When content and engagement aren’t enough: a case for having an idea

Nearly half of online consumers write comments to help others, not to engage with brands

This just in: 50 percent of all social media campaigns go unnoticed. They fall on deaf ears. Consumers don’t give a damn. And brands are wasting time and money. In large part because they don’t know how to listen to consumers or deliver content that matters to them.

At least that’s according to the recent TNS Digital Life 2012 Report. The study interviewed 72,000 people from 60 countries and discovered that consumers, particularly those in the US and UK, are pretty cynical. In those two countries 60 and 61 percent of consumers have no interest in engaging with brands via social media.

Are you surprised? I’m not. In fact, we probably don’t need a study from TNS to tell us this. Look how much mediocrity is out there under the guise of “brand journalism,” or “owned content.” Much of it might feel good to its creators, but it’s a yawn inducer for customers and prospects. The fact that anyone with a laptop and Internet access can be a content creator simply means we have “mountains of digital waste” cluttering a landscape populated by friendless Facebook accounts and blogs no one reads.

While some marketers are getting it right, most appear to be missing an opportunity.  Consider that almost half of all consumers willingly comment about brands on review sites – not to complain or praise mind you, but to share experiences and help others. So they’re using social media to engage. And they’re talking about brands. They just don’t want to have those conversations with the brand itself.

Ironically, when it comes to making purchase decisions, consumers rely as much or more on a brand’s content than they do on peer recommendations. They just want it on their terms and in a relevant context.

Let’s recap. Consumers want brand information and use it to make decisions. They willingly take the time to engage online, albeit for the benefit of each other. And too many brands, at least according to this study, can’t find a way to engage.

Why? TNS suggests inefficient targeting.

My conclusion would be a lack of creativity — a shortage of truly interesting, entertaining and useful ideas. Daily posts on Facebook – polls, questions, promotional offers (though the latter tends to work) – might cut it with a select group of  already engaged fans. But will they hold their attention long term? Or delight them on a regular basis. Or succeed in attracting new customers?

I’m a huge fan of earned attention. And owning content. And being in the publishing business. But the one downside of everyone and anyone — and that includes brands and companies — being a content creator is that just like cable television, the good stuff becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of all that’s out there.

We’ve all seen, and hopefully created, stuff that’s good. It might be an event that lasts a day. Or extends for a month. It could be a price promotion.  Or a new product launch.  A single app.  Or an ongoing story.  Even a Facebook page. When social content is great, when there’s actually an idea to capture our imaginations, when there’s an execution to delight us, we want to engage.

Social media may have changed everything. But not the need for new, interesting, useful, relevant, and well-designed ideas. Let’s make more of those.


Edward, I agree that creativity is part of the problem, moreso thanks to your words. Do you agree that design is an equally important, lacking part of the problem for most marketers who have trouble "engaging?" And perhaps we can also agree that "engaging" has been defined by most as "occupying time." It is defined in a way that does not include a meaningful outcome by design. It is not designed to move customers toward a purchase. At best the expected outcome is momentary attention-- which fits the "reach and frequency" model of advertising yet is not nearly as powerful as the design-intensive, interactive realm of direct response. Attention is fleeting.

Hence, being a creator of unique content isn't enough. The content needs to serve a distinct purpose (as I said earlier-- beyond entertaining; solving problems) and be part of a designed interaction... series of behaviors that move customers forward in a way that helps them answer the smaller questions that "plug into" their ultimate purchase decision.

Thanks for considering my idea :)


So glad to see this post, and I think you've hit the nail on the head.

I think more often than not when marketers use the word "content" it is self-delusional shorthand for "stuff that we'll put on a site to help us sell our products or services." That way you get to peddle incredibly self-serving push marketing content (something that once upon a time would have been labeled "advertising" or "promotion") under the seemingly more respectable label "content."

But, as you so rightly and concisely point out, "content" that isn't predicated on a good idea is just schlock, the online equivalent of the quickly-forgotten network TV comedy that was yanked after three episodes because it was designed to garner market share for a particular demographic, rather than be something that was actually worth watching its own right.

Events. Price promotions. Product launches. Ongoing stories. Facebook pages. Your list is a list of actual concepts and artifacts, and I wish marketers would start thinking and speaking in those terms, rather than throwing everything that might appear in a digital landscape as "content." Both marketers and the audience they are marketing to would benefit.


Ineffecient targeting?! Not surprising in a world that invests as if social media is a better way to advertise (versus create tangible demand).

I spent a year interviewing big brands and small businesses as part of my new book. And what I learned is that ideas are nice but they're not what's moving the needle when it comes to demand creation and earning sales transactions. What is? Relevancy... but even more so solving customers problems.

In essence, the idea (if you will) of helping a customer gain clarity on his/her smaller yet related problems helps move them toward purchase. This is where the action seems to be, Edward. Brands and small businesses that use social media to identify customers' problems and then address them (use them to nurture purpose-driven relationships) are selling with social media.


Totally agree. There's definitely a difference between conversing with your community, and developing a creative platform for engaging with them. (i.e. Pepsi had a successful social media presence prior to the Refresh Project, but that idea elevated them to a new level.)


I agree with you... Social Media may alter everything but the of the consumers for an relevant and interesting ideas will always be there. Branding is needed by the consumers for them to make a choice. Thank you for sharing this very useful post.

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Like this a lot, Edward. The world of online advertising thought targeting was THE big upside of a mass online audience, so TNS' claim stretches credulity somewhat. If brands haven't been getting better at targeting then what HAVE they been using the internet for?

I agree with you entirely on ideas being the way to become more visible and relevant. People can see (or sometimes hear) ads, but ideas are something they can feel, belong to, like, participate in, follow, laugh at, maybe even believe in.

Doesn't matter what the channel being used, brands have always needed ideas. But the explosion of choice for consumers means far greater expectations - of service levels, of value, of humour, of salience - that brands need to meet.

When all this good and not-so-good stuff is flying at people, recommendation becomes the new currency.

And no-one ever recommended a brand for the quality or efficiency of their targeting.