I recently sat down for coffee with an old friend from the advertising business.
“So I looked at your website, and I’m just not sure what you do, Jim,” she said.
I gave her a quizzical gaze that, if it lasted another second, could have been misconstrued as sarcasm.
“Well, I’m in marketing,” I said.
“But it’s not clear on your site. Are you sure it’s not something social media related?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, yes, of course I’m sure. It’s a concept called sustainable marketing and it’s more holistic than just one or two channels. It’s a system-wide approach to storytelling. I create custom programs for organizations that help them tell their stories while concurrently stroking Google to improve SEO and drive more qualified traffic to their websites. More traffic means more leads. More leads means more sales. Social media, in this context, is mostly for distribution.”
Now she was giving me a quizzical gaze. “I’m still lost,” she said.
And this is where I am with most people. In April I launched a consultancy called Smash Communications. I’m a copywriter by trade, and so most people think I create ads that are part of traditional advertising campaigns. Billboards. Direct mail. Radio and TV. Except, I no longer do that. I mean I still would do it if someone insisted, but since 2009, while building one of the fastest-growing brands in America, I’ve learned a lot about what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to marketing and advertising.
Mostly what I’ve learned is that people aren’t cattle. For decades we’ve been treating people (aka the target market) as receptors for our messages. And maybe they were there for a while in the 1950s, but things change. The advent of the internet brought with it a whole new way to take products and services to market. The problem, of course, is that too many marketers treated these new platforms exactly like they treated the old ones—as opportunities to shove messages down the throats of their audience.
Newsflash: People don’t like having messages shoved down their throats.
People have become desensitized to advertising and branding. We pay for satellite radio to avoid advertising. We buy mobile apps to block advertising. We use DVRs. And for crying-out-loud, no one loves a billboard.
“It’s ok, a lot of people are lost,” I continued. “It’s almost like the concept of sustainable marketing is so simple that we can’t wrap our heads around it. We’re so used to being sold the latest ‘can’t miss’ way to market, like social media, that we have a hard time breaking things down to their simplest forms to consider core concepts. Let me ask you something, are you Christian?”
“So you know how Jesus basically says, “Love one another?” I asked.
She nodded again, but I noticed that she didn’t look happy where this was heading.
“Right. So even though it’s a pretty simple command, we have a tendency to do the exact opposite. Or else we decide to love some people, and not others. And some people we just disregard altogether. And that’s really bad.”
“I don’t know where you’re g—“
“I know it sounds weird, but stay with me,” I said with a little laugh. “My point is that even though Jesus said to do this one simple thing, we have to go to a meeting every week to be reminded of it. It’s as though that concept is TOO simple. We humans like to complicate things.”
“And … what exactly does this have to do with marketing?” she asked.
“But traditional marketing and advertising already affects sales,” she said.
“Sure they do. I’m not asking for companies to give up on the traditional stuff. Rather, I’m saying that they need to integrate the sustainable stuff.”
“What do you mean by ‘sustainable stuff?’” she asked.
“To get your message out there to your eager public, you currently have to follow them around with a megaphone, right?” I asked.
“Well we haven’t used a mega—“
“Oh, I know. I just mean that you have to pursue your audience with a message or a series of messages. Creating those messages costs money. Distributing those messages costs money.”
“A lot of money,” she added.
“Exactly,” I said, pumping my fist in my head. “And when those messages finish running, they’re gone. Poof! Like magic. Then you have to do it all over again.”
“But last I checked, you still have to attract the audience, Jim.”
“That’s true. We know from history that attracting the audience and engaging them in a meaningful dialogue has a direct correlation to sales. That’s why advertising is so expensive,” I said. Then added, “Except that unless you’re running a Super Bowl commercial, all advertising is intrusive. And more and more, people tune out. Traditional marketing is increasingly unsustainable. But we keep doing it because, well, that’s the way it’s always been done.”
