The invention of computers probably marked the beginning of the end for “traditional” marketing methods, even if it is taking decades to come down.
I remember being twelve years old and logging into this novel thing called “Prodigy” – essentially a graphic interface for BBSs – and thinking that this was going to completely change the way the world spoke to one another. I foresaw telephone companies folding entirely if they didn’t embrace the technology, and I imagined a whole new industry of people who had to create and maintain all these servers. Little did I know what my gloriously young mind had predicted, because that is exactly what happened.
Of course, it’s become so much more than just that. When we talk about the revolution in marketing that the internet has brought about, we tend to stop short of what the total impact is. It’s not just that we have more ways to get at our target audience – it’s that the target audience has even more choice on whether or not to do business with us, and that means we have to speak to them on a whole new level.
A brief history lesson about the internet
Possibly the most telling thing that’s come from the internet revolution is that companies are now much more naked than they ever have been before. Public information on corporations has always been available to some degree or another, but bothering to access that information was a trying experience, and only the most determined (journalists, industry researchers) would venture to attempt it. Exposés on companies required such intense work that they took months to come to fruition, and then only a relatively small portion of the population read about them. In newspapers. Printed on paper. With ink.
Then radio and television became common in everyone’s homes, and those reports reached more people. The nightly news was a ritual for individuals and families all across the nation. Companies became more concerned about their public reputations, and with good reason: a couple of bad reports could get the peasants riled with their pitchforks and torches (metaphorically, of course), and that could ruin a publicly traded company overnight. As a result, most large corporations learned to hide their practices better.
And then, just as everyone settled into a nice quiet trickle-down status quo, the Internet happened.
It was a slow rumble at first as the seedling of online reviews started sprouting. Forums (sleeker BBSs, essentially), opinion sites, consumer reports, and brand-devoted individual-driven websites popped up. Companies that had been around for ages weren’t really sure what to do with this new squalling bundle of public opinion, especially when it began growing exponentially. The clever entities who adopted online presence early discovered something even more alarming: customers didn’t just throw money at them, they actually talked back.
And more than that, they talked to each other. (cue dramatic music)
Excuse me, your business practices are showing
What this ultimately meant was that customers discovered that they were not having their experiences in a vacuum, and the internet allowed them not only to connect with other customers having the same or similar experiences but also to communicate more readily and directly to the company in question. They were able to quickly compare different companies from the comfort of their own monitor glow and make choices from there. And that’s how online reputations went from dark little corners of the forum-driven internet to being one of the main motivators of consumer behavior.
The impact on the flow of business is remarkable, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first. Suddenly (not so suddenly), consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with the ethics of a company’s practices in addition to their products (Chik-Fil-A, for instance, getting flack for their anti-gay stances, or WalMart with its highly negative impact on small economies). This does, indeed, affect the way they spend their money, and in a culture of perceived scarcity and recession, they think very carefully about the money they spend.
From our perspective as digital marketers in particular, we cannot afford to rely on the good old “BUY NOW” buttons and “CLICK HERE TO SAVE” tactics. The collective power of the ‘net requires a more compelling reason for someone to make an action. Companies must occur to their audience as relatable, as nearly human. The people buying from them want more and more transparency. They want to know what kinds of corporate cultures are being nurtured, how they’re sourcing their products, who they’re using as vendors, and other tidbits like that.
“Not everyone is like that”? You know, that’s actually true – but only for the moment. The trick to staying ahead of a curve is to know that the curve is coming, and the sociological indicators strongly suggest that this matter of “consumers requiring responsible business practices” is only going to grow in the future.
How to work with the new marketing
That’s the big question, isn’t it? If your old tactics relied on the NEW! SHINY! SENSATIONAL! kind of marketing speak, you’re just not going to get very much traction anymore – certainly not as much as you used to. You have to tailor your marketing to count as more than just advertising.
Start a conversation with your audience. What are their needs? What are their wants? Put out surveys asking them to help you shape the next phase of your business. Post to interaction forums such as Facebook and Twitter so that the conversation is public – not only so that other people can see it but so that you are publicly held accountable for what you commit to. This the cornerstone of integrity, an element that many customers don’t even realize they crave.
Share information about something besides exclusively your products and services. Yes, we know you have the very best house paint on the market (or we’d assume you at least think so), but no one is going to read a blog or social media channel about nothing but your house paint. Discuss how different colors affect different people psychologically. Compare and contrast traditional paints with low- or no-VOC versions. What’s really the difference between eggshell, ghost white, old lace, splashed white, and dover white? Provide information that clearly positions you as an authority and an expert in your field.
Engage in social and public demonstrations that align with your company’s core values. Plant some trees, pick up garbage, work a soup kitchen – but don’t talk about doing it, invite other people to do it with you. Don’t post it in a press release, ask your audience directly. Put your money where your mouth is and make a difference in your community. You are asking the members of that community to support you financially, it is both personally and fiscally responsible take take care of them in return. This demonstrates one of the most powerful emotions, compassion.
Once that is all done, then you can talk about your products and services. Don’t scream at your audience, don’t try to wow and dazzle them. Talk about it. Here’s a lovely picture of your newest remote controlled spider, and on the side is a simple yet comprehensive list of features. And maybe it just happens to come with a rhinestone tiara? Of course, use the best design practices you can, keep your typography on point, make it pretty, but don’t ruin a perfectly good relationship by overreaching your emotional equity. Your audience by now already trusts you, and you have demonstrated that you are grateful for their patronage. Trust them to make a good choice.
This is a major shift from any marketing process ever taught before – but it is the natural response to the growing self-awareness and conscientious attitudes of the whole human population. If we start now moving to this much more organic and human marketing method, we will be cresting the wave of the next generation of business instead of doggy-paddling frantically behind.