Here’s a thought.
Why are we addicted to ruining the things we love? Why must media—free media—be monetized in order to gain any sort of truly significant real-world usership? What is it about finding new, fun, and easy things to do with one’s time that notoriously and indefinitely attracts influencers, who in turn notoriously and indefinitely attract the rest of the world, who then (duh) bring the brand sharks with them?
And why—or maybe how—are we surprised when the feeding frenzy starts? Why is it still sort of shocking when the rolling media plains—social and otherwise—are inevitably ravaged at a notoriously faster and faster clip?
The answer’s money, right?
For years, brands have looked around at where the crowds are and proceeded to move in with such a quickening and resounding force that it—they; their arrival—changes the landscape of the new territory they claim. Newspapers, mail, radio, television, phone, email, social networking, social media, casual content platforms: All of these are communication channels that started as emerging solutions for connecting people and allowing them to interact together.
Not coincidentally, all of these channels exist today as places where users must turn their collars up and squint against a barrage of paid placement messaging if they intend to continue trying to reap the benefits of those channels. That’s kind of a bummer.
A further bummer is the half-life on emerging channels. The user-led lifespan of the relevance of new media outlets like Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine is getting shorter and shorter before the ever-increasingly savvy brands find them and learn how to turn that footprint of users into a footprint of consumers.
But enough doom.
We can all agree that—as with most things—there is a time and place for marketing. Sunday evening at dinnertime is typically NOT the most welcome and inviting time to get a phone call about printer toner. Having a photo of your child liked and tagged ‘#brandX’ on Instagram by a user who’s clearly in the charge of said brand is maybe not the best, most ingratiating way to get me to engage.
That said there is an appropriate time for it. There can be an inviting way for brands to become a part of channel-wide communication, and further, it should be said that never before has the broadcasting of a commercial message been healthier. The digital age has forced us (marketers, the stewards of brands) to be honest. It in fact has turned marketing from a broadcast to a conversation.
A small—but significant—suggestion: As professional marketers we must learn how to be a part of the conversation, lest our brand-clients be perceived as flustered tourists looking very clownish amidst the cool and the cultured. Our objective as marketers—regardless of the channel we’re using—should be to provide something of value that is relevant to that channel. We can’t be impostors; we must find a way to become (and stay) invited guests.
Brands have a powerful and obvious opportunity to convey their message and entice consumers to engage with them via all sorts of outlets, digital and otherwise. There is a choice, however, that these brands should be looking to marketers to help them make: Shall we mount a wholesale attack on the senses and force ways for any product or service to become relevant to any gathering of any type of consumer consuming any type of media? Or shall we look for smart, clever, and measurable opportunities for linking products and services to a focused and like-minded knot of users who will in turn have a lower probability of being offended and moving on?
It’s a loaded question.
As platforms go, it doesn’t get much more ‘omni’ than South by Southwest. It’s a growing number of things to a growing number of people, and brands have certainly noticed.
On the one hand, SXSW can be one of the most powerful events to network with your peers, and share products with a specific target of young and savvy influencers. On the other hand, it can be a gross parading of a brand’s purchased prowess (emphasis on: purchased). The total experience can end up feeling hijacked and co-opted by energy drinks and junk food—and the core crowd at SXSW is one that immediately sees a tourist for exactly what it is. It’s ground worth treading on carefully, but when brands like Uber, Daft Punk, or Samsung (that hand-delivered battery exchanges to tweeters who asked) go all-in for a mindful and equitable exchange, it works.
Digitally speaking, Tumblr represents an equally all-encompassing but still not-everything-to-everybody space in the pop culture zeitgeist. It’s fun. It’s a fun place that’s intended to provide a cheap and easy way for Jane or Joe Everyperson to publish and consume an unknowable and impossibly diverse range of content at his or her various and ever-changing whim.
This broad and/or no rules approach to what content does or does not belong on Tumblr could be the reason why brands feel compelled to launch campaigns directed at user-generated engagements. It could likewise be the reason why the platform’s users feel entitled to punish—quite mercilessly—brands that “get it wrong” and litter their environment with campaigns that don’t quite hit the mark.
What does “getting it right” look like? Movies like This is the End and The Kings of Summer have taken an entertainment-as-entertainment approach to their presence on Tumblr and have been embraced on both a macro (This is the End-promoted posts gained tens of thousands of positive interactions) and micro (The Kings of Summer has kept things grass-roots and is experiencing a smaller—but fierce—popular and critical acceptance) level. Real people engage with this clearly branded content, and even go so far as choosing to help spread the word by reposting to their social circle.
Getting it wrong looks—to put it quite mildly—like a bunch of orange-related content injected into your #apples hashtag feed.
Steward the user
People know they have a choice. They know, and are becoming increasingly confident with that knowledge, that if they grow tired enough of a stifling commercial presence at concerts, peppered throughout their blogs, or interleaved between photos of their loved ones that they are free to leave and find the next thing. There will always be someplace else for them to go and they know it.
But we can use that knowledge—that confidence—to our benefit, and steward these users as the influencers they are.
As professional marketers we need to turn from using our voice just because there is a crowd, and respect the intended purpose of the channel we are engaging. Subverting that intended purpose will achieve the most success at generating influencer eye-rolls and accelerating platform sprawl. But, if we come bearing gifts—provide a value for a person’s time—we may find that we’re invited to stay awhile.
Justin Jewett is technical director at BKWLD, an independent digital agency founded in 2001. Whether it’s creative digital strategy and execution, branded content, or live-action production and post, the BKWLD team is dedicated to doing great work for great clients and have a hell of a time doing it.