During the mid-'90s, in the middle of my “Disney days,” I was a writer/producer in Cast Communications (if you don't know, Disney doesn't have employees...they have cast members), part of the Disney University. During that time, I attended a conference in San Francisco on employee communication...and got a great insight into how advertising messages are received!
One of the speakers had a presentation about how companies fail so abysmally when they write employee manuals. The reason is: they’re thinking like a company and not like an employee. And the example he cited was the medical insurance manual.
This book, he noted, is always carefully organized around all kinds of complex categories of coverage that satisfies the corporate insurer and has the blessing of the corner offices. However, once the employees look inside, their eyes glaze over. They take this book home where, invariably, it goes straight into their desk drawers, never to be read.
That is, until little Johnny falls and breaks his leg. Then mom or dad will rush to the desk, remove the manual from the very back of the drawer and open the book to search for information about the topic that’s top-of-mind at that moment – broken legs.
As the speaker noted, the odds that the Table of Contents or even the Index would have such an entry were very small. The book wasn’t written that way. Consequently, it was of no help to the employee at that crucial moment.
This, I came to realize, was also the way that lots of people regard advertising. At the moment that consumers are presented with a message, their minds are usually occupied with other things. The walls are up. Interest runs to zero, zip, squat, nada.
“I really don’t want to hear about a can of paint right now”
“Please, don’t expect me to be concerned with car insurance at this minute.”
“Hey, wireless provider....I'm still within my two-year contract, which I am NOT going to break.”
However, when they're ready to repaint their bathrooms, that’s when they'll be interested in all those designer paint colors. The next time they pay a car insurance premium – or have to deal with their insurance companies' claims process – that’s when they’ll be wondering if they could do better. And at the end of that two-year wireless contract, that's when they'll consider switching services.
Yes, this is the basis of the classic push/pull argument. Many consumers reject (or at least resist) messages being pushed at them but they will embrace opportunities to pull the information they want.
However, that just covers the “when” and “where” of delivering marketing messages – the “timing factor,” if you will. The point of the story about the medical benefits guide tells us we can add the factors of “what," "how” and “how much” to the messaging process. This represents the depth of the content and its accessibility.
When consumers are ready to buy, that's when the walls come down and the antennae go out. But they don't want just the high-level brand message. They want information: features, warranties, dealer locations, customer satisfaction scores. And they don't want to hear from only the advertiser. There are other, more trusted voices they can turn to.
In other words, these consumers are turning to the internet...where “pull” ends up meaning “search.” No, not pay-per-click. And not even organic search for an advertiser's own site. Instead, it's the cast-a-wide-net search for all of those independent reviews, reports, forum comments, blog postings and unsolicited personal experiences with a product or service (and here’s the kicker) over which the advertiser usually has no direct control.
In fact, in this recent article by Peter Hershberg in Advertising Age, he describes a possible next step in search as social media inquiries produce a more focused (and likely more trusted) response containing leads, links and referrals.
And check out this item from the Frugal Traveler in the New York Times.
One way or another, some form of internet search will provide consumers with the most effective kind of marketing message there is...the one that's actually wanted, because they're ready to receive it. They'll get the type of “medical benefits manual” they want to have at hand, providing the information they need...organized in a way that's useful…at the very moment when it's important to them.
Search has started to establish true interactivity in communication where there once was none. The traditional media are not going to die. There will always be a place for them. But communication doesn't happen simply because a message is sent. It has to be received and valued by the recipient. That's where search is already taking us.
For lots of great thinking along these lines, I recommend John Battelle's Searchblog.