Although it can be extremely effective at driving traffic and raising awareness of one’s activity, we often scoff at advertising in Public Affairs, usually for one of more of these reasons:

  • We know our audiences so why advertise?
  • Advertising is not targeted enough
  • Advertising is too expensive and we can’t control what we spend
  • Advertising can sell detergent but our clever audiences would never fall for advertising

Each is tosh:

  • We hardly ever know everyone in our target audience anymore:  as the scope of Public Affairs becomes increasingly broad, so does the set of people we need to reach and convince.
  • As uncomfortable as it may make some people, advertising can be very targeted. In particular, online advertising, which allows one to target via variables such as where people live or what sector they work in, as long as they themselves have provided the information (e.g. Facebook or LinkedIn ads) or what they look up online (e.g. Google AdWords).
  • No, it’s not necessarily expensive. Many people’s advertising paradigm is TV, which obviously is very expensive. But delivering a thousand clicks to a website via a social network can be dirt cheap. And you need only pay per click and can cap spending.
  • “Our clever audiences never fall for advertising.” Again, this is the TV paradigm. In online advertising, as well as much offline advertising, you’re not trying to drip-feed your brand to unknowing consumers who will soon worship it: you’re only trying to drive someone somewhere else, where yes, perhaps you may try to convince them of something or other.
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Volumes could be written about this, but at its basest, the argument is this. In pre-digital, the only way to reach considerable numbers of people direct was via advertising. Positioning and branding were heavily reliant on advertising; if you wanted to showcase the real you, be fun, be smart, use visuals etc. you would advertise. Now, in the digital age, you can reach your target direct; you can do all of the above without buying media space. What’s more, you can do so while engaging: hearing what people have to say and building relationships with people who matter. Is advertising obsolete? Of course not, but it’s not all-dominant and can’t stand alone anymore: it needs to be intertwined with relationship building. And that’s where traditional advertisers are struggling in the digital age (and incidentally, where smart PR companies are thriving.) Their age-old love it and leave it approach to campaigns hasn’t yet developed into one in which advertising and PR/stakeholder relations are integrated. That needs to happen if they’re to ensure long-term survival.

scribeIn Ogilvy on Advertising, which I’ve just finished reading and which I refer to in my last post (it clearly left its mark,) David Ogilvy, who began his career in the advertising business as a copywriter, describes what makes good copy.

Amongst other things, he states that long copy works far better than short copy in print i.e. it sells better; and goes on to show some campaigns which look like double-page newspaper articles which sold products exceptionally well, sometimes for decades. And he’s not just saying it: he’s got the figures to prove it. His explanation? That people like to be  informed; that they don’t appreciate over-stylised advertising but instead want honest and cerebral material that might help them make up their minds.

Compare that to the present day and it’s safe to say that long copy is not king anymore, largely due to how most people consume media. They don’t read their one favourite paper and magazine, but instead skim dozens of sources across all sorts of media. No doubt people are exposed to far more content than ever before, but at the same time, the level of detail most acquire has been dramatically reduced.

What might this thirst for quick and snappy copy (and other types of content, like video) mean in the wider scheme of things? No doubt I think it’s representative of a dramatic fall in the level of depth which most people expect from the communication material they absorb; and I don’t think it’s especially healthy. On some of the issues I work on, I represent sectors or organisations that sell useful and safe products and services and have the experts to prove it. However, they’re losing the battle for the hearts (not minds) of the general public and in turn getting nailed by legislators because a smart NGO campaign based on soundbites has done the rounds. This soundbite then gets picked up by readers who take a sensationalist headline at face value but aren’t going to read the whole article let alone wonder what the other side has to say.

So what now? An exciting time for Brussels-based communicators: the challenge is not simply to create sound content based on fact or to create big splash campaigns, but to skillfully combine the two.

p.s. I’m not a super-libertarian NGO-bashing demagogue. Quite the contrary in fact. I just don’t believe in dishonest communication which preys on people’s unwillingness to investigate issues in depth, whichever side it emanates from.

I’ve just finished reading Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy’s definitive guide to advertising. One of the campaigns he describes which most struck me was one on teenage alcohol consumption executed by Ogilvy’s Oslo office in the 1970s which was seen by up to 75% of Norwegian adults and caused such a furore that it led to a sharp dip in teenage drinking.

Could a really well executed campaign in 2009 be as successful – and in particular, actually shift public opinion on an issue – given today’s media dispersion and the ease with which we can avoid marketing? Yes, and it’s been done time and again. Example? Look up some of the UK Department of Transport’s ads over the last ten years – they’ve had a significant impact on people’s awareness of the dangers of drink driving and the like. Media campaigns can still be seen by enough people plus the nature of media these days means that a story can go on for much longer – if it gets picked up – because it gets milked dry in scores of media outlets more so than would have been the case a few years ago. If the message really resonates, causing a shift in public opinion is still a real possibility.

Next question: could an eCampaign alone shift public awareness and perhaps opinion to this extent? Possible, but it’s difficult. Although the nature of community and connectivity means that people who buy into a campaign can share it with the people they know and a campaign might go super viral (although most of the viral success stories seem to be about juggling hamsters and the like) I still think a substantive campaign needs an offline element to really succeed. Why? Largely because the web is search driven: people find what they enter into Google, so unless they’re looking for your campaign on saving pandas, they’ll not find it. Yes, they’ll read your email about the pandas, but they won’t usually act on it or remember because they’re busy searching for what really tickles their fancy.

Why bother eCampaigning then? Because it does work but is more likely to really raise awareness or shift opinion if integrated with offline channels. As a communicator, plan media work and events and back it up with a sound online campaign presence. If you’re really good, your eCampaign gets picked up by bloggers and eventually regular media. Then when the aforementioned friend picks up the email about the panda he doesn’t hit the delete button but instead thinks: “ah, this is the really interesting panda campaign I read about in news source X. I can actually do something about it? I think I just might.”