You speak to millions, but you’re talking to no one*

Through the past 20 years, digital media has played a bigger and bigger role in marketing communication. But for those twenty years, we’ve treated it as something different than everything else.

n principle, mass communications is a simple concept; if you have a message that you think a lot of people need to hear, you broadcast it to everyone at the same time. But in reality, it’s most often based on what you need to say, not what the target audiences need or want to know. Sure, most brands make an effort to create the message in a way that is creative and appeals to the consumers, but chances are that they’re talking to quite a few others along the way. Still, there’s nothing wrong with that – it does help building the brand over time. In fact, mass marketing has ruled the world for more than a century, and it has been one of the key success factors for some of the most iconic brands in the world, like Coke, Nike, VW and McDonald’s to name a few. It has been immensely effective, both in terms of reach and in terms of message comprehension. And it’s probably not going away. Although, with the decline of newspapers and the (soon to come) demise of linear TV, it will have to find new forms.

Where traditional mass communications tends to be ineffective, is when the advertised brand is only intended for a targeted group of people. Or the category has situation-based purchase patterns, where the consumers are only receptive to the communication when they need a product from the category  – like how new cars (mostly) only matter to people who are considering getting rid of their old one. Mass marketing is ineffective when you only really need to reach out to a select few, or a certain group. And it’s ineffective in reaching the demographics who have given up on linear TV and newspapers. This is not news, it’s been happening for a decade already. Consumers have moved or are moving to other channels, where they can get the content or information that matters to them. Simply put, they are putting their own needs over brand needs.

Unfortunately, it looks like many brands are taking the same approach in digital media. They are blasting off one-way messages as pre-rolls or banner ads, as Facebook updates or paid tweets. Even on Instagram and Snapchat, one-way communications seems to be the tool of choice. Where’s the engagement? Where’s the consumer centric approach? Where’s the connection? Of course, it’s easier, or should I say more comfortable, that way. But it certainly isn’t good marketing practice. And it doesn’t create the business results everyone is looking for. In fact, it’s both counterproductive and counterintuitive when you look at all the opportunities to make real connections through digital media. Pre-rolls can be used to engage (and you can at least make sure people don’t click the skip button). Banners can increase brand awareness. More interestingly, owned and earned media can build communities, create ambassadors and work as reach and engagement amplifiers. But it can’t be done by blasting traditional brand messages. It was fine in 2001, but it won’t cut it in 2015.

So what do we do instead? How do we reach people in a meaningful and financially viable way? How do we make sure we don’t waste money on people who’d never buy our product? The answer lies in our near future – and in our not so distant past. Let’s start with the past. Speaking to people in a one-to-one situation has always been the best way of selling something – especially if the product is something you impulsively pick up at 7-Eleven. One to one allows you to talk to them personally, in a way that is both relevant and engaging for them. As in actual conversations, the more you know about the person you’re speaking to, the deeper and more engaging the conversation is. A good conversation involves both speaking and listening. This simple principle has been the foundation of direct marketing or CRM for ages, and is, quite simply, common sense. So let’s look a bit into the future (and really not that far).

What if we combined everything we know about a consumer with everything we know about people similar to that person and additional information like time and place, current events, weather or whatever is relevant to what we are talking about? And then use algorithms and technology to identify their needs and wishes? I’m not talking about re-targeting ads (aka stalker ads). I am talking about real data-driven knowledge and predictive technologies blended with personal identifiers. Ok, it could sound scary, but in reality it’s a less invasive form of communication. If we speak to people in a respectful and knowledgeable way, and they are spared from information that is irrelevant to them, it would make their lives slightly easier and less cluttered.

In 2002, Steven Spielberg envisioned what advertising could be like in the future through his sci-fi thriller, Minority Report. Unfortunately, the only interesting thing with those ads was the technology. If those technologies were used in a more creative and interesting way – and applied less heavy-handedly, it would actually be welcomed by the consumer (or business decision maker). The specific technologies from Minority Report may not be available yet, but the principles are – using narrowcast technologies, such as Apple’s iBeacon and advance algorithms to predict preferences.

Another way of creating dialogue is by creating content that is relevant to the target audience. With emphasis on the target audience. Most brands are so eager to put their name on something, that they forget that it’s not really about them. As a young woman said in a focus group recently “If I tell my Facebook friends about your brand, it’s not because I like your brand, but rather because I like my friends”.

So content is only king if it is relatable to the audience, has relevance to the category, and provides an ongoing relationship and dialogue. The point is to find a way to initiate engaging conversations. Not conversations where people say positive things about your brand, they most likely won’t do that – and even if they do, others may not find that a very interesting conversation. The key is to find something that is close to your brand and close to their hearts. Something they find interesting, engaging and worth talking about. Your brand’s social media reach may feel limited, but the exponential reach of your engaged consumers is going to be huge. By combining great, relevant content with technology, you can build reach, adjust messaging and target precisely, without a huge media spill where you waste dollars on consumers who will never consider your brand/product anyway.

It’s easy to confuse this new era relationship marketing with “loyalty” and direct marketing, but it shouldn’t be. As Grant Fairley said, “If you want loyalty – get a dog!”. People are only loyal to themselves, their family and friends – and most of all, to their own wallet. They do not care about you and your brand and being loyal. The only time a consumer thinks or talks about loyalty to a brand is when something goes wrong, and they have to call customer service; “I’ve been a loyal customer for 25 years…”. New era relationship marketing, in the post-digital age, is about engaging in conversations with the right audience, at the right time, with the right topic. And it needs to be at the heart of everything you do. It is not easy to get it right, but with the right strategy and the right idea, it sure will be profitable and sustainable over time.

*Headline is borrowed from Serj Tankian’s song «Forget Me Knot» from his album Harakiri (2013)

This post was first published on Campaign Asia Pacific on June 8, 2015

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Main photo by, under CC]