The early decades of the twenty-first century mark the beginning of the marketing renaissance. It is a time when the sacred cows of 1980s marketing strategy are being put out to pasture, and the previously ingrained best practices of advertisers and social media managers have sneaked out of town under cover of darkness.
Like most significant revolutions, it is taking time, and those who are most affected by it are unaware of the significance of what is happening.
Asymmetric evolution of customers and companies
For decades the evolution of marketing was stunted, because the volume of knowledge did not grow significantly, the pace of change was pedestrian, and the nature of change was linear and predictable. A conventional approach to marketing was adequate for those circumstances. Not any more. Today the world generates more new data in a day than our grandparents were exposed to in a lifetime, and turmoil and disruption are the new normal.
Even today, many marketing purists still fervently believe that consumers must be led, child-like, through pre-determined communication paths mapped out and controlled by a central authority. However, marketers no longer need to see themselves as guardians of immutable and eternally perfect brands. And they have to accept that consumers are no longer naïve and malleable. Marketing is a framework for understanding and relating to consumers. As consumers change – and they are doing so dramatically – there is no excuse for perpetuating marketing processes that are no longer relevant or appropriate.
About twenty five years ago the internet triggered a big bang in knowledge and personal communication, which has become ever more personal with the adoption of mobile devices. Yet many marketers are still building brochure-ware websites, worrying about Facebook engagement, and poking suspiciously at apps. They need to start thinking about new ways to foster relationships that accommodate the real needs of customers and leverage all the data, systems, economies and connectivity that online consumers now take for granted.
Instead of focusing only on marketing content, brand objectives and outdated and inadequate concepts of advertising, marketers should craft their marketing processes to match the processes by which their customers want to engage with them.
If you build websites, your web designers need to adopt some marketing thinking, so they have a better chance of being able to understand customers according to the criteria that those customers consider important. And if you are looking for conversions, use sales thinking to architect optimal paths through your site.
Digital strategy grows customer experience
Digital marketers need to see the end product of their endeavors to be not polished websites or award-winning apps, but delighted consumers, increased brand performance and achievement of business objectives. Maybe then marketers will have a better chance of surviving, or even guiding, the social local mobile revolution.
To the hard-boiled no-nonsense business person, digital strategy is prone to hype – more alchemy than action. But to digital strategy insiders, it’s a tough, disciplined and highly specialized field that seeks to improve the way organisations work.
Marketing focuses on improving the performance of brands and product categories; digital strategy focuses on a bigger picture, improving the performance of companies, support systems, structures and processes, as well as branding and customer experience.
One of the most significant changes that the web has wrought is that marketing is no longer a one-way street. With always-on always-available mobile devices and social connectivity, you have to engage with your customers as individuals, in a two-way conversation, and this means you need to get the facilities and resources in place to nurture relationships and hold those conversations. More importantly, you have to get people talking to each other about you. Typically this means changing corporate infrastructure, policies and processes far beyond the traditional remit of the marketing department.
There are few situations in which traditional brand marketing alone will produce the desired business result, where systemic changes would not be beneficial. Indeed, marketing is sometimes a complete waste of time and money if the environment, structures, systems or processes do not change to support and reinforce the marketing investment.
There is growing acknowledgement that the best place to leverage local marketing is deep in the flow of customer experience, not from a remote central bureaucracy. Yet, while everyone else is adopting more digital thinking, which is all about decentralized, spontaneous, loosely networked activity, many marketing departments are looking for more control, not less.
As hardened silos of command and control give way to ephemeral intersecting spheres of influence, organisational entities that have always relied on centralized authority need to rethink the way in which they stay in control.
Digital strategists are accustomed to hopping across silos and forging odd trans-hierarchy alliances. Marketers need to be doing the same.
In pursuing digital strategy initiatives, it is a good idea to tap into the expertise and creativity of marketers, salespeople, and customer service staff because they are the nervous system of that part of the organisation that comes into contact with the consumer. They see, hear and feel more than many central managers do, at a level that is raw and unfiltered; and they are exposed to the systemic problems and opportunities through the eyes of their customers.
Millennials maximize disruption
Those who have come into the world since the launch of the Apple III personal computer are more different from their previous generation than any group of people in history. As these people enter the marketplace, they present a significant challenge to marketers. Or perhaps marketers present a challenge to them.
Now, the younger generation Ys – the millennials – have grown up. By 2020, most millennials will be moms and dads. And they will expect a different experience from brands than the experience their parents were content with. They have been immersed in digital technology their entire lives. Computers and networks are not daunting or new to them – they may have had a PC at home the day they opened their eyes. They are as comfortable with the shifting ambiguities of relational data, organic networks and distributed applications as their predecessors were with hierarchical structures, delegated administrative work and central control. Pattern-recognition is instinctive to them, and they prefer images to text, and videos to photographs. And they have a very low tolerance for time-wasters.
The implications for marketers are significant: if knowledge flows, and the processes that leverage them, are evolving in real-time despite your best efforts to corral them; and if your product communication channels have become irreparably corrupted; and if peer-to-peer communication, distributed expertise and experience sharing are the de-facto norm among your target consumers, what purpose does old-school brand-centric marketing management serve? All it does is get in the way of progress, preserve dysfunctional power structures, and slow down your own evolution.
Disruptive technologies have bred a disruptive generation. The approach of these new consumers to making sense of the chaos in the world is so undeniably sensible, so effective, and so compelling that older generations have been inspired to follow suit.
Digital consumers make fast decisions, sort through complex information and dexterously juggle knowledge resources. Their lifetime of digital experiences dictates their approach to information seeking and decision making.
Millennial consumers are not the same kind of people marketers were studying and marketing to fifteen years ago. Do you continue to treat them the same, subject them to the same communication processes, force them into the same models and behavior norms? Do you try to suppress and channel their inherent vitality and flexibility, or do you exploit and encourage it for the good of your brands? To do so you probably have to sunset much of the “best practices” dogma of the marketing profession and seek out new, more responsive models.
One thing is certain: every year will bring more and more mobile-obsessed socially-tuned consumers into your markets. Like the nomads who gradually infiltrated and overwhelmed the culture of the citizens in Kafka’s story ‘An Old Manuscript’, they will appear and begin to dominate culture and change norms. Will you be left marginalized in your own campaigns, unable to join their conversations or to influence your direction, or will you seize the opportunity to find and nurture new, more effective ways to communicate, to build customer relationships and to grow your brands?
Do you as a marketing professional stand by and watch your empires being sidelined by WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat, or do you try to take a leading role in defining and refining emerging-marketing paradigms?
Customers are no longer the uninformed, compliant people they used to be. The challenge is to facilitate, not dictate, and to nurture and focus those aspects of an informal marketing environment that can leverage what people do naturally. You need to create a marketing culture that encourages grass-roots innovation, experimentation, socializing and networking. You need to make time for talking and for listening. You need to have a mentality that sees failure as a stepping stone for moving forward rather than as proof of the need to turn back. You need to foster a renaissance in performance measurement and marketing analytics. And you need to start a movement, top-down, to dissolve organisational silos and the tunnel vision they produce, and to provide the flexible framework that makes it easier for customers to engage with each other in the context of your brands.