One of the fundamental principles behind digital advertising is to display your message where your audience already spends a lot of their time. This is one of the reasons why social media marketing is so successful–many users spend hours each day scrolling through their feeds. And traditional marketing is no different. Businesses advertise their products and services everywhere you look, albeit with a bit more regulation.
This onslaught from both traditional and digital advertising is the primary cause behind why some researchers believe people’s attention spans are shrinking to that of a goldfish–about five seconds. Though, this has been proven to be false. What many fail to realize is, with so many messages being thrown around, people have simply adapted to be more selective with where they spend their attention. Five seconds is about how long it takes to make a decision on whether or not something is worth seeing or listening to. Why do you think YouTube’s nonskippable bumper ads are six seconds long and skippable preroll ads can be skipped at five seconds?
Inexperienced marketers believe the goldfish theory and think they just need to display their message more, ultimately contributing to the problem. Technological advancements are not helping the matter either. With screens for video ads on everything from gas pumps to grocery aisle endcaps, there doesn’t seem to be any slowing down of new ways for marketers to display their message.
So, where do we draw the line? When do we say that a particular surface is off limits to advertisers? That, even in the confines of a urban environment, there needs to be some blank space that allows us to breathe?
Twitter Tweets a Chalky Mess
At the beginning of this month, Twitter stenciled real-life tweets on the sidewalks of San Francisco in a guerilla advertising campaign. The city was not happy with the illegal sidewalk chalk and the company may receive a bill if the city has to clean up the graffiti, according to Rachel Gordon, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Public Works Department.
A Closer Look at Twitter’s Strategy
When reverse engineering Twitter’s campaign, you can see why it probably would have been successful in the digital world. Juxtaposing cute messages with associated physical objects (trash can, bird feeding-ground, fire hydrant, escalator) seems like a classic strategy. But why post the messages on the ground and not on a billboard, poster, or typical traditional marketing format? Based on the content of the company’s messages, Twitter wanted to attract infrequent or maybe even new members to the social channel. Their target audience is usually looking down on their phones, so the messages were displayed right in their line of sight. This is clever on Twitter’s part, but also kind of sad if you think about it.
Why This Digital Strategy Failed in the Traditional Landscape
1. Oversaturation is Not Good Marketing
Many people thought that the messages were innovative, cute, and washable alternatives to posters one typically sees plastered on telephone poles or bulletin boards. So what was the big deal? Gordon summed it up in one sentence: “Our sidewalks are not to be used for billboards.” Think about it, with advertisements on billboards, storefronts, and trailing plane banners, sometimes it seems like the ground is the only blank space left. If everyone was allowed to advertise on any public property, every flat surface would be graffitied or chaotically covered with various advertisements.
The addition of messages on one of the few blank surfaces left would only contribute to greater selectivity on where people give their attention, and ultimately compound the problem.
2. Some Rules Aren’t Meant to be Broken
In the digital realm, ad space is shared and given to those who meet certain algorithms, demographics, or other criteria. In the traditional marketing world, ad space is allotted, prime real estate given only to those who pay the highest or pay for it first. Twitter, used to taking precedence as a tech giant, ignored the standards set to prevent advertising anarchy with their guerilla campaign. There’s a difference between innovation and blatant disregard.
3. A Greater Issue than Advertising Anarchy
Such a technique was not the main problem with this campaign–it got people’s attention, got them talking, and may even have attracted new or infrequent users. Believe it or not, despite the legality and the city’s displeasure, the loudest outcries were at Twitter’s insensitivity on overlooking one of the critical parts of marketing: assessing the current market environment.
Despite San Francisco being their hometown, Twitter neglected to consider the city’s major pain points, one of which being the significant wealth inequality. In a city where “tech giants have become a symbol for wealth disparity and gentrification” with their headquarters merely across the street from tent cities, stenciling messages that glorified themselves on defecation-stained sidewalks served only as salt in an already-festering wound.
