Audience Research and Brand Creative in the Age of the Echo Chamber

Jun 08, 2018

Article ImageBrands today are faced with a unique challenge. They don’t own their brand story. As Scott Cook, CEO of Intuit said, “A brand is no longer what we tell our customers it is--it is what consumers tell each other it is.” Social media has disintermediated the way marketers and publishers communicate with their audiences. The role of the gatekeeper gave way to the community manager, relinquishing some control to the audience in exchange for dialogue and engagement. And as authority has moved further away from brands so has the ability to shape brand perception.

The blurred lines of today’s market offer opportunities and risks for any brand. Play it too safe and you risk irrelevance. Come too close to the edge and you risk your brand being hijacked by special interests. Either way, there’s risk and brands need to determine what their own risk tolerance is if they want to thrive.

My team and I have seen these risks and opportunities many times as we’ve tracked ideas and content traveling across platforms for brand clients. We observe the tactics and tendencies of people and communities as they coordinate on small, private networks and use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their message. Our work began in newsrooms, but as online conversation and social grew, brand marketers needed a way to better understand their audiences online as well.

What unifies marketers and newsrooms are the pathways of disinformation. In most cases, a small community of people socializes on private channels like Reddit, 4chan, WhatsApp or Telegram. General chatter morphs into sentiment, which quickly turns into intent. From those small communities, plans are hatched to activate special interest media and start broadcasting that message online.

That’s exactly what happened to Delta when they joined the chorus of brands who rescinded their membership agreements with the NRA. They were the 13th brand to speak up and, yet, they became the lightning rod for the entire controversy. A small group of people in Georgia took offense and spoke out on Facebook and Twitter. On Sunday, February 25, 2018, Breitbart’s midday radio show had one of those people on as a call in guest, and everything changed. A little after lunch the next day, Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, Casey Cagle, bowed to social pressure and publicly vowed to block any legislation that would grant Delta a tax break on fuel in their home city of Atlanta. National press took notice and the headlines started to flow.

Delta’s experience is recent but it’s certainly not new. Other brands have seen their ads and narratives hijacked while watching in disbelief. But, while disinformation may have distinguishable contours and tactics, it’s more a symptom than a true disease for marketers.

Other examples demonstrate that social media is a fraught environment, where small communities have outsized influence. More importantly, they show that brands need to better understand the communities of people they want to reach, if they create authentic communications.

Pepsi’s now infamous Kendall Jenner creative backfired and forced the brand to pull the ad because they failed to understand the #BlackLIvesMatter movement. Dove, a social media darling, missed a poor transition in a social ad and faced charges of racism. Audi stumbled during the Super Bowl with their ad about equal pay despite having an all male board.

All of this adds up to one thing: today’s social media landscape is one of nuance. Marketers need to look behind the big aggregate numbers of demographics and psychographics if they want to succeed. Today, you need to know what your customers are talking about and be able to read the changing winds. Glossier is famous for their ability to tap into the specific to connect with their audience.

For brands and marketers, they need to think differently about how they do their research and creative for their advertising communications if they want to build a lasting brand that resonates with consumer’ hearts and minds.

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