Thursday, April 30, 2009

• Another example of how social marketing can damage brands

I should be upfront and admit that I don't like Oprah. I can't say why, exactly. Maybe it's her ostentatious displays of generosity. Maybe it's her insistence that everyone show exactly the same upbeat attitude she purports to have. Maybe it's the feeling that her conversion from shock-show host to moral leader of the multitudes and maven of modern literature was predicated on sagging ratings. Maybe it's just that I distrust anyone who can sway the feelings and opinions of millions of people.

Whatever the reason, it certainly isn't because I feel she has somehow personally betrayed me.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of her social network followers.

The Silicon Valley Insider reports that although she's only been Tweeting for a shot period of time, and boasts one of the largest followings, "she is already bored" with the experience. "In total, she's sent 20 tweets in 11 days. Almost half are from April 17, Oprah's first day on Twitter, when Ashton Kutcher and Twitter CEO Evan Williams appeared on her show ."1

This defection does not sit well with some. "The reason why Oprah lost on Twitter is because of her lack of commitment to engage her community," says Craig Daitch of Advertising Age.2 "She could give away a G6, sell subscriptions to her magazine and bring huge A-Listers to her show every day -- but being asked to participate in conversation is much different than being asked to spark conversation."

In other words, while these people once loved Oprah because she gives away millions of dollars for social programs, supports worthy causes, provides a role model for women, and encourages  literacy, now they are turning against her because she's not spending enough time keeping them updated on her latest meal.

Of course, this backlash is quite mild and unlikely to affect her overall status as the Woman God Sent to Straighten out the World. But in a nutshell, it illustrates one of the most serious problems posed by social network marketing: When your product or service becomes a member of a community, its value becomes dependent upon its participation within that community. As part of the "consumer conversation," so beloved of modern marketers, what it says counts for much more than what it actually does.

It no longer matters how well your product cleans dishes, kills germs, improves your looks or handles on the road, once it's part of the great communal conversation the only thing that counts is how well it can talk. While consumers of old (read, 20 years ago) might have become annoyed if their pain reliever didn't work, modern consumers are ready to become personally insulted at a misguided, but transient commercial on TV: as Motrin found out to their chagrin. 3 The Motrin ad, which incautiously spoke about Moms wearing babies in slings as a fashion accessory, was released as a viral campaign, and the resultant viral backlash turned into a digital pandemic. Those who would otherwise never have seen the offending video were told about it (with links) by their community members and encouraged to take part in the outcry. In trying to join the online community, the company found itself outcast, reviled, and with a large scarlet letter sewn on its chest.

Of course, if it hadn't taken its campaign online, those who felt the need to be offended would still have been able to blog and Twitter about it, and this kind of adverse publicity can attain a critical mass on occasion. In general, however, the isolated nature of these outlets keeps nuisance complaints limited and relatively harmless. But when the company voluntarily either creates or joins a social network, it provides a central pavilion in which every crackpot with an axe to grind can bring his soapbox and be heard. Furthermore, because of the direct connection between the platform and the company, those who gather within it have a natural expectancy that they should be heard and responded to.

Businesses have always had the responsibility to deal with customer complaints and listen to unsolicited suggestions. That's how companies grow. But the social marketing sphere is an echo chamber which so magnifies every casual and meaningless comment that the resultant din can threaten the company's very foundations -- like a digital version of Joshua's trumpeters bringing down the walls of Jerico.

Whatever benefits there may be in marketing through social media, and to date the success stories are still vastly outnumbered by the failures, when things go wrong, they do so in a spectacular fashion.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Social network marketing is like sending a company salesman into a Friday-night frat party, and it's not exactly surprising if he gets stripped to his underwear, hung upside down, and covered in beer.

1. Fromm, Dan (2009, April 28).Oprah already bored with Twitter. Silicon Alley Insider, Retrieved April 30, 2009. [Return to text]

2. Daitch, C. (2009, April 28).@Oprah already bored with Twitter? So what?. Siilicon Alley Insider, Retrieved April 30, 2009. [Return to text]

3. Havenstein, H. (2008, Nov. 18). Motrin maker feels pain from social media backlash. TechWorld, Retrieved April 30, 2009. [Return to text]


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

• Before and After. Before and After. See how that goes?

