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The fine line between journalism and viral marketing 

What traditional media can learn from Betty White, Old Spice, and Joan of Arc

Who will lead the crusade for better advertising rates?

Who will lead the crusade for better advertising rates?

Leslie Herman

New media have brought us a new age of miracles. A complete unknown, a Susan Boyle, can sing a song on a TV talent show and awake an international heroine. Fame hasn't spread so swiftly since the early 15th century, when Joan of Arc was an anonymous peasant one day and leader of the French army approximately the next.

The Maid of Orleans had God on her side. Boyle had YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. And Boyle is but one example of the power of new media to bestow unimaginably swift renown. The recent book Media: From Chaos to Clarity, written by Judy Ungar Franks, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University, also notes the viral heights attained by the Betty White Snickers commercial and the Old Spice "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign.

Shrewd marketers don't choose among media platforms; they exploit them all, Franks tells us. Symbiosis and synergy are the watchwords. "For example," she writes, "Old Spice understood that TV/YouTube/Twitter had to go together in order for its idea to work. If you take one channel out of the mix, the whole conversation falls apart."

I am reading Franks's book because I'm trying to move past notions about media and marketing that I'm sure are naive, sentimental, and obsolete. Here is Franks's formula for fame and fortune in our time: "We need a few simple tools and one big picture," she writes. "We need a great story to tell (across multiple channels), we need an engaged consumer and we need an open media architecture that enables consumers to accelerate content across media channels and social networks."

But where does this leave the merchant without a great story—let's say the grocer who wants to tell shoppers that this weekend's loss leader is two bags of carrots for the price of one? It used to be he'd buy an ad in the Thursday paper, and if one housewife mentioned the carrots to her neighbor that was viral enough for him: he didn't need his two-for-one offer to become tomorrow's talk of two continents.

I express my doubts to Franks. Her response incorporates UPC codes, her own online grocery list, and "cutting-edge research on grocery shopping and shopper insights" conducted by Northwestern colleagues.

I rest easier.

But my skepticism isn't assuaged by Franks's recipe for concocting overnight sensations. Susan Boyle, much like Joan of Arc before her, essentially caught lightning in a bottle. Anyone who has ever posted anything online can tell you that nothing is less certain than the public's reaction to it. One essay or video clip passes into the ether unnoticed. The next goes viral, God knows why. "Frankly, we could never create brilliant ad campaigns to order," Franks allows. "The truly brilliant campaigns have always contained a spark of magic."

A Susan Boyle is a phenomenon. Can you base a business model on phenomena?

Old-school marketers must find the changing media landscape as wrenching as old-school journalists do. They must long for old-fashioned TV programs that audiences sat at home and watched as they were aired, commercials and all. They must mourn the vanishing environment of the printed page that ads and stories blissfully cohabit, each enhancing the other in the eyes of readers.

Before contacting Franks, I put this idea to a media buyer in Chicago who made me feel I was onto something. "I'm actually a big proponent of print—particularly weekly and monthly magazines," he e-mailed me. "It's an uninterrupted environment—you cannot watch TV/surf the web/text/tweet/etc and read a magazine. When someone is reading a magazine you can be relatively sure you have their undivided attention. 

"Unfortunately, I have a somewhat unforgiving opinion of newspapers. I think newspapers are very important for society, but they just don't make sense for an advertiser." They're very expensive, he said, and the ads get lost. Even worse, "the average age of a newspaper reader gets older every year, and the engagement is low. The chances of getting the right eyeballs seeing my ad in a daily newspaper are pretty low."

But the new alternatives don't excite him. The problem with digital advertising, he said in a second e-mail, is that "the average click through rate for an ad is about .02%. I think I once read that you're more likely to be struck by lightning than be a person who clicks on an ad. I think advertising is kind of in trouble. Young people watch less TV, don't listen to radio and don't read newspapers. On top of that they are annoyed with digital ads but don't want to pay subscriptions to their favorite websites. Not sure what options are left?"

I run this last comment by Franks. "I would agree and disagree," she says. Though her book barely mentions print journalism, she agrees that a niche magazine can make an excellent environment for advertising that's tailored to the niche. But it shouldn't think of itself as just a magazine; it must become as much a brand as any advertiser in it, Franks insists, a brand that exists in print and online and on mobile devices and on the social networks—a brand that the public will seek out.

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