Part 5. The Marketer’s Dilemma
People are a mixture sameness and change. Human nature for the most part has remained the same mixture of kindness and savagery since we were cave dwellers. What keeps changing are our tools. For the past six or seven decades the tools of conversation were disrupted by the tools of broadcasting. As we evolve from generation to generation those tools have, among other things, allowed us to communicate and travel more easily with more people in more places.
But for a period of several decades, something went awry in the marketplace. As the benchmark Cluetrain Manifesto so eloquently pointed out, markets are conversations. But for about 60 years, the communications tools made marketing communications, a one directional. Traditional marketing’s arsenal of advertising, promoting, researching and targeting customers worked well for a great many years. From the enterprise perspective, this has worked well for a long time, but all that seems to be coming to a rapid halt.
As almost any branding, advertising, marketing or PR professional will tell you, traditional broadcast marketing programs have become excessively expensive almost at the same rate as they have become less effective. Part of the problem is that the messengers are dying. Newspapers and traditional broadcast media are atrophying. The head of the New York Times online division has predicted that the paper edition of the venerable publication will cease to exist in five years. In the US, TV network news has one third the viewers as it did 30 years ago and the average viewer’s age is 60.
That is the state of traditional marketing as that industry has practiced it. Few would argue that it is broken, many would say irreparably. All this has occurred simultaneous to the explosion of blogging blogging, wikis, digital audio and video programs. Just as the communications industry has tried to get its arms around those innovations comes the remarkable explosion of new online social media tools that all everyday people to create, inform, record and store whatever they want without so much as a marketing jingle or focus group to study their behavior.
When a serious business strategist examines sites like MySpace, it is a scary proposition. Is this really where a company will have to go to build awareness, sales and loyalty with the next generation? Should a communications officer really advise a CEO to don a virtual costume and go barter for an intangible currency on Second Life?
With a few exceptions, these could be career shortening tactics.
The problem is that’s where the customers are. That’s where conversations that will shape the future of your company are. These tools are shaping the culture of an entire generation. Even the politicians in most western democracies are flocking to Online Communities because that’s where the voters are and will be.
This is the marketer’s dilemma. They are at a crossroads. One route is safe and familiar, but it may lead to Jurassic park where the other fossils who could not adapt to change reside. The other choice is to start to understand the strange and mysterious world of Onliners, to use your ears and eyes to see how it works to join other people’s conversations before even trying to start your own about your company, goods and services.
Joining Onliners where they spend their time creates a classic good news/bad news situation. The good news is that by using the efficient and powerful new tools you will save your company a bundle. You can use the money to improve products and support and still have some left over to increase investor returns.
The bad news is that you are going to have to do things differently, very, very differently and in the traditional enterprise change comes slowly and painfully. Even worse, while an established company contemplates change, a bunch of Onliners can start a company free of legacy baggage and built to exist mostly online where they can compete against you with amazing agility.
Global Neighborhoods does not advise companies to abandon the programs they have been using. But it urges them to understand that the end to a great many of them is coming and coming sooner than they may think. While harvesting those programs, the book urges companies to begin to understand the massive shift in direction coming over the next few years.
A few companies companies have been wise to start in this direction. None of them are considered radical disruptors to the status quo. A few examples:
• Hitachi Data Systems who started a wiki, not about themselves, but addressing the issues of data storage. Not only are customers and prospects invited to join in, but so are competitors. Companies can say what they want, but inside the wiki, the customer is the decision maker. How does Hitachi win? It started the wiki, thus creating an online water cooler for anyone who cares about data storage. Every sale that somehow connects to the wiki will not go to Hitachi, but, as first mover, it has earned the respect and is generally perceived as the topical thought leader.
• Wells Fargo Bank, wishing to show it cares about home owners and property, has started a blog on disaster preparedness. When a disaster—a flood, fire or other act of natural violence occurs, Wells Fargo becomes the news center for information updates and advice on resources for victims. The goal is to have the bank’s brand perceived as the most caring in the category. To achieve it, they need to write about matters far removed from how wonderful the local branch serves small businesses.
With an eye toward building life long relationships with young people, the bank also started a student loan and debt management advisory blog that educates rather than sells.
• CNET, born online, CNET is best known for news and product reviews. But in the last few years, it has lost some steam, not to mention ad revenues to rival online media companies. A few years back, it started a communities division whose look and feel is very different from the remainder of the company. CNET communities attempts to amplify the voice of people who do not already have powerful voices online through blogs or other means. For example, if you dine at a restauraunt you love or hate, you could write a letter to your local newspaper editor. You could review it on a personal blog or you could post as a member of Chowhound, one of CNET’s four, youthful communities. As such the people most passionate about dining where you live would find your comments and thus CNET amplifies your influence. In short, explained Martin Green, general manager, “we amplify the voices of people who feel like they are hollering in a hurricane.” All four communities receive heavy advertising support and are experiencing growth.
But, the book points out, all this has really just begun. Other companies and individuals with formidable track records are moving to adapt the creative and collaborative tools of social media to the enterprise.
Cisco, the leader in infrastructure for the last internet website generation, has moved decisively toward helping corporations modernize into the social media era. They acquired Five Across, a social media platform as well as Tribe.Net, a once-popular social networking site.
Also of significance, is Ning, a company co-founded by Marc Andreessen, Netscape’s father of the web interface promises its online tools will let any person r company to build their own online social network. Who does what with it remains to be seen.