April 13, 2010
 

Why Social Networks Won't Save The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit

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Remember the episode of Friends where Phoebe caught a cold?

She got a lot of attention for her "sexy voice." And it pissed her off when she got better and the hoarseness went away. Just as she got well, the friends started getting sick -- and she got caught licking their coffee mugs, trying to pick up the germs again.

That's the problem with viral marketing. You can't buy a virus when you want one.

It's a different issue with so-called guerrilla marketing. (I think those ideas used to be called publicity stunts. "Guerrilla marketing" certainly sounds better.) The problem with guerrilla marketing is that it doesn't scale up with growth. The guy who invented the term says it's an idea for small businesses only -- and I agree. But, because it looks low-cost, big companies want it. Just like viral. Why can't their agency come up with stuff like that?

Along comes another idea for marketing on the cheap: social networking. Ad agencies are being told it's the next big thing and they absolutely must figure it out. In fact, in Brandweek, agencies are being held up to ridicule for failing to "get it."

That's adding insult to injury. Just a year ago, Brandweek told us that marketers weren't savvy enough to take advantage of Second Life or World of Warcraft.

I love dumping on big, dumb ad agencies as much as anyone. (You'll hear me grousing about them right up until my agency gets big!)

But who really does get social media as an advertising channel? Even the social media owners trip up -- as Facebook did when they decided to publish details about what you buy online to your friends. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea right up until the point where it blew up. In fact, now they're insisting the whole idea is just fine with users, thank you very much:

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Beacon is now in integral and accepted part of the Facebook experience, according to chief revenue officer Owen Van Natta. He argued that the pushback, which centered around the idea people were unwittingly sharing private activities through a public timeline, came from the media -- not users.

Okaaaaaaaay. We'll just forget about the whole apology the CEO gave us then. Seriously. Do you think Facebook has it locked? They're as confused as the rest of us.

It's true that there have been some famous wins in the social media realm. But most of them were built on a brilliant idea that was carried along with great timing and good luck. And -- as a direct marketer -- I have to point out that, although I'm aware of the Dove Real Beauty campaign based on the amazing video that made the rounds, I don't know how much product that single video moved. There was plenty of other media bought to back it up.

Was there this much anxiety about whether advertisers or agencies "got it" when TV was the new media? I don't think so. They just tried stuff. They sponsored shows in their entirety. They had news journalists pitch wares in the middle of a program. They produced the soap operas themselves. It all shook out after awhile.

Back in the '70s, CB radios were a HUGE phenomenon. They were a precursor to "social networks." At the time, no one knew whether this was the next big thing or just a fad. Did anyone consider it an opportunity for advertising? Hell no!

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People all over America gather at the American Legion hall, their church, the neighborhood center, wherever for "social networking." Does anyone besides the college student looking for house-sitting opportunities think of these as advertising media? Of course not.

The thing about social networks is that people want to be sociable there -- they don't necessarily want to see Starbucks or McDonald's or Home Depot there. And, if they do, you can probably just buy the space and get out.

If people want a dialog with you, they ought to know where to find you. Advertisers should be dialoging with customers and prospective customers. But that's not an advertising agency function. If you need to hire that out, you'll probably have better luck with a PR firm. For one thing, they'll have a better idea how to be compensated for this kind of thing -- agencies don't get paid by the column inch. Much as they love clients, agencies tend to focus on the stuff that looks cool -- and the things they get paid for.

So, go ahead. Pay for placement on the front of YouTube. At least you'll know what you're buying. If you're crossing your fingers, hoping for a Diet Coke and Mentos phenomenon, you're not an advertising professional. You're playing craps.

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Spyro Kourtis, president of Hacker Group, oversees his agency's strategic planning and relationships with a number of Fortune 500 clients including AAA, Expedia, Hilton Hotels, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, MSN, Oracle, VISA, Washington Mutual, WebEx and World Vision. He is publisher of High Performance Direct. He can be reached at skourtis@hackergroup.com.

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