Selling Human: Navigating Audience Engagement in the Age of Influence

In today’s world, conversation is the expectation. You should build relationships with target tribes by seeding and sharing relevant content.

When was the last time you had – or triggered – a water cooler moment? The phrase seems to have lapsed into the annals of marketing history. They still happen, but perhaps we call them something else, like a meme, because now they happen more often in the digital space rather than the physical space. Those nuggets of pop culture gossip or fascinating facts and must buy items that were traditionally shared among a group around the office water fountain or pantry are now shared instantly across a virtual group over social media from a smartphone.

Today’s digitally powered, multi-channel, multi-screen, two-way, tap to pay communications channels certainly throw out some new rules to marketing communications. Particularly in a higher risk environment where consumer expectations, awareness and social connectivity are all greater than they were even a decade ago.

But, some constants still remain. Competitive threats and sources of reputational risk are largely unchanged. When it comes to sales, it is easier to retain a customer than find a new one. And loyal customers are the most likely to recommend a product or service to a friend.

In today’s on demand, “I want it now” e-commerce driven economy, we often talk of the customer journey in terms of moving people through the sales funnel to the transaction as quickly as possible. The reality is that success for most brands lies in the post-purchase customer journey in the loyalty loop that takes the consumer from purchase to loyalty to advocacy to recommendations and ultimately further sales.

Vanity Metrics:
So, how do we accelerate ourselves and our audiences into the loyalty loop? Any communicator or brand manager that has accumulated a lot of “likes” on their social media feed, but is still waiting for the uptick in sales is probably still asking themselves that question. So-called “vanity metrics” don’t give you much of an indication of whether your audience is connecting to your brand. Achieving that connection requires being relevant, or put more simply, selling human.

Perhaps surprisingly, even today there is a tendency in communications briefs to distill the profile of the target audience down to the lowest common denominator: most frequently age range and gender, sometimes supplemented with affluence and geographic location e.g. affluent females age 23-35 in Tier 1 cities in China. I often refer to this as Audience Targeting 1.0.

What I would call Audience Targeting 2.0 is more usually seen employed in consumer marketing. On top of the 1.0 formula it adds motivation and desire to the equation, acknowledging that people need to be in the right frame of mind to purchase or participate.

However, the 2.0 version is still inadequate. It imagines our audience member as an isolated individual as if in a vacuum. The reality is that your audience has their own audience, usually composed of likeminded individuals with a common interest. And this, much bigger audience, has in turn, its own exponentially bigger audience each sharing the same values.

Audience Targeting 3.0:
When you add social connectivity to our audience profile you have what I call Audience Targeting 3.0, which most accurately describes your audience and how they interact with society. Put in these terms, successful communications needs the insight to spark interest or attention and the creative content to stimulate sharing.

Consider the food industry. We all need to eat to live. But not all of us live to eat. Around 50% of the general population could be what is described as “food involved.” These people love food, new tastes, new ingredients. These are the people that food marketers typically target.

But there is another more powerful audience segment out there – the food eVangelists. Their passion for food transcends taste to encompass health, wellness and value. They are not activists but they are change agents driving for and seeking out better standards in the food industry. They skew female, under 35 years old and are often parents. They also post online about food four or more times per week. They represent around 37% of the total population and they are growing.

The frequency of posting of the food eVangelists and their industry knowledge makes them a more influential audience for food brands to attempt to connect with than the food involved. Their mindset and behavior also marks them out as a “tribe.”

Tribal Marketing:
The concept of tribes has been well researched in the field of social psychology since the 1970s and was applied in tribal marketing in the early 2000s. In today’s world of influencers and KOLs it could not be more relevant to communications planning.

Tribal marketing relies on social influence to tap into an individual’s consumption or behavioral decisions by relying on sharing of information among groups of likeminded people. Successful seeding requires tapping the point of shared relevance between the purpose of the brand and the purpose of the tribe.