The old "before and after" technique has been around for a long time. Take a look at this advertising card from a century or so back. See the left-hand panel which shows how much trouble the mother has as she tries to give her children the dreaded "old style of medicine": castor oil? Now see the right-hand panel which shows them lining up for the "new style of medicine": Hamburg Figs? Hell, even the dog is trying to get into the act. 

There's something about this particular advertising ploy that is timeless. It appeals to our need to see the results of a product. "Here is the way your life used to be," it tells us, "but now look at how it could be."

Generations have grown up seeing the "before and after" of cosmetics, cleaners, diet aids, vitamin supplements, hair tonics, and underarm deodorants. 

There are, of course, variations. There's the product comparison, for instance: "their" product versus "our" product. And then there's the contrast between those who don't use our product and those who do.

But all of them share the same basic idea of "before and after." 

Now with that in mind, what is wrong with this "before and after" picture?

Right! It's an "after and before" picture. Not a "before and after." 

And there seem to be a lot more of them than there used to be.

Now admittedly, it only takes a moment to figure out which is the "before" and which is the "after." And perhaps that's fine for print ads (no, it isn't, but we'll let that pass), however, when you're dealing with TV, in which the shot may only last for a few seconds, it can be downright confusing.

One of the worst offenders I've been seeing is a television commercial for a pickup truck (I don't remember which one, and while I could look it up or wait until I saw it again, I figure it's not my job to dig out the name of a product from an ad). The main selling point for this truck is its smooth ride, which they illustrate in a rather clever way: a split screen showing the road from inside the cab of two trucks -- the featured truck and a competitor. 

The problem is, the shaky, jittery scene is on the right while the smooth, steady scene is on the left. To the viewer, it looks as though the advertised product (which, by tradition, is always on the right) bounces like a wooden cart plummeting down the side of a gravel quarry. 

Does that matter? Well, it took me a couple of viewings to realise what the point of the shot was. I have to imagine that other people faced the same bewilderment when they first saw it.

There are conventions in advertising that have been worked out over the past 100 years. It doesn't do anyone any good to circumvent them (unless, of course, you know exactly what you're doing).

For instance: 
  • when the selling point of your product is visual, show the product, don't talk about it or show people's faces.
  • when your product is cheaper than others, show the price.
  • when your product has the potential to appeal to a large number of people, don't put your ads on media used by a small demographic
And of course: Before goes on the left! After goes on the right!


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

• New Directions Advertising Symposium summary

Earlier this month one of the most important events in social network marketing took place when the New Advertising Directions Symposium was held in Chicago. Here, in its entirety, is the story from The New Marketing magazine.

The New Marketing Magazine
Chicago, April 1, 2009
It takes NADS to promote the new marketing

Walter "The Buzz" Vaine, president, NADS
This past Wednesday saw the first annual conference sponsored by the New Advertising Directions Symposium. Aimed at exploring the expanding opportunities offered by the new media, the symposium is in direct opposition to the assumptions of traditional advertising methodologies.

This discrepancy between the new and old generations was apparent from the moment Walter (The Buzz) Vaine, president of NADS, strode out to greet the crowd, none of whom appeared to be over 35.

“The Old Guard were all about ‘effectiveness’ and ‘sales,’” said Vaine. “We now know that our job goes far beyond these primitive goals, reaching out to the very consciousness of the consumer. No longer do we measure our results in the number of widgets, whatnots, or whatevers that our campaigns sell; instead we look for the ‘conversation,’ the ‘buzz,’ and the ‘insight.’ It is our job to e-enable real-time communities and matrix interactive experiences.

"Or to put it another way, as the motto of the New Advertising Directions Symposium says: ‘The old school had guts, but we’ve got NADS!’”

One of the bold new concepts of the New Marketing is the “Brand Footprint.”

“The brand is everything,” said Vaine. “Rid yourselves of the obsolete idea that consumers are interested in the product. They’re not; they’re interested in the brand, as our research has repeatedly proven. Every time we ask them brand-related questions, whether it be in focus groups, electronic surveys, or on-site questionnaires, consumers invariably respond with brand-related answers. It is the brand, not the product, that we want strutting through their consciousness — and the bigger the footprint it leaves behind, the better.”

The Brand Footprint has become one of the fastest-growing ideas in the marketing industry. While conventional advertising concentrates on making products stand out by drawing attention to their features, the Brand Footprint concentrates on promoting the brand itself, often to the exclusion of the actual product.

