Quit marketing now tip #1: default to personal communication

Ah, poor marketing.

It has definitely been a rough patch for marketing the last few years. From those predicting that [fashionable term X] is the “new” marketing (social media! engagement! community-building! customer experience! design! communications!) to those predicting its outright demise, there are a lot of people looking past marketing to whatever comes next.

It's hard for me to say I'm sorry for putting a picture of Chicago in this blog post. I just want you to know.

For many of us, marketing is what we know. We’ve been practicing marketing so long, it is, to paraphrase Chicago (yes, I just did that), a “hard habit to break.”

So if you’ve been tearfully exclaiming, “I wish I knew how to quit you, marketing!” I come bearing hope. What follows is the first in a series of things you can do right now to break marketing’s hold on you. Quitting has to start somewhere. It might as well be here.

First, a short history:

In the beginning, communications were personal. I’m sure it all started when Og was sitting in the cave talking to Grog about his new stone arrowhead design, responding to Grog’s questions and telling stories about all of the animals he had killed with the new arrowhead (brand positioning: lighter design, so you can throw farther, kill bigger, and feed your clan better).

Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, and all of the sudden we humans were creating goods and services that could be delivered to many more people at once than ever before. While this was fantastic, and made a lot of people a lot of money, the downside was that we could no longer communicate the benefits of the goods we were making to each person individually.

So we developed new ways of communicating to many people at once—mass communications. Along the way, the idea of marketing was born (fun fact: a telegraph was used for mass unsolicited spam as early as 1864!).

And all was awesome. For about 100 years or so.

There was a problem. Mass communications were a lot better deal for the producers than the consumers. Those producing the products and services saved a lot of money by telling everyone the same thing at one time in one place (on the radio, a TV, a billboard, an advertisement). At first people were OK with that, but over time, as they became saturated with marketing messages, they started ignoring things that didn’t seem directly relevant to their lives.

So marketing folks responded with fancy ideas like “segmentation,” “one-to-one marketing,” and “personalization.” And these things worked. Well, they kinda worked.

Which brings us to today. I’d argue that most marketing today is built upon a mass communications foundation developed at beginning of the Industrial Age. And during whichever Age we are in now (the Information Age? The Attention Age?), this type of communicating just ain’t what it used to be.

What went wrong?

My view? When we moved away from Og’s personal communications strategy toward mass communications, we accidentally built a wall of formality separating those of us who produce stuff from those who buy it. We decided it was no longer OK to talk individually with people, because it was so inefficient. People quit being people and started being segments.

The language of marketing became more formal, less personal, and eventually spawned an entire industry of cartoons, TV shows, and websites dedicated to just how screwed up marketing is (my addition is called markepoetry).

So how do we fix this mess? How do we break down the wall of formality?

Before I consider any mass communication at all (like a mass email, advertisement, survey, etc.) I ask if there is a way I could achieve the same goal, but keep the communication personal.

I make a conscious decision to default to personal communication rather than mass communication.

It turns out this is a lot easier, less expensive, and less time-intensive today than it was a few years ago. I could yammer on about social media here, but unless you’ve been under a rock, you know the deal.

I am now able to manage more personal relationships with more people in less time than I ever could before. This is a blessing and a curse, of course, but for people trying to move beyond the formal language of marketing towards a more meaningful relationship—let’s call it engagement—social media been no less than a revelation.

If I look at things and decide there is no way I can communicate the message I need to communicate personally, then I’ll move on to mass communication tools.

You’ll be surprised how many people don’t consider personal communication first. I’ve seen some weird stuff over the years. People writing emails that are only going out to 3-4 people that they write in a style as if they are going out to 10,000 people. What a wasted opportunity for personal engagement. I’ve also seen people who, for a number of reasons, are afraid to personally answer people who respond to their mass communications—people choose to engage you and you don’t engage them back!

You may look at your communications challenges and decide that 90% of them still require mass communications. And that’s OK. But by defaulting to considering personal communication first, even if you only change 10% of what you do, it may be that 10% that changes everything else and helps you begin your transition away from the formal language of marketing to a far more effective method of communicating.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.

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