Remote work and safer-at-home orders are shifting digital transformation plans everywhere into warp speed, and marketers are along for the ride. As digital media becomes the primary (or only) customer-facing means of communication for most organizations, digital literacy is more important than ever before.
Digital literacy, also known as media literacy, isn’t a new concept. The discussion around it has increased steadily for decades. In the context of marketing and business, progressions in television, radio and internet-based communications repeatedly demonstrate the advantage held by media-literate brands.
Who would have imagined, for example, that an innovative company like General Electric would face significant business issues and fail to adapt to changing markets? And yet it did, despite leadership in industries like aviation, transportation, healthcare and energy. The fall was at least partly fueled by reverting to manufacturing in 2008 when more digitally literate companies were rising to the recession’s challenge and diversifying their offerings.
What does the challenge of media literacy mean for marketing today? Let’s dig in.
There are different levels of digital literacy, and marketers have to aim high
We’re entering a new digital chapter at an unprecedented pace. To keep up, marketers need to make digital literacy a priority. But what exactly is digital literacy for marketers?
In a nutshell, it’s using technology to create and ingest content, as well as understanding how the technology works and what creators’ motivations are.
Let’s use Facebook as a micro-example. Being Facebook literate on a basic level would include understanding some of the essential elements of how the platform works, including skills such as:
- How to create a post
- How to find other people’s posts
- The ways posts are prioritized by the Facebook algorithm
- The various reasons why someone might post (connect with friends/family, make political statements, sell a product, etc.)
Being even more Facebook literate might include knowing how to schedule or boost posts, attract followers, create events and/or work with influencers. It may also include knowing things not to do, like spamming comment sections with links to an unrelated product’s landing page.
The more literate a marketer is with the platform, the higher their chances of success and avoiding stalled content. Digital literacy gives marketers a strategic advantage, both over competitors and in the way an audience views their content.
Digital literacy gaps affect messaging
Marketers are far from the only people who benefit from digital literacy. Yet, many people don’t have the tools to acquire it. Some are working to address this. Parents and schools, for example, are increasingly seeking out and demanding digital literacy education. Computer skills classes now go beyond spreadsheets and word processing to include topics like protecting private information online and gauging a source’s credibility, for example.
Still, not everyone takes those classes, and not all those classes cover the platforms marketers use. Until digital literacy is more widespread, some marketers have to do a little extra work to meet their audience where they’re at. A number of government entities have experienced this while increasing digital communications due to COVID-19. Some communications leaders were prepared, while others are still working to find the best ways to clearly share information.
Where can the public access this website/dashboard?
— New Basin (@NewBasin1) May 7, 2020
For marketers, transparency is critical to closing digital literacy gaps. At a time when consumer access to information is high, accuracy and honesty are key. The last thing you want is to be perceived as deceptive.
The age of (mis)information is putting on the pressure
While marketing has moved online, so has journalism. Most major news outlets now even have social media pages, with government entities quickly following suit.
These developments, along with other trends in 2020, have serious implications for marketers.
For instance, while marketers may know that an informational article on their website is part of a sales funnel, readers may have trouble spotting the differences between the post and a news article. The marketing content may be high-quality and contain valuable and accurate information, but ending up on a payment page might make them feel misled.
Striking the balance between helpfully informative and transparent usually means including clues like clear branding to help audiences identify the type of content they’re looking at and its source. That can help avoid a brand reputation nightmare, and even build trust.
Consumer literacy can vary and leads to misunderstanding, as journalists know.
If you're a reporter retweeting dubious and potentially dangerous health information, "RTs are not endorsements" isn't an adequate form of social media distancing. Err on the side of not endangering your followers.
— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) April 5, 2020
Especially in the era of COVID-19, vetting information is critical for a strong social strategy. Contributing to the spread of misinformation through a brand’s platform can ignite serious trouble. Customers don’t want conjecture. It’s essential that media literate marketers take the time to understand the full context of what they’re sharing or referencing in brand feeds, whether that’s reviewing the credibility of the source on a news story or understanding the full backstory of a viral meme.
Digital literacy helps everyone delineate authentic content from conspiracy theories, even ones with well-produced the YouTube videos. As media creators and distributors, marketers must take steps to respect their audience’s need for relevant, accurate information. Twitter recently announced testing of a feature to help curb misinformation and start more beneficial conversations by encouraging users to read content linked in a Tweet before they Retweet it.
Sharing an article can spark conversation, so you may want to read it before you Tweet it.
To help promote informed discussion, we're testing a new prompt on Android –– when you Retweet an article that you haven't opened on Twitter, we may ask if you'd like to open it first.
— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) June 10, 2020
As a marketer, you can use your detailed knowledge of how social media works to help spread best practices among your family and friends. Here are a few key tips to help create healthier conversations around what’s shared on social media:
- Find the article’s source: As Twitter’s Retweet testing shows, the first person you notice linking an article isn’t necessarily tied to the creation of the content. Find out where the article came from originally and whether it’s a source you already recognize or trust.
