You Are Not My Friend

Headshot of Alan Wolk

Like a reformed tax-and-spend politician who’s suddenly seen the light, ad agencies are busy telling anyone who’ll listen that they’re not about selling anymore.
No, what they’re into now is “storytelling” and “conversation.” Because you see, consumers aren’t really customers anymore. They’re friends. But come on guys, who are you really fooling? Your brand is not my friend.
For many people, sites like Facebook have become a second home. Keeping track of the daily comings and goings of their 100 closest friends? Check. Comparing their tastes in music, movies, photos and travel destinations? Check. And when they’re not on Facebook, they’re Twittering everyone they know that they’re going to the store. And then leaving it. With a middle tweet to let them know that the cashier was being way too slow.
And while they’re busy Facebooking and Twittering, the absolute last person they want to hear from is an advertiser. I mean when you think of it, it’s kind of creepy. Facebook is the 21st century malt shop. It’s where people go to hang out. And the last thing they want is some salesperson trying to have a “conversation” with them while they’re figuring out what movie they’re going to see. They don’t want to talk to you. They want to talk to their friends.
The whole appeal of social media sites is their independence from advertising. People like the fact that they can say whatever they want to other people without becoming targets. Yes, they’ll tolerate banner ads or search ads on the page, the same way that in the malt shop they tolerated place mats with ads on them or a Coke sign on the soda machine: That sort of advertising is innocuous and quickly becomes part of the general scenery.
So I’m not sure where we’ve developed this conceit that people want to hear from brands. Because they truly don’t. At least not in settings where the primary objective is to talk to and interact with their actual friends. (And your brand, again, is not their friend.)
Now there are some brands — I call them prom king brands — that people do want to hear from. These are the brands that have somehow managed to build a better mousetrap (or at least create the illusion they have). Brands whose logos people will proudly (and unironically) wear on a cap or T-shirt.
The downside, of course, is that there are only about a dozen or so of these prom king brands and you can probably name them all by heart: Nike, Apple, Starbucks, Virgin, Whole Foods — you know the rest. Sports teams, TV shows, rock bands and movies also fall into the prom king category.
The rest of you are out of luck. You’re not the prom king and people aren’t all that thrilled to hang with you. Although Starbucks could probably start a Frappuccino Lovers Group on Facebook (for all I know, it already has), no one’s going to be joining a Maxwell House Lovers group anytime soon.
So if your brand is not my friend, does that mean you should run screaming from Web 2.0 and social media? Absolutely not. All it means is that you need to be smarter about how you use the space. Not to mention more authentic.

Let’s take the Maxwell House example. The one thing we know about Maxwell House (other than that it’s “good to the last drop”) is that it’s cheap. Really cheap in comparison to Starbucks. So you go on Facebook and find the Cheapskate Group. And approach them as a salesperson, not as a friend. Your script goes something like this: “Hey Cheapskates. Maxwell House knows how much you love saving money. And while our coffee is cheap enough as it is, if you go to this special Maxwell House Cheapskates site, we’ve got a $1-off coupon waiting for you.”

Alan Wolk is co-founder and lead analyst at TV[R]EV.