Following the Flow of Conversation

Continuing on the theme of social media trends and implications.

One of the major themes that social media experts talk about incessantly is the shift in control over the message. In the world of mainstream media where content is created by a few and broadcast to the many, whoever controls publication controls the message. In a world of social media where anyone with access to a computer can put a message into play among millions of readers, the most compelling messages win the day.

There are a lot of fascinating implications in this shift–enough to fill an entire year of blog posts. But the trend I want to talk about right now is the changing role of PR and marketing in the influence of market dialog. Many people say PR and marketing are effectively dead, while others try to recast social media as just another new vehicle for revitalizing PR and marketing. Marketing 2.0.

Let me first say where I come down in this discussion about marketing and PR in the age of social media. The rumors of their death are greatly exaggerated. There will always be a need for companies to advocate on their own behalf–to develop and communicate a compelling market position. How that message is developed and communicated has changed forever. Unfortunately, many marketers haven’t figured this out yet, and until they do marketing will continue to decline until a new generation takes over.

The problem for marketers is that they’ve grown up in a bubble–just like the Internet Bubble that gave rise to irrational exuberance and a general belief that business fundamentals were no longer relevant. Let’s call it the Marketing Bubble. Before the Marketing Bubble, we had more than 5000 years of social media–a world in which word-of-mouth was the dominant form of commercial dialog. As the means of mass communication emerged, marketers naturally adopted new tactics for communicating with a larger market. Print. Radio. Television. Computer. Internet. Mobile.

These continuously evolving forms of communication weren’t cheap. In fact, getting a message out over any of these channels was enormously expensive, which kept control over the message sharply limited to those who could afford it. The Marketing and PR we know today grew up in this world, and evolved around the power structure of a highly controlled media. PR was never about developing relationships with customers–it was about developing relationships with publishers and reporters in order to influence customers. Marketing may have a slightly more robust claim to customer intimacy, but not much. How many marketing organizations do you know that actually own customer service? The vast amount of marketing dollars go to advertising–another practice focused on the power brokers rather than the consumers. If you can’t shape the message through PR, then buy a message to piggy-back on the stream of media the market consumes.

This is–or was–the bubble. It emerged with the tools of mass media, but was not a fundamental shift in the thousand-years trajectory of commercial dialog. Just as we had thousands of years of history of consumers discussing products among their peers before mass media, we are returning to that natural state for one very compelling, even Darwinian, reason: consumers will always seek out information from their peers because it provides an economic survival advantage. The Internet has simply provided the means for consumers to elevate their conversation to the same volume as mass media.

Now that the bubble is bursting, Marketing and PR are mostly blind to the historical trendline; they are inclined to see social media as just another new technology like Web sites, or SMS. This is a huge problem. The Marketing and PR organizations we know today are organized not to listen and engage, but to listen just enough to craft messages and find effective channels to influence the market. Success is measured in the tiny percentage of people who took the bait on your latest campaign, rather than the development of an engaged community of customers–customers who become partners in the development and distribution of more successful products and services.

There’s a lot to drill into on this concept, which I’ll continue to do. But there’s one important concept I want to leave off on today. Companies that are trying to figure out social media are going to their PR and Marketing agencies by default–those are the people, after all, who are supposed to understand how to communicate with customers. But a facility for social media is not an inherent strand of DNA for any marketing, advertising or PR agency–despite the cool case studies and hip 2.0 language. Communicating at customers is not the same as communicating with customers, and if you have any hope of success in social media, you need to understand how to tell the difference.
They will also be more open to deeper reflection if they see it come from you

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