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Add and Subtract

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In last month's column ["Funnel Clouding," Sept. 10], I wrote about Forrester Research's recent report on the impact of social media on the marketing funnel. I got a ton of response to the article, so here are some more thoughts on the implications of Forrester's findings.

To refresh, Forrester's report, "Marketing's New Key Metric: Engagement," says, "The marketing funnel is a broken metaphor that overlooks the complexity social media introduces into the buying process. As consumers' trust in traditional media diminishes, marketers need a new approach."

CM8ShowAd("Middle"); This new approach boils down to a single distinction: message vs. content. Traditional media are all about message, while digital media are all about content. Of a TV spot or print ad we might ask, "What is the message?" But we rarely ask the same of a Web site. Instead, when we plan Web sites for clients, a key part of the process is determining what the content will be.

From a marketing perspective, message and content are opposites. Messages are subtractive. They are the sound bites that can be distilled down into a 30-second spot or a tagline that runs along the bottom of a print ad. In fact, the craft of traditional advertising is all about distilling and subtracting-not because this is the best approach to marketing, but because this is what the media formats of the day allow. Television spots come in expensive 30-second increments. Print ads come in costly single pages. Getting more time or more space costs dramatically more. Working within these constraints led to the modern art and science of positioning and messaging: Pick the key idea and blast it out over and over until it is ingrained in the minds of consumers.

But now these same reductive messages coexist with hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of parallel messages unconstrained by time or space. These are the words and messages on blogs, YouTube videos, Flickr streams, MySpace and Facebook pages and all similar locations where consumers control the content. Every point we try to make about a brand through a reductive traditional message has any number of counterpoints online submitted by customers-be they fan or foe. If you don't believe me, just type your brand's name into Google and see what comes up. The reductive nature of traditional advertising has slammed head-on into the expansive (and growing) nature of digital media.

At its very core, this is what Forrester has uncovered with hard data and analysis-and why it believes we need a new approach to marketing. The solution is content: more and better. In the battle of the singular message against the thousand voices, the thousand voices are winning. Our marketing "messages" increasingly are ringing hollow or falling on deaf ears. But the same consumers, those who either want to tune out or don't believe our messages, are more than willing to consume our content.

Every brand has the opportunity, unconstrained by media, to play in the same content space in which customers are currently playing. It's called the digital landscape, and it is the very thing that Forrester correctly diagnoses as the cause of the muddled marketing funnel. So rather than focusing on the creation of sound bites and subtractive messages, brands should refocus on the creation of content that is useful in honestly solving the problems consumers face on a daily basis: detailed product descriptions, comparison tools, demonstrations, live chats, category expertise, advice from experts and more.

Whereas traditional media are subtractive, digital media are additive. The incremental costs of a second print page are enormous, but the same is not true of the nominal costs of adding another page to a Web site. The barrier to additive content is not cost but methodology. Our entire industry has revolved around narrative-driven advertising for so long that all the people, infrastructures and related services are optimized around the creation of these reductive messages. The people who work in agencies-from planners (whose job is to come up with the insights that can fuel the one key idea) to copywriters (whose job is to reduce brands to a single punch line) to art directors (whose job is to create the brand look)-are organized around reductive messages. The production companies they hire to shoot their spots are organized to deliver a tiny sliver of content (those magical 30 seconds) for a big chunk of money (hundreds of thousands of dollars). When you have only 30 seconds or a single page to deliver that one message, it damn well better look perfect.

We'd have to change a lot of things in order to shift from reductive messaging to additive content. For one, how can we create, cost effectively, all the content brands need to fully participate in the digital dialogue taking place right now? How do we engage consumers without thinking that we need to brainwash them with messaging? How do we stop talking to them and start conversing with them? These are the kinds of questions that all brands should be asking of their agencies today-not what the next version of the same old message will be.

Back when messages were the most important thing we could convey as an industry, we created a fantastic body of work. The collective reel of the era of traditional advertising displays an amazing range of ideas, craftsmanship and exemplary execution. But now we need to create the new reel for marketing's digital age. The fact that it's going to look completely different from the previous one is what keeps me coming to work every day.