The tendency to deconstruct business functions into ever finer units of specialization – what I call business reductionism – threatens the kind of coordinated action required to execute on a good business strategy and must be resisted. The marketing in particular seems to have become susceptible to this sort of reductionism, brought on by the introduction of new marketing technologies , and hope for reconstitution rests on getting back to first principles.
The Example of Social Marketing
Social marketing as an area of specialization provides an excellent illustration of the point here. Human beings are social animals, and while I do not subscribe to the opinion that companies are people too, it still follows that marketing must be inherently social as well. Social marketing is not fundamentally different in the tasks and activities to be executed or outcomes sought after; rather, the term really references the platforms involved, e.g. social media.
As Boston College professor (Go Eagles!) Jerry Kane put it in his 2013 MIT Sloan Management Review article What is Social Media and Why Managers Should Care, most definitions of social media simply describe a set of behavioral affordances that have always been part of homo sapien’s social character but which recent technology has enabled with an ease, speed and scale never seen before. (Danah Boyd makes a similar point about the social lives of teens in her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.)
What’s Really in an Expert Anyway
In the past, the role of “social media manager” has often put young, inexperienced marketers in front of a very loud megaphone for brands, without proper strategic anchoring, simply because they grew up immersed in these social technologies so by extension, they must understand how to use them better than the old guard. Even today, in a more mature social media landscape with more experienced social media “experts,” value goes unrealized from a proliferation of me-too tactics, gaming the system just to improve “engagement” metrics without any clear, causal connection back to brand or sales lift.
While one would expect exposure to lead to familiarity over time, the underlying technologies continue to evolve more quickly than they can be assimilated into marketing organizations, and so the specialist role persists to stay on top of the ever changing rules of the game and hopefully figure out a formula for the productive use of whatever shiny new toy that’s just been released (e.g. SnapChat).
If social media marketing doesn’t matter, then this is why: value from a new technology is unlocked by way of application (the very difference between an invention and an innovation). Social media is but the tool; how it is applied is what matters, and coming up with novel applications requires setting aside the dominant logic of the moment while simultaneously holding in mind the relevant first principles.
We are creating new roles, processes and organizational silos to match our technologies rather than adapting our technologies to fit our business operations. Now specialization has run amok, and we have created the role of integrated marketing manager to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Blame the law of requisite variety from cybernetics. Applied to business systems, the law asserts that organizational complexity must reflect the complexity of its environment, and hence, as the ripple waves from digital technologies have expanded further outwards, the complexity of businesses and (for our purposes here) marketing has also grown. What an ironic outcome given the promise of reducing organizational complexity held in many of these same digital technologies.
Beware the Buzzwords
A correlate to specializations has been the increase in buzzwords to describe all manner of new digital phenomena, but I remain unconvinced that any of them really reflect anything so incomprehensibly new. How are “brand integrations” really all that different from the more familiar Soap Operas and product placements of yesteryear? New term, same ol’ hat, #IMHO.
I’ve found that people (myself included prominently among them) overstate understanding and hide ignorance by using jargon and ostentatious language. (See what I just did there?) Be wary the neologism and the subject matter expert who comes bearing buzzwords. (Sadly, the SEO imperative likely only worsens this kind of situation as everyone piles onto the term du jour seeking a better ranking.)
What really has people flummoxed is the technology behind digital, social, mobile and all the rest, and with technological change only expected to accelerate, increasing specialization and organizational complexity hardly seems a tenable solution.
Fortunately, an alternative to increasing organizational complexity exists. Cybernetics deals with issues of control, but if we let go of control – eschew the centralized and hierarchical command structures designed for the Industrial Era – we circumvent the requisite variety and gain access to all new possibilities. In place of control, if we build on a foundation of first principles, we can empower managers to experiment with new tools and learn directly rather than fragment and compartmentalized the necessary expertise.
Consider how (the best) jazz musicians improvise so elegantly around the chords of a musical piece. In an analogous way, marketing would benefit from a new organizing framework that gets back to its first principles and allows for some manner of specialized parts while still optimizing the integrated whole, a way to improvise with new technologies at the speed of life. The Four P’s will not suffice.
To come up with a better alternative, let’s start from the supposition that the goal of marketing is to connect with customers for the ultimate purpose of influencing their purchasing decision (to the benefit of the company involved in said marketing). Those connections, then, might take 3 forms: experiences, artifacts and conversations.
The Experience Economy was a book before its time, but its time has come. Rather than thinking in terms of the P for product, marketers should think about the experiences they are creating for customers (or potential customers or other target audiences). Ideally those experiences will be the market offering itself (be it a product, service or some combination of both), but at the least, experiences should incorporate the market offering in some authentic way. Most importantly, these experiences should be designed to evoke an emotional state in customers (e.g. surprise, awe, joy, etc.) because decisions are emotional, and it’s up to marketers to create a design language for experiences that ensures some consistency of experience at every interaction (a.k.a. branding).
Artifacts then become reminders of these experiences that allow customers to relive the associated emotion. Through the magic of mirror neurons, artifacts can also allow audiences to vicariously live out the emotional experiences of others, be it a friend, celebrity or influencer. Artifacts can take the form of diverse media, with technological advancement continuing to create new forms. The marketer’s challenge is to select the right media for conveying the emotion of the experience to the target audience. No universally applicable media type exists for every experience. All have their merits, and the greatest effect will comes from a combination of media used in concert. This includes earned media as well, which brands cannot control but nonetheless may influence, curate and amplify for their own purposes.
Apart from being efficacious symbols of an emotional experience, artifacts also help in telling stories. These stories, in turn, shape the conversations that surround a brand and its market offering. This is how we express our social nature. If a brand succeeds in creating an emotional experience for its customers, they will certainly want to talk about it with others.
Previously marketers understood this phenomenon simply as the word-of-mouth that influences purchasing decisions, but now we talk about conversations (a more apt term) because new mediums now allow brands to listen in and even directly participate. Before marketing was more akin to speaking to a crowd. Now customers expect a dialogue, and marketing’s new challenge is to ensure the thread of the dialogue is not lost over time or across forums.
Putting it into Action
Note the interplay here – brands create experiences for their customers, which are in some way relived through artifacts that in turn facilitate conversations about the brand. Even just as a mental model overlaid onto the existent marketing organization, the Experiences, Artifacts, and Conversations framework could cut down significantly on sources of business friction and make truly integrated marketing a reality.
Marketers would come to see themselves as the stewards of the Experiences they create for consumers, nurturing them over time with Artifacts and participating in the ongoing Conversation with consumers. Now imagine taking it one step further and allocating marketing budgets to Experiences instead of marketing channels. How much better would the marketer’s incentives be aligned to the desired business outcomes? One can always dream anyway.
Marketing for the Information Age – simple, elegant and nimble. As always, I invite comments below. What resonates, what doesn’t, and how has your brand organized itself both internally and externally to take advantage of new technologies?