Apple has contributed a lot to American culture: the iPhone; the Mac; and, last but not least, some peace and quiet. It’s one of the few companies that don’t overcommunicate — instead, it maintains a hushed air of mystery. No 'noisy' marketing campaigns. No secrets being revealed.
This is no accident. An Apple employee can get fired for leaking the slightest internal detail, Alex Kantrowitz reports in his book Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever. Often, Apple employees don’t have much information they could leak; an engineer working on a new product feature often knows little about the product overall.
The dearth of public information about Apple’s projects only adds to the buzz around its product launches and ad campaigns.
“There’s something to be said for their ability to control the message,” Marc Minor, an Apple alum, told Kantrowitz.
But Apple’s approach is “only a game that you can unlock after a certain level of good advertising,” Madwell strategist Mary Ergul told Built In — and good product too. Apple has been releasing splashy, top-of-funnel ads and prestige products since its landmark 1984 Super Bowl ad, which introduced the Macintosh.
For companies without that legacy, going dark isn’t a hack so much as a recipe for being forgotten. Apple is the exception that proves the rule: In marketing, silence isn’t golden.
Conventional wisdom holds that brands should share “valuable, relevant and consistent” content across all channels. Keyword: consistent.
From a small shop, silence reads less mysterious, more confusing. It could mean the company shut down, or doesn’t “have the time, resources, money, the right talent” to craft a strong message, Ergul noted.
That’s why, in marketing, a pause in communication often comes with extensive explanation. In 2019, for instance, Miller Lite went dark on social media for two weeks — and ran a mix of TV, influencer and social media ads in advance, explaining why.
“With so many young drinkers focused on their phones, we wanted to champion a different kind of social: genuine, face-to-face connections, best enjoyed at a bar over Miller Lite,” Miller’s Anup Shah told Campaign US. “[W]e’re reminding people that getting beers with friends, or Miller Time, was really the original social media.”
Most companies need a more proactive marketing strategy than hoping silence builds hype.
It was a creative, multi-channel ad campaign — and a shift toward real-world activations — as much as it was a silence.
Most companies, especially smaller ones, don’t even attempt to go dark. Startups, for instance, “need to regularly be reaching out to current and prospective customers,” Josh Inglis, CEO of Chicago PR and content marketing firm Propllr, told Built In. “It’s hard for me to see how silence does them any good.”
Most companies need a more proactive marketing strategy than hoping silence builds hype. They need to “cut through the noise,” as the marketing cliche goes, and get their message out.
That’s more complicated than it sounds though.
The Paradox of ‘Noise’
“Noise is basically the overwhelming amount of sales and marketing messages that any human being is exposed to on an ongoing basis,” Marc Johnson, CMO at Bombora, told Built In.
The average person saw roughly 5,000 ads per day in 2007, and, since then, some estimate that number has doubled, Johnson said.
What is Noise Marketing?
Inbound emails alone have made email nearly unusable — Slack, a company now valued at $18 billion, took off in part because its software solved the problem of email overload.
It’s “really hard to find the emails that matter,” Johnson said. “Marketing automation tools ... have made it even easier to just assault people’s inboxes.”
Other channels, too, have become unusably dense with marketing messages. That’s part of the reason marketers constantly test new channels, hopping to TikTok when Facebook gets too noisy with ads, and from TikTok to who knows where.
“Marketing automation tools ... have made it even easier to just assault people’s inboxes.”
But how can marketers differentiate their messages from the noise, when marketing messages are the noise?
It’s a case of squares and rectangles, according to Ergul. All noise is marketing, but not all marketing qualifies as noise.
Noise is a two-part problem: the excess of messages churned out by the “sales and marketing industrial complex,” as Johnson calls it; and the fact a lot of those messages are almost identical.
“Every category has a cliche,” Ergul said. “So with auto insurance, you see a lot of mascots; with sports, you see a lot of celebrity athletes; with fast food, you see a lot of snarky Twitter presence.”
