Q&A: Marketers and social media

This is the text of an email I sent back in June to Tim Hoang for an article he was writing; Antisocial Marketing. Tim later joined my team at Porter Novelli, which has been one of my greater successes. God knows why, after this email. I’ve used Tim’s questions as the main headings below.

On 23 Jun 2008, at 06:18, Tim Hoang wrote:

Why do you think marketers are failing to capitalise on the potential of social media?

The biggest problem is the word “media” in that question. The very fact that we’re trying to think of and treat people as “media” is an epic failure. These are people, and people will always resist strongly our attempts to use them as channels through which to sell our shampoo and toothpaste products.

Who do I have to talk to to get something done around here?

Nearly everything we do in the dominant marketing world is based on asking questions like “how do we talk to as few people as possible to have as big an impact as possible?” In the dominant model, those few people are journalists, ad sales team, retailers, special interest groups, and politicians.

Now in the emergent marketing world, we’re asking questions like, “who are the most influential bloggers?” and “who are the trend setters among this group of schoolchildren?”

What do both these have in common? I think that we’re asking the same question; “who do I have to talk to to get something done around here?” In both the dominant and the emergent worlds we’re assuming that we – the marketers, the brands, the companies are the subject of the sentence. It’s all about us, and what *we* want to do.

This is the biggest mistake. We can’t buy people like we can buy media space. We can’t come to an understanding with them like we do with editorial teams.

Are we fucked?

Well, no. If we stop seeing this thing we’re calling “social media” as a channel through which we can talk to audiences, and understand that they’re channels through which we can hear our audiences talking about us, we’re about three quarters of the way to coping with the emerging marketing landscape.

Do you think marketers will ever get to grips with social media? After all, marketing is about pushing messages. The general public are now pulling information from the Web and there is no need for marketers.

Marketing isn’t about pushing messages. I think you’re talking about “advertising” there. Marketing is a strange combination of disciplines which could be summed up as “everything that a company does that isn’t simple operations” or, “everything a company does that makes money instead of costing money.” The fact that – for the past three or four decades marketers have been addicted to the quick, reliable, predictable crack-fix of broadcast advertising doesn’t mean that this is all there is to marketing. We need to go back before we go forward – to rediscover some of the things that we’ve forgotten about marketing if we’re going to know how to approach this emerging world

Is there really an opportunity for marketers in the social media space – there are very few examples of successful campaigns? To some it seems to be all hot air by the marketing and PR industry. Or is this down to the Long Tail and the successful ones we wouldn’t hear about them unless it was directly relevant to us?

Campaigns are “oldthink” – they’re a function of finite marketing budgets. Broadcast advertising is expensive – so planners have to think in terms of short bursts of activity; all of our best thinking for the past few decades has been about how to optimize these short bursts.

Today we need to think about long term, sustained activities and programmes, laid down one layer at a time. It’s going to be as much (if not more) about what we do, as it is about what we say.

How can marketers better leverage social media?

Come and talk to us.