It’s all about people (not “consumers”)

It's all about peopleIn my early presentations to groups that wanted to talk about disruptions to media, I always began with a slide that said, “It’s not about technology; it’s about people.” For those who’ve not read or heard me on the subject, let me give you the basics, because I need to answer a question posed to me by colleague Jim Willi over the weekend on his blog.

While everybody points fingers of blame this way or that over what’s been taking place with media companies over the past few years, we would all do well to look in the mirror. The Internet has brought Western culture to a new place, and here’s what’s important to know: the Web is unlocking deeply-held feelings and awakening new possibilities for everyday people. To begin with, people are able to be better informed about a great many things today. And if information is power, then people are more powerful today. On many fronts, they are enabled to do something about their former helplessness. They’re involved in their lives and the lives of their friends, families and communities on levels never known before, largely because they’re all connected and can respond on a dime to anything. This is new under the sun, and we cannot look the other way.

This is why I say that technology may be providing the means, but it’s what’s being released in people that’s generating the heat. In my view, we are in the midst of the second Gutenberg moment in history, and it will have profound ramifications for all of culture.

So when Mr. Willi wrote this weekend of the failure of Superbowl advertisers to successfully drive viewers to their websites, the question about why is rather simple.

Apparently Super Bowl advertisers missed the mark in their attempt to extend their ads from the big game by using social media to give life to their brands beyond one multi-million dollar spot within the most-watched event. I leave the diagnosis of why this effort missed the mark to 2.0 guru’s like our Terry Heaton — but I find the information fascinating.

Jim wrote of strategies by advertisers to involve social media in their ads, but noted that research after the fact showed that few people actually were moved to do anything. “The advertisers’ goal,” he noted, “was to drive the viewers to go on line and chat, Tweet and become a Facebook fan.”

When marketing people use phrases like “drive the viewers” — and media companies are certainly guilty of this as well — we dismiss any notion that, just perhaps, people don’t care to be so driven. In the seminal book of the new revolution, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls wrote extensively about this. Here’s a key paragraph:

So the customers who once looked you in the eye while hefting your wares in the market were transformed into consumers. In the words of industry analyst Jerry Michalski, a consumer was no more than “a gullet whose only purpose in life is to gulp products and crap cash.” Power swung so decisively to the supply side that “market” became a verb: something you do to customers.

If you’ve never read the book, I strongly recommend you make it your weekend project. It’s free as a PDF online.

The point is that people are tired of the relentless carpet bombing of unwanted messages, and so they’ve turned them off and tuned them out (think TiVo). The marketing world’s response is to try and jam more into every conceivable sight, sound, touch, taste or smell. If it can get into your brain, marketing will try to get in there with it, or at least that’s the way it used to be.

Newscasts and news departments, for example, that radiate a “watch or you might die” persona are challenged, because people know it’s just not true. Hubris is our big enemy, along with the presumption that we can say or do anything — no matter how it challenges the integrity or intelligence of the audience — and they’ll respond the way we want them to respond.

This is why Jay Rosen refers to them as “the people formerly known as the audience.”

So why didn’t people respond to those ads? Well, it certainly could be lots of things, but the place I’d begin is the presumption in the first place that they would. Social media isn’t a place where we can butt in and take over. Just because you’re a big brand doesn’t mean you have a license to treat people as pawns on your self-serving board game. Until mass marketing accepts the new realities of life in an empowered culture, they will continue to find failure with old thinking. People simply need to be treated differently.

Here’s Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo, and formerly Starcom’s chief innovation officer:

(We’ve entered) an empowered era in which humans are God, because technology allows them to be godlike. How will you engage God?

Douglas Rushkoff in his book, Get Back In The Box:

The internet is not a technological or even a media phenomenon; it is a social phenomenon. And in this sense, interactivity has changed everything.

Chris Anderson in his book, The Long Tail:

As the tools of production and distribution are democratized, institutions lose power and individuals gain it. As the Web becomes the greatest word-of-mouth amplifier in history, consumers learn to trust peers more and companies less.

So I’m not surprised when marketing fails today, and the lessons for all of us are pretty clear. Old assumptions about people, especially those that involve fun verbs like drive, move, shift, and my favorite “reposition” must be carefully reconsidered in our dealings with our audiences. New words like participate, involve, transparency, and friend are strong but only if we deliver what we promise.

I can still remember sitting in an office at Nielsen in Dunedin, Florida and reading comments in diary after diary from viewers in the Northwest begging for the TV stations to stop insulting them with teases. I asked myself, “Do station managers ever read this stuff?” Because if they did, they might have a different view of how we interact with viewers.

(Now that’s not to say we shouldn’t do “teases,” only that we might want to try less insulting approaches than “15 dead in an accident on highway 101. The story at 11.” And it turns out to be pigs. You get my drift.)

In the old world, people couldn’t escape that nonsense. Today, not only can they escape, they are — and in big numbers.

“Spam” is a nasty word for unwanted messages via email — or any other delivery system. Think about that before you create some clever way to “drive” people from here to there.

(Originally published in this week’s AR&D Media 2.0 Intel Newsletter)

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