Posts Tagged ‘digital marketing


Social Marketing and the Digital Landfill

In the United States, the last two years have removed any doubt that social media sites, and the behaviors they engender, have transformed many aspects of society. Advertising, in its dual role as America’s slimming mirror and evil twin, has begun to change with it.

Yet, despite the hype rolling out of ad agencies and internal marketing departments for the past 10 years, much of the explosion in social marketing investment has been cosmetic. In fact, the social component of many an ad campaign is merely a high-fashion tactic. Instead of transforming either marketing strategy or branding, a great many firms use social media platforms as landfill sites for yesterday’s news.

Without much effort, you can stumble into an ocean of uncategorized, barely differentiated posts that, to an alarming degree, resemble the recently reported avalanche of used K-cups. One root of the problem, of course, lies in the adoption of the word “content” several years ago. By downgrading creative output to the status of carpeting, wallpaper, furniture, or home appliances, marketing and advertising started down the slope to producing disposable, generic messaging.

Read up on the K-cup controversy and you’ll find no one can resist the urge to work the word “brewing” into the discussion. Why? Because it’s the easiest, most generic way to create the illusion of relevance. This type of messaging is rendered even more faceless by being “data driven.” If today’s data mavens really believed in science, they’d realize that human behavior can’t be quantified.

Just read your local police blotter if you don’t believe me. In case it isn’t obvious, the impact of pseudo-science on marketing theory also contributes to the mechanical production of faceless communications. The exaggerated emphasis put on mere statistics makes no more sense than using a Magic 8-Ball to make major life decisions. Signs point to “Yes” that you can interpret your stats in any way that gives you comfort.

Digital sludge…
Whether we’re talking about the ‘book, the twit’, the ‘gram or the ‘tube, promotional pollution is clogging digital space with nominally topical, but eminently forgettable sludge that supposedly:

  • Builds brand awareness
  • Improves audience engagement
  • Maximizes retention
  • Fosters authenticity
  • Creates peer-generated dialog
  • Delivers greater relevance

I have my doubts.

While a few sleek consumer brands might be doing some of that, some of the time, the evidence in the media landfill says the majority of this “content” is largely a knock-off of branding established off line through traditional media. Yes, I know. When you wear the right glasses, you can see the virtual revolution in full bloom. But in real time, the logo, the tagline, the product shot and even the spokesperson have both feet planted in three-dimensions.

…vs the gold standard
Because, as I hope I’m not the first to point out, a true social marketing campaign is more than a series of HTML5-encoded print ads or videos with comment boxes below them. The real thing has a provocative message, suited to its marketing environment and designed specifically to generate more than information-neutral “likes.” Sites that understand this, do well in social space.

As an article on Sprout Social points out, Wayfair uses social space to simplify shopping in a way that mirrors its “Drop the Mike” broadcast campaign. That the campaign is itself a generic appropriation from the 1980s is worth noting. In today’s world, the only thing more kingly than content is cloned content.

Yet I doubt I’m alone in becoming aware of Wayfair through the TV screen rather than the tablet, phone or computer monitor. This merchandizer’s TV spots are obnoxious, syrupy and contribute to the further de-evolution of the American intellect. But they do convey the message “Simple, Easy, Convenient Shopping” very well. Given that, all Wayfair’s online presence has to do is stay out of the way.

This, lest we forget, is what we mean by “branding:” a clear statement of a specific, fulfilled promise. It’s not a logo or a color scheme. It’s not a set of pixel-widths, a font or a commitment to grainy archival photography. And it’s certainly not any of that nonsense about “branded copy style, tone and voice.” Most of the time, the emphasis placed on those externals is a deliberate attempt to cover up for a lack of substance.

With a true brand message — that’s backed up in the real world in obvious, concrete ways — any font will do. On the flipside of that same equation, an Apple laptop that was brown instead of silver would still have its high cost, its cloying pretensions of social relevance, its legacy of east Asian sweatshops, its incessant, meaningless upgrades and that ugly, swirly rainbow thing.

