Rethinking the Channelization of Advertising

Anybody who has been a regular reader of my column knows I very seldom write a column exclusively about search, even though it runs every Thursday under the masthead of “Search Insider.” I’ve been fortunate in that Ken Fadner and the editorial staff of Mediapost has never restricted my choice of subject matter. But the eclecticism of my column isn’t simply because I’m attention deficit. It’s because the subject that interests me most is the intersection between human behavior and technology. Although that often involves search, it also includes mobile, social, email and a number of other channels. I simply couldn’t write about what interests me if I was restricted to a single channel.

So why is Mediapost divided into the subject areas it is? Why, when you go to navigate the site, do you choose from email marketing, search marketing, mobile marketing, real time marketing, video marketing or social media marketing? Mediapost is structured this way because it’s a reflection of the industry it serves. Online marketing is divvied up in exactly the same way. We are an industry of channels.

the_rhine_color_coverThe problem here is one of perspective – the industry perspective vs. the customer perspective. Let me use another example to make my point. One of the best things about cruising the Rhine is that there is a stunning medieval castle or fortress around every bend. From Rüdesheim to Koblenz (the Middle Rhine) there are over 40 of these fortifications sprinkled along 40 miles of the river. As picturesque as they are, they were not put there to enhance the views for generations of sightseers yet to come. They were put there because the river was one of the major thoroughfares of Europe and anyone who owned land along the river had the opportunity to make some money. They exacted tolls from travellers to guarantee safe passage.

While this build up along the Rhine probably made sense for the German land barons, it did nothing to make life easier for the poor souls who had to get up the Rhine to reach their eventual destination. Unfortunately, they had few alternatives. They were stuck with paying the tolls.

The advertising business is divided up into channels for exactly the same reason the Rhine has a castle every mile. Channels are there to show ownership of property. Advertising is a way to generate revenue from that ownership. It is a toll that customers have to pay. Mediapost is divided up the way it is because its readers are the modern day equivalent of medieval land barons and that’s they way they think. If it were published in 1224 its sections may have been labeled Pfalzgrafenstein, Sterrenberg and Reichenstein (3 of the Rhine castles).

But if you’re like me, you’re not as interested in the castles as in the journey itself. And, in this way, I think we have built our industry in exactly the wrong way. We should all be more interested in the journey than in ownership of individual destinations along that journey. If you asked a traveller from Rüdesheim to Koblenz in 1205 which they would prefer; paying 40 separate tolls or paying one guide to safely escort them to the destination, I’m pretty sure they would chose the later. That is what our industry should aspire to.

The reason our industry is channel obsessive is because we had no option previously. In a pre-digital world, all we could do is own or control a channel. But technology is rapidly allowing us an option. Today, it is possible for us to map a customer’s journey and act as a guide along the way. All that is required is a change of perspective.

I believe it’s time to consider it.

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