Brands need to understand their customers? No shit, Sherlock

In this guest posting Simon van Wyk argues that the future of digital marketing is not simply social media.

OH no! The PR industry is finally interested in the Internet.  

The Sydney Morning Herald published a shrill piece from the digital director at Burson-Marsteller. The article reads like a piece from 1995 and to be honest it is just plain irritating. For the past 15 years the digital agencies have lived off the crumbs from the traditional agencies tables. We got a brief for a global consumer brand about five years ago. They were launching to a teenage market and their online budget was big – their words. Well it was $90,000 and the rest of the global repositioning went to TV and magazines.

The industry is now on the verge of a power shift. Digital will start to come first and not last when strategies are developed and budgets are allocated. A senior marketer from J&J wrote in AdAge about the huge changes needed to take advantage of these shifts. So with this huge change imminent their PR person suggests: “In most cases traffic to branded websites is in decline”. The article then goes on to talk about brand centric vs. user centric communication, social media and web 1.0 hangovers etc.

I was so annoyed I spent a few hours looking at Nielsen data. I looked at Automotive with brands like Ford, Toyota, General Motors, Honda, I looked at banks, I looked at household brands and I looked at the photography category.

It’s not true.

Within each of these categories you have had increases and declines that mirror the health of the brands but the traffic to the categories has actually increased. Not a lot but Internet penetration is now pretty high so it’s not going to be huge. Why has it grown? It’s grown because more and more consumers are using the Internet as part of the shopping, buying and customer service cycle. More than ever its critical marketers realise their own website is often at the beginning and end of a sales cycle. If you don’t get the user experience right here you’ve lost the consumer.

The article suggests the game has changed with social media – it goes on to explain how people are spending time with the social networks and successful brands will be “brands that understand their customers”. No shit, Sherlock!

I thought understanding the customer was fundamental to the marketing job and I’d like to suggest that the rush to social media has done exactly the opposite. The debate about whether the “Greatest Job in the World” campaign delivered any sales is a perfect example. The reason people come to Australia differs by age, country, circumstance, pricing, bundling etc. It’s a complicated market, the honeymoon travel purchase is completely different to the burnt out executive travel purchase. The “greatest job” blog did nothing to differentiate between these markets and looked to me like noise. The noise is probably called branding and the fact that there is debate about the outcome suggests the outcome was marginal.

I know its heresy but there are a number of people who are questioning the Ford USA social media activities. While Ford is selling more cars, they have better vehicles than ever and a competitor in Toyota USA who have had a few issues. Apparently the dealers are not seeing the impact of this social media activity and again it makes sense. How does video of someone driving a car donated by Ford add to the buying process. Again it’s a complex purchase with a myriad of decision-making factors. Also the final stage of the buying process is almost always a visit to the manufacturers website and if you fail to satisfy here you’ve lost the sale.

Apparently personalization is the future. We’re going to move from sites that treat every customer equally to a more tailored experience. I think most brands have been working with the concept of personas for around 10 years. Many of our biggest brands deliver highly personalized experiences and have been for years. Just because brands are not talking to their PR companies about this stuff does not mean they are not doing it.

The article finished with a criticism that just 20% of the top 20 brands in Australia have a blog and thank goodness I say. Lots of these companies don’t really have enough to say that is not said elsewhere and a blog is a complete waste of time. If you can’t keep the content fresh and you don’t have enough to say don’t have a blog. You can only have a conversation if there is room and interest in a conversation. A lot of products are really dull, really low involvement and are just not going to generate lively engagement on a blog. A glib one size fits all – get a blog and a Facebook page does not deal with the complexities of marketing through channels, distributors, franchisees or selling direct.

This type of article does the industry no good. The digital industry is on the verge of being the primary owner of the strategy and budget. An article that regurgitates old thinking adds to the belief of some CMO’s that the digital industry is not ready to lead. Social media fits well with PR but it’s a small part of a digital strategy. Suggesting it’ll be the entire strategy is naïve and ignorant of the huge landscape of digital marketing.


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