Same Technique, Different Outcomes
Sidewalk chalk is no new avenue for advertisements. Similar methods are employed in other locations that are legal, beneficial, and even welcomed. College campuses, for example, commonly have student organizations use chalk to write announcements, social updates, or even inspirational quotes on sidewalks, large boulders, and building exteriors. In some cities, storefronts are allowed to advertise on the sidewalk, providing certain guidelines are also followed. With all of these cases, there are rules set in place restricting the content, location, and authorship of such messages.
The key is in understanding and respecting your audience, the social impact, and the rules set by property owners, rather than perpetuating the American stereotype of “I can do what I want, where I want, when I want.”
Adapting Digital Techniques Beneficially
Just recently, I passed a yard sale that took a page from modern marketing practices. They had the typical homemade signs on the street corners leading up to their property, but they also added a twist with an additional sign a few houses after theirs, reading “You missed us!” on the same lime green poster board. I had to chuckle when I saw it. It’s exactly something you would see in a digital marketing campaign, and was refreshingly out of place.
While businesses typically have signs along the highway, they don’t usually care to advertise to those who “missed” the opportunity to turn/exit–especially not the smaller ones. Storefronts consider those who didn’t stop to be those with no intention of coming at that moment, or if at all. Granted popular attractions will typically employ the “missed connection” tactic, but it is far more prevalent online and certainly not done by something as small or brief as a garage sale.
As nearly every member of your target audience has some sort of online presence, it is a good idea to incorporate digital strategies into your traditional marketing. People are already used to them, and many have even come to expect them.
1. Engage, Don’t Overwhelm
One of the reasons the online world is so popular is because of the appeal of there being no expectation to interact. Especially for people with introversion, disabilities, or language barriers, they can choose when and how they participate, if at all.
One of the most obnoxious traditional marketing techniques is the ambush. Sales people stand on the sidewalk or beside a booth and jump at every person as their next customer (read: victim). If they took body language or the initial “no, thank you” at face-value, it wouldn’t be such a problem. But most of the sales people want to fill their quota, becoming pushy to convince passersby that they HAVE to try this new product/service.
Most people don’t appreciate this as it subconsciously makes them feel like they their options decrease. In many instances, this can actually harm the brand as they are viewed as a nuisance, regardless of any benefits they may offer.
In contrast, digital strategies, while still direct, are much more subtle. Digital marketers aim to build credibility and trust transference–a delicate balance between a new friend and subject matter expert.
2. Build a Community Within Yours
If your customers are visiting your brick-and-mortar store, you can be sure they already see the value in interpersonal communication. They don’t want their only touchpoints with your brand to be your website, emails, or social media. They want more and–more than likely–to be involved to some extent.
This is the perfect time to get to know your customers–strike up a conversation to get to know them and their needs. They are present because they see and need your value, so their insight into what the rest of your target market needs is invaluable. This is also a great reason to have industry connections within your community: clubs/organizations, classes, other businesses, etc. More than likely, your customers will have other needs within you industry, and if you don’t offer it, don’t be afraid to refer them to another local business that does. It will not come across as your company being ill-equipped or lacking in skill, but rather show that you are connected within your industry/community and that you care. Customers understand that no one can do everything, and may actually appreciate you having less services, as it shows you have a ‘specialty.’ And they will definitely notice the fact that you care enough to make sure their needs are met, even if you don’t receive the business yourself (they value interpersonal communication after all). Furthermore, the other businesses will appreciate your referral and probably reciprocate in the future, providing you with an additional pipeline for new customers.
3. Mind the Environmental and Social Impacts
As more businesses develop an online presence, your consumers have more options of who to purchase from. They can buy a product on the other side of the world and have it shipped to their front door if they don’t like the local offerings. Because more businesses are open to them, you have to be careful on how your brand or products are perceived. This is known as your social responsibility–how you affect or contribute to the community or the environment.
Consumers are more likely to pay for a product/service from a brand that supports a cause dear to their hearts, even if it’s a bit more expensive. They might not be able to go volunteer directly, but they want to contribute to the cause and will pay the extra few dollars to do so.
And at the very least, make sure your business is not negatively affecting the environment or community.