Box checking…
In the case of pharmaceutical brands, social marketing is so constrained by privacy laws that it’s easy to see why they don’t venture out past the medium’s most basic structures. All the same, most of  these brands could do more with the content they post. However, as an unscientific survey of a few major pharma brands reveals, Pfizer succeeds better than many in this category.

Its Facebook page positions the company as a thought-leader by:

  • Demystifying the science behind a variety of drug therapies
  • Explaining the role of diagnostic tools
  • Providing overviews of complex medical topics
  • Exposing the societal impact of untreated disease

The Pfizer Twitter account repeats much of what appears on Facebook, with slightly more emphasis on its role in society. On Instagram (#pfizerinc), the company opens the lens a little wider in an attempt to integrate and ingratiate itself into everyday life. Some of the posts are a tad off topic, but succeed in humanizing this larger-than-large corporate entity.

And that, in the end, may be the most significant value that social marketing may have for a great many brands, including those outside of pharma. Yet as anyone knows, who follows the news, in some cases, these engaging PR efforts are often no more than a Band-Aid plastered over serious self-inflicted wounds, incurred in the court of public opinion.

…results in waste
Regardless, what’s evident, even in Pharma’s best social marketing efforts, is a lack of planning. Posts appear at random, without an Editorial calendar to lend coherence over the course of the year. Merck, for example, uses an approach similar to Pfizer’s, though in an even more scatter-shot and self-promoting way. It’s a phenomenon characteristic of outreach by American corporations in general.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single company that understands a simple truth. “Our commitment to society” has promotional value only as a set of deeds, not a set of words. A pilot program here or there, simply for the purpose of touting it later is not enough. To pay off that promise, public service needs to actually be a part of the corporation’s reason for being.

When it comes to distributing content to YouTube, there is also no over-arching scheme to lend coherence over time. Both Pfizer’s generic YouTube feed and its Pfizer News channel lack meaningful organization that would help, say, diabetes patients find relevant videos quickly. What they’d find instead is an unending heap of videos, in the order posted on another site. Merck’s YouTube videos are also unsorted and, like a community landfill site, are repositories of waste — in this case, of wasted opportunity.

Ultimately, Pfizer, Merck and many other Pharma companies have simply created a social marketing checklist. And that’s a shame, at least insofar as much of the content these companies post in social spaces has the potential to help millions of Americans navigate a medical landscape that grows more complex, more unwieldy and more unnecessarily expensive every year.


Website Optimization: Beyond the Code. Behind the Words.

If you’re engaged in digital marketing, I invite you to try a simple experiment. In a rare quiet moment,
sit back, close your eyes and ask yourself if you actually like your branded website.

That’s “like,” as in actively enjoy using it, as in looking forward to its latest updates, as in almost feeling sorry for your competition because your website is way cooler.

If I had to guess, your answer will be, “Well, it could be worse.”

Having looked at branded sites in many different categories over the last decade, I can’t help thinking this is the likely answer at least 80% of the time. Part of the problem is expectation.

Fact is, website design, execution and maintenance has been so mediocre for so long that few people expect a website to be more than a collection of boxy stock art captioned with rigidly standardized “copy tone.”

Sure, maybe there’s a marquee on the home page. Maybe there’s a quiz, contest, video link or embedded e-marketing platform. But what’s missing is the one thing consumers care about: themselves. No wonder the garden-variety branded website gets ignored: It’s about a brand instead of a person.

The distance between consumer and brand is nowhere more apparent than on e-tail sites that engage in price-point jockeying instead of providing meaningful shopping advice. Despite oceans of market research to the contrary, most people realize that making shopping decisions based on peer reviews is tantamount to opening their souls to the jaws of Hell.

Looking past the code…
Now, ranting aside, it’s obvious that even utterly functional e-tail sites manage to sell stuff. So why bother building a website you can be proud of? The answer lies in how completely you want to discourage brand loyalty.

After all, if your business is based on being the low-cost leader, you can always be undercut, especially by a company who offers a feeling of belonging. How many people, for example, can’t do a “hat trick,” yet crave a pair of Jordan Super.Fly4s? Or, by the same token, will never own a Winchester XPR, but are hooked on the classic style of LL Bean?

