Anti-social networks: how marketers can win back increasingly distracted consumers

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker caused a global stir last week when he admitted what everyone has been thinking for some time – that Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have too much power.

The social network has two billion users, all hooked on a digital version of crystal meth thanks to our “psychological vulnerability” that makes us crave social validation.

The need to be liked by our peers is something that Parker says Facebook set out to exploit right from the start.

The whole objective was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible”, he says, with the like button offering a dopamine high, an addictive social validation feedback loop. It succeeded.

Parker, who made more than $2bn when the company went public five years ago, has joked Zuckerberg might now block him on Facebook in the wake of his remarks.

“All of us are jacked into this system,” he added. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are."

It’s not just Facebook. All social media platforms offer the lure of a dopamine fix, but Facebook’s level of mind-and-wallet control is causing alarm among governments and lawmakers.

It poses a serious challenge to marketers, too.

People’s attention span is disappearing, drowning in a sea of unmanageable online posts and they’re starting to look for more than a quick dopamine hit. They’re looking for real human interaction.

Penny Power wrote the government’s digital manifesto and founded Ecademy, one of the world’s first social media business networks. She says despite online social networks Britain’s five million small business owners have never felt lonelier.

They crave more face-to-face time, not more FaceTime. That’s why she’s setting up The Business Cafe, "where Starbucks meets business", to give networkers a bricks-and-mortar place to visit and meet real people.

It’s becoming clear that the only way to pull back from the brink is to ruthlessly shave back the digital noise and put the focus on real, meaningful experiences offline, supported by digital.

The new luxury will be a seamless marriage of online and offline experience, flawlessly delivered. In Iceland, for example, a retina scanner is already available that can bill your bank account while you’re out having fun.

We need to switch off, but we’ve forgotten how.

Screen time is rocketing. According to Ofcom in 2015, young people between 16-24 years of age spent an average of 27 hours a week on the internet.

As Sean Parker says: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Even death doesn’t save us as more than 20 million Facebook accounts belong to people no longer with us.

There’s no getting away from social media in marketing, but marketers need to immunise themselves from the psychological fall-out as they simplify their messages ever more to withstand the inevitable online kick-around.

To win online, marketers must look carefully at methods of distribution, create a bank of assets and pay for the appropriate vehicles to drive those assets far and wide.

They need to create a matrix of four elements:

  • Influencers who can chat about and share content in a natural, conversational way
  • Media brands to champion content in both online and offline editorial coverage as well as social
  • Paid promotion into social feeds and display
  • Influence through grassroots audiences

Marketers can stop worrying once they hit a critical mass of eyeballs and interactions.

Gone are the days when you relied on the simple rule of three to make your message sink in. Social media is like 24-hour rolling news. Nothing is ever digested properly because there is always the next fresh bit of meat to devour.

It doesn’t matter what that content is, it just needs to seem real, a function that film and video fulfil perfectly, and it has to be new.

At the same time, everyone wants to be loved. According to Martin Graff, validation is closely related to self-esteem. Self-esteem can be described as a sense that you are fundamentally fit to exist, and that you deserve the honestly earned fruits of your labour.

Research by Graff showed that 70% of respondents reported posting in social media anything between one and five times per day. “The attention I get from social media is important to me,” said one participant. “I consider someone to be popular based on the amount of likes they get in social media.”

The social validation principle can be defined as the perceived validity or acceptance of an idea as the number of people supporting the idea increases.

It explains how Facebook might have influenced regime change in Egypt, the Brexit referendum or Donald Trump’s election.

Democracy through voting in polling booths is so last decade. It’s all likes and shares now. And the choices we make can be infinitely tailored by vested interests to ensure we all respond the right way when it matters.

I believe the only way to free ourselves from the dopamine trap is to go completely open source code on everything.

Marketers must find a way to create a dual system with an old-fashioned paper version of everything running alongside the online equivalent.

To minimise vulnerability, keep a foot in both camps:

  • Don’t opt for easy packages
  • Keep everything vanilla
  • Use a cloud-based excel spreadsheet for data
  • Don’t be seduced into off-the-shelf data customisation and automation for CRM or marketing
  • Keep everything basic and raw so it remains your thought process, not someone else’s modularisation

Basic and raw, that’s where we’re heading. We can see it in the world of food, but it’s also true in data.

That means marketers will have to move away from a relationship of dependence and reliance with their consumers. They’re going to have to start respecting them.

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Richard J. Hillgrove VI

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