Tighter marketing budgets bring opportunity, risks

While ad spending forecasts for 2013 have many in the communications industry wringing their hands, tighter budgets aren't necessarily bad for all of us.

The term “new normal” took on heightened significance for the communications industry this month when WPP, Publicis, and Interpublic revised down their projections for 2013 global ad spending growth. Citing corporate uncertainty around the “fiscal cliff” and ongoing troubles in Europe, the big ad firms all agree that we're headed for another lean, mean year.

While the forecast has many in the communications industry wringing their hands, tighter budgets aren't necessarily bad for all of us. In fact, for those of us on the PR side of the house, they could be a blessing. In a continuation of the trend that has been unfolding gradually over the past four years, ad dollars are being diverted to more grassroots communications campaigns where messaging can be targeted to discreet audiences.

Consider the case of Deloitte, which won this year's PRWeek Healthcare Campaign of the Year award for its reform-themed thought leadership campaign. By leveraging an asset that Deloitte already had in spades – smart industry consultants – and re-deploying those assets across all platforms using timely whitepapers, a well-designed web portal, and social media, the communications team was able to break through to own mindshare in a crowded space.

Likewise, our client, Tradeweb Markets, was able to assert itself as a leading voice of electronic trading by digging deep into its own data to build a communications campaign that showcases by-the-numbers trends in volatile fixed-income markets. By positioning themselves as a helpful ally to the media and across the marketplace, using a combination of traditional communications, timely data, and web-based resources, the company was able to exponentially increase its visibility to the tune of more than 12,000 mentions in the media year-to-date in 2012.

These two examples stand among many who clearly get it when it comes to smart, content-based communications that are more focused and effective than the big-budget campaigns of yore.

Though the campaign elements vary wildly from one company to the next, the common bond is that they follow the first rule of great communications: they give more than they take. Their message is simple: “We know your world; we are a resource; we are here for you.” And the payoff comes in the form of immense brand loyalty, increased visibility, and the perception that your brand owns its space – without ever having to say it. This is when smart, content-focused communications is done well.

Unfortunately, this same ethos of doing more with less by generating a steady flow of brand-related content has also created some spectacularly bad strategies.

There is a very fine line between an endearing thought leadership campaign and an exercise in shameless corporate shilling. The key for communications pros to avoid becoming a victim of the latter is to spot these warning signs before they plunge headlong into a project that does little more than glamorize a library of press releases. These are some of the most glaring examples:

  • Advertorial creep' - The custom publications produced by luxury automakers are a good example of “advertorial creep,” which occurs when a seemingly slick, elegantly produced piece of corporate content just can't resist selling. It's subtle, but instead of letting the cars do the talking, the marketers insert hyperbolic statements into every sentence, ultimately leaving you feeling like you're being sold on leather seats that “make you rethink even your highest expectations.”
  • All tell, no show – Hemingway didn't tell you Jake Barnes was psychologically damaged by the Great War; he showed you through a beautifully choreographed series of facts about his life. The same laws of good storytelling exist for content-based communications campaigns. Carefully curated facts, not taglines or marketing messages, need to be at the center of this approach for it to work. When corporate blogs become hijacked by brochure copy and Twitter feeds spout nothing but press release headlines, the campaign will fail.
  • Hack data – There is a phenomenon in mathematical research called curve-fitting, whereby analysts manipulate their results with complicated formulas until the results say what they want to see. When marketers get their hands on big data, this kind of overly aggressive approach to analysis can become a risk. Warning signs of hack data include everything from surveys with a sample size of 10 to trend lines that capture strange time periods like the last 15 leap year Wednesdays. These have the potential to erode brand trust in exchange for a catchy headline.

In the end, a single, simple law governs success in corporate communications. Give your target audience something of value and they will reward you by coming back for more. The payoff can be enormous, but the risks loom just as large.

As we enter this new world order where marketers, public relations professionals, social media directors, and advertisers are all collaborating more to carve out new models of successful communications, it will be imperative that we keep a strict focus on the quality of that content. Just because the rise of social media has made it easy and inexpensive to produce and broadcast content, that does not mean the content should be cheap. Now, more than ever, those who focus on quality and adding value will put themselves further ahead of the pack.

John Roderick is president of J. Roderick Inc., a strategic communications firm in New York. Find him on Twitter at @john_roderick.

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