Why ‘always on’ is such a turn off

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When you have fireworks like this who needs bonfires. Image courtesy of Fernando Castaneda.

In recent years the business of marketing has been assailed by a litany of new buzzwords and phrases that often gain extraordinary momentary popularity and spawn a slew of new job titles and agency offerings. However, increasingly this ‘new marketing’ jargon and the ideas behind it have been found wanting. Especially as we have begun to wake up from the decade long delusion that people want to be friends with our brands and businesses. Some exceptional brands enjoy some exceptional relationships with people but by and large the vast majority of the business that we do is with people that have far better things to think about than ‘engage’, ‘participate’ or join in ‘conversations’ with brands – they have actual human beings for that.

One of the more tedious mantras that has penetrated the mainstream of the marketing community is the exhausting sounding concept of ‘always on’. While it has rapidly found considerable popularity it seems little more than a crude legitimisation for brands and their agencies to pollute the real and virtual timelines of normal people with utter drivel. Let’s face it no one wants any one to be ‘always on’, we even seek some solace form our partners and children occasionally.

That is not to say that businesses shouldn’t be ‘always available’ so that when I need something from them – help in resolving an issue, a sounding board for a complaint or easy access to further products and services – I can get results quickly. But this is not really what is meant by ‘always on’ marketing. Indeed many of the practitioners of this deluge of cultural sewage are the very people that make it almost impossible to locate a customer service phone number on their website.

To be fair this all started out as a reasonable observation that constrained budgets meant brands could no longer be ‘on air’ for as long as they used to be and that they needed ways to maintain a ‘conversation’ in between advertising bursts. This is where the original fireworks and bonfires analogy came, the fireworks being ad campaigns and the bonfires being the ongoing ‘conversation’ that would ensure a brands presence in people’s lives when they are off air. Digital and social were a boon to this approach as theoretically they provided a low cost and relatively easy way for a brand to be ‘always on’, if not on the telly then in the timeline..

The problem with all of this, overlooking for the moment that normal people don’t really want brands to be in their faces constantly, is that good digital and good social is neither cheap not easy. And when it is, it is precisely the inane drivel that drives people insane, something I call it the cup cake update ‘we love lemon cupcakes, what cupcake flavour do you like?’ The real truth is that while we were promised bonfires instead of fireworks, what we got was a three bar electric fire.

And at the heart of this is that ‘always on’, like so many things in the firmament of new marketing, is based on entirely false premise. The premise being that a brand needs to be always on to achieve its commercial objectives when the truth is what a brand really needs is to be always in mind. That is what great products, great services and great advertising do brilliantly – they ensure that brands are always at the front of mind, not because of the recency of a brand experience but because of the longevity of a great brand experience.

Great ads or campaigns are like the sustain peddle on a grand piano or the feedback between amp and guitar at the end of a gig – they endure long after the original note is played. This not only maximises the effectiveness of the marketing budget but it is also far more efficient than spending inordinate amounts of money keeping the a few sad little social bonfires burning constantly.

So let’s hear no more about ‘always on’ marketing but instead devote ourselves to creating strategies, initiatives, services and powerful creative executions that ensure our brands are always in mind. To torture the metaphor a bit, the sort of fireworks that mean the opening ceremony of the London Olympics are still in all our minds a year on.

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20 Replies to “Why ‘always on’ is such a turn off”

  1. Really good piece. Always on”, in its proper place, is a supply side thought which might make sense for some brands if their information world works like that. It’s a customer service imperative for an airline, Its a shocking idea for my brand of porridge. The value of on-demand information can help shape some brand relationships when the value and utility is clear and it is part of the natural participation of brands and consumers in some service driven markets. Unfortunately “always on” gets applied writ large and stretched into the context of advertising where it gets ugly quickly. It is valuable in one context and vacuous in another. It’s a shame that after over 15 years of living with the web that the marketing industry isn’t more discriminatory with these kind of terms.

    1. Paul: “It’s a shame that after over 15 years of living with the web that the marketing industry isn’t more discriminatory with these kind of terms.”

      Too bloody true, Paul.

      Here’s why it happens…

      Ad Contrarian: “There’s no bigger sucker than a gullible marketer convinced he’s missing a trend.”

  2. Paul,

    It is quite possible, as you intimate, that even after so long living with the web and using it both personally and in some business contexts, marketing people (including those within the big online media owners and services) simply have understood nothing about digital behaviours and sensibilities.

  3. It’s true that most brands would rather chat to their cusstomers about cupcakes than give them a God damn customer service phone number. With exceptions that I can count on one hand I don’t want anything to do with brands except when I actually want to use/buy them.

  4. What you are actually saying is that not every brand should have a Facebook page. Or, not every brand produces high quality work consistently.

    Always-on is a digital strategy NOT a social strategy. Always-on is much more about budget allocation than running a Facebook page. Yet the term is (wilfully) misunderstood and the entire concept rejected. For example, there are sectors – food, travel, insurance, finance, sex, music, books – where search volumes are off the charts. Yet brands continue to market in phases, or by product vertical or tied to an NPD cycle rather than simply mopping up the queries of those actively seeking inspiration or answers. This mopping up can be supported by immediate conversion or by (buzzword!) content strategies, such as the ones pioneered by holiday brochures, fashion look-books and soap operas.

