Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
June 9, 2009 9:23 PM

The New Game Changer - The Marketing Crisis

We talk about the economic crisis. We talk about the environmental crisis. Let's talk about the realities of the marketing crisis.

There is no other way to kick off this special issue of Marketing magazine focused on the digital marketing landscape. Even with all of the advancements that technology has brought us, and how pervasive the Internet and mobile platforms have become in our day-to-day lives, and even with all of the amazing analytics and measurement tools that have graced our industry, not that much has changed (or changed enough) in the past few years.

Don't get me wrong, new media channels like Twitter, FriendFeed, Second Life (remember that old chestnut?) and Facebook have become commonly dropped buzzwords in every brand-related corporate meeting. But the overriding marketing model remains the same: tell consumers about our products or services, they will buy from us, tell everyone they know about us, rinse and repeat.

So what went wrong?

We have all been faced with questions about the future of advertising as we know it. Some point their fingers at the Internet as if that is the reason people are skipping TV commercials or why they have shorter attention spans. The truth is that as new media channels are created it always makes the old ways of doing things seem... well, old. Imagine what the Marketing articles were like when television advertising was first introduced, and if we compared that to what we had known before (newspaper, radio, billboards). Imagine how "interactive" TV ads were compared to advertising that existed prior. As marketers we tend to forget that there have always been technological advances in advertising, but there is a slight difference with the digital channels and this is where I believe marketers struggle the most.

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky points out the ways in which mass media has communicated with consumers through the power of expression. The advent of the Gutenberg Press is historically seen as the moment in time that launched the industrial revolution. Suddenly, everything could be mechanized for what would become mass production. Better manufacturing channels led to massive changes in everything from distribution and transport to how we buy things. Shirky points out an additional (and equally important) by-product of the Gutenberg Press: the ability for individuals to express themselves to the rest of the world. The industrial revolution was a big deal, but this new ability was the real game-changer.

That form of communication stuck for quite some time-until the phone rang. The advent of telecommunications brought another shift. The Gutenberg Press was about one person communicating their message to a mass audience, and with telecommunications we were given a two-way channel.

With most marketing in the modern age, we're either speaking to consumers with a one-way dialogue, or trying our hardest to engage them in a two-way conversation. Most marketers see the Internet as the ultimate one-to-one communication channel. In fact, Shirky says the Internet has introduced a new form of communication: the group expression. Suddenly it's not about someone paying their way to blast their messages to a group of people or sending their message directly to the right person at the right time. The new game-changer is that there are many conversations happening at once with many groups of people taking part.

Where do marketers fit in this mix?

Much like any moment of tremendous disruption, we're not going to know what type of marketing will work in the end as we're still right smack in the middle of it. For some it's an amazing time of discovery and new opportunities, and for others it's all about doing what marketers have always done - interrupt consumers with messages in hopes that this pushes them to take action.

Ken Wong, the esteemed professor of marketing at Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ont. recently spoke at the President's Dinner during the Canadian Marketing Association's national convention, where he stressed the importance of creating real case studies and standards for metrics to really see the shift in marketing and advertising that our industry is so desperately looking for.

The truth behind that statement is that we are drowning in the proverbial data.

The digital marketing channel truly does offer metrics and analytics unimagined before. It's not just about "eyeballs" or "hits" to the website. In fact, Avinash Kaushik, author of Web Analytics: An Hour A Day and the analytics evangelist for Google, defines website "hits" as "how idiots track success."

Whether we're talking about robust web analytics packages like Omniture or WebTrends or free tools like Google Analytics or Yahoo Web Analytics, there is a steady stream of metrics that can teach us not just who is engaged with our marketing, but where they came from, what their experience looked like, how long they stayed, what they did and where they went after they left. Oh, did I mention that this flow of data is available in real-time? We can gauge and optimize the success of these campaigns on-the-fly versus waiting for the end of Q3 to figure out why the campaign in Q2 did (or didn't) work.

The only way marketing is going to push through is for more of us to figure out how these digital channels really are changing everything we know about consumer attention and intent.

The majority of people's first interaction with a brand is happening at the search box. Most Canadians looking to buy something go online first to do research-and it can be as innocuous as office supplies or as serious as a car. They're listening to what others who have bought before them say, and are making very deliberate buying decisions based on that first page of search results. And yes, they're also talking about you... right now. (Don't believe me? Head over to and type in your brands or the industry you serve).

There are things all marketers must do right now if we're going to capitalize on these many new channels.

First, we must look at how we market "marketing." We must get better at educating young people about the value and opportunity in pursuing a career in marketing, and ensure schools have the right tools to teach them. Secondly, we need to experiment more. We need to embrace what we know (and what we don't) about this brave new world, look beyond the standard interruption model and pursue new business models.

Simply buying banner advertising on the top three web portals in Canada is not going to cut it. Buying thousands of keywords in search engines without constant optimization and refinement is also not going to be sustainable. Unlike the music industry and the newspaper industry before us, the marketing industry still has an opportunity to help define the change, rather than letting the digitization of our industry happen to us with little to no input from the actual professionals.

This is only a crisis if we recoil. Now is the real opportunity for us. In the following pages you will hear from those who are thinking differently.

My hopes are that you will realize the true power in using digital marketing in terms of what advertising had promised consumers for over a century: real interactions between real human beings.

Who would have thought that technology would be the great enabler of truer and more human interactions with one another?

The above is my column titled, The New Game Changer, for the June 15th, 2009 issue of Marketing Magazine (titled Brave New World) where I act as the Guest Editor for the entire issue. The magazine also features a roundtable discussion I conducted on the future of Digital Marketing featuring: Seth Godin, Charlene Li, Shelly Palmer and David Weinberger titled, Talkin' About A Revolution. The entire audio conversation will be available this coming Sunday as episode #159 of Six Pixels of Separation - The Twist Image Podcast.

By Mitch Joel