Marketing ventriloquism: Why you need to talk to your audience in a voice other than your own

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I recently spoke to the CMO at a large industrial printer company, and she mentioned that they’re actively trying to speak to customers with voices beyond their own. As a lifelong marketer currently leading a communications technology company, that phrase and concept really stuck with me.

So many of us in marketing and advertising specialize in talking at our prospects, customers and consumers. We have become hyper-adept at constructing and testing our messages for receptivity to make them as palatable as possible. We target our consumers with historically unimaginable precision. Now, we can put our message in front of targets’ faces the moment they express intent (search advertising), as they approach our store or a competitor’s facility (geotargeting), after they have left our website (retargeting), during the consideration phase (behavioral targeting) — the list goes on.

The inescapable part of this effort is that your consumers know it is you talking to them. And even if your copy test scores beat the benchmarks and you magically reach your target audience at just the right time without creeping them out, their natural defenses go up. Your message automatically gets passed through a mental filter, often euphemistically called the BS detector. They know that it’s you talking to them, and they know you are selling something.

To put a numerical point on it, over 50 percent of the population associates ads with fake news, according to Rakuten Marketing. And we all know how much people trust fake news. 

Another way to quantify how the BS detector works can be found in Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising study. At the time of the study, people trusted editorial content 30 to 50 percent more than they trusted search engine ads, social media ads, online video ads, mobile ads and banner ads. 

Sometimes you get lucky with word-of-mouth or a credible, well-known enthusiast with a platform (i.e., “influencer” in modern marketing parlance). But mostly, third-party influence is the domain of expertly managed corporate communications and PR. Paradoxically, spending on digital advertising has nearly doubled since the Nielsen study, according to eMarketer, while spending on PR and corporate communications would be lucky to keep pace with inflation. 

We know that earned content is more persuasive than paid media, yet we keep investing in paid media rather than earned content. How could that be?

The answer is control. With advertising, you can pretty much control who you talk to, what you say, when and where you say your piece and even the number of times you say it. CEOs, CFOs and CMOs pay for control. That is why they hire managers, directors and analysts and pay for control systems to measure performance. Without credible measurement and control systems in place, communications will continue to be undervalued and underinvested in.

This is where the art and science of talking to your audience through voices other than your own comes in. Call it “marketing ventriloquism.” I’m not talking about a corporate circus act, but rather a systematic, data-driven, controlled process through which your organization communicates with prospects in voices other than your own.

Force-feeding ads to your target audience can be demonstrably effective, especially for low-consideration purchases and for building general awareness. But for considered purchases, your prospects likely want to hear from others — not you. This is especially the case in the middle of the path to purchase, once they are aware of you and before they research the fine details of working with you or using your product, which is when your voice and expertise really matter again.

Next time you are thinking about how to allocate your marketing dollars, especially your advertising dollars, think about who your target audience really wants to hear from and how you might assist them in that regard.

This article was originally published at AdAge.

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