    To be fair, the digital industry hasn’t helped clarify this, because OREOS!!!! OMG IT”S CHANGED EVERYTHING!!!

    Finally, it’s only fair to point out that only a very small proportion of advertisers have ever made a decent TV ad, so to tar an entire sector/strategy based on the average level of quality of the delivered product is a bit rich. And I’m pretty sure that Wonga’s current strategy is more-or-less always on. The same could be said for most booze and finance brands. Off the top of my head.

  5. What you sound like, more than anything, is someone who thinks teenagers are still watching half hour TV shows, being absorbed by 30-second ad spots and then pestering their parents for pocket money to spend on songs selected by a few people in a smoky room and played on one of a handful of radio shows they listen to.

    Whereas in fact teenagers are watching 7-minute home-made YouTube videos, sharing links and chats with their friends using What’s App or Skype Video Messaging and streaming music from SoundCloud or – again – YouTube for free. There are hardly any ad spots. Those that are there receive derision. And all this new uninterrupted model costs is giving up their right to using online services privately. Which they think is a very good trade off.

    I’m afraid you’re have to reconfigure your entire world view of how to get brands into people’s lives. If you need to hire some good quality community managers in offices overseas so that they don’t have to be “always-on”, then let’s just call that globalisation.

    The problem with the past is just that. It’s passed.

    1. Looking at the data around the world, it appears to suggest that ‘teenagers’ are actually doing all of the above and are very good at understanding what they need from different media in their lives. The discontinuities are around expectations of access and immediacy of engagement. Marketers aren’t the best people to turn to in order to really understand behavioral change around digital as evidenced with the “Gen-Y” hysteria among other things. Not all of us fell for that of course. Sociologists around the world are finding that digital literacy among teenagers is sometimes nowhere near what is imagined, and I’m not just talking about ‘digital divides’. Many illusions persist with an industry obsessed with soundbites and headlines. For sure this changes the context around traditional thinking with communications, nobody doubts that and we’ve known it for well over a decade. The problems arise when we start to think that behavioral change is binary. The evidence shows that it is simply not the case.

      1. Teenagers aren’t the point though. I’m talking about emerging behaviour that just happens to have been adopted by most teens (i.e. is already the norm) and has been partially adopted by every age group (i.e. it is still exceptional behaviour).

        It’s easy to find evidence to confirm the view that “nothing has changed”. But something has changed (the Internet) and for every piece of evidence to suggest the past ten years of advertising planning is a good guide to the next fifty, there’s a piece that says we need to stop making the same mistakes repeatedly. The interruption model is broken, people are not as likely to passively absorb messages pushed into their line of sight and finding evidence to disprove that smacks of denial.

        1. The interruption model isn’t broken, principally because it never was a model. We in digital invented it as a straw man to throw at traditional, while we fucked about with interstitials, landing pages, pre-rolls and other ways to much more brutally interrupt people’s activity.

          While the internet is still relatively new, media consumption isn’t a zero sum game. We need to be able to understand the strengths of every medium – and their strengths in tandem – not argue about which one is better.

          And finding evidence to disprove something doesn’t smack of anything, it’s how science works.

          1. Well said, Martin.

            There’s loads of interruption online. And interruption isn’t bad.

            I’m so tired of this ‘the world has changed, throw out everything you thought you knew’ bullshit.

        2. I wouldn’t say I was claiming “nothing has changed” Peter, and I’m pretty sure I have little to deny either. On the contrary, I’m pretty intent on ensuring that the whole picture is understood where possible. When these issues are generalised as either/or, zero-sum game arguments and they have proven pretty insufficient.

  6. Really good piece. Always on”, in its proper place, is a supply side thought which might make sense for some brands if their information world works like that. It’s a customer service imperative for an airline, Its a shocking idea for my brand of porridge. The value of on-demand information can help shape some brand relationships when the value and utility is clear and it is part of the natural participation of brands and consumers in some service driven markets. Unfortunately “always on” gets applied writ large and stretched into the context of advertising where it gets ugly quickly. It is valuable in one context and vacuous in another. It’s a shame that after over 15 years of living with the web that the marketing industry isn’t more discriminatory with these kind of terms.

    1. Well said, Laboni. Come to think of it, ‘always on’ might be a good mantra for certain functions, like customer service. Even for a brand of porridge.

    2. Always on: 1. Paying attention at every moment of the day. 2. Intensely annoying to colleagues and family due to total inability to relax or generate any form of work-life balance. (see Amber as red, treat every; Constantly striving; Expectations, exceeding; Mission statement; Sun, the ____ never sets at; Passion, passionate; 24/7/365; Work-life balance)
      http://amzn.to/12FhfeC

  7. Reminds me of what Fantasy Interactive once said regarding not doing campaigns but rather focusing on websites and platforms, that they “last longer than a couple of months”. Which I guess makes no sense in the same manner as “to be in mind” vs. “to be online”.

    Was it Maya Angelou who said that “People forget what you do, what you say, but never forget the way you make them feel”?

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