Marketing: the Internet Age’s ‘special’ little brother

In the late 1970s as a young child, I was often given free reign if the sun was shining and left to roam about on my own. Mom wanted me to keep to the neighborhood we lived in, so she told me to stay off of the main roads and traffic thoroughfares, but still gave me a bike to ride. Thanks to the woods and trails behind my house, I was able to criss-cross a pretty extensive region of the town of Hyde Park without ever doing more than crossing over one side street or another where it was crossed by a trail. I was frequently joined by not just the other kids in my neighborhood, but by the kids from lots of other neighborhoods all along the same set of trails and cul-de-sac housing developments that dotted the Hyde Park countryside at that time.

This meant, invariably, that I would be hanging out with a mix of known friends and vaguely known strangers (all kids we sometimes saw in the schoolyards or with their folks in church). Typically, in every neighborhood that the trailway touched, there was always someone with a younger brother who was… well, nowadays we’d call them ‘special’, but then-adays we just called them ‘dumb’. Not the mentally handicapped… we knew the difference between children who were developmentally challenged and the kids who were dumber than a box of rocks: the mentally handicapped rode the short bus to school in my district, while the dumb just hung around with their older brothers and got picked on mercilessly by the other kids. Well, we were kids then, and social cruelty is hard wired in children.

Marketing Professionals are to the Internet Age authors what those dumb little brothers were to my childhood romps through the back woods of Hyde Park. There’s nothing physically or mentally wrong with them, they’re just apparently quite slow on the uptake. And they get teased. Mercilessly. I’m not convinced that it’s because of any inherent cruelty on the part of the authors, though. If you take a closer look at what you should be looking to Marketing to provide, perhaps the ‘di-di-di’ little brother title belongs in the hands of Senior Management, not Marketing. But heck, this is Marketing we’re talking about, not a trampoline. No need to remove your shoes before jumping on ’em.

A little harsh, don’t you think?

Okay, I admit it… the folks in Marketing that I’ve been privileged to work with have all been quite sane, intelligent people in their real lives. It just seems that they’ve bought into a myopic professional vision which has continued to paint them as being one step behind the times with regard to the changing social landscape of business in the internet age. As our assigned reading for this week we were exposed to Scoble & Israel’s Naked Conversations (2006), a series of glimpses into discussions with various bloggers and professional anecdotes about the changes that were wrought through the advent of the Blogosphere. I rather like the writing style of Scoble & Israel. I enjoyed reading through the assignment — although I am not fooled, Mr. Gates, no matter what Scoble & Israel say. It will take more than a new PR rep and the meagre breadcrumbs of ‘blogging’ privileges that you so graciously ‘allow’ your employees to engage in to convince me that the Evil Empire has changed, really and truly changed. You’ve duped the foolish, but you’re still a force of living evil in the technosphere that needs to be erradicated through open source platforms, intuitive user-centered design, market competition and collaborative efforts of startup visionaries who ignore Microsoft and build tools that work well without security risks.

Ahem. I digress.

The one thing that makes me kind of scratch my head with most of the writing that we’ve been reading in ICM501 this semester has been the horrible picture nearly all of these writings have painted of the Marketing profession in the late 20th and early 21st century. Really and truly, the scapegoats of the internet age seem to be Marketing professionals. While managers have constantly been the butt of many jokes throughout the ages, Marketing seems to have taken the fall especially hard for failing to anticipate the way in which the market would move in response to the internet.

Common Sense? Only in Hindsight

What amazes me is that we point to the Marketing execs and blame them for the business models of the past.

What did they do?

They advertised at me!

Really?

Yes, it made me feel icky and unwanted. I did not choose to see their ad, I was visually assaulted with advertising when all I wanted to do was buy a cookie.

Sounds like marketing violation to me.

Indeed. I think I’ll go complain about it on mySpace.

Okay, so it’s hyperbole and overly simplified, but really, what has Marketing done wrong? It’s pretty common to hear little snippets of “insight” being bandied about now which makes it seem like we, the consumers, have been up in arms about things all along, and only now, now that the internet is acutally here, are we finally being shown as the visionary right-thinking educated elite that we really and truly are. About damned time someone patted us on the back.

The slippers were there all along, Dorothy

The harsh thing about all this is that we treat the very concept that we, the consumers, have some kind of a choice, as though it were something that’s new. As though in the neoDark Ages prior to the Web we consumers were chained to a wall and fed only a choice between slop or gruel, with or without flies in it? Consumers have always been the ones who were in charge of the marketplace. Okay, perhaps ‘in charge’ is a strong word, but we’ve always been the target of marketing efforts. Why spend all those millions and billions of dollars over the past hundred or so years to influence us in making a choice if there wasn’t a choice in our hands already?

