The power of Small Businesses in Marketing and Branding

I’m staring up at a blue sky. Something moves at the edge of my vision. I think I’m seeing shadows, but no matter which way I tilt my head, it just moves in a determined direction, one way along the edge of my line of vision. A grey shadow just out of my visual reach. There it is again. Suddenly I have a brain-wave. (Something that happens so rarely I actually decide to start an article with this momentous event just to give myself some confidence that I’m not entirely without merit).

I take off my glasses, and there it is, a tiny ant running along the rim. I do the humane, caring thing and shake the fucker off, letting him fall to his almost certain death, hundreds of body-lengths below. I watch him tumble down onto the sandy, rocky gravel I’ve been lying on.

I notice he’s one of hundreds, dispersed sparingly across the patch of ground I’m on. I must have lain down near a nest. I lose him amongst his peers. They march along, snatching food and going about their busy little lives. I watch as they bump into each other, exchange pleasantries, touch feelers. Move on. They almost all talk to each other, go out of their way to chat. Only for a second here and there, but they are all connected, exchanging information about where the food is, about the dangers of getting too close to humans wearing plastic rimed glasses, about Iranian nuclear physics.

They are very social these ants

We are very social creatures too. I think that’s why humans have such a fascination with ants. Rarely do humans meet each other in the jungle or street without exchanging nods, looks or words. In small towns and communities all across the planet we human ants bump into and contact each other and chat about stuff. We are a highly communicative species, we homo sapiens. We love to natter, to hear the sound of our own voices, read the brilliance of our own writing. Learn a bit. Laugh a bit. Check how popular we are.

The rise of social media is testimony to the sexiness of interconnectedness for a creature which is naturally social to begin with. To survive and prosper on this planet we humans have evolved in packs. On our own we were just soft-fleshed, small-mouthed, sparsely furred, poorly armed apes with some rudimentary ability to make weapons out of sticks. But together? Together, like a pride of lions or baboon, we were positively dangerous. We hunted in packs to kill big game like mammoth and sabre tooth tigers way before we built houses to live in or planted corn or rice. We lived in small communities on the sides of mountains to protect each other from marauding bears way before we congregated together in huge cities trading amongst each other. And all the way along the many paths mankind has trod, the many societies we have created, those who could communicate best have lead the rest. We are a creature that values language and conversation, values efficient connectedness.

Connected individuals

We also value democracy, (those who are not rich, anyway) where an individual can make their own decisions, can chose their own life paths, can interact with other humans and take some opinions, some experience from one person, some from another, and forge a new path for themselves. We inherently recognise that at the very base level, we are all alone too, even amongst this interconnectedness. That we are all, when it comes to lying in our grave, on our own, alone with our own thoughts, in our own unique life, an individual in a sea of other individuals.

The rise of two –way conversations where marketers can communicate one-on-one with their customers, is the crowning glory of this combination of connectedness and individual existence.

Two edged revolution

Social media is as much a revolution for social connectivity as the printing press was to education. Before the printing press, invented way back in something like 1440 (don’t hold me to that date, I wasn’t there) people could only read books if they were incredibly rich, incredibly well-connected because someone had to painstakingly, over hundreds of hours, actually copy the book by hand, to make more than one. Not a very efficient way to communicate complex concepts to large numbers. Once the printing press was invented, someone could print hundreds of copies in a day, so literally thousands of people, by handing those bits of paper around, could find out about something in a matter of hours. Suddenly we had an information revolution and modern education was born.

Social media, the ability for joe-average to be recipient and media mogul at the same time, is as much a revolution. A revolution in democracy. A revolution in business opportunity. A revolution in fun, in entertainment, in job seeking, in cooking, in anything that is from the people-driven, no matter how weird, silly, brilliant or dumb. It’s a real revolution in grabbing the attention of the educated, and the not so.

And while it is in some ways a wonderful opportunity, and a sexy new media toy, it’s also a major worry for marketers all across the planet.

The public is not your customer

By and large, marketers don’t work for the public. By and large, marketers work for corporations and government. By and large, marketers take the needs of large groups of people, let’s for laughs call them ‘companies’ (to be in ‘company’ – with people of like mind) of people. We work for them. We take their messages and put those messages to the people we wish to influence. We are as much the spokes people as we are the researchers, the strategists, the painters of mental pictures, but we are without a doubt those whose key role it is to get a message into the minds of the millions we target with the express intent of getting those millions to do something. To change behavior. To get them to buy, to sell, to move to Kansas or to stop carrying knives after dark and stabbing each other. We are the people in the companies where we work whose most fundamental role it is to get a message to the masses and this social media is thus a threat as much as it is a blessing for professional marketers across the globe.

