The speed of relevance

Speed of relevance

When I was a kid the heroes of TV’s Midday Matinée Movies had been the same for 30 years. Bogart and Cagney where still the cool guys… followed closely by Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. They were relevant… symbols of Hollywood. To become relevant people used the channels of the day; cinema, print radio and TV. Back then a marketing response took weeks not hours to prepare… conversations were one way. To create relevance took time and relevance had a longer shelf life. The other day I was talking about River Phoenix with twenty-somethings who had no idea who I was talking about. I realised that the very nature of being relevant and the length of relevance has shrunk. Technology has been key to this.

The role of advertising and marketing has always been to increase relevance… share of voice, recall and ultimately the business imperative… sales. In the age of digital and social the speed of relevance shifts as we operate in an “always on environment”. Search is a constant reminder how quickly we can loose our rankings and therefore relevance.

My first social campaign was for the “Bring David Hick’s home” (Amnesty International Australia) campaign in 2007 (video – or visit At this time the concept of viral social campaigns was amplified by Chris Crocker’s “YouTube” video post “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!” that had surpassed 44 million views. Today, in contrast, Psy’ Gangnam Style has generated over 482 million views in 3 months. The speed of relevance is also limited by its ability to remain new. History teaches us that the avant-garde becomes the rear-garde. That is to say the cutting edge after time becomes accepted into mass cultural and it’s difference becomes the norm.

If we understand the importance of relevance and accept that the avant-garde will become the norm, how and why do we seek to protect our relevance? The answer is simple… we seek to protect and preserve ourselves, whether it be the individual or the entity (a.k.a the organization). How we preserve our relevance is another discussion. The first part is to admit we seek and indeed obsess with it.

Relevance in advertising was first mapped anecdotally based on sales and then by a mix of market share and research (brand recall). Public Relations (PR) was the first to measure the value of media by placing a value on exposure/real estate and equate this to paid advertising placements. It then expanded this to valuing word of mouth. To do this PR used media monitoring services to identify mentions and conducted analysis on the quality of the mention. Like any channel it sort to include metrics on frequencies, volumes and reach.

It is no surprise that the first form of social monitoring came via Search Leveraged PR – essentially a tactic to distribute content through out the web. Search engines made it easier to tract the effectiveness of these releases by identifying indexed content using keywords (across multiple search engines).  The tactic also had the advantage of improving your website’s Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) through backlinks.

The development of social media saw the introduction of social media marketing and social media optimization (SMO). Key to this was the development of Press Release Distribution that pushed content to blogs, news channels and general online sites through automated feeds or releases that can be downloaded from the distribution site. A key aim is to aggregate content by search engine news channels; Google News, Yahoo! News, Bing etc to improve your relevance in search engines.

This reminds us that search is still the hero for users navigating the web and keywords are the method for this. Therefore relevance is not only about your brand keyword (individual or organisation’s name) but the generic keywords. In the age of digital words have taken on greater value; cheap flights, home loans etc are words that organisations seek to own. The value of relevance is therefore strengthened through association. Brand strategy has always sort to bind words through values and attributes, however, digital seeks to directly attribute words to a brand to drive relevance and as a result direct consumers to a brand through search/search engines.

Maintaining Relevance

Cognitive science teaches us that working memory, and the ability to remain relevant, occurs as we select the right sensors (sight, sound, touch and smell) to capture stimuli and build a representation of an object. In the world of brand advertising this is extended so that the object and the brand are one in the same.

In copy/content, stimuli are presented in the form of brand/generic keywords, while in visual formats stimuli may take the form of colour; linking a colour to a brand and therefore increasing brand recognition. To create and maintain relevance we seek to increase recognition through memory. To do this we create focuses on stimuli, across the sensors and optimize these to the marketing channel.

Like Google and its search algorithm, relevance and being relevant is always changing, however, the basics are still the same.  Cognitive science tells us the ability to remain relevant is directly associated to working memory and in advertising this still means the need to develop a brand and brand recognition, the benefits of increasing this are typically seen in an increase in brand value and therefore profitability.

Using cognitive science we know that to increase recall we need to focus on stimuli appropriate to each sensor, for example for sight – an identifiable colour; sound – a distinctive sound cue and taste – a distinctive favour. In an ideal brand scenario we create linkage. Great examples are – the colour purple and Cadbury chocolate, the sound of an Apple Macintosh on start up and the distractive cola taste of a Coca Cola. In digital owning a word or set of keywords is important as much of a websites’ equity and ranking is built through search and search engines that use keywords.

In brand part of the approach of creating recognition and relevance is to further develop the physical characteristics of an object by associating it to human characteristics and therefore create greater bonds through a Brand Personality. Along with brand attributes we create a brand image. All this takes into account a person’s relationships with others (persons or things), judgments, feelings and values in relation to the brand.

In advertising once a consumer has had exposure to a brand and identifies to its image, they falls into an acquisition funnel, as they go from awareness to consideration. To be considered is indeed to be relevant as we remain in the working memory. We will however from time to time need to be used (or purchased) as this ultimately dictated our relevance and sustainability in working memory.

The final thing of note in creating and maintaining relevance is the ability to increase your relevance through relationship. Relationships and communities have always been a strong focus in building brands. In digital the biggest change has been the advent of social – social networking and social media marketing, building community through peer-to-peer relationships. The medium is indeed the message as it seeks referrals and recommendations through groups. The marketing bit is the tactic of amplifying these recommendations through selected Super Users thereby increasing our relevance and ultimately our reach. In social many mistake campaign success with number of likes/friends or members. However in many cases it is not so much the volume of people as much as the level of engagement that gives the greatest benefit. For example 1000 people who engage with you once is not as powerful as 100 people engaging with you weekly.

It is also important to note that social as a medium uses many of the old constructs of PR, looking at word of mouth as a powerful tactic to build your relevance.


Becoming relevance and maintaining our relevance is an instinctive human desire. For brands maintaining relevance can be linked to the ideas of cognitive science and remaining in the working memory. In short:

  1. Identify stimuli and align this to the sensor and then channel: – This is part of building brand aware and owning/associating physical attributes – such as a colour or sound or keyword.
  2. Align stimuli to a Brand Personality – values/attributes and ultimately a brand image.
  3. Be viable to be sustainable. This is important, as anyone in marketing will tell you it’s always easier to sell people something they want.
  4. Build relationships and communities. Identify word of mouth opportunity and build advocates to amplifier and maintain your relevance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *