They Don’t Trust Us

I recently picked up a paperback and the blurb on the back began with “The murder of a successful advertising executive…” I’m, of course, thinking who would want to kill a successful advertising exec? When I think about it though, perhaps consumers have us on their termination lists. They still do not trust us. The main reason for the rise of social media as an influence channel is that people trust their friends. People even trust strangers more than traditional information channels.

Trust measurements, depending upon which researcher you trust, show that recommendations from friends and acquaintances measure at well over 70% while the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are in the mid to high 60s. Advertisers? Around 15%. When mass media was pretty much the only game in town, we could be successful in spite of the inherent distrust. Now, with the consumer in control, and aware of that control, not so much.

It’s not that advertising has become ineffective, because it hasn’t. But the old style of advertising was dependent upon lots of eyeballs. With the tremendous number of choices now fighting for the attention of those eyeballs, the audience is fragmented. Advertisers respond by evolving from a model that is based upon maximum impressions to one based upon the right impressions. Targeting isn’t a new concept. We’ve always done it. The difference is that we now need to be more precise about it to hit our ROI goals.

But that is still a model based on impressions. Social media has shown us the tremendous potential for influence marketing. That’s the lightning that we’re all trying to figure out how to reliably get in a bottle. But social influence marketing is all about trust and transparency which are not the historical strengths of the advertising industry.

Advertisers are seduced by the promise of social media. Yet treating it as another channel to exploit is doomed to failure in an environment ruled by trust. However, there are a lot of smart people in agencies. For every dinosaur resistant to changing familiar models there is a change agent struggling to be heard. Some agencies are listening, and some are not. Change is scary, and worse for those responsible for the bottom line, risky. In an age driven by technology, change, and even risk must be embraced to not be left behind. The challenge is to create process around change and innovation.

Advertisers have some great strengths. We see the results of those strengths in some areas in which big brands and big agencies have been quite successful. For example, viral video (and I used the word viral a little reluctantly) is largely ruled by big brands, big productions and big agencies. Yes there are noteworthy exceptions like Will it Blend and United Breaks Guitars. But week after week we see the video charts ruled by the likes of Nike, T-Mobile, and Evian. The format is comfortable for both brands and agencies. Creativity has always been an agency strength and will continue to be.

Agencies would not counsel their clients to try and be all things to all people. Rather, we identify competitive strengths in context of market opportunity and, perhaps, develop mitigation strategies for competitive weaknesses and market threats. We need to point that analytical process at ourselves. Creativity, messaging, production, media knowledge and more are clear strengths to be leveraged. But on the weakness and threat side of the ledger, we had better acknowledge the lack of trust and either figure out ways to increase it, or at least find strategies to minimize its effects. This is a critical issue if ad agencies wish to drive social media initiatives.

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