The Fourth Question Has Changed - Social Media Explorer
The Fourth Question Has Changed
The Fourth Question Has Changed

This is a strange time for marketers. So many of the fundamental metrics that have been essential to the business have been rendered either meaningless or less meaningful. The definition of “audience” has changed, and the math now reflects niches and behavior and tracking to a degree that is as useful  as it is maddening.

Some consultants will tell you that if you create great content, you don’t have to worry as much. And they used to be right. The successful marketers have injected added value to their messages – some opting for humor, some for utility, others for sheer journalistic weight. But the recipe for great content isn’t as easy as just adding butter (and given Paula Deen’s woes, butter might be the only entity that hasn’t cut ties with her.)

Still, there are some basic steps that you can walk through to ensure you aren’t entirely losing your way. Ask yourself:  

1) Who am I talking to?

This is half reflection and half recognition. Who is your intended target for this message, and who else might end up seeing it? Important questions, because if you have a lot of the latter, maybe your venue isn’t as tightly focused as you need. From a sheer messaging standpoint, however, simply closing your eyes and visualizing your audience does wonders as a touchstone, keeping you in harmony with your original intent.

2) What do I want them to know?

Again, this is a rather elementary idea, but you’d be surprised how often a marketer can get swept along with the allure of a killer creative concept, and the information gets cast aside. How many commercials air during the Super Bowl — where, by the way, people are indeed paying attention to the ads — and the viewers can’t even recall the product. “Neitchze-quoting ferrets” might be the ad you loved the most, but if you don’t associate the clever impulse with Pop Secret, then your popcorn purchases aren’t going to change.

3) How do I want them to feel?

Tone. Tone tone tone. It’s the bane of those who get stuck on Question #2, because if you’re all about the facts then tone doesn’t matter, right? Tone is the reason emails fail, it’s the reason blog posts and Facebook posts and Tweets fail. It’s the funny when it shouldn’t be, and the stilted when everyone is relaxed. Tone is the non-verbal aspects of the communication that aren’t as important as when you’re face-to-face — but important nonetheless.

Those three questions have been the vital launching point of any strategic undertaking. They aren’t all-inclusive, and there are many other things you ought to consider. But I got a lot of mileage from starting there, returning there at mid-point, and then using that list as the benchmark to ensure I was getting what I wanted.

Then, because results matter, I felt compelled to add the Fourth Question:

4) What do you want them to do?

In any true marketing campaign, this would have been clearly defined from the beginning. But asking it at the end wraps everything up in a bow, and gives you the solid ground from which to measure the effectiveness of your philosophizing rodents. “Do we want people to buy more Pop Secret? Or do we want to get  Reddenbacher consumers to give us a try?”

Again — the above seems like a no-brainer.  But I would say that is becoming the wrong question. Instead, ask it this way:

4) What will they do with this information?

If you’re not listening, you will miss this.


In my day job, we use social media channels to communicate with customers and the news media during big storms. We have a fairly good feel for our customers and what they want, and we have indeed been providing that. They want to know when their power will be back after the storm.

In the past, they could call our outage hotline and get an estimate. With the rise of Twitter and Facebook, we now have customers reaching out through mobile devices and asking us through the networks in which they are comfortable. While this has required a fair amount of training and internalizing on our part, we are getting there. The customer asks, gets an answer, and they are happy to know.

Then, just a couple of months ago, their behavior shifted.

No longer content to get their estimated restore time, they are now taking to social networks to share them with the world. And the world is amplifying it further. In some instances, they flag local meteorologists and news personalities with large audiences, to proclaim the good news that “@Anchorlady, power will be back by noon Wednesday in Mooreville!”

Our only quibble is that the pronouncement is not accurate. The forecast for noon Wednesday was for her house. Not the entire city, or even neighborhood. We have many subdivisions where the people across the street are on a completely different circuit!

This became a nightmare of failed expectations — and to make things worse, they weren’t our expectations. It was our customers, as well-meaning as they could be, who were confusing each other and setting false deadlines for satisfaction.

Nowhere had it occurred to us that our customers would start doing this. And in a couple of years of using the channels, they had not until recently. We realized this wasn’t a social media issue, per se, because the customer might get the information on the phone, and then Tweet away. This was a matter of more clearly setting the expectation with the customer, and hoping we could get them to understand what that information represents (and what it doesn’t.)

You can’t fault someone for trying to be helpful. But you do need to consider that fourth question: What will they do with this information?

In the past, an audience could only do what receivers could: Listen or Ignore. Purchase or Not. And, of course, tell a friend. And that is the new wrinkle. “Telling a friend” can now become “Telling 3,000 friends” all at once… and if one of those listening is a broadcaster with an itchy retweet finger…

The fourth question has changed. Maybe for you, it’s the sixth question, or Question Number Two. But it has changed, because our audience isn’t passively consuming anymore. They are talking back to you, and talking to each other. Use to your advantage if you can, but ignore at your peril — because it isn’t about you anymore.

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About the Author

Ike Pigott
In his previous life, Ike Pigott was an Emmy-winning TV reporter, who turned his insider's knowledge of the news cycle into a crisis communications consultancy. At the American Red Cross, serving as Communication and Government Relations Director for five southeastern states, Ike pioneered the use of social media in disaster. Now -- by day -- he is a communications strategist for Alabama Power and a Social Media Apologist; by night, he lurks at Occam's RazR, where he writes about the overlaps and absurdities in communications, technology, journalism and society. Find out how you can connect with Ike or follow him on Twitter at @ikepigott. He also recently won the coveted "Social Media Explorer contributing writer with the longest Bio" award.

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