First published December 24, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
You’re going the get the inevitable recap and prediction columns as the days of 2009 dwindle. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the shift in marketing. It seems to me that there are three fundamental drivers of this shift. I’m going to spend today talking a little bit more about them, as I believe these are the bearing points we have to pay attention to.
It’s somewhat odd, but for something as old as advertising, we still have remarkably little information about how it actually influences us. What are the exact buttons that are pushed by advertising? We’ve tried to come up with metrics that measure influence, like brand recall and affinity, but they have generally proven to have little to do with what we actually do in the real world. The ARF have been continuously pressing to introduce engagement as a new cross-channel metric, but the work of at least some academics have shown that even engagement might not be an indicative measure. The whole question of subliminal influence has generally been pushed under the carpet because of the tainted perception going back to the ’50s and Vance Packard.
But the fact is, as we learn more about the mind and how we really make decisions, we find that the role of advertising in influencing our purchases is perhaps not so clear as we first imagined. The ability to quantify influence still evades us, but the call for measurable and accountable advertising is louder than ever. As you move closer to the purchase, measurement becomes easier. But when you move backwards to the earlier influencers, the picture becomes much murkier. I think the trails we leave online will help shed light on influence, along with the explosion of research being done through new neuro-research methods.
Perhaps the biggest shift in the marketplace has been the balancing of George Akerlof’s information asymmetry. We spend a lot of time talking about consumers being in control. I think this is taking it too far. What is true is that marketing is now about meeting the consumer halfway. Consumers have access to more information, not all of which is supplied by the manufacturer. Think of the difference between a church and a community hall to understand what the new marketplace looks like. We have taken brands from behind the pulpit and forced them to sit down at a table and talk to us. This is new territory for the brands, as they learn that listening is at least as important as talking. Preaching has given way to participating. And when you think of it that way, this whole question of control becomes somewhat irrelevant. Do you control most of your conversations?
The last is a big one, and it has really driven digital marketing, particularly search. A consumer’s intention has always been an overlooked part of most marketing programs. Intent was assumed but wasn’t really integral to marketing strategies. The only place intent played a part was in directory advertising (such as the Yellow Pages) — and when you’re the only game in town, you don’t have to spend much time refining the rules.
Search changed all that. We have become a “just in time” information economy, where intent drives huge volumes of very focused consumer activity as they gather required information. Harvesting intent at the end of the process has been relatively simple — a good search placement and an effective landing page are all that’s sometimes needed. It becomes much more difficult when intent is further removed from the end transaction. Intents can change as you move through a long consideration process, shifting from gathering information to checking prices to short-listing your alternatives to actually placing an order. Understanding intent and meeting it effectively are the challenges that separate the great search marketers from the bottom-feeders
These three drivers are the forces that are changing marketing. When I look at them for commonalities, one comes to mind: in each, we have to get better at knowing the people on the other side of the transaction. We have to spend more time understanding what influences our prospects’ buying decisions, how we can participate effectively in the process and how we can help satisfy their intent. All of this depends on us getting to know our prospects better. It’s not a “market”; it’s dozens — or hundreds, thousands or millions — of individuals. And we have to learn to have conversations with each of them.