In my industry, publicists and marketers are used to being painted with reputations as saints or sinners—and maybe we should start to pay more attention to that.
New technologies are tying real-time tracking and profiling into the business of building influence. Case in point—check out the recent Motherboard coverage of Edelman's work for Big Oil by Brian Merchant, a New York Times contributor and Motherboard editor. He shares Edelman's proposal to create the appearance of a "grassroots" campaign from the ground up.
Whether you are a fan of "astroturfing" or not, the proposal from Edelman with its logic, technical prowess, and detailed daily meeting schedules makes it clear the company can and does orchestrate large shifts in public opinion, from idea to activists.
Marketing and public relations close ranks through technology
Marketing and PR has always been on the front lines of shifting behavior through opinion, but we've never before had such close-to-perfect sentiment "tracking-and-attacking" at our disposal. Every year, a host of new digital tools helps us mine emotions for marketing purposes. Another host of tools helps us dampen unwanted reactions.
Is it wrong to influence behavior?
"It is not wrong to try" has often been the pat answer for marketers.
Now, if your budget is big enough, you almost certainly succeed. First-world target markets, at an individual level, are technically "surroundable." For example, if you know a person's Facebook data, you can conceivably plant information for them that uses their friends' interests, their own interests, the voices of celebrities they trust, and shows up on the sites and TV shows they follow. If your "tribe" believes it, or seems to, how long is it before the average person has to choose between being part of their tribe and holding the opinion that seems so embedded in their environment?
In most marketing and PR circles, we insist that education is intrinsic to what we do. Real education suggests telling at least both sides, if not eight or nine sides, of a story. Last time I checked, we marketing and publicity professionals are generally responsible for managing just one side of a complex debate.
Finding your position on the position
So how do we marketers and storytellers do a good job of adding our voices—or can we? Is it in the content selection, the technical structure of the "user path," or framing the outcomes? How do we create positions in the marketplace?
See whether one of these four categories resonate for you.
- Tools. These people do what they are told. Increasingly, they are automated out of existence.
- Demons. Demons do whatever it takes to tempt an audience member to succumb to the message. It doesn't matter what the message is. It matters how to get the subject to "fall." Orchestrating "the fall" is their only interest and they pursue it with retargeted precision.
You know a demon when you hear them talking about conversion, conversion, conversion but can't tell about "from what to what." The "what" doesn't matter. Uber is an example of this kind of communications strategy. The company doesn't have a call center or a phone number on its site, but it does have a user profiling dashboard in every car.
- Angels. Angels do whatever it takes to save the real message and tell the truest possible story, even if it's difficult and complex. They see the numbers on "conversion," and they take it into account. Still, their primary allegiance is to the truth, as best as they can perceive it and preserve it.
Angels don't care so much about what's possible; they care about what's optimal for the message they are defending. You know an angel because they are always telling the story. Tesla has been very close to this kind of communications strategy—always message first, product and everything else after, and conversion as a last thought, if at all.
- Advocates. Advocates haven't picked heaven or hell yet because they are still building a future to believe in. They blend an angelic defense of their truth with demonic attention to creating conversion.
There are two differences between advocates and the other sets:
- The advocate is doing what she herself chooses. You can spot an advocate when you ask, "If this went through all the way and you crushed the opposition, would you be happy?" and she tells you, "Absolutely."
- The advocate re-evaluates both message and conversion quite often. Nothing is a sacred cow.
I confess I'm an advocate. It has some real consequences.
For one, the work is never simple. It changes me, and I change it. I'm always being reinvented by inventions. For another, I goof up. One campaign may try to convert too hard, and I feel like I'm stepping over the edge. If I fall too in love with a singular point of view, I risk angel-like blind devotion that doesn't help move the company forward into marketshare. I've made both these mistakes more than once.
Overall, I have learned I have to pick wisely those with whom I work. What we do in telling and sharing stories matters more than ever.
Success in the battle of ideas is about earning behavior change. The people I love will live in the world I help create. I want it to be a better one. That's how I pick sides.
How do you?
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