Marketing has its own fake news problem

Jason Miller

Fake news was one of the key themes at Advertising Week Europe. The phrase certainly got a lot of airtime during Go Home B2C, You’re Drunk – the panel show that LinkedIn hosted on the Tuesday morning. However, there was a difference.

Whereas most speakers and sessions were concerned with fake news about brands breaking out on social media, the threat we were concerned about came from within the industry itself. And it arguably does a lot more damage to brand strategies.

For Go Home B2C, You’re Drunk, we brought together some of the smartest and most quick-witted B2B marketing thinkers to get their take on the buzziest topics of Advertising Week Europe. We debated whether concepts like VR, AI and live video were worth B2B marketers getting excited about, or if they were just a case of B2C brands and agencies getting drunk on hype.

The discussion quickly came around to marketing’s version of fake news. Ideas snowball very fast in our industry because we’ve got a bad habit of suspending our capacity for critical thinking as soon as our peers start to get excited about something. It’s a kind of marketer’s survival instinct – to ensure that above all, you’re never seen as a luddite or resistant to change. This instinct to adopt new ideas and new claims without pausing to think about them has led to a rash of pretty absurd stories that have far more influence within marketing than they should.

Think you’re immune to marketing’s fake news? Just ask yourself how many of these claims you’ve taken on board without question:

Human beings have a lower attention span (8 seconds) than a goldfish (9 seconds).

This was reported by the likes of Time and the Telegraph in 2015.

It’s complete nonsense, sourced from an online statistics aggregator website that seems to have heard it down the pub. There has never been a study showing goldfish have longer attention spans than people. In fact, there has never been a study into how long a goldfish’s attention span actually is. However, if you think about it for any length of time at all, you know that human beings concentrate for longer than eight seconds most of the time. If you’ve read this far in the post, you’ve done it again. Congratulations!

A minute of video is worth 1.8m words

People who quote this stat usually claim that it comes from a piece of Forrester research. It’s true that it comes from the author of a Forrester paper – but he was joking at the time. His logic was that, since a picture is worth a thousand words, and video typically includes 30 frames a second, a 1-minute video equals 1,000 x 30 x 60 words, or in other words, 1.8m. This is obviously total nonsense. The complete works of William Shakespeare weigh in at less than a million words. Is your one-minute piece of branded video more than twice as valuable? I thought not.

Buyers are 67% (or 90%) of the way through the purchase journey before they want to talk to a supplier

If you work in B2B marketing, you’ll have been told that buyers are either 57%, 67% or (more recently) 90% of the way through the purchase journey before they want to talk to a supplier. The basis for at least two of these stats is actually very thin – and the other has been so widely misrepresented that the company behind it (Sirius Decisions) had to write a feature discrediting it. It also raises the rather tricky question of what on earth 67% or 90% of a buyer’s journey actually means.

Besides, as a B2B marketer, you don't need to know about the average buyer’s journey – you need to know about what people buying your category tend to do. If the product you are buying is a complex one, people are far more likely to appreciate talking to someone who can help them figure out what your business has to offer. Assuming that they have to reach some magical point in the buyer’s journey first is likely to involve passing up a lot of potentially valuable leads.

Marketing’s fake news problem matters. It’s not just a case of Chinese Whispers getting out of hand. Myths like the ones I’ve mentioned here can actively obstruct more effective marketing strategies, because of the assumptions that they embed in marketers’ minds.

If you dumb all your content down so that it can be consumed in eight seconds, you reduce the chances of people ever noticing your content again (it’s due to the lack of a dopamine hit when they discover nothing worthwhile first time around). If you’re obsessed that video is always worth more than copy, you’ll fall into the trap of using video to communicate information that audiences would far rather read. And if you exclude your sales teams from B2B marketing because you’re convinced buyers don’t want to hear from them, you’ll be doing a lot of damage both internally and externally. LinkedIn research shows how powerful relevant content shared by sales teams can be.

Marketers can become so preoccupied with how fast-moving, strange and disruptive their world is that they become convinced their own instincts and common sense don’t matter. They fall for snake-oil salesmen-type claims that don’t really stand up to scrutiny but can do a lot of damage when they’re allowed to influence marketing strategies. The solution lies in thinking critically about any claim that you hear – but also in using your own data, experience and testing to analyse whether it fits your category and your audience.

As marketers, we have access to far better sources of information than fake news. We just need the confidence to use them.

Jason Miller is group manager, global content and social media marketing at LinkedIn Marketing Solutions

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