She let out a sigh, crossed her arms, and shot me a look that said, “This post is long enough, let’s get to the point.”
“So sustainable marketing is just that. Sustainable,” I said. “And it’s based on storytelling.”
“You mean content?” she asked.
“Yes, content. Although marketers have butchered that term to the point where it’s totally ambiguous,” I said. “Anyway, what I’m talking about is real, authentic brand storytelling. To create relevant, sharable content that actually matters to an audience. There’s not one company in America that doesn’t have a story to tell, and they all have an audience.”
“But how does that affect sales?” she asked.
“So the content lives online. On the company’s blog. In video. It’s out there living in the digital world,” I said. “That’s really important for SEO. Google catalogues that content and that helps people discover the brand. When people perform searches for things a brand sells, the most authentic, relevant content appears in the search results. If it didn’t, Google would be out of business. Anyway, that website traffic is essentially qualified leads. More leads naturally means more inquiries. More inquiries equal more sales.”
“But every company in the world already has a website,” she said.
“Of course they do,” I said. But to Google, a static website that is never updated ranks pretty low. And for anyone still living in 2010, loading up websites with keywords actually hurts ranking.”
“So who creates the content?”
“The people who know the brand best—its employees,” I said.
“But people aren’t going to want to write blog posts about their jobs,” she said.
“Not at first, no. Because it’s new. Different. And if there’s one thing besides wanting our stuff complicated that we humans also like, it’s that things are routine. We get used to thinking about things certain ways. We don’t like change.”
“So how do you expect organizations to embrace this idea of change? Not just with their employees having to do more, but also in terms of shifting to this new concept for marketing?” she said.
“That’s a good question. And the answer is because it must change,” I said. “The current marketing dynamic is unsustainable. When employees realize that they’re contributing to their company’s success by creating important content that helps tell the brand’s story, they’ll eventually embrace it. And when the CMOs start seeing the ROI of this new concept, they’ll embrace it too.”
“How long does that take, the ROI?”
“If it weren’t difficult enough to convince people to embrace this new way of marketing, you can imagine how tough it is when you have to say that results take some time,” I said. “Especially when the billboard and radio guys have numbers showing how immediately effective their channels are. Even when no one pays attention to those channels any more. But they’re traditional, so …”
“So how long?”
“About six months,” I said, waiting for her to cringe. She didn’t. “Think of it like farming crops. There’s a lot that goes into it before the work bears fruit. It doesn’t happen overnight. But when it’s done right, we reap the harvest.”
“So what’s your role in all of this?” she asked.
“So I’m a consultant. I come in and perform a thorough audit to create a custom program. During the audit I discover things like how the organization operates, what communications methods they’ve employed, and key departments and personnel. Then I’ll dive into the sector to discover the competition, the market health, and the target audience. From there I work with the marketing team to create the actual program which includes a content calendar, an accountability schematic, distribution channels, and an analytics dashboard to help guide the future of the program. I also train people on how to use these tools.”
“How long does all that take?” she asked.
“For a mid-sized organization, between 3 and 4 weeks.” I said.
“What’s your role after that?”
“So after that, I move onto my next client and do it all over again” I said. “But because it’s sustainable, one person within a mid-sized company can administer the program. It all comes down to accountability.”
“What if they need help with their content?” She asked.
“That’s a pretty big thing, actually. Which is why I’m available to help copyedit content. And in some cases I can even arrange to develop the content directly, via interviews with personnel. Both options result in great content, but my goal is for clients to develop this content directly. In their own voice. For authenticity’s sake. Because authenticity matters both to the person consuming the content, and for Google.”
She straightened up in her chair. “And then these employees can post this content to their social streams,” she added with some excitement.
“Precisely,” I said. “Which drives traffic to the website, as well as establishes employees as subject matter experts. It’s a win-win all the way around.”
We talked for a while longer about how social media helps spread the content, and then as we got up to leave she said, “You’re right, you know.”
“About what?” I asked.
“It’s too simple.”