Marketing Through People

Engagement through most channels is shrinking, but people are consuming more content than ever before. In this article, I explain how to make sense of this and how to thrive as a company.

Marketing Through People

The most recent Q3 earnings of Tech companies herald the end of a 14-year boom. Alphabet’s profit dropped by -27%. Meta’s net income is down 52% Year over Year. Amazon lowered its Q4 outlook, leading to a -20% crash in stock price. And with its end, the nature of getting attention changes as well.

The last recession in 2008 was the birthday of social networks. In 2009, Pew Research reported, “69% of all Americans have used the internet in the past year for help in coping with the recession and understanding it”.

The current recession is a point of maturity: attention moves away from companies and toward people - as it was always intended to.

I see three trends as symptoms of that shift: influencer marketing, communities, and podcasts. All three go back to the principle that people trust people. They don't want faceless corporations selling them things. They want tastemakers and honest reviews.

Pew Research shows government trust eroding over the last decades

So, what’s the playbook for Growth in a “marketing through people” world?

To understand, we need to zoom into the evolution of communities, influencer marketing, and podcasts.

The evolution of communities

Many conversations have shifted from Twitter/Facebook/Linkedin to Slack and Discord. SEOs share observations on Slack in the Traffic Think Tank or The Blueprint community. Companies like Sistrix, Similarweb, or Nozzle have Slack channels to share information with influencers. Creators start paid Slack communities, for example, Jay Clouse’s Creator Lab.

A big driver of these trends is the crowdedness and information overload on social networks. The playbook for getting attention is figured out and has increased the signal-to-noise ratio to an unbearable level. Sometimes, noise isn’t a bad thing. Cognitively, it brings the level of comprehensible information to a manageable degree. Communities create more focus on a topic and are much easier to filter cognitively.

In 2017, I wrote about the underrated power of online communities. I saw it coming since, already back then, everything was just a rehash of a rehash, especially for marketing topics.

I blame the big social and search platforms for this trend. They failed to display relevant content to users at the right time. As much as it benefits me from a business point of view, content that’s great but not optimized for SEO still doesn’t get enough attention on Google.

Zuckerberg had a point when he said, “Most people use feeds to discover content and use messaging for deeper connections.” (Zuckerberg) in September. But the reason people connect through messaging is that the content they see in feeds isn’t relevant enough.

The evolution of Influencer Marketing

Nike and other companies used ambassadors before influencers were cool. However, never has there been such a systemic opportunity for individuals to trade attention against money. In some cases, Influencer Marketing is even more effective than ads (Marketing Brew).

In the public eye, Influencer Marketing means consumer influencers like Kim Kardashian or Adriene Mishler (Yoga with Adrienne). Jimmy Donaldson, better known as Mr. Beast, is planning to raise money at a $1.5B valuation for his empire (Axios).

But under the surface, the industry of business influencers exploded. It’s not only the big ones like Scott Galloway, Ben Thompson Tim Ferriss who make a living from content. Any writer can publish and monetize their own newsletter (due to the unbundling of writers), managers can build courses, and Linkedin influencers can make millions (see Justin Welsh). Tesla spends $0 on marketing but Elon Tweets every hour and is always in the news every day.

Even from an SEO perspective, influencers can lead to valuable backlinks or increases in brand keyword search volume.

The evolution of Podcasts

Podcasts are, in part, so successful because hearing someone’s voice is so much more personal than reading what they wrote. Even top-shelf authors like Malcolm Gladwell, who started a super successful podcast and went on to build a company out of it (Pushkin Industries).

Even A-list Hollywood actors and musicians have their own podcasts these days. A small selection: Michelle Obama, Demi Moore, Seth Rogen, Snoop Dogg, Shaq, Trevor Noah. Dax Shepard’s show Armchair Expert reportedly earned $9M in 2020 (Ew).

Hubspot built a whole podcast network of over 24 shows (so far). Amongst others, the network contains the business show My First Million, with an estimated number of at least 38,000 listeners. The playbook could be the successor of Inbound Marketing, a term the company also coined.

The 5 elements of “Marketing through People”

To capitalize on the trend toward individuals, they need to collaborate with creators or communities. Marketing through people is channel agnostic. It doesn’t matter if TikTok eats Meta’s, Youtube’s, and Alphabet’s lunch for breakfast.

Customers seek credibility and trustworthiness that doesn’t come from having pictures of people in your hero image or very friendly salespeople. It’s the result of the Halo effect from tying your brand to individuals in the space that have a voice.

#1 Companies need to sponsor or acquire podcasts, Youtube channels, newsletters, or creator accounts. When Semrush bought Backlinko, they got more than just content. They also bought brand perception and the affiliation of Backlinko with Semrush. Wealthfront, Athletic Greens, or Vuori have been advertising on Tim Ferriss’ podcast for years. All of them are household brands today.

#2 Companies need to form longterm partnerships with creators and communities through sponsorships. Like virus infections, exposure time matters for brand awareness. The longer your campaigns, the higher the audience’s perception of surround sound.

#3 Companies need to invest in brand awareness, not just direct response or performance. Brand awareness can drive one of the most powerful user acquisition channels: direct traffic. Users coming straight to you, without having to bypass an algorithm or filter, is less attributable to a specific campaign but more potent than most campaigns. Brand awareness leads to users seeking your brand out in Google’s search results, higher conversion rates, and word of mouth.

#4 Companies need to go to where the attention is: audio and video. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t create textual content, but audio and video are much more personable and has a higher chance of leaving an impression on audiences. Text, like Google Search, has become a source of evergreen topics.

#5 Companies need to become a platform for connections and conversations. If they can’t form a longterm partnership with another community or as a way to tie their audience even closer, companies need to build their own communities. Drift built Drift Insiders; Salesforce started its own streaming service Salesforce+ for members of the Trailblazer community.

Salesforce understood that it’s worthwhile to own customer relationships directly with Salesforce+. Even though Marketing through People sounds like a pure awareness play, the goal is still to attain and retain customers. The difference is that instead of pushing users to buy immediately, you build a lot of demand through credible individuals and communities. Then, when users come to you directly, you offer them a soft conversion (email sign-up or app download) where you can nurture them and convert them into customers down the line.

How to measure results of Marketing through People

One of the biggest challenges in Marketing and Growth is measuring long lead times between awareness and conversion.

As Rand Fishkin wrote, we can use direct traffic as a kitchen sink for overall “Marketing through People” efforts.

Besides that, why don’t we

  1. Ask users when they become customers how they first heard of us
  2. Create custom landing pages for different campaigns to attribute the impact (JUST LIKE WE DO WITH ADS)
  3. Measure brand traffic (and search volume for brand combination keywords) as a proxy for brand strength and awareness
  4. measure profile clicks for Zero-click content
  5. Test creator/community partnerships in specific geo-locations, for specific products, or for a limited time to measure against a control group