Does anyone else think social media and digital marketing is beginning to lose its soul? I was reminded of this recently when chatting to a digital marketer who I often collaborate with. She was struggling with one of her clients: The relationship seemed good, yet every few weeks it dipped, the client seemingly unhappy about results and sometimes querying the work that was being done. How I can relate to that!
THE MISSING PIECE
Regardless of how clear the deliverables are, there is one area of business that still seems to be misunderstood by many: social media and digital marketing. The problem is partly down to semantics. We don’t understand what these words stand for, either because it’s not our thing, or because digital marketing continues to evolve at such a pace it’s hard to keep up. It means different things to different industries or businesses.
This was the case in the traditional world of PR and communication — the dark art of generating press coverage was always hard to measure and as such often misunderstood by a lot of executives.
But there is a difference. PR remains deeply rooted in the art of storytelling, whereas digital marketing is at risk of becoming a poor form of advertising. Digital marketing doesn’t have to go through the rigorous editorial process of glossy magazines and it doesn’t have the sizeable budget of big agency ad campaigns. So where does that leave brands and businesses that want to tap into new audiences online?
STORY-LED CONTENT IS KING
I’m incredibly thankful to have worked up the ladder from PR & sales assistant to head of Global Communications, with a detour in digital communications. Had I not had the initial PR experience, I would not have learnt about soft-touch pitching (far from large agency work some of you may have heard of) and simple storytelling; both key elements of building brands that people can fall in love with.
Anyway, I digress. Back to the unnerved client. I reminded my colleague first that these are difficult times. Personally, I think it’s good to name what’s in the room before getting into the thick of it.
Then my advice was to educate: there is a lack of clarity. Eliminate misunderstanding by going over the basics again because, as I said above, in digital, things move fast, and the basics are not the same from one year to the next. Explore for areas of possible confusion. See how that helps.
After our call, I kept pondering this and came back to thinking about the nature of the misunderstanding. Where was it coming from?
SOCIAL AND DIGITAL BLIND SPOTS
I ‘grew up’ in a company that didn’t advertise and refused to even use the word marketing. I didn’t go to business school, unlike many in my field, so my concept of marketing has always been opaque, and that was even before digital!
Over the years, I ended up taking a number of responsibilities that normally fall under the remit of digital marketers, so I became relatively fluent in it. Yet the term still holds some elusiveness for me, because I never worked in mass marketing; a whole side of the activity is lost on me.
I greatly benefited from Seth Godin’s view on direct marketing vs advertising. In this unscripted recording, he walks us through Google’s history — from bidding for keywords to cancelling third party cookies. A subject I was planning to write about a few days ago, made clearer thanks to this.
What I see as the blind spot is due to the evolution of social media, from being a network to becoming a publishing platform. You only have to look at all big brands’ content to see it’s as glossy as it gets. It looks like advertising, but without the emotion.
Let me be clear, there is a place for beautiful and creative advertising. What I have a problem with is digital marketing that comes across as tactical, mechanical, often a bit shallow. The enchanting stories are rarely there. I want to be romanced by a brand, not hassled for my money.
Show me the story! I want to get to know a brand first, and then maybe, I’ll click through the ‘discover more’ button.
Back in the day, I remember epic fights in a Paris conference room when I was trying to defend the brand’s social platforms as a storytelling place, against retail directors who just wanted to use them to convert to sales. I managed to keep them out, but I think they never heard my point, which was that by actively NOT pursuing sales, we were successful at creating community interest and desire for the product.
That was all ‘BA’, or Before the Algorithm.
I think that most of us, myself included, missed the memo when social networks turned into social media. I must have been busy with something else.
What is behind the word media? Advertising. Publishing.
And what’s behind that next word? Budget.
As far as I can tell, most people and certainly many brands and designers I know still believe they can do great things without large budgets. They have heard (from me) that there are some key points to making the algorithm work for them a bit more, including how to use all the tools on the platform, using the native Reels instead of reusing Tik Toks, etc. to convince the machine to put their content upfront. The truth is our digital tools have simply turned into publishing platforms.
Possibly untrustworthy ones at that.
What do you do when you are an up-and-coming brand or you have no budget? You want to reach a new audience, but platforms want to reap the benefits first before letting that happen.
With normal users having seen their reach tank over the past months, something unhelpful and confusing, at a time where connection to each other is so important, we need to get to grips with the limitations in front of us.
This is why misunderstandings emerge between clients and digital marketers or social media managers. It’s especially true in my corner of the consulting world, where luxury, sustainable fashion and design firms do not advertise and hence are unwilling to pay to play for this online ad game. But the truth is, no matter how pretty the grid posts and the stories are, however well mixed the high-low of content or snappy the copy, your reach will always remain incredibly limited.
But there is a way forward. As a storyteller, as a brand builder, as someone who likes to help people create the right messages to reach their audiences, with, or without the budget here is my advice:
Serve your current audience. They are here already. Talk to them. Ask them what they want?
Explore other channels. Explore audio.
Connect back to your own brand story, to your values, your sense of purpose, your deep intention. Maybe consider what change you are seeking to make in the world.
Per my earlier posts, it’s important to come back to the essentials, the human connection.
Connect back to your curiosity, find a way to feel excited or passionate about the subject of the content that you’re going to put out there. As my friend Paolo Ferrarini said a few months ago on the Out of the Clouds podcast, ‘Content should come from a place of love.’
And doesn’t it feel like the perfect time to be talking about love?
Let’s love our content. If you don’t love it, please don’t put it out there. If you don’t believe in it, work at it some more, keep your money and go back to the drawing board. There’s already so much out there, we are bombarded every minute of every day from all angles. Do you really want one more notification on your screen?
WHO ARE THE WINNERS?
Those who choose wisely, who don’t spam. Those who know who they are and keep on doing good work, talking about what matters to them. They find clients who believe what they believe. Sure, they too are penalized by the system on the current publishing platforms, yet I have faith that new avenues will open because consistency, persistence and inspiration can get us to amazing places.
British homeware brand Feldspar comes to mind as a beautiful example.
So, do choose wisely, make sure that what is out in front of you is something you love and keep at it.
As to what the future holds? Instagram announced plans last year to really focus on its search tools. As a visual search platform, I see it as a wonderful resource. Move over Pinterest.
This post was originally published on February 11 2021 in the AVM.Consulting newsletter, which comes out weekly. For more insights into business development, storytelling and coaching,visit: https://avm.consulting/