Stuart Goldwin

Much has been said, and continues to be said, about digital channels and the so-called social media. Everybody wants to use them; everybody wants to be part of them. However, we believe that many marketers’ understanding and utilisation of these digital (and social media) channels remains rather superficial – analogous, perhaps, to a media-servicing function at best, or a form of free advertising.

Why are advertisers so loathe to invest real money and other resources in assets for the digital channels, when they do so quite readily in the traditional channels?

Perhaps the problem lies in the perception that because Facebook, YouTube, blogs and the like are free services, and therefore any communication that lives within them should by default carry no cost. There’s also the issue of ROI; advertisers may argue that they don’t see any real measurable effect on their bottom line. It could also simply be that age-old debate between advertisers and their agencies, as to what constitutes creative use of the new channels.

In this article, we take an unashamedly subjective look at these issues, beginning with a brief sojourn into the recent advertising past (purely for contextual purposes, you understand), and concluding with some philosophical ramblings on the matter of social media and viral communication in general.

At some point during the early 90s, advertising agencies began to evolve. What were once “traditional” practitioners in advertising (yes, we’ve actually seen agencies describe themselves as such) started to offer “360 degree” services and smaller agencies offering “integrated branding” services sprang up around them to capitalise on the wave.

A lot of this was due to the nature of the way the big agencies were being remunerated – the rise of the pure media agencies meant that the line between ATL and BTL was being blurred.

What these agencies were telling these clients is interesting; they were ostensibly concerned with “doing what was right” for the client, using channels that were appropriate to their goals (as opposed to those that ordinarily made the agency the most money). It was a great story, and many clients bought it (although if we’re honest with ourselves, the real reason was that margins were being squeezed, and communications companies needed to find additional revenue streams in order to survive).

Leaving aside the cynical aspect of the above, the trend toward media-agnosticism was actually quite an important one – it changed the way ideas were created. Ideas were now being created with more than one media-type or channel in mind – it was web AND print, or direct AND web.

Things are evolving again.

In the digital channel(s), production values have gotten better and better (inevitable really – bandwidth has increased immensely and even graphics cards are now as powerful as supercomputers were in the 50s). We are able to inject vastly higher quality into our online contributions than ever before. And consumers and users simply expect more than what passed for interactivity a few years ago.

The Social Media are free, right?

While it’s true that the CEO of an organisation can easily write his own blog at no cost (other than his own time), or the marketing manager can start a Facebook group without raiding the war chest, it’s our experience that such endeavors peter out very quickly, and ultimately do very little good, even in the short term.

Our argument is that TV, cable or otherwise, is also ostensibly free. Yes, you pay a monthly subscription for your decoder, but the same can be said for your Internet subscription and the associated hardware like routers and modems.

So when an advertiser spends $500,000 and 2 months on producing a TV commercial, but confidently assures us that a viral video should cost no more than $2,000 and two days to produce, we can only shudder.

The ROI debate

Advertisers justify the amounts they spend on TV commercials by means of “scientific” demographic information. Both the channel owners and indeed the media buying houses have become really good at producing reams and reams of statistical evidence in support of their expenditure. Terms like affinity, reach, eyeballs, residual audiences, age and income segregation resound through the hallowed spaces of boardrooms everywhere.

And why shouldn’t they? The science of planning is a sophisticated and mature one, developed by some of the best and brightest brains in the business. There’s an enormous body of information, collected over many years, to draw from. We don’t deny that somewhere in all of this there has to be some accuracy being brought to bear on the process.

But that’s not the point, rather, our question centres on why we’re not doing the same in the digital space.

Perhaps it’s not really the advertisers who are out of sync, but rather the media buying houses who are behind the times. And perhaps it’s just because there’s less money to be made from commissions in the digital space.

The media agencies undoubtedly have a lot of power, and yet they seem not to be wielding it to anyone’s advantage other than their own – to the detriment, we suggest, of the very people whose interests they claim to have at heart; their clients.

There is evidence of the effectiveness of digital communication. Is it being given the credence it deserves? Perhaps we need to find another way of measuring the outcome.

Let’s agree to disagree.

Yet another reason for the lack of monetary commitment in the digital/social media channels could be that agencies and advertisers simply can’t agree on what constitutes effective digital communication.

A viral video, for example, is not merely a digitised version of your latest TV ad, randomly uploaded to YouTube and then written about in your next press release. Nor is it intended necessarily to be a hardcore sales message, complete with laundry list of benefits and features.

We’ve come up with a few points, or rules, if you will, for creating viral communication:

Assault the organism. In our opinion the best way to get people to pass on your message is to make them feel something; happy, sad, angry. The worst thing you can do is be neutral.

Be counterintuitive. By this we mean do something unexpected, even at a tangent to your normal sales spiel; forget about trying to promote your products or services as just being “great,” you’ll end up being like everybody else.

Remember it is not an ad. Forget about making the logo bigger (heck, forget about your logo) and trying to get your laundry list of features into the piece; sure it should tie back to who you are, but not at the expense of making it too boring.

An idealistic take on information

Information systems are beginning to reflect the way human beings (and indeed other living organisms) interact with each other. They are becoming social systems in and of themselves. Just as a plant absorbs sunlight, only to photosynthesise it into nutrients by means of a process that is appropriate to its own life, human beings absorb information, turning it into something meaningful for their life. The process by which they do so is contingent upon what they require to sustain themselves at that particular juncture – and this could be news, entertainment, or something else.

The philosophical question in all of this is, when does data become information?

To some extent, it is the job of communications agencies to facilitate this conversion process – we take the raw information from our clients and we turn it into messages.

But beyond this, there is another process at work. The information at this primary level is actually meta-information. It’s the beginning of the journey, rather than the end. A website is a means, rather than an end. Content is largely irrelevant – an excuse to be there. The real trade is in the experience. And so information, for it to really have any value, must be experiential. Or at least speak to some existential part of our lives.

And so back to the issue of the social media.

We see an opportunity (or perhaps trend) in the not-too-distant future (we think that time is already here), when marketers will realise that they it is worthwhile spending money and resources on creating their own digital assets for these channels.

We firmly believe that companies who see the wisdom in our logic will undoubtedly reap the rewards.