The only thing that’s shifted is that we, the dimwitted consumers, have finally heard the alarm clock blaring and chosen to rouse ourselves into a moment of confused wakefulness. We’ve looked at the choices we made during the party the night before, lying in bed next to us, and some of us have actually started gnawing on our arms to get away. Others have fallen in love. Others have shrugged and passed back out again, more happy not to have to make difficult decisions even if it means sleeping with a toad.

But don’t blame the marketers. Let’s face it, after one business meeting with someone from Marketing in the room, you sort of start to realize that Marketing has been one long game of catch-up with a couple of hit-or-miss successes, a few actual home runs, and the rest nothing more than the original kings and queens of ‘spin’ using their tricks on their own employers and clients. Expecting Marketing to be anticipatory is an exercise in futility. Not because they don’t -want- to anticipate the next trend, but because usually the folks who follow marketing as a profession tend to use the training and tools of that trade. And those tools require research first be done to analyze a phenomenon which has already been spotted in the business community. Once the research is done, then the analytics takes hold, and six months and millions of pixels worth of powerpoint decks and hours upon hours of meetings and pitches finally produces something that looks suspiciously like a plan of action.

You say ‘vision’, they hear ‘risk’

Nowadays nothing gets done in the business communities which isn’t preceded by consulting the modern day Delphic Oracle, the force which rules the world of business so guardedly that they’ve even chosen an acronym for it which translates in French to ‘king’. I’m talking, of course, about the ROI, or ‘Return On Investment’. Typically communicated within the pages of a ‘white paper’, the ROI is full of stories that the salespeople put together so that you can see that someone else has already tried this risky little maneuver and made money at it. The inference is that it’s now safe to enter the marketplace, gold and glory are here indeed.

These are the tools of modern business. These are the talismans to ward off Senior Management audits, negative P&L statements, the amulets to drive away poverty, the gris-gris to work mojo upon the marketplace to turn PowerPoint Decks into Net Profits. They are also inherently reactive. They follow the leaders of the marketplace, they don’t blaze the trail. Marketing leads this second charge, moving into the battlefield to plunder the fallen already downed by the Early Adopters, the true visionaries, and ultimately the ones who risk failure and often find it, but every so often find market success in boatloads.

Rearview Drivers

You don’t expect your drivers to focus on the rear view mirror to the exclusion of what’s on the road. And yet we read article after article, like Scoble & Israel’s work, which at least gently ridicules the failure of Marketing professionals to have anticipated things that in retrospect seem common sense. Like the fact that we hate intrusive marketing efforts. Junk mail, pop up banner ads, radio and television commercials, etc. All so pesky and distracting that We the Market are flocking to new technology in droves to shut it out and turn it off.

But no one in their right minds lets Marketing drive a corporate organization. Marketing is in the business of spin, not advancement. They measure success in tenths-of-a-percent and failure in whether the client smiled before they hung up or not, and they are helpless to advise on any kind of business model that is actually new or innovative. At least until the market shows whether or not the new gambit is successful or not.

The Blogosphere cropped up and has become a force which has made business take notice. The cultural implications of the changes that blogging has brought about are quite noticeable now, so of course the marketing folks know all about them. Scoble & Israel are actually trying to get the word out in printed format so that the marketing folks will have a reference to put into their PowerPoint documents for their next client pitches. It’s not the only thrust of what they’re doing, but it will certainly help the folks in Marketing to look like they’re forward thinking in front of their bosses and their clients.

References

  • Scoble, R. & Israel, S. (2006). Naked Conversations. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 1-62
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2 responses to “Marketing: the Internet Age’s ‘special’ little brother

  1. exploringinteractivecommunication

    Do you think marketing will move to blogging in the sense to get the word out more about a product or item? or no?

  2. I think that Marketing needs to be understood as a department for its strengths and weaknesses. Public Relations is the department that should be looked to for using blogs as part of public outreach.

    Whenever Marketing gets involved with something, the first question should always be “Where’s the money?” because Marketing is best at squeezing incremental money out of the marketplace. 🙂 It’s what they do… they take existing technology and management’s strategic vision and figure out a way to make money from it by manipulating the appeal of [whatever] to the marketplace.

    Backward thinking department. In its business genes.

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