Thursday, August 27, 2009

WOM in sheep's clothing.

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a speech at a conference in Colorado Springs. My hosts graciously invited me to join the delegates at dinner the night before my keynote, and I – believing ardently that the words ‘sushi’ and ‘buffet’ are poetry together – gratefully accepted. It was a lovely evening, and I met lots of interesting, smart people. Including one patrician fellow who firmly gripped my hand, looked me straight in the eye like a gunslinger, and said, “So, what are you here to sell us?”

On the plane for home, I thought up all sorts of witty answers. None, however, were forthcoming at the moment the question was asked. I just sort of stammered something about ideas and wished that lady with the cabernet sauvignon bottle would do another lap.

But however badly my Wilde-ian reflexes might have failed me that night, there was a kind of simple genius in the question: Before this guy was willing to listen to what I had to say, he needed to know if I had an agenda, and he needed to know what that agenda was. Armed with that information, he could filter and modulate whatever I said and make his own conclusions. Without it, he would be deafened by his own suspicion.

I wish there was a way to firmly grip the internet and ask it the same question.

In the last week or two, there has been a bit of a spike in the chatter online about the commercialization of social media. Lots of furrowed brows and hand- wringing on Twitter about sponsored tweets and the like. Meanwhile, the self-styled mavens of this parallel universe are hanging out shingles and promising marketers, whose budgets and nerves have been shattered by the recession, that the future lies not on CSI Miami, but at the end of a hashtag.

Which is probably true.

But in the midst of that same chatter, you hear people conniving to bury selling messages and product exposure inside Trojan Horse content. You hear it said that marketing’s way forward is to spend more money on ‘Word Of Mouth’ advertising. I have even heard with my own ears, from an estimable ‘online agency,’ the phrase, “non-branded bait tactic.” In certain quarters, at least, web marketing’s default to deception has been so blindingly fast as to make Don Draper look like an ingenue.

People of Earth: The difference between the internet and, say, television, is that any sort of deep exposure to what a brand has to say is 100% voluntary on the internet. Online, there’s very little risk that your content will be held hostage for four minutes while your brain is marinated in 99 cent cheeseburgers and geezer car insurance the way it was when you used to watch Hogan’s Heroes. Therefore, you can be transparent. You can let them understand - respectfully - what you’re there to sell because, in effect, they’ve asked. It is precisely illogical that a brand should feel it has to disguise itself in order to be heard online. It is precisely illogical that a brand has to hire shills, or create some kind of digital ventriloquist’s dummy to say things that it is somehow too embarrassed to. If you have to hide your intentions, then that must mean you believe your brand has nothing to offer people.

Meanwhile, if consumers end up learning that they should, by definition, distrust anything flattering they see about a brand on the internet, we’re all in for a world of hurt. No marketing, no brands. No brands, no choice. No choice, no economy. There is nothing after the web, kids. Brands have to make their stand, sustainably, here and now.

It’s not a crime to sell things. But it is a crime to try to fool people. And the only ‘WOM’ spending that matters is that which makes your brand experience so awesome that people can’t stop talking about it.

So, I guess that’s what I was there to sell, sir.

Well, that and some of these.

(Image courtesy of

1 comment:

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