STODDER: Businesses need social media, not Don Draper

June 14, 2012

Business

JOHN STODDER, MBJ blogger

Don Draper, the fictional madman-adman of TV fame, has survived booze, cigarettes, two marriages and countless affairs, but a social-media trailblazer insists the 21st century would kill him.

Kill Draper’s spectacular advertising career, anyway.

Curtis Hougland, who has founded – twice – the social-media-marketing firm Attention, is telling corporate executives that Draper’s presentations, dazzling with slogans and story boards, would today turn him into the title character in another popular show: “The Biggest Loser.”

That’s because contemporary advertising, Hougland says, must appeal to Millennials, those born after 1977, who represent 25 percent of the U.S. populace and $890 billion in annual purchasing power. Millennials, also labeled digital natives because they’ve always known computer communications, prefer social media to TV as a place to receive marketing messages, and marketers have to follow them and learn the culture.

Digital natives, Hougland said at the annual Wired Business conference on May 1, expect to be wooed not with the emotional, ego-stroking pitches of the TV era, but rather with an approach that promises something more meaningful. Entertainment is a good option for appealing to digital natives, Hougland said, but there are other choices, too: providing useful information, offering a financial incentive or, a concept that sounds more like consciousness-raising than selling, establishing a “reciprocal relationship” between the consumer and the brand.

That, Hougland explained in an essay in the entrepreneurial magazine Fast Company, refers to the need for a company to give potential customers the feeling that they have an ownership stake in a brand, and that they are even willing to share the brand with their friends.

Hougland’s full presentation is available on video here.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media, Hougland said, are where the world’s marketers can connect with consumers in a far more “immersive” way than ever before. For those without visas for the “digital nation,” immersive refers to the feeling of being pulled in as by an addictive video game, a visual and emotional response the customer wants to repeat.

To Hougland, that is the most important shift from the “Mad Men” era. The marketing tactics of the last century were based on the assumption that customers weren’t interested in being told about products. Rather, they would experience an advertisement as an interruption of whatever they were reading or watching on TV. Interrupt them enough times with the same clever message, the ad creators reasoned, and consumers would remember it.

For instance, even at TV-advertising’s zenith, Anheuser-Busch was wise not to proclaim its flagship Budweiser “the world’s best-tasting beer,” but the clopping hooves of the Clydesdale horses and the catchy jingle “This Bud’s for you” sold a lot of six-packs.

In the era of the Internet, social media and the DVR, companies have lost much of their power, as electronics have given consumers the power to avoid advertising. But they still consume, and they want to know why they should buy Brand Z over Brand X.

By waiting for serious prospects to seek them out, marketers can establish their brand by satisfying a higher level of interest. What grabs attention is longer, more substantial content than “This Bud’s for you,” messages that explain as much as they sell.

Yet, “emotional engagement” is still part of the selling process, Hougland emphasized. The distinction is that now, the best of that emotion comes from other customers.

More than any other marketing tactic, social media is a channel for word-of-mouth marketing, buying something because a friend recommended it, seeking out information about the product (and perhaps even clicking on “Add to shopping cart”) in the same Internet session in which the friend’s recommendation came over the electronic transom.

Hougland cited Procter & Gamble Co. global marketing chief Marc Pritchard’s recent announcement that the consumer-products giant had established a “vision … to build our brands through lifelong, one-on-one relationships in real time with every person in the world,” a statement that may be the most ambitious in the history of business.

Nonetheless, “When we think about social media,” Hougland said, “for the first time, we start to think how (what P&G aspires to) is possible.”

Sales-dependent businesses have long believed in the marketing funnel. That venerable geometric metaphor, which dates back to 1898, is being replaced by a repeating loop, Hougland said.

The loop is the first thing on Attention’s home page, and he displayed it at the Wired Business conference. It is a circle that starts with a link, “the most ubiquitous form of word-of-mouth,” he said. “Every day, people send me links. That’s how you get my attention,” the second phase of the loop.

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 Links are more a reflection of Hougland’s friends than the brands they link to, he said. If the link takes him to an article about a new product, above all he remembers who sent it to him, and he associates the product with whatever he thinks about that friend.

Marketers have always known word-of-mouth can be the most effective, credible way to sell a product, but it was difficult to manage and quantify until social media came along.

The connection with a trusted friend is how a link earns “consideration,” the next phase, in which the potential customer is thinking and exploring the information available on the Web. This is when the marketer needs to persuade by offering something.

The “acquisition” phase follows, advancing the customer from potential to actual. The relationship begins with the customer accepting a trial period for a new product, or an agreement to accept email.

That initial free product must stir passions and start conversations online. The marketing messages can be presented in any form: a video, a website, even old media, such as a TV commercial, but enhanced with references to the brand’s social media presence.

Customers inspired by what they see, hear or read will reward the company in two ways: by buying something, which then creates the possibility of a repeat purchase; and by using social media to recommend the product to friends, the act represented by the “advocacy” element.

The loop is about establishing a long relationship with the customer, or a “lifetime” relationship, to quote more of the extravagant rhetoric that comes with the territory of social-media marketing.

Hougland founded Attention in 1993, making it one of the first new-media marketing agencies.  Among its early clients were Amazon, AOL, Time, Inc. and Microsoft, at a time when the tools of such marketing included bulletin boards and online forums. He then worked at the PR/marketing firm Ruder Finn, running its new media practice, but re-founded Attention in 2006, working for clients including Mattel, Verizon and CNN.

For Mattel in 2011, Attention staged the reunion of Barbie and Ken as part of the re-launch of the Ken doll, creating presences for both characters on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare – a location-based social media service – in a campaign that lasted a year, replete with “flirty interactions” between the two dolls and other plot points that social media fans could follow.

Despite the lighter-than-air quality of such promotions, they are designed to deliver hard numbers.

“The quants are taking over the world,” Hougland said. “The math is trumping the art.”

The point of these campaigns is not to be creative for its own sake, but to stimulate sharing, which is carefully measured.

“The days of Don Draper are over,” Hougland said. A product’s branding is no longer the brainstorm of a centralized entity like an ad agency, shaping the way the masses see a product that is waved in front of them while they’re already emotionally involved in watching a football game or a soap opera.

Today’s consumer businesses and their marketers first must determine what it is about their product that is worth talking about, then try to conjure these conversations to life – and that will be the brand, the result of a collaborative process with customers, who will behave more like fans than passive consumers.

Imagine your product as the focus of a conversation that will last for many years. What can you do to keep that conversation interesting? That, Hougland said, is the core of your marketing task in the realm of social media.

>> John Stodder is a national blogger for The Dolan Company, the parent company of The Mississippi Business Journal.

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