If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it count as an impression?

Reading time: 5 minutes

You know the 18th century saying:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The response is normally similar to: Duh. Of course it does. However, maybe the answer is closer to:

“Sound is only sound if a person hears it…”

What if we applied that same philosophical thought experiment to ads. Or messaging in general.

“A message is only a message if a person hears it.”

And maybe even take it one additional step:

“A message is only a message if a person hears it AND comprehends it.”    

With this additional refinement, we’re making a few assumptions:

  • The message was received by the recipient (not just sent by the sender)
  • The recipient related to the message at some level (the recipient knows of us and showed some interest)
  • The recipient engaged with the message (the message was designed properly allowing the recipient to consume the message–opens, clicks, save, etc.)
  • We have some sort of stat to measure the above

As B2B communicators, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of our sales teams, our executive teams or our member teams by asking ourselves:

What are we selling?

  • Is it a product?
  • Is it a service?
  • Is it a solution?
  • Or is it something else?

It is, in fact, something else.

What we’re selling and communicating is trust.

  • Trust: When things go wrong, we’ll be there
  • Trust: We’ll stand behind our word
  • Trust: Our interest is in what’s best for the client

FYI: This will be the web3 discussion we’re left with after all the technical mumbo-jumbo chatter has subsided.

So what does this have to do with the intersection of communications and technology?

It’s the technologies–the platforms, the applications–we use to communicate to our clients that tell (and sell) that story of trust.

How we use these technologies, platforms and applications is critical to the success of our communications.

Theranos might be a good (and current) example of this.

From a 2018 MIT Sloan School of Management article:

The device didn’t work properly and produced inaccurate results — even though the company publicly claimed by 2013 that it could perform hundreds of tests and had started deploying it in Walgreens stores in California and Arizona to raise funds.

This didn’t have anything to do with the product, the service or the solution. Rather it stemmed from the trust Theranos and its leadership sold to its clients, its employees and its investors.

Once the trust was breached, the company (and its products, services, solutions and leaders) began to slide downhill leading to this week’s prosecution (with more likely to come).

And then there’s the shift of trust away from social media.

While social media–take Twitter as an example–may provide some really ugly results, it also has the opportunity to deliver transparency into the thinking of the hows and whys behind leadership thinking and decision-making (and the open conversations with other leaders).

Take Aaron Levie as an example. His recent messages on Twitter have been focused on web3 and its impact on the future of the internet.

On its own, Levie’s tweet response is just a hot take.

Within context, it becomes a learning opportunity about the future of the web, the internet, business and how today’s leaders are thinking about that future.

As business communications professionals, we see this as an opportunity to target these leaders on this platform with messaging about our products, our services, our solutions.

And we’re pouring billions of dollars into paid digital advertising to reach these leaders. In an effort to prove we are partly responsible for the selling of services, products and solutions, we’re using clicks as a performance indicator of success.

Whether social media or other platforms, digital advertising no longer works for B2B communications.

We’re wasting money and time and effort and creativity on the wrong technologies, distributing the wrong messages, resulting in a stain on our business and degrading the trust that current clients and prospects have in our ability to become long-term partners.

Let’s take the following as a guide…

  • “It was pretty cool to show these innovations, but it was a shitty user experience.” ‘The beginning of a giant industry’: An oral history of the first banner ad
  • “There’s a big debate in the on-line industry over whether these little banners have any value over and above the direct-marketing applications” of the click-throughs that may occur, Mr. Hollis said. ”And the industry in general may be getting a little tired of them.” Banner Ads On Internet Attract Users
  • “We wouldn’t put ads on the cover of the magazine, why would we put them here?” “But why would we want to drive traffic away from the site before they even enter?” Looking back at Hotwired by Jeffrey Veen
  • “An ad, which isn’t working, covers a video so viewers must watch the ad first. It also illustrates the snowballing dangers of new technology: Once an innovation becomes marginally accepted, its early success can quickly mushroom into dominance, even if pretty much everyone agrees that it is no good.” Fall of the Banner Ad: The Monster That Swallowed the Web
  • “All of us have screwed up situations in our lives so badly that we’ve been forced to explain our actions by reminding everyone of our good intentions.” The Internet’s Original Sin
  • “Our existing news institutions are ill-equipped to change direction. Faced with the technological and societal disruptions of the past two decades, traditional editorial institutions have become almost paralyzed — operationally, politically, culturally. The grist of the social web — addictive content that triggers an emotional response — has bled back into the ethos of news organizations because they had to compete in an algorithmically driven marketplace to survive. Limited entrepreneurial talent on the business side of news media has led to incremental – not transformational – innovation and change.” JBS Project Coda Memo
  • “Uber eventually cut $120M of its $150M programmatic budget with no impact. The effect was so surprising that they dug deeper and found evidence of fraud.” How Uber Discovered That 80% of Its Ads Were Useless

This is the opposite of how we need to approach our business communications!

Using this approach, we’re saying “What can I sell you?” instead of “How can I help you?”.

It’s time we, as communications leaders of our organizations, throw our hands up and say we were wrong. We need to do better. We need to focus on our clients. Our markets. Our audiences.

And spending more and more money and time and effort and creativity on digital advertising is wrong.

The reasons behind these ad spending decisions is likely one of two responses:

  • We’re following trends, or
  • We’re following the thinking that “nobody gets fired for buying IBM”

We’re supposed to be the creative team. And that creativity needs to carry beyond being creative with imagery and videos and content.

We’re supposed to be creative in how we communicate with our audiences.

Yet, our annual budgets continue a trend of increasing focus on social media and digital advertising.

Here’s highlighting Justin Smith’s take on his new venture (as noted above).

“Faced with the technological and societal disruptions of the past two decades, traditional editorial institutions have become almost paralyzed — operationally, politically, culturally.”

Have B2B communications leaders become paralyzed? Unable to shake free from “the way we’ve always done things”, afraid to break out and try something new? Something unique?

Something creative?

Are we chasing fads in order to keep up with current trends?

Sure, there’s a happy medium somewhere here.

  • Between organic and paid
  • Between traditional and digital advertising
  • Between brand and demand generation

However, in today’s attention-driven environment there is no happy and there is no medium.

If we, as leaders, stop and ask the question: “Why are we doing this?” and the answer doesn’t include “to drive trust with our audiences and clients”, we need to change.


It’s time we refocus on how we drive trust with our audiences and clients, and understand how to measure that impact and tell that story.

Is this easy to do? No. It is not.

Is this the right thing to do? For your business? Your team’s success? Your career goals? Yes. It is.

How do we do this? Unlike our addiction to social media and digital advertising, it’s not instantaneous. It is difficult. And it will include some difficult discussions and decisions.

Think about how your sales team, your executive team, your member relations teams engage with their audiences.

Then empower your team to create those same experiences with clients and prospects.

  • Online and offline events
  • Direct communications with current clients and partners
  • Access to calendars for immediate meeting requests

Give the client or prospect what they want: A connection to your team.

And start communicating with your clients.

Not at your clients.

Sources and references

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