Digital dangers: media without messages, social without skills.

With the epidemic of digital and social marketing has come a paradigm shift. Where once, creatives were given license to fit the medium to the message, these days briefs are often exclusively ‘digital’, no matter what’s being sold, or what’s the most effective way of selling it.

Technology in its various forms is the now firmly the medium, and technologists are becoming the messengers. Further down the line, if companies like Narrative Science prevail with their robot-generated copy, technology could take over completely, even from the technologists.

I believe this is detrimental for agencies, for the brands we represent, and if I’m right, eventually for these media themselves. That’s because brands (if we can call them that for much longer) will rail against what they view as marketing chaos, and return to the conventional channels in which they feel safe.

In Commonsense Direct & Digital Marketing, Drayton Bird makes a similar point about digital marketing. “It focuses on the means of communication, rather than the aim, which is better marketing. This in itself has led this kind of marketing to be dominated by technical experts, rather than marketers, with dire and costly results.”

Take the most dominant digital marketing medium of all, Facebook. Founded by a computer programmer, he and his company are technologists before anything else. Nothing wrong in that per se, except that as well as being the media owners, they are also heavily involved in the messaging. It’s rather like if a poster-site owner provided you with a rigid framework for your ad before you start writing it, therefore forcing you down the same predictable route as all their other advertisers.

As I write, that route is ‘Social’, where a brand uses vehicles such as Facebook and Twitter to mingle with the public, with the objective of building an army of brand advocates. Stop for a moment, and consider the wisdom of this strategy. People tolerate a brand until it does something to cheese them off, and then they want their own back. Social platforms give them the means to wreak havoc immediately, with a captive audience of thousands of the brand’s followers to lap it up.

To give a microcosmic example, recently, I was on a major hotel chain’s Facebook page, where there was a self-congratulatory message from the chain about a hospitality award they’d won. Directly beneath, was a message from an irate guest, which started by asking the chain how they dare boast about winning an award, while he was enduring his second night without hot water in one of their hotels.

These two events were, of course, unrelated, but social media enables the disenchanted brand advocate to collide them with damaging effect, and on the same canvas.

Playing devil’s advocate, we should be cautious about labeling consumers as brand advocates just because they’ve liked or recommended something of ours, and/or are following our company. They may not see themselves or their friends as advocates at all, as the ongoing lawsuit against Facebook’s ‘Like’ ads suggests.

What’s more, I never saw brand advocates marching the streets in protest after the demise of the News of the World which, until shortly before its fall, probably had many thousands of followers, all of whom spontaneously combusted.

And what of the brands themselves? After all, this tidal wave of social activity is supposed to be for their benefit. The reality is that brands still spend considerably more on conventional advertising than on social media, mainly because they fear the amplification of the wrong kind of storytelling, like when United Airlines carelessly broke a passenger’s guitar, and the world laughed at them while viewing his viral response.

Nor can brands quantify the revenue from co-branding with the public, because as an industry we are unable to prove it to them, and therefore why we believe they should invest in it so heavily.

Right now, many brands view us as an industry rushing in where they fear to tread, or worse, one trying to drag them kicking and screaming into the social arena, unprepared and unable to cope.

We’ve all got a lot to learn.


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