The idea that we can communicate persuasively at some level of scale is at the heart of what it means to “do marketing.” And the scale at which we’re able to communicate persuasively has never been as large as it is today. Nor has it ever been as accessible to so many people. This is an interesting moment in time for marketing, and in my keynote presentation at Klaviyo:BOS’18 I shared my perspective on it — where I think we’re at as an industry, collectively; and how our current reality should impact the way we approach marketing.
The title of this piece is the same as the title of my talk at the event: The Truth About Marketing. But as I told the people in the room at Klaviyo:BOS’18, it really should be, The Brutal Truth About Marketing, and How You Can Adapt and Win. Where we’re at today isn’t pretty, and we need to recognize that. Yet we can still be successful, if we’re willing to do things differently.
Brutal truth #1: We are not in control.
This is an incredibly important point to internalize as marketers: we are not in control. That reality couldn’t be more painfully obvious when you take a look at our most popular communication channels.
There is literally no way for you to buy out impressions for an audience on Facebook, or guarantee yourself the top spot in paid search because of your ad budget. And that’s kind of a crazy concept when you step back to think how advertising has traditionally worked. Since when did magazine publishers decide whether to accept all of someone’s budget based on whether their readers were actually engaging with their print ad? But that’s exactly how all effective digital channels work today.
Take organic search as another example. Every single one of Google’s major algorithm updates ties back to improving the user experience in one way or another.
Every time marketers find a way to game the current system, Google finds a way around it. Remember the days of landing on web pages crammed full of random links that had nothing to do with your search query? Or when you could get on top of the search rankings by posting pages with the same phrase repeated over and over and over again? Google made adjustments for all of those things, because they created terrible user experiences.
Their latest major update, Medic, was intended to set us up to have a conversation at some point in the future that starts with, “Remember when the Internet was flooded with all of those sites that positioned themselves as health experts when they really weren’t?” Of course, Google doesn’t get it perfectly right with their algorithm updates; each one has also had some impact on sites that are genuinely offering value to their visitors. But on a macro level, Google is pretty good at forcing the Internet to level up. They have to be. Because they rely on Internet users continuing to use them to keep their hundred billion dollar company in business.
And then, of course, there’s all the legislation that surrounds marketing. I think GDPR really drove the point home for us all: the consumers have the power. Not marketers. We are not in control. And that brings me to the second brutal truth we need to face up to.
Brutal truth #2: Consumers do not give a shit about our marketing.
No one’s listening. They’ve been ignoring us for years.
And more recently, they’re not being passive about ignoring us. They’re actively telling us that they don’t want to hear from us. And we have more than enough data telling us that; so much data that I think we forget to acknowledge just how bad the problem really is sometimes.
There are over 300m results returned if I google “how to block facebook ads.” We love talking about positive intent-based metrics in marketing like open or click through, but the fact is 4 out of 5 people are ignoring every email from us on average. Over 95% are ignoring our ads even on the best day. And this year, Google made ad blocking a default setting in Chrome. So that means the majority of web browsers are blocking ads. These aren’t passive signals. We’re being ignored.
Brutal truth #3: It’s already too late.
Most of the content out there that talks about digital transformation mentions something about moving from one-way communication to two-way conversation, or how behavior based targeting has displaced demographic targeting.
But come on, already. It’s 2018. How long can we possibly be talking about the digital transformation?! It’s not this crazy new thing anymore. In fact, we’re just about at the 24th anniversary of the very first banner ad. I don’t know what the “Internet years” to “Human years” conversion is – probably something like, the Internet ages at least 100 years for every one of ours – but even by human years, we’re wrapping up the first generation here. And there are a couple of generational dynamics we should stop to appreciate:Polite disinterest has morphed to active dislike, as I’ve already mentioned. People aren’t content to passively ignore marketing they’re not interested in.