“In the Brand Footprint,” Vaine explained, “information about a specific product represents, at the most, the little toe, whereas the ‘sole,’ if you will, consists of the branding. And one of the key points of branding is to keep the brand fresh. Clients have a tendency to become comfortable with a particular name, for example. You need to shake them out of it. Consider the great campaign presently being done changing the name of Electrosol to — well, I can’t remember right now. But that’s a campaign that is doing its ad agency proud.”

Another approach much valued by the New Marketers is Social Marketing, which employs various online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Whenever you have people talking,” Vaine told his listeners, “you have the chance to walk through their conversations and leave your footprints behind. People join these sites to socialize, but as we can tell by the meandering nature of their conversations, they’re in desperate need of something interesting to talk about. That’s where we come in.”

The three-day conference featured a host of speakers lecturing on a variety of New Market topics. These included William Leakey on, “Making Them Guess: Engaging Consumers Through Ambiguity”; Jill Whedon, who spoke on “Conversing with the Twits: The Strength of Social Marketing”; and Richard Baylee who drew the most enthusiastic response with his seminar, “The ROI is Dead, Long Live the Conversation,” in which he extolled the “democratization of the marketing process.”

The symposium, as befitted the subject matter, was promoted through social marketing. The Facebook page, “Sign up now for NADS,” had 105,492 friends, and “NADSinApril” on Twitter had 78,345 followers. As a result of this promotion, the number of attendees could barely squeeze into the symposium’s meeting place in the basement of St. Mary’s Baptist Church, which only has seating for 45 people.

When asked if we could expect to see another symposium in the future, Vaine said, “With a social-networking promotional success like this, I think you can count on it.”


Monday, April 20, 2009

Social Marketing: Kmart goes to the Twits

As promised, today we're looking at one of social marketing's success stories.

At the start of the 2008 Christmas season, Izea decided to try their hand at social marketing for Kmart.  Their goals were: awareness, brand perception, education, traffic, and insight.

Right at the start you should be seeing a couple of red flags. First of all, what keeps Kmart alive? Is it public awareness of their stores? Is it an educated consumer? And just what the hell does "insight" mean?

No, what keeps Kmart alive is the volume of their sales. And "sales," you may note, is not one of the goals of this campaign. That's probably a good thing; makes it much harder to declare the campaign a failure.

What Izea did was to take six "influential bloggers, each of whom received a $500 Kmart gift card along with another $500 gift card which they could give away to a selected reader. Each of these bloggers (with full disclosure on the "sponsored nature of the post") then had to write a blog post about "their shopping experience" with their gift card, and host a contest to give away the second gift card. To enter the contest, their readers were told to go on a "virtual shopping spree" at the website, then come back and list what they would buy if they won the gift certificate.  They could enter a second time by means of a "specified Tweet on Twitter," thereby ensuring "that news of the contest appeared in the timelines of over 2.5 million direct followers." Meanwhile, over on SocialSpark, which connects bloggers with blog marketers, bloggers were "given the paid opportunity to run ads on their blogs promoting any one of the six primary bloggers in the campaign."

So then, you have six primary bloggers along with their readers, community bloggers on SocialSpark being paid to send traffic to these bloogers, and news of the contest going out to 2.5 million Twitterers ( Tweets? Twits?).

What was the result?

"By the time the contest period ended," says Wendy Piersall, one of the six primary bloggers, "there were 3,481 comments left across the 6 blog posts, and over 3200 Twittered contest entries. Most impressively, Kmart (green line indicator) increased their Social Media Index as measured by Vitrue a whopping 59%, outpacing parent company Sears and completely overtaking JC Penney."

Have you got that? 3,481 comments and 3,200 Tweets. Did any of these people buy anything at Kmart? Well, we suppose the commenters who won the extra gift cards probably did. and maybe a few more people went to the company web site -- possibly as many as 6,000 or so, although we have to remember that the 3,200 Twits didn't go to the site, they merely reposted a Twit, or some such thing. Still. They may have gone. Can't prove they didn't.

And then we have to remember the Vitrue figures showing Kmart's Social Media Index was 59%, which basically means that those people who use social media stood a decent chance of being exposed to the campaign. 

As far as meeting its goals went, the campaign was a success. Not sure about the "insight" section, but since we still don't know what it means -- what the hell, we'll consider that a success too.

