Go Ahead, Get At Me – Tech and the Blurred Lines Between Advertising, Marketing And Public Relations

The Blurred Lines of Public Relations, Advertising and Marketing

As far as I can tell, the major factor that helped keep communications disciplines like advertising and PR separate was the fact that one had to work through the mass media to get messages out.  On the advertising side, there was the complex process of media buying from hundreds if not thousands of media outlets.  On the PR side, there was a similarly complex process of establishing relationships with a vast array of journalists.

No longer.

The rise of digital has accelerated the pace at which communications efforts are integrating, to the point of almost being indistinguishable.  Here’s how this reality has manifested itself:

Pay Per Click

John Wanamaker famously said “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”  Now we can track a customer all the way from clicking on an ad through shopping on a website to the final purchase (and beyond, with the proper customer engagement system in place).  Nationwide advertising campaigns used to only be something the largest brands could afford.  Small businesses were relegated to the yellow pages, local weekly papers, and high school athletics programs.

As Chris Anderson wrote: “What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular [product], but only that some number of them exist, anywhere.”

Now that anyone can advertise to anyone at an affordable price simply by filling out the equivalent of an intelligent online form, it’s reducing the need for specialization and expertise.  Over the past few months alone, Facebook has made dramatic changes to its advertising platform to simplify the process to the point where even a novice can run a competent digital ad campaign (with A/B testing no less!)  Both Facebook and Google have robust educational resources (from chats to webinars to tutorials) so that anyone can learn how to advertise.

Everyone Needs Creative

Decades ago, it only made sense to pay for high-quality photography or video if you had the budget to pay to have them viewed.  This usually meant traditional advertising campaigns with big budgets.  Digital has rendered this paradigm obsolete.  Public Relations pros, used to relying on the written word and some well-placed phone calls, are now finding themselves pressed for content to fill the insatiable newsfeeds of their clients.

Better cross-train.

No matter who you are, if you work in a communications-related discipline it is now your duty to be able to produce visual content.  Photos, illustrations, infographics, videos, vines – you’ll need them all to help tell your company’s story in a fashion compatible with the media-rich, attention-poor sea we all swim in.  “Creatives” are still important – but the economics of marketing/advertising/pr today mean that they can’t be the only producers of visual media.  So voracious is the public’s appetite for new and original visuals that we need to train ourselves to see every meeting, visit, tour or walk down the hall as a time to keep our eyes open for what could turn into the next tweet or YouTube upload.

Understand IP Law

Another reason it’s important to produce your own original content is that it’s so easy to take what someone else has produced and share it as your own.  This is verboten, however, unless you do it within the carefully-prescribed parameters of the Intellectual Property (IP) law (something PR people had little occasion to worry about in the past).  You need to know what is “fair use” – and beyond that – what is fair play (even if you’re not risking a lawsuit, your actions could risk the reputation of your organization).

When you need a visual, fight the urge to type ‘images.google.com’ and bogart something from there for your next blog post.  Even if you’re web-savvy and know to click the “Search Tools” box and specify “labeled for commercial reuse with modification” under “usage rights” – you could still run afoul of copyright trolling law firms tossing out demand letters like singles at a strip club.  You don’t know that the person who uploaded that image and gave it a Creative Commons license actually owned it in the first place.  You can’t even trust the royalty-free stock image websites – colleagues of mine have been shocked to find that some of those services steal images and leave users to suffer the legal consequences when the actual owners find the unauthorized use.

Turnkey Visual Production

Even the highly-technical field of video production is changing at the hands of the blurring effects of tech.  Here there are two factors at play:

  1. The Public’s Changing Appetite: Viewers (particularly younger ones) no longer require that everything they watch be well-produced.  Tastes are changing as a result of the democractizing effects of social media.  In some cases, a piece of video that is too slickly-produced can actually have an undermining effect.  A similar phenomenon happened with the advent of digital music storage formats (particularly MP3): teens have grown to prefer the crispy, tinny quality of compressed digital music over the warm sound of analog records that are prized by audiophiles.
  2. An Explosion of Automated Tools: One no longer needs thousands of dollars of equipment and software to produce visuals worth sharing.  YouTube offers free tools to correct and enhance video (and it even automatically detects and alerts users to possible problems).  Easy-to-use apps and software will bundle images with pretty transitions and set them to music.  Google+ is earning praise for its “Auto Awesome” tool which magically improves images and even bundles them into a multimedia experience.

SEO and Two-Way Communication

PR pros aren’t the only group displaced by this shift in how we produce and consume media; on the flip side of the equation marketers and advertisers are being confronted with the need to up their game with respect to writing and relationship-building (traditionally the wheelhouse of PR).  No one will watch a gorgeous video or view an amazing graphic if they’re not properly described and tagged so they can be indexed by the massive social media machines whose algorithms determine what we see recommended in our newsfeeds.  Further, it used to be that you aired an ad and the only feedback you might get was an industry award or write-up in a media trade column – but now every company is confronted with instantaneous feedback in the form of likes and comments.  Responding to the “trampling herd” can be critical to the success of a campaign.

To some, all of this change comes as a crushing blow.  Unfortunately decades of specialized expertise and experience are being rendered irrelevant.  I sympathize with them, but in the end all of this is for the better.  Now you get to use virtually all of your ideas – the barriers to executing them are much lower.  Moreover organizations that have always had stifling budget limitations have a new universe of opportunities to connect with stakeholders (look no further than the power granted to animal rescues that have harnessed the photo-sharing abilities of Facebook to find adoptive homes for previously-unwanted pets – something they couldn’t do if they had to do ad buys in newspapers or on TV).

Onward and upward.

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