Socialized Media

In the mad rush to turn every digital dot in America into an advertising message, we forgot about the most important thing. The most important thing is, what’s the point?

Simon Uwins, chief marketing officer of Tesco’s Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, nails it in the current issue of The Hub: “Marketers are creating more and more different types of media,” he says. “And yet consumers are increasingly fed up with being bombarded by all these media.”


That disconnect shows up in sharp relief everywhere we go — online, offline, in-home, out-of-home, at the store. It’s been estimated that the average consumer is exposed to something like 7,000 media messages a day … but only absorbs seven. “It’s an interesting problem the industry has,” says Simon.

Yes, indeed it is. It’s almost comical sometimes, too. In New York City, for instance, where just about everybody carries a cell phone and just about nobody uses pay phones anymore, the number of phone-kiosks is on the rise. Not only that, but the City is moving kiosks from alongside buildings to curbside where they are more readily noticed.

Why? Because advertisers see phone-kiosks as a cheap, if not cheerful, medium through which to spread their messages. The City is only to happy to play along because, according to a story in The New York Times, phone-kiosks generate some $62 million a year in media revenues, of which the City enjoys almost $14 million. That’s triple the revenue the City generates from phone calls.

Maybe the City should consider converting the phone booths into latrines. Not only would they be useful, they would double the amount of media space. Plus the medium would at least match the message.

New York City’s example would be funny, except that it is emblematic of the mentality that pervades the media business. The idea that anything can be an advertising medium has always been an article of faith in the marketing business. You can’t even peel a banana or crack an egg without being advertised to anymore.

Soon, you won’t be able to enjoy some the refreshingly ad-free fun on the Internet, either. Take widgets, for example. Widgets are those little “buttons” you see all over the web that you can download and embed on your Facebook page. You might have a widget that keeps you posted on the weather, on sports, stocks or news headlines.


The most popular widget today can be found on, whose widget lets you create slideshows of friends, family, vacations — whatever. The question, of course, is how to monetize this, and’s founder, Max Levchin, thinks he has the answer.

As reported in Fortune, Max’s big idea is to, yes, “embed advertising” around these slideshows. He’s already signed up big brands such as Paramount Pictures, AT&T Wireless, and Discovery Channel for the right to offer users the option to “decorate their slideshows with logos, props and other branded elements. A fan of Discovery’s new survival show, for example, could add a sword with the show’s logo to his photos.”

Will anyone actually do that? Max thinks they will: “There are definitely brands that have proven to be extremely successful at connecting with their users,” he says. He hopes that is a killer app “for the $20 billion online-advertising industry,` “which doesn’t work very well” because, you know, most people have “banner blindness” (that is, we’ve trained ourselves to ignore ads on the Web).

Max co-founded PayPal, so maybe he’s onto something. But all he’s really doing is applying old thinking to a new medium. The Internet has so much more potential than that, if only we free ourselves from the idea that it is just another medium for messages, like television, radio and print.

That message came through loud and clear in a recent survey of 500 marketers conducted by about the potential of online social networks as a marketing medium. A solid majority termed that potential as either big (39%) or huge (18.4%). However, several respondents also warned against too much intrusion by marketers, especially with advertising and other traditional marketing techniques.

As one respondent put it: “If you sell (unless you are a very cool web app), you lose. Don’t sell. As a marketer: network. Help people. Advise. Create value and add to the conversation.”


Nobody has really figured out how to do that yet. But it’s worth considering the possibility that smart marketers won’t even attempt to be part of the conversation, much less interrupt it. It could be that the real marketing potential of online social networks is listening, not talking.

The point is, if we’re not helping people live better lives, we are not helping ourselves. If all we are doing is interrupting people who don’t have time for interruptions, we can’t expect their attention. If all we are doing is annoying people who have zero tolerance for annoyance, we can’t earn their trust.

If all we are doing is pelting people with endlessly irrelevant messages, we can’t claim their loyalty. And if we can’t claim their loyalty, we don’t have a prayer of a positive return-on-investment.

We can run whatever media-mix model we like, but all we’re likely to achieve is a marginal improvement on what is otherwise an unmistakable downward spiral of failure.

We can hope that Tesco will set a fine example when it starts opening its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores later this year. Based on what Simon Uwins says, we can expect a brand experience that is free of irrelevant ad messages and chock full of satisfied needs.

If Tesco actually walks that talk, it will roll over Wal-Mart, Whole Foods — maybe even Trader Joe’s — in record time. It will do so by doing what good marketers have always done — listening more than talking, and delivering more than advertising.


The medium is no longer the message. It is the promise. The question is, can we keep it?