Why authenticity is always a better marketing strategy
6th of Oct 2020
If you’ve watched Netflix’s recent documentary “The Social Dilemma”, you’d be forgiven for thinking the world was coming to an end – with special thanks to AI driven social media echo chambers, bad actors advancing fake news and unregulated big tech undermining the very foundation of democracy.
Laying down pearl after pearl through slickly lit, close up shots and quotable lines like “If you’re not paying for the product. You are the product”, you come away with the distinct impression that we all know so little about how big tech, and the impact of AI driven advertising models will impact us, that it might just be better to go back to word of mouth advertising. Especially when developers themselves don’t know how their artificial intelligence will behave after the processes of teaching it, not to mention the impacts of unconscious biases being mirrored a million fold, as algorithms are let loose on live data*.
After all, it’s slightly scary when the Coinventor of Google Drive, Gmail Chat, Facebook Pages and the Facebook Like Button makes you realise that things are as bad as you thought they were; your iPhone’s new orange light glowing eerily in acknowledgement, as it alerts you to which apps are accessing your camera and microphone right now. I can just hear my conspiracy-theory prone husband shouting with gleeful validation after years of speculation, “I always knew they were listening in!”. And he’s not wrong.
But Big Tech and political bad actors are only part of the picture. Layered on top of that are the advertisers that drive the foundation of their business models. And the two critical choices those advertisers make in how they communicate with their audiences – whether by leveraging intrinsic human weaknesses (e.g. fake countdown timers to tap into human scarcity bias), or via a harder, but more sustainable route (e.g. building your unique voice to connect with your audience at a deeper emotional level).
The other day I was scrolling Facebook’s newsfeed when an ad popped up referencing a product only available for a ‘limited time’. Filled with little crying emojis, blathering in their ad copy about their sadness in needing to close down because of ‘current circumstances’.
They didn’t mention the pandemic, but of course they knew that’s where their audiences’ thoughts would go. And the advertiser was happy for potential customers to fill in the blanks. Fast forward a month later, the ad is back, same type of copy, same approach, different product. All bullshit.
Why do brands choose to operate this way? Because, sadly it works – you can’t override millions of years of human evolution in a single generation. And while the techniques to do so aren’t new to marketers, they’re amplified unsustainably when you apply them in a social advertising context. So here are some good reasons why you should avoid it:
- People are smarter than you think.
Oh sure, they’ll buy something from you if you trigger enough of their psychological weakness. But they’ll never respect you for it*. And this approach will ultimately eat away at your brand, slowly eroding your market share and growth opportunities.
- It doesn’t scale.
You’ve got big dreams for your brand, right? Whether it’s defending your existing assets and territories or expanding globally – using cheap copy techniques (such as the ‘limited time’ one noted above) at the expense of a considered tone of voice means that you don’t stand out from your competitors – especially if they’re using the same basic tactics. And without differentiation, unless you’ve got the biggest brand and budget – it’s very tough to scale out of relative obscurity.
- In certain industries, it’ll backfire, big time.
Direct sales type ad copy is not the be-all and end-all of marketing. For ethical, social, health and many other types of industry categories, these tactics end up having the opposite effect – your educated audience takes offense that you belittle the importance of what they value, by trying too hard to sell it.
- You’re better than that.
If you’re reading this and you’ve interacted with our brand then I decree thee a decent human being. Because we don’t engage with the other sort. And just because something is easy, doesn’t make it right. It’s easy to show unrealistic outcomes and comparisons, promise the world or build disingenuous reciprocity through a ‘free’ but not so useful asset. So if you’ve distributed an ebook with misleading case studies and you know it’s a bit dodge – stop it.
- There is always a better way.
Laziness is what happens when instead of transparency, we use obfuscation, and instead of authenticity, we use fakery. Stop reading what marketing books say and just listen to your customers. Your values and your consumer insights combined make excellent guiding principles for your advertising. Better yet, document those principles just like you would your brand guidelines, and share them with everyone in your team.
- Only say it if it’s true.
And no, this rule doesn’t include things that you wish were true, or would like to be true. Skirting of consumer law aside, the temptation to break that enormous bond of trust I’m sure you’ve worked damn hard to build with your audience, just isn’t worth it.
I’m not saying don’t use automation, or avoid creating efficiency or working smart, just think through whether there is a hidden cost to your choices.
Big tech sells certainty to advertisers. “A marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures, at scale”, says Shoshana Zuboff, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School. That is, their business is in knowing what consumers will do next, without them ever being aware of what’s going on.
It doesn’t mean we need to stop advertising on Facebook or TikTok or other platforms that apply AI at scale. But we as advertisers have a responsibility to ourselves and to our customers to know what’s going on.
And just because you use those platforms for your advertising, doesn’t mean you need to buy into tactics that others exploit for short-term gains.
You’re better than that. Right?
Foresight is a digital consultancy supporting established and emerging brands to grow, scale, demonstrate ROI and flourish sustainably. Feel free to reach out if you’d like to learn more at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Weapons of Math Destruction is an excellent read on this.
*Read any book that talks about post purchase dissonance for a bit more context.
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