The concept is dead on; execution notwithstanding. We’ve been talking about this for a while now.

I have to say I’ve been disappointed with the way the Republican presidential candidates have been handling the YouTube/CNN debate. When I first heard that only Ron Paul and John McCain were committed to appearing and how Romney wasn’t gonna answer any questions from no damn snowman, I immediately thought of Henry Jenkins.

Henry is the Director of the Comparative Media Studies graduate program at MIT. I read one of his books several months ago, “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide” and it was very much one of those right-book-at-the-right-time kind of things. The book is about the ways in which new communication technologies are empowering and encouraging participation in media by people who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to do so. It also discusses the gamut of response to these new possibilities; some welcoming, some smug, some fearful.
But I thought of Henry, because I knew he’d be thinking about how the whole YouTube/CNN debate format is appears to be an almost watershed moment for these technologies. And he’s blogged an edifying post about it.
To wit:

“In the 1990s, an alternative — the town hall meeting debate — emerged and Bill Clinton rose to the presidency in part on the basis of his understanding of the ways that this format changed the nature of political rhetoric. In the town hall meeting format, who asks the question — and why they ask it — is often as important as the question being asked. The questioner embodies a particular political perspective — the concerned mother of a Iraqi serviceman, the parent of a sick child who can’t get decent health care, the African-American concerned about race relations, and so forth. We can trace the roots of this strategy of embodiment back to, say, the ways presidents like to have human reference points in the audience during their State of the Union addresses — Reagan was perhaps the first to deploy this strategy of using citizens as emblematic of the issues he was addressing or the policies he was supporting and in his hands, it became associated with the push towards individualism and volunteerism rather than governmental solutions. These were “individuals” who “made a difference.”

What Clinton got was that in this newly embodied context, the ways the candidate addressed specific voters modeled the imagined interface between the candidate and the voters more generally. Think about that moment, for example, when George Bush looked at his watch during a Town Hall Meeting debate and this got read as emblematic of his disconnect from the voters. Contrast this with the ways that Clinton would walk to the edge of the stage, ask follow up questions to personalize or refine the question and link it more emphatically to the human dimensions of the issue, and then respond to it in a way which emphasized his empathy for the people involved. People might make fun of Clinton for saying “I feel your pain” a few times too many but this new empathic link between the candidate and the questioner shaped how voters felt about this particular candidate.”

It seems that increasingly, the prize will go to those who know how to navigate this new media landscape. And by that I don’t mean those who learn to game the system, I mean those who recognize that the transparency it creates demands that they be genuine humans.

So I was waiting for this massive file copy to complete (I’m actually still waiting) and for the hell of it, I google “marketing blog”. Which, well, I just laughed in spite of myself (I’m actually still laughing). (I’ve now stopped laughing.) The first result is this: Shotgun Marketing BLOG.

Now let me just say that there are other bloggers I enjoy whom hail from generally the same geography as the author of Shotgun Marketing, Chris Houchens and so I was curious. Standard blogger template blog. A smattering of comments here and there.

But pow, the second post from the top struck me as perfect. Granted, this is no representative sample he’s talking about (18 people) but there is definitely a rat race of memetic novelty that happens among the wired crowd.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that it takes a Kentucky blog to point that out. Good on you, Chris. I’m starting to think there needs to be a media vehicle dedicated to marketing from the midwestern/southern perspective. Just to hijack the point of his post and expand it, I think it’s interesting that those who presume to speak for what the futures should look like are largely from the coasts, and those for whom such futures are intended are everywhere. Hell, I’m even being (consciously) US-centric in this post.

Seth has a post up on his blog called Benefit of the Doubt. In it, he basically suggests that when doubt is swinging your way in the minds of your consumers, they won’t be so ready to tear you a new one when you (inevitably) screw up. On its face, it’s difficult to argue with this insight. You know, self-deprecation and all that. It’s amazing to me that it’s much of an epiphany for anyone, but I’m sure it is.

Whatever. I wonder about something a little more diabolically subtle about the benefit of the doubt. I wonder whether those who attempt to ingratiate themselves to doubt’s benevolence realize what a cruel bitch it can be when you’re on the business end of it. I wonder this because, in spite of Seth’s five pithy “brainstorms to get you started” in extracting doubt’s benefits, he doesn’t offer the insight that seems to me of singular importance to the topic: Don’t be a damn liar. To demonstrate what I mean, here’s one of Seth’s “brainstorms”:

“Build up expectations of difficulty. Magicians are really good at this. If people think what you’re doing is really difficult, they root for you.”

Magicians also have the pop culture capital of, well, see for yourself. But that notwithstanding, does anyone else see the glaring problem here? Whatever it is you’re saying about yourself (whether in pursuit of doubt’s benefits or not) better actually be true. Part of what is unctuous about stage magic (no offense, Skye) is that it often maintains the illusion even after the show is over. I’ve seen companies do the same thing. It’s as if they think that because they’ve been holding forth about how innovative or smart or customer-focused they are, they must, in fact, be so.
For my part, I think the benefit of the doubt is conferred upon those in whom we have some trust. We either trust them because we know them or we trust them by proxy: reputation, demeanor, they wear the same brand of socks that you do, etc. So my rejoinder to Seth’s advice is to have real relationships with your customers, use those relationships to honestly exhibit your philosophy and practice, and only rely on the benefit of the doubt when it is offered.

John Hagel is giving rhetorical form to what I think are the most important issues at the confluence of business, economics, marketing and even epistemology. His “Unanswered Questions at Supernova 2007” post from a month ago is still consuming my thoughts even when I’m trying to do other things, like eat and sleep.