This is why two- way conversations are a real messy thing for marketers. Sure, it sounds nice, but we lose control. And if we lose control, if things become harder to do, they become more expensive. We can no longer get a message cheaply to the public. They are on facebook, not watching TV. They are texting each other in the back of the car instead of looking at the ‘ambient media’ as they zip past. They are listening to songs downloaded via i-tunes instead of listening to ads on the radio. Worst of all, the little fuckers are making up their own 7 minute songs and sending them out to their 25,468 friends on facebook so literally thousands of people spend seven minutes listening to that song instead of spending that seven minutes on 2UE being convinced to buy Omo, Paddington Bears or a new Toyota Prius like the good heavy-spending citizens they are supposed to be.

Evangelists never see the truth

The thing that niggles me most about Evangelists of any persuasion is their inherent determination to fly totally in the face of commonsense or truth in the pursuit of self-interest. The nutters on the TV religious programs ranting about Jaysus (one very clever kid I know calls God ‘Santa Clause for grown-ups’) are able to forget logic or science as long as you send them money. This is the same creature who heads up the social media revolution. Who is selling you on this or that aspect of this wonderful new media opportunity. There’s always a bunch of them in any new media wave. I can remember Evangelists talking up the revolution that was faxes, that was pagers, was mobile phones, the revolution that was the web. I get these people wandering into my office, spruiking revolutions all year long. It’s always the latest, the most critical thing to put our client’s media dollars into.  Blatant self-interest. The only people to listen to about any media, like with anything that people ‘sell’, are the ones who didn’t want to buy into it and have nothing to gain by pushing it.

Social media is a revolution, but it is only a good thing for marketers if we can learn to harness it and use it for the collective good of marketers. Otherwise, it’s just another thing to steal the public’s eye-balls and thus take away our power.

What’s good about Social Media marketing?

We can hear what people think about all sorts of subjects and it comes right from the horses mouth, not filtered by a research company. We can find exactly those people who are influencing attitudes and target them. We can do this in real time and we can make substantial changes to public attitude in a very short time, literally in hours, and it’s usually very low cost. For these reasons it’s about as sexy a media as marketers get. But it’s a two headed snake and we’ve only got it by the tail. It can quickly swing around and bite.

Getting control of social media – why?

We need to get hold of it and use it to our own ends. This is really going to upset the average punter who believes in the good of public opinion and self-determination. The average Marketing Mag reader who wants a fairer world, where the public decide what gets made and we marketers nobly organize for it to be delivered, in the colour they want.

Bullysheet I say. We need to control every aspect of the marketing universe otherwise we’ll have no purpose in companies and may as well get jobs washing cars or making sandwiches. Public opinion is great for research and great to make sure they are getting what they want, but individual products are a financial disaster. Why? Because the more you make of anything, the cheaper it gets. Why can you buy coats for $20.00 from China? Because there are literally hundreds of millions of them made every year. When people had to knit coats out of wool they’d picked off thorn bushes in the Pyrenees, as they chased wild (later known as Merino) sheep, that coat cost them a couple of week’s hard work. We need to be able to have cost effective one way conversations with our ever-adoring public, or costs per sale will go through the roof and the whole messy economy will scream to a halt like a freight-train that’s run off it’s rails.

How can you have bank accounts really tailored to your needs? Just the legal costs of writing the contracts would end up being hundreds of thousands of dollars for an account that might only make the bank a few hundred bucks a year. How can you have individually designed cars, what with six wheels, or anything else that needs to be mass-manufactured for efficiency? Real power to the individual is as much a threat to professional marketers as are guns in the hand of every citizen. If you want to go live in the wild west go live in Columbia. I, for one, want plenty of power concentrated in the hands of we marketers. Call me biased…If you were reading a medical journal and some doctor said she wanted doctors to have the final say on a particular surgical practice, not an eye-brow would raise. All the doctors reading that sentence would just accept it as gospel. But I bet half you marketers are squirming uncomfortably at the idea that I’m pushing for greater market-place control.