Consumers can get sneakers or flannel shirts for the same price or less all over town. But people who get hooked on a feeling will bookmark, tag and share your site over and over again. Why? Because human beings are inherently, intrinsically, insistently emotional. Our motivation to act depends on an established emotional connection. Do you really need to attend another Webinar to know that?

All you need is to walk away from the rigid conventions that have grown up around digital marketing and talk to people in a real voice about themselves.

…to a distinctive thought process
Now, you’ll notice that neither LL Bean, nor Nike piles up its web pages with conventional marketing trash like “Our Promise to You, the Consumer.” You won’t find any talk about “fine quality” in the upfront. It’s just that the products themselves, lovingly photographed, have grown out of a thought process, an ongoing communication with an audience segment each brand understands. The advertising works because the brand works.

So if you’re answer to my initial question is an unwavering “Meh,” you may need to look way deeper than whether or not a flat design makeover is in your future. You may need to start at the root of your problem —the lackluster emotional appeal of your product. Want to fix your website? Start by fixing your brand.

If your primary marketing message:

…revolves around price, you can be undersold
…includes buzzwords like “quality,” you’re generating background noise
…is a celebrity endorsement, what happens when the celebrity melts down?

But if your message speaks directly and honestly to the identity your audience wants to claim for itself, an identity with a sharp emotional hook, you can generate loyalty on a scale a flood of coupon offers can’t match.

And in case the point is lost on you, a website built around that hook will come as close as any can to driving sales and fulfilling the promise of digital marketing. Not because your programmers have mastered HTML5, but because you, amigo, have mastered branding.


The Message Your Message Sends

The funny thing about communication is how important it is, relative to how little we understand it. And certainly, ever since communication went digital, the Babel of communication theories has grown to a deafening roar.

Consensus? You must be joking. Yet, in relative terms, we can successfully divide what separates us in that arena into two general categories: Those who favor on-the-nose communication that “speaks for itself” and those who believe your best shot at reaching consumers, is to let your audience draw its own conclusions from the memorable cues you provide.

That’s right, it’s the explicit/implicit divide in communication theory, which two recent TV spots for similar products demonstrate in vivid detail. The first, for ADT home security systems, begins with a typical TV “man and wife,” trying to enjoy a night on the town, but beset by anxiety about whether they forgot to lock the back door.

OK, that’s a plausible premise and, predictably, resolving the protagonists’ anxiety involves nothing more than the flick of a finger on a smartphone app. But along the way, a deeper Marketing Anxiety spoils the impact. Watch the spot and you’ll see Boyfriend’s emotion reflected in an explicit montage of leering burglars zeroing in on his home.

By contrast, the spot produced for AT&T Digital Life grows seamlessly out of direct observation of the human condition. Here, wiser heads know a 20-something’s assurance of responsible behavior is as ephemeral as the will-o’-the-wisp. While the resolution is the same—again, a flick of a thumb across a touch screen—the AT&T spot gets its message across implicitly and more memorably, by integrating the product’s value into our everyday experience of American society.

Hurry! While your attention span lasts!
The same principles apply to digital marketing. In fact, the contrast between explicit and implicit messaging is nowhere more stark. Take for example, the differing approaches taken by two furniture retailers, Raymour & Flanigan, on one hand, and ABC Carpet on the other.

Now, I can already hear someone in the back of the room complaining that I’ve stacked the deck—by comparing a  mainstream site to a niche site. I don’t buy that, not least because it suggests that “mainstream” audiences need to be hit over the head with price in order to be motivated.

Sure, as evidenced by the 2:00-am-TV tactics that continue to sell knifes, polishing cloths and hair removal systems, price can be a powerful motivator. Especially, that is, when linked to an impending sense of loss (“Hurry, while supplies last!”). The question is, whether that’s any way to build a lasting, loyal customer base.

As I see it, the answer is no. Establish a relationship with consumers based on “deals” and your brand is only as good as your latest Limited Time Offer. Worse, you’re effectively training consumers to jump from brand to brand as necessary to get the best discount. It’s the very behavior that has bedeviled credit card companies since the Dawn of Plastic.

 “Transfer your balance now and get 0% APR for the first X months.”

