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5 Things Marketers Should Know But Usually Don’t

2014 September 3
by Greg Satell

Marketing is often confused with promotion, but it’s more than that.  As Peter Drucker put it, “the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”  In truth, marketing is about insights more than anything else.

Unfortunately, marketing can also be a world unto itself. A smart sounding idea can reverberate through the echo chamber and become conventional wisdom.  From there, it takes on the role of an established fact and is rarely challenged.

Yet many widely held ideas are misleading, if not completely untrue and that can be a problem.  When real budgets are spent on false premises, the result is not only missed opportunities, it can damage the underlying business—Pepsi’s Refresh project is but one example.  Here’s a list of five things marketers should know, but usually don’t.

1. There’s No Such Thing As Engagement

At the core of the problem is the term itself.  No one really knows what “engagement” means, so they stipulate “engagement metrics” such as tweets, likes, video views and so on and then measure success by how a campaign performs against them.  Of course, since only a few percent of consumers (at best) ever engage, these metrics are often suspect.

A much more sensible approach would be to throw out the term altogether and focus on value exchange, of which there are three types:

Product value exchange: This is the most obvious form of value exchange and it’s easy to find examples.  Apple excels at it and so does Wal-Mart (especially when you consider that their logistics capability is a major component of everything they sell).

Content Value Exchange: Consumers increasingly expect brands to be partners by helping them get maximum utility and enjoyment out of their purchase.  Probably the oldest example is the Michelin Guides, which were originally conceived to help motorists get more out of driving to new places, but have become a powerful brand themselves.

Social Value Exchange: Every pub owner has long understood that we’ll pay a whole lot more to go to a place where we can meet people than we will to get drunk at home.

While a simple change in terminology will not solve the entire problem, focusing on value exchange does help to direct action.  Once you are clear about what you want to achieve, performance metrics can be designed accordingly.  Babbling on about vague “engagement,” on the other hand, is just a waste of time.

2. Content Is Crap

Content is probably the hottest thing going in marketing right now.  Marketers strive to produce, acquire, curate and leverage content in order to create “emotional connections.” Unfortunately, if you feel the need to use the term “emotional connection,” you probably don’t have one.

The truth is that content is crap.  While there are times when using the term is unavoidable (like I just did above), talking about content gets us nowhere, much like talking about “consumers” and “purchase events” doesn’t help us sell more effectively.  Once we start treating things as commodities, we tend to reduce them to transactions and lose meaning.

What brands really need to do is learn how to publish.  That means identifying a mission—the value you have to offer the world—and structuring an experience around it.  The good news is that, unlike social or mobile, publishing is something that’s been around for awhile, so there are a lot of people who know how to do it well.

However, publishing does require an important shift in mindset for marketers.  While marketing is consumer focused, publishing is mission focused.  So don’t worry about content.  Find your story, make sure it’s a good one and tell it well.

3. Influentials Are A Myth

In the year 2000, Malcolm Gladwell published, The Tipping Point, which became a breakaway bestseller.  Probably the most intriguing concept he presented was his “Law of the Few,” which he defined as:

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.

He went on to break these so-called “Influentials” into three categories: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.   The corporate world was so enthralled with the idea that a cottage industry of “influence marketers” emerged that claimed to be able to identify, target and exploit these magical people.

Unfortunately, influentials are a myth.  The idea isn’t exactly new either.  It originated with Katz and Lazarsfeld’s concept of opinion leaders developed in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Even then, it was clear that influence is highly contextual and not dependent on innate personal characteristics.

That doesn’t mean that influence doesn’t exist, but it’s a function of networks, not the people in them.  The NSA, quite famously, uses network mapping techniques to identify the leadership of terrorist cells.  Other shortcuts, like the friendship paradox—your friends are more influential than you are—have been identified as well.

There are strategies that can help exploit network centrality.  If you want to spread a rumor in an office, tell a smoker, they’re one step away from everybody.  Promotions that encourage people to include their friends takes advantage of the friendship paradox. But if you expect to find people with magical powers of influence, you’re wasting your time.