He’s joined Deloitte & Touche USA LLP “with a mandate to establish a major new research center in Silicon Valley…[to]…explore key business issues created by the intersection of business strategy and information technology.” The content of the post is dominated by an explanation of the questions that will inform the mission of this center. Concerning the question, “What if there is no equilibrium?” he suggests:

Here’s the paradox: at the same time, we cling to traditional equilibrium concepts and institutions that emerged and prevailed in more stable times. Nathan Mhyrvold highlighted in his talk yesterday the contrast between the exponential advance of technology performance and the linear thinking of most executives. Clayton Christensen got the attention of the business world with his perspective on disruptive innovation – but even that is a punctuated equilibrium view – it holds on to the assumption that equilibrium will eventually return.

A more specific question might be: what are the institutional architectures required to operate in a world where there is no equilibrium? Early conventional wisdom suggests that these architectures should focus on agility and flexibility, but that misses the real opportunity – balancing agility with the persistence and stability required to build and deepen long-term trust-based relationships. Being able to discern what needs to change and what needs to remain stable may be the greatest challenge of all…

From where I sit, his questions seem to be pointing at a still somewhat inchoate body of interpretation about what is going on with business and technology and marketing communications. I don’t think he’s without some vision of where he thinks the future lies. For my part, I think it has to do with something more subtle than the “democratization of the market” trope that is being advanced by some.

I just think it’s an incredible set of questions and worth reading.

The great minds in advertising have long championed the emotional sell. As in, a Mercedes SL is sold on its sex appeal, and not, say, the work of the metallurgists on the new alloy used in its body. As I’ve said myself elsewhere, 90%+ of consumers don’t give a damn about your flux capacitor.

I’ve noticed an interesting parallel in sales in general. It seems that with exceptions, even if your product or service is mediocre, as long as you have developed a compelling relationship with your client or prospect, you make the sale. In fact, the relationship clearly does far more than any attempt to extol the virtues of your offering. This isn’t really a revelation. Salespeople everywhere know it.

Perhaps this is why advertising has gotten away with shamelessly lying all these years. Perhaps this is why customer service almost universally sucks (I think, in part, because it is viewed as product support and not part of the relationship.) Perhaps this is why the U.S. Congress is more predisposed to pork than sound policy.

Here’s a recent McKinsey report on Web 2.0 in business. The highlight for me was that 42% of respondents said that they, “Invested at the right time but should have more in our companies internal capabilities,” and 24% said that they, “Should have invested sooner in technology that in the meantime had a significant impact on our industry.”

Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac
I don’t know why I haven’t posted something about this before. I find myself talking about this all the time. Here’s the gist:
Marketing is dead. You can be humans again.

No, really. Not the practice of taking things to market; I mean “marketing, the paradigm”. Marketing, of necessity, has been about dealing with customers at arm’s length. This is a byproduct of the industrial revolution. In order to pass the value of economies of scale to customers, companies had to be big. They had to talk to a lot of people. Since Gutenberg, the only tools available for—indeed the only ways to even think about—talking to a lot of people have been unidirectional. These univalent tools are the currency of marketing. They offer really no meaningful dialogue.

Marketing, of necessity, treats the market as an abstraction. Thus, the customer is an abstraction. I’m willing to wager that people don’t mind being abstracted, they just don’t want to feel like an abstraction. If you’re going to try to convince a friend to try a particular restaurant, you will undoubtedly recourse to an abstraction of that friend to find the right bit of persuasive suggestion. However, when you actually talk to your friend about it, the exchange will be anything but abstract. It will take account of the shared social context, your friend’s non-verbal communications, your desire to share a new flavor, and so on. Most importantly, presuming you are anything like a decent human and you call this person a friend because you mean what is generally meant by friend, you will be speaking from your center. You will be honest. You will be human. You will be you.

This is the crack in the edifice of marketing as a paradigm. It has been there since the beginning, and no efforts to ameliorate it from within the marketing paradigm have been successful. Because marketing was a successful innovation to begin, and because its culturally totalitarian nature took time to manifest, the pressure to solve the problem of its anti-social behavior has only recently become increasingly apparent. Marketing is becoming less effective as it becomes more ubiquitous and people become more cynical. Everybody probably already knows that part.

The internet has changed everything; even though the marketers are still in the dark about it. I like to say that marketers have treated the internet like a television with a keyboard and mouse. That some marketers have been experimenting with allowing customers to create content does little to sway my opinion in this regard. I think the citizen/customer generated content (CGC) thing is a whole lot of fun and illuminating, but it does not constitute the next paradigm.

The next paradigm comes when marketers stop marketing and use these new tools to help their organizations to act like humans. The paradigm within which they’ve been operating hasn’t allowed them to do this. Now they can. Make customer service, research and development, and marketing into an organic whole so that it can assimilate these new tools. Have conversations with customers at every point of contact. It’s not democratizing the market as some have suggested, any more than you are a democracy when you are trying to persuade your friend to join you at your favorite restaurant. It is about being human. Be accountable. Say no when you have to, but explain yourself. Apologize when you have to. Know when to apologize because you’re actually engaged in a dialogue with those you may have hurt. Give praise to those who do novel and compelling things with your products. Tell incredible human stories.

This is what creative, strategic marketers have wanted to do all along, but the marketing gestalt hasn’t made the path visible. Marketers are relegated to being the veneer of the organization—out at the edge of the process—whereas every encounter with the customer should be directly informed by the center; from the human part of the organization; from its core. The new role for marketing is in facilitating the transformation of companies from distant abstractions to human institutions. It is an opportunity for big ideas; big ideas that the big ad agencies are constitutionally incapable of conceiving.

Whatever you call that role, it ain’t marketing. Maybe it’s anthropology, as the other innovation firms call it. I just call it being human.

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