Marketing in its traditional form needs to change. Social media, now at the end of its hype curve, was not the magic bullet. What will save marketing will be selling and proving our value.

At year’s end, people tend to come out with numerous predictions for the new year. Three reasons drive would-be pundits to do this: first is a bit of sentimentality at what we just lived through. Secondly, it’s a way to be perceived by peers, prospects and potential employers as prescient and knowledgeable. Finally, coming-year predictions are also a way to provide one’s $0.02 on the industry in hopes that the following year, you’ll be able to look back and see how accurate your foresightedness was.

Every new wave of culture-shifting technologies has a hype curve. Early adopters try and test new memes (CB radio in 1974, AOL in 1990, internet email in 1994, build your first website in 1995, e-commerce in 2001, MySpace in 2004, podcasting in 2005, Twitter in 2007, Facebook in 2008), and generate an increasingly large volume of online reports and “news” about these memes. The public catches on (I saw Twitter lists utilized on CNN last week) and the masses follow. But often, by the time they get there, two things have happened:

  1. The early adopters have grown bored or burnt out and have moved onto the next thing.
  2. The masses bring an unmanageable level of noise, desperation (think MLM), and spam to the channel, largely devaluing it.

In 2010, social media as we know it will follow suit. Already Facebook and Twitter are being regularly compromised by phishing and viruses. The Get Rich Quick crowd has discovered Twitter and the financially desperate are driving their follower numbers through the roof; Twitter, in my mind, has already passed from social media mainstay to CB-Radio-Land. And the traditional press, which maxed out its interest in social media in the summer of 2009, will have moved onto some other shiny object.

I would argue that the rapid rise in social media adoption is tied to another bubble bursting: the effectiveness of intrusive, interruptive marketing approaches.

Two groups dominated the 2005-2009 Social Media Hype Bubble

At the pinnacle of the hype curve, two crowds dominated social media: techie pundits and marketers. With my own 13-year background as a software engineer and analyst, I can tell you that techies crave press. We’re often a bit impaired socially (better with machines than people, ya know?) and getting press is both a bit of an affirmation of our tech prowess as well as a solid boost to our egos. I’m going to use “techies” as a term here not to diss them, but because it’s simply shorter to type. 🙂

The other group I saw upfront in the hype bubble were marketers. At the front of the curve, people like Jeremiah Owyang, Jennifer Jones, and Steve Rubel were among the most prolific and most credible in this arena. They get a Social Media Pioneer hat-tip from me because they saw the value early on and were great at helping marketers understand this new engagement channel, in terms marketers could understand.

But two trends emerged in this bubble that weren’t very admirable, both involving the perceptual “lenses” of each group. One was techies trying to be marketers. The other was marketers trying to turn social media into just one more outbound monologue channel.

Social media is not marketing. Marketing is not spamming.

The Cluetrain Manifesto, that anti-marketing treatise written through the eyes of techies, is an oft-quoted Bible of sorts for the tech social media crowd. “The funnel is dead!” “Companies need to realize their markets are laughing at them.” I’m paraphrasing, of course; the main point is that the document was a dismissive, we’re-smarter look at marketing from a non-marketer’s perspective. As both techie and marketer, I agree with much of the Manifesto but find it’s a bit tribal in the delivery of its message.

A number of techies came out trying to latch onto the marketing profession and rewrite its DNA, often in an arrogant way. I heard one popular techie, in a speech to marketers, talk about how some marketers still needed “training wheels” and “pants for their ass.” Dude, seriously? Helloooo, Social Skills Hotline?

If you want to sell someone something, don’t tell them they’re infants.

On the flip side of the coin, I’ve seen marketers, advertisers and PR folks unable to see the shift in culture toward engagement and dialogue, continuing to try to use social media as one more sales channel. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen headlines that read “learn how to reach new audiences” or “use social media to convert prospects.” That marketers’ I-have-a-hammer-and-everything-looks-like-a-nail approach fuels negative techie attitude against them.

The result: a techie echo chamber and an increasingly commercial, rather than social, media environment. Neither benefit the greater good.

In the defense of marketers

Of all the corporate professions out there, I would propose that no other field has undergone as much of a transformation as Marketing. I’m not talking about their approach to the market. I’m talking about management’s approach to them.

Ten years ago in Capistrano Beach

Trappings: my pad in Capistrano Beach

Marketing was a relatively glamorous job ten years ago. Glitz, flash, and image were pretty powerful conveyors of value in our culture at that time during the Clinton Years. And if you were really good at making a client, product or service look good, you were rewarded handsomely. Ten years ago, I lived in a 5000-square-foot home on a cliff above the Pacific in Capistrano Beach, California and flew around in my luxury sports sedan hitting black-suit-filled marketing summits and packed martini mixers. Those were good years. We were well-paid, worked hard, and management looked to us for direction.