- Back up the facts: Is the information or statistics highlighted in an article found in other sources online? Search key facts and see if you can back them up or find the original source such as a research study. Understanding the fact-checking methods journalists use can be an eye-opener about how many statements in the media we regularly consume can be considered verifiable.
- Consider who benefits from your reaction: If an article provokes a strong, immediate reaction, such as those found in clickbait headlines, think about whether biased groups would benefit from you being persuaded by these emotions. If you’re surprised by a ‘little known’ fact surfaced in this way, be sure to use the methods above to back it up with other reliable sources.
- Mentally categorize the article: Before you start spreading the information in an article you don’t know the source of, take a moment to gauge what type of article it is. Are there indicators that it’s an opinion piece in a news outlet, or a personal blog that isn’t reliant on fact checking? Are there logos and branding that show it’s a sales-oriented article, or even discrepancies in the URL or visuals that suggest it’s a deceptive site spreading fake news? By understanding more about how some sources of biased content actively attempt to mislead readers, audiences can become more savvy about finding good information.
Even marketers have to keep learning
Consumers aren’t alone in the ongoing effort towards media literacy; marketers are right there with them. With fake or poorly-sourced news appearing in everyone’s feeds today, we all have our work cut out for us when it comes to staying informed.
Even without a worldwide pandemic, complacent marketers can find themselves just as left behind as anyone puzzling through digital media. An attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” towards new social platforms or trends in messaging is tempting when campaigns are running smoothly, but can leave marketers blindsided when things change. You don’t want to be left scrambling to understand a new platform or feature well after your competition has begun successfully using it in their marketing.
Platforms and messaging styles fall out of fashion, and results can dip if an effort isn’t made to stay on top of changes in the social space. Take TikTok, for example. Up until 2018, the platform couldn’t outpace Musical.ly, a lip-syncing video app, in the US. After a merger of the two platforms, however, TikTok suddenly rose in popularity and downloads spiked significantly once stay-at-home orders were issued across the country.
Rather than dismissing rising trends, marketers should investigate them earnestly, as several brands have with TikTok. Digital literacy means making ongoing efforts to understand new platforms and practices. It keeps marketers on their toes—and relevant.
Of course, that doesn’t mean jumping into every trend hoping to ride the wave to the top. Understanding new platforms and practices doesn’t necessarily mean participating if it doesn’t match your brand’s needs. That’s why when it comes to trends, brands must favor relevance over reach. Consider what’s needed right now for your brand and your customers, and let those needs guide decisions.
Increasing digital literacy = improving understanding
One of the best ways to understand digital tools, of course, is to use them. This not only builds familiarity and reveals how the competition presents itself on a platform but also opens up a new perspective: that of the audience.
Seeing things from a customer’s perspective is as old a tactic as secret shoppers and proof copies. That’s because it works. Marketers benefit from using the platforms they work in. Organizations often even hire or tap in-house native users to leverage their digital literacy.
Staying on top of media trends this way keeps marketers at the forefront of customer sentiment and interest. What’s on customers’ minds? What questions are they asking? We can only address known customer needs, and digital media platforms provide a helpful window. By paying enough attention, trendspotting improves marketing content.
Sound like a lot of work? It can be, but tools are available to ease the burden. For example, in the case of social media, social media automation can simplify multi-platform posting. Meanwhile, social listening tools display all marketers need to know about engagement on easy-to-digest dashboards.
This is about more than just knowing your target audience. It’s also knowing what they’re thinking, what struggles they’re experiencing and how their behaviors are changing. With this more granular data, marketers can make more informed decisions for their brand.
Data makes a difference
In order to understand customers, you need data. Fortunately, to say digital marketing platforms today are data-rich is an understatement. Social media, in particular, is ripe with customer information, so much so that social media security is a hot topic for both marketers and national security leaders.
All of this (carefully protected) data, however, drives evaluation and improvement. Consumer literacy may stop at knowing how to use tools and how to tell the difference between a friend’s travel post and a travel agency ad. For effective marketers, it requires a bit more, like knowing how to gather, analyze and present data.
Reporting on marketing efforts helps marketers and others in an organization understand the effectiveness of media campaigns, allowing for even deeper digital literacy and more success. Fortunately, automation and listening tools like the ones mentioned above reduce the time and resources necessary to generate worthwhile reporting.
Adapting in the age of digital literacy
Marketers have always had to be creative; it comes with the job. Marketing in the digital age simply means transferring those skills to the technology available today.
Digital literacy for marketers doesn’t have to be difficult. To learn a little more about tweaking that creativity to fit modern marketing, try checking out 9 skills every social media manager must have.