5 Signs That Your Brand Is A Terrible Teacher

Back in school, we spent our days listening to teachers. Now—consciously or not—we spend our days listening to brands. Is your brand just like that boring, ineffective teacher you used to have (and couldn’t stand)? Here are 5 warning signs.

  1. Your Brand Lectures Endlessly.

When Hollywood shows a terrible teacher, they typically show him or her droning on and on while students zone out. (“Anyone? Anyone?”)  Everyone who’s made it past first grade knows first-hand that standing in front of students talking at them, day in and day out, bores them immensely.

That is what many brands do: they talk at people, with little regard for who’s interested, or why. They lecture the audience on features, benefits, or solutions.  It’s true that occasional lectures can help get the basic facts and explanations out there (case studies, concrete examples of how their product helped someone, are a better type of lecture). But like good teachers, brands need more than lectures in their toolkit. Brian Marcus, VP of Marketing at Evocalize, finds that when brands actively encourage their audience to participate and share stories, the resulting engagement levels can resemble those of the best small-group classes you took in school.

  1. Your Brand Tracks Attendance—and Little Else.

Imagine a classroom where the only thing the teacher paid attention to was attendance and participation. Did the student show up? Did he raise his hand? Great, give him an A!  While attendance is critical, and regular participation is encouraging, those are only starting points—true progress is measured in deeper ways.

Now think about what your brand tracks. Despite all the hype about Big Data, probably most of what you track is simply whether your audience showed up and participated. Did they show up at your website? Thanks to browser cookies, they’ll see your ads elsewhere for weeks to come (lucky them!) Did someone participate by Liking or Sharing your content? Your marketers are happy, but they haven’t learned much about her. So the question is: Amidst all this attendance and participation data you’re gathering, are you developing insights on your best customers? More from Brian:  “Data such as brand sentiment, brand influence, and customer interests should be overlaid on top of transactional data in order help a brand develop true insights about its beach-head customers.”

  1. Your Brand Doesn’t Answer Questions Clearly—If It Answers Them At All.

At some point during school, you asked a teacher a question and received an answer which only left you more confused. Or maybe you raised your hand with a burning question but were never called on. (So frustrating, right?)  Being able to ask questions and receive clear answers is essential to learning.

Recent corporate adoption of social tools like Twitter raised everyone’s expectations about being able to interact with brands. Many firms now employ Community Managers – but how many are trained or empowered to be effective? Stories of brands’ responsiveness to social media channels – such as United Breaks Guitars – seem to be fading into history. According to recent research by SproutSocial, 83% of important questions posed to brands by social media users go unanswered. Does your brand resemble that teacher who won’t call on students, despite their upraised hands?

  1. Your Brand Says Things Either Too Obvious or Too Confusing.

Imagine walking into 2nd grade and being told to read The Catcher In The Rye. You’d be confused, perhaps upset. Now, imagine walking into 10th grade and being assigned a book report on The Cat In The Hat. You might have some nostalgic, creative fun with that assignment the first time, but it would get old quickly. Even rookie teachers know not to give students material that’s either way too hard or way too easy.

Yet brands’ content is often pitched too high or too low, because striking a balance can be as difficult as teaching kids of multiple grade levels in the same classroom. Imagine if Ford’s Super Bowl ads for the F-150 pickup trucks said, “This can carry heavy loads.” Duh! That’s important in a pickup, but that message is Too Obvious.

Now imagine if Ford said “The F-150’s new fully boxed frame has eight crossmembers (five through-welded) and is made of up to 78 percent 70,000-psi high-strength steel, up from 23 percent in the 2014 F-150 frame.” Huh? That’s also important, but only a fraction of the audience wants that much detail. For the rest of us, that’s Too Confusing. Avoiding the Too Obvious/Too Confusing pitfalls mainly takes common sense – you don’t need Ford’s multi-billion-dollar marketing budget.

  1. Your Brand Never Asks People What They Know—Only How They Feel.

Back in school, feelings came second to knowledge and understanding. If you sat in class coughing violently, or weeping, or holding your gut and wincing, the teacher would probably ask, “How do you feel?” Perhaps your teacher wanted to hear what a book made you think or feel.

But generally in school, Subjective questions (about you, with no right or wrong answers) take a back seat to Objective questions (about the world, where answers are right or wrong, or at least some answers are better than others.) Answering Objective questions is how students learn about the world beyond themselves.

Today, in our interaction with brands, it’s the reverse—brands care chiefly about how we feel. They probably care more than we’d like. (“Please answer 15 questions about your recent experience of calling to update your mailing address.”)

Brands are using low-cost tools like SurveyMonkey and Qualtrix to pepper us with subjective questions about our feelings and perceptions. But as I pointed out in a January 2015 article in Entrepreneur, brands that aren’t quizzing their audiences on important Objective topics are missing a major opportunity to engage with and learn about them. You need to know what your audience knows, as well as how it feels.

To conclude: In 2015, Brand Reach requires Brand Teach.

(A shorter version of this article was first published on entrepreneur.com in March 2015.)

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