Cutting through the noise, to Ergul, means crafting a message that stands out within its category.
Doing it successfully boosts not just user engagement, but internal morale.
“No one in sales and marketing ... started down this career path so that they could get a 1 percent response rate on their emails,” Johnson said. It’s “so depressing.”
For cues on how to do it, it’s actually worth taking another look at Apple’s playbook. Apple isn’t always quiet. It’s just quiet until it has something of substance to share.
For smaller companies, what qualifies as “substance” might not be an entirely new product category, like the iPod. It might be highlighting an innovative product feature, or giving brand communications a quirky, engaging personality, the way Steak-Umm does.
But Ergul, Johnson and Inglis agreed that the opposite of marketing “noise” isn’t silence — it’s substance.
Five Keys to Substantial Marketing
We asked Ergul, Johnson and Inglis how marketers can craft messages of substance. “It’s about restraint,” Johnson said — “less activity, but make that activity more relevant and better for recipients.”
We’ve rounded up some of their concrete advice here.
Aim to Serve
Inglis recommends homing in on what your company knows best, and sharing informative, trustworthy content on that topic: “It’s important to think, ‘OK, what am I truly an expert on that relates to what people today really need to know?’”
When the coronavirus sparked historic waves of layoffs, for instance, Propllr compiled a list of more than 80 tech companies in Chicago that were still hiring. The company knew the city’s startup landscape well, and positive feedback poured in.
“I think we were really helping people with what they needed at that moment,” Inglis said.
Look for Signs of Intent
Bombora operates in the B2B space, and “the fact is that at any given time, only about 15 percent of the businesses that could buy a product are actually looking to buy a particular product,” Johnson said.
That means companies should focus on reaching out to prospects “actively researching your product,” whether that means checking your website or searching for your competitors.
Many companies have begun selling intent data, which captures the products people and businesses want to buy. What Bombora does in the B2B space, Google and Amazon do in the B2C space — people searching either site for “cheap rain jacket” probably want to buy a cheap rain jacket.
However companies assess intent, though, their messaging will feel less like noise and more like customer service if they only reach out to active shoppers.
Don’t Repeat Yourself
The marketing landscape isn’t just noisy because messaging feels redundant — sometimes, it literally is.
“I do not want someone seeing the same commercial 17 times,” Ergul said. “I am concerned with overexposure of the same ad to the same person.” After a certain point, it’s just not productive.
Though she’s not a media strategist, Ergul mentioned that she’s a fan of frequency caps, which let media buyers limit the number of times a digital ad can be shown to a given person.
Read the Room
Some cultural moments take up so much oxygen, people just don’t have the bandwidth to process exciting corporate news while they’re happening.
“Your message the week that everyone had to [start working] from home [during the coronavirus pandemic] is going to fall on deaf ears,” Inglis said.
The weeks of protests about police brutality and systemic racism that followed George Floyd’s death had a similar quality. That week, Propllr’s team “advised two clients to hold off funding news announcements, since their celebratory nature doesn’t feel appropriate right now,” Inglis noted.
Long-term silence might not suit startups, but that doesn’t mean their PR and marketing experts can’t read the room and improvise respectful pauses. A rigid weekly cadence for press releases or blog posts serves no one.
Play With Context
Advertising often has an oblivious quality, Ergul noted. On TV, for instance, a celebratory ad often follows a dark plot point on the show — a murder, or some other dark cliffhanger.
“It cuts to commercial and everyone’s laughing and smiling and it’s so disruptive,” Ergul said. “It’s not contextual.”
A mix of contextual analysis software and creativity offer an alternative. Ergul can imagine a world where fast food chains advertise on Bob’s Burgers, for example, and weave parts of the show’s story into their ads.
“There’s easily, easily a world where all advertising is really good,” she said — trustworthy, innovative, integrated with its surroundings and more. “I just work toward that world.”