Marketing in the Net

Believe me, because I'm on TV!One of the things I love about the Internet is the access it provides to utterly transparent, unvarnished and fully-rationalized crap. If you have a point-of-view — and who doesn’t? — then you can find both validation and nullification on the same good old Web. Sometimes, the validation is complete, while other times it’s very subtle and partial. Same with opposing viewpoints, but the beauty here is that when it’s complete nonsense, it’s an amazing and hilarious thing to behold.

One human being’s obvious truth is another’s crap, I guess.

Much has been written here over the years, for example, on the topic of authenticity. Among other things, it’s one of the new values of journalism. People want to hear from those directly involved in the story or to be taken as close as possible to the scene/source, so they can judge for themselves. Authenticity is also smart for 21st Century businesses, because in the network, it’s much more about what you do than what you say. That’s because the other participants in the market conversation — the people formerly known as the consumers — not only see through BS, but they’re capable of calling it out in such a way that others can see it. You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into, as Steven Covey says.

Which brings me to Lisa Barone, Co-Founder and Chief Branding Officer of SEO consulting firm Outspoken Media. I don’t know Ms. Barone, and I can’t even remember how I found her piece at Blogworld. She’s a marketer, and the article is called Why Authenticity Is A Lie (Bad) Marketers Tell.

…What your customers want is the best version of you. The version of you that allows them to see themselves, where they want to be, and which helps them achieve their goals.

That’s what marketing is — Using yourself to show people their desired outcome. Even if that outcome is just your customer with a finally-working dishwasher.

As a marketer, you provide that experience by giving up the hokey authenticity act and creating a characterized version of yourself that exudes who your audience wants to be.

This is utterly astonishing to me. It’s trickery and manipulation. “What your customers want is the best version of you.” Huh? And if that best “version” is false, that’s okay — even desired — by customers, because a “characterized version” is better than the “hokey authenticity act.” Really? How does Ms. Barone know what customers want? Most marketers know a lot about what “works” for them but little about what people really want. This is gimmickry, all of it, and it’s a lame relic of the mass marketing fed industrial age.

What I love most about this is the authoritative nature of its advice. Marketing is defined as “using yourself to show people their desired outcome.” Right. Show white teeth instead of tooth decay. I get that. But it’s as if she’s quoting scripture in her effort to belittle authenticity. Hell, maybe what she’s talking about needs belittling, because if the best you can offer is this “authentic self” meme, I think you’ve missed the point on authenticity. We’re hyperconnected, in the network today. There is no (zero, zip, nada) demand here for messages that “show the desired outcome.” What people want is the truth, not sales pitches.

The advertising industry must be very, very careful about this kind of stuff, because anything that smacks of manipulation will have automatic and drastic consequences in the network. What’s proposed here is a very slippy slope, that the wearing of masks is acceptable in a horizontal world. I don’t object to picking and choosing the best character traits, if that’s a choice, but the line must be drawn at pretending, and I’m not convinced that this is something companies can resist when it comes to profit.

This is not the old world where you can say one thing and do another, because the barriers to entry into the communications world are so low. Anybody can challenge anything, and as Umair Haque so brilliantly notes, in the 21st Century, it’s all about the product you produce, not what you say about that product.

Authenticity is the most misunderstood value of new media, and we shouldn’t be surprised that marketers have mistaken it for a hokey gimmick that makes their sophisticated gimmickry look good. Authenticity is hard for businesses who’ve spent lifetimes perpetuating “the best version of you,” because the unintended consquence is you end up believing your own crap. Hyperconnectivity exposes this, and the only option is to be real.

Insofar as sports is an analogue of war, marketing draws its language from the arenas, stadiums and fields of the world. Ries and Trout’s popular and influential books, Positioning, The Battle For Your Mind and Marketing Warfare suggest that sellers of anything are engaged in a real war with customers and potential customers. Likewise, John Man’s popular book The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan puts business leaders in the shoes of a barbarian conducting war on his neighbors. At stake in this analogue is money, big money gained through market share. It’s all there in black and white: kill your competition, enslave those you conquer, and live on with the spoils of victory. It’s the stuff of pride for anyone with an MBA.

There’s just one small problem that the world of Mad Men overlooked: unlike toy soldiers (or real ones) on a battlefield where one is defending the land and the other is trying to take it, this battlefield doesn’t belong to either, and the owner of the playing field today has the power to say, “Get lost!” When this happens, marketers are trained to ignore the signals, because they feel they have an inherent right — an entitlement, if you will — to play where they don’t belong.

This illusion is what’s being dismantled by technology, because, when given the choice of shutting down the battlefield, guess what? We do it with vigor.

It used to be that, if you had enough money, you could tilt the scales of believability in your favor. That was the gift of mass marketing, and it made a whole bunch of people rich. In today’s increasingly meritocratic culture, performance and product are what count, and this has only begun. “Marketing” is a dirty word in the network.

This is why authenticity is neither hokey nor a gimmick; it’s the narrow path to success in the 21st Century.

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