The Internet is not (just) a marketing platform

by jonl

Fading Coke sign by Jenny Solis S..

Increasingly I’m finding that, as a consultant about effective Internet communication, I have to talk about marketing, how to market to, for, and with communities and social networks.

Marketing is, always has been, an important part of the media mix, and it’s important to understand how the transformation and evolution of media – the emerging world of “social media” or “new media” or “digital media” – will change how we think about marketing and how it works.

To say what I want to say here, I have to devote a few paragraphs to my background. Over twenty years ago my life took a turn when I discovered a technology that connects people to people. Since then I’ve followed a career path that’s all about computer networks and social networks, and how the former mediates the latter to ever greater effect.

In the 1990s my focus was on cyberculture and Internet policy via the Electronic Frontier Foundation and related tribes, including EFF-Austin, and on Internet-mediated community + commerce and web publishing via FringeWare, Inc. and Whole Foods Market. At Whole Foods, I learned so much about building web sites that, when the dotcom bust ended the ecommmerce projects I was working on, I started a web development company, Polycot Consulting. Polycot was a cutting-edge, standards-based, open source web company, a partnership with two brilliant developers, Matt Sanders and Jeff Kramer. Part of my role in the company was based on what I’d always done, surf the edges of web trends and understand what technology patterns we should recommend and build for our clients. Because of my focus on community, I was particularly focused on the evolution of the social web. Because of my focus on publishing, I was particularly interested in the trend away from professional to personal content – the blog. Because I hung out at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conferences and SXSW Interactive here in Austin, and because I had so many connections within ‘net culture, I was spending time with many of the best and brightest thinkers about the direction of the web. I was in conversations about trends that came to be labeled “web 2.0,” and the evolution of social networks, social media, social web.

So I was drawn into the “social media” conversation when it started within the last 3-4 years. I had been building a consulting methodology focused on helping people understand and leverage their relevant social networks to accomplish their personal or organizational goals. As a consulting practice, it worked well. When we heard people talking about social media, we thought there might be a conceptual link to what we were doing. I started paying attention, and thought I would consult in that space – really a matter of effective communication in the new world of participatory, omnidirectional, Internet-based communication. It was the sort of consulting I was ideally suited to do.

I’m presenting all of this background to make it clear that I’m not just talking to hear my head rattle. The Internet, the web, and what we’ve come to call “social media” and “social business,” the social web, is my career and my life, what I live and breathe, something I feel passionate about. A digital culture has been emerging for two decades. It’s opened up a world where anyone can produce and publish content; it’s a powerful and disruptive context for human energy, intelligence, and innovation. On the Internet we can mash up our personal and professional lives and selves and effectively channel creative impulses we never knew we had.

My life online led me into a company called Plutopia Productions the name of which derives from “pluralist” + “utopias.” The Plutopia krew has evolved a vision of a DIY world where everyone can build to a unique, personal set of specs – configurable homes, configurable scenes, all mediated by pervasive technologies… the realization of the cyborganic vision many of us were talking about in the 90s.

So here’s the drum roll, and the point I’ve been working toward in this post:

The Internet is not a marketing platform.

Obviously marketing is a powerful part of the mix of many things we all do online. Increasingly I find myself consulting about effective marketing communications using social media, and I know how important that can be for some people. The Internet is also an effective platform for getting customer feedback into both product marketing and operations.

For some, there’s a temptation to want to structure the Internet as an environment for sales and marketing, where those activities can be as dominant as they became with television when it emerged as pervasive media in the fifties and sixties. Marketing was such an obvious use for the medium, which was saturated over time with commercial messages. Over decades in a world of persistent, pervasive commercials, audiences started shutting down, became marketing resistant.

As this was happening, the Internet emerged, lowered the barriers to media production, and now anyone can produce as well as consume media. We are empowered, and we feel that we don’t have to follow marketing messages at all – we ignore them, even suppress them. If Facebook decides to become less of a social engine and more of a marketing engine, someone else will build an open alternative that isn’t about selling, and Facebook might just be doomed to beocme the 21st Century AOL.

We do see an emerging Internet marketing discipline, an approach that can be summed up in a word: spam, which has come to be used as a term for any unsolicited commercial message delivered online.

However there’s another approach that is lighter and more consistent with digital culture. When I give talks about social media, which is often, my message is that you have to forget manipulative or interruptive marketing and selling and build authentic relationships with your customers/clients/constituents instead. That’s hard to do and it doesn’t scale very well. Traditional marketing people are often uncomfortable going there, and that’s not unreasonable – they have efficient processes geared to mass marketing and advertising, and those do scale, and they do seem to have an effect. But mass media’s fading if not evaporating, mindshare is fragmented, and in a social network/digital media context, mass marketing feels like, or is, spam.

I don’t have a marketing background, but as a new media expert, I believe that, if you’re in marketing, you have to rethink all your strategies and processes and get your head around a media environment that enables symmetrical relationships with customers. In this context, your customer is your partner, not your “target.” Read The Cluetrain Manifesto (which I’ve been advocating since it appeared in the 90s). Get familiar with Project VRM. Marketing strategies that empower the customer are the new black. (Those that don’t are the new black and blue.)

If you want a good model for new thinking, check out Tara Hunt’s work. She strikes me as particularly clueful about 21st century marketing, viewed from an online marketing professional’s perspective, but also from an online community builder’s perspective. You can also contact me if you need help in thinking about how your business can be more effective with new media.

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