Everything’s All Talk, Nothing Actually Said
Do you remember when you first got an email address and every email felt like a little present? Today it’s hard to think of this ubiquitous technology as innovative and exciting, but I vividly recall the hype. You could email anyone, anywhere in the world, and they would get the message instantly! You could share your favorite band’s tour dates and debate which Beastie Boy was your favorite for days on end! We could all now save time and money by communicating more effectively and efficiently!
I’ll never forget my first time. It was 1997 and I was a journalism major at The University of Texas. Now I know I’m outing myself as old, but it was love at first send. I said to my boyfriend while working in the computer lab off Dean Keeton Street, “Can you believe I can skip the zip drive?”
I was so naive.
He answered back: “Do you know what this means? It means we’re going to have 500 more things in a day to do, than our parents ever did.”
Turns out, most everyone was so naive. As a modern-day working human, you know that the boyfriend was the superior prognosticator.
Every day I see an email thread that stretches for days when a five-minute phone call could have reached a more expedient conclusion. People are emailing, Slacking, chatting, tweeting and posting all the time and yet our ability to communicate is getting worse and worse. When I get a text from someone asking if they can set up a call I just want to scream, “Just call me. You’re already on this thing called a phone!”
It’s one thing to complain about it from the point of view of a disgruntled old-timer (though I do, and I’m not that old), but in the field of advertising, we have to directly contend with the fallout of how digital communications have rewired human interaction. I run an Austin creative marketing agency and design studio, which means we don’t have a growth strategy that doesn’t deal with having to cut through all this noise. Trust me, we keep having to push the creative envelope to make a product positioning strategy that works these days.
The upside is that all of this on-demand conveniences have created a culture of isolation. Do you remember when Lost was on the air? I think it was the last show you couldn’t watch on your own time. You had to catch the live broadcast so everyone could talk about it the next day… IN PERSON. Don’t get me started on how much less fun Seinfeld would have been to watch if I couldn’t wait to go to school to chat with my BFF about what we each thought the most clever parts were. The only collective experiences now are sports, the Oscars, and Sunday church. And those are all slowly declining in popularity.
So at the agency, our messaging gets attention because we focus on what our clients’ prospects really want. They don’t want a spec sheet. They want to be sold. The purchaser at Dell doesn’t want to hire a vendor that makes more work for her, but she will hire one that gets her a raise. We innately know how to turn a vendor into a partner-in-crime by realizing we are all born consumers. It’s what America’s about. That same purchaser is going to get a haircut at lunch, and head to Sam’s Club after work. The business buys the product, but the purchaser isn’t the business.
Even if being the owner of a digital marketing and advertising agency is my chosen profession (you don’t start a creative agency if you just want easy money), I can’t help but reflect on how we take for granted the skills a traditional education gave us. We used to go to libraries, read books by qualified academics, write papers where we had to cite sources. We don’t apply those skills outside of academics. Everyone asks me the same questions ten times though it’s in our project management system OR in 10,000 emails OR in our internal chat system. It’s easy to look stuff up now, but people don’t.
Now we read headlines and draw conclusions without even glancing at the articles. We believe people who are unqualified to give opinions. We then give our own unqualified opinions that are built on the nonsense we have absorbed. And even worse, this culture where people can hide behind anonymity and that is considered acceptable and valid. How can someone be legitimate if they’re hiding? How can you what they really want when they end up fostering hate? To me, the 2000s mark the rise of a weird culture of over-politeness in public, and a culture of hate just barely beneath the surface of a screen name. You’ll find it if you ever have to do market research that involves Reddit.
And here I am in my digital creative marketing agency trying to lay out the most optimal, effective game plan to grow a client’s company at hyperspeed. In advertising, there’s a thing called the “rule of seven” that says a customer needs to see an ad seven times before they will take an action (click on the ad, possibly buy the thing). The actual number varies from campaign to campaign, and our goal is to lower it as much as possible. But I would wager that the number goes up each year on average.
Could you tell me the last ad you saw? Or any ad you saw today? Can you recall the last text message you sent, email you read, or Facebook post you shared? Back in the day, I could tell you the last commercial I saw, liked or hated immediately. Especially if it was an infomercial hawking ‘Oriental Pearl Cream’ my friend bought and asked me if I used. Now that’s just funny. Today she’d jump off a cliff before admitting that.
Does that sound like we are communicating more effectively, or that there’s just more of it? Most of all, my job requirement––a ‘no matter what––is to hire for curiosity. Are we absorbing anything?