Why are we all so...stuck?

It's not our fault. It's how the entire marketing ecosystem is built.

When you think of modern marketing, what comes to mind?

If you're like most of us, you think demand gen, lead gen, funnels, drip campaigns, PPC, SEO, and Facebook/Instagram ads.

We also conjure up words like "battle for attention," acquisition, traffic, engagement, users, and conversions.

And if this is the case – if this mostly sums up our view of marketing – we are missing the bigger picture. We are stuck in a tiny sliver of our vastly larger potential as tastemakers and change-makers.

But it's not just our potential that we're squandering. Making our living in this sliver turns us and our brands into commodities. And like any commodity, we know we've achieved this status because the market treats our work as equivalent – or nearly so – to others with no regard to who produced it.

And is that our aspiration? To be a commodity? Do we wake up everyday thinking "I sure want my brand to blend in with all of the others today!"? Of course not.

So why do we keep doing the things that keep us on the commodity treadmill? Why do we keep churning out commodity work when what we really want is for our brands to matter? To connect deeply. To start a movement. To leave a legacy.

Because, my friends, we are stuck in The Sliver. And until now, we didn't even realize it existed.

Defining The Sliver

As marketers and business leaders, we have become so far removed from how people actually like to consume media that we no longer understand how to create things for them.

Just think about the breadth of content we happily consume in a typical day: articles, emails, TV shows, podcasts, social feeds, videos, texts with friends and family, etc. This is the type of content that keeps us plugged into culture, connected to our interests, and tapped into society around us.

Now, what percentage of all this content is actually promotional messaging from a business? What percentage is paid media?

And even more, when we do encounter these few moments, what do we do? Over 90% of us tune them out according to the data. Which makes sense – these distractions aren't what we wanted to engage with, so why should we care what these businesses and corporations have to say?

Yet for some reason, we spend 90% of our time here, building creative, plans, and campaigns that only play in this small area of a consumer's actual time.

And this small area is The Sliver within the much bigger pie that shapes our daily lives.

The Content Consumption Pie

I can hear your objection from here: "but Tom, our performance marketing machine works. We're driving conversions."

Great! You know what else works at driving conversion? Door to door canvassing. My first job out of college was as Direct Marketing Manager at a local home improvement company. I'd send people out into the streets to knock on doors and say "looks like you need a new roof/windows/siding. Want to sign up for a meeting with one of our reps?"

And guess what? I was able to buy myself a watch at the end of the summer because a fraction of these appointments the team set converted to sales.

I learned that summer that you can always find someone to sell something to as long as you knock on enough doors.

But is this how low the bar is today? Why do we think so little of our work that 1% or 2% conversion rates within an already tiny slice of the total consumption pie is worth celebrating?

Where'd The Sliver Come From Anyway?

Before we get down on ourselves, we need to realize that it's not entirely our fault we're stuck in The Sliver. We're only half the problem.

Root cause #1

The current marketing ecosystem as we know it couldn't survive without The Sliver. The creative agencies, the ad agencies, the measurement tools, the analytics companies, and the media buying machine are all built around it. They all need The Sliver to survive.

And they keep us under their spell with one powerful word: attribution.

We business folk LOVE us some data. Which is why all of the tactics in The Sliver come complete with down-to-the-decimal attribution.

  • PPC? Simple and straightforward, both in its use and also its ROI calculation.

  • SEO? Sure it's a long game, but it's safe, pretty predictable and formulaic (let's cram those keywords!)

  • Social ads? Hello RoAS.

  • Website tracking? Easy. There are conversion rates for that.

  • Emails? Open rates, CTR.

Root cause #2

We are complicit. Because we turn our brands over to the players who keep the system spinning, we – by extension – also need The Sliver to survive.

There is more or less a specific one-size fits all blueprint for launching a brand these days. I've seen enough copycat "Brand Bibles"/brand guidelines to reach this conclusion (seriously – is there a singular agency out there called "Brand in a Box" that makes these for everyone? Someone please make it make sense).

And this blueprint then grows and spreads like a disease through our well-intentioned businesses. Before we know it we're running the same cookie cutter playbook as everyone else, replete with the generic "Introducing the Future of _____" ad campaign.

Our marketing strategy not only becomes the exact same as our peers and competitors, but even the names of the plays we're running are verbatim.

Let's teleport inside the boardroom at ACME Inc. and become flies on the wall to see this play out in action:

CEO: "We need a marketing campaign. CMO, what do you have for us?"

CMO: "Well boss, we have a lot of good stuff in the queue: a lead magnet that our intern's virtual assistant can have whipped up by tomorrow, semi-readable SEO keyword-stuffed blogs, a full content calendar outlining our features and benefits, and more ads than you can shake a stick at."

CEO: "Sounds like all of this content is packed with tremendous value."

CMO: "Absolutely. We'll also launch our email drip campaign at the same time."

CEO: "Incredible. I know that I personally would want to see ACME Inc.'s products everyday in my inbox."

CMO: "Exactly. Once you go ACME you never go backme."

CEO: "Ok, but we have so many products and so much to say about them, how do we approach this?"

CMO: "That's the best part. We're going to be squeezing these unsuspecting cattle through one stage of the funnel at a time. A small percentage will tolerate all of this and convert to ACME users."

CEO: "Interesting, how many should we expect? Also, did you just say cattle?"

CMO: {nervous Mark Zuckerberg-esque giggle} "Of course not. We're still talking about human beings here. Our conversion rates will be killer. We should expect a little more than 1%."

Does this sound familiar?

What started with a quest to develop a marketing strategy turns into something that more closely resembles a military plan from the Pentagon.

Even the word "campaign" – a staple in every marketing department – originated from a Medieval European military practice. It means ‘a series of military operations’ and it arose from an army's practice of moving from a fortress or town to open country at the onset of summer.

But when did marketing lose its humanity and become so cold and militaristic?

The job of marketing used to be the work of identifying customer needs – and how best to meet them. But instead it's become a series of dehumanizing traps we set to catch as many unsuspecting people as possible.

Escaping the Sliver

"If it were easy, everyone would do it." We tell this to ourselves as ambitious business leaders and marketers everyday. But then we forget to live this out.

Because everyone is running the same strategy as us, this can only mean one thing: it's easy. That's why everyone's doing it.

But if that's the case, then why aren't we doing the hard things? Is it not the ability to do the hard things that separates the greats from the also-rans?

And this brings us to the golden opportunity that lies ahead. The opportunity to escape The Sliver. Because it is outside The Sliver where the true work begins. The work of identifying customer needs – and how best to meet them – while resonating in culture.

To get there, we should be building creative ideas that invite consumers to participate where they are already spending their time. Think: something they would organically post about to their feed, text to a friend, or read about in an article.

The journey of finding people on mutual ground through social listening and creating culturally-relevant content is not easy. We all know it's a lot tougher to measure impact across earned and social vs The Sliver. But we also know we are tough enough to try. Tough enough to drive the business while trying to give our brands a shot at connecting with culture. Because THAT is the challenge. Not in driving some incremental change in RoAS, but in reimagining paths toward finding our future community members on mutual ground.

And it's also the adventure of a lifetime that future issues of The Social PHD will traverse. Because brands that can pull it off live forever.

And who doesn't want to shoot their shot at immortality?

Somewhere far outside The Sliver,