Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why you can no longer buy the media

First published on Knewsroom
(with thanks to the kommuknity for the incredibly ego-boosting 41,860 watts :) )

Social Media Marketing is increasingly popping up all over the web as the bandwagon of choice for communications strategists. While there will be plenty of helpful contributions like this article, I fear that there will be some very tedious and expensive attempts to hijack the internet for commercial or political use, which will fail. In the meantime, the risk is that advertising revenue will decline, putting at risk the very model that much of the social media depends on while companies try to market themselves on the cheap.

The great development of the internet is how far individuals are in control of what they view. People decide what to open themselves up to based on trust. The links are between individuals grouped into communities. Best of all, people recommend things to each other because they want to, not because they are paid to. Attempts to cut into those relationships with marketing messages are binned as the spam that they are.

The public relations industry has been able to take advantage of the mainstream media's refusal to invest in journalism (see: churnalism) but the internet gives us the chance to bypass media pointlessness and go straight to the source. If journalists stop worrying about the effect of all this on their own jobs, they could do what they were always meant to do - report what's new in a way that is clear and simple to the reader who wants to find out what happened this hour/yesterday/this week. They could signpost to what's online and add healthy amounts of real-life questioning and investigation. Novel, no?

Where does it leave the PR workers? Well, since so many of them turned from journalism to PR out of necessity, there's nothing to stop them using their talents to feed more information onto the web and stopping the obsessive drive for control that makes it so difficult to find out anything about what is happening in our institutions. If you were asking me how Stoke's extensive public relations budget should be spent, for example (and I don't suppose for a minute that anybody will), I'd suggest one PR officer for each of the six towns (yes, even Fenton), whose role would be to channel information between councillors, council workers and the community in whatever ways were most appropriate, whether that means talking (yes, talking) to people on the street (bejeezus!), writing articles for their own web presences or sending information to the local media.

If politicians and businesses really want to take advantage of the potential of the social web, they need to relax and realise that what people are really interested in is authenticity and the chance to build trust. I've been quite impressed by Gordon Brown's Twitter feed in the last couple of weeks. There's very little spin you can fit into a 140 character tweet, so the unnamed tweeter (tweeterer?) just posts updates about what Gordon is up to. He also follows all his own followers, meaning that you can get into a direct dialogue - again, there's no room for long boring discussions but you can give instant feedback or ask short questions. Undoubtedly, some media pundit will try to say how very cringe-worthy it all is, but since we've all stopped finding the time to read what they say, it doesn't really matter.

And because of that Twitter feed, what did I, an avid hater of the Labour party, find myself doing yesterday? Posting Gordon's comments from the press release and the BBC report onto Knewsroom in a story that subsequently got 'invested' onto the front page. Free PR in the old-fashioned sense, and purely because Gordon said something that I thought was useful and would be of interest to the Knewsroom audience. I would be very happy to follow any of my political representative's Twitter feeds if they started them, because it cuts out the party political rubbish and simply lets me know what they're doing.

Moving on to businesses, it is a similar lesson. People need to think of the way they do business or make buying choices. Increasingly for me, it is about personal connection. We all know and accept that everyone has to make a living, but we'd be more likely to work with people we have come to trust through some form of collaboration. It's about giving as much of yourself as you want to, but being clear about what it is you are selling. I am about to change all my business bank accounts to a new bank in Burslem, firstly because they were recommended to me and secondly, when I went in to open a separate account they were kind over my chronic inability to fill in forms. Thirdly, I was reminded in the branch of the advertising that I liked on TV and I thought "Oh yes, I like them". Amazing what a pretty cartoon and song can do for a business's reputation.

This combination marks several brands that I like and I'd name Apple and Honda as good examples. Their advertising is well-made and sticks in the mind, making their products more desirable. Advertising reinforces personal recommendation and gives me specific calls to action. Targeted advertising is often useful to me. Sites have enough of my personal information and even the words I am using to mean that the ads alongside my web use can be complementary, while still separate from my surfing.

So to conclude this terribly long article, it's the combination of advertising and people-resources that will set apart successful marketing strategies. By investing in advertising, businesses are much more likely to get themselves close to the audiences they want to reach than by indulging in passing fads like viral marketing, which are much more risky, or by producing old-style PR which will increasingly be ignored. If they want to use networking as a method, they need to invest in people to spend time establishing themselves in communities and building trust by making a useful contribution to the internet. Those people will need to believe in what they are doing and have the freedom to tell the truth and use their own initiative to add value to their company's work. The new wave of big websites have got it sussed out, it remains to be seen whether the old regimes can change as effectively.

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