The Search for Hidden Meaning

The goal of any good targeted marketing campaign is to reach the right target. Each ad has a specific message for a specific demographic or target audience.

For media buyers, the challenge is to get the ads into channels where they’re seen by the right consumers. This often looks simple on paper but can be difficult in practice. Each ad unit must correctly match with the target audience that will best respond to it. Even in a tight demographic, individuals can be very different from one another, and each ad is filled with hidden meanings and biases that can obscure the true message.

There are plenty of examples of ads being presented to totally inappropriate audiences (TiVo a couple hours of children’s programming on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network for examples of bad targeting). In most cases, ads can get close to reaching the right people, especially online. But getting close generally doesn’t count.

Each ad relays multiple messages to consumers. The core message should present consumers with information to make an informed buying decision, a call to action, or something similar. Then there are messages that result from the creative team’s perspectives, biases, assumptions, and misunderstandings.

Let me give you an example.

Several years ago, my company analyzed a small college’s just-launched Web site. As with most higher education institutes, the school wanted to increase enrollment with the improved site. Wishing to appear as a world-class college, it hired a Web development firm that specialized in creating sites for some of the largest universities in the world.

Even after the new site launch, enrollment stayed low. The college wanted to know why. We used a media analysis tool we developed that can scan digital media for subtext messages. We scanned five randomly selected pages from the site and came up with the following gems:

  • Page 1: We’re too small for you to care.”
  • Page 2: Why do you want to go to school here?”
  • Page 3: “This school is insignificant.”
  • Page 4: “We’re the best!”
  • Page 5: “We’re great!”

When we disclosed the analysis results, the client first disbelieved it, then became angry.

“That’s ridiculous! Why would we have a message that’s totally counter to our goals?” they said to us. “And why is there such inconsistency in messaging between the different pages?”

Doing some research, we discovered pages 4 and 5 in the analysis were an alumni news page and a page requesting donations to support the college. The other pages were from the “brochure” part of the site encouraging students to enroll.

Further research revealed pages 4 and 5 were designed by school personnel. The other pages had been outsourced to the design firm. Analysis of the design firm’s procedure revealed creating a site for a small school with enrollment numbers topping at 1,500 was unimportant financially to the firm, and unchallenging. During site design, those attitudes came through loud and clear. Soon after, the college hired a smaller, local company to redo the site with greatly improved results.

When we design marketing materials, our attitudes become part of those materials. If we believe in our products and services, that message comes through. If the message is “I can’t wait to get out of here” (as another analysis we did revealed), that is clear in the subtext of the marketing materials, too. The company shouldn’t be shocked when its Web designer quits a week later.

Subtext messaging may best be thought of as marketing body language. Although the words and structure used in most marketing collateral may seem neutral or non-threatening, sentence structure, page layout, colors, and even font size and shape can set a mood. The message may be counter to the collateral’s intentions. It’s like having somebody profess his love for you while gritting his teeth in anger. The words may be meaningful, but the presentation points in another direction.

The ability to measure subtext messaging is valuable in any campaign. If hidden messages are counter to campaign goals, a real problem is brewing.

Media buyers don’t generally have any say in an ad’s message, but they can at least get those ads in front of consumers who can understand and respond to them. That ability is based on recognizing the messages that have the greatest appeal for consumers, including:

  • “We can solve your problem.”
  • “We are a leader.”
  • “We’re here to help you.”
  • “You can trust us.”
  • “We trust and respect you.”
  • “We’re the good guys.”

Like many things we design, subtext messaging reflects who we are as marketers. Our values, biases, perceptions, and everything else that make up our personal realities come out in our work. If you can recognize this in your creative, you can ensure you don’t plant negative subtext messages.

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