I just returned home from Boston, where I attended my third conference produced by Marketing Profs.
As a marketer who works most heavily in the social space, it was through that lens which I viewed the breakout sessions I attended at the conference.
What I saw often surprised me.
The Marketing Profs conferences attract some pretty traditional marketing types (lots of suits at this event).
While there seemed to be much more acceptance of social media among these attendees than in the past (last year, participants seemed far more wary), there wasn’t much indication that marketers were making fundamental changes in their business practices when it came to working in that space.
Social seemed to be just other marketing channel – the assumption being that you take the tried and true schema of push marketing, move it to this new environment and, “presto!” – “viral” magic will abound.
In this scenario, the marketer is still comfortably driving the bus – setting editorial calendars, directing traffic and counting clicks.
The marketing power of reality.
The most striking illustration of this “same practice; new channel” thinking was the continual reference in sessions to “marketing personas.”
Marketing personas are an integral part of the marketing process at most companies, born from in-depth client and customer research, but also including some insights from “the land of make believe.”
Understandably, marketing personas are enormously comforting to businesses:
- They give your customers/clients a face you can relate to.
- They help you get a fix on a moving demographic target.
- They don’t argue with your ideas when they’re still in their embryonic form.
But, the problem is that personas don’t exist in social media … people do.
Each one of these people offers the world a very public profile of who they are and what they want and need.
With all that information at our fingertips, why put so much faith in fantasy debates about whether “Carol” likes television or is “fashion-forward?”
If you’ve strategically built and cultivated social networks for your company, you have access to a think tank of thousands of “Carols,” whom you can poll any time and use to crowdsource a host of new ideas.
What’s more, those interactions can give the real “Carols” an opportunity to develop a relationship with your company. As a result, not only will they be acting as sources of customer intelligence, they’re likely to double back and be your actual customers, too.
Real people are mean and scary.
One session at the conference provided a fascinating example of the enduring power (and pitfalls) of marketing personas.
The presenter was describing her B2B company and put up a slide with a picture of a young man in a snarky T-shirt (which incidentally, is the official dress code of SXSWi). Next to this photo was an equally snarky quote from this man’s blog.
The quote (and the blog) was written by a man named Todd.
Todd, the presenter explained, was their target client and one of their key marketing personas. His snarkiness and sarcasm represented all of the potential hurdles this company might have to overcome in their marketing efforts. “This guy HATED us,” the presenter confided.
So at the end of the session, I asked the $100,000 social media question … “Did you ever talk to Todd?”
The answer was … “no.”
Sadly, no one in the room seemed shocked by this answer. But, I certainly was.
Todd is not an archetype or a fictional persona. He is real person, accessible through social channels.
So what would be the harm in following Todd on Twitter? Posting a comment on his blog, thanking him for sharing his insights? Wooing him in some small social way?
Well, of course, the harm is that Todd is scary. He’s real and complex and could be a handful to control. Todd also may not welcome this company’s overtures with open arms. (Actually, he most definitely won’t if they start the conversation by sending some “push marketing” his way).
On the other hand, Todd could also be the linchpin brand advocate that could take this company’s marketing to the next level. Not only is he vocal, he’s a publisher, who, if won over, could share his testimonial with THOUSANDS of potential clients.
At the very least, he might ultimately decide that he’s still not wild about the presenter’s company, but will refrain from bad-mouthing them (a show of respect, in return for the respect the company had shown in reaching out to him).
Ultimately, this is a hypothetical scenario. (I don’t know Todd and I don’t know this company.)
But, I do know that this case study is not an anomaly.
Take the new road.
I am not suggesting that the practice of establishing marketing personas be abolished. They serve a purpose, and in most marketing practices, they make a lot of sense.
But social media (although it is a marketing channel like any other) has its own unique needs.
Marketing personas are not one of them.
Assigning imaginary qualities to real people to better understand them makes about as much sense as anthropomorphizing a grizzly bear and determining that he’s lonely and needs a hug.
(You may be right … but more often than not, you’re going to get eaten alive.)
To be successful in the social space, marketers need to evolve and modify their approach:
- Listen first; market second.
- Crowdsource editorial ideas and THEN publish.
- Direct traffic intuitively, without manufacturing social corrals.
- Measure clicks, but also the value of your human connections.
As Robert Frost so eloquently put it:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
If you want to market using social media, you need to take that new road.
This less traveled one may be bumpier, but the journey will be no less productive. And, if you can loosen up on your reins, indeed, it will make all the difference.