Why so Shy?

There have been a lot of trends in my decade or so in the interactive-marketing world. The latest seems a bit unusual: marketers are getting shy.

Most marketing is about making new stuff — that’s usually the basis of a campaign. A client has a new product or new message it wants to sell and we create the ads. And now, of course, brands are not just looking for straightforward work — they’re looking to connect with consumers online at deeper, more connected levels than banners and brand messaging. But going online and talking about oneself is an act fraught with risks and peril. Someone’s going to call you on something and you have to talk in just the “right” manner, e.g., humble but confident or proud but self-deprecating.

Of course, this challenge doesn’t really make marketers “shy” — it just seems they’re acting this way. One reason is, from a brand-marketing level, it’s good to remember that many brands, even in the digital age, are used to and most comfortable with the messaging and branding tactics of broadcast. And in broadcast, complex companies look for a single, overarching message — e.g., “We bring good things to life” and “Make progress every day” — that requires them to encapsulate their message in a few words.

But online, brand representation is not really an exercise in message reduction; interesting complicated thoughts don’t need to be condensed into a singular message. Brands now have to tell stories and plan activities along parallel pathways. They might even need to tell different stories at the same time and have their audiences filter them out, trusting that they’ll find what they like and ignore what they don’t like.

Now, most large organizations know they have rich stories to tell — both overall and within divisions. But they’re overwhelmed by the prospect of translating that wealth of information online because they’re nervous about dipping their toe online. In most cases, it’s not because the brand or company has little personality — usually they have a well-defined sense of self. They just don’t know how to “do” the Internet.  

You see a lot of online marketing right? Seems like most brands are online, joining in, but actually, flip through the coupons. Look through a newspaper or ride a subway, and then think about how many of those brands you have actually encountered online.

Interestingly, what seemed like a jump into the deep end in the past — writing a long customer-facing “About us” page — is safe and easy compared to what the Internet looks like now to a big brand. Now you have to actually get involved! Social media!

Let’s use Nike and Blendtec as examples of the extremes of significant brands online. Nike is a huge company with a lot of products. Its marketing-led brand image is a big part of the value of the product, so it needs to do innovative online marketing. There are many brands operating like this, e.g., fashion, car companies, spirits, where marketing is a key component of the brand value.

At the other extreme is Blendtec. Who? You would never have considered buying its $600 industrial blender for your home until after you saw a charming guy in a white lab coat asking you, “Will it blend?” This is the more significant extreme, a brand that probably didn’t do any significant marketing until the Internet showed up, and then someone somewhere realized that there is this low-cost medium where you can just be funny or clever and gain a huge audience.  Blendtec used the Internet to transform itself from a b-to-b to a b-to-c company, in just a year.

There’s a disparity in the middle though, where the shyness exists, where there are thousands of brands from large, medium and small companies that crossed that hurdle a few years ago of making a Web site. But they are not yet waking up to the fact that the Internet is not just about parking your information somewhere and hoping people stumble across it somehow. You have to be active for anyone to notice. And frankly, it’s much harder work than running some print ads or direct mail or point-of-purchase or whatever you have been doing. But there is inertia, so what do you do first?

It’s not really a matter of holding a company’s hand as if it’s an Internet dummy. Companies obviously know Twitter and blogs and Facebook. They just don’t know how they fit in. They don’t know how their actions will be perceived. So our role, now, is to guide them. Maybe they can’t yet see the opportunity to use the Internet to appeal to an audience they’ve never talked to before. Maybe they just don’t know how to talk about themselves when they’re used to decades of static marketing. And maybe they’re just shy.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group. He can be reached at Benjamin@barbariangroup.com.