Did they sell a single item more than they would have without the campaign? I don't know. Neither do they. When it comes to social network marketing, success comes in being able to do it -- not whether it actually boosts sales. I would presume they did. It's most likely that some of those 6,000 or so people may have gone to Kmart and picked up something. But let's keep this in perspective: that's a possible fraction of 6,000 people for a company that has a yearly sales figure in the tens of billions of dollars. If each of the 6,000 people went to Kmart and bought $100 worth of merchandise, that would represent roughly three and a half one hundredths of one percent of their revenue. (To be precise, it would be 0.003529411764705882% -- but let's not get picky.)

The upside, of course, is that these social marketing experiments don't cost much -- but neither are they as inexpensive as their proponents would like us to believe, and they still take up time and resources.

Does this mean that social marketing is without value? No, merely that whatever value it may have remains still largely unproven by any measurement that doesn't include "insight" or "brand identification." Furthermore, for smaller companies, especially entrepreneurial operations, social marketing can prove remarkably effective (but that's a topic for another post).

The real point here is simply this: social network marketing is a vast, unproven, and problematic field. Don't get rushed into forgoing real advertising in favour of pie-in-the-sky schemes.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sure, advertising works - but what about social network marketing?

Let's get one thing straight: virtually all commercials work -- to some extent or another. Putting a picture of a product in front of a gazillion people every day of the week is going to raise awareness of the product and result in some added sales. 

Every commercial works...whether you hate it or love it. There isn't a commercial made that somebody doesn't claim is "absolutely hillarious," even as millions of others condemn it as "the most fucked up piece of shit" they've ever seen.

Okay, a few ads don't work, the most notable being public service ads meant to keep kids from smoking, drinking or doing drugs. So effective, in fact, are some of these PSAs at doing exactly the opposite of what they're supposed to do that Philip Morris has been accused of sponsoring an anti-smoking campaign for the express purpose of increasing sales of its product. It may be true, but it's hard to know why that particular campaign was picked on when all the others seem to be equally guilty in their own areas. Were the notroiously ineffective anti-pot ads secretly paid for by the Association of American Gro-ops?

So why did these ads fail in their stated intent? Because they were trying to do the impossible: they were publicising the very products they were discouraging. Even the ancients knew how well something like that would work. "Hey Adam, here's a tree with the fruit of knowledge. I'm just showing this to you so you won't eat from it." "Happy birthday, Pandora. I've given you a box, but whatever you do, don't open it."

PhotobucketVacuum packed shit to seal in fresheness

All commercials work. If you put up ads for feces you would undoubtedly find buyers. Oh, wait...installation artist Wim Delvoye has already done this with his Cloaca machine, a complex system of containers which replicates an animal's digestive track complete with real poo coming out the other end. The poo is then vaccuum packed and sold.

Anyway, the point is this: in the wild and wooly mix of humanity, you can always find somebody, or even several somebodies, who will buy pretty well anything...if they know about it. And they will know about it through advertising. I could create an ad selling three-year-old uncooked eggs and likely find buyers.

So if you're asking, "Does the advertising I'm doing work?" the answer will be yes. No matter how bad your ads, you will undoubtedly be getting at least one more customer than you would without them.

The real question, however, is whether or not the advertising justifies its ROI. I might be able to find ten buyers for my three-year-old, uncooked eggs, but if I have to advertise to 50 million people, the cost probably won't be worth it.

This is obvious.

At least it's obvious unless you're talking about social network marketing. Social network marketing is a brand of marketing all its own, in which the goals include anything other than actual sales.

Next post we'll look at one of the more successful, and well-documented cases, Kmart's foray into the blogging and Twitter scene in 2008.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

V8 Juice Ads & Canadian Unity

This is a reprint from a satirical piece I did 15 years ago (can that really be right?). During the 1994 National Unity debate, Lucien Bouchard made headlines when he predicted Quebec's separation would lead to the swift fall of English Canada to American invasion.

And then these odd, French-only V8 posters mysteriously began to appear in downtown Toronto.

Reprinted from Ad Nauseam, June 14, 1994

Anglophone Canadians trembled recently when Lucien Bouchard revealed a secret American plan to annex Western Canada in the wake of Quebec separation. And while the Bloc Quebecois Leader later denied making such statements (by arguing "I would be crazy. Am I crazy? Am I crazy? Do I look crazy?"), his skilled rhetoric came too late to quell Anglo anxieties.

