Show Some Respect

Leo Burnett once said, “There is no hard sell and soft sell; there is only smart sell and stupid sell.” His comment is particularly impactful in a time when online publishers, brands and agencies are desperately trying to hold on to ad revenue and budget dollars.
Many are biding their time by tinkering with what didn’t work last year. Case in point: If you think of advertising today, the “Shamwow,” dancing cowboys and “You’ve Just Won” banner ads seem to dominate-very stupid sells, I would argue. The message to consumers has become increasingly disrespectful and is the ad businesses’ equivalent to the current panic selling happening in the stock market. Fear makes us act, even if the action isn’t logical.
In difficult economic conditions, the “Buy Now, You Idiot!” ads seem to be the order of the day. But marketers who continue to push unwanted messages at consumers will lose in the long term. Somehow, we lost focus on the core intention of truly great marketing, building a respectful relationship between product and consumer, what I call “Respect Marketing.” Smart marketers will use this economic lull as an opportunity to stop, listen and learn how to communicate with consumers instead of spinning their wheels.
The airlines are a great example of an industry with a respect deficiency. One would think they’d have a keen understanding of consumers’ fundamental need for status (via frequent flier programs); though many acted rashly when they decided to charge passengers for checked bags to confront their cash-flow shortfall. While this program might have helped in the short term, it created long-lasting irritation among their most loyal travelers and fanned the flame of another problem: increased levels of carry-on baggage. This was a stupid sell — and completely disrespectful to the lifeblood of the airline industry: their customers.

What if the airlines had listened to their customers to determine what they value? What if they had asked them which services they were willing to pay more for in order to help stave off the cash crunch? Perhaps they would have heard that customers would be more amenable to paying for carry-on bags instead, which would have had the added benefit of  decreasing security lines and boarding times.
The concept of “listening” has made it beyond conversations within ARF meetings. Case in point: our first lady is taking a “Listening Tour” around America.  Listening is finally getting the respect it deserves, for good reason. True listening allows marketers to adjust messages to make them relevant and, yes, respectful to the consumer. And listening to consumers has never been more important, since their needs and priorities change constantly. Last year’s media plan might as well be 100 years old. Brand loyalty declines due to lack of relevance; a direct result of not listening.

Many consumer companies are asleep at the wheel, but a handful are building lasting consumer engagement. These companies are harnessing the power of game mechanics that influence behavior by leveraging fundamental human needs like status, altruism, social connection, self expression and competition. Appealing to these human needs creates not only a more loyal audience, but also unlocks new “smart” selling revenue opportunities that could be the difference between life and death in this economy.

The desire for status, altruism, social connection, self-expression, etc., motivates all of us to some degree, and smart advertising has traditionally tried to address these desires. Status, for instance, is a powerful motivator. Take, for example, Rolex and Timex. Rolex doesn’t achieve a higher price point because of its functional attributes. Instead, it’s aspiration and status that sell Rolex. If you’re Rolex, you don’t care if someone clicked on a banner. You want your message to inspire consumers to, one day, own one.

So how do we achieve Respect Marketing when budgets and CPM are shrinking? Instead of letting these conditions turn consumer conversations into brash, unwanted, one-way pitches, we need to really stop and listen to our consumers today. Is the message or program that we’re offering respectful and of value? Are we adjusting our actions and messages to tap into core human needs? Are we appealing to consumers’ desires to do good, win, connect with others and express themselves? Or even more simply, would anyone like to see this?

In the end, it’s not about the size of our ad budgets or CPM rates. And it’s certainly not about repeating last year’s mistakes again and again. It’s about listening and respecting the changing consumer by participating in their conversation. In doing so, you create a customer for life who will continue to return to your site or buy your product.

By respecting consumers, you are instilling in them a desire to reward marketers and publishers with their loyalty and, ultimately, their dollars.

Peter Daboll is CEO of Bunchball, a marketing technology company that specializes in driving online consumer engagement. He can be reached at