Entertainment Is Yesterday's Branding Solution

People Sharing Online Will Be Swayed by Content They Can Use

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Facebook has more members than the United States has residents. Just about everyone in Korea has an account for playing an online game. A large chunk of humanity spends more time logged in, sharing or simply staring at their screens than they do sleeping or eating. Isn't the social-media revolution over? 

Here's a proposition: Entertainment was to the social-media revolution what porn was to the early days of the internet. Both approaches to creating content are the easiest, most obviously enjoyable to early adopters and come wrapped in promises of future profits. Both are really old ideas, too.

The customers for porn proved to be a small sliver of the users who'd eventually migrate online. It might be the same for the entertainment delivered by most brands using social media.

Producing entertainment, and calling it "branding," is an old approach to marketing -- requiring really no different creativity than was once put into print, radio or TV ads. The approach puts all of the mechanics of peer-to-peer technology (P2P) into the service of consuming and sharing marketing stuff. More often than not, social conversations are about great branding, not the businesses that produced them.

All the while, other and more fascinating things are happening on social platforms. Victims of natural disasters are getting found faster and better. Nonprofits are finding new sources of money, and nongovernmental organizations are discovering ways to get events conducted and activists engaged. Manufacturers are outsourcing design and process steps to "crowds" of educated customers, and customer service departments are using it to address instances when those steps stumble or need further improvement. A variety of service providers, such as insurance companies, are using social to survey backgrounds of policyholders, just as would-be employers are developing profiles of job candidates.

And customers -- no, people -- are using an endless array of formal and search-based social platforms to gather, vet and promote information about products, services and the very institutions of authority in their lives ... and then drawing their own conclusions, which may or may not involve buying anything.

Entertainment? Are you kidding me? That's the best brands can do to address this post-revolution reality?

We insist on describing our branding efforts in the same language we used 50+ years ago. We wax poetic about the importance of brands telling stories when the fact is that the P2P revolution has taken that authority away from us. There are no stories that brands can create or promote in spite of reality; there's only a larger, more amorphous and un-ownable story -- let's call it "The Story" -- that involves an endless number of inputs and factors from an imprecise and ever-changing number of sources, of which your brilliant communications is but one. Just consider Apple's recent supplier woes (it certainly didn't tell that story, or want it told).

The Story isn't contained in your smartest campaign or limited to the channels in which you want it told. It's not just multimedia but every media, most notably word-of -mouth spoken aloud and heard by real ears belonging to people you really know. The Story isn't told by brands to people, but among them about brands. So what drives use of online P2P conversations is a broader search for truth, not entertainment. 

People believe they are learning the truth about every authority in our society, and that includes your brand. It's what they're doing, now that the social-media revolution is over.

Taking social media seriously doesn't require brands to be serious. It's a bigger creative challenge to figure out how to make truth understandable, memorable and useful than it is to deny or avoid it. We need approaches to marketing that are more radically inventive than the rehash of old ideas we've seen up to now.

For instance: How are you using social tools to help your customers reach a better understanding and trust in your business (i.e. don't play to incorrect assumptions, as the oil companies do by pretending that oil is one of many energy options)?

Do you tell customers things that are inarguably true, and therefore declare it loudly and repeatedly (like the UK's Ryanair lowering traveler expectations so effectively that they can't be disappointed)? Have you gone beyond giving them what you think they want, and addressed the things they need? (24 Fitness, for example, talks about the reality of weight loss and health). 

It's time to get serious about social media. Your audience is waiting. Tell them things that matter, things that they can use and things that are true.

Otherwise, now that the revolution is over, they'll tell you, and you might not like what they say. 

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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