Marketers, Get Back to Boring

We've Got Too Much Sizzle in the System Right Now

By Published on .

Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Warning: This column may put you to sleep.

Yes, this is a pattern. Early last year I called for a "slow marketing" moment. Late last year, I suggested we fixate on three basic words to survive 2010: serve, shrink and simplify.

Today, my call to action goes for the uninspiring jugular: back to boring.

Yes, I said "boring" -- dull, non-sexy, foundational, basic as bread and butter. All the stuff that makes our heads nod and makes us fall asleep. You know, the last stuff you'd ever re-tweet.

Here's the rub: We've got too much sizzle in the system right now. Social media garnishes every marcom conference and discussion, and I'm already bolting myself in my chair before the unstoppable tweet tsunami from the SXSW crowd over the next 10 days. We're obsessed. Join the conversation! Engage the conversation! Hell, spike the conversation!

All well and good, but still, we're off-keel. We're embracing things as though they are bold new concepts when in fact they are as foundational to marketing as a selling line. We're dissing fundamentals.

This reality slapped me in the face last week while working on a project to develop a Cincinnati-based Museum of Advertising, an exercise that's forced me to reach into a nostalgia-laced basket of timeless truths and boring basics.

We're looking to build one of the largest archive of online video interviews of ad veterans and experts, and so I kicked off the process by interviewing friend and informal mentor Bob Wehling, a retired, much-revered 41-year Procter & Gamble veteran who led all global advertising and countless industry leadership initiatives.

In the course of our captivating -- nay, mesmerizing -- 90-minute interview, Bob reminded me that the first P&G Ivory Soap ad invited feedback and participation. He talked about how Bill Cosby refused to be scripted in his first very commercial, opting instead to exploit his own "authentic" voice to anchor a wonderfully effective Crest ad campaign. Bob also used the term "listening to the consumer" about a hundred times. (I kid you not!)

Whoa, horsey! Maybe things haven't changed that much at all. Maybe what's missing in our "social" marketing transformation is the really boring and basic stuff. Maybe dull drives digital. Maybe fundamentals face us forward. Maybe boring is breakthrough.

I call this out for good reason. Social media and digital marketing will only succeed -- and sell through the organizational layers -- if we ground it in deeper, more established marketing truths, not ephemeral campaigns, one-trick pony moments, or hypocritical oaths or proclamations.

So to the gathering herds in Austin, to the ARF "Re-Thinkers" assembling next week, to the social-media wannabees, and to the dude I see in the mirror every morning, I say let's get "back to boring." Further, I offer a few foundational building blocks to get us started:

Trust: Amid all the social-media banter, I'm just not hearing the word "trust" enough. Trust is the currency for all advertising, whether marketer-generated or consumer-generated. Lose it and we might as well close shop. When the FTC laid down blogger-testimonial guidelines, they were firing a "trust" warning shot. The boring basics say: disclose, don't disguise. Don't overstate ad claims, or the public will "out you." Stay credible. Frameworks like the boring Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association or Better Business Bureau ethics guidelines are a good starting point. (Disclosure: I'm associated with both groups.) We must keep nurturing trust.

Customer relationship management: Maybe we're all overdue for a return to boring CRM. There's sign that CRM is finding new life, as there's been a rash of blog entries and tweets from the likes of Jeremiah Owyang, John Bell, Frank Eliason, Charlene Li and many other folks I respect about this notion of "Social CRM." While still riddled with impenetrable vernacular, the foundations are right. Irrespective of platform, we're in the customer-relationship-management business. Every touchpoint matters. Nurture that relationship in every way possible.

Emotion: Listening to Kodak's Jeffrey Hayzlett last week at the 4A's conference, I found myself thinking less about social media than the core foundations of emotional bonding in advertising my dad taught me about. We've always shared photos to connect emotionally, and social media just continues that piece. Emotion stirs the soul. Emotion gets our attention. Emotion takes time to understand. Think tears, not tweets.

Feedback: Please don't tell me feedback is a new concept. And don't try to convince me we can only get feedback in exotic, far-off places away from the brand backyard. If we really believe in social media, the first thing we'll do is fix the brand welcome-mats. I'm talking about the feedback form and "contact us." I'm talking about that 800 number, and the channels or search engines that help me find it. Everyone (trust me) continues to ignore the boring call-center and feedback forms.

Listening: Of course we should listen, and as Bob Wehling reminded me, listening is a price of entry for all marketing, and certain aspects of listening -- like live one-on-one conversations with consumers -- will never go away (or lose their value). Social media -- er, Social CRM -- just takes it to a new (and certainly more accountable) level. The school of "boring basics" would suggest that we need to wrap the new social-media layer around the core essentials of consumer understanding.

Patience: You just can't build Rome overnight. Managing Facebook fans may look easy, but it's not. Nor are marketing fundamentals. Honestly, I was miserable my first year at P&G with all that boring "basics of consumer understanding" stuff. All those tedious focus groups with consumers. Man, just the thought of it makes me want to reach for a tweet.

Leadership: At the end of the day, what truly matters is less about social smarts than good, old-fashioned leadership. Leaders inspire and drive change -- irrespective of platform, cause or brand. Most important, great leaders always follow the consumer. Whether the consumer's hanging out the in living room, or hanging photos on their Facebook page, we have to be here. If you dissect the great case studies behind what's happening in our marketing transformation, especially on the social-media scene, the DNA of great leadership is unmistakable.

Now, if you are not already snoozing, let me end this yawner of a column with the "back to boring" oath, sung to the tune of Helen Reddy's "I am Woman:" I am basic. I am true. I am grounded. That's the glue. I am boring!

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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