The struggle for power which brands are destined to lose

Advertising grew up in an era of the ‘captive audience’, where large numbers of people were repeatedly targeted with a killer sales message until they succumbed and bought a product.  

But media in the 2010s is increasingly atomised, consumed on-demand and discussed within peer groups.  No longer do we consume together or willingly submit to the Mad Men’s interference. 

Brands respond by trying to corral, contain and control audiences, often using their social media pages as a contemporary media ecosystem.  But who are they kidding?  

According to a study by Napkin Labs just 6% of fans engage with a brand’s Facebook Page via likes, comments and polls, while thanks to Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm, only a fraction of those will actually see a post on their news feed during a given day. 

The vast majority of engagement will stem from super-advocates who deliver significantly higher levels of engagement (retweets, re-posts and comments) than the brand itself, which begs the question: why drive more people to a page, if you’re not interacting with them?

Consumer marketing used to be defined by the targeting of large groups of people through mass media.  Success in future will be driven by the brands who embrace the empowered customer and understand ‘social’ as a network (with its own intrinsic influencers) rather than merely a medium in which to target. 

Relevancy and purpose versus yield

In the next three to five years advertising will become predominantly a sales tool, used to steer already-informed prospects towards a final transaction. 

Advertising works best within a context where customers perceive it to be useful, which is one reason why Google’s advertising yield is ten times that of Facebook (customers who are searching are more likely to welcome a promoted solution). 

Social will evolve to encompass the mainstay of consumer marketing: brand building, influencer outreach and relationship management, but rather than be measured by yield, the goal of social media marketing (or just consumer marketing as it will eventually return to be called) is to build positive experiences with a brand’s target audience.

These experiences will form the foundation of a brand’s influence over its audience and enable it to wield a superior competitive advantage in its sector.

In this ecosystem the value of a brand will be measured by its relevance, its contribution to people’s lives and its utility in their relationships.

A real world example of this is Nike+, which has empowered its fan base through products such as FuelBand, morphing from a footwear and apparel business into a digital gaming brand bringing runners together into a motivational self-support network.  

In the automotive sector, Volkswagen is perhaps the most consistent in providing good engaging content that triggers conversation and debate with their audience.  

Together with Chrysler, their Super Bowl videos are among the most shared of any branded content, inspiring parodies and witty responses from the media and even other brands.

The clue is in the title – ‘Social’

When we accept that a strong brand is the result of an engaged audience, this opens up a whole new world of opportunities for the neuromarketer – those who understand the cognitive relationships built between people and the ways in which brands can contribute.

The fine line, which brands must carefully tread, is to participate and empower their customers while maintaining respect for their wishes.  Like a BFF who makes an unwelcome advance, the moment that line is crossed, trust is broken – yet another example of the difference with social where the quality of experience outweighs the short-term result.

GoPro MontageThere’s plenty of evidence about the science of sharing, recognising the virtue of stimulating people’s interest through strong positive emotions.  

In response, brands will become content providers, blurring the line with traditional media, providing marketing products (both their own and from third parties) which deliver a more compelling brand experience than their competitors.

GoPro, makers of those tiny HD cameras, has turned its customers into an evangelical sales force – showcasing their videos in a series of ‘Videos of the week’. 

It’s a masterclass in brand building – real people, doing amazing things with GoPro cameras and showing how ‘great’ the brand is. 

The first rule of brand promotion in a social environment is to make heroes of your customers.  There’s no better example of why advertising, in many respects, is becoming ‘so’ last decade..

Advertisers talk about ‘making memories’ and ‘brand recall’ – their goal being to profoundly affect people – note ‘affect’ meaning impact or causing change. 

But in social media, the strongest cognitive response comes from ‘relating’ to people, being part of their lives and connected with them through their peer groups.

Sure, you don’t sell product off the back of such a relationship, at least not directly, but this is how a brand (and its inherent appeal) is formed in the 2010s, without attempting to ‘fleece’ those very same customers just because you’ve got them in your sights. 

Christine Looser, a researcher at Harvard Business School, has been trying to determine whether we’re more likely to retain and remember information if it’s paired with the picture of a human face. 

There are parallels with the theory of peer persuasion – which posits that we’re more likely to share something posted by our peers – and also the experiences of customer call centres, where we’ve learned that people respond better to contact with real people.

It’s a new world order that’s evolving each and every day.  Some brands already get it, while others try (and fail) to apply old-school advertising and PR to an audience who no longer trust, or particularly want the brands they use each day.

In summary

Advertising faces its own nascent struggle, as newer data-driven offerings displace the traditional siloed agency model. Rather than messing around with social platforms, the industry needs to concentrate on the challenges of viewability, value-based pricing and devising a workable solution for mobile devices.

In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, WPP’s Martin Sorrell spoke about Twitter and Facebook being a ‘PR medium’ and not really an advertising one.

He went on to say that 90% of car purchases in the U.S. are search-influenced, citing a number one rank on Google as being more important than a Facebook like. He didn’t deny the potency of Facebook or Twitter in the long-term building of a brand, but ads are about yield whereas social is about people.

It’s about recognising the virtue of each environment and playing to their strengths.  Social Media is a private space, receptive only to those with something to offer, but it can be united with other mediums – TV, gaming and even print media.

Marketing will always target the places where people are, but the art of consumer marketing is matching the right solution to people’s needs at the right place and the right time. None of that changes with digital or social media, but as the opportunities increase, so do the chances of making horrendous errors.