The Marketer’s New Clothes

Not too long ago there was a marketer, who was obsessively focused on “the next big thing” and spent a great deal of his budget on the latest fads; his only ambition was to be written up in Ad Age and Brandweek. He did not care for sales spreadsheets and customer databases did not interest him; the only thing that really interested him was to focus on the next brand campaign.

The industry in which he worked was very social and every day many new agencies from around the world gave him a call. One day an agency came calling and let everyone know they were social media gurus and could build the best campaign anyone had ever dreamed of. Moreover, these campaigns used social media and people who questioned their value were clearly not meant to be in marketing or management.

“I need to get me one of those,” thought the marketer. “If I can shift my budget out of traditional channels and get my customers to start selling to each other through viral marketing, I’ll be a hero.” And he awarded a huge project in advance to the gurus so they could get started right away. They set up a Twitter account and a Facebook group and seemed to be hard at work. They asked for an espresso machine and gluten-free snacks to keep them going and found users to follow and friend late into the night.

“I wonder how the campaign is coming along,” thought the marketer. But he felt a bit nervous when he remembered that people who weren’t qualified to be marketers wouldn’t “get it.” Personally, he thought he was in the know, but thought it’d be a good idea to test someone else instead.

“I’ll send my direct marketing specialist to see the gurus,” thought the marketer. “She’s a no-nonsense professional and knows how campaigns work.”

The direct marketer went into the conference room where the gurus sat surfing away on their netbooks. “OMG!” she thought and opened her eyes wide, “This all looks like spam to me,” but she did not say so. The gurus asked her to click around a bit more and asked if she could see the authority and influence that would be created. The marketer tried her best but couldn’t determine where any value existed. “Oh dear,” she thought, “what am I missing? I must be too old to understand! No, I can’t let anyone say I don’t get it.”

“What do you think?” said one of the gurus, while he clicked on a profile picture.

“Oh, we are certainly innovating here,” replied the direct marketer. “I’ll tell my boss that we are really driving the engagement with these initiatives.”

Now the gurus asked for more money, which they required for HD Flip cams, Bluetooth headsets, and an iPhone app, which they would need to take the campaign to the next level. They used these for their personal blogs, but they continued to chat with people through the Twitter account and on the Facebook group wall.

Soon afterwards, the marketer sent his web analytics guy to see the gurus and ask if the campaign would be ready for launch soon. Like the direct marketer, he couldn’t find any direct connection to value, either.

“Isn’t this a real early adopter methodology?” asked the gurus, showing screengrabs of the social media accounts.

“I’m from the digital world,” said the web analytics guy. “So it’s strange that I’m not getting it and I can’t let anyone know.” He told the gurus that the developing campaign was “killer.” “Definitely cutting edge,” he told the marketing chief.

Everyone in the department talked about the campaign and finally the marketer wanted a walkthrough himself, while it was still in beta. With his team, including the two who had seen the campaign at earlier stages, they went to visit the gurus.

“Isn’t it great?” said the two marketing specialists who had been there before. “You can see where customers will talk to us and we will be able to listen.” And they moused over the @username section of the site.

“WTF?” thought the marketer, “I don’t get it. Am I just a pointy haired boss? Do I still have what it takes to be a marketer in the 21st century?”

“Seriously,” he said to the gurus, “this will win us a lion, pencil, and a webby.” And the marketer’s entire department nodded their heads and advised him to shift his entire budget out of traditional channels in advance of a new product launch that was soon to take place. The gurus were put on retainer, made agency of record, and appointed “social media experts.”

The week leading up to the campaign and product launch, the gurus pulled several all-nighters, going through a case of Red Bull. People should see that they were having a sprint to the finish. They finally stepped away from their computers and sighed, “the campaign is ready for launch.”

The marketer and his entire department gathered in the boardroom; the gurus clicked through sites and said: “This is the YouTube account!” “This is the influencer outreach program!” and “Here are the Google Alerts!” and so on. “They are built on real customer relationships that could never have been created before; that’s the beauty of social media.”

“+1!” said the marketing department; but they really didn’t know what was going on.

“Are you ready to set these accounts to live,” said the gurus, “so we can start building your personal brand and speaking with customers?”

“Let’s do it,” said the marketer. “Aren’t these social media accounts so authentic?”

The department, who felt compelled to participate, had a dozen pre-drafted, legal-approved messages to post online in the different forums. The bloggers who received campaign-related swag from the company wrote flattering posts about the brand and its forward thinking nature. Nobody wished to post a negative comment, for then they might lose subscribers and followers. Never was a campaign more admired.

“But what’s the ROI?” wondered an intern aloud. The question, unpopular at first, soon became widely asked. The gurus attempted to dismiss this by claiming that anyone asking the question didn’t get it. “But what’s the ROI?” repeated the senior management team, in unison.

That made a deep impression upon the marketer, for it seemed that he should know the answer, but the thought to himself, “I just need to ride this out so I can jump to my next gig.” And the department participated even more fervently as they kept launching what they believed to be a consistently clear signal into the noise of multiple social media channels.


