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persuasion notebook

Interesting Man campaign for Dos Equis beer.

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail's marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe's marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

Attention brands: consumers do not want to be your friends.

Social media have introduced an age of unprecedented communication – back and forth is now possible between major corporations and their consumers like never before. But in many cases, this communication is being misused by brands who think regular people are as interested in them as they are.

Tom Morton, former head of strategy at influential ad agency Goodby Silverstein and Partners and now a marketing consultant, believes that companies need to reconsider the role they play in consumers' lives.

That includes recognizing that regardless of your Facebook status, the average person considers a marketer to be an acquaintance at best – and often, unfortunately, it's a pretty annoying acquaintance.

The Globe spoke to Mr. Morton following his talk at the Institute of Communication Agencies' Future Flash conference in Muskoka this week.

Q: Brands have fans on Facebook. Are they fooling themselves by thinking people actually want to interact with them?

A: It comes down to engagement rates. The study I use came from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute [that does marketing research at the University of South Australia Business School]. They said, 'Let's isolate passion brands – look at brands like Nike and Harley-Davidson, brands that you might tattoo on your body – and find out what kind of engagement rates they get. It comes out at 0.66 per cent. [That's the rate of people who click "like," comment on, or share posts by brands on Facebook.] That's one out of every 150 fans who engage with any given piece of content. That's remarkable. Now, that doesn't invalidate Facebook. A medium that half the population goes to every day is massively important. It just resets what level of engagement we can expect. If you're a shampoo brand and you're comparing yourself to Tom Brady – there's just a different level of interest that brands live at versus genuine cultural phenomena.

Q: You said you like the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" campaign?

A: This is the paradox of that campaign: Dos Equis was the first beer to get one million likes on Facebook. It was incredibly successful in the social realm. But the reason was, it was very easy to engage with. It was genuinely funny and unusual. And you could submit your own line – a version of "he can speak French in Russian" or "he flirted with danger and danger got clingy" – it's a fun game of call and response to play. But they became extremely popular by not asking people for too much.

Q: When you were with ad agency TBWA, you helped develop the "Suckometer" ads for Nicorette. How does that exemplify your argument that brands need to speak in a different tone to consumers?

A: There's a euphemistic version of what quitting looks like and there's a real version. ... [Many ads] suggest that quitting smoking is a thoughtful process. ... We reached out to an addiction specialist who worked out of University College London. And we said, 'Can you tell us the truth of how things happen?' He said more than half of all attempts to quit smoking happen spontaneously – you wake up sick, your uncle gets cancer, your children tell you to stop – they start spontaneously and they proceed in chaos, because you're doing it without resources. The shakes kick in. And they end in failure. This is the reality: 70 per cent of smokers have tried to quit, and most of them have failed. For our target customers, the reality has been tough. There are only so many people who are dedicated quitters, who are super motivated and are going to quit no matter what. We have to work with semi-detached people who've had bad experiences with quitting and a residual relationship with smoking. The only way to get through to them is to have an honest conversation. Saying 'Quitting sucks,' was a breakthrough thing. It's a truth that they knew, but that the category had never shown them [in ads].

Q: Aren't many of us sick of hearing what advertisers have to say, though? I feel like even when I see something delightful, or that I think is interesting, it turns out to be an ad, and I'm disappointed. The video where they asked strangers to kiss, for example. An ad for a clothing brand.

A: The supply of content is enormous. Facebook are doing all they can to stamp out organic sharing. They want to highlight things in people's feeds that have been paid for. ... That's partly why we're seeing more of it. The Facebook algorithm prefers paid-for branded shares over genuinely unique things.

Q: Is there a need for more sincerity from advertisers that they are advertising to us?

A: People are smart, and are wise to what brands do. There's an enormous cutting through [the noise] that you can have with sincerity. Take the U.S. – last year, $140-billion paid for advertising. Even if you're the biggest brand, you're 1 or 2 per cent of that. You'll never buy cut-through, but sincerity will get you it.

Q: In social media, advertisers seem to be trying to talk to consumers with a sort of fake intimacy, as though we're friends. Are brands getting too needy?

A: It's quite possible. If you're getting 0.1-per-cent engagement rate, maybe there are things you shouldn't be sharing. Maybe you should spend more time being spectacular, or useful, or charitable, or hyper-interesting, rather than posting a photo of your bottle and saying, "It's Monday, who wants a drink?" ... You see posts that brands do, and it's like a conversation you have with a four-year-old you don't know. It's not a useful conversation to have to build a community. What a lot of these posts are, is 'Please fill in this empty space.' Or, 'Please spend your time telling us the story of why you're drinking a coffee.' No! Nobody has the time to do that.

Q: But you can get attention if you're useful. There's a wonderful campaign out of Brazil that paired English-language students with people in retirement homes in the U.S. The English students got practice for their language skills, the elderly people got someone to talk to in an often isolating environment. I saw that and thought, why isn't every language school doing this? I don't naturally care much about an ESL education company in Brazil, but I sat through their video.

A: Absolutely. Utility wins. That's a different mindset for brands, to think about what they can do in the world rather than what they can ask of consumers. But when you think like that, when you drop the ego, and realize you're more likely to succeed through usefulness than through asking people to complete your ads for you, that's a much healthier place to be.

Q: And maybe realize that people don't care as much about your brand as you do?

A: But they do care about practicing their English or booking a taxi on Uber. I heard a great story from the CMO of Delta Airlines. He said, of all the things they've tried to do in the digital sphere – all the content they've put on Facebook, all the messages they've tweeted out – the thing that got the biggest single reaction was the luggage-tracking feature on their mobile app.

Q: Air France and KLM are just launching something similar – a better system to make checking bags faster and let people track them through their flight.

A: People don't necessarily want an airline to be a buddy or an entertainer, but they want it to be useful. And when they get that right, it's fantastic.

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