“Social media engagement” is a modern marketing phrase that means both everything and nothing–brands today can’t live without it, but it can create a lot of meaningless noise (or worse: see here, here, and here).
As Pinterest’s head of agency and brand strategy, Kevin Knight is responsible for making sure that when brands get to pinning, they’re using the platform the way other users do to be helpful and creative, no more and no less.
“I think that the most creative thing any brand or advertiser can do is to move somebody to action,” says Knight, who previously worked as team lead for Facebook’s Creative Shop. “But if you create a really cool experience, and it’s incredibly complicated, nobody ends up doing it. That comes to life in all kinds of well-conceived but often poorly executed creative digital ideas, where it seems to me the ideas are subservient to the technology, rather than the technology being subservient to the ideas.”
A common example of this, says Knight, is potentially fun but labor-intensive, user-generated content. “One I see a lot is, ‘Make a video that tells us why you should get this prize, and we’ll choose a winner’,” he says. “So often it seems like the brand is bribing people to do something unnatural or exert unnatural effort. I just think that brands should be much more focused on helping people do, and much less focused on bribing activity that is subservient to brand metrics or digital metrics, like number of videos submitted. They’re distracting people from what they actually want to do.”
In other words, what people want to do isn’t extra homework for a brand, but what they always want to do–enjoy time with others, finish a creative project, find a new hobby, and so on. “For me, it’s much more interesting if you can say, ‘Hey, what does our business stand for, and what does our brand stand for, and what types of things do we want to help people do in their lives, which we’ll deliver on that promise?'” says Knight. “You think of REI, the outdoor retailer–if I go into that store, the brand promises that they’re going to help me love the outdoors, not that they’re going to help me sell a pair of shoes. If you’re Coke, what you actually want is for people to gather around with their friends and their family and have fun.”
Target, for example, has focused on helping people simply and cheaply decorate their homes, but in a way that’s more creative than just advertising a product. “My wife and I recently bought a house in Oakland, so we’re in this very lengthy process of putting our creative palette on the blank walls of the house,” says Knight. “Target has this pin where they say, take a new, fun rug and layer it on top of your existing rug to add a pop of color, sort of change things up. So that’s something we can do for very little and an entirely different feel to the room.”
Knight says the idea that simplicity spurs creativity is particularly important for companies that aren’t often thought of as creative–like banks. “I did a lot of work for financial institutions at Facebook, and I’ve done it here at Pinterest, too,” says Knight. “What’s interesting is that financial institutions tend to be behind some of the most complicated marketing, because they often struggle with, ‘How does a bank fit into your Facebook feed?’ Or, ‘How does a bank fit into your digital life?’ They’re constantly trying to come up with ideas that will break them out of the noise.”
Knight cites Bank of America as a company that stands out on Pinterest specifically by not trying to stand out from competition. Instead of trying to make a splash, the company asked themselves, “‘Well, why do people actually need a bank?'” says Knight. “They recognize that millions of people are using Pinterest to plan how they’re going to creatively express themselves through the style and decor of their home, but the problem is, a lot of those people don’t own that home yet. It’s total dream mode. In what I think is the best expression of creativity that I’ve maybe ever seen from a brand, they’re coming in and they’re saying, ‘Don’t just dream about that dream house, let’s put you on a path of saving that is going to let you buy it, so then you can start painting it and laying down rugs and choosing whether you want mid-century furniture or modern furniture.’ That’s super simple, because all they’re saying is, ‘What’s standing between you and decorating your home? You don’t own a home, so let’s help you save for one. That’s what we can do’.”
Knight’s job, he says, is to help brands act like a concierge, rather than attract the most attention. “When a brand does that, I think they achieve the highest form of creativity, which is to get people to put the phones in the pocket, and close the lids on the laptop, and to go do something that is truly creative in their own life, that happens to be facilitated by a brand.”