"Fool us Onc…": Why Social Media Renders Most Marketing/Advertising Worthless

When it comes down to it, most marketing/advertising (and a lot of public relations) in the modern era is about fooling people. Fooling them to infiltrate their social sphere to influence them, fooling them to thinking they need things that they don’t, fooling them into thinking that one product is better than another.

So the model goes, you think of a new way to fool a bunch of people into paying for your product/service, they get wise, they stop paying, you think of a new way to fool them into paying for your product/service (and lather, rinse, repeat as needed). It’s a dance.

That model is only economically-viable when you’re able to fool a large number of people at once for a relatively low cost. In an environment saturated by ubiquitous technology and social media – that model fails because the costs and barriers change. Even if you figure out a way to game the system, the lifespan of that new tactic is extraordinarily short because people are now always networked and communicate with each other. The lifespan is so short that it’s a fraction of the length of many advertising / promotion campaigns, so before you can even get the word out – the verdict from the audience is already in.

Here’s how it works:

First, it’s increasingly difficult to even find the people you need to fool. People are opting out of the traditional mass media in droves, so one must spend vastly more resources piecing together an audience of any considerable size. [Translation: Big cost barrier.]

Second, once you do find a way to reach your audience, they’ve become highly tribal and have set up discourse communities with increasingly-esoteric communication codes to police their membership. The time you’d invest learning the communication codes of a discourse community in order to infiltrate it isn’t worth the comparatively small payoff of the tiny “Long Tail” audience you reach. [Translation: Big cost barrier.]

Third, even if you find the audience and learn their language – if you disappoint them (either with a product/service that doesn’t meet their needs or that is inferior), you stand to lose them forever. Worse, if you disappoint them enough, they may tell their other tribes about you. [Translation: Big cost barrier.]

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there’s a world of opportunity for good products/services (as Jonathan Coulton will tell you) provided by organizations that are responsive and accountable to their stakeholders, and the barriers are lower than they’ve ever been. There are even opportunities for big companies, provided they’re willing to stop trying to fool themselves (and customers) into thinking that they can be all things to all people and they’re willing to shrink down to the size that best serves their stakeholders. (Seth Godin just expounded on this point in his blog).

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