Speaking for and about – what social marketers can take from cultural theory

Posted on: May 24, 2011

Stuart Hall is renowned for his research on cultural representation: a life’s work that has revealed how the presentation of race and difference in our media leads toward the ‘othering’ of different groups.

When we develop campaigns as marketers we try as far as possible to describe and know the audience(s) we wish to reach. Yet without the means to conduct an extensive ethnography, we rely on artificially constructed focus group sessions and various types of secondary research.

To make sense of the data available, it is likely that personas are developed. Profiles that are really a mash-up of generalisations and stereotypes, laced with our persistent assumptions and prejudices.

In a mass media world – this sketching of target audiences was a technique developed to ensure messages about products and services could be broadcasted to desired groups. Yet in the social media world – even with the potential to micro-target individuals – limited resources mean persona development still feels necessary.

The difference now is that after a population segment has been described to death and given an appropriately obscure label – e.g. ‘hedonists’ – those who dispute the implicit categorisations and assumptions manifest within the resultant marketing messages can speak up.

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web.

Paul Ford

This peril is connected to another in the social marketing world – the obsession with influencers. Sure – some people reach more than others. They may have built large social media followings. But high profile bloggers are not necessarily representative of everyone interested in a particular subject – in the same way that the famous green correspondent John Vidal could never have been said to be representative of all environmentalists.

Targeting bloggers for ‘outreach,’ then, can be just as problematic as yesterday’s broadcast methods, simply because ‘the blogger’ cannot truly speak for, even if they can speak at length about, people like them. A blogger may well be quite different from their readers or ‘followers.’

So when the blogger, journalist or marketer, speaks about, or for others, views become obscured in ways none of us may comprehend. Yet the resulting skewed perspective becomes suffused in the messages crafted, stories told, campaigns run and the participatory experiences set up.

This is why personas should not be conceptual communications straightjackets, and ‘influencer outreach’ should not be relied on to connect and resonate with audiences. Rather, opening channels for people to speak for themselves is the central task for social marketers, whose ultimate role is acting as human conduit between social businesses (and organisations) and active, informed prosumers.


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