flag no longer works?

Well, once thing is certain – it’s not by using YouTube.  If ever  there was an acid test of customer  fickleness and marketing failure, YouTube is it.  Tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands of CEOs, authors, and PR smartarses have made product videos in disguise and uploaded them.  I can think of only two that succeeded: the CEO who puts things in his blender (but I can’t recall his name or his product name) and the cartoon character trying to buy an iPhone (and I can’t recall what that was selling – I think it’s the cartooning system.)

If you look at the commercial videos that went viral over the past few years they’re of two kinds.  First there’s the videos made by professional crews during their lunch hour while they were being paid to make a TV commercial.  Example: the cat that unwisely sticks its head into the Ford KA sunroof.  If you’re already spending hundreds of thousands making a TV commercial, then you have no problem coming up with a potentially viral bootleg sideline.  If you’re not spending that kind of budget then keep thinking.

The second kind of YouTube success – and these are the overwhelming majority – are subjects that no-one could have predicted would spread so far and so fast.  Think of “Charlie bit my finger” or the Star Wars Kid remixes.  If you can’t predict the outcome, what’s the point?  Do you just keep making daft videos in the hope that someday people will fall about laughing?  It doesn’t sound like a rational basis for a marketing strategy.

Maybe you forget Youtube and talk directly to the kids on Facebook? Well, yes, except that the kids go on Facebook to talk to their friends, not to you. And they go there in search of free stuff, cool news and bargains (at least 50 per cent off something that they would normally pay full price for.)  Are your words really cool enough to excite a twentysomething into repeating them?  Really?

Many companies and marketing people have simply given up trying to sell directly over the internet because they have recognised that the mood of the overwhelming majority of users is not one in which they can be sold to.  People are much more reluctant to pay for something on the internet because the internet has got them used to getting what they want free or very, very cheaply.

They irony is that, at the very moment when marketing people are lowering their sights in despair and accepting the collection of emails address as a solid return on investment, back in the real world people are spending more than ever on the internet, for things they really want – but they’re listening to their friends, or the collective wisdom of the blogosphere, not to anything you can put on your site or in your phony blog.

When I was a lad, it used to be said that the two things necessary for a successful business were a brisk demand coupled low competition.  What the internet offers marketing people is complete buyer apathy coupled with seller competition so intense that a keyword-density difference of 1 per cent can make the difference between ranking first on Google (60 per cent of the click throughs) and second (20 per cent).

Even the big corporations with the big bucks are flailing around wildly and ineffectually.  Take Intel’s The Museum of Me. It must have sounded like a great idea when it was being kicked around the boardroom table. And technically it’s very sophisticated.  But what the heck is it?  What’s it for?  Who is going to give it any more than a second look?  It’s the kind of thing that large corporations spend big money on to make themselves feel good when they don;t know what else to do – a kind of corporate retail therapy. 

Curiously, for a while there, it looked as though marketing people, especially in PR, were becoming redundant, because people were no longer listening to professionals, but to each other. What the social media stalemate has done is project PR people back into a position of importance.  Only now, instead of broadcasting to millions, they may well be targeting only one influential voice at a time.

So what’s a slick marketing guy/gal to do?  Stop coming up with bright ideas for Facebook competitions and start listening to your target audience.  Do they want competitions?  No.  Then what do they want?  Don’t ask me.  I only work here.

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