Basic Instinct | ViewPoint Magazine Feature

AUK News
Brand agency

My alarm clock kicks in and the DJ tells me to tweet him. I brush my teeth and wonder if one of those semi-intelligent brushes might make my teeth whiter. I head downstairs and think it would be good to get one of those interactive fridges that tells me what I’ve run out of and whether I should order more. Then the phone clicks – it’s a smart one, you know.

I’m inundated with information about people I haven’t seen in years and probably don’t want to. But I click the ‘like’ button and everything’s fine. We’re all friends, though secretly I’m glad I don’t have my home address on my profile.

I feel so extremely social and interactive, it’s making my head spin as I sit alone eating my breakfast. Then I walk down the high street, and I’m bombarded with Bluetooth messages, SMS is off the hook with offers and don’t even start me on email. We’re in the thrall of social interaction. Everything has to be interactive. You can’t just buy a pack of sausages, you need to film yourself frying them – and don’t forget to make it quirky. Every element of our lives can be an interactive experience if we want it to be. Like the Genius function on my iTunes player, my previous music choices will determine my future options, and I’m well aware of this. But, so it seems, are more and more brands.

Brands and agencies are giddy with excitement. Social media, web 2.0, new online targeting software, even personalised digital printing. Never have there been so many options available to deliver a single message to a single person. Even the staggering uptake of video as an everyday means to showcase products has meant anyone and everyone can produce amateur film and use it to promote themselves. Ironically, low production values often yield better results on YouTube.

Many brands are perceiving these new channels as cheaper alternatives, and are throwing bigger and bigger budgets towards them. The majority of organisations pioneer ways to stimulate engagement using interactive tools for a single reason, born
of necessity. Revenue generation is at the heart of most digital and offline initiatives, and even those conceived via sociological vision have turned to revenue generators to make it happen: Google, Facebook, Twitter, even Wikipedia, personal blog sites and the public sector.

It’s not just about money: the most valuable commodity to come out of engagement programmes is data. Clear and accurate data gathering, profiling and segmentation can be a ticket to a lower cost per sale. Functions like iTunes Genius allow
advertisers to direct their products to the most likely customer. Mobile data lists allow marketers to target customers at the point of purchase and email can be an effective sales and advocacy tool if it’s used correctly.

But technology feels more like a bombardment: invasive more than persuasive, obstructive rather than helpful. And brands’ use of it risks giving them a bad reputation. This is especially the case given that many brands, tied down by bureaucracy, are several steps behind.

This is, in part, because the technology available today has created a layer of marketing sophistication far and above
any planner’s dreams a decade ago. The pace of technology exceeds marketers’ ability to think up new strategies and test
new campaigns. The control that used to surround a brand has been relinquished, and, for the first time, the power behind
the brand sits firmly with the consumer.

Technology has given us an uncensored dialogue amongst the masses. As consumers, we’re also suffering from overkill. Social media may have revitalised the power of collective lobbying, whether to encourage Cadbury’s to reinstate the Wispa chocolate bar or to help elect the first black US president.

Perhaps, in truth, networks also provided a brief moment when people could feel famous. Unfortunately, as with any good
thing, man knows little about moderation, and there has since been an all-consuming tidal wave of online media, enveloping our minds, spamming our consciences and trying our patience.

Many people’s freedom to share has been diminished, particularly youngsters who were all too ready to embrace the change. Social engagement today is far less about quantity and more about quality, less about exposure and more about privacy.

While social media of course remains with us, there is a sense that the bubble has burst and that the frenzy is abating to leave a more considered use: social media as tool, rather than slave-driver. Brands have yet to reach the same way of thinking, hence the many doomed online product launches, empty Facebook fan pages, and unfunny, unviewed ‘viral’ videos. Nor is this just happening online. We are also seeing a graveyard of frivolous marketing initiatives.

People today demand the most appropriate interaction and they only expect a dialogue with a brand when they need one. People want less process, less administration and less bureaucracy. People want less advertising. They hanker after convenience with no interruption.

How a brand is perceived is based largely on how a brand does business. Overseas call centres and voicemail are today considered necessary evils that nobody really wants to deal with. People expect automation when they make a simple transaction, but a face when they have a complicated question.

The problem is that many brands have yet to notice this behavioural change. Amidst job creation, interdepartmental
politics and naïve chairmen who read Forbes and want to feel in touch with emerging technologies, many have forgotten to ask how these new initiatives actually work to deliver sales. ‘Me too’ has become an acceptable form of market
planning and eyes seem to be fixed more firmly on the competition than the customer. Compounding the problem is that many brands revere Apple, Google and Microsoft, and feel that by clinging to their coat tails, they will be embraced by the same
market. They give more attention to their iPad apps than their call centres.

This could not be further from the truth, and here’s why: business has forgotten what interaction really means. It has forgotten that interactivity, whatever the medium, be it a machine, voice options at a call centre, social media or, even, you know, a person, is the vital step before any brand can expect any type of engagement. Opportunities are overlooked even at grass roots level. A bank can use an ATM to provide customers with a bank balance, cash or statement. That ATM holds the customer’s attention for up to 30 seconds, 10 of which are usually spent waiting for cash to be dispensed.

Delivering the right message in the right way at this time could be very effective, yet an ATM’s software is restricted to very basic, blanket messaging, when the opportunity for personalisation should exist.

This principle can be applied with varying levels of intricacy to most channels. Even outdoor posters can add an extra dimension of relevance, depending on where they are seen, and the likely activity of any consumer falling within their catchment. Mercedes has run very effective new model launches using outdoor media and text numbers to book test drives.

It’s simple, easy and can be done while sitting in traffic. This is back-to-basics thinking – back to a time before the bubble of technology and interactivity began to inflate out of all proportion. Unfortunately the fundamental principle behind campaign integration, interaction and finally engagement – keep it simple – is now lost. This is perpetuated because much of today’s marketing activity falls foul not only of the hype surrounding technologically driven ‘interaction’ but the misguided notion that this is easy because all can be automated. And not only automated: everything can easily link from traditional advertising channels to a point of sale. The temptation is just too much.

So today you can see most big brands exercising these formats to dull effect. Many marketers call this integration, but it is actually co-ordination, and the realisation is steadily dawning that making everything the same colour is not the answer to an integrated experience. For companies, the future potential of interactivity lies more in providing good customer service or gathering market intelligence than in provoking the debate, guerrilla antics or explosive exposure that many brands seem stuck on. It’s a modern way to return to traditional values, rather than pursue the grandstanding of flashy but fleeting trendiness. This is going to prove an uncomfortable lesson, even with consumers providing the lead, stepping back from their Facebook pages and relearning how to switch their phones off.

Many brands are going to crash land back into the real world. But that will allow them to start to assess all of their customer touch points, with a view to delivering a better brand experience overall. They will rediscover the need to be tangible. They will quantify the dollar value of a customer’s personal recommendation. They will remember the basics of selling rather than the alluring pizzazz of cyberspace alone.