Online Marketing: Beware the Backfire

In 1986, I was a long-haired, bearded 22-year-old with a lousy job that paid irregularly. I was also engaged and preoccupied with becoming responsible, not to mention passing muster with my soon-to-be father-in-law. That meant, among other things, securing life insurance to take care of my bride if some tragedy were to befall her prince.

It was about then that an insurance agent named David was referred to me. At 27 or 28, David was a lot older. I remember being mystified as to why he would waste his time patiently explaining to a young kid with few prospects the difference between whole life and term. I didn't know anything about the insurance business. Based on the puny premiums I'd be paying, I knew David wasn't going to retire on such clients as me.

Fast-forward 25 years. David is still my insurance agent. The insurance portfolio he helped me—and many others like me—build over the years has become somewhat sizable. Over the past two decades he and I have played basketball together, our wives have volunteered together, and our daughters attended school and took ballet classes together. David and I once found ourselves whittling away the hours sharing driving duties in a 26-foot truck filled with props for a ballet performance.

Although my relationship with David is unique, our story is not. For all human history, business has been based on relationships. Buyers and sellers have followed a similar pattern of nurturing family and community ties as they traded. Commerce has always been based on proximity and goodwill.

The Onset of Advertising

That said, the definition of proximity and the tools by which we build goodwill are continually changing. This phenomenon really began at the dawn of the industrial age, when the convergence of automation, urbanization, and transportation began to enable trade on a larger scale and over longer distances. As the parties to transactions became less familiar with (and often strangers to) one another, the creation of goodwill required an innovation in communication. That innovation was advertising.

Sellers began to reach out and touch prospective buyers, first through the printed page, then through messages on radio, TV, and in other media. The relationships buyers and sellers developed through advertising were not as deep as those that resulted from personal contact. They were more abundant, though. When things worked well, the familiarity buyers gained through advertising grew into trust and ultimately, goodwill.

Unfortunately, things didn't always work right. Snake-oil sellers (literal and figurative) used the power of media to manipulate buyers by making misleading and often fraudulent claims. The more consumers got burned, the more cynical and sophisticated they became. There has been an inherent mistrust of advertising ever since. While enlightened companies use advertising in ways that carefully and respectfully enhance the faith consumers place in them, in general the age of advertising has been marked by mistrust.

Fast forward again, to 2011. In the Internet age, social media tools have further enhanced the ability of buyers and sellers to form relationships. Proximity is global for many products and services, but building goodwill remains (perhaps more than ever) a challenge. While a variety of digital marketing tools can significantly accelerate customer-relationship development, they can also accelerate mistrust if used hastily or improperly.

The New Digital Community

Your company's Facebook page, LinkedIn (LNKD) profile, or Twitter feed belongs to a digital community every bit as real as the physical community in which you live, work, and play. The more time you invest in getting to know people, the deeper and richer—and most likely, bigger—your network will grow. Unlike the advertising you might do on TV or radio, you're not limited to purchasing only a few ads here and there; you can reach out to your audience as often as is fitting.

That said, goodwill is still the coin of the realm. In some ways social media has temporarily lowered consumers' defenses: They may not be as suspicious of your post or your tweet as they might be of your ad. You must handle this phenomenon with care. The danger in the speed at which we can communicate today is that we might hit the gas too fast, not thinking through what it is we're saying and doing. The new catchphrase in the digital marketing world is "what happens in public stays in public." Inappropriate humor, misplaced political opinions, name-calling, over-promising, critical posts (you name it) can all reverberate far wider and longer than you intend.

It has never been so easy for businesses to reach out to prospective customers. Never have there been so many tools by which we can accelerate relationship development. Embrace the new marketing vehicles aggressively and don't be afraid to go with the flow. But steer carefully. If you are perceived as being manipulative or deceptive in any way‹—not just what you say, but where, when, and how you say it—you could wipe out fast.

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