Dealing with social media users' inner conflict re: sponsored content

I wrote this comment in response to an article written by Marian Salzman, President, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, North America. (Transparency note: I worked for Marian a decade ago as VP and Editorial Director of the Intelligence Factory, she introduced me to branding, and I consider her a genius.)

It's called "How Should Marketers Use Social Media Now?", and it is aimed at marketers, not government folks implementing social media, of which I am one.

Nevertheless, I think the article is still of interest to us in the government community, not just to private sector marketing firms, because it provides some research-based insight into how people actually use social media. If the government is going to use social media to reach the public, then it is better to develop fact-based strategies for doing so rather than a shotgun, based-on-a-whim approach that may win big or fail miserably depending on mostly pure luck.

As far as my comments go, they are really aimed at anyone who is trying to represent a customer who has a message that needs to be transmitted through social media. In the private sector, that usually means a marketing company or consultant. But in government public affairs, the marketer is often inside the agency itself, since we often don't have money to spend on what is sometimes referred to as "Madison Avenue."

So, if your agency tasks you with creating a social media strategy, these are my personal thoughts on how you might do that effectively given an issue that I have identified - which is that when it comes to users of social media networks, there is an emotional conflict between wanting sponsored content to seem like "just part of our community," vs. wanting it to seem glitzy, over-the-top, branded, fancy, etc.


Here is the comment:

I think the problem for marketers is that consumers want brands to deliver both "authenticity" and "big brand glitz" at the same time. We already know that no marketer or marketing strategy can be all things to all people, as Seth Godin and Al Ries explain really well. But what we don't know is how to reach people most effectively when they are acting based on contradictory drives, ambivalence, or even unconscious needs that they can't express out loud.

The CEO of Gallup, Jim Clifton, made this point well on 11/16 when he noted in a talk (introducing the findings of a Summer 2009 survey on citizen satisfaction with their interactions with the federal government) that 70% of pre-purchase behavior is emotional, not rational, and so agencies have to look for the emotional drivers behind satisfaction if they want to get their ratings to go up.

I was reminded yesterday that you should never raise a problem without at least trying to offer a solution, so here are some thoughts on what marketers can do about this.

1. Slow down

Marketers are always in a rush to get the work done, get their money, and get out. But despite its reputation for immediacy, social media is a "slow environment" where it takes time to get to know the culture, the characters, the etiquette, and so on. (This is sort of like the "slow food" movement, which opposes the McDonaldization of our eating habits and urges people to get back to family meals, home cooking, etc.)

2. Do your homework

In my view, what marketers don't understand when they try to sell social media is that it's not only about proving that they know all the new and ever-weirder names out there for social media applications (although they do need to do that). It's also about showing a depth of understanding as to who is on those sites and what they are getting out of them. If you know your social media community, you are better able to judge whether authenticity or glitz will be most effective. A great example is the Army recruiting page on MySpace. They obviously totally understand their target audience - every single item on that page, from the videos to the wallpaper, seems carefully chosen to appeal to young people who might be swayed to consider a military career.

3. Be upfront

We are living in the age of mistrust, there is no doubt about it. That is exactly why people turn to social media, because they trust their peers and unofficial sources of information more than they trust authority and official hierarchies and corporate-approved language. So when a marketer opens up a social media channel on behalf of a client, there should be clear disclaimers everywhere making clear that the source of the information is paid-for and professional. This is why I personally have a lot of trouble figuring out the best way to use Facebook, because it is inherently a personal networking site, and yet increasingly it is being coopted for marketing purposes. It's almost like there are no safe spaces from marketing anymore, which as a consumer I actually sort of resent.

4. Be humble

Traditionally, marketers have gained the confidence of their clients by acting like they know all the answers. After all, if you are not a marketer yourself, having a business objective assigned to you that involves selling a specific amount of X, to generate a specific amount of $ by a specific date, can be as scary as hell.

But we are living in different times now and marketers have to adjust.

First of all, the Internet, and more specifically Google, has made us all experts in everything. Any idiot can do a five second search on any subject and wind up at least a little bit literate so that they can walk into a meeting and talk about it effectively.

Second, with respect to social media, it is a pretty good likelihood that the prospective client has done some preliminary research on the marketer before any meetings with them even take place. So they will know if the company has a reputation for being good at social media or not.

Third, I specialize in social media on what a marketing company would call "the client side," (I work in public affairs, but inside a federal agency), and even I can't keep up with all the new tools out there. So I know that there are very few marketers who can plausibly present themselves as knowing everything. Based on my own reactions, I think clients are more inclined to trust someone who admits they don't know everything, but demonstrates that they learn quickly and can adapt to new technologies on the fly.

5. Do your research really well - get to know your customer!!!!

This has nothing to do with social media per se but is something that marketers tend to forget. It's all about knowing your customer, really knowing your customer, and your customer is not only the person who will buy the client's product but also the client themselves. Both the client and the end customer are driven by contradictory needs, but if you know each of them well - so what? Generally speaking, when you know somebody well, you are able to understand what drives their behavior, even when a stranger would say that it makes no sense. So you can't skip the step of getting to know not only the end purchaser, but also the client, with the brains and intuition of a human being and not in a superficial, let's-get-it-over-with way. (Again, the slow factor). This may mean charging more money for your time, but if you're worth it, the client will pay, because the alternative is a crappy job that gets them in trouble when it's time to show return on the marketing investment. (Of course, the marketer has to explain this well and be able to prove their worth, which might mean taking some losses initially until they can build a track record.)

6. Build your brand

I think it is easier for people to deal with a marketer in a social media space if the marketer is clearly identified as such and also has an established reputation for doing high-quality, respectful social media work on behalf of clients (read: brand). For example, Shel Holtz is known to be a total guru when it comes to all things relating to communication technology and social media. If I were to visit a Facebook page for, let's say, Kraft, and that page had a box on it that said, "this Facebook page was built and is maintained on behalf of Kraft by social media consultant Shel Holtz," I would be much more likely to a) trust the content on that page and b) be receptive to the fact that a third party marketer had built the page on behalf of the company, rather than, let's say, employees of the company building the page themselves (which to me is not a bad idea either, if they're not PR type employees, but that's besides the current point).


Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal is an author, independent brand researcher, and adjunct marketing professor with 20 years of varied experience. An avid researcher and prolific, creative writer, Dr. Blumenthal's interests span communication, marketing, qualitative media content analysis, political rhetoric, propaganda, leadership, management, organizational development, and more. An engaged citizen, she has for several years worked to raise awareness around child sex trafficking and the dangers of corruption at @drdannielle on Twitter. You can find her articles at Medium, and, and she frequently answers questions on Quora. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own.