In the Social Age, Don't Advertise, Engage

Advertising is a one-way street with significant drawbacks. It may take more effort, but engagement will build a deep connection to customers.

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By David Mercer • Feb 2, 2014 Originally published Feb 2, 2014


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The advent of the internet heralded the start of sweeping changes to the way in which businesses interact with consumers.

Traditionally, brands would deliver a message to consumers in the hopes of influencing their buying decisions. But the internet has changed the playing field by putting control of what consumers see into their own hands. And what people don't want to see is advertising, spam and blatant marketing.

Consumers are finding what they want easier, and learning how to avoid what they don't want better. If your business is going to thrive, it is critical that you recognize this and adapt.

Traditional advertising is a one-way street that delivers a message to an audience. The more an organization can expose themselves to potential consumers, the more likely they will see returns. But there are significant drawbacks to this method, not least of which is that it's expensive, and people are very adept at filtering it out.

Related: The 4 Building Blocks of a Strong Digital Presence

Engagement demands that you offer something of value to potential customers upfront.

The difference can be summed up like this: Advertising is designed to benefit the advertiser. Engagement is designed to benefit the consumer.

In other words, when we talk about engagement-based marketing, we are talking about offering something that people actually want. Returns come later, and is derived from the goodwill, authority and trust generated from that engagement. So how do we shift from advertising to engagement?

With a traditional advertising or marketing campaign, it's important to do a bit of research to find out who the target audience is, good ways to reach them and what message to deliver.

That's more or less where traditional marketing moves on to implementation. But for real engagement we need to change things up a bit: Who is the target audience? What do they need? How can we provide it? How do we monetize this engagement?

The second point is really the game changer because it represents a fundamental change in our approach. An engagement-based marketing strategy must hold intrinsic value for the consumer.

When I talk about value, in terms of the internet, it could be entertainment, information, instruction, guidance, support or pretty much anything else they would expend effort to find. This means we need to find out what customers are searching for, sharing and devoting time to online. For example, a beauty products company writing tips on how to look gorgeous.

Related: All Content Isn't Created Equal: Tips For Making Yours Top-Notch

Why not set up a blog or community resource with the goal of meeting this demand instead of adding to the general clutter of ads that everyone tries to avoid anyway?

Whatever your niche, and whatever gap you identify as a way to generate engagement, there is a long road ahead.

Creating an online resource that offers significant value to consumers means that you need to become a publisher of quality content, invest in social media and grow your online community.

This is where most CEOs start looking nervous, and I'll admit that the prospect of investing resources and capital over time with no real guarantee of success is enough to frighten most companies off. But this is a good thing because it means that there aren't actually that many organizations doing a good job of this.

I should point out that many people "think" they have already tried this strategy, when, in fact, they haven't. Most businesses create spammy and self-promotional content that consumers simply aren't interested in -- and then cry foul when it doesn't work.

People aren't stupid. They can spot a plug a mile away, and this hurts your credibility.

I'm not saying that your online resource must be completely devoid of branding and marketing. On the contrary, it's important to make people understand that you are the one giving them all this value.

It's just that the content you create should be designed to meet their needs -- not yours. If you want to advertise around that content, go ahead. After all, it's the community you have created.

Over time, the trust and authority you built up, combined with the social influence, email mailing list and organic search traffic will start to generate stellar returns and suck the life out of the competition -- provided you have a good product or offering to start with.

Do you agree with my assessment of where marketing and advertising is going in order to capture market share and drive returns in the socially engaged, mobile internet? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Related: Instincts, Not Data, Will Push You Forward in 2014

David Mercer
David Mercer is a best-selling author of programming, Web and business books, which have been translated into over 13 languages worldwide.. He is a tech entrepreneur and he contributes to SME Pals, a blog dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and small business owners thrive online by turning creative business ideas into profitable startups. 

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