People don’t put their trust in media organizations anymore — even the ones that are considered “new” media, like online only publications and bloggers. They trust people. Individuals. Because as individuals, we don’t just have a publishing platform in the Internet anymore — we’ve also found a ready-made audience for what we publish in our social networks.
Not too long ago, businesses all rallied around this idea of surprise and delight. Free shipping, fast turnaround times, constant communication around order status, hassle free returns — all of those were once delightful experiences. They’re now the default.
Consumers also default to options. They mostly start their browsing on Amazon, but the fact is there are more ecommerce brands today than ever before at any point in history. That’s because where technology was once somewhat of a rate limiting factor, it’s not a democratizer for entrepreneurs. The technical hurdles in things like starting a store, managing communications, or marketing — when you look back to where we were 10, even 5 years ago, there’s a night and day difference. Every entrepreneur with an idea can start an ecommerce store. And it’s only getting easier.
Finally, the last generation of digital marketing was all about developing the expectation that brands knew who their customers were. That they acknowledged them. But that’s definitely not enough anymore. It’s not about knowing my first name when you send me an email nowadays. Consumers expect us to know them. Really know them. That’s why they’re getting increasingly angry when marketers are irrelevant.
Brutal truth #4: We keep making it worse.
This generation is about substance. And what the marketing industry is delivering at large is empty calories. And we just keep pouring fuel on the fire. The amount of money we invest into marketing keeps growing year after year. Next year, it’s estimated that more than $300 billion dollars worldwide will be spent on marketing.
Yet, most of the time when we think about what we’re actually doing with that marketing, we put the content – the substance– dead last. We get excited about new channels and fads, and what we’re actually going to say to the people on the other end of those ads is an afterthought.
The truth is, this was never going to end well for us. And the end is here. It’s now time for us to let go and accept the fact that marketing as we know it needs to go extinct already.
Brutal truth #5: Marketing must die.
But now what?
The good news is, all hope is not lost. If step one is acknowledging the reality we’re operating in, step two is articulating the mindset we need to adopt in order to be successful.
Mindset #1: Creativity over software administration, always.
First off, the amount of time we spend on software operation needs to decline so we can make room for creativity. The marketing capabilities that technology has unlocked in the last decade have been incredibly exciting. So exciting, that we’ve been seduced into thinking that technology offers a magical solution to our business challenges… if only we had enough budget to afford the good stuff. And enough time to master it.
The idea that it takes big investments in time and money to recognize the potential of marketing technology is a huge win… for the martech vendors. That’s how we got to the point where there are over 7,000 companies selling marketing technology today. It’s why we’ve started to function as if we accept the fact that part of a marketer’s role is to administer software. Why, we have full-time jobs in marketing that are nothing BUT software administration.
Even better? Somewhere along the way, marketers also became convinced that as our businesses grew, the software was only going to get more complicated. That we’d have to put more time and money into it the more successful we became.
That’s completely and utterly ridiculous.
We need more time than ever to spend on the stuff that matters: understanding our audience and thinking about new ways to get the right message across to them. And we have that luxury today, because buried in that chart of 7,000 software solutions are tech companies that get it. Tech companies that build their software so you don’t have to compromise between tools that are easy but basic, or solutions that are advanced but a nightmare to deal with. Because marketers shouldn’t have to be software administrators.
Mindset #2: Marketing is a series of experiments.
When I talk about creativity, to be clear, I don’t mean taking your time to make things look pretty. I’m talking about getting back to the root of marketing and realizing that it’s really all about creative experimentation. It’s about forming a hypothesis based on what you know about your customers, designing a test to execute on it, learning, iterating, and then doing it all over again.
That part is important: this isn’t about unlocking the single silver bullet; it’s about a series of experiments. It’s about starting out to see what happens if you segment your campaign by people who recently clicked or opened, to see if you’ll leave any money on the table (spoiler alert, you won’t). And then building from there to start looking at different ways to split up your audience so you can find the right message for them, like Taylor Stitch does.
