I’m in Boston this week and have been meeting up with a lot of old friends. One was recently laid off from his marketing position. Over lunch he said that several prospective employers had asked him about his social media experience. He is concerned about this because he has never worked with social media and, being in his mid-forties, feels it may be too late in his career to learn. I noticed that he, as well as a lot of social media pundits, speak about social media as if it is some radically new and alien concept derived from complex technology. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Marketing has always been social. As an activity, marketing predates the ancient Egyptians. It was not a formalized branch of economics back then, but it surely was happening on every village square and small shop. This marketing environment was largely built around one-on-one human interactions and personal reputation of the seller. Products were tailored to the needs of a particular community of buyers. Prices were bartered. Feedback was listened to and taken seriously because people talk. And if enough of them talk bad it could put a seller out of business. Marketing was decidedly social and required sellers to be responsible and engaged in their community. That’s how marketing worked for eons. Then in the 1950s something happened: Mass media went mainstream and Madison Avenue decided to reinvent the marketing process.
Communication became monopolized by the few. The message was scripted by committee and delivered in a one-way stream with a deliberate intent to interrupt the buyer. Sellers became faceless entities. With the exception of brands like Remington Shavers and Perdue Chicken, communication was mostly impersonal and anonymous. Containment of information was the key and spontaneity was a corporate crime. Information was meted out by the teaspoon on a need-to-know basis. One-on-one communication and customized products were replaced by one-size-fits-all. Buyers became mute pawns. They were spoken to but could not speak back or among themselves. Bartering was barred. Human interaction, personal accountability, listening, and social engagement -- which had been the cornerstones of good marketing -- no longer had a place in this synthetic market environment.
And it was against this Daliesque market landscape that our current rules of marketing were created. Each of these rules that we hold so dear were designed specifically to address these bizarre market conditions. In fact, the effectiveness of our theories and tactics presuppose a market where communication is top-down, one-way, and interruption-based, with large corporations on top and the consumer on the bottom. That type of environment is rapidly disappearing. Most of the stuff we have learned doesn't apply today and even less of it will apply a year from now. So, what do we do now that markets are returning to a more social-based model? Get back to basics.
The last 60 years of marketing tradition, which we consider the norm, were anything but. They were an anomaly. A gross perversion of practically every law of effective marketing that had been developed over the entire history of human commerce that preceded it. It was during the Mad Men era that the expansion of markets outpaced the ability of marketers and consumers to communicate effectively. Today’s social media marketing environment is the natural result of our communication technology catching up to the size of our markets. The result is now things are getting back to normal, not heading in a new direction.
Social media is not a new type of marketing. It’s the way things have always worked. We have just forgotten how to market in a natural human environment. In that sense, anyone who has spent any time in a small town knows plenty about how social media works. That’s because social media is not about the apps, APIs, and analytics. The real driving force behind social media is fundamental human behavior you’ll find in any close-knit community.
I asked my friend to think about the small town in New Hampshire where he spent his summers. There is no containment of information in that town. Secrets don’t last long. If you do something good, people will talk about it. If you do something bad, they will talk as well. Top-down communication triggers an immediate bottom-up response. If you want to know the scuttlebutt you just have to hang around in the barbershop, pub, or general store where people congregate and listen. If you want to be popular there are certain people you need to know and things you have to do like listen, respond, and be involved. If you are a phony or you cheat, lie, or provide poor service you will be called out. If you are genuine you will be trusted. The rules of doing business in a small town are the “new” rules of marketing today.
“See,” I told my friend, “you're a social media marketer after all.”
Marketing is in a state of flux. And in that state, the most valuable skills a marketer can bring to his employer are an open mind and willingness to change. My advice to my friend and to any marketer today is to take stock in what you have been taught about the way marketing works. Remember everything you have learned about human nature, because human nature is the only constant in this equation. Then, rethink the rest as if you were doing business in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. Recalibrate your theoretical frameworks and the assumptions they are based on. Be open to new tactics. Experiment. If it passes the Mayberry test, then you’re probably on the right track.
Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, blogger, Twitterer, and is on LinkedIn. With offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.
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