I only bring this up because in the past week I've  seen not one, but three French-only V8 advertisements in the Wellesley/Yonge/Church streets area: an obvious bid to placate French-speaking vegetable juice drinkers.
The posters, which hang outside two convenience stores, show people drinking a V8. Underneath is the phrase "V8 est a notre gout," which I believe means "V8 prevents gout" — although I am unable to confirm this as my translator isn't talking to me until she determines whether or not Bouchard is, in fact, crazy.

Nevertheless, such a translation makes sense as a ploy to hold onto Quebec. Rich French cooking has been known to cause gout; V8 prevents gout. Subtextually, what the ads are saying is that no matter what Quebec wishes to dish up, we'll eat it.
At the top of the ad is the word "Sante!" which is probably French for "Sanity." What clearer message could we send to Quebec as a plea for Canadian unity? Protesters will storm Ottawa chanting: "My Canada includes Sanity!" and "V8 prevents gout!"

It's this kind of unambiguous sloganism that has worked so well in the past to bring about thoughtful and nuanced political decisions.

Nor should we, as do some, take lightly the threat of separation. While many commentators have pointed out various problems that could arise should Quebec choose independence, M. Bouchard has, in fact, openly stated what the rest of us have hardly dared think: that with Quebec gone there would be nothing to prevent an American invasion. Surely even the most politically naive have known the only reason Canada has not already been annexed by the States is because they have no wish to be saddled with the problem of Quebec nationalists.

And so it is that we salute V8's selfless effort to do its part in keeping Canada together. I'd like to end with one of those rousing French slogans, but I just called my translator and she still hasn't determined Bouchard's mental stability.

Some mysteries may never be solved.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Oh, so now they're turning to Boomers

Once you've dropped them into a few insulting ads for adult diapers, life insurance, and Viagra, when it comes to marketing, the only thing Baby Boomers are good for is comic foil in commercials aimed at the real market: the under 30s.

A lot of us have complained about this (Chuck Nyren, Advertising to Baby Boomers, being perhaps the loudest and most articulate voice), and more than a quarter of us are outright insulted by the commercials aimed at us (according to a study by Focalyst, a joint venture between the WPP advertising group and the American Association of Retired People). The same study also confirms what many other studies before and since have tried to make apparent: that the over-50 market controls three-quarters of the country's financial assets and have more than $2 trillion in spending money.

Despite this, the Mad Men are convinced their fortunes lie in the three-minute-long attention spans of a youth market in which brand loyalty changes faster than the songs on their iPods.

Until now, that is. It seems that with the sudden economic meltdown, at least a few advertisers are discovering what anyone not fully immersed in all the latest social-marketing principles could have told them years ago: the Boomers have money and may be willing to spend it -- if approached in the right way.

NeuroFocus is a consumer research group which measures subjects' responses to various advertising stimuli by means of EEGs, pixel-level-eye-tracking equipment, and galvanic skin response technology. In a recent study, aimed at helping financial institutions find the best ways to win back the public's trust, they made several observations which, when looked at objectively, shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone not already brainwashed by the latest youth-marketing propaganda.

In Money Meltdown, Minds, and Milliseconds, the white paper describing the results of their experiments, NeuroFocus highlights several key areas, many of which emphasise the advantages of advertising to an older market.

The most obvious of these was the discovery that "age trumps beauty." When shown advertising which replaced young spokespersons with those over 40, subjects showed greater trust. In a similar vein, consumers responded better to people who had some expertise in the field over those who merely had some form of celebrity.

Closely connected to these findings was the discovery that subjects responded far better to "clutter free, humanized" websites, and that good navigation scored higher than the number of widgets, wadgets, or whatnots incorporated. Even in the social marketing area, the results indicated that an adult orientation beat out an adolescent one. YouTube videos "emphasizing CEOs, employee comments, information, and advice scored better than many other interactive mechanisms." Furthermore, employee blogs rated high despite any "preconceived notions about it being planned and generated."

The conclusions are clear. When you want the consumer to trust you, start aiming your message at the Boomers. Forget the social-marketing geegaws, don't clutter the site with every conceivable feature the 18-year-olds in your IT department can come up with, and create videos that address the issues rather than entertain.

If nothing else good comes from the recent economic crisis, at least we have the faint hope that advertising can become more adult.


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