Image via WikipediaWe Social Marketers love to tell others how marketing is fundamentally changing, but what if that is not only counterproductive but also inaccurate? This was the provocative hypothesis explored tonight during a 20-minute car ride I enjoyed with Jeremy Epstein of Never Stop Marketing. (Apparently, I should have driven slower in order to enjoy our fascinating conversation for longer.)
Clearly, something is happening in the marketing realm--traditional media is stagnating, media consumption habits are changing, individuals have access to tools that furnish mass-media-like power and reach, technology is permitting consumers to filter and limit marketing messages, trust in advertising is low, and peer-to-peer influence and communication is increasing. But what if all this isn't so much a change as a return to the norm?
Before studying the validity of that question, let's first explore why the words we use matter. Those of us who were early adopters of Social Computing platforms clearly love and embrace change--not only are we comfortable with it, we want and demand it--but there are those who don't welcome change as easily. (To be fair, even early adopters are famous for welcoming certain sorts of change and not others--just look at the "Big Blogger" hubbub that has erupted because of tiny changes in the FTC's guidance pertaining to sponsorship and disclosure).
In addition to the fact change is scary, takes time and effort, and involves risk, there's another problem with telling people they need to change--whether intended or not, a whiff of criticism is conveyed. People who are doing things right don't need to change; conversely, someone who needs to be told change is necessary is--by definition--doing something wrong. So, it should come as no surprise that marketing decision makers may not respond to the "world is changing" message that is often conveyed by bloggers, speakers, and social media professionals.
Of course, if the world really is changing, we shouldn't hesitate to say so simply because some don't appreciate the message. But what if the evolution occurring today isn't an advance to a bold new marketing future but instead is a correction that returns the marketing profession to something known and familiar? What if Social Computing isn't pushing marketing into the unknown but is merely giving a new twist to something very old? Might decision makers be more open to Social Media if it were packaged not as the latest fad but instead as a return to the fundamentals of relationship-based marketing?
During our discussion, Jeremy mentioned Paul Revere as an example of a successful Social Businessperson, albeit one who died 190 years before Twitter and Facebook became household words. As noted in the article, "Paul Revere the Businessman," there is far more to Revere than we learned (or perhaps remember) from history books. We remember him for a single urgent horse ride on one evening, but he lived 83 years and was a successful business owner, growing his silversmithing trade into a small empire encompassing engraving, a hardware store, a foundry, and a copper mill.
What was the secret to his success? The article notes that Revere became a Mason, actively participating as an officer and helping to open new lodges throughout Massachusetts. "His involvement in Freemasonry affected his business pursuits and livelihood" and "many of Revere’s customers during the late 1700s were Masons." Records indicate that Revere's involvement in freemasonry led to regular and ongoing business over a period of almost 40 years.
Joining a group, building a network, fostering relationships, contributing to the community, and receiving a return on that time and effort? How innovative, untested, and utterly radical!
Obviously, the point being made is that, while the tools may be different today, relationship-based marketing isn't new but as old as human commerce. In fact, if marketers want to identify the upstart medium in their field, that wouldn't be Social Media but Mass Media!
The term "Mass Media" is only 80 years old. Its growth into our popular language recognized that technology was putting brand new tools of communication scale into the hands only of those few who could afford it. In the past century, Mass Media had a profound change on the way products were developed, companies formed, brands marketed, and people lived.
Today, technology is again on the march, only now it is putting the tools of scale into the hands of Twitterers, bloggers, and Facebook fans. And, we again face profound changes in the way products are developed, companies formed, brands marketed, and people live.
Clearly, a substantial and profound metamorphosis is underway, but rather than framing this to marketing executives as a risk-filled journey of experimentation into the unknown, we Social Marketing practitioners may be well advised to take a different tact. Relationship-based, one-to-one marketing that creates influence and intimacy isn't the stuff of the future but of the past. The tools may be George Jetson, but the strategy was ancient by the time Paul Revere was networking with Mason lodge members.