Adapted from The Emperor’s New Clothes

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  1. Pete, if you ever present this, there’s some great video from the show “Better Off Ted,” episode Jabberwocky. Hope all is well! Julie

  2. Sorry you’re offended, Peter, but the whole thrust of this article is to highlight the ineptitude of a swath of marketers. Who is being snarky?

    I generally enjoy your posts, by the way, but sometimes the fruit you swing at hangs a little too low.

  3. Peter, I really like the way this story is told, with both agency and CMO sharing the blame. Too often i have seen the next big social media project treated like a creative campaign, and too often have I seen it fail.

    Unfortunately, awards and bonuses are given for quick wins and even splashy, empty victories, as you point out. The incentives are all wrong.

    Because no matter what, any time you are going to take a client’s or company’s cold hard cash and invest it in a marketing or product development program (whether social channels or traditional), ROI matters. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but somewhere along the line, someone very high up will want to know what came of that $50 or $100K or more she “invested” into that fledgling social program.

    Barry Judge, CMO of socially adept Best Buy, stated at the Forrester Consumer Forum late last year in Chicago that social needs to begin with the customer, not the bottom line. And he is right. Social projects need more time to grow organically. And fail along the way without the plug getting pulled.

    But marketers do need to show ROI. That’s why social projects are just like any other, but need a bit more time to grow. Think of them as strategic, longer term investments with potentially much higher impact. You want some of those investments in any portfolio, right?

    How do we reward CMOs and their agencies for these kinds of organic successes over time, and not just recognize big, empty wins?

    I’d say a tight focus on tracking and reporting ROI is the only hope for documenting the success of long-term victories. Stick with it, even if the ROI picture isn’t all that rosy for a few quarters. If you’ve set expectations properly, built a true strategy and started with a relatively modest investment as is typical of social, you should be setting yourselves up for a series of big wins. Have heart.

  4. I appreciate the elegance of wrapping this new-ish story in one of the world’s oldest, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

    I could see Peter’s remix as an indoctrination of social media as trivial, I instead another old story again. Business gains little from doing anything without a plan, complete with goals and metrics. Age, ego and insecurity played pretty realistic roles in this fable causing people to wrongly dismiss their better instincts.

    But none of this is new. In their time of novelty, every brash new media: newspapers, radio, TV, and internet display advertising enjoyed a period where people disregarded their experience in favor of something shiny, new and cool – as if rules of gravity had been suspended. For some, the less we understood it, the better and cooler it must be.

    So caution is thrown to the wind, and with it the any semblance of goals and metrics that would apply in any other situation, in favor of some abstract ego-candy. That seems a mistake. But we’re looking at a system with multiple points of failure. After all, we can learn a lot from taking good measured risks, testing hypotheses and learning from success and failure. No, a deeper compounding problem lies in the failure to observe and leverage the different characteristics inherent in social media that make it work.

    While at Forrester, Jeremiah Owyang observed brand advertisers’ well-funded fumbles in the social network space (Best and Worst of Social Network Marketing, 2008) though I can’t exactly say where he observes the “best” part. It seemed to range more from the dull to the completely tragic. This seemed to result from traditional ad campaign approaches being ported to the social web with little appreciation for the norms, capabilities and characteristics of the new media. He concluded that people contemplating a social network campaign would do well to consider the following questions. Does the campaign provide content that supports the community’s goals? Is it designed to be self fueling? Does it encourage people to share and create with each other? Is there an appropriate call to action? And perhaps most different, and most important: does the company participate in the effort in an ongoing basis?

    Anything that sounds too good to be true, probably is. Attention markets rapidly self-immunize themselves to novelty, so reverse-engineering your competitor’s viral marketing success is unlikely to lead to success for you. Any successful marketing program needs to begin with both the customer and the end in mind. Advertising, social media, and your product itself is just a means to satisfy that customer and that end. In addition to delivering many standard media capabilities, social media provides incredible new capabilities to understand customers and make them confident that you work for them. For most, it’s not a 100% substitute for traditional media, but it would be a mistake to fail to appreciate and integrate what it does well into your business.

  5. Peter

    Obviously, I love the post. It’s a topic I’ve been bitching about for months. But, now comes the tough next question. If we all admit that there are snake oil salesmen out there and posers pretending to be gurus…and we probably can all point out several of these people…WHY are we not doing it? Why are people like you, who have both the credibility and following, calling out these jokers? If social is all about adding value and being transparent…then don’t we owe it to ourselves the community at large to point out the charlatans?


  6. Somewhere between the hype and the status quo is goodness.

    Finding the goodness is hard. That is a good thing for the Dachises and the Forresters of the world, I think.

    Just remember Sturgeon’s law.

    Reporter: 90% of science fiction is crap.
    Theodore Sturgeon (famous science fiction writer): yes, but 90% of *everything* is crap.

    90% of social media is crap, too. Doesn’t make it not worth doing.

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