Mark Ritson: Marketers, take off the beer goggles and get real

Of all the academic research published, the most intriguing and entertaining has always been by public health researchers on driving impairment. Since the 1950s, researchers have paid undergraduate ‘subjects’ (who will do almost anything for free booze) to drive round a test circuit, drink three large glasses of wine and then redo the task. A generation of students have confirmed the finding that when people are slightly drunk they don’t drive very well.

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The literature has been expanded to examine the effect of marijuana on drivers’ ability – resulting in some highly entertaining and revealing results.

Interestingly, many researchers have observed that subjects under the influence of the drug are aware of their impairment and compensate for it by slowing down and focusing their attention on the task. In contrast, alcohol-impaired drivers are more likely to have an accident because as well as being under the influence of a drug that makes them drive badly, it also makes them believe they are driving better than they are. It’s the gap between reality and perception that makes drinking and driving so deadly.

I pondered this thought last week while reading the new Marketing Gap tracking study from fast.MAP. Each year they interview a representative sample of consumers and a similarly reliable group of marketers and ask them the same set of questions about marketing activity. They then compare the results.

The clear and recurrent theme from much of the research this year is that marketers are often completely out of touch when it comes to all things digital and even more so with social media. For example, marketers believe that 18 per cent of consumers access the internet via a tablet. In reality only 6 per cent do – the majority use a laptop or desktop PC.

It’s easy to see where this 300 per cent magnification error comes from. Marketers spend their lives wanking about with iPads while drinking soy lattes and talking about social media in trendy Soho coffee bars. The mundane reality of British household media consumption is often lost on them. When asked what proportion of consumers prefer to handle customer service enquiries over various different channels the research provides an illuminating insight into the current romance with social media. Marketers estimate that 8 per cent of consumers prefer to interact using Facebook and 7 per cent Twitter.

That might seem reasonable if you are, say, a marketer, who has just spent a big wad of ad budget on social media and reads about it constantly in the press. Unfortunately, the social media story is very different when glimpsed under the bullshit-free illumination of empirical consumer data. Only 1 per cent of consumers prefer Twitter and 2 per cent Facebook. Most consumers prefer the phone, email or (imagine this) face to face contact.

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With the internet accounting for about one third of all UK advertising expenditure in 2013 and social media taking about 15 per cent of that internet spending, we can estimate that approximately 5 per cent of ad budgets in this country are devoted to social media. This relatively small proportion contrasts with the ridiculous over-representation of social media in the marketing press where, by my estimation, it features in about 50 per cent of all marketing coverage. When was the last time you read anything about radio or regional press or search even though they all account for much bigger national spending than social media?

It should come as no surprise, given this ten-fold magnification of all things social in the marketing media, that a similar over-representation is emerging in the mindset of British marketers. According to the Marketing Gap study, most marketers exaggerate the value of social media by a factor of between 400 and 700 per cent. Like the half-pissed student driver whizzing around a test track with half a bottle of cheap Chianti in their bloodstream, most marketers get it wrong not only because they are out of touch with the reality of the market but also because they are over-estimating the impact of social media.

The only solution for marketers is to approach future marketing allocations like a pot smoker rather than a drinker. Be aware of the skewed and unrepresentative nature of the coverage on social media. Slow down your expectations of impact. Concentrate much harder on the task at hand.

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