If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years on the Internet, it’s that if two people are disagreeing online, the most productive course of action is to wade right in with your own overblown opinion. So here I am.
But first, a slight detour: to Africa, circa mid-1970s. To Zambia, specifically, where my friend Ernesto Sirolli was employed by the Italian government to do aid work. As he described in the now world-famous talk he gave at our TEDxChristchurch event in 2012, the Italian aid workers were stunned, when they arrived, to find that the Zambians had no agriculture. But instead of asking why, they said, “Thank God we’re here! Just in time to save the Zambian people from starvation!”
They planted seeds, and in that fertile river valley everything grew like it was on steroids. Tomatoes that would be the size of a ping-pong ball in Italy were the size of a grapefruit in Zambia. But then, just before they were about to reap the harvest, it happened: In the middle of the night, hundreds of hippos came out of the forest and ate all the tomatoes.
“My God!” cried the Italians. “The hippos!”
“Yes,” said the Zambians. “That is why we don’t have agriculture.”
It was silly, obviously, for the Italians to try to “help” without truly understanding the context in which they were operating -- and it would be equally silly for CMOs to develop and oversee marketing strategy without understanding the shifting digital landscape.
Albarda’s argument about why it doesn’t matter whether CMOs are on social media focuses on whether the customer notices. “I cannot for the life of me recall an occasion where a tweet or Facebook status update from a CMO has pushed me to buy or try a product or service. Can you? Can any of your co-workers or family members? ...In fact, some company leaders are celebrities: Your Mark Cubans. Your Richard Bransons. But most C-suite leaders are probably known within the industry they work in, but mostly unknown to the consumer at large. And that’s probably how it should be.”
But the reason CMOs should be on social media is neither to be a celebrity nor to push you to buy. CMOs should be on social media because, unless they are active themselves, they will never understand the medium.
In the latter half of the 20th century, would you have hired a marketer who didn’t watch TV? Would you hire someone who doesn’t read the newspaper to run The New York Times, or someone who doesn’t drink soda as the CEO of Pepsi?
Social media is now the number-one activity on the Internet. 28.5% of marketing budgets were spent on digital in 2013. How can a CMO who isn’t active on social media possibly understand customer expectations well enough to allocate those funds?
The C-Suite is not a place for operational activity, and the CMO’s job is not to maintain the Twitter account or post Facebook updates. But effective development of strategy and oversight of execution require empathy with the context of both. If CMOs aren’t capable of walking in their customers’ social media shoes, they risk being eaten by hippos.