What’s the point of faking it?

Authenticity is what sells messages in a media-savvy world, but only if it’s the real article and avoids dulling down its subject, David Bowen says.

Marketers do fiction, corporate communications people tell the truth. Discuss. That’s what we were doing at Bowen Craggs’ annual conference last week – or at least it was one of the more controversial things we discussed. It was perhaps the most intriguing, too, because it relates directly to the point and purpose of a corporate website.

The argument – put forward by a comms professional – is this. Marketing has grown up largely around advertisements and these should almost without exception be filed under Fiction. TV commercials use actors and every artifice of drama to make a point. Even where they appear to be ‘authentic’, they rarely are – actors are much better at appearing real than real people are.

Corporate communications people, by contrast, deal with the truth. Whether dealing with journalists, officials, NGOs or whomever, they will quickly be found out if they tell lies.

This means communications people should be in charge of corporate websites because the internet has made us intolerant of phoniness. In the old days you could dress up actors in New York in ethnic clothing and convince the world that they were real customers in Samarkand. No more – the truth would be out on the networks within hours. “People,” one delegate pointed out, “now recognise fakery instantly.”

Skill set

It is an intriguing argument, and I’m sure lots of (marketing) people would argue with it. Whatever, it does raise a very important question: ‘How do we publish on the web in a way that comes across as real?’.

As I have said over and again, you need an editor. Your website is your biggest publication, so why wouldn’t you (ask the many companies that don’t)? We got beyond this at the conference with an interesting discussion about the skills the editor needs.

One view was that we need people with a TV background buzzing with ideas; getting the detail right could be done simply enough by copy editors. Another was that old-fashioned editing skills are so important that you must have those at the core. The ideal, of course, is to have people who combine both and have the nous and clout to get their own way in a sprawling organisation full of people who don’t like being told what to do.

Really real

What now? How to get your messages across without resorting to fakery?

The first step is to ban obvious fakery. Photos of employee groups that are ethnically carefully balanced grinning with their perfect teeth shout ‘fake’. So does copy that drips with bland abstraction and clichés. Most of us know that a company that tells us it puts customers first, and that its people are their greatest asset, is really telling us it forgot how to think some time ago.

Next, avoid cod authenticity. The ads that have ‘customers’ who are really actors are an example. The Your Stories feature on the Ford Social site is interesting. While it does have a few posts with raw edges, most are just too well written to be real – they feel ‘samey’ and have, I am pretty sure, been through the word processor of the same copy editor. Of course, I may be libelling Ford’s extraordinarily literate customer base, but no, it just doesn’t feel real. This it seems to me is a good example of marketing people thinking they can transfer advertising techniques to the web. It doesn’t work.

Real to reel

But do try real authenticity. Pharmaceutical companies have been getting much better at this and provide useful ideas to others. Not long ago ill people on pharma websites just didn’t look ill. Then AstraZeneca started using photos of genuine patients, and it became a trend.

Pharmas make use of video, which is good because it less easy to fake. Pfizer’s home page links to an episode of Dr Phil, a US TV show, that include a news report of a driver with dementia driving dangerously, a discussion with a woman talking about how she and her mother handle dementia, and a doctor from Pfizer providing comments. It is fairly obvious what Pfizer’s interest is but if there is fakery, I couldn’t spot it. It works.

The corporate folk who have become best at getting these stories across are not, of course, in the comms department itself but in HR. Put a camera in front of employees, get them to talk about their lives, and if it sounds a bit stilted at least you know they are not actors. Shell’s Meet Our People section is just one example of slick (but not too slick) use of employee videos.

Seriously fun

But all this authenticity is as nothing unless it also interesting, fun, engaging. Perhaps the much-abused marketing profession has come to equate real with dull. It does not need to be.

Roche was trying to find a way of getting people interested in its clinical trials. The web people persuaded the oncology business team to try a quiz. They were sceptical but agreed, and a six-question test went up on Roche’s American Society of Clinical Oncology pages; it was an approach that “really worked”.

Roche is one of the companies trying to make serious material engaging, by using whatever techniques work best. Nothing fictional about this; it just requires the application of a little imagination to hard facts.

But is it marketing or is it corporate communications? Does it matter? To repeat the point made in our last column, the sooner the border between the two blurs, the better.

First published 02 July, 2014
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