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Overcoming 'Overly Attached Marketer' Syndrome

  |  February 12, 2013   |  Comments

What impulse makes marketers think that somehow our brands can become our consumers' whole world?

If you're a regular on social news sites like Reddit or BuzzFeed, you're probably already familiar with the "Overly Attached Girlfriend" meme. For those of you who aren't, the meme usually takes the form of a picture of a wide-eyed young woman earnestly staring directly at you accompanied by creepy headlines such as "When you were at work I made a copy of your apartment key. Now I can surprise you whenever I want!" or "Hacking your phone so I can read all your texts makes me feel so much closer to you!"

Even if you've never had an actual "overly attached girlfriend" or boyfriend, we've all had experience with someone in our lives who wants our undivided attention in an unhealthy way. The person seems well meaning enough at first, but after a little while the affection turns creepy. They want you and nobody else is allowed to stand in the way of that desire. After all, you're best friends, right? And best friends do everything together!

OPG became a meme because it's easy to relate to. Unless you're an OPG or OPB, nobody wants their life dominated by someone who won't take "no" for an answer and wants to invade every last inch of personal space.

But I have to ask fellow marketers: why do we so often try to do the same thing to our customers and prospects? What impulse makes us think that somehow our brands can become their whole world?

The simple answer is, of course, because it's our job and, if we're any good at what we do, we're passionate about the brand(s) we're charged with promoting. What's all too easy to forget, however, is just because we spend all day thinking about our brand, chances are our audiences don't. We're just one element in their complex lives and probably one they don't think about too often.

While the "Overly Attached Marketer" syndrome has always been with us, social media has only made it worse. At one time we just had to imagine that our audiences were as committed to our brand(s) as we were…today they can talk back and form (cliché alert!) relationships with us! We no longer have to be satisfied with what often felt like unrequited love; now we have the tools to engage with our customers. Heck, they might even "like" us!

But as much as this kind of thinking has dominated the discourse of social media marketing, the numbers seem to indicate that our audiences don't feel the same way about us.

A recent study by PwC found that only 12 percent of respondents have ever purchased anything through a social media site and that around 70 percent report that they've never shopped through a social media site. And only 5 percent said they'd be interested in doing so during the coming year.

So why do they come? Why do they "like" or "follow" us? The survey makes it pretty clear: deals. PwC found that 49 percent of online shoppers who also self-identified as social media users found themselves visiting branded sites because of "attractive deals," "promotions," or "sales." "Interested in new product offerings" was a reason listed by only 28 percent of consumers surveyed.

But by far the most depressing statistic was that only 9 percent reported being interested in "interacting with the brand" and a mere 7 percent wanted to interact with "others that follow the brand."

Ouch. We thought they loved us!

These results aren't all that surprising. After all, anyone who's ever run a promotion in social media knows that they bring in the traffic and jack up the retweets. Give people something and they'll come running…at least until you can't give anymore.

Is bribing customers to hang out with us a "relationship?" To be fair, in some cases the answer is "yes"…just ask an Amazon Kindle owner or regular Woot buyer. But if you're a business with a limited range of products or one that can't continually "buy" new customers with incredible new deals (like many of the small businesses burned by Groupon), the "relationship" you have with your customers and prospects is likely doomed to fail. Besides, don't we have a term for people who pay for love? Hmmm…

Falling victim to the "Overly Attached Marketer" trap is easy because it's simple. It's simple to buy into the fiction that customers and prospects care about us as much as we care about us. It's also easy to oversimplify the buying decision process because not only does it tend to make better PowerPoint slides, but it also makes what we do a lot easier to handle. Awareness leads to interest, which leads to intention, which leads to action, right?

In the real world the answer to that question has probably always been "no," but before we had access to the sales and behavior metrics we have today, it might have been easier to fool ourselves that it really was that simple. But today, as we learn more about consumer behavior, as consumers have more and more media choices, and as all of us become more interconnected, the buying decision process seems to be getting a lot more complicated. The sales funnel, according to a new survey released by About.com, has become a "loop" as consumers use the information resources they have to wend their way to the checkout button. And while 79 percent report that their relationship with brands is more "personal" than ever before, 68 percent report that their buying decision process isn't as much about particular brands and products but rather about finding the right brand and/or product that's right for them at the time that they need it. This might seem to contradict what I wrote earlier in this column, but it doesn't: it doesn't mean that they want a personal relationship with your brand or product…they just feel like the decision to buy is more about their needs than it ever has been before.

If you listen closely to your customers, you'll hear something like this:

"Brands, it's not you…it's me. And I want to be free to play the field. Don't take it too personally, OK? You're a lovely brand. I'm sure you'll find someone who deserves you someday. After all, there are plenty of consumers in the sea of social media, right?"

If this is what you're hearing there are two ways you can react. You can be an Overly Attached Marketer and try to buy them back by amping up the promotions, begging them for more attention, or trying increasingly desperate gimmicks to keep them close. Or you can see reality and realize the truth: they might need you when they need you, but you're never going to become their world. And that's OK.

Overly Attached image on home page via Shutterstock.

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Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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