Jonathan Dodd: New media rewriting marketing theory

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It's no secret that we live in rapidly changing times. The marketing industry and those serving it (ad agencies, market researchers, media outlets etc) are running just to keep still, constantly seeking guidance or reassurance about what's looming and how to manage it.

In some ways, the very explosion in information and connectivity we are seeing is a help as much as a challenge - marketers tracking the rapid changes occurring within their industry have an unprecedented quantity of information and opinion to draw on. The advice and guidance that exists from industry commentators is phenomenal.

Unfortunately the very nature of most such commentators creates a serious problem in itself, in that most of them understandably comment on their own area of expertise such as social media, search marketing and direct marketing.

In a classic case of "not seeing the wood for the trees", it's easy enough for marketers to believe they are keeping abreast with matters while failing to note the monumental changes we are living within.

Those missing the bigger issues at stake are the commentators and practitioners using phrases such as "sell to", "communicate to", or "market to" - all terms that convey an "us and them" mentality of the traditional marketer, a salesperson who deals with a mass audience via one-way communications.

Without an eye on the big picture, people like this will suffer.

For what we are witnessing is the biggest shift in culture since the Gutenberg press. This is not an overstatement of the importance of social media, for one must bear in mind the term "media" encompasses all communications between people, and as such, changes in media invoke changes in broader culture and society (not for good reason is media control often the first act of dictators).

Until the advent of social media, media developments have only differed by technology. From cave paintings to Web 1.0, all that truly changed was cost, scale, timeliness and cosmetic enhancements. Most media essentially involved the thoughts of a few being distributed to the many.

The internet may have opened up an unparalleled amount of information to the world, but until social media evolved, a web browser was simply a combination library, shop and entertainment zone. Most chat rooms were restricted to clunky linear conversation threads open to the public - like Speakers Corner in Hyde Park: social, yes; sociable, no.

In contrast to the media landscape of the past, and the (falling) barriers of cost and physical access aside, almost everything that makes us human is now free of the traditional restrictions of time, space, editorial and political control. Traditionally separate media formats such as radio, television and newspapers exist as they do only for historical and / or technical reasons, and these reasons are increasingly difficult to justify (content from the Herald itself can now be accessed in eight formats).

Convergence will continue until everything in our lives not conducted face-to-face will occur through a single two-way transmitting device with assorted plug-ins for the physical needs of the user (eg, large-screen TV viewing, bath-friendly digital books). Everyone and everything is well down the track of being accessible to everyone and everything else.

The traditional delineation between content providers, advertisers, researchers, sellers and buyers will blur into a flat hierarchy of equally accessible interactions. What we are now developing isn't so much Web 2.0 but Society 2.0. We've seen how democracy and free information flows can undermine dictatorships; the same applies to the traditional top-down marketing pyramid.

What does this means for marketers? In some ways much will remain unchanged - many people will still opt for advertising-funded passive media like TV and live, localised radio, and it's unlikely that we'll see products such as cat litter being heavily discussed within social media (although even the cat litter manufacturers will have to supplement their 0800 customer lines with social media interfaces).

But the big mindset change required is for marketers to stop thinking like one-to-many salespeople, transforming their brand-customer interactions into quality one-to-one experiences.

Consider the best salespeople and what sets them apart - they listen closely to their customers, engaging them in active, two-way discussions. As a result of this truly interactive conversation they determine how to present their wares in such a way that not only will their customers buy, but they will enjoy the process and feel no regret about their purchase.

In contrast, marketers communicating to a mass audience using traditional mass-market media (the loudhailer approach) have been unable to conduct such high-quality two-way communications, hence the enormous investments made in advertising pre-testing.

Marketers now have to understand that not only are their brands, services and products no longer just part of a marketplace but that they are actually part of a society. Brand managers are used to personifying their brands and imbuing them with personality, so now's the time those personalities have to come alive, communicating with people as equals, not walking, talking wallets. Marketers used to operating large call centres will be used to the management practices required - the same now needs to be applied to the digital space. Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this is to imagine the old model as hundreds of marketers on a stage, all trying to out-perform each other in presenting their sales pitch to the millions of consumers in the audience.

Today, marketers have to picture themselves off the stage, in the audience, accessible to all via equal, two-way interactions. In contrast, "doing a Facebook campaign" merely means taking the mass-market loudhailer to the social media space rather than joining the community.

For marketers struggling to change the "us and them" mindsets that they, their colleagues or agencies may cling to, try this approach - think of (and talk to) your customers as the real people that they are, not anonymous groups of consumers.

* Jonathan Dodd, Research Director, Synovate New Zealand

- NZ Herald

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