This creates an emotional connection between the brand and the tribe, and creates a rational reason for social sharing that reinforces the tribe’s purpose and cohesion by increasing conversations, online and offline, among the tribe. In turn, this increases loyalty and advocacy for the brand and other associated benefits.

Tribal marketing is the yin to the yang of influencer marketing. Every tribe has a leader or influencer that is the embodiment of all the qualities the tribe respects. Influencer marketing takes a top down approach and uses the influencer to educate the tribe. Tribal marketing takes a bottom up approach and uses multiple points of entry to enhance knowledge and sharing among the tribe members, including through the tribe leader.

Truly Multi-channel:
Tribal marketing is truly multi-channel because it requires multiple touch points with the tribe across earned media, social media, paid amplification, influencer engagement, online to offline activations, sponsorship and even NGO activation. This is important as, unlike communications practitioners, consumer audiences are channel agnostic or platform blind. They are sourcing and sharing information from and across advertising, social media, dark social, online, print, broadcast and word-of-mouth.

The tribal approach to communications can be applied under any circumstances. For brand promotion it can be used to find and build a customer base, generate word of mouth, build loyalty and increase sales. It can also be used in reputation management to help neutralize negative sentiment, engage detractors, and re-build popular public perception.

Your tribe is out there. At the macro level they are the foodies, the fashionistas, the moms, the petrol heads, the thrill seekers or the geeks. Social listening and influencer mapping can uncover your tribes and their motivations as well as new tribes in adjacent interest groups that can steadily increase your audience reach.

In today’s world, scripted, transactional messages and statements are disregarded and mocked. Conversation is the expectation. Marketing and messaging to mindset will help you participate in these conversations in a relevant and sharable way that accelerates the path to purchase, recommendations and sales. It’s logical because it’s how you behave and interact with your peers and how you would want to engage with brands outside of your day job. It’s selling human.

This piece originally appeared as an essay in the IPRA Thought Leadership series.

Dr. Simeon Mellalieu (麥善銘), Partner, Client Development APAC, is a communications specialist with almost 20 years of experience in PR consultancy in Europe and Asia. His expertise lies in corporate positioning and reputation management, brand building, consumer marketing and engagement and issues and crisis management.
Listed in the PRWeek Global Power Book 2016 and 2017, Simeon is Honorary Secretary of PR Hong Kong and served as Chairman from 2010-2013. He also sat on the Advisory Committee for the School of Communications at Hong Kong Baptist University from 2014-2016.
His business-to-business, business-to-consumer and crisis communications experience spans industry sectors as diverse as aerospace, automotive, food and beverage, finance and investment, gaming, healthcare, payment, petrochemical, retail, travel and technology. He has consulted for such clients as Bacardi, Boeing, Disney Channel, FedEx, Ford, Levi Strauss & Co., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Malaysia Airlines, Motorola, Nissan, Philips Semiconductors, Rolls-Royce, Shell and Visa.

Simeon is a steward of client relationships across all of Ketchum’s offices in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, rallying and coordinating specialist support across the region, upholding client care, best practices, and the introduction of new services. He provides senior counsel for local, regional and global clients at the highest boardroom level.
His work has gained recognition through multiple industry awards. In 2007, he received the David Drobis Award, Ketchum’s highest accolade rewarding excellence in client service.

Simeon is also a regular speaker, panelist and chair at industry events in the Asia Pacific region covering subject matter as diverse as social/digital communications trends, data and creativity, issues and crisis management, corporate affairs and agency management. Recent appearances include PR360 Asia 2017 (panelist), the Asia Pacific Corporate Affairs Forum 2015 and 2016 (panel chair) and Crisis and Reputation Management 2016 and 2017 (conference chair).
He is also a regular judge of industry awards including Public Affairs Asia Gold Standard Awards (2011 – 2017) and PRWeek Asia (2013).
Based in Hong Kong for 15 years he started his PR career in the UK before transferring to Asia. He joined Ketchum in 2004.
Simeon is British and was educated at University College London.