4. Loyalty Is A Red Herring

It is generally taken as gospel among marketers that loyal consumers are more valuable than fickle ones and, if you take a look at internal consumer metrics, that’s undeniable true. Not only is a loyalty customer worth more, it is usually more expensive to win over a new customer than it is to retain an existing one.

Unfortunately, many marketers infer that means loyalty is a viable strategy, which it isn’t. They look at their brand metrics and see that, while they may be trailing the market leader by a wide margin, if they can just inch up their usage metrics a little bit, they can create major gains in market share.  This is a strategy that will almost always fail.

The reason why is something called the double jeopardy law—brands with higher penetration tend to have higher loyalty as well.  Although somewhat counterintuitive, the rule does make logical sense.  People make repeat purchase decisions for many of the same reasons they make first purchase decisions—availability, quality and service.

The only real way to grow your brand is to win more customers.

5.  Grabbing Attention Isn’t As Important As Holding Attention

For a long time, marketing was dominated by the purchase funnel.  The basic idea was that by building awareness, you could increase your potential market.  From there, the law of averages would take over and your sales would increase.  We always knew that it wasn’t 100% accurate, but it was true enough that it worked very well for a long time.

Now that’s changed forever.  Today, building brand awareness also builds awareness for your category and triggers searching activity online.  Once that happens, a digital trail is instantly established that can be retargeted by others.  So by building awareness and walking away, you can actually end up doing lead generation for your competitors.

So we have to rethink marketing strategy for the digital age, putting less emphasis on grabbing attention and more on holding attention.  That means that we need to start treating our customers less like prospects and more like partners and our brands not as assets to be leveraged but as platforms for collaboration.

Most of all, we need to realize that the enhanced capabilities of digital technology have created a world in which consumers expect true value exchange, rather than buzzwords and lip service.  There’s no faking that.  You either deliver it or you don’t.

– Greg

16 Responses leave one →
  1. September 5, 2014

    Hi Greg, it was interesting to read your views on this, but there are some points that I perhaps would not really agree with. If only a few percent of customers are engaging then it says more about what you are putting out than whether or not engagement exists! However, I do love point #5 – you are totally correct – it is important to keep people’s attention not just attract it in the first place.

  2. September 5, 2014


    I see what you’re saying, but I’m wasn’t referring to engagement as a general concept, but as an actionable strategy. Most so-called “engagement KPI’s” actually measure very little and simply saying “engagement” doesn’t direct action in any meaningful way. Most often, the term is merely used to indicate that whoever came up with the idea (or is trying to sell it) thinks that it’s very clever.

    So I just don’t see how engagement is very helpful.

    – Greg

  3. Ray Manna permalink
    September 5, 2014

    Greg – very interesting and provocative article and I think you make some startling points: many I agree with and many I partially disagree with. However, you’re thinking is great. It would great to learn more about some of your deeper meanings especially when you say “content is crap”?

  4. September 5, 2014

    Thanks Ray. I try to provide background in the links, so that I can maintain a decent flow but still include additional information for people to explore.

    “Content is crap” refers to an earlier article I wrote. You can find it here, but basically what I meant is that it’s a term that obscures more than it reveals. Nobody actually likes “content” in the sense that nobody walks out of an Oscar winning movie or sings along to a song on the radio and says, “Wow! What great content!” At the same time, nobody shows up on a movie set, a recording studio or a newsroom and says, “Hey, let’s make some content!”

    So “content” is clearly a useless term, but even more importantly, many media and marketing professionals infuse it with meaning it doesn’t really have. They talk about leveraging content, producing content, “engaging” with content and so on.

    If you can’t come up with a more meaningful term than “content” for how you want to inform, excite and inspire people, it’s probably crap.

    – Greg

  5. September 7, 2014

    Great article, Greg. I particularly resonate with your statement “There’s No Such Thing As Engagement. We should focus instead on value exchange.” This is equally true in the realms of performance management and organisational change. Trying to engage someone is like trying to dance them. It can’t be done. We should focus instead on supporting and encouraging people as they go about implementing the enterprise’s strategy, realising *our* vision (of realised value generation potential) and living *our* collective purpose to the full.

  6. September 7, 2014

    Well said. Thanks Jack.

    – Greg

  7. September 7, 2014

    You won me over with your first line “Marketing is often confused with promotion”.