…goes the refrain of desperate competitors who never stop to think that the most enduring customer relationships begin and end with fair, transparent dealings. I mean, if all you have to offer is an APR shell game leading to 19% finance charges in less than a year, I fail to see the enduring value you deliver.

Connection vs contempt.
So, along with this particularly explicit approach goes an entire mindset about your relationship with your consumers. It extends far beyond the competence of your messaging strategy—then snaps back to sap its effectiveness. For at a global messaging level, if you go that route, you’ve seriously eroded your brand. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a credit card company, furniture wholesaler or a cellphone service, your only message to me will be:

“I want your money right now….What do you mean what do I sell? Give me a minute…Phones, that’s it, phones. Can I have your credit card number?”

That’s very explicit, to be sure, but so is this: The first American cellphone service to offer a coherent, comprehensible and consistent fee-for-service structure that delivers real value—as opposed to deceptive promotions—will have the largest and most loyal customer base the industry has ever seen.

That’s because, even in “the mainstream,” what consumers want more than anything from American business is respect for their status as fellow human beings. No one denies a business the need to earn an honest living. But know this: That same implicit honesty is the one and only voice capable of motivating your audience to come back for more.


The Content Conundrum in Consumer-facing Pharma

Even with appropriately targeted content, one question remains: How do you anticipate what your audience will decide is worth viewing, hearing or reading? While a precise answer is sure to remain elusive, it’s clear to me that the message-starved laundry list of factoids that shape most consumer-facing pharmaceutical Web sites offers us a model of what not to do.

Keeping in mind the rigorous and, at times, arbitrary constraints under which all pharmaceutical advertising is conducted, I’m still convinced we can do better.

As always, the place to start in evaluating your content strategy is with the consumer’s mindset. In this case, we’re talking about people whose diagnosis will have a major impact on their lives. So, the more devastating the news, the less you can expect a consumer to browse through 40 pages of Web copy, diagrams and expert testimony.

Seen from that perspective, much of the content on consumer-facing pharma sites is more than superfluous. It actually works against the business goals of the brand. For if there’s any sense at all to marketing drugs to people who can’t buy them without a prescription, it’s to get consumers to do one of two things:

  • Comply with their doctor’s treatment regimen (that is, take the drug in question)
  • Ask their doctor to prescribe the drug in question for their condition

If I dare state the obvious, it’s only because there’s very little in the content strategy of the average consumer-facing pharma site that contributes to either of those goals.

Part of the problem stems from the desire to create a site accessible to everyone—regardless of their education level or familiarity with the scientific principles underlying medical jargon. The result is a site overflowing with data intended to orient the disoriented to the bad news they’ve received from their doctors. Such sites typically include a superficial tour of the disease state, an overview of the what, how, where and why of their condition.

Understanding undermined.
Trouble is, as redacted by lawyers and resected by medical editors, this text quickly dissolves into a slurry of medical terms that merely creates the illusion of understanding. It’s a dreary, affectless exercise, pitched at a Mr. Wizard level of assumed knowledge—except, that is, when a product claim turns on the mention of a highly technical issue.

So it is that a site that feels the need to explain the phrase “immune system,” a topic fit for 6th-graders, may think nothing of throwing around vocabulary busters like “erythropoiesis,” or “immunomodulatory.”

Regardless of whether a glossary is included, anyone lacking a 6th-grader’s understanding of the immune system is too deficient in science education, as are a large number of Americans, to learn anything from a dumbed-down article about, say, the mechanism of leukemia.

Why? Not for lack of intelligence, but because the number of new concepts introduced by such articles is unreasonably high; even if your readers know the “meaning” of each word, they’re unlikely to grasp what the copy actually means. So, after reading at most a paragraph of your branded communications about Drug X, your target audience will have no choice but to fall back on what it already knows:

Doc says I’m sick and I gotta take some medicine, or else.

That’s because most people confronted with a complex medical issue are only prepared to deal with it on a practical level. Whether the disease affects blood, bone or brain, their main concern is how their diagnosis impacts everyday concerns. Will they be able to work, they wonder, should they go on disability, will they have to remodel their homes or make other accommodations to adapt? And what, by the way, should they tell their families?

