Get real. That's what creating genuine engagement boils down to. Speaking to real people, about the things that really interest them.
Unfortunately, it's not that easy for an industry that has grown up talking nonsense to imaginary people.
Let me explain ...
The modus operandi of advertising has most frequently been to identify a target audience and then bombard it with messages intended to create some kind of brand affinity and, ultimately, drive sales.
Sounds good. Except what has tended to happen (with a few honourable exceptions) is that the target audience has been built on false stereotypes and the messages have been hateful.
Take marketing to mothers. The stereotype is a perfect mother; she never screams at her children. When not caged up at home she's expertly juggling the work-life balance with an ironic smile. Christ, she's even still madly in love with her husband. No worn-out arguments for this couple.
It's these and other elements of typical creative executions that really give the game away. Spotless houses. Skinny mothers - even those shown cuddling newborns haven't a stretch mark in sight. Definitely an absence of women showing any signs that they've recently been through labour.
It's unreal. The message is hateful. Because the message ultimately says that if you're not like this, you're crap, you're not a real mother, your life is a failure and you're simply not good enough. Unless ...
Unless you buy our stroller, our steriliser, our baby monitor etc.
Now, until very recently, brands and agencies would mostly get away with this nonsense, simply because the message was one-way. Push, push, push. Shout, shout, shout. No room for dialogue. No need to change the message.
Most brands relied on these conventions built of false and lazy stereotypes. Those who didn't buy the story didn't have a voice. Individuals had no access to mass media, so they either believed the nonsense, kept their feelings to themselves, or stood on corners with angry signs bemoaning the corporate Beelzebubs and looking like lunatics.
For brands, this was a paradise of fools. Until the fools found themselves a voice and suddenly they weren't quite so passive any more. They were real people, customers, expressing themselves, attacking brands or promoting them using their own personal broadcast technology: social media.
Those angry lunatics on street corners now turn out to be viral engines pushing out the voice of real people through social platforms. And it turns out that they're not an isolated voice. Others feel that way too.
So now we have a different story. Not a story defined by the brands and agencies, but a story defined by real people. Real people who don't like to be stereotyped and fed nonsense. Real people who react badly when they're treated like fools, as countless social media horror stories show. Google "Motrin social disaster" if you're one of the few remaining naysayers who need any further evidence of how the balance has changed forever.
And it is a kind of balance. Brands and audiences. Things are a little more even now both have access to media.And this simple truth takes us back to the need for brands to get real.
When there's more traffic to social sites than there is to search engines, when more than 50 per cent of mobile traffic goes to one place - Facebook - and when almost everyone either Tweets, blogs, uploads or updates, everything is social. And when everything is social, the truth will out, lies get exposed, stereotypes are challenged.
Those in the once silent majority now build relationships with one another, form communities of like-minded interests, and discover that the stereotypes they may have swallowed aren't real.
Returning to the parenting analogy, real mothers sometimes do break down sobbing with frustration. The weight doesn't magically drop off.
There's no way back from this reality. Brands have to get real. They can no longer define and control the message, because now their target audiences aren't stereotypes, they're real people having real conversations.
The tough question isn't how to create engagement; it's how to get real. That's what brands and agencies are struggling with.
The answer, however, is again really simple. But the ramifications for traditional structures and processes are huge. Here's my simple five-step manifesto for getting real.
First off, listen. Listen to the data. It will tell you everything. It's not like we used to know it. Now we can tap into multi-dimensional data from a myriad of sources - as well as using our own proprietary tools that bring us closer to consumers in real time. All this will tell you where people are, what they're talking about, what they respond best to, which creative executions get most traction, what touchpoints best drive search activity, what mobile phones they're using, what websites they visit, how they feel and much more. The data tells you what is true, what is real. So if you think data is for pointy heads, get over yourself. Data is truth. And when we need to get real, we first need to be sure of the facts. That's what data gives us: a perspective based on reality.
Next we need some new people. Diverse talents like games designers, cultural anthropologists and content creators. We need these people because the content that now really engages our audience is not limited to traditional forms of media.
Number three - loosen up. You can't control everything. Real engagement now happens in real-time, so deal with it and get interactive. Develop more flexible sign-off processes, collaborate more closely, employ community managers and make sure that the marketing team and agency stakeholders engage with them to help drive conversations forward.
Four - don't think channels. Think platforms. Just as media has gone democratic, it has also gone exponential. Connect the dots and create engagement platforms across the most relevant media touchpoints - don't worry, because the data will also tell you which these are.
And, finally, five - analyse and react. This doesn't need to be hard. It can be as simple as triggering dynamic messages, capping the frequency of your media, changing your keyword terms or promoting a positive blog statement. What is important is designing your solution with the idea that getting real means forgetting about the old world of media schedules and six-week campaigns. The reality is that when you get real, you're in a real relationship. And real relationships last a long time.
- You need to 'get real' to create engagement
- We've been pushing stereotypes for too long - it's unhealthy
- New world data tells us what's real and what's not. Right now
- You can 'get real' by following this five-step manifesto.
Rik Haslam is the group creative architect at Rapp
(From Campaign's 'What Next in Engagement" supplement, October 2010)