Mindset #3: People need to like you.
People have to like you. There’s been this myth that consumers don’t need to like you to buy your product. I’m calling bullshit on that.
Remember, consumers are on to us. Trying to brute force our way into getting their attention is working against our interests as marketers, not for. You need to consider the impression you’re making on people. So here are a few things that don’t generally go over well:
- Gamifying email list subscription…to the point that people don’t realize they’re subscribing. There’s no better way to guarantee people will ignore you.
- Giant popups that take over the website as soon as you land on it. That’s like opening the door to a visitor standing on your front porch, only to immediately slam the door in their face. Great tactic if you’re trying to make them turn around and leave.
- Not respecting boundaries. If someone gives you permission to contact them with brand-specific promotions, don’t take that as an invitation to send them stuff about all the other brands in your portfolio.
You don’t get people to like you by tricking them into it. You get people to like you by prioritizing your customers. By looking at things from their point of view and making a good and lasting impression. That’s the approach that brings business success today. Nothing sums it up better than this statement from vintage retail brand Homage:
Mindset #4: Know what you stand for. Then use that to stand out.
It’s important to think in terms of long-term relationships when it comes to marketing today, because surviving on a business built on one-off transactions is not really sustainable in ecommerce today.
Amazon has pretty much cornered the market on transactional ecommerce. So much so that transactional ecommerce – finding the people who want to buy something and making it faster, cheaper, easier to do it – is literally what they stand for, and what makes them stand out. You can’t compete with that head on; you’re not going to beat them at their own game. You need to have your own identity: your own brand.
Now, I know I just said consumers don’t give a shit a few paragraphs ago. And I meant it – they don’t give a shit about most brands. But that’s because most brands aren’t really likeable. From a consumer’s perspective, most brands fall into three buckets. They’re generic – totally boring. Or they’re inconsistent – they’re trying on a new mask every time you interact, so who they are never really takes hold. Or they’re deceptive – they talk a good game and then never really deliver. Sometimes unintentionally, too.
Or worse: they’re just nothing. Totally empty. Dead space.
Here’s the mindset we need to have: your brand isn’t just about colors and logos and fonts. It’s also about the things you sell, the policies you put in place, and the experience you deliver. Because all of those things ultimately come together to create the perception that consumers have of your business. And it’s that perception – the one consumers have, not the one you want them to have – that defines your brand. And in this era, your brand needs to be your strongest competitive advantage.
Take Shinesty, for example. They’re a Klaviyo customer that sells crazy clothing — neon ski gear and star spangled everything. They think we all take ourselves a little too seriously. And they’re committed to getting us to lighten up; to see the fun in making fun of ourselves.
When they ask for an email, they want to make you laugh. So the call to action on the persistent newsletter sign up form is “Let’s get weird.” The page listing jobs Shinesty is hiring for includes both mullets and a reference to Mike Tyson’s albino tiger. Shinesty has a brand, and they show it in everything they do.
And that brand has propelled them through their growth from 5 to 30 employees in a few years. Revenue is up 1,400% since 2014, and there are 300,000 people subscribed to their email list, according to a profile on the company published earlier this year.
You are not Shinesty. But you have a brand too. Know how to articulate it, then make sure you live it.
Mindset #5: Stop marketing at. Start connecting with.
Every bit of content we publish, every product update we make, every workshop we produce, and every session at Klaviyo:BOS’18 supported this mindset in one way or the other: it’s truly time for us to stop thinking we’re marketing at anything. Saying that implies that we’re the ones who hold all the cards; that we’re throwing something at the people we want to do business with our brands and hoping that they catch us. That is not the truth about marketing today. It’s not about marketing “at,” and to be honest, effective marketing never really was about that mentality. It’s about communicating persuasively at scale because you can genuinely build relationships at scale. It’s about connecting “with”.
So here’s my challenge to you – what are you going to change to build better connections through your marketing?
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