Digital Marketing In A Post-Truth World

It’s said that we’re living in a post-truth world. But what does that mean for the world of digital marketing?

During the lead up to the Brexit referendum, when Conservative MP Michael Gove uttered those now-famous words: “people in this country have had enough of experts”, it became apparent that we truly are living in a post-truth era. Donald Trump’s performance in the Presidential debates and his ultimate victory went on to reaffirm this. At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter that Hilary had fact checkers working overtime. Trump’s emotive claims and bold promises resonated in a way that Hilary’s rebuttals could not.

But what do we mean by ‘truth’?

Like the meaning of life, when you start to look at the definition or the substance behind the word ‘truth’, you’re faced with a complex picture. However, there is one thing we can all agree on – that truth is now and forever will be aligned with accuracy, be it factual or authentic. It’s the way we’re wired and expected to think.

Truth has long served as an effective barrier within societies to separate what people would perceive as right or wrong, thus effectively dividing the black and white. But with the internet this barrier has been breached. With so many subcultures and agendas at play, it’s becoming more and more difficult to be truly certain about anything. In between the black and white are varying shades of grey, and while some may see this as chaos, others may regard this as a fresher way to view the world. Whether it’s a good thing or not is up for debate, but for the purposes of this article, there isn’t the space for such wide-reaching philosophical debate.

So why is the Internet such a game changer?

To put it simply, the media has been democratised. The internet has given everyone a platform. Social media has allowed groups to form and create their own momentum. Lazy journalism has allowed fake news to bleed into mainstream news stories. Messages and versions of truth rise and fall like waves.

Never let truth get in the way of a good story

Social media, Facebook in particular, has a big role to play in this. Facebook’s algorithms are always trying to work out what you like, so they can give you more of it. Unless you go out of your way to seek out opinions you don’t agree with, you’ll rarely see them. So if you can align yourself to groups that appear to think like you, you can almost convince yourself that everyone shares the same narrative.

Debate is often framed by emotionally-based appeals, which are usually devoid of detail. No one is necessarily scrutinising policy details or so-called hard facts. Special talking points are repeated until they become assertions, and anything factual set up as counter argument is refuted or simply ignored. What we have seen in the Clinton/Trump election and the UK’s Brexit referendum is debate that relegates truth as being of secondary significance. This is not new but its impact is felt more quickly through the pace of the Internet.

People who bought this also bought…

In addition to this, humans don’t often seek out challenges to beliefs that we hold dear – instead we tend to be drawn to seeking out ideas that underpin our own life view. In fact, we are positively encouraged to do this by social media platforms and big brands. Algorithms join us up with people who think like we do. Their actions underpin our choices: ‘people who bought this also bought’ or ‘so and so follows this, you should too’.

We are sucked into a belief that what we are doing is somehow validated by others. But when it’s an algorithm, designed to boost traffic and conversions, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or an engineered result doesn’t it?

Firstly brands need to acknowledge that digital marketing has changed

They need to understand that consumers are very keen on creating connections and making conversations. Social media is a great space to do this. They love following trends and also reaching out to trusted people to ask their opinion about something they’ve Googled. The initial research might be a product of algorithm but the final decision will probably rest with humans.

I’m not sure which dress looks best the black or the blue. What do you think?

Or what’s the best compact camera to buy for under £500?

People will comment about experiences, good and bad, they will also write reviews and express love and satisfaction online. This attracts people that intrinsically agree with them and the tribe is either formed or its belief system is consolidated. Therefore marketers have to motivate the audience to become advocates of the brand and spread the message. Google’s algorithm is now looking for ‘social proof’.

If he shared it and so did hundreds of others then I will too

Social proof is also termed: informational social influence. It’s embedded in psychology. For example you go to a grand function and are not sure how to react. You look around at what others are doing and adopt similar behavioural patterns. We assume that everyone else is right or possesses more knowledge than we do and therefore we follow like sheep. We do this even more readily on social media. So you might say that social proof equates to blindly following where others lead. Once an article gets lots of social shares it garners even more traffic. There’s always the hope that traffic will affect your traffic or you are seen as espousing something that is very important.

It’s enough to be first not right

In fact. Let’s return to Brexit. What happened to the statistic that informed UK residents that the NHS would benefit from £350m per week if they left the EU? It was painted on the battle buses that toured the streets. It was an inaccurate statistic but it didn’t matter. The point was made. It wasn’t about being accurate, it was about being first.

When it comes to advertising, there’s an advertising standards agency with specific rules. But these rules don’t seem to apply to politicians for example. So what do we do with this double standard? Should advertising standards be flouted, or should politicians fall into line? As The Drum said in an article late 2016:

“Most agencies and advertisers follow the rules. The advertising equivalent of one of Trump’s tweets would be something like ‘Buy this car and have more sex,’ or ‘Free money here now’. If you ran those ads, you’d have to be able to prove they were true.”

Do you believe the teachings of Genesis, or do you follow the Big Bang theory?

Modern civilisation has extremely large ‘pockets’ or circles where contrasting beliefs either co-exist or are isolated from one another. Large cities are home to multiple narratives and dialogues. This is in part due to urbanisation and mass movement of people across borders in recent years.

Truth is inherently a human construction. When I asked my mother as a child why 1+1 was 2, her simple yet adamant answer would always be “because that’s the way it is”. Whilst there is an endless range of issues and topics that can are debated every day, (like whether LeBron James will ever be greater than Michael Jordan – I believe he already is), there are principles instilled upon us at a young age.

We are told that scientific evidence, because empirically proven, is more true than any other form of justification. Here is where I strongly disagree. Why do scientists perform experiments? Are they as means to discover, prove or disprove a theory? This means at no given moment in time, there exists any form of scientific argument that may actually be absolutely impenetrable. So how come my gut feeling can’t be true? Just because there isn’t an equation to reinforce it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Truth means: “stands for the right or the correct for all people”, but post-truth refers to appeals of emotion that outweigh logical explanations and thus construct a dynamic where subjectivity is more valued than objective comments or arguments. Accuracy in this sense is relative to each individual’s unique perceptions and there are no absolutist answers that can outweigh others. Post-truth and what it advocates helps to promote the validity of all types of narratives and dialogues. The diversity of modern society propagates competing ideologies and in fact encourages the advocacy of multiple opinions.

It could be argued that all forms of human logic are in fact simply products of emotion. So how does this impact the realms of business in 2017 and beyond?

With a Digital Marketing campaign, or any type of advertisement, it’s all about a brand connecting with a consumer. More often than not, this is an emotive link, rather than a logical one. Marketers want to speak their consumers’ language, but given that we all have our own tastes and reactions, it’s not possible to please everyone. In fact Seth Godin says that pleasing everyone is the last thing you want to do – that’s a recipe for mediocrity.

The big challenge for marketers is finding the most efficient methods of capturing consumers’ attention. Smartphones have been real game changers and so should be the messages they convey. If your messaging is going to infiltrate my intimate moments and my inner circle, then they’d better be good. You’ll have to cope with my moods, my alliances, prejudices, scepticism and aspirations. It used to be survival of the fittest, but in a post-truth world, it’s survival of the most agile and creative.

Vivienne Neale is a digital marketer and director of VKN Digital, which is a digital marketing agency in Hertfordshire, UK. We aim to help SMEs overcome marketing hurdles and create compelling digital content that drives results. If you need a leg-up with your content marketing or social media, get in touch via our contact page for a free Skype consultation.

Anthony Mak is an intern with VKN Digital and is in his final year studying Politics at Durham University.

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