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Selling yourself in the digital era: It’s still about spreading ideas


When it comes to selling yourself or your brand, the real task is to spread ideas. Simply put, we want to spread the idea that our brand is amazing, or that you would be crazy not to come to our show or who would vote for anyone other than our party?

Yes I know there’s also other stuff, like product development and research and innovation, but in the end it’s the idea of what that product is, what feelings it evokes and how that idea spreads that will determine whether it will be successful or not.

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I have had to speak on the divide between digital and traditional marketing in a number of events recently. But I truly believe that it’s the wrong debate. The real debate is to understand how ideas spread in the social era. That’s what I will try to address.

The first issue is whether there is in fact a social era and if it is different to the previous era. The previous era could be described as the broadcast era, which was of course preceded by the story telling, word of mouth era. The broadcast era was when printing (and things like printing) dominated idea dispersion.

Each of these technologies (printing, radio and TV) were similar in that they are one way in that they speak to an audience which by and large don’t speak back. They are very hard to share and they are very expensive.

If you want to get access to this audience you have two real choices: pay for some of the broadcast time or pages, or produce newsworthy stuff.

The philosophical approach of those spreading ideas in this world is to see the people engaged with consuming the media as an audience and sending a message to them. To be successful, they had to interrupt what they were doing, whether that was watching a football game or reading a magazine and you did this by carefully crafting messages that are relevant, original and impactful.

As a technology the internet introduced something different. It made it easy and free for people to produce and share information. It is free because the same devices we use for consuming information can be used to produce information, so there is zero marginal cost to publish.

The big problem though was how to find that information. This was solved to a certain extent by search and hence the birth of a digital marketing industry focusing on getting ‘found’. The social era is about networks — massive networks of people connected in such a way that sharing is not only possible but normal. In the broadcast era we found a way to spread our message by finding an audience, crafting our message to it and delivering it. So what do we do in the social era?

Well if you look around you, you would say that you do the same: you find an audience, and you send the message to them in a relevant, original and impactful way. Social media is just another medium, more interactive certainly, but still just another medium. This why people try recruit followers on Twitter or look for likes on Facebook pages. They are building audiences.

I believe that is missing the boat. We need to start understanding how ideas spread in the social era. To do so we need to change our mindset.

Firstly we need to understand the community we could be part of. We need to know where they are and where they hang out. Their local pub, so to speak. We need to understand who the players are in that community. Who are the opinion leaders? Who are the spectators? We need to know who the gossips are and we need to know who connects communities — in other words, who is a regular at two different pubs. We need to know what they are talking about.

And when we do know, we need to facilitate that conversation. We need to be able to provide the tools for people to better fulfil their roles in that community. For example, we need to provide people who answer questions with the ability to answer questions about our products. We need to provide the connectors with a way to carry the ideas from one group to the next.

Why do I see so many people not doing this? Why do I see social media agencies merely doing digital promotions, using the social channel like it was a broadcast channel?

I think that the reason is two-fold. Firstly it’s easy. It’s easy to sell to the people with the budgets. Secondly, I think because people really haven’t started thinking about it. We are now in the social era. It’s different because people are different; they search for stuff, find stuff and spread ideas in a different way. This is like advertising but better, like the internet is not TV only better.

So ask yourself: what do I need to know and do to get my idea to spread?

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