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It’s About Connections, Not Control

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Pete Blackshaw from Nielsen Buzz Metrics wrote an