Attention Dispersal - Or Why Traditional Marketing Formulas Don’t Work Anymore

I am still amazed that big advertising agencies and their big clients have not yet woken up to the new reality in marketing. Actually, I’m amazed that it took me so long to wake up. But I’m awake now and I see all these slumbering giants snoring away.

Marketing fundamentally changed forever, beginning a few years back. Yet most everyone is acting as if everything were the same. Media buying is virtually the same today, Super Bowl ads are still the rage, and the tone of the advertising hasn’t changed. Everyone is still trying to “disrupt” people so they will stop and notice their funny or cool ad. 

Is it ignorance or denial? Either way, both the agencies and the clients should be ashamed of themselves. 

The only real behavioral change I’ve seen in recent years is that marketers have embraced the internet (social media, blogs, YouTube, etc), but only as a layer of frosting on top of a traditional media cake. 

Dumb. Real dumb.

The truth is, the once powerful brands and their multi-million dollar budgets no longer have the power. They once had a virtual captive audience and now they don’t. 

In the 20th Century, if you were at home on your sofa, watching primetime television, you had no choice but to sit through that TV commercial for Alka-Seltzer or Velveeta or Chevy and you were forced to watch it. The advertiser could rest assured that their money was well spent because they knew everyone would see their ad. Same thing for running an ad in the major magazines and newspapers. 

But in the 21st Century the audience has all the power. Not only can people skip ads altogether, but they all have multiple screens open while watching TV (that is, if they’re watching an actual television at all). We all have our tablets, smart phones or laptops open when the TV is on. Even if I’m watching live sports and I’m unable to skip the commercials, I can very easily ignore them. During the commercial break I can peruse Facebook, read my favorite blog or watch a funny cat video my aunt forwarded to me.

So attention is now dispersed in a million different directions and marketing “disruption” is no longer a viable strategy because it’s easier than ever to ignore. “Disruption” is an antiquated concept that a few soon-to-be-extinct dinosaurs are still clinging to. “Disruption” is now equivalent to spam.

Think about it. People have always hated ads. They are a nuisance. Over the years, we become predisposed to ignore them. Each of us has conditioned our mind to block them, like Kerri Walsh blocking a spike. So marketers have used clever disruption techniques to startle us and make us pay attention. And that formula worked pretty well for a few decades. 

Now, consumers have more distractions than ever because of their multiple open screens, more ways to mute or zap your “disrupting” ad, and way more choices of competitive products and services to choose from. All the noise, clutter and competition has multiplied a thousand times.

The smart marketers have realized that the smoke, mirrors and fireworks used to disrupt people doesn’t work anymore, and they have embraced a new way of marketing: appealing to a select group, making connections, building a loyal following, and providing relevant, personal, anticipated content. 

Furthermore, big advertising ideas are quickly becoming less relevant and less effective. People are way too connected and way too savvy to fall for ideas that have no relevance to the product or service. Instead, people are looking for big product or service ideas. Companies that innovate and make great things.  

Many will disagree with me (my guess is that it’ll be generational, with the older folks disagreeing the most.) But let’s be truthful with ourselves. What worked in the 20th Century will simply not work now. Successful brands must make products and services worth talking about. And marketing departments must tell stories that people find relevant and compelling enough to spread.

It’s no longer about shouting with a megaphone to get a sale. It’s about wooing people and building a lasting connection. This is what has been called the new, “connection economy.”

Marketing guru, Seth Godin, articulated it well with the following analogy. He said...

“There are two ways to get married. The first way to get married is to go to a singles bar, walk up to the first person you meet and propose marriage. If that person won’t marry you, repeat the process on everyone in the singles bar until someone agrees to marry you. That’s a stupid way to get married. The other way to get married is to go on a date. If it goes well, go on another date, with that person....and then you meet their parents, they meet your parents, you get engaged and you get married.That worked for me and maybe it worked for you. So the question is, why aren’t you dating your prospects? Why isn’t your company organized from the ground up to turn strangers into friends before you turn friends into customers?”* 

The connection economy is about leveraging the viral potential of meaningful thoughts and ideas. Not a funny joke or irrelevant flash in the pan, but stories that affect people and get shared. There are a lot of fluffy things that go viral, but let’s not assume that it translates into devoted customers. It’s like cotton candy. It might taste sweet but there’s no nutritional value. And you can’t live on it.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating for only touchy-feely, sleepy, boring marketing. It can still be wacky or funny or weird. As long as it’s a remarkable idea that is rooted in the product or brand belief. And as long as it’s relevant to people’s lives. And of course, if it’s not good enough to be sharable, then it’s like a stillborn baby. (Sorry for the bad analogy.)

Below is a chart of the old way of marketing versus the new way. Seeing these two ways juxtaposed demonstrates the massive shift that has occurred. (Note: If you haven’t already read the book, Meatball Sundae by Seth Godin, do yourself a favor and download the e-book right now. It’s a few years old but still spot on.)

Click here to download high resolution chart above:

*Excerpt from Seth Godin and The Future of Marketing, GoToMeeting Corporate Podcasts #55 - Dec. 2, 2008