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Web marketing “gets real”

Shut off the hype machine—that’s what your customers are telling you. The old days of overheated prose are over. On the Web, you must be authentic and fact-based, or no one will listen. See how Web Marketing “Gets Real” in this month’s Biznology newsletter.

Traditional marketing promotion depends on hype. We know that it doesn’t matter whether we want to hype our products or not. We have to. All of our competitors are breathlessly hyping their products, so we better, too. That’s what we tell ourselves.

After all, customers don’t really believe those overheated ads, right? Everyone knows that customers discount the truth of everything they hear. So it stands to reason that, with all of our competitors puffing up their claims, even if we tell the truth, our customers will still discount what we say, won’t they? Then, we’ll look even worse than we really are. That’s just the way it is, isn’t it?

So, we tell ourselves, if all the other kids are doing it, then we better continue to shade the truth, spin the message, exaggerate—you get the idea—or else we’ll be hurt. That’s the way that old-style marketing promotion works. Our marketing better put the “hype” in hyperbole (or we fear they’ll get someone else to do it “right”).

The Web is turning this cozy little marketing world upside down.

All this old-time hype makes customers more and more cynical—they automatically assume that companies are lying to them. They know their kids are being sold certain foods in the cafeteria because the schools get better deals for them. They know manufacturers are not “telling all” about the way laborers are treated in third world factories. They know that food producers keep secrets about animal treatment. Customers have come to expect that everything they hear from you puts you in the best light, so they believe less and less of it. The entire anti-consumer movement demonizes companies as bad citizens of the world.

What does a marketer do in the face of this kind of cynicism? Well, it’s not an easy answer, unfortunately. The only antidote to cynicism is honesty. Honesty in large amounts over a long period of time.

And that presents a problem for many companies. If your company has not exactly been the poster child for ethical behavior, then suddenly “coming clean” is an unappetizing prospect. But the Web will force you to do it sooner or later.

In the past, only big companies had to worry about a media exposé, because no one cared about the bad behavior of small companies. But now every company can be held up on the Web and be made accountable. It costs nothing for one of your customers (or competitors) to write a blog entry or otherwise cause a ruckus. You might as well take a hard look at yourself and decide where your ethics need an overhaul. Then you can air your own dirty laundry with an apology and a commitment to fixing the problem. That’s what “getting real” means in marketing today.

And don’t assume that getting real is about only the big, Enron-style, horrible behavior. Being authentic is not just about preventing enormous lapses of ethics. Despite what the anti-consumerists say, the great majority of business people are not evil and they have high moral standards. We just need to raise the bar.

We need to realize our customers want authenticity in every interaction, big and small. They want us to tell the truth even when we could get away with covering it up. Because that is what really builds trust. That’s what long-term relationships are built on.

As you think about getting real, you may be wondering how a company be real. Most companies large enough to have a slew of marketers are nothing more than a pile of stock certificates. Companies aren’t real—people are. So the way to be real is to let the people out.

You have a whole company full of marketers itching to do your work for you. Some of them may want to write blogs. Some may just comment on blogs written by others. Others may haunt customer support message boards and explain how your product really works and how to make it work better. Today, these helpful, authentic people are probably hidden behind your corporate policies—only public relations people speak to the press, all external communication must be approved by legal, and all information is considered confidential until declassified by management, and on and on. Let your people go. Let them go out and be your best marketers.

When you do, you’ll find out that your new marketers don’t stay “on message.” They don’t stick to the “talking points.” They speak in their own voices and say what they think they should in each situation. They sound like real people because they are real people. And customers eat it up.

If you take the risk to allow your customers to see your company as a set of real human beings, they will cut you more slack. People are like that—we forgive many errors of people that we know, but we get royally ticked off at a faceless monolith.

Think how your customers respond to the faceless, nameless, personality-less voice from your marketing machine. Think, in contrast, to how customers respond when you let your product folks talk to them directly and apologize for what got screwed up and promise that a fix is coming. You might just keep those customers, whereas you can lose them when your official tech support person minimizes the problem or quotes your company warranty policy.

Of course, you can simply move the old marketing hype over to the Web and continue business as usual. But that’s not the best approach. On the Web, your customers will call you on every little white lie. On every “best case” scenario. And you’ll look bad in front of everyone. Better to let your competitors take that approach while you get real.

So shut off the hype machine. Your customers want facts. They want you to be authentic. They want to be able to trust you. Setting that authentic tone and providing the information your customers really want to know—that’s the quickest way to “get real.”

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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