How to get control of social media

It’s control you’re having when you’re not having control. First of all, you can’t let the public know we evil marketers are trying to control their lives. They have been sold, mainly by Disney, Sky News and other nutty quasi-American ideologies, into the idea of self-determination and democracy. If they think we marketers want them to go back to one-way conversations, they’ll get all upset and sit in their bedrooms grumpily listening to their i-phones till way past dinner time.

So please, keep up the charade that we are happy about two-way conversations.

Two way is expensive

If you do decide to go for the social media connected thing that a lot of American companies are trying to push at the moment, where every second staff member is encouraged to run a full on conversation on facebook about what you should be doing right or wrong, you have several major risk factors that arise. The first is sheer cost. If you have staff members on Facebook, Twitter or Bebo, Nine MSN etc, they are costing you 40, 50, 100 bucks or more an hour, if you’re using outsourced suppliers, expect to multiply that considerably. Yes, they may be talking to one, or may-be a few hundred people a time, and that’s nice, but expensive.

You don’t know what’s being said

You either just let go of the idea of controlling what your spokespeople say completely to potentially millions of people, or you try to manage it. If you manage it, it takes hours for the PR and marketing department to respond to the ebb or flow of a conversation and anyone listening/observing starts to suspect what’s happening. Which may mean you need to put quite senior people on the job, which then means they often write/speak like corporate dweebs, ruining completely the idea of conversation, or it at least costs you a mint to get the wording correct.

Be on time

Nothing more suspicious than responding 25 minutes later to a quick chat or days later to a deep discussion. This gets to a fundamental problem – if people think they are talking to a spy they don’t speak their minds.

Get the right people doing it

Just in the same way Gerry Harvey has confidence in his sales staff to say the right thing on the shop floor in Nunawading or wherever, you must have confidence in your people to put the companies/departments views on a matter in a way that works for your goals. It doesn’t mean you will like the way it is worded or upon who’s side the writer seems to be. You must either trust them to make judgment calls or put another in their place. Training helps a lot, but it will often take the edge out of their voice and snap goes the credibility. Think how I’d write if I’d been trained by IBM or Coles Myer. Would you bother to read anything I typed?

Get to the right tribe

It’s possible to find conversations via a whole raft of nifty programs now, but it’s not that easy to break into them without looking like a pro rugby player at a kids party. It can take months to become a respected speaker on an issue too. But if you’re not in the conversation, you can’t learn from it, or influence it.

Get the language right

If you don’t get the wording exactly right for that tribal group, they won’t see you as an equal and they will often shut up until you’re obviously not involved anymore, or simply flit away. More to the point, you won’t understand what’s being said anyway. The language used in the Western suburbs of Sydney by Lebanese kids who are into Japanese Ninja Bikes is a lot different to the language used by the same age kids, who might have the same income and even education, but are from the northern beach suburbs and are into mountain bike riding. I sincerely doubt they could even understand each other, let alone someone who’s pushing 40, who’s trying to follow their facebook discussions from their office in Rockhampton on behalf of NAB.

Listen, listen

We have two ears and one mouth for good reason. Social media is one of the best market research tools I know.

Interact, don’t re-act

Getting defensive gets you no-where. It’s a red rag to a bull in this space. Better to say nothing and learn and be able to keep listening, than to prove you’re listening and be thought of as spies and flooded by hate posts. The space is littered with the bones of marketers who couldn’t help trying to interfere. If your people are having genuine two-way conversations with customers, then that’s great and more power to them, but remember, watch the pennies.

Look for flocking trends

People tend to fly from conversations on one chat or music medium to another, subjects from one to another during the day/week. If you can get the trends right you can anticipate where they are and steer conversations if you have everything else going right.

Support your supporters

Certain bloggers and key conversational influencers will be on your side/wavelength, others at the opposite extreme. Learn from the pollies, who focus on the swinging voters and influencers who are half-way there, rather than try to turn the attitude tide of the lost. And the influencers will potentially affect millions. Better to empower them with information and attitude about an issue than try to change the hardliners who’ll never be on your side.

Use external media

Much of social media conversation, miraculously, comes not from social media but from the rest of society. Much of the conversation is about what ‘they’ are trying to do to ‘us’ etc. If you track trends in social media it does not mean you have to use the clumsy and often dangerous tool that it is, to affect the discussion in a way you want. You can always use conventional, more controllable media to do this and simply use social media to track attitudes and so adjust your more mainstream campaigns.

Go Boldly!

Geoffrey McDonald Bowll

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