Thinking about the future of online marketing

Notice a lot of ads and marketing activity in your virtual ‘hood? Other forms of media are moving online, so the Internet is inherently where you go to get attention for whatever it is you’re selling – widgets, written content, audio and video, political or economic movements.  Our former research and development platform, which became a platform for digital content, then a social platform, is now also defined as the marketing platform of choice. Ads are everywhere, many of them hostile to the user (e.g. those lightbox ads that overlay the content you were hoping to read).  The real stars of the Internet today are not bloggers or other content providers, but marketing mavens like Guy Kawasaki, Robert Scoble, and Pete Cashmore. 

As someone who consults about the Internet and as a web developer, I watch these developments with a large salt shaker within reach, taking everything with a grain of salt. I realize that there are many with online marketing expertise who understand how to run the numbers and have a sense what works and what doesn’t.  I’m sure they’re seeing results for what they do, or they’d be canned. But much of what I’m seeing doesn’t make sense. Those lightboxes I mentioned are a great example: they’re clearly hostile to the user. You can’t avoid ’em, they’re completely in your face, but users I’ve seen are quickly entrained to find the “close” button and shut the ad down without giving it any mind, and to the extent they notice the thing advertised, it’s with some level of irritation and a mental note not to buy from the advertiser who set out to ruin their browsing experience.

One big question for me has been the relationship of marketing to social media. Social media marketing is conceptually so close to spam, and as with spam, I’m constantly surprised that it seems to be working.  My substantial experience working with social media has proved to me over and over that subtle is best, that social media works to facilitate customer engagement, but overt marketing pitches feel wrong in that context. I was talking to Josiah Sternfeld of the Austin-based company Integrous Marketing about this. Josiah, who focuses on search marketing, noted that marketing professionals are rewarded for acquisition, which social media doesn’t do that well – and not for retention, which social media does do well. Broadcast approaches have traditionally driven customer acquisition, and many marketing pros who use social media are broadcasty about it. This seems to work, but I wonder if other approaches could work better – approaches that are more long term, harder to measure, and not productive of rewards and continued employment for marketing pros.

One of the more promising conversations I’ve been in lately is via Project VRM, Doc Searls’ fellowship project at Harvard, and an extenion of his Cluetrain Manifesto thinking. Project VRM is about empowering the customer in relationship with the seller, and it’s similar enough thinking to the participatory medicine concept I’ve been working with that Doc and I (et al.) have been thinking how to bring the concepts together.  As a result of the Internet’s democratization of knowledge and access, it’s possible have a more symmetrical relationship between customer and seller, and between the patient and the healthcare system. In this context, marketing becomes more of a conversation (which is hard, but important, to scale).  An example of VRM is the beta site Buyosphere, “a tool to help you take control of your shopping history: organize it, share it and track how you influence others.” Bazaarvoice also strikes me as a (possibly slightly off-balance) VRM company as it helps businesses “capture, display, share, and analyze customer conversations online.” I say off-balance because it still leans more in the direction of the business than the consumer… but if you dig through Bazaarvoice you’ll find a lot of interesting information about “social commerce.”

My own thought is that much of the online marketing activity we see now is transitional; that we’ll have customer-centric tools and strategies that haven’t quite been defined yet, but as they emerge and mature will change the way marketing works online, and will yield better metrics than we can get today for social media.

When I started this piece, it was going to be a response to piece on “The Digital Age of Marketing,” an article discussing Gartner’s forecasts for online marketing. Gartner’s Adam Sarner is quoted as saying “Successful campaign management strategies have shifted from
interruptive push toward two-way conversations and addressing mutually
beneficial approaches to customers’ wants and needs, which a digital
marketing approach can provide.” I’m not sure this is completely correct (nor is the author of the article, who quote a skeptical Esteban Kolsky of ThinkJar: “You’re basically saying that four out of five people will be basing
their decision on social media. We don’t have that today, and
we won’t have four out of five people actually connected to social
media in 2015.”)  Kolsky, as many others I’ve run across, favors an integrated approach with some social media along with traditional marketing approaches. My point, though, is that the relationship of the customer to the business will likely be redefined, not by social media but by a broader set of tools and new contexts for relationship. And we don’t quite know what that is yet, though Project VRM is a pointer.