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Social Marketing and the Digital Landfill

In the United States, the last two years have removed any doubt that Social media sites, and the behaviors they engender, have transformed many aspects of society. Advertising, in its dual role as America’s slimming mirror and evil twin, has begun to change with it.

Yet, despite the hype rolling out of ad agencies and internal Marketing departments for the past 10 years, much of the explosion in Social Marketing investment has been cosmetic. In fact, the social component of many an ad campaign is merely a high-fashion tactic. Instead of transforming either marketing strategy or branding, a great many firms use social media platforms as landfill sites for yesterday’s news.

Without much effort, you can stumble into an ocean of uncategorized, barely differentiated posts that, to an alarming degree, resemble the recently reported avalanche of used K-cups. One root of the problem, of course, lies in the adoption of the word “content” several years ago. By downgrading creative output to the status of carpeting, wallpaper, furniture, or home appliances, marketing and advertising started down the slope to producing disposable, generic messaging.

Read up on the K-cup controversy and you’ll find no one can resist the urge to work the word “brewing” into the discussion. Why? Because it’s the easiest, most generic way to create the illusion of relevance. This type of messaging is rendered even more faceless by being “data driven.” If today’s data mavens really believed in science, they’d realize that human behavior can’t be quantified.

Just read your local police blotter if you don’t believe me. In case it isn’t obvious, the impact of pseudo-science on marketing theory also contributes to the mechanical production of faceless communications. The exaggerated emphasis put on mere statistics makes no more sense than using a Magic 8-Ball to make major life decisions. Signs point to “Yes” that you can interpret your stats in any way that gives you comfort.

Digital sludge…
Whether we’re talking about the ‘book, the twit’, the ‘gram or the ‘tube, promotional pollution is clogging digital space with nominally topical, but eminently forgettable sludge that supposedly:

  • Builds brand awareness
  • Improves audience engagement
  • Maximizes retention
  • Fosters authenticity
  • Creates peer-generated dialog
  • Delivers greater relevance

I have my doubts.

While a few sleek consumer brands might be doing some of that, some of the time, the evidence in the media landfill says the majority of this “content” is largely a knock-off of branding established off line through traditional media. Yes, I know. When you wear the right glasses, you can see the virtual revolution in full bloom. But in real time, the logo, the tagline, the product shot and even the spokesperson have both feet planted in three-dimensions.

…vs the gold standard
Because, as I hope I’m not the first to point out, a true social marketing campaign is more than a series of HTML5-encoded print ads or videos with comment boxes below them. The real thing has a provocative message, suited to its marketing environment and designed specifically to generate more than information-neutral “likes.” Sites that understand this, do well in social space.

As an article on Sprout Social points out, Wayfair uses social space to simplify shopping in a way that mirrors its “Drop the Mike” broadcast campaign. That the campaign is itself a generic appropriation from the 1980s is worth noting. In today’s world, the only thing more kingly than content is cloned content.

Yet I doubt I’m alone in becoming aware of Wayfair through the TV screen rather than the tablet, phone or computer monitor. This merchandizer’s TV spots are obnoxious, syrupy and contribute to the further de-evolution of the American intellect. But they do convey the message “Simple, Easy, Convenient Shopping” very well. Given that, all Wayfair’s online presence has to do is stay out of the way.

This, lest we forget, is what we mean by “branding:” a clear statement of a specific, fulfilled promise. It’s not a logo or a color scheme. It’s not a set of pixel-widths, a font or a commitment to grainy archival photography. And it’s certainly not any of that nonsense about “branded copy style, tone and voice.” Most of the time, the emphasis placed on those externals is a deliberate attempt to cover up for a lack of substance.

With a true brand message — that’s backed up in the real world in obvious, concrete ways — any font will do. On the flipside of that same equation, an Apple laptop that was brown instead of silver would still have its high cost, its cloying pretensions of social relevance, its legacy of east Asian sweatshops, its incessant, meaningless upgrades and that ugly, swirly rainbow thing.

Box checking…
In the case of pharmaceutical brands, social marketing is so constrained by privacy laws that it’s easy to see why they don’t venture out past the medium’s most basic structures. All the same, most of  these brands could do more with the content they post. However, as an unscientific survey of a few major pharma brands reveals, Pfizer succeeds better than many in this category.

Its Facebook page positions the company as a thought-leader by:

  • Demystifying the science behind a variety of drug therapies
  • Explaining the role of diagnostic tools
  • Providing overviews of complex medical topics
  • Exposing the societal impact of untreated disease

The Pfizer Twitter account repeats much of what appears on Facebook, with slightly more emphasis on its role in society. On Instagram (#pfizerinc), the company opens the lens a little wider in an attempt to integrate and ingratiate itself into everyday life. Some of the posts are a tad off topic, but succeed in humanizing this larger-than-large corporate entity.

And that, in the end, may be the most significant value that social marketing may have for a great many brands, including those outside of pharma. Yet as anyone knows, who follows the news, in some cases, these engaging PR efforts are often no more than a Band-Aid plastered over serious self-inflicted wounds, incurred in the court of public opinion.

…results in waste
Regardless, what’s evident, even in Pharma’s best social marketing efforts, is a lack of planning. Posts appear at random, without an Editorial calendar to lend coherence over the course of the year. Merck, for example, uses an approach similar to Pfizer’s, though in an even more scatter-shot and self-promoting way. It’s a phenomenon characteristic of outreach by American corporations in general.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single company that understands a simple truth. “Our commitment to society” has promotional value only as a set of deeds, not a set of words. A pilot program here or there, simply for the purpose of touting it later is not enough. To pay off that promise, public service needs to actually be a part of the corporation’s reason for being.

When it comes to distributing content to YouTube, there is also no over-arching scheme to lend coherence over time. Both Pfizer’s generic YouTube feed and its Pfizer News channel lack meaningful organization that would help, say, diabetes patients find relevant videos quickly. What they’d find instead is an unending heap of videos, in the order posted on another site. Merck’s YouTube videos are also unsorted and, like a community landfill site, are repositories of waste — in this case, of wasted opportunity.

Ultimately, Pfizer, Merck and many other Pharma companies have simply created a social marketing checklist. And that’s a shame, at least insofar as much of the content these companies post in social spaces has the potential to help millions of Americans navigate a medical landscape that grows more complex, more unwieldy and more unnecessarily expensive every year.

This post first appeared on Speaking In Clicks | Opinions, Analysis & Speculat, please read the originial post: here

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Social Marketing and the Digital Landfill


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