Marketers: Think About Fitting in Before Breaking Through

Don't Interrupt Your Consumers, Work With Their Existing Behavior

By Published on .

Nick Law
Nick Law
I spent a weekend last month flitting from one luminous screen to the next like a crack-brained moth. By the time my daughters and I settled in front of the movie Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, we were on our ninth screen. First, the TV and computer screens we left at home, then the LCD at the gas pump, my rental car's GPS, the Nintendo DS that was played in the back seat, the ATM at the mall, the iPod touch I fiddled with in the ticket line, the BlackBerry I checked in the dark theater and, finally, the movie screen.

We've all got one eye on life and the other on a screen, especially the kids. In the movie, a sweeping crane shot above a sea of screaming girls showed the Jonases refracted onto a thousand handheld mobile screens. Bless their digital hearts: Even in a state of utter hysteria, sweaty heartthrobs within groping distance, these girls needed to see them on a screen for the experience to feel complete.

It struck me that media has ceased to be an event. When I was my daughters' age, my relationship with media was so fundamentally different that I may as well have been raised by Visigoths. Media was scheduled, anticipated and experienced with wide-eyed compliance on a TV that sat in the living room like an immovable megalith. Now, media envelops us like magic pixel mist. Or, to be more accurate, a cloud. This cloud doesn't just deliver entertainment; it provides information, community and utility, when and where I want it. In less than a decade, we've gone from media manipulating people to people manipulating media.

This makes it harder for advertisers to get my attention. If media is woven into my every waking hour, you're not just interrupting my show, you're interrupting my life. Beyond that, much of our screen time is spent not watching but doing stuff, like checking bank balances, microblogging and sharing videos. The last thing we want is a boorish brand slowing us down.

Burger King's Whopper Sacrifice took advantage of how consumers use Facebook.
Burger King's Whopper Sacrifice took advantage of how consumers use Facebook.
Instead of asking "How do we break through?" advertisers should be asking "How do we fit in?" If your audience is on Facebook, don't interrupt their social life by shouting at them; find a way to insinuate your brand into their existing behavior. Burger King did it when it realized people with "friend fatigue" would gladly sacrifice 10 friends for a Whopper. On another hand, if your audience is made up of runners who like to run with music, put a sensor in their shoe that connects to their iPod and then to a network of runners around the world and call it Nike Plus. Or, if your audience is already searching the web for cooking ideas, do what Kraft did and give them a "Food and Family" digital magazine and iPhone app full of inspiration, recipes and tools.

At first glance, these examples are very different. The first is a singular utility that attaches itself to an existing platform. The second is a product extension with its own robust platform. The third is a platform that delivers deep content and utility. What they have in common, however, is they are useful and social, and have been wildly popular because they blend into people's media habits. They fit in.

There are times when digital platforms are so nifty that people find out about them from the magic pixel mist. YouTube, Facebook and Mint have become obsessive media habits without spending a cent on advertising. However, the "build it and they will come" approach doesn't always work. In most cases, platforms could use some old-fashioned advertising to get the word out -- ideally, advertising that clearly and elegantly demonstrates what the platform does. The advertising becomes a doorway into the platform, and each campaign builds the platform's population.

This approach is not only more effective in today's diffuse media environment, it's also more efficient. Why spend money on campaigns that vanish into the ether when you can spend those dollars driving people to an ongoing engagement? Not only that, why pay someone else's channel to broadcast to random eyeballs when your platform is its own channel where you can speak directly to people you know are interested?

Obviously, this requires a new kind of relationship between traditional and digital marketing. The old way has traditional coming up with a breakthrough message and tasking digital to make it dance in pixels. The new approach has the digital side building something that fits into people's lives, and then the traditional side advertising it.

That's right, it's all backwards. It's a switcheroo that threatens some traditional people who would rather gouge out their own eyes with a plastic spoon than cede power to those uppity digital kids. But it needn't. It's less a shift of control than a new kind of power sharing, and it's all in service of those with the real power -- the people we're trying to sell stuff to.

Nick Law is exec VP-chief creative officer-North America at R/GA.
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