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Customers are human too: Advertisers need to act like humans to make connections that count

The global growth of Smartphones is 53% year on year and is far outpacing the growth in human population (1.14% annual growth UN). It would be easy to think that smartphones (and other devices like them) will define the way that humans relate to each other in the future, but devices are no substitute for human connections made on a more human scale.

The other day I saw a video that highlighted the dehumanising effect of the kind of impersonal communication made through always-connected devices. The theory is; too much reliance on a high volume of connections through Social Media will weaken the impact of all of those connections. It will actually make us less connected. Digital connections are not always true to the basic principles of human interaction, which can make them ineffective and feeble. They are not only weak connections; they are sometimes negative connections, making the recipient feel emptier than before.

Another way of understanding how technology gives us a warped view of human communication is by considering the size of people’s networks. In the UK, Facebook users have on average 130 ‘friends’, but when questioned they usually say they have between 3 and 25 ‘real’ friends.  Human beings are still only ‘truly’ connected through human interaction, happening on a much more human scale.

So technology has not improved the way that humans make connections; it has just become a facilitator for how some of those connections are made. The more persuasive communication strategies start with thinking like a human; not a device.  Communication experts should trust their instincts more and apply the same principles for communicating their brands that they naturally apply in their normal lives.

Back to basics; a useful starting point is to think about how parents communicate important new skills to their children. I’ve observed that to help my children I’ve inadvertently adopted 3 important communication principles:

1.       Context is (still) everything

Information should be given at the right time, in the right place. When I want my children to wash their hands, I need to tell them in the moment that I’d like them to do it i.e. after the flush or when coming in from outside. If, on the other hand, I remind them when they’re scooting down the garden path, no such luck. My reminder just isn’t relevant.  The advertising equivalent is to think about how at least part of the communication plan needs to anchored ‘in the moment’; this could be when the product is naturally being thought about or consumed.  IKEA did this very successfully with their ‘Happy to Bed’ campaign. They reminded people at 22.30 that going to bed right now would be very likely to help them wake up feeling refreshed in the morning. A message completely relevant, anchored in the moment.

2.       Experiences forge memories

Experiences help make the connection memorable. For my children and their hand-washing this means using a fun, colourful step to reach the sink, their own ‘special’ soap and a reward for doing the job well.  Advertisers
needs to remember; ‘experience’ encompasses both a more memorable connection and a reward to make the memory last.  Recently MINI used digital screens to send personal messages to individual MINI drivers on the road and offered personal rewards at nearby petrol stations. Even a broad scale medium can make a connection with a seemingly personal ‘experience’. The very best advertising messages can speak to millions of people at the same time but feel like they’ve been made just for one person (that’s evidence of how an audience insight leads to effective strategy, but that’s another story…).

3.       Persistence reinforces a habit

Persistence makes a connection more believable and more persuasive. In parent parlance; ‘nagging’. In the advertising world this is about making the connection frequently and consistently over time. They say that a habit takes between 3 and 8 weeks to form so at the very least a change in behaviour requires a consistent campaign of at least that long. But habits are also easy to break and Kantar have identified that half of the top 20% most frequent buyers of a brand won’t be buyers again next year. In ‘How Brands Grow’ Byron Sharp says that it’s a marketer’s job to get people to ‘remember to consider a brand’; so as I tell my children often about the hand washing rule, so should advertisers expect to need to remind their customers to keep coming back to the brand.

Of course advertisers aren’t parents and most customers aren’t children, but I believe the same three principles should be applied to the development of every Communication Strategy. A human-first approach to persuading and influencing is not only sensible, it’s entirely natural. Stop reaching devices and start connecting with people.

Scott Magee, strategy director, Vizeum UK

This article was originally published on The Drum, to download a PDF version click here.