A Web of Insincerity

A colleague of mine spoke a phrase several months ago that won’t stop ringing a clear and undeniable truth in my ear. After I showed him video from a flash mob brand launch, he said, “I hate that kind of fake energy.”

That bell rang again for me this week as imposter birthday greetings between dropping through my apartment door mail slot. Nice to hear from you, chiropractor I saw once and then ran from in horror. You too, hair stylist who binges a little too hard on caffeine and can’t stop her scissors from shaking. Welcome, dentist who bought one of my best friend’s once-thriving practice only to run it into the ground with incompetence. And let’s not forget you good neighbor State Farm agent who ceaselessly tries to upsell me renters insurance no matter how often I refuse.

Anyone with access to a birthdate now feels emboldened to enter your private space without so much as the courtesy of knocking; to pose as a kind of trusted, intimate friend knowing full well they’ve never once backed that gesture up with the kind of real action that might earn my permission or trust.

This strain of “fake energy” recalls recent memories of my son’s junior and senior year college search. Some glitch at College Board Data Entry Central rendered my son’s bulk mailing list name unrecognizable — replacing his first name with his mother’s last name and his last name with his middle initial C.

Every school sold at a higher education marketing conference on the idea of “personalized mailing” was now bombarding a really great prospect with expensive branded print collateral addressed to Stufft Erkel Remy C. That gesture of insincerity simply accelerated and cemented his decision to avoid any college that could not bother to learn his name.

Here’s how one higher education marketing firm makes the case:

“A personalized enrollment marketing approach is particularly effective with the current generation of prospective students. The negative stereotype is that Millennials are self-obsessed. The reality is that they want recognition. By personalizing your enrollment marketing, you are recognizing individuality and creating the impression that you are speaking directly to that student.”

Left unchecked, fake energy finds its way into nearly every higher education marketing gesture, event, piece of content and communication. It can quietly metastasize until one day, it consumes an entire college or university culture, strategy and brand. That’s when you have a really “big problem.”

In the “content is king” era, we all feel pressure each day to settle on creating the impression that we really know or care about a subject matter. Blogs wait to be fed. Print pieces run behind schedule. Who has the time, patience or discipline required for real reporting or argument construction?

And even if we chose to follow old school rules about the validity of content, do readers (let alone the Google bot) discern any difference? After all, many people think that enduring musical artists can be minted between commercials on a game show and that great film can be made without the hard work of crafting a story or script.

I hold out hope for the few remaining college presidents or vice presidents of marketing who understand the enduring attraction that story holds for the human imagination, the power of an authentic brand voice, and the scarcity of genuinely human era higher education brands.

As college communicators, we’re the final line of defense against a web of near total insincerity. Your college or university may have already been swept up in the race to the bottom — where people and institutions lose all sense of authenticity, grace or humility.

Holding the line requires tough but crucial conversations with clients rather than allowing the hard sell of fake energy to blur important strategic considerations.

Stufft Erkel Remy C — we know how much you’re waiting for that envelope of fake energy to arrive on your birthday.