I’ve been inspired lately by some very smart friends who are proponents of “thinking in public” and “intimate marketing.” The idea that you can work through ideas and thoughts better if you’re publishing, collaborating, and letting the community read and respond.
I haven’t really seen this done at an agency level before. Codeword ghostwrites thought-leadership content for lots of big ad agencies and tech companies, but the message of that content is often “we have the answers!” or “look at our amazing success!”
Which is great, and certainly worth sharing when it’s true.
But tbh, in the media and marketing landscape we’re in now, anyone who claims to have all the answers should probably be eyerolled right out of the room.
That’s 500% more true now than it was even 6 months ago. Marketers and brands are realizing, all at the same time, that the playbooks they’ve been following aren’t sufficient for the demands of this unpredictable, high-stakes moment we’re all in. And that’s true across every marketing discipline, from media buying to brand strategy to PR to internal comms. Everything’s in flux. It’s a great time for thinking in public.
In moments like this, even if we don’t have all the answers or a patented Codeword Formula for Success™, it’s immensely helpful to have a few guiding beliefs. Principles we’ve found to be broadly true, even if the specifics evolve and respond to various conditions.
So in the interest of thinking in public, here are Codeword’s guiding beliefs.
Belief 1: The Audience is Always Right
This has its roots in phenomenology: The audience’s perception of the thing is what defines the thing. That’s doubly true in a digital world where “the thing” doesn’t actually exist beyond pixels on a screen. Which has all kinds of implications, but three big ones:
- We should be creating beautiful, useful things for the audience.
- A strategy deck is only useful if it’s leading to better audience experiences.
- Community and context can provide meaning. Or even change the meaning. More on this later.
(And more on phenomenology here.)
Belief 2: Love and Trust > Attention
The “attention economy” is a terrible theory for marketers, because:
- Attention isn’t that hard. Act out enough, or pay enough money, and you’ll get all the short-term eyeballs you want.
- Attention isn’t that scarce. People have TONS of time and attention to give to things they actually care about.
So begin with the end in mind. If we’re aiming for a relationship of love and trust at the bottom of the funnel, that should drive our approach at the top of the funnel, at the very start of the relationship. Love and trust is hard to build, and takes time and patience. But once you have it, you’ll have a long-term community of advocates that will stick by you.
First Round had a great essay last week about creating lovable products by designing products around user needs with just a bit of “pixie dust.” We’re doing the same thing in the marketing space.
And it’s a real creative differentiator, because too often, marketing erodes trust instead of building it. Rather than establishing trust, it’s all about overpromising, lipservice, self-centeredness, shock value, using humor in place of humanity, etc etc etc. Natalie on our PR team argues here that trustworthy communications should be the highest priority, and shared a negative case study where an agency traded their trust and reputation for short-term attention.
Belief 3: Communities > Demographics
This should be obvious at this point in history. Shared interests, shared proximity, and shared beliefs are what drive influence and behavioral patterns. Or, more simply, you watch the TV shows your close friends watch, and buy the things they buy, and vote for the people they vote for.
I said earlier, you have nearly unlimited time and attention for things you love, and you likely have some attachment to the community that obsesses about them with you. So rather than finding the perfect combination of demographic slices, we prefer to think about interest groups and communities, and how we can provide value to them. Because…
Belief 4:. Depth > Reach
…these interest groups and communities don’t want shallow experiences tailored for everyone and no one. They want a deep experience they can dive into. I know this isn’t true for every campaign for every company. The marketing mix exists for a reason. But almost all of our clients want to reach the small, smart audiences who are looking for deep, rich experiences.
This is why media plans so often drive us up the wall. When it comes to paid advertising, we’d rather go after 100 devoted readers of a niche publication than 1,000 readers of a national news portal. Every time. And on the PR side, we want coverage from the journalists and outlets that are the most trusted experts in their space. Sometimes that’s a national news publication. Sometimes it’s a niche newsletter.
Belief 5: Fans > Customers
Put simply: Find the audience that gives a shit, and give them something to give a shit about with other people who also give a shit, and just maybe they’ll give a shit about you.
Here’s the “meeting version”: Your business is built on customer conversion, but the best, most loyal customers will come to you through other customers instead of some attention-grabbing awareness campaign. (See above.)
Alright, that’s enough thinking in public for the moment. Agree with the above? Disagree? Let’s hear it.