Marketing: Answering the wrong question

Marketing: Answering the wrong question

As my profile in the marketing and digital scene in Australia has increased, I get asked for advice by businesses more often. Sometimes this is as part of the panel discussions for Nett Magazine where we troubleshoot the online strategies for a small business, sometimes just other business owners looking for advice on Twitter.

What is interesting is that often the question I am asked is the wrong one. For example; “How can I use Twitter and Facebook to increase sales and brand awareness?” or “How can I generate an income through social media?”

The truth of social media is that if the question refers to your own goals, the answer is doomed to failure. Social media relies on the other people in the conversation and not what you want to make them do.

It’s not about you!

If you create a strategy focussed on your own benefits, ironically, you’ll find you benefit very little. Creating link after optimised link, and tracking clicks and conversions to determine an ROIto justify the failure or success of a campaign, may work in search engine marketing, but is an absolute disaster if you transfer that theory to Twitter or forums or any other social media platform. Social media is an engagement medium, not an advertising one, and this fundamental difference is what separates the savvy online marketers from those who insist on making decisions based solely on zeroes and ones tracked on a balance sheet. Guess who has the stronger long term model.

Instead, if you turn the question on its head, you can potentially make a lot of money.

By asking “How can I use social media to help my target audience achieve their goals better?”, you may end up developing a strategy where the happy side-product is more and more of that target audience flocking to your brand, increasing awareness and thereby increasing sales. Sure, this is much harder to track and can take a lot longer to achieve, but the rewards can be huge and long-lasting. Relationship marketing means building a large customer base that not only buys from you again and again but also advocates your brand, snowballing your business.

Putting customers in control

The problem is that most businesses are just not that used to giving away control like this. Traditional marketing has revolved around telling consumers how to behave, what to buy, blasting messages to the masses in the hope that the percentages get you over the line and make a profit. But social media is changing all this.

Why is this so? Because no brand has control over the message in these spaces. The users do. Your customers do. Telling them to behave the way you want them to in order to achieve your goals is tantamount to herding cats. But, conversely, provide your target audience with tools or content that is genuinely useful to them in achieving their goals and you won’t need to preach to them, they’ll start spreading your message for you.

Jeff Jarvis, in his recent book What Would Google Do?, tells how Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook explained this concept to some of the world’s greatest business leaders and media magnates. Zuckerberg’s point – you can’t create communities. Communities already exist, doing whatever it is they want to do. Facebook didn’t create a community any more than the local pub created the village it sits in. What Facebook – and the pub – do is provide the venue and the tools/facilities to enable people to organise their own social lives better. Zuckerberg calls this “elegant organisation” – helping the communities that already exist to organise their activities and achieve their goals better.

So, when considering how your business or brand could use social media to increase sales or brand awareness or whatever, think instead about the customer’s goals and provide them with elegant solutions to achieve those goals through simple engagement and clever design.

To paraphrase Spock from Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan; on the web…

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Your goals are irrelevant. Serve the goals of the many with elegant organisaton, stand back and watch your goals happen by accident.


  1. Great post. I am doing a lot of thinking around the marketing mix and the buyer decision process. Am working on a post for tonight that will draw on some of the things that you have mentioned here.
    “Social media is an engagement medium, not an advertising one”. It is an important point. The Promotion element of the marketing mix doesn’t equal advertising. Sure it can include advertising if that is a suitable way to promote your product but it isn’t the only way to promote your product.

  2. Thanks Daniel. It’s a topic I’ve found myself butting up against a lot lately, particularly as traditional business sees marketing and advertising as synonymous. The buyer decision process has been completely transformed in the last five to ten years but, as with most things, business wisdom lags behind. We’re still very much living in that gap period between a shift in consumer behaviour and a shift in (majority) business behaviour

  3. It’s a frustrating dilemma for those of us in the industry trying to teach old school marketers the right way to do it. I spent 2 hours last week taking a client through a strategy of how to ‘pay if forward’. In the end, the client simply wasn’t willing to put in the hard yards up front without an immediate ROI.
    All he cared about was generating positive word of mouth via social media. What he couldn’t grasp was that you actually had to do something worthwhile to get people talking about you in the first place… sigh.

  4. Kimota says

    I think a few of us are suffering these symptoms. It is probably the biggest challenge online marketers currently face.
    My problem is that this sort of approach – instant ROI and pushing for quantifiable sales from marketing – becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They know they have to address the push for social media marketing because everyone tells them to. So they create a knee-jerk strategy without audience research that answers the wrong questions, doesn’t adequately support the process, internally snipe at it and then – after six months – pull the plug because in a survey, respondents were indifferent to these strategies. And of course they were – it was half-hearted and never actually addressed their needs.
    Bringing true change into a business mind-set – especially a business that has been around a few years – can be like wading through treacle.