Business communication is in upheaval—sales, marketing, B2B, B2C, all of it. Fairly recent technologies now feel antiquated, and older ones seem ancient. Newspapers, the radio, TV and now even the internet alone won’t help you. Channels of communication have been blown to seemingly infinite fragments. We’ve got good news and bad news: the tools at hand are more powerful than ever, but you’re going to need help.
The world is too much with us
For thousands and thousands of years, we’ve been trying to solve the question: “How do I reach all the people?” Written language helped. So did the printing press. Add moveable type and the telegraph, and suddenly you can reach more people quickly, more easily and across greater distances. Not long ago, one technology alone—say a full-page ad in The New York Times or a Super Bowl commercial—would reach nearly everyone. That era is over. Communication, like the universe itself, is moving in every direction away from itself and accelerating. The platforms available as I write this will be different by the time you read it. “How do I reach all the people?” is no longer even the right question.
Forget massive billboards. Forget skywriting. Forget the blunt-force marketing of the past. Use the internet, but go way beyond email blasts and a website. The communication revolution going on right now—that’s so new and so in-process that best practices are only just beginning to emerge—is all about the promise of using the increasing firepower of the internet to address a seemingly more ADD audience with entirely new and fundamentally different expectations. One-size-fits-all marketing is dead. The true promise of the internet is the ability to reach the right people at the right time.
This heat-seeking marketing, on its own, shows clear advantages over the historically successful carpet-bombing campaigns of the past—think efficiency, bang-for-your-buck and the magic of reaching potential customers with almost psychic timing. But what pushes this new approach from innovation to revolution and from cutting-edge to necessary-for-survival is the fact that the content your audience now absorbs (along with advertising married to it) has severely fragmented, not just across multiple screens but over an ever-growing and quickly evolving number of platforms.
Communication must fragment simply to reach us. Each platform—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, just to name a few of the best known—has its own rules and etiquette. Vast collections of behavioral data combined with intelligent analytics help us identify the right people (I’ll leave any debate about that topic for another post). We can now reach those right people in the unique languages of their many platforms when they’re most open to listen, but doing so with conventional marketing methods is going to take one hell of a herculean effort.
Beware the shiny box
Cut to the present moment and the ongoing space race to develop the tools to satisfy our full range of communication desires. The choices seem endless, and the promises, right off the websites themselves, range from “Captivate your audience” (Scrollmotion) to “Helps sales teams close more deals” (Clearslide) to “Enables anyone to become a designer” (Canva). One platform promises you will be able “to create interactive [picture here a flashing progression of every type of content imaginable] without developers” (Ceros). These tools are incredibly powerful and will elevate the curb appeal of your content exponentially. Make it your mission to find the right tools and use them.
That said, be warned: anytime our tools become so effective and easy to use that anyone and everyone can think themselves an expert, we wander into dangerous territory. A generation of advances in autopilot has created pilots unaccustomed to flying manually, so much so, the FAA recently recommended pilots actually spend less time using autopilot just to keep their skills fresh. Essentially, the technology becomes so appealing, so persuasive, so shiny and promising, we put our faith in the glitter itself. We could call this another case of “Shiny Box Syndrome.” Plentiful and often misdiagnosed on the internet, this “syndrome” can be so malignant because that pretty box masquerades as a panacea but, of course, holds nothing.
New technology always arrives with the promise of making our lives easier. Think of commercials and magazine ads for every kitchen appliance ever. One day, we may all have Jetsons-inspired kitchens where complete meals appear at the touch of a button, but even then, somebody has to teach the machines how to cook. You can dress up any content—make it look shiny—but the packaging can’t stand in for substance. Even Marketing Automation, another piece of this revolution, is a misnomer. Yes, it’s automation, but the automation is only as good as the brains behind it.
Around the campfire
Want to know the secret to this fragmented and mysterious new marketing landscape? The answer, fortunately and unfortunately, is as simple as good, old-fashioned storytelling. We may know nothing else, but we recognize a good story when we hear it. We just feel it in our gut. Contemporary advertising touches, persuades and even inspires our guts. The Do-This-Now-Advertising era slogan “Drink Coca-Cola” is now the everything-is-possible “open happiness.” Find your clear and meaningful story, and the better you are at telling that story, the more and more these tools will work for you.
I write this from my desk at work at a design agency here in New York City. Not very long ago, we were known almost exclusively for our PowerPoint work. In fact, our company’s name is a play on the word “PowerPoint.” Love it or hate it, PowerPoint is a necessary communication tool. As the definition of what a presentation is has blurred, our repertoire of services has grown (motion graphics, apps, etc.). You can deride PowerPoint (everyone, including us, does) and proclaim (rightly) that the end of PowerPoint as we know it is nigh, but you can’t deny that PowerPoint is a powerful storytelling tool. In fact, we argue that storytelling is what we’ve been up to all along. That may sound silly, but when PowerPoint is used in an imaginative and inspiring way, you don’t notice the PowerPoint at all; it’s just another way to stand up and tell a good story.
The challenge ahead is how to tell your well-developed, old-school story to this new, highly-fragmented audience, an audience that expects that story to be online wherever they are on whatever screen they’re currently touching. You’re going to tell the same story one way in a two-minute video and another way in 140 characters. Reaching this new, precision-targeted audience involves adapting content to multiple media. Just to speak and be heard, you need to tell the same story from a whole variety of angles. But that is just the first step. Your audience now expects more out of the content itself. What is there to explore? How can I interact with it? There’s never been a more interactive audience than there is right now. Scary? Yes. Full of possibilities? Absolutely.
I’ve got a story to sell you
We’re in an exciting moment. The entire communication terrain is shifting faster than we can find our footing. Stick to your story and don’t be seduced by the siren song of new technologies. If this is not your first rodeo, you probably have a good idea who you are and what your message is. If your story needs work, start there before you browse the endless shelving of shiny new toys. If you need help generating content, just ask. Writers and designers can work wonders extracting the most engaging version of what you want to say and turning it into edge-of-your-seat storytelling.
Next, investigate the current tools. The challenge here is that we’re in an era of so many options, most businesses don’t know what it is they don’t know. You can get some help here too. I’m going to assume you have more important things to do than divine the next Snapchat. Leave that to someone who actually has that exact job. Even at light speeds, best practices emerge, and many types of agencies (e.g., design, marketing, advertising, PR or digital) can help you sort all that out. It may come as a surprise that all this automation and targeting has not cut down but actually has increased the workload. We’re in a future of sophisticated tools with the promise of sophisticated results.
Look at these new challenges (why is nobody listening to what we’re saying like they used to?), give them some thought, even have anxiety if you like or must, but realize that the solutions (and there are solutions) will lead you to become a better, more exacting and more engaging storyteller. And whatever it is that you’re selling, that’s exactly what you want to be.
Feel like you could use some help?