Authenticity vs the Algorithm: Why Money Can’t Buy You Customer Love in 2020

If we told you Procter & Gamble invented the soap opera, would you believe us? 

The truth is, the consumer goods company is widely credited for the storytelling approach it took to reach a target market it had long struggled to engage in the 1930’s: American housewives. By producing entertaining branded radio dramas similar to the soap operas we know today, Procter & Gamble became one of the first brands to leverage this platform to get in front of their audience.  It was certainly a bold move for the brand, and one that not only paved the way for a new storytelling format, but also a new way for marketers to get in front of potential customers at scale. 

Yes, the radio has all but gone the way of the Dodo bird — and soap operas are rare species themselves — but the need for marketers to find new ways to get their content in front of customers across today’s highly saturated industries is more crucial than ever. And while the collective creativity of the marketing industry has grown exponentially over the last decade, an over-reliance on certain ‘pay-to-play’ strategies has diluted many of the foundational marketing elements that are ultimately responsible for connecting brand to customer.

Re-assessing Return on Investment 

With the startup ecosystem boom of the 2010’s, funding poured into early stage companies at unprecedented levels, creating a feverish battle for awareness that saw platforms like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Instagram becoming highly targeted weapons. Their ability to get a brand’s message in front of an incredibly specific persona was all things marketers covet: accurate, predictable and scalable. 

And for this reason, the flood gates opened, releasing a tsunami of money fueling algorithms and building some of today’s biggest platform behemoths. In fact, more than $100 billion has been spent by social media advertisers since the 2016 election year which, as we’re aware, turned out to be a rather infamous period in both politics and marketing history. Meanwhile, total digital ad spend, which surpassed $100 billion for the first time in 2018, is projected to be double that by 2023 — evidence of this seismic wave of revenue cascading advertising platforms in recent years.  

However, the once scandalously low cost of running ads and promoting content on these platforms has steadily risen. In fact, research shows that in 2018 the cost of CPM advertising on Facebook and Instagram’s ad platform went up 122%. Just by the third quarter of 2019, social media advertising CPM was up to $5.35, with trends showing CPMs typically increase towards the end of the calendar year as brands attempt to retain ad space. 

With well-funded and growth-based brands oversaturating platforms, marketers and advertisers are competing for the same limited audience and battling against unpredictable changes to how algorithms serve up their messages. For all of these reasons, CAC (cost of acquiring a customer) continues to rise, forcing brands — especially earlier stage companies with limited budgets — to question the efficacy of paid strategies

Before we continue, let’s be clear: paid strategies remain an important part of the marketing equation today. That’s not the issue.

The issue is that the heavy shift towards paid over the last few years created a modality where brands and marketers placed the emphasis on how to get a piece of content in front of as many people as possible, rather than on the quality and value of the content itself. And today, that’s a dangerous place for brands to be in. 

The Shift Towards Authenticity

To put it simply, we have played out paid. 

Today’s consumers are tired of being bombarded by brands who have grown sloppy in both their targeting and messaging. And when we talk about consumers today, none are suffering from “ad fatigue” more than Gen Z and millennials. 

Tired of brands pushing insincere messaging and big name endorsements, these cohorts are no longer swayed by companies, people, or products with mass followers (just 19% say they admire someone or something because they have large followings). Where things like influencer marketing were once welcomed with open arms by consumers and brands alike, recent blunders have backfired adding to decreasing brand trust across the board. And given the enormous influencer and spending powers of these younger generations, brands who’ve historically relied on deep budgets to get their messages and content in front of their eyes to spin on their wheels. 

What they do appreciate however, is personal and authentic connections. And with the next Presidential election just around the corner and “GenZennials” set to represent one-fifth of the voting population, there’s perhaps no better example that illustrates their desire to connect as clearly. With a large majority of these cohorts now decrying social media for its disinclination to monitor “fake news”, it turns out their preferred way to hear from candidates is through video and especially through live-streamed events — a method that appears to fulfill their desires of getting to know politicians on a more personal level, better than TV and Twitter can. 

And with polls suggesting Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are their top presidential picks, it’s interesting to note their own actions in the limelight. For example Sanders’ long standing  social and economic messages appear to resonate with the beliefs and values of Gen Zers and millennials, while Warren’s pubic admonishment of things like sexism and misogyny have attracted an equal amount of fanfare amongst these socially conscious generations.  

But with privacy concerns at an all time high, distrust is certainly still prevalent thanks to the wanton misuse and mishandling of personal information by brands. In fact, we recently found that 3 out of 4 consumers say they are at least sometimes dissuaded from doing business with a company that they believe has been collecting data on them for advertising purposes.

With ad fatigue distrust abound and ad blockers eating into ad revenue to the tune of $12.2BN — an increase from $3.89BN in 2016 — what can brands, especially those starving for growth, do to get their messages in front of consumers in a way that drives action? 

Making real connections instead of buying them

It’s time to go back to basics. This is, creating stories that have inherent value enough that they don’t have to rely on money or algorithms to capture their audience’s attention. 

Even today’s biggest brands with the deepest marketing coffers are beginning to realize this. Take Cisco for example, who launched a new router in 2008 solely through an owned content and social media approach, spending $100K less than anticipated to meet their goals. They used the campaign as a case study to measure the ROI and efficacy of content marketing and social media, and in turn undoubtedly shifted the way their company — and other companies — think about future product launches. 

And it’s not just global enterprises who are learning to be more savvy with their marketing budgets. In 2014, martech startup DemandBase utilized white papers, infographics, SlideShare, and webinars as the main components of an education and awareness campaign — to much success. Not only did it generate 1,700 new leads and connecting with 125 webinar viewers, but their content marketing team brought in more than $1 million in revenue as a result. 

Across the board, brands who invest in organic content marketing typically reap the rewards. Blogging alone can generate 88% more leads for B2B businesses and 67% more leads for B2C companies. So it’s no wonder startups are  prioritizing or perhaps, reprioritizing, content marketing campaigns that can stand the test of changing algorithms and conserve budgets. For early stage companies, chasing paid metrics can quickly drain resources. This is why today’s scrappiest and savviest startups have mastered the balancing act of leveraging owned and earned channels. 

So, how can brands wean off of the algorithms and make lasting connections that won’t rip through their budgets? 

Stay tuned!

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