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The curse of irrelevant 'relevance': Why we should all be cautious about exploiting the next big thing

Dan Plant is head of strategy at Starcom UK.

This week Warc produced a new Trends snapshot, Livestreaming apps – the value of Periscope and Meerkat for brands, that cautioned marketeers against charging headlong into adoption of these new media technologies without a real understanding of the role they play in consumers' lives or any clear objectives of what your brand is trying to get out of it.

On the one hand, I despair that we need Warc to tell us to have some objectives before we stick our brands on the next big thing, but on the other hand I’m not surprised at all. I’ve been ranting for a while against the overwhelming inclination of the marketing services industry to exploit new media to the point of exhaustion in their desire to be seen to be innovative and 'relevant' to the next generation of consumers.

A few months ago I came across this piece from Steve Cater, published here on The Drum, that suggested that brands were ruining social media by treating them as just 'media' in the advertising sense of the word. By treating social media as just another way to get brand messages in front of an audience, we were in danger of destroying any value that the medium might have.

A year or so later and it sounds like we are going to ruin livestreaming apps in the same way that we may have ruined social media.

Whilst I wasn’t surprised, I did start to wonder why this keeps happening. Why do we all rush to adopt new technologies for our marketing communications when we haven’t even figured out how the current media are actually working for us? What is the driving force behind this unrelenting appetite for media exploitation?

My current working hypothesis (for today) is that the problem stems from the massive overuse of one particular word: Relevance.

Every brand I’ve ever worked on is striving to make their brand more relevant. Virtually every media campaign I have planned has striven to find 'relevant media moments' at the right time, right place and for the right people. It’s the 3 Rs of marketing – Relevance, Relevance, Relevance!

Because of that one word we can justify sticking our brand into any new media by arguing that being in that place makes our brand more relevant simply because our consumers are using it.

Now I’m not saying that relevance isn’t important, quite the opposite. But relevance is about so much more than a simple equation of

X media is used by Y consumer

Z brand is in X media

Z brand is therefore relevant to Y

When we say we want our brand to be relevant to consumers what we actually mean is that we want to help consumers understand how, why and when they should use our brand and product – how it fits into their lives.

The power of media to help in achieving that understanding is that we can deliver our message in a context which reminds consumers of their own personal needs and so presents the product as part of the narrative of their lives. As a result the brand is much more likely to be remembered when the consumer is actively in market which is essentially all we are trying to do – make people more likely to buy our product than someone else's.

The essential thing to remember is that the raw medium itself very rarely imbues any relevance upon the brand using it. Being on TV doesn’t in itself say a great deal about a brand any more than being in newspapers or in online display advertising.

The relevance comes from everything else: the other content that is being consumed, the time of day it is being consumed, the place, the other people you consume it with etc.

A well-crafted contextual campaign can add value to a medium by enhancing and fleshing out an existing consumer narrative, but a lazy advertising campaign that merely uses a medium because there are some eyeballs there is irrelevant and exploitative and consumers will see through it very quickly.

That’s the big issue here. Consumers don’t just ignore irrelevant brands – they resent them for ruining the thing that they were otherwise enjoying!

If you are in doubt as to whether your use of a new medium is relevant or exploitative there is a fairly simple test you can use. One simple question: “What true value does the consumer get out of this that they don’t get from my other communications?”

If you can’t think of anything (honestly then you probably should look to spend your effort and budget elsewhere – ideally somewhere that delivers that other important media metric that begins with 'R': Reach!

Dan Plant is group strategy director and real-time planning director at MEC

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