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Below are ten observations from the field, suggesting a shift toward digital marketing, if you will. Hope they resonate with you, and perhaps you have noticed some of these trends yourself. The Customer Century is here.

At the risk of stating what should now be obvious, there has been a fundamental shift in power from those who sell stuff to those who buy stuff. Thanks to the Internet, the customer can, in a matter of moments, do the kind of research that was once the exclusive province of entire corporate research departments. Translation: Potential buyers can analyze and compare your offering with those of your competitors – literally, with a few clicks.

We are living in a time of unprecedented corporate “transparency.” As Freud once observed, secrets secrete. But now they are secreted at web speed.

There used to be a backstage where corporate actors could change costumes, freshen up their make up, curse the inattentive audience, snuffle down some toast and jam, take the occasional snort of gin – in other words, be absolutely human.

It was a great place, this backstage. Everybody could relax, catch a smoke, and be themselves. On the dark side, you could do some things that weren’t particularly kosher, like pinch the secretaries or do some incestuous business with cronies. Then along would come your cue, and you’d step out and deliver your scripted lines. And, in a sort of “imp of the perverse” way, it was fun to deliver such polished lines when so much unvarnished nastiness could be going on among members of the “backstage elite.”

Now we marketers are in an awkward position. You see, we’re still trying to manipulate appearances. But, thanks to transparency, the backstage is no longer hidden from view, and all (or most) of our supposed secrets are being dumped by angry ex-employees, current employees, and customers into online discussion forums, Usenet newsgroups, and the like. Indeed, at times it appears that the backstage has become, accidentally, the main performance – with spotlights trained on everything thought hidden from view – sending audiences into gales of laughter or catcalls of derision.

We can’t very well put away the scripts, because the actors are human, after all, and not gods. And we need, or so we feel, to create a consistent, positive impression upon our markets. But maybe it’s time to rethink the importance of manipulating appearances.

At the very least, we need to realign these appearances to more closely resemble what was once just backstage. The marketing implications of the Customer Century are, frankly, staggering. We’re only now beginning to sort them out.

Casual Friday is now casual every day.

I am old enough to remember when the majority of corporate marketing clients would never allow the use of the word “we” in their literature. There was, it seemed, a fear of personalizing the corporation. Such formality now, except in certain rare contexts, appears anachronistic.

If anything, we are now witnessing the tyranny of the informal; a requirement that marketing communications adopt a personal, accessible, casual style.

Time to marketing is now almost more important than time to market.

Public companies are finding themselves increasingly engaged in “press release commerce” wherein alliances are announced to steal perceived momentum from their competitors.

Similarly, it now seems less important (especially for large, well-branded companies) to have a finished technology product than it is to announce intentions to occupy a certain product “space.”

The plain fact is, marketing must now move much faster than it has in the past. And, as a consequence of this, I think marketers must adopt more of a flexible, “rough-and-ready” approach to messaging and communications that does not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the better.

Given this context, it’s understandable why I recommend “expeditionary marketing”-trying a series of small, inexpensive things ( e.g., direct marketing email campaigns) – to test messaging, offers, tone, etc.

People are actively fleeing your messages.

While opening up the peanuts on a recent Southwest Airlines flight and realizing that I was staring not at a peanuts bag but at an advertisement (a funny one, at that), it occurred to me for the umpteenth time that we don’t suffer from too few advertising messages. Every bit of available space in our range of attention is filling up or will be filled up with logos and quick little enticements. It’s as if we marketers all suffer from “horror vaqui,” the fear of empty spaces.

Take this as your mantra: Folks are fleeing in holy terror from your marketing communications. Given this assumption, ask yourself: “What might make the markets slow their flight just a bit or even stop and read what we’re saying?” I won’t presume to tell you what the answer is, but I certainly can tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t purely about creative. These days a great creative concept is just the price of entry-necessary, but not sufficient.

You must bridge the toxic gap between your company’s sales and marketing efforts.

In my business-to-business practice, I’ve discovered parallel corporate worlds: marketing and sales. And often it seems that never the twain shall meet.

Sales folks believe that marketing has no idea what kinds of information it takes to generate a lead and make a sale. Marketing folks suspect that salespeople are a bunch of opportunistic hotshots who play fast and loose with the corporate messaging, in essence defining the company on the fly; whatever it takes to close the deal.

And both are right.

In my opinion, in classic “servant leadership” style, marketing must serve the sales force. Further, marketing must recognize that the sales force is an extraordinarily valuable link to what is, in fact, on the minds of customers and prospects.

Talk to your customers.

Over the next month, resolve to spend more time visiting your customers (especially the most demanding ones) than you do in the office. I promise you that these visits will yield extraordinary marketing insights.

To make up a quote for Yogi Berra, “Ubiquity is everywhere.”

When possible, utilize multiple “touch points” to reach prospects, i.e., craft messages for email, banners, fax, print, broadcast, direct mail, and outbound telemarketing. The other day, during off-hours, a telemarketer left a simple, short, upbeat message alerting me to a URL for freelance creative help. (As I was listening to the message, I had a minor moment: I was not offended at all to be pointed to a useful URL in voice mail. The message didn’t seem burdensome or intrusive in the least.) And as I was checking my voice mail that morning, I had in my hand a colorful postcard from the same web site. There was real marketing power in the one-two combination of these touch points.

Identify your company’s ecosystem.

Every company has an ecosystem – a habitat that includes suppliers, competitors, complementary service providers, trading partners, industry analysts, financial analysts, and employees (and potential new hires), among others.

Part of your task as a marketer is to identify the participants in your particular ecosystem and to cultivate alliances that will augment your product and service offerings, associate your brand with better-known brands, and improve your viability (i.e., your perceived value) within the ecosystem.

Look at your web presence through corrective lenses.

Ask yourself one question: Is your web site ABOUT your company or IS it your company? One approach emphasizes narrative description with walls of impenetrable text. These sites, often from technology companies, leave me utterly cold and without a clue as to what I am supposed to do once I hit their home page.

The other approach (the site that IS your company) tends toward invitation and interaction with multiple windows and doors.

Turn your company’s face outward to the market.

Periodically, I run across marketing clients who are turned inward, focused on what they know to be the coolest products and the most valuable services. They are caught in the thrall of their own wonderfulness.

When discussing one of the pillars of a typical direct marketing assignment, i.e., an attractive offer, they often look at me, slacked-jawed, and they seem to be saying, “Isn’t it enough that our product solves the customer’s problems?”

It might be enough if your product isn’t in a crowded space, if it is extraordinarily inexpensive compared to similar products, and/or if you can articulate the customer’s problem in such a clear, compelling way that they immediately know that you “get it.”

Take these thoughts into your next meeting:

I will not refer to “targets.” I will use the name of a real customer when discussing an upcoming marketing assignment. Example: “We’re going after more Tom Lindsays with this campaign.”

Simplify your messages.

Before you launch your next campaign, sit down with Tom Lindsay. Don’t run the creative executions by him because there are too many variables that could affect his reactions. Take him to dinner, ask him a few questions, and then listen to what he says about your company – and what he doesn’t say. The next day, after that meeting, take a look at your campaign. Does it meet the Tom Lindsay test?

Make certain that EVERY communication offers something of objective value – an interesting third-party article, quote, or statistic. If you’re just sending stuff out to be sending stuff, don’t.

This Marketing article was written by Chris Maher on 3/18/2005