On Being the Pub not the Conversation Within...

pub chat

For fifteen years I’ve provided research, evidence and carefully chosen words to anyone who would listen to describe the benefits of allowing interpersonal communication within a brand-space. We used to call that "social network theory" or "social engine theory". Over time, the 'social media' industry grew up around our voices (not loud enough to dominate it but still we prattled away).

Today, my agency and team operate as a very tiny part of a £Billion business based on the very same ideas; that conversations are a form of marketing, that the customer can be an ambassador and that brand choices are part of expressible identity.

The questions I’m asked each day remain essentially the same, although the vocabulary has changed a little. Ten years ago a major sports brand asked me "What will I do if the public are critical of our product in a forum we put our brand on", today they ask "What are the costs and risks of page moderation".

I’m thrilled to see the fundamental shifts take place around me in every creative agency I visit. My cockles are warmed when brand owners talk about conversational relevance, supporting citizen journalists and providing contextual filters for the noise. A lot of people out there get it and they’re doing it. Yet still, I can’t stop talking, in a voice that perhaps has become a whisper over time. I can’t stop and must not stop, because of all the truths that have come to be, one fundamental point keeps being lost in translation. Those words I will continue to mouth until the day they lock me up, "Social media isn’t about brands being involved in conversations. It’s about owning the place the conversations take place in".

How many times have you or your clients sat in a room, a conference or a symposium and been told that social media is measurable? That companies are making millions through conversational outreach. That the voice of the customer is now the voice of the brand. I need you to think back and wonder if you may have even uttered these words yourself or some similar. It’s important, because none of them are true. Just as Sheldon can’t isolate Grand Unification, nobody in marketing can pin down the absolute effect of seeded conversations on brands.

No brand on Facebook or Twitter is making a dime through conversational curating on Facebook; at least not in any way more applaudable than the same brands could expect as a dual-screen effect of television. The voice of the customer has always been the resonant factor in purchasing decisions, but they do, will and always have spoken using a vocabulary marketers provide, in a language we amplify and in more meaningful ways in the "real world" than they ever will online. The only brands truly growing from thin air are the very places we conduct this madness within.

The point came to a head last week during a short workshop I provided for small businesses surrounding my office. I like these group events, usually occupied by people without a marketing degree or any form of serious budget. These people say it like it is, because in many ways they are still in the consumer mind-set rather than living as a brand owner.

On the discussion of celebrity endorsement as part of social media, I demonstrated a lower return on investment for campaigns dual-pitched on Facebook with and without famous faces. There was no argument that in the world of social media, 'hired faces' didn’t cover their cost (if anything they harmed the campaigns). A lovely chap, quite elderly, stated without pause "well of course they don’t, they never have, nobody believes celebrities give a shit about you or your choice of shaving cream, it’s just with Facebook we can see that". He had a very good point.

Social media is an echo of another world. It’s no replacement for it and the relationships within are either weaker or realigned versions of their street-level counterparts. They are theatres and mirrors where plays and reflections can be seen, nothing more. Within those spaces brands have a role. Any sponsorship of a human effort has rewards. However, as I’m sure the retail industry in London will tell you this week, simply having footfall around your door when the crowd are heading in a singular, other direction doesn’t guarantee or indeed even suggest a change in consumer behaviour.

We’re all on Facebook to maintain weak ties. We’re all on LinkedIn to watch the ebb and flow of ego. We’re all on Twitter to explain ourselves. We’re just being relevant and no brand can be as relevant as us faulty, hungry, illogical souls. When they try, we see through it, when they fail, we celebrate it.

Social media is mind-blowing, but so is the mind and erm… blowing. Brands, being composed of conditions and differentiations can never be a part of the thunderous sameness that humans expect from relationship based conversation. They cannot fail disgustingly and can never reveal their naked truths, so will never fully be able to engage. They are not real.

So why bother? A lot of the brands I approach shouldn’t. They should remain spoken about and never speak. Their budget should be in building appropriate walls around the right people, in fireworks above them and the arts of getting in, not in the digital equivalent of pub-talk. Sometimes I tell them so, but very few listen. It’s more exciting to claim that breakfast cereals have personality and friendships with millenials.

When I reintroduce the media mix, the tangible, the loud and direct (TV, print, PPC) plus the foundations of the necessary (SEO and one’s relationship with Google), I do see social media campaigns impacting the bottom line. There are dollars to be made and phenomenon to be witnessed. Yet all of this will come to pass when the SME CEO finally realises, it wasn’t a Fan Page he wanted to invest in, but a Facebook. Not a Tweet but Twitter. Not blogger outreach, but an event or festival. For 15 years I've been telling them all to marry the world of brand with interpersonal conversation, but I meant them to own the channel, create the space, give birth to a branded world, not launch an account within a very big, very plain, blue one.

Continue to sell your wares fellow social media gurus, I will too. However, I ask you to pause at least once a week during the imbibing of the beers we’re earning and ask yourself and others, conversationally, in the real world, at street level, how much of it is truly bullshit? May the room fall silent for the most honest response. I bet the first man who speaks owns the pub. 

Your round?

Photo (cc) Garrett Coakley