Virtues of a purple cow

Seth Godin, author of Tribes, gave a TED talk in 2003 on the importance of being original when trying to grab consumers’ attention. He pointed out that no one would stop to see a cow grazing alongside a highway because they’ve seen the same scene countless times. But a purple cow? You might stop and take a look.

Godin’s comments rings true nearly nine years later, although the amount of advertising and marketing consumers experience every day has no doubt increased exponentially. Doing something different — even if it’s bad — is the only way to get noticed, he says.

As fledgling PR practitioners, avoiding the obvious is hard to do. We may need a period of working within tried-and-true boundaries before we’ve earned the chops to innovate. On the other hand, we don’t have the baggage that comes with spending years entrenched in the industry’s “old” ways — old in this case meaning prior to 2004, when Facebook was born.

With new channels of communication seemingly sprouting up by the minute and the subsequent diffusion of ideas, the PR industry has been reborn. But just because you have content and the Internet doesn’t mean your message will stick in a target’s brain. Facebook and Twitter mix PR content with updates from family and friends — how does one compete with a  cousin’s new baby photos or the pithy observations of one of those social commentary-focused Facebook friends?

Compelling content is the obvious answer. Discounts, promotions, contests, giveaways and interactive games all offer more than just an announcement of a product line debut or the opening of a new store. That’s probably enough to earn a few “likes” and followers, but it isn’t a long-term strategy. In fact, any long-term strategy in social media is probably a losing one. The media landscape changes quickly, attention spans are about a nanometer long and oceans of content sweep over the heads of “connected” individuals everyday, so sticking to the same tactics long-term will fossilize your organization’s  online image.

To add to the challenge, a study published in Science reveals that using the Internet changes the way we store memories. Instead of remembering content, we remember how we found it. We recall the path to the Oracle, but not the words she speaks. Does that fact, perhaps, restore some credibility to the traditional method of securing media coverage (and a third-party endorsement), rather than inundating consumers with rapid-fire social media gimmicks?

Godin believes in the power of the passionate minority and suggests businesses target them, rather than the mass market. Could it be the case that Godin’s tactic of targeting potential tribe leaders with new, unexpected and remarkable messages is what social media ought to be about? Why does everyone seem so obsessed with massive numbers? Followers, likes and check-ins are measurable and sometimes impressive, but they don’t connote passion.

Maybe most of these “followers” simply wanted a $2 off coupon, so they clicked a button — they’re not obsessive fans, as some might like to think. Much of the content in social media appears to drive the initial act of “liking” or “following,” no doubt a valuable “in” for a continuing conversation, but is it a measurable relationship?

Jim Morris, tag-line specialist, says a brand only exists as a “bundle of impressions, associations and predispositions.” What are the most memorable uses of social media you can recall (without Googling them) that didn’t just spur you to click a button for a reward like a lab rat, but actually caused you to form a meaningful impression of a brand?

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6 Responses to Virtues of a purple cow

  1. caolson says:

    I think one of the hardest jobs for PR practitioners, whether new to the business or long-time professionals, is finding ways to stay relevant, recognizable and meaningful in an age when people are inundated with information. I think one of the best ways to get people to connect to brands (at least it works on me) is to tug at their heartstrings or to resonate with them personally in some way. For instance, some of the most memorable uses of social media that I’ve encountered and that actually cause me to form meaningful impressions are in the form of sending links and information to petitions that people can sign. For example, in the past, I have signed many petitions (usually for animal conservation) that are created to send to top political figures. In these situations, the act of signing the petition is resonating with me because it’s something I personally care about and something that I hope may have some sort of impact. I think this is the key thing PR practitioners must find when trying to develop client brands — how and why should this brand matter to others?

    • rsutherl says:

      I hear you. I think when it comes down to it, we all just want our voices to mean something. We want to be heard. We wind up loving companies who seem to listen to us. Even if our voices get lost in the crowd, it means something if our desires and points of view are recognized.

  2. rsteinga says:

    I think that the most memorable use of social media for me, comes from an organization called Paw Placement. I am not a huge social media user, but they had a campaign that for every “like” they would donate money to the foster homes in which their animals were placed. They also do a really great job of communicating with people about their successes and feel-good stories rather than doom and gloom. While I don’t think that use is particularly unique, I think they took a method that worked and executed it very well.

  3. dlkline says:

    I think this blog brings up a very good point. Maybe there should be more than one option for the “Like” button on Facbook. How about a “Like”….”Really Like” or “Gotta Have It” button. Could get a bit confusing, but it might give you a better idea of true interest or “like” for a product or person.

  4. smwillar says:

    During the first three years of college living in the residence halls, I always found the University Housing Facebook and Twitter pages to be extremely helpful. I was hesistant about adding/following them at first because I didn’t want to be inundated with useless information, but I soon grew to have a meaningful impression of the brand. I could find out what events were going on in my neighborhood, weekly specials at the MU and mandatory hall meetings. I loved that the posts were always short, to the point, and free of the gimmicks that I usually associate with following company pages. One time I remember needing to know where the bike co-op was on campus because I had a flat tire and no air pump of my own. Luckily, the University Housing Facebook page had a section on it with directions to all frequently visited places on it and the bike co-op was one of them. The best thing that a brand can do to create a meaningful impression with its consumers is to use the “when in doubt, don’t send it out” rule. If the content isn’t original and interesting to most, it will not help your image to publish it.

  5. abwolfe says:

    I would agree with this 100 percent. In today’s society, advertising really has to stand out and make people notice. A great example of this is the Old Spice ad campaign with former Arizona State University football player Isaiah Mustafa standing in a towel and speaking complete nonsense. The ads were such a hit that he ended up with his own YouTube channel and Twitter handle. It was random and ridiculous, and the public latched onto it like a hungry leech. Ads need to capture the attention and affection of their audiences in this day and age. They can’t afford to just be ordinary.

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