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Marketing in Post-Truth America

Fake news. Click bait. Unsubstantiated headlines. Every four years or so we get to see big budget politics showcase the latest in marketing - and this cycle was a doozy.

Politicians didn’t invent these tactics. We, the marketing world, have created the mechanism by which fake news articles are monetized. We continue to improve the science of what gets people to read our content, click our buttons, and play our games. We have armed the smallest of marketers (like Macedonian teenagers) with the weapons that we’ve created.

So where do we go from here? Can we stop tricking people into buying our products and get back to actual marketing? I think we can. The most disciplined, long-term-value-oriented brands will lead the way. These are the marketers that know perception management is a long game despite all of the hype and confusion that the emphasis on direct response has created. Here are the 3 strategies that I advise my clients to focus on today:


Balance long-term and short-term metrics. The siren song of lower funnel metrics is incredibly alluring. I recently had a client look at cost-per-sale metrics by channel and ask me to spend more in branded search. Put the dollars in the best performing bucket, right? No. Paying a higher tax to Google doesn’t result in more people seeking out your product. We ended up demonstrating that video (digital and TV) was the most cost effective way to scale search. Poorly understood analytics are misleading many marketers today. Only a few brands have enough scale to deploy upper funnel longitudinal measurement to balance the lower funnel metrics that are freely provided by companies that win when you over attribute these last steps your customer takes before buying. Very few (although I’ve had the privilege to work with some of them) have deep enough consumer perception metrics to use these data as dependent variables to predict effectiveness of individual advertising channels or campaigns. Fear not though, almost all marketers can structure segmented-exposure or matched-market tests to calibrate which stimulus in their mix is actually creating incremental results.


Avoid “truthiness” and focus instead on your core value proposition. Too many brands underestimate their consumer, and see how far they can push their marketing claims. If you find that your lawyers (if you bother with a compliance team at all) are editing your copy, you’re probably going too far. Verizon, a brand that could be positioning itself as the market-leading reliable choice, advertised a free premium phone last week. The fine print required that you switch from another carrier, trade in a phone that still has market value, and front the cost of the new phone ($650 cash today) in return for a bill credit over the next 24 months. This is a ridiculous definition of “free”. If there was trust, it’s gone now.


Set more stringent context standards. Kellogg’s picking a public fight with Breitbart this week demonstrates that there are brands with beliefs. The PR battle is probably good for both sides. While digitally matching advertising to page context has not been a hugely successful response-driving tool, most brands do maintain extensive domain blacklists where they will not advertise. I’d like to see “brand safe” content go further than blocking porn and illegal activity. If the biggest advertisers were to take a stand on not promoting their products on sites that give a platform to unsubstantiated facts, we would substantially weaken the business model of peddling lies. Platforms that hire real journalists or police their content would be more competitive in the auction market and would be compensated for creating reliable content. Kellogg's adding Breitbart to their domain blacklist will have almost no effect on their ability to efficiently reach their audience. Publishers bear all of the risk here, not advertisers.


Yes, a post-truth world is appealing to many marketers looking to juice today’s numbers. But the brands that focus on building trusted relationships based on a mutual exchange of value are going to be the respected brands of tomorrow, and the ones with the most loyal customers for years to come.

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