Big Circle Thinking the Power of ‘Adjacency’
In 2017, The New York Times reported that 11% of global internet users employed ad-blocking software – a startling 30% increase from the previous year. Unsolicited content has become the ‘new noise’; dumb ‘algorithm-only’ ‘Push’ content has been exposed. Brands must now figure out how to advertise to consumers who simply don’t want to see hard-sell ads anymore.
• 25% of UK millennials are ‘actively ignoring’ brands on social media; with 34% saying they feel “constantly followed” by online advertising
• In April ‘17, the US Bank, JP Morgan slashed the number of websites it uses for display advertising from 400,000 back to just 5,000, without seeing “ . . . any deterioration in our performance metrics . . ” according to their CMO, Kristin Lemkau.
‘Filter bubbles’ result from personalized searches when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user based on history/location etc. They are traditionally associated with paid content, but the principle is equally applicable to earned media. People ‘pre-select’ content they believe will interest them. No one ‘grazes’ media any more. Cracking the filter bubble is the number one challenge facing brands online.
In the 1990s, when I started my career, I estimate that over 90% of media the coverage was generated by vendor-initiated announcements – by, about, for and from the latter. The advent of disintermediation and device ownership has transformed that proportion; by 2020 over 90% of coverage, discussion and conversation will be published and propagated by, from, for, and about individual consumers. Today, the time, complexity and expense required to reach a million people is negligible; the physical, regulatory and logistical barriers have been completely removed. Publishing houses have lost their monopoly; provided your following is sufficiently large, a single tweet can circulate (and change) the World. This shift has profound implications for any organization looking to understand and influence opinion.
The universal currency of influence is no longer ‘media reach’ or ‘spend’ . . it’s relevance. Relevance is the critical element that makes brands a part of people’s everyday lives, whether in a professional or a consumer context. In reality, most consumers don’t talk about environmental light fittings, factor 3 levels of encryption, back office compliance systems, SIM cards, car tyres, generic medicines, designer furniture . . . or whatever else your brand is selling. Listen to any conversation on public transport, over a coffee or in a bar. People talk about relationships, holidays, football, diets, who they like and work . . and who they don’t. Only brands which take the trouble to find out about what their customers actually care about, and make themselves relevant to the same, will be included in people’s conversations. And, in an age of media decline and disinter mediation, this is true for B2B as well as consumer brands.
This is the essence of ‘Pull’ communications. Instead of ‘Pushing’ content for, by and about brands, organisations are required to identify themes and issues that their stakeholders are already interested in, and associate with the same. This is the key to accessing the consumer’s so-called Filter Bubble; today, the consumer of the information is the protagonist, no longer the brand.
Other people’s discussions; the Theory of Adjacent Conversations
The above scenarios require brands to adopt a new or complementary strategy to its communications. In an age of ‘Pull’ storytelling, by identifying with their audiences, relating to them and finding commonalities, relevancies, complicity and building rapport, brands can breach consumer’s Filter Bubbles; potentially, every day.
With traditional company focused announcements, the ‘Small Circle’ represents the potential audience of those already interested in the company, product or service (see right). This group is finite and often pre-disposed towards one opinion or another; in the event that their pre-disposition is negative, any engagement by the brand represents a risk.
The ‘Big Circle’ represents everyone else’s conversation; what they care about, what they talk about in their daily lives. If brand can gain access to the same, this audience and conversation volume is potentially infinite. And the risk is negligible; we are not pushing content, selling anything, or trying to force or bribe our way into their Filter Bubble . . . A we are simply participating in their discussion.
This is the essence of the Theory of Adjacent Conversations; the priority is no longer (or not only) driving and propagating a brand message, but identifying the target audience’s current conversations – what they are talking about – and finding a way to enter the same. In today’s saturated content environment, relevance is now the most important currency to reach and engage audiences; a brand’s capacity to be a part of stakeholders’ daily conversations (or, in social media terms, their ‘timeline’), in a measured, coherent way. Such an approach will enable the brand to behave like a broadcaster; 80% of its content may be by/for/about/from its audiences, but all of it can potentially link back to the brand.
And to see evidence of the above, we need to look no further than our nearest and dearest celebrities. Yes, there really is nothing they don’t know!
Referring to an indicative study from 2017’s Twitter feeds of a celebrity pop star, a sportswoman and an actor, we can clearly see their appreciation of adjacency. In the analysis, categories 1 and 2 refer to content about the individuals themselves (their events, their music/films, merchandise etc.), while categories 3 and 4 refer to their response and opinions on external events; in short, the rest of the World. On average, our celebrities spent only 20% of their time talking about themselves, the rest about everyone and everything else.
Celebrities have understood the value of relevance; the more they associate with the world which their audience inhabits, the greater the degree to which they’ll be able to influence them. And brands which appreciate this logic will enjoy the same benefits (see below).
In the theory of adjacency, this 20% / 80% ratio turns out to be very important; brands that adhere to this proportion (20% ‘Push’ content (by/for/about themselves) and 80% ‘Pull’ connecting with the wider world are best placed to fully exploit this paradigm.
Adjacency also requires brands to acknowledge its cold, hard reality; given the variety and volume available, people only consume content (whether it be a video or a newspaper; a radio emission or a piece of theatre) for two basic reasons:
- Entertainment; to be amused, gratified and satisfied. Content could range from sport to soap opera, from documentaries to newspaper articles but the consumer’s primary motivation is amusement; to be stimulated and enjoy the experience.
- Information; whether the content be educational or practical (traffic or weather reports), the basic motivation is driven by necessity.
To the above correspond to the ‘Big Circle’ and ‘Small Circle’ audiences descried above. In addition, a new motivation has emerged – discovered and driven uniquely by social media:
- Prestige; with the advent of social media (particularly mobile) content has become a form of social prestige, and sharing the same a means to derive prestige. There is considerable research on the subject; suffice it to confirm that the act of sharing is not simply altruistic, it generates benefits (social and other) to the emitter. The combination of content which is both (perceived to be) prestigious and shareable becomes extremely compelling for the Theory of Adjacency.
The Theory of Adjacent Conversations is a recognition and response to a set of indisputable realities: media/brands are becoming disintermediated, consumers and other target groups are becoming less receptive to unsolicited content (in some cases, they are actively resisting the same). In this scenario consumers have become the true protagonists – they determine what content is received, and to what degree it is propagated.
Brands, therefore, need to pivot and start adapting to consumers’ conversations, making themselves relevant, gaining access, creating value . . . . In this scenario the brand (product, service, features etc) is not the starting point, it is only a desired destination. Starting with the audience as opposed to the brand is the most radical shift the marketing/communications profession has faced since the emergence of the Internet.
The concept of the brand as part of an adjacent conversation is, inevitably, disruptive; it will be difficult for in house practitioners to consider their brand as in some way subordinate to (even) their audience. But for the majority of the agency world – whose proposition is grounded and dependent on the brand as a starting point – this shift will be rejected as heresy. They will actively campaign against such an approach; it is – after all – contrary to their interests based exclusively on, by, for and about the brand.