For a company to succeed in the marketplace, it helps to have a quality product or service. But that is not usually enough to get the maximum number of people to buy it. That’s where marketing, advertising, and public relations agencies step in. They might differ in their methods, but they all share a common goal: To get people to buy what a company is selling. Their jobs are primarily to spread awareness, develop a relationship with the public, and ultimately convert people into customers.
In tackling that seemingly straightforward task, marketers and corporations are accused of turning American culture and public space into a manipulative morass of corporate messages. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Marketers can still reach an audience of potential customers without disrespecting them.
Herd is the Word
Few people realize that the founder of public relations was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays opened his office of “public relations counsel” in New York in 1919. Drawing upon the psychoanalytic research of his uncle as well as other intellectual pioneers in the field of crowd psychology, Bernays was able to manipulate public opinion for the benefit of his clients, which ranged from Lucky Strike to Woodrow Wilson. The award-winning documentary Century of the Self tells the tale of Bernays with fascinating footage of his time and often through the mouth of Bernays himself, who died in 1995 at the age of 103.
While the title of Father of Public Relations sounds honorable and groundbreaking, not everyone would agree that Bernays’s work has benefited the public. Many people would argue just the opposite. The commercializing of American culture clearly traces back to Bernays. There is little difference between his methods and those of today’s so-called marketing gurus: that is, tapping into the human subconscious to influence behavior.
What Have We Done?
Two PBS Frontline documentaries paint a picture of the modern marketinglandscape. “The Merchants of Cool” reveals how far marketers go to get inside the heads of teenagers and explores the implications of the resulting feedback loop between marketers and their target audience. “The Persuaders” describes how new data technology is enhancing the ability of marketers to deliver customized messages to specific segments of their market. While these documentaries were produced in 2001 and 2004, respectively, they demonstrate how Bernays has grown more relevant as demographics swell, disposable incomes inflate, and technologies advance. Pushing emotional buttons remains the priority of marketers, as opposed to delivering rational arguments.
In the decades since Bernays, the public has witnessed a fight for our attentions and affections that continues to grow louder. But what are marketers, advertisers, PR firms, and their clients to do when volume no longer has impact, because their audiences are either covering their ears or only hearing a monolithic roar of white noise?
Find Out What It Means to Me
First, you must respect your audience. They are intellectually curious humans who are well aware of the fight for their hard-earned dollars.
So give them something they want. And if you can’t realistically give them something (because you don’t know who or where they are), produce something that they will seek out and find. This is inbound marketing, and it’s growing in importance even as it flies in the face of Bernays’s unflattering opinion of the human race as an animalistic herd.
For some content ideas of your own, look to Scott Aughtmon, a business strategist who recently shared his list of “21 Types of Content We Crave” on the Content Marketing Institute blog. (The list format is also an effective, easy-to-digest method of presenting content.) The themes he presents can apply to a range of media, from blogs to infographics to e-newsletters to tweets. Yes, all of them are designed to trigger an emotional response, but there is nothing wrong with that as long as it’s done with integrity and respect.
To see how it works today, take a look at this simple update of a quote from David Ogilvy, via the Copyblogger. There is more information than ever out there, but the majority of it is of poor quality, if not misinformation altogether. Quality information is cherished and shared.
The demand for useful, informative, engaging content is growing not in spite of, but because of the ubiquity of advertising. Taking the time to produce valuable content for your target audience will help spread awareness, develop relationships, and ultimately convert people into customers. It’s the new way to achieve the same old goals.