Change is coming. But who will take the lead?
In the last working week of 2016 — a year that will surely go down in infamy in the history of marketing and communications — my colleague Julie Ginches posted a well received article on the “teachable moment” that the fake news crisis has created for marketing professionals. Toward the end of the article, she asks if in fact it’s time for the industry to pull itself together once again and write a professional code of conduct, as the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto did at the dawn of Internet marketing. Reviewing a catalog of examples of marketers behaving badly, Julie wrote:
[N]ot all this bad behavior falls under the banner of fake news. To be sure, there’s a qualitative difference between fakesters and hucksters, spammers, and marketers who are otherwise behaving badly. But you can also see the behavior on a continuum that was caused in part by the emergence of big content which is forcing us once again to examine the rules and tools of engagement. It may be time for a second call to arms — a second Manifesto — to get us all back on the right side of the history and enjoy what we do more as a consequence.
I have been reflecting on Julie’s call to arms, and checked in with other CEOs and thought leaders in the marketing industry, asking what they thought. The clear refrain: Julie is right — the time has come for a new “Cluetrain,” a new manifesto for the principle of treating consumers as individuals and human beings, and for treating marketing as conversation. We need a new manifesto — a new call to action for authenticity — and a new name. So much time has passed since the manifesto was first published that many in our profession are unaware of the history.
So I’m calling out to you as the next generation of marketing leaders, because you are both the best prepared — and the most motivated — to lead and name the next marketing revolution.
Well, if you look back at the time when the phrase “social media” first began to gain currency — the time when the Cluetrain’s prophecies began to come true — some of the first folks to professionalize social media were the next-gen leaders at media agencies, interactive agencies and PR firms. One upstart, Steve Rubel, had a blog that so popular that he was profiled in a BusinessWeek feature called, “Blogs WIll Change Your Business.” It was a remarkable thing to witness: a PR pro, whose job it once was to pitch the media, became the media. Clearly, professional opportunity had something to do with how marketers responded to social media.
But here’s another reason. As was true back in 2005, there’s a bit of unrest in the marketing industry and a growing consensus that it’s time for a change. One of the people who reached to me in support of a second manifesto is a leader at a global conglomerate. Another is the leader of a $3B/year agency. It turns out that they have been thinking of something like this. With armies of young pros throughout the world ready to charge at a worthy cause, large agencies may have the means to effect radical change.
Rather than wait for this happen, I thought I’d do a favor to my friends in the agency world — who have been speaking with me over the past few weeks — and proffer a few rules for the new manifesto. I don’t have 95 theses — like Martin Luther during the Reformation, or the authors of Cluetrain in the early days of digital marketing — but I do have seven. Some rules are old, some are new. But they all hold the promise to endure:
Restate the first thesis in Cluetrain: “Markets are conversations.” It was true then, and it’s true now. The only problem now is that many people have lost their way. The marketing industry should reflect on this first principle because so much other wisdom flows from it. Stop shouting at people, and start talking with them.
Before starting a conversation, think about joining one. This is something that some marketing people — particularly PR people — actually have been trained to do, but often only from the perspective of what reporters are talking and writing about. In the age of social media and smartphones, we’re all reporters now. Listening thoughtfully to what people are saying throughout the digital landscape is not only a skill, but a professional competency at agencies who tap a new generation of social listening tools, and use advanced methods for turning media dollars into interactive two-way conversation. Listening in the right places might have actually helped win an election in 2016. Not listening in the right places might have helped lose that election. Regardless of which candidate you were for, listening has returned as the number one tool for the platform known as conversation.
Put the public back in public relations. You are not just speaking to reporters; you’re speaking to the people. Brian Solis, an early blogger and digital business analyst, gets one of the early timestamps on this phrase, though variations were in use several years before. What we do know is that the phrase became popular when practitioners began to realize that the people they spoke to no longer were just reporters but also the people their clients were trying to reach. Once they got that, the toolset known as social media became “conversational media” that PR pros and their clients could use to relate to the public. For the historically minded, it was an opportunity for PR to get back to its roots as a discipline that included but was not limited to media relations. For others, however, it was more an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a PR pro and take pride in and not hide what they do for a living.
Think like a media company; behave like an editor. The first part of this sentence was a mantra shortly after the last revolution, as the requirements of social media marketing became better known. As Tom Foremski (the first mainstream journalist to become a full-time blogger) has often said, in the age of social media “every company is a media company.” But in an age where fake news is competing with real news, the second part of the sentence is equally relevant. Marketing professionals today and their clients need to assume the role that editors once played. When they create content, they must make thoughtful decisions — separate the wheat from the chaff — and become new arbiters of truth, for there in so many cases there is no one else left to do that for them. Amplify what matters. Unilever, for example, is a true thought leader when it comes to sustainable development, and brings an authenticity to their brand and their voice which springs from deeply held values.
Embrace the new age of story — the final frontier of conversational media. Here is perhaps the biggest opportunity for marketing agencies. For the past ten years, perhaps the most powerful medium for relating to the public — video — has weakly been used to “rebroadcast” TV ads without taking advantage of uniquely online tools to become conversational. As video increasingly incorporates conversational tools like in-unit surveys, sentiment analysis, and engagement cards, the producers of video can learn what the people are thinking and remake content that’s more relevant for the right audiences at the right times.
Speaking of story, let’s say goodbye to that thing we used to call “the commercial.” Before videos became conversational, they had the effect to speaking at the public, not with the public. Even putting aside the antisocial elements of this approach (after all, we can choose as I often do to ignore “commercials”), this approach also limits the role of the video. Commercials — especially those on TV–are perhaps good for raising a brand’s awareness. Conversational videos, in contrast, are good for something that’s further down the funnel: engagement. That’s great news for all industry professionals — ad agency and PR agency pros alike — but it’s also good for the public they’re trying to engage.
Be on the right side of the biggest story ever: history. At a time when media continues to be marginalized and disintermediated — and brands increasingly are vulnerable to being duped by bot-attacks — marketing professionals have both an opportunity and responsibility for being the voice of the human being. This means getting involved in educating their clients about the new realities they face, and opt for the more human, conversational approach. This means getting involved in educating consumers — the public they serve — on projects like media literacy, which I expect will bloom exponentially in the coming years. But most of all, this means getting the House of Marketing in order again and lay down the laws by which we all must abide.
Last time that happened was a decade ago. Ten years from now, let’s hope we can all feel proud when we look back at and see what we did today.