John Merakovsky
Apr 5, 2012

Opinion: Not waving, but drowning in marketing messages

We're hard-wired to love and respond to good stories. Yet too many lazy marketers, especially email marketers, overload consumers with quantity, not quality, according to John Merakovsky, managing director for Experian Marketing Services in Asia-Pacific.

John Merakovsky
John Merakovsky


All cultures tell stories. It’s a defining and universal aspect of humanity. Stories help us learn from the past and make sense of the world. They create social cohesion, and of course provide an escape from the perils and troubles of everyday life. Our brains have evolved to respond to the power of storytelling as an evolutionary survival strategy. The power of narrative lies in its ability to create empathy. And without empathy we have rampant individualism and at worst, evil. The shortest example of a genuine narrative I can find (apparently written by Hemingway) reads “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”. A significant human tale, in just 33 bytes.

From recent brain research, it appears that the likely source of all this empathy is the hormone oxytocin, normally produced by the pituitary gland during birth, breastfeeding and sex. Neuroscientist Paul Zak has found that test subjects' oxytocin levels increased by 47 per cent after watching a 5-minute video about a 4-year-old boy with terminal brain cancer, compared with a video about the same boy going to the zoo. The brain responds to audio, text, and video stories in the same way. MRI brain scans show the same areas of the brain light up in response to stories as they do when experiencing the same events in real life. Oxytocin-induced empathy draws us into the narrative, and it feels good because oxytocin causes the release of feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. This explains boxed-set binging (I’m sure I’m not the only person to watch an entire season of The Sopranos in one sitting).

What does any of this have to do with marketing? For me, it simply proves that mass marketing will never die as long as there's a good story to tell. Narrative has a mobilising power that works on the commonalities in people, rather than their differences. As a left-brain, analytical data-driven marketer, I'll confess I'm jealous of the creatives who can weave such powerful stories. But just as we need our left and right brains to function as human beings, a successful marketing department requires a functional balance of the emotion-generating creatives, and the number-crunching predictive analysts. What we have to avoid is drowning out the meaningful stories and the relevant offers in a bit-stream of meaningless ones and zeroes.

The biggest dilemma that consumers and marketers face is sensory and cognitive overload from too many messages. By some estimates, the average consumer in a first-world economy is exposed to as many as 5,000 commercial messages per day. And whilst the brain has an incredible capacity to filter out the relevant from the irrelevant, as do our computers, lazy marketers continue to increase the frequency and distribution of messages in an attempt to get past the filters through sheer persistence and pervasiveness. The real consumer backlash from this deluge of marketing is yet to come; mobile marketing has only just begun.

In the 2012 Digital Advertising Attitudes Report, 27 per cent of UK adults surveyed said they would stop using a product or service if they received too much advertising. Nearly two-thirds of online consumers in both the US and UK already feel that they are targeted by "excessive digital advertising and promotions". I'm sure the numbers are similar in the most developed parts of Asia.

The vast majority of messaging and advertising is simply unnecessary. Spam across all digital channels is a part of the problem. In 2004 at the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates proposed that spam would be eradicated within two years if we would just charge a fee per email through a universal micropayment system. That hasn't eventuated, and spammers continue to find ways around security systems and improved filters. But a recent initiative by the Indian government shows Gates may have been right. In November last year, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India imposed a charge of 5 paise per promotional SMS, which has resulted in an immediate and massive drop in SMS volumes. And in March, China's Ministry of Information announced a three-month initiative to track down and punish SMS spammers, including 'rewards' for consumers who provide information on spammers.  But this same approach doesn't work for email, given that any idiot with access to an SMTP server can send bulk mail for free.

Whilst they promote the virtue of relevant targetted advertising, even the legitimate, permission-based digital marketers love clients who send massive volumes of email, SMS and display ads. Why? Its called the CPM model. If you're paid on volume, it's not in your commercial interest to target with precision. Performance-based marketing clearly isn't new, but I'm surprised that it hasn't penetrated the messaging market. A brave email service provider could introduce a CPC model at a premium price without compromising either their revenue or client ROI, but at much lower send volumes. This would be a great win for consumers.

So rather than wait for the ESPs to undermine their own business model, I'm throwing out a challenge to direct marketers everywhere. Next time you're in the market for a digital messaging provider, demand a performance pricing model rather than the lowest CPM, as a condition of the contract. You're also part of the problem.


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