Marketers, Don't Just Blindly Follow Latest Media Trends

Why 'Because All the Cool Kids Are Doing It' Isn't a Good Excuse for Running to Nontraditional Media

By Published on .

Greg Andersen
Greg Andersen
One of the first messages ever posted to my profile on Facebook was from my 16-year-old niece in Nebraska. It said: "What are you doing here?" Even though they were just words on a screen, I could hear the tone in it. What are you doing here? In her mind, her 40-year-old uncle was intruding on a space she thought of as reserved for people more like her. And the thing is, I think she believes I'm pretty cool for an uncle. I've got some credibility: I live in New York, I'm in the ad business and she knows I'm associated with some pretty good brands. But despite this, she still asked the question. It wasn't exactly the reception I had in mind. And my response was equally bad: "Um, because everyone else is?"

In a media environment that is increasingly defined by the trendiness that afflicts a whole bunch of other categories, brands run the risk of looking like I must have looked to my niece when I joined Facebook and sent her a friend invite: an outsider trying to seem with it, unsure of why we're there or what we're supposed to do to become a valuable member of the community. We're the awkward adults with disposable income but no idea what's really going on around us. But we're there, damn it. And that makes us cool. We bought the sneakers and the ironic T-shirt. We're one of you. Want to be friends?

Apple Students Facebook page
Pizza Hut MySpace page

Winner and loser: Apple is a great example of a marketer that doesn't get caught up in trend-driven media without thinking it through. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut has its own page on Facebook. Why? It's unlikely that Facebook users want to be 'friends' with Pizza Hut.

Not only do they not want to be friends, they increasingly don't even want to be in the same room as us. Pizza Hut has a page on Facebook. Why? I mean, who wants to be friends with a pizza? Yeah, I'll "poke" you -- right in the eye. The problem for us marketers is that there are now a lot of other rooms for them to go to. And we're chasing them there.

Media innovation is happening in quantity, form and function like never before. For the media-defined generation, new properties, content and applications have social currency in the discovery. New forms of media are dependent on this demographic sharing and even help to drive innovation on a level that has created previously nonexistent, high-involvement media. As a result, media properties and the way they are used are becoming a reflection on the user. Media has badge status. Where you choose to express yourself is becoming as important as how you choose to express yourself. It's more and more about the company you keep. And in my niece's case, I get the feeling that isn't sitting right. With a demographic that is already trend-driven, the social currency of discovery and the perception of who you are based on where you are (and whom you're with) are driving young people through these trends at speeds dangerous to marketers and media owners alike.

Bad brand behaviors
Wharton Business School warned financial investors about this trendiness impacting media properties back in May 2006, specifically within the media segment of social-networking sites. They drew the parallel between MySpace and the teen pastime of hanging out at the mall. It's a parallel that can be extended to most any environment that is "see and be seen." Their point to financial investors: Be careful how much you commit to these potentially fleeting properties. Maybe someone should dust off that point of view and insert it into the debate about the value of Facebook. $15 billion?
Greg Andersen is director of engagement planning for North America at BBH, New York. He has 18 years of experience in account management and strategic planning, handling brands such as Saab, Levi's, GMC Trucks and Nokia.
That's a lot of money to bet on something that happens to be the current environment in which to be seen. New numbers are showing that year-on-year growth rates are slowing, and some of the really cool kids are starting to pull out and move on. But when Wharton was talking about financial investors, I think it was talking about the Wall-Street type. To me, brands are the real financial investors in these properties.

Ironically, bad marketing is also part of the reason that people like my niece are leaving one setting and moving on to the next new thing where we're not clumsily asking them if they want to be friends. The social-networking environment is littered with irrelevant brand applications. But bad brand behaviors aren't just limited to the confines of media segments such as social-networking sites or to the younger people who tend to hang there. Media innovation has opened up all kinds of new ways for us to embarrass ourselves. Applications that allow people to create, publish, search, categorize, store, share, filter, automate and connect are being misused everywhere.

Anyone remember the Chevy Tahoe UGC campaign launched on "The Apprentice"? It encouraged people to put their own narratives over stock film of the vehicle and submit their creations for prizes. It seems the brand team failed to consider that UGC campaigns require some passion from the participants, and that all that passion may not be expressed in Chevy's favor. The result: GM's marketing dollars helped the passionate anti-SUV crowd create online content pointing out the various downsides of large vehicles with less-than-ideal fuel economy.

There are other high-visibility UGC campaigns going on where the cost-per-consumer film submission averages about $25,000 based on the campaign's media spend alone. That's the price brands pay when they're asking people to do things they're not really interested in doing.

There are examples across the marketing universe where brands and their agencies have jumped into trendy environments to do trendy things. But I get the feeling they're not really sure why or what the real payback will be. And it doesn't seem they really know who they're talking to or why that person would even consider creating a piece of content in the first place.

'Me too' media
We're all guilty of it. Everyone wants do the next new nontraditional thingy -- including me. We get rewarded for it. We write about it. We love to tell people we've done it. It's cool. It makes us feel like we're with it. It's great that our business has the ambition to do these things. It's an exciting time of innovation for us, too. But the way we're doing it in many instances is not so great. "Because everyone else is" is an unacceptable answer.

And in a trend-driven media environment, the thing we need to be cautious about is getting too caught up in it without thinking it through. It's potentially damaging to marketing and to our brands. We need to look past the things that other people are doing and try to understand the underlying elements that drive people's behavior in environments that make sense for our individual brands and creative ideas, then invest in creating assets around that.

Apple is a great example (yet again) of a brand that gets this. Its Apple Students community on Facebook has almost 500,000 members. It's all about featuring member-created content -- in an environment that's all about people sharing their content. An obvious bull's-eye.

So I'm taking one for the team here. I got the tough question from my niece that has put me in complete personal-reassessment mode. Now I'm passing the question on to you: What are we doing here? Why is it right for the brand? For the creative idea? How does it align to a meaningful objective? Is it really something the people we're talking to will do? How does it add value for them?

If we get those answers right, we might actually become legitimately cool. So the next time I talk to my niece I'll have a few questions for her: Where are you going next? What are you doing there? And why?
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