If your sales team approached customers the way we communicators talk at our stakeholders, your company would go out of business.

The differences are shocking, and for years they’ve been evident in the different ways each department is treated:

  • Sales departments are all but untouchable by others in the organization because what they do is too sensitive and vital to a company’s survival. Nobody can tell a sales person how to sell (other than other salespeople). The company exists to give them what they require, if not simply tolerate them.
  • Marketing and communications departments are everyone’s business because everyone else knows what’s best for them; in fact, everyone is an expert, so they feel empowered to question and otherwise manage what marketers and communicators do, and tolerate their protestations otherwise.

I say we communicators are mostly responsible for this condition and, instead of bemoaning the fact that we’re “not at the table” or getting replaced by automation, we could face up to the three problems inherent in the very premise of what we do (and how we see ourselves):

Messaging

I hate the word messaging because it’s almost as generic as content only it comes with an implicit assumption of meaning or relevance. It has neither.

Messaging is usually nonsense because it arises from the mistaken assumption that our job is to tell people what they should know.

Sure, research identifies interests and triggers for categories of “buyers” of information, but those are treated as mere tactical considerations. Messaging is somehow strategic because it comes from inside, from the beautiful conceptions of brands that exist nowhere in the world other than on slick PowerPoint presentations from branding consultants.

Haven’t you ever wondered how so many companies can lead on things like sustainability or fighting climate change and yet the world is still burning to a crisp? What about all the promises of better living with technology that seems oddly detached from solving the problems that we truly face? Did anybody ask to live in a “smart city” or volunteer to give up their job to a robot?

Every company is changing the world for the better yet nothing seems to be getting better.

How many times have you looked at (or been responsible for producing) a list of corporate or brand messages and said to yourself “nobody has asked for this, and nobody will believe it?”

People are crying out the world over for simple, honest, and credible communications from us, and we give them messaging. The good news is that we’re not solely responsible for it since everyone else in the organization is telling us what to do.

But that’s the bad news, too.

Motivators

Our goal is to occupy our target audiences’ time, usually by throwing stuff at them (see messaging above).

It’s kind of hilarious, if you think about it. An entire canon has emerged that dictates we spend time and money utilizing a long list of communications channels, broken down into categories of paid, earned, shared, and owned media. We’re told, and tell our compatriots, that we must fill them with stuff and, since most of them apart from the most discerning earned outlets are willing to propagate whatever garbage we throw out (see messaging above), we can then point to the barrage and claim victory.

We’re constantly looking to push stuff at our customers to motivate them to…wait for it…endure it. We make it funny, or brief, or attach a stock photo of some ersatz scene because experts tell us people like images. We reformat it for various technology platforms, so we can push stuff on peoples’ smartphones as easily as we once did on their TVs.

And we repeat all the tactical advice research gives us about topics and keywords, attaching them to our messaging (see…well, you get the drift) because our strategy is motivated by channel abuse, not content care.

Imagine if sales people were dumb enough to approach their customers this way. I’ve known sales people who made a big noise about how many meetings they held in any given month. If closed deals didn’t soon follow, they were out of a job.

Imagine if we were daring enough to say nothing when we had nothing to say.

Metrics

We watch made-up measures of acknowledgment and feeling while sales looks at, well, sales. And then we wonder why our budgets get cut before theirs.

The list of invented metrics for communications is too long to repeat here, so I’ll highlight one I particularly hate: Share of voice. I’m not sure there’s any one definition of what it means but I think it’s a measure of how broadly and often company messages appear in all of those media channels I mentioned earlier.

More is better, of course, and repeats of those messaging messages are worth bonus points.

It’s glorious nonsense, considering there’s no direct or reliable causal relationship between mentions in the aggregate, in that brand names mentioned more often don’t necessarily sell more or more profitably, and repeats of those marketing messages don’t make them more credible or useful.

Imagine if your conversational strategy with someone who didn’t understand you was to raise your voice and repeat what you were saying more often.

It’s worse when you consider the fundamentals of branding on which our marketing and communications are based.

What’s a brand? Good question. No two people, not even in the branding world, agree. What is or isn’t branding? Again, who knows? It’s either certain stuff or everything, depending on who you ask and what services they’re hoping to sell.

At risk of misapplying a Churchill quote, “Marketing/communications is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

We measure our successes at realizing that fantasy with marvelous charts and graphs, even computer dashboards that tee them up in real time (because real time fantasies are better than fantasies postponed).

And then we tell one another how to do it more often. I caught an article this morning arguing that marketing and communications need to up their budgets during downturns.

I get the doubling down response, but anybody who saw the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid knows how the movie ends.

Monday

We could start changing the deal next week, and the pandemic provides the perfect prompt since things are and will change whether or not we’re authors of it.

I’d risk borrowing ideas from sales, starting with how sales folks message — they generally discover what customers really need instead of lecturing them — followed by coming up with motivators other than consumption for the stuff we produce and then measuring results other than that consumption.

Less sharing and more selling, and then standing up for what we’re doing with real world backup.

Just imagine a day when your organization has as much faith in (or fear of) marketing and communications as it does for sales. Here’s a simple measure that’ll reveal how you’re doing on that front: How many non-sales executives presume to review what sales people say to current or prospective customers, or how they they say it?

Yeah, zilch.

The closer we get to that number, the more proof it’ll be that you’re doing things that actually matter.

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