New Media in an Old World

by Neale Martin published August 01, 2009 in Consumer Marketing Consumer_Marketing

The video lasted less than a minute, was shot by an amateur photographer, and posted on a website known more for dogs on skateboards than breaking news. Yet the video of Neda Agha-Soltan being killed on the streets of Tehran was viewed by millions around the world and galvanized Iranian protestors. Welcome to the world of new media.

The ‘Neda’ video encapsulates the seismic changes that are rattling the foundations of governments, companies, and societies based on digital media. While marketers understand the transformation, most companies have yet to adapt to a world where their messaging vies for attention not just against their competition, but against their customers and non-customers as well. New media, digital media, and social networking are some of the terms we use to describe these phenomena.

New media’s disruptive nature comes from a combination of four technologies:

Digital cameras — radically reduces the cost of video, and their inclusion in cell phones makes video capture ubiquitous.

Implication: every aspect of your company (products, employees, service) may very well be captured for good or ill.

PCs—Video-editing software running on cheap, powerful PCs allows talented amateurs to rival studio professionals.

Implication: slick, expensive commercials now compete against usergenerated video, both online and on traditional networks.

Broadband networks (wired and wireless)—video can be both uploaded and downloaded from almost anywhere at virtually no cost.

Implication: corporate control of information channels is gone, impacting advertising, public relations, and pricing.

The Internet—a common set of protocols allows anyone to post and anyone to access any piece of information that can be digitised.

Implication: all messaging needs to include the Internet, but no single formula will work on all occasions.

The integration of these technologies has changed how we communicate, which is like saying the combination of cars and roads change the way we travel. It’s a foundational change that empowers billions of people around the world to share insights, opinions, pictures, video, anything that can be turned into the lingua franca of 0’s and 1’s that every computer can interpret as a word, a picture, a video. The technology fuels a world where parents scold their children for texting hundreds of times a day in between checking emails on their BlackBerries hundreds of times a day.

Marketers are helplessly drawn to this digital world, seeing all of these communications as potential channels for advertising and promotion, or even more powerfully, as the ultimate in word of mouth recommendation. Yet, almost every attempt to commercialise social media has fallen flat. Let’s look at why and how marketers might approach this marketplace successfully in the future. Social Norms and Marketplace Norms We simultaneously live two lives—a social life that conforms to social norms and a life of commerce that plays by the rules of the marketplace. Imagine going to a friend’s house for dinner and offering to pay for the meal. Marketers who intrude into the social life of customers are committing the same kind of offense, mixing the rules that govern commerce with those that govern relationships. Even worse is the practice of stealth marketing where companies attempt to participate in the online social world by disguising themselves as fellow participants. Modern communications technologies create new communities that exist both in the virtual world and the real one. Whether blogging, tweeting, or posting to Facebook, each forum develops its own social norms and own language, like the shorthand we use to text message. Before venturing into any of these forums, marketers must understand the rules that govern acceptable behavior. While they are not written down, breaking any of these rules will generate a loss of faith from the very people you are trying to reach. In my book Habit, there are numerous findings from neuroscience and cognitive psychology that shows humans are wired to connect, and most of this is done unconsciously. No matter how clever the marketer, they will not be able to long fool the ever-vigilant gatekeepers that unconsciously monitor all communications.

The next step is not to view participants in social media as potential customers, again confounding social and market norms. This sounds not only counterintuitive but counterproductive as well. Why bother communicating if not to sell something? This short-term thinking is behind most marketing failures to utilize new media. The goal is to build relationships with current and future customers by taking commerce out of the conversation. What can be gained by this approach is a better understanding of your customers and non-customers, as well as a chance to participate in the discussion.

Corporate Culture Clash

New media advocates often make the reverse error of companies—they attempt to apply social norms to corporations. They recommend that CEOs blog and tweet, and want to air user-generated commercials on network television. The problem is that corporate communications are about controlled and tightly integrated messaging while new media is about spontaneity. Without the discipline of integrated communications, company messaging will rapidly devolve into noise.

Most of marketing’s biggest challenges arise from past marketing mistakes. We have failed to respect our customers, pummeling them with thousand of unwanted advertising messages every day. We mail them unsolicited offerings, put up advertising on every available surface, and sing our corporate jingles on every television and radio show. No wonder our customers tune us out. The world of digital media represents an opportunity to alter our approach, to truly communicate with our customers—that means listening at least as much as we talk. Companies that master this approach will succeed beyond all others with the next generation of customers.