Want Lasting Relationships with Customers? Cut the Share-Bait

Although retail brands are pioneering the use of social media, digital content and data to drive purchases, some sacrifice long-term relationships for short-term buzz.

On one extreme, retail brands fake blunders to stir up controversy and get attention. Urban Outfitters is the best known offender – the recent red-splattered Kent State University sweatshirt follows a long line of similar ‘mistakes’. Who can forget the Jewish Star t-shirt, the demeaning line of “Navajo” apparel, a Monopoly knockoff called “Ghettopoly” and the shirt with a young, AK-47 wielding Palestinian youth that read “Victimized”?

Regardless of your politics or tolerance for political incorrectness, it’s obvious that these are cheap stunts designed to generate press coverage and social buzz. Companies have the right to trade integrity for attention, but I wouldn’t recommend that strategy to anyone who wants to create loyal customers.

When your primary goal is to get attention, you’re going to disillusion people. While public, offensive stunts fall on one end of the ‘share-bait’ spectrum, the other extreme is filled with simple, innocent click-bait.

When you release blog posts, videos and content with extravagant, exaggerated headlines, you slowly destroy your credibility with consumers. In the content world, the best, greatest, funniest, most surprising, unbelievable ‘blah’ (doesn’t matter what the topic is) never lives up to its self-proclaimed hype. Marketers, however, are under such pressure to get clicks that they will borrow the lexicon of snake oil salesmen just to get ‘viral’ responses. Like tasteless stunts, click-bait requires a sacrifice in authenticity, and people register it.

My advice is stop obsessing over clicks, shares, likes, follows, re-tweets, pins and other vanity metrics. Think about it: a celebrity train wreck like Justin Bieber can rack up bigger numbers than you just for being obnoxious and attractive to teenage girls. Numbers have no regard for values but consumers do.

So, before you look at vanity metrics again, or base your social marketing strategy around them, step back and ask: what would inspire my audience and earn their respect?

The brands we love most seem to get attention for not trying to get attention. Don’t get me wrong – they market too – but they do it in a likeable way, instead of acting like narcissistic teenagers. They don’t treat humans like clicking machines.

The opposite of Urban Outfitters is Tom’s. They’ve earned recognition through their One for One program, which matches every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes for a child in need. When Tom’s launched an eyewear line 2011, they decided to restore sight to one individual for every pair of glasses purchased. They don’t need to drum up publicity artificially because their entire retail model is built on a cause that people respect and talk about.

This doesn’t mean you have to build a retail business on philanthropy to be effective. GoPro builds appreciation by letting their customers become their own marketers. Their Facebook and Instagram pages feature user-generated footage shot by people doing what they love in gorgeous places. GoPro cares about what you do with your camera and they want others to share in your experience – it’s good marketing. Tom’s and GoPro beam with authenticity.

Allow me to break down the takeaways for retail marketers:

Stop being a slave to quantitative data. There’s a sense you can’t walk into a boardroom without explosive numbers and positive trend lines. However, as a marketing leader, your job is to define (or redefine) success before you get trapped in another person’s definition. Don’t be afraid of collecting, analyzing and presenting a large mass of anecdotes. Scholars do that too. Anecdotes are usually more articulate than social metrics.

Give your audience something to care about. My hunch is that Urban Outfitters’ audience is not passionate about being offensive. However, you can’t really ask what people care about and get specific responses such as please donate one item for every item I buy, or please put my extreme sports footage on your social media pages. Trust that you and your marketing team have the capability to hatch extraordinary marketing, or you have trust someone else with that task.

Don’t just copy others. The fallacy of looking at examples is that you can scientifically replicate their success. You can’t. At best, advice and examples spark your own creative genius. You can’t do exactly what Tom’s and GoPro do. What you can do is commit to thinking on their scale. The difference between inspiring brands and those trapped in share-baiting are their expectations. Brands resort to share-bait because they don’t envision anything better. It’s like staying in a broken relationship because you can’t imagine an alternative.

In the world of retail, customers won’t stay in broken relationships. There are too many competitors who say, do and offer the right thing. You can’t win by having the prettiest social metrics. You can’t build relationships and sustain them if you only crave attention and purchases. Earn respect, and then you won’t have to worry about buzz.

Jonathan Levitt is CMO of Sonic Boom.