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.

Five questions you should ask about marketing, PR, and social media

Big flash recently, as someone said “social media is not the same as social media marketing.” Of course, that’s true. In fact, social media is one of those complex phenomena about which our thinking is often insufficiently complex – we think of it as one thing because there’s this one label, but infact the term “social media” is plural, and the concept overlays many communication contexts, personal and professional.

Where to start? Perhaps with marketing and PR.

Seeing that mindshare is moving online, and in the digitally convergent online ecosystem, channels have been multiplying like crazy, some of us assumed that marketing people were seeing the handwriting on the wall, realizing that they will have increasingly more trouble building attention, and were focusing on social media hoping to get a handle on the space. When we would bring up these issues and they didn’t like it, we assumed that the resistance was a manifestation of informed anxiety, that they understood their predicament.

However, I now wonder whether marketing pros didn’t believe their world was changing that much, and considered us naive to think so. It seemed obvious to me that mindshare is increasingly fragmented across many channels, and marketing products across media will be increasingly challenging and labor-intensive. Could this be hard to see? Or could I be wrong?

And how about metrics for social media marketing?

I have been known to say that any metrics connecting social media messages to actual responses or conversions would be suspect. It seems obvious to me that it would be hard to connect a purchase or conversion to some specific conversation or event within social media. Drivers for conversion can be complex and scattered across many channels. What did you do that worked? How do you know that you’re having any effect at all? Howe meaningful is it that a million people “like” you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter? Engaging may be more important than measuring hits, but engagement can be expensive and labor-intensive to scale, and again, the metrics can be hard. I assumed marketing pros were looking for some sort of metrics, a dashboard that shows aggregate numbers, whether accurate or not – they’re in a world that runs on numbers, accurate or not. What’s the discipline if you can’t quantify your success (or lack of success)?

My smarter colleagues, like Dave Evans, didn’t try to pull marketing professionals into the world of social media and get them to see it for what it is. Rather, they kept their advice closer to business as usual, showing enough of what’s changed to be useful, but offering a sense of security – people are people and the world hasn’t changed that much. I no longer have an argument here: I realize that people need to believe the ground beneath their feet is somewhat solid.

And it could be that, if you’re a marketing professional, the social media are just a new set of channels that you work like any others. It’s just a mashup of television, radio, and newspapers, all differently distributed. You’ll still be able to have an effect on a relatively large audience (and the need to do so may bias development over time in favor of a more broadcast approach to Internet programming, something that has made seasoned Internet pros like me shudder whenever it’s come up. If the Internet becomes television, its power as an engine of creativity and innovation diminishes. Many voices are drowned out by a few, effectively “marketed.”)

To summarize that last point, If you’re in marketing and you don’t think your world is changing radically, social media won’t mean much to you. When you hear an Internet maven talk about challenges to your world, you don’t feel anxiety – rather, you tell yourself that Internet people are crazy idealists that don’t understand how the world works.

I’m just speculating, since I don’t have a marketing background. As a writer and sometimes journalist, and as an Internet professional, I have more affinity with the world of public relations. Marketing is about consumers, demand, and sales. Public relations is about relationships, conflict resolution, cooperation and collaboration. From a professional perspective, social media is just another set of tools for the PR person, and if you’re selling yourself as a social media consultant, you might as well say you’re in public relations (but you’d better be armed with an understanding of all that entails).

I had an aha moment about this in New York recently, having dinner with my friend Doug Barnes, a technology-focused attorney. I described my research and focus of the last three years, and how I’d never been quite sure how to present it to potential clients. Hearing me describe how I started 3-4 years ago creating an approach for analyzing an organization’s social connections, building a model of the org’s social network, and working with them to determine how most effectively to address and leverage that network, Doug said “That’s public relations. Why don’t you just say that’s what you do?”

As a journalism student in the early 70s, I was drawn to public relations, but I didn’t make it my career at the time. Over the last two decades I’ve built my career on Internet expertise, focused mostly on community, engagement, relationships and communication. I’ve apparently come back, almost forty years after I first studied it, to public relations through that path. Thinking about this, I realize that I know other “social media consultants” who don’t see that they’re knocking on PR’s door – without necessarily the training or understanding of communication that a PR person should have.