    There is a disproportionate amount (of crap) written about promotions these days. The other Ps of the marketing mix have been neglected. I can’t think of the last time I stumbled across a marketer’s story about pricing tactics, or new ideas on product development, say. It’s all Facebook this, Twitter this, content marketing that.

    Many marketers are restricting themselves to promotions. That’s a dangerous corner for our profession to back into. It is as if marketers have forgotten that one of the key objectives of marketing is to inform business strategy. To gather information from the market that helps businesses make tactical and strategic decisions. Too often it’s finance, IT or management consultants that lead those crucial conversations now at marketings expense. As a results it’s no wonder so few marketers get a seat at the board table.

    Thanks for the article Greg!


  8. September 7, 2014

    Thank you Greg. Your headline goes even further than some of the advice you have given here. In my experience many firms make products and services first often because they can, or the technology enables it, or it is of interest to the creators. Only then, and in a linear manner do they consider who to sell it to and how. Not only does this often produce the proverbial “square pegs” at times but is slow and costly, but it is based again in my experience on people not understanding what marketing it. Marcom should be a direct result of the product or service. Who this product is for should be known at the start and then how to reach them becomes more obvious. No one like to throw a party where no one comes. Thinking about the various aspects of going to market should start early, often and always.

  9. September 8, 2014

    Great points! Thanks Gregory.

    – Greg

  10. September 8, 2014

    I think it’s a reflexive process. As Steve Blank often says, “no business plan survives first contact with a customer.” You have to iterate and adapt. Marketing needs to be well integrated with the rest of the enterprise. If it’s just there to shill, it won’t be effective.

    – Greg

  11. September 12, 2014

    As far as buzzwords go, “engagement” is definitely the most vague and most overused there is, haha! And while everyone and their uncles are talking about how “content is king” and what-not these days, the reality is people hardly really pay attention these days and the most you can expect is a quick skimming of the content you worked hard for. It’s vain to think that people are sitting up and listening (or reading) because they usually aren’t. I definitely agree that holding attention is the most crucial part. If you can somehow achieve that, then you’ve got it made.

  12. September 12, 2014

    Very true. Great points.


    – Greg

  13. September 14, 2014

    Effective advertising sells or adds new customers to grow your brand. Thus, advertising effectiveness should be measured on increasing or growing brand penetration – the metric for the number of customers in the brand’s customer base.

    Based on consumer behavior research of Andrew Ehrenberg, a “brand’s annual sales” are simply equal to just two variables: the “number of its customers” multiplied by “their annual purchase frequency.”

    Annual Sales for a Brand = Number of Customers x Annual Purchase Frequency

    Per Ehrenberg: Purchase frequency is a near-constant for brands in a category. The purchase frequency is fixed because it is governed by underlying, invariable consumer usage rates. As a result, the only remaining way for advertising to achieve sales growth is simply for it to add more customers to the customer base of the brand.

    Penetration growth accurately predicts the full annual sales growth of advertising.

    Because purchase frequency is a near-fixed amount, any given percentage increase in the customer base will accurately lead to the same percentage increase in sales volume. The sales increase will follow 12 months afterwards to allow the newly acquired customers the time to make their annual number of purchases.

    With the full value of advertising, you can now properly determine ROI,
    justify the advertising investment and fully exploit the potential for advertising to grow sales.

    How can we minimize our business risk for an ad campaign?
    Must we wait 6 to 12 months before understanding anything about an
    ad campaign’s ability to grow sales?

    Advertising decisions can be made early-on since the annual value of advertising can be accurately predicted, before incurring the full advertising investment, before incurring the full business risk. The ideal measurement of penetration growth is on a weekly basis that provides near real-time performance feedback. This enables more timely corrective actions or the “performance tuning” of new or existing ad campaigns.

  14. September 14, 2014

    Thanks for sharing David.

    – Greg

  15. October 8, 2014

    Thank you for putting into words what I have often thought. This is a saver to refer back frequently when developing marketing strategy by committee, which non-profits like Chambers must do to some degree to get buy-in.

  16. October 9, 2014

    Thanks Carlotta. That’s really nice to hear.

    – Greg

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