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Digital Dream World

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Welcome to a new world.

It's a world in which people are eager to interact with ads. It's a world in which consumers want to have relationships with brands and conversations with marketers. It's a world that is causing a revolution in advertising and marketing.

Unfortunately, it's a world that exists largely in our dreams.

Let's start with a little background. Have you noticed that what was once called "interactive advertising" is now referred to as "display advertising?" The term interactive advertising has been quietly bundled off to its room and told to be quiet.

Advertising interactivity was the first of our pleasant little digital dreams. In this dream, people would be more engaged and interact with our ads, making the ads far more effective. The logic went like this: "Um . . . people like to interact with the medium, so, um, ya know, they'll like to, ya know, interact with the ads, too." The only problem is, people don't want to interact with ads. Bastards.

Click-through rates are now hovering around one-tenth of 1 percent. That means 99.9 percent of the time people aren't even engaged enough to move a finger. Naive clients, however, bought the fantasy of advertising interactivity lock, stock and pixel.

Slowly and quietly "interactivity" as a rationale for online display advertising was retired before it became too much of an embarrassment. These days, the sales pitch for online advertising sounds remarkably like the sales pitch for traditional print advertising.

But don't worry. We have a new dream world. It's a world in which consumers want to have relationships with brands and socialize with marketers online, and have conversations with us. It's being fueled by the sensational rise in popularity of social media. However, I'm afraid this dream will turn out to be every bit as misguided as the last one.

When social media experts start talking, I get the same feeling I get when listening to political debates. My eyes glaze over, my jargon detector jumps into the red zone and I get an urge to dive through plate glass.

Pitches for social media marketing almost always start with a recitation of startling facts about social media -- how Facebook has more members than there are grains of sand in the universe, how the average American spends over 28 hours per day with social media. You've heard the pitch.

What they don't seem to understand is that there's a difference between social media and social media marketing. The fact that social media has experienced phenomenal popularity is not prima facie evidence of the magical powers of social media marketing.

The new logic goes like this: "Um . . . people like to interact with each other so, um, ya know, they'll like to, ya know, interact with us, too."

From what I can tell, there are two things consumers are enthusiastic about when it comes to online social behavior: Connecting with each other and getting something for nothing from us.

I can't prove it, but I'll bet you $10 that the primary reason people become "friends" or "followers" of brands on Facebook and Twitter is not to have a conversation with the marketer, but to get a discount, a special offer, a deal, or some other form of insider information or advantage. It's the same reason they join a frequent flier plan. They don't want a relationship with a baggage handler; they want a free flight to Hawaii.

Yes, I know there are examples of brands that have been successful with "conversational" social media strategies. We always hear about them. We never hear about the thousands of failures.

Yes, I also know there are people who are unaccountably fond of a particular brand of mayonnaise and want to have a conversation with the marketer about it. But let's be honest here. These people are weird. Most days, your sensible consumer doesn't have the time, patience, or inclination to have a conversation with her husband. Why in the world would she want to have a conversation with us?

Having a social media marketing strategy is a good thing. But if your strategy is contingent on the idea that consumers want to have a conversation with you, create a relationship with your company and engage with your brand, you may be living in a dream world.

If you want to avoid the digital dream world, build your strategy on a foundation of reality. Give people an interesting way to connect with each other, and then give them something for nothing.

It's not all that complicated. But just like the last time around, the lesson the ad industry is resolutely committed to not learning is that in the digital world people are passionate about interacting with each other. Not ads. Not brands. Not you. Not me.

Bob Hoffman is CEO of Hoffman/Lewis and the author of the blog The Ad Contrarian He can be reached at bobhoffman@hoffmanlewis.com.