There are three things you can count on in life: death, taxes, and holiday stories about the most requested Christmas presents of the year. If you’re in the advertising industry, there are three other things you can count on: tight budgets, lofty goals, and the confidence that “going viral” online will make your product the go-to giveaway.
Not to be a Scrooge, but let’s talk about reality.
First of all, it should be recognized that the chances of spreading on a viral scale are very low. Even if a brand creates the most talked about online content, the numbers just aren’t big enough to make a difference. And this moment of buzz is too fleeting. There’s a reason why “Internet time” is a shorthand for “blink and you’ll miss it”.
Second, the data on virality is absolutely conclusive. Based on decades of research, a pattern of brand buzz is consistent: Most word-of-mouth activity takes place offline, in conversations between individuals.
Nowhere is this fundamental misunderstanding more evident than in the astonishing amount of marketing dollars that have been wasted on so-called “influencers” in recent years. The dollar amounts might be modest compared to, say, a TV campaign. But the number of consumers these imaginary professional friends can reach is also tiny. And at least one TV campaign can generate results.
For example: most brands would kill for the status, popularity and unconditional dedication that Apple enjoys. And if you asked 100 marketers on the street what makes Apple the elite choice for the masses, many, if not most, would say word of mouth.
They wouldn’t be wrong. But many would think it was online word-of-mouth among early adopters that pushed the needle towards critical buying mass.
In fact, Apple has always been a master of public relations and advertising, thanks to a campaign strategy they have been using since the days of Steve Jobs. Their iconic 1984 Macintosh ad directed by Ridley Scott introduced three decades of powerful ads. The still recognizable iPod silhouettes have led to a slew of commercials for iPhones, iPads, and iWatches that do a great job of showcasing product features against a backdrop of stunning visuals and striking soundtracks. These ads are a challenge to ignore. When the iWatch ad shows commuters floating in the air and promises “40 million iTunes songs on your wrist,” you aren’t going to confuse it with a Samsung ad.
Apple products achieve and retain their coveted status continuously rolling out new features and upgrades, with every device better than the previous version. Communicus research shows that Apple advertising does a better job of generating buzz about their products than it does by directly building brand perceptions. In fact, data from Communicus shows that, like many other brands, Apple’s advertising engagement generates word-of-mouth, this word-of-mouth reinforces brand perceptions and those improved perceptions of the brand. brand reinforce the desire for the product.
Advertising is the real engine of word of mouth that builds the brand. Take away the publicity, and word of mouth evaporates most of the time. We’ve found this to be true for brand after brand, in categories as diverse as CPG, retail, automotive, and more.
This is especially true when introducing new products. This is one of the reasons why so many brands are bringing new products to market with TV advertising during the Super Bowl. Whether or not creation does what it should to drive sales, marketers know that the breadth of reach of television for mainstream consumers is simply unbeatable.
In Apple’s case, television is a major driver of demand. Brand-generated social media play more of a supporting role, and the most influential one when seen in conjunction with TV advertising.
If you want to become the must-have gift of 2017, you need scale. You’re not going to get it from an influencer – or even an influencer network – with a few million followers. (Especially considering the open secrecy that the few influencers who can claim such numbers have paid for the majority of their “fans.” Bots don’t buy products, and they don’t turn brands into blockbusters.)
Online personalities can call themselves influencers as much as they want, but that doesn’t make it true. In fact, being influential is a lot like being smart or good looking – if you have to tell people you are, you’re probably not as impressive as you make it out to be. And if you want to generate real revenue and generate real market share, your brand needs to invest in real reach and engagement.
Jeri Smith worked at Communicus for over a decade before spending 15 years at DDB Worldwide. She joined Communicus as CEO in 1992. She provides research-based advice, helping brands identify strategies to produce better returns on marketing communications investments. Jeri is an industry leading voice on advertising effectiveness and has been featured by outlets including Fox Business News, Advertising age, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and others.