Pure social media consulting turns out to be a difficult business. Naturally, organizations that need help with communication strategy are hiring PR companies, not social media companies, and the social media consultants who came through the Internet, especially those who came through specific platforms (the Twitterati), aren’t getting the jobs they dreamed they would get. Many companies, like the marketing pros I mentioned earlier, realize social media is important but don’t necessarily see it as a major change – rather, it’s a couple more media channels to address, Facebook and Twitter. How hard can it be to set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account? Hire a low-cost college graduate to do it, they’ll understand how that stuff works.

So while many of us are seeing a profound culture and communication change, with marketing and PR and social/community organization transformed, and traditional business models (especially for media) disrupted and made obsolete, this hasn’t necessarily sunk in with the business world, apart from some clueful early adopters. Zappos, for example. I read somewhere that Tony Hsieh’s board persistently pushed back on his innovative uses of social media because they just didn’t get it. It took one guy standing up for it to make Zappos a social media success, and I don’t think the board ever got it.

Why is all this important to consider? We all know that the Internet is transformational and is touching all aspects of our lives, and we know that social organization is increasingly computer-mediated. I don’t think we’re clear, however, how this plays out in business, where there’s enough trouble and anxiety in the normal day to day given the way way down economy – so who has time to think about social strategy, culture change, transformation, evolution, noosphere, etc?

But we have sufficient and significant adoption and innovation, so the transformation is happening, whether we acknowledge it or not. We can innovate in an innovative context and build what Jean Russell would call a thrivable future, or we can resist change, adhere to old ways in the new context, and at best lose opportunities, at worst create huge messes.

If I was involved in marketing, public relations, or media production, I think I would take a few days to step back, look at what’s happening, and do some strategic thinking, ask some questions. Here are five points to stimulate your thinking:

  • How are people using their time and their mindshare when it’s not engaged in work/survival? Clay Shirky refers to our cognitive surplus, time and mental energy that we can commmit at our discretion.
  • How do people take media, and how do they take messages within media? Are we seeing changes in consciousness/attention? To what extent can people screen out messages they don’t want to see/hear? How do you engage someone sufficiently that they want to be exposed to your message?
  • When people are otherwise engaged, how well do ambient messages get through? And what are the ethics regarding ambient or more direct messages mediated by technology as persistent parts of the environment (think “Minority Report.”)
  • How well can companies engage their customers, and how well does that scale – or how can it scale – in mass markets? (Governments have the same question re constituents.)
  • How do you measure the effectiveness of an approach or campaign in a context that is more social and conversational? And what should you be measuring – what are the ethics of measurement?

Social networks, social markets

Interesting data (for November 2009) from

In “social media” consulting, there’s a tendency to want to standardize on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (not on this list), and possibly YouTube if you have an ability and/or desire to incorporate video as part of your presence. Why Twitter? Given its relatively low adoption, especially compared to Facebook, I find myself wondering why it’s such a big deal to the social media marketing crowd. I get why it’s included – though it doesn’t have huge adoption, it has a lot of influencers. It can also work as a feed source for Facebook. I include it myself, when I do social media consulting.

I think it’s a big deal to some people because it was their introduction to online social interaction, and made it interesting for them when it hadn’t been before, and was both web and mobile – a very “smart mobs” scene, early on used for coordination as much as interaction. There are quite a few people who came to online social networking through Twitter, and didn’t have any experience of older online communities, like the WELL or Usenet Newsgroups, or the first appearance of journals and blogs and wikis in the nineties, or the evolution of social network platforms from Six Degrees to Ryze to Friendster to Orkut to Myspace and Facebook. They think “real” online social interaction started much later, and they think some of those older systems are dead media (even though systems like the WELL and Usenet are still rocking on).

Twitter seems to be losing ground, and I think it’s because Facebook has done a good job of incorporating Twitter’s best features (short messaging, activity streaming) and making a more robust technology (embedded rich media, no cap on message length, etc.) I’m still using both, but my Twitter messages are all incorporated in my Facebook stream, and that’s where the conversations are happening.

Facebook is probably a better marketing platform via pages and groups. You can only go so far with marketing on Twitter before it feels like spam, and I’m not sure any of these platforms is ideal for making sales happen, despite the successes of Zappos and Dell. Those may be exceptions to a rule that says “I don’t want to hear marketing messages at all.” Dave Evans has a good point, which he’s made subtly by saying that marketing and operations need to have better, closer relationships. The advertising/messaging part of marketing is not terribly effective anywhere anymore – people resist it. You have to figure out how to do great things and make them visible without the overt sales pitch. This requires a whole different kind of creative thinking… I don’t think it’s completely clear how to message a product in the new and evolving world of digital media. (I’d love to hear thoughts about what works – leave a comment!)