Today, management looks to us, but with disdain. Markets don’t have time or tolerance for glitz. Which means that the Picassos and Rembrandts among marketers are often either turned into Photoshop burger-flippers or have moved on.

Most of the amazing creatives I’ve met have left the business. The web artisans who created thought-provoking and emotionally moving immersive experiences are gone. And the budgets to move and compel people have disappeared. Most marketers are under incredible scrutiny these days to deliver results with perhaps a third of their 2002 budgets and on a third of the schedule it takes to do it right. Marketing is in a state of true recession—as in, we are receding. In many cases, Marketing has been subjugated by Sales, and the craftspeople are working for the hypesters. What do you get out of those kinds of marketing departments? Buy buy BUY! Call now, call now, call now! In other words, the exact kind of product that kills sales.

Sales gets the empowered consumer far less than Marketing does.

Good marketers are incredibly valuable people. They are often social, artistic, intellectual, non-pushy, and professional. Most are open-minded and experimental. ALL are working very hard. But the pressures to deliver are harder on marketers than any other part of the management team. I can’t tell you how many miserable marketers I know right now. They are unvalued, treated with disdain and given the most ludicrous hoops to jump through. Their common refrain: “how did our dream job turn into this?”

So we have a mandate here: to transform our profession from dismissal to empowerment, by changing our approaches and leaving behind our fear of risk.

Techies: set aside your egos—and teach

As receivers of the traditional marketing “product,” the techies are right: Marketing needs to transform itself as a profession. Dialogue must replace monologue. Engagement must transcend reach and frequency as end goals. Marketers need to understand how the empowered consumer doesn’t really need their messaging anymore. What’s working against them is time. Few marketers have their nights and weekends to themselves anymore. It’s a tough job and when you’re exhausted, learning a new approach that your bosses don’t quite understand doesn’t always equate to job security during the biggest recession of our lives.

What the techie crowd can do is to SUPPORT marketers and try to walk in their shoes a bit. Stop talking about marketing when you’ve never been a marketer. Seriously Set aside that need for social affirmation for a moment and truly try to understand the world of the folks you’re dissing. Speak to them in supportive terms. Don’t tell them they need pants.

Marketers: for the love of God, stop gushing desperation and take some frickin’ risk

Financial types have standard practices and regulations that cannot waver. Operations guys look for the most optimal processes and settle there. IT types will set a platform direction, try to plan for the usual technology advances, and work over periods of months and years along that plan.

But marketers need to plan for, show results and adjust the plan each quarter. Because they have the only real programs budget in a corporation (money set aside for non-internal uses*), they often have the most scrutiny and the least loyalty from management. Programs budgets are always the first thing to get cut. Illogically, what is NOT cut is management expectations.

I would urge my colleagues to consider for a moment that the cultural tectonic plates have shifted beneath our feet and that empowered consumers require a new approach, and that management needs to be schooled in this approach. That will take some serious cajones.

Are you able to go to your management and plead the case for new approaches? I’m talking beyond just checking off the social marketing box. Consumers find what they want. Intrusion is a dead approach…indeed, it builds distrust and hurts sales. Inbound marketing is a far better spend than outbound. Good ideas and high value still trigger interest, attention and engagement. This translates into a complete rethink of an annual marketing plan, and for it to be approved, it involves a relearning on the part of the management team.

“Easy for you to say, agency boy…”

I’m not just an agency suit: I’ve managed marketing teams on the client side as well. I know the external and constant pressures to turn Marketing into the Kinko’s for the entire firm, the 5pm-requests from the CEO for a Nascar logo, the “really fantastic ideas my wife had,” the come-to-Jesus meetings with management to explain poor results on an intrusion- or interruption-based program. I’ve been chewed out royally by upper-level folks who didn’t understand nor wanted to take the time to understand what marketing was all about. I’ve also had painstakingly-recruited talent picked off one by one by nasty, sycophantic, political assholes in Sales or Ops. And, I’ve been fired by catty coworkers who were desperately hoping the ax would fall somewhere else and had no problem pushing me under the bus.

All I can tell you is that THIS is the future:

  • Even less efficacy of outbound marketing.
  • Engaged consumers spreading their trust in your brand via word of mouth.
  • Brand zealots co-creating new offerings with your team.
  • Amazingly creative video content telling your offering’s story.
  • Transparent information and transactions that inspire trust amongst prospects.
  • Companies committed to giving back in natural, socially-interested ways.

That’s our future. Not Facebook fan pages, nor branded Twitter backgrounds, nor podcasts for the sake of podcasting.

Marketing’s big challenge is not in adopting social media: it’s in proving our value once again to our stressed-out, impatient and often irrational management teams. That’s where our heads should be. Techies: either help us get there or ignore us but the disdain is boring and unnecessary. So are the tired spamming techniques of decades past.

We need to prove ourselves again, and that’s my personal resolution for this next decade: helping my clients rebuild their value.

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