“Don’t talk to strangers,” your mother tells you. Then you grow up, get a job in marketing and do nothing but. Maybe the growing up part is optional. Engaging with consumers and cajoling them into buying your brands certainly isn’t.
With research commissioned and data mined, we know more about our citizen targets than they know about themselves. By this point, they aren’t strangers at all. And in an era of openness, self- promotion and divulgence on social media, hearts and minds are won online.
There’s no longer any mystery to the needs, desires, opinions and motivations of consumers (as if there ever was) – but building relationships is still a challenge.
BJ Mendelson’s book Social Media is Bullshit is for those inclined to think that engagement with social media is the panacea for all their marketing needs. The title’s deliberately provocative, but there’s plenty of common sense sprinkled among his skewering of the digitally fixated.
“Although you could make some good connections online, I’ve found offline connections to be the most meaningful, beneficial and long-lasting,” he says. “Start with your friends, then their friends, then people they know and keep going from there. You’ll find in doing this that you almost always hit a connection that not only will be useful but will be someone more reliable and trustworthy than someone you met online, precisely because it came from a personal referral. You might also make a friend out of it; something more valuable than a ‘contact’, fan or follower ever will be.”
Of course, Mendelson doesn’t explore how his ‘real’ friends achieved such hallowed status. How many relationships from student days endured on the basis of a continued mutual appreciation of beer, curry and clubbing? Lifelong bonds are often forged on the seemingly trivial common experience. Perhaps that’s why the downtime bonding on media trips are what make them so productive.
It’s still the case, however, that while disseminating and gathering information is easy online, making and sustaining meaningful rapport is not. Mendelson may be reactionary, but he does raise a question of substance. No one would imagine a relationship that is purely virtual to be of any substance. It’s vital now to take a digital- first approach to brand-building, but not a digital- only approach, since there’s a danger of losing the human touch. Getting to know someone well takes time, patience, charm, perseverance, good humour, resilience and knowing when to shut up. It takes what we call the art of conversation.
Talking, conversing, dialogue; how very passé, how utterly analogue. Email is easy, phoning is hard. Persuading a stranger to talk to you is agony. Just ask a chugger. Or singer Joan Baez, who said: “The easiest kind of relationship for me is with 10,000 people. The hardest is with one.”
Making a Facebook ‘friend’ takes a mouse click. Making a flesh-and-blood one can take a lifetime. There are myriad books exploring the ‘rules’ of engagement, how to start and sustain a conversation, and imbue yourself with that winning way. Mostly, though, it’s about listening. “Talk to people about themselves,” Disraeli supposedly said, “and they will listen for hours.”
Therein lies the rub for brands so used to telling consumers how wonderful, useful and life-changing they are. They have to stop being so arrogant. Who wants to be friends with a know-all?
Brands now have to listen to consumers (not just look at the data), to be open to a relationship with them, to offer something relevant to them, to get them involved – to be more, well, human.
Of course brands have always courted ‘ambassadors’ in the belief that if you give, say, Justin Timberlake an Audi A1, a significant proportion of car buyers will think he bought it – and since he’s so fabulous and successful, they too can have a bit of what he’s having. The pedantic will say there’s a difference between an ambassador and an influencer, but Porsche hasn’t lavished a 911 Carrera S Cabriolet plus promo fanfare on Maria Sharapova because she’s a reclusive wallflower.
There aren’t that many great products or that many individuals with genuine influence. Is it Vogue that’s influential or its journalists? Does actor Zooey Deschanel or model Alexa Chung sporting brogues herald the dawn of a trend? Occasions when influencer + product = phenomenon are rare.
Less unusual are circumstances where a mutually advantageous relationship with a journalist or client is nurtured over years to the point that it becomes not only mutually beneficial, but also supportive and collaborative. A communications agency worth its salt should be able to forge personal bonds that go beyond the workplace and the life of an account. It’s easy for an individual aiming for the top to become marginalised, even a bit lonely: they might have a team of subordinate newbies to keep in check, a boss who demands everything while giving nothing back. What are the odds a kindred spirit might be required? One who understands, listens, offers solutions, advice and even occasional solace?
And while working on better relationships with clients and influencers, consider that colleagues won’t all be work chums for ever. They will leave and might subsequently work for a company that will become a client because they couldn’t stop eulogising about what a wonderful human being you were. Or, if they were treated badly, they’ll spread those ugly words and you’ll get nothing.
Googling “people do business with people they like” gets 1.99 billion results, which perhaps qualifies it as a cliché. It might also make you wonder why so many people in business seem determined to be less than affable. Maybe they think differently, have different priorities, different personal lives. What you and they will share, though, is a need to be understood. “Not being understood may be taken as a sign that there is much in one to understand,” says philosopher Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety.
If we say: “We know the people who can make things happen,” it’s no idle boast. How we know the people, how well we know them and how we know what they can make happen is what sets Talk PR apart. When we talk to strangers, they don’t stay strangers for long.