It’s Time for Marketers to Embrace the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Media Economy

Mobile hastens more intimate brand engagement

If you asked me to tell you what I think the future of media and advertising will look like, I actually wouldn't tell you anything. I would, however, show you my two smartphones, where I conduct 80 percent of my daily business.

Jimmy Maymann

I'd show you the trainers I've bought that sync with a band on my wrist that track my performance during triathlons. I'd show you my teenage children sending 400 snaps every day on Snapchat. I'd show you how I can put on a VR headset and watch a movie trailer in 3-D.

There's not much I could tell you that wouldn't be more impactful as a practical, physical example.

I don't presume I could describe these incredible things, nor do I suspect you would want to listen. This conceit of marketing is rightly dying out: the age of talking at consumers is over. If content creators want us to watch, they'll have to show us how good it is. If advertisers want us to buy, they'll have to show us how cool their products are. For content producers, advertisers and brands, the talking-at model is no longer the way.

The driver of this change is mobile. Today, there are more mobile devices than there are people in the world, and the number of mobile users is growing twice as fast as the global population. Mobile is ubiquitous and deeply personal. Phones are an extension of our brains and facilitate our entire lives, meaning they are now inextricably part of our personalities and profiles. And while age matters, in no way is mobile just a millennial phenomenon: Nearly two-thirds of all Americans have smartphones.

Mobile's omnipresence—more than half the world is now mobile connected—presages a future of highly personal, highly interactive and highly customizable ways of consuming media. We have to prepare now for that future beyond mobile. To start, we need to be on a text-level relationship with consumers. This will require an unprecedented intimacy with our viewers that has previously been reserved only for, well, human beings. In the years to come, the concept of intimacy will be paramount for anyone looking to reach and engage an audience.

Data, used smartly and responsibly, forms the path to that intimacy. Being on a text level with consumers is no longer an absurd goal. Would it be cool if Georgia-Pacific texted you? How about LeBron James? Red Bull? Anecdotally, I think the average answers—no, yes, maybe?—are illuminating. It's no longer unthinkable to have this level of personal, intimate conversation with an individual consumer. The recent rise of the chatbot attests to this. But, it means we'll have to be savvier than ever with our data and targeting, and there will definitely be no more talking at consumers. If anything, the expectation will be to hear direct, immediate feedback from them and to be prepared to carry on a genuine conversation.

With this intimacy and direct access to consumers comes great responsibility. Just as you wouldn't badger friends to buy the same shoes as you or shout at them to Click Here Now! to watch the latest episode, nor should we abuse this new relationship. Curation will be key. When your friend or colleague sends you a video to watch or a product to check out, they are unwittingly analyzing years of data they have about you, your interests and your consumption habits. Sound familiar? We need to be more like these curating tastemakers and less like someone with a soapbox and a loudspeaker, and show them why something is worth checking out.

Becoming an industry that shows rather than tells necessitates an industrywide change from self-centric, top-down thinking to a consumer-centric, bottom-up way of thinking. Any conversation about advertising or media experiences must begin with the consumer personae in mind. "Show, don't tell" has been the motto of the content creators we support and trust to construct the stories we advertise against. Now, advertisers will be expected to be storytellers on par with content creators.

Content creators can also offer us another secret: the power of collaboration. Establishing this type of open environment has, unfortunately, eluded our industry for many years. Many have worked in opposition to this ideal, guarding their assets and data and audiences. This dynamic has contributed to the talking-at epidemic, with each brand shouting over the other to be heard, resulting in indistinct noise.  Rising above this noise means finding partners in unexpected places, even those we once would have called competition, and working together to create incredible experiences that show consumers things they didn't even know they wanted to see.

We're about to enter a new universe: It's already mobile, and it will be intimate, curated and personal. And it will all work because of an open environment for brands, advertisers and marketers. It's no longer enough to tell consumers what to do, where to go, why to buy—we have to find completely new ways on completely new platforms to show them these things.

Jimmy Maymann (@maymann), evp, video and consumer brands, AOL. AOL's Digital Content NewFronts presentation is tonight, Tuesday, May 3 at 6 p.m.