As I see it, if the goal of digital pharma advertising is to create an aura of trust and a motivating sense that “the brand cares about me,” addressing these concerns upfront is more to the point than nattering on about B-cells, T-cells or tumor necrosis factor. And yet natter on, we do.

It’s this lack of understanding of the human condition that drives many-a brand to address its audience in such a stilted, condescending tone. “It’s normal to be worried,” you can read on countless Web pages. Maybe, but what’s not normal is talking to people as if they were an uncanny mix of jaded doctoral candidate and bright-eyed 9-year-old—a demographic abstraction with no basis in reality.


Digital Marketing: Looking Back to Look Forward

As I see it, enough time has passed in the evolution of digital space for us to re-evaluate some of our earliest assumptions—starting with a thorough review of basic concepts embodied in standard terminology. Take, for example, the phrase “Web site.”

From the outset, there was plenty about Web sites to make marketers giddy. For the first time, they could give consumers a guided tour of their brand without the expense of sales training or glossy print runs.

Better yet, Web sites allowed users to be self-guided and go directly to the content they found most compelling. Next thing you know, marketers were tracking and analyzing user-paths abetted by the burgeoning growth of search engine technology.

Age of innocence.
It was the age of Click Here, when Web sites were created to produce clicks, worn as badges of honor by savvy brands who “got” the Internet. The only thing missing was a reliable, active pull.

Looking to real-world analogues, marketers turned to Web banners, hoping they’d perform as well as billboards and POP displays. Ill-conceived, Web banners endured a childhood of abuse and an adulthood of dysfunction so severe—their sizable potential was squandered in less than a decade.

Meanwhile, search engines, whose potential was realized in the late 1990s, offered only a passive pull, no matter how stealthily search rankings might be jiggered.

To the rescue came social networking. Marketers believed they could drive traffic just by reaching consumers in their virtual hometowns. Soon, “Join us on Facebook” was seen as the universal solvent. So, in addition to Web sites few people visited, marketers created Facebook pages few interacted with.

The result is stagnation, evident in today’s flat, boxy, affectless digital landscape.

Age of “standards.”
It’s this result that should motivate us to rethink the way we plan, create and build a Web site—abandoning the standard, sequential process:

  • Map an information architecture
  • Flesh it out with “creative”
  • Fill it up with “content”
  • Stud it with promotions
  • Clone it onto social sites

…in favor of an organic co-development of your brand’s digital presence. In this paradigm everything that’s now conceived as an add-on feature designed to give the campaign legs would be carefully melded into a seamless entity. Not with a superficial carryover of look and feel, but with a coherent thought process that gets beyond “click.”

Now, one obstacle to this approach is the scatter shot way many brands divide their agency assignments—one agency for Web design, another for SEO, a third for social media marketing, another for banners, and a fifth for content distribution, under the guise of media placement.

Add to that the mechanical adoption of general advertising motifs developed by a sixth agency and the tango of tangled authorities requires the patience of a Bodhisattva to sort out.

Age of organic growth.
But assuming leadership trumps niggling politics, you’d work from the premise that a Web site is not a thing, but an organism. The home page? Merely, by analogy, the face of a complex, fascinating creature.

From this perspective it would be unthinkable to launch a Web site and then “socialize it” months later. Before authorizing a single pixel of stock art you’d need to work out interlaced strategies to:

  • Drive traffic
  • Create social interaction
  • Syndicate content to sites users frequent

…and understand how these components must influence site content. That’s “content” in the broadest sense, including a comprehensive editorial calendar for rolling out new material and repackaging it for syndication. The result would be a circulatory system for your digital presence to clarify, unify and strengthen your message to consumers.

Bear this in mind, however: Each environment your message appears in requires special handling.

If, for example, the attraction of social space is the infinitely renewable connections it creates, it only makes sense that content cloned from other media, including a “strong call to action,” will not be effective.

You need instead to create content idiomatic to social space—in which you tell, not sell, your story and invite comment. Similarly, content you distribute must match its surroundings. The solution lies in allowing your work to grow organically from a unified thought process with specific goals and specific benchmarks for success. The result is dynamic, lively, human communication.

Why does this matter? Because the first of your competitors to get this right will have the privilege of eating your brand for lunch. A digital presence truly responsive to consumers, engaging them successfully through multiple pathways and always—always—delivering fresh value? That, my friend, is the path to your door


Walking Away from the Grid and the Rail

In 2013, when the Internet is still routinely force-fit to specs made for print, out-of-home, retail or broadcast, it’s easy to fall asleep every night believing a Web site is simply an electronic newspaper.

Excuse me, but what a waste.

As CPUs muscle up, pixel densities climb, sound systems deliver stadium acoustics and the promise of artificial intelligence looms on the horizon, digital space is going through a reality change. As these ramped-up technologies converge on our touchscreens, we now have the opportunity to walk away from mechanical grid-plus-right-rail formats—and evolve an inherently digital idiom.

Ironically, the same consumers we’ve convinced to trade-in their traditional worldview for a digital screenview are now more immersed in digital communication than we are. While we continue to crank out flat arrays of boxes, consumers are swiping from screen to screen with a grace reminiscent of simian brachiation. And lest we forget, gamers around the world are now logging billions of hours battling boredom with ‘bots. As I see it, that leaves between 90 to 95% of all Web sites woefully behind the curve.

Viewscreen: On.
How do we address this mismatch between the idioms users respond to and the idioms we speak in? As I see it, we must develop a new visual vocabulary in which text, image, animation and video would narrate the brand story in a series of engaging experiences.

So, if the marketing team at Volvo (as of 5-24-13) wants to tell consumers their product is “designed around you” they might think to demonstrate what that means, and not expect consumers to “see for yourself” by stumbling into the showroom. At the moment, the intriguing idea of a car designed around consumers merely serves as a lead-in to a dissertation about “Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC).”

Posting documentary-style videos on a You Tube channel is not enough, not least because users have to leave the site to find them. Besides this site-hopping message deployment merely adds remote boxes to the standard grid. A Facebook page, when linked to from a Web page, is still just one more carton of promo for users to ignore.

What if, instead, Volvo illustrated that thought in an immersive digital environment? The story behind “Designed Around You” would help users appreciate the engineering, aesthetic and social challenges that drive the process of building a car—and help them grasp why Volvo adds value to their lives.

Bullets in abeyance.
Now, this approach in no way obviates the display of factoids or order buttons. But the site would be oriented toward creating a seamless, dovetailing branded experience with multiple access points.

One thing this approach does obviate: throwaway copy devoted to promotional nonsense. In a branded experience environment such copy is a distraction—a little like the advertising vignettes broadcasters wove into the first generation of TV sitcoms.

Besides, times have changed. In a tight economy, the phrase “Don’t Wait—Order Now” continually begs the question “Why?” If you think the answer is a series of bullet points, you’re on your way to another digital makeover and another parade of customers who arrive at your showroom with no idea why you’re better than the competition.

Not, mind you, because they don’t have enough facts, but because you’ve failed to endow your brand with memorable emotional resonance. And that resonance, in today’s world, is what a growing swath of Americans associate with immersive, digital entertainment.

Encouraging trends.
You can already see baby steps in the adoption of a new digital idiom. Certainly the goings on at OK Studios suggest a point of departure. Here flash programming helps ratchet up the engagement level—but that’s not the whole story.

The site also delivers pages composed of surprising imagery and loose-limbed copy, working in concert to create a branded mood / voice. And while you could argue OK Studio isn’t hemmed in by the necessity to hawk merchandise, it’s easy to see how an e-tail component could be handled in this idiom.

As a cursory Google search will tell you, these are trends and tendencies explored by a number of adventuresome Web designers, including, unfortunately, cartoonish “3D” approaches that interfere with consumer engagement by adding extraneous layers of “realism” to the interface.

But enough. At issue here is not what programming technique to use. The point is to find a way to communicate in digital space that’s truly idiomatic to the medium. It’s something that needs to evolve at its own pace, but does require one inciting incident: The decision to walk away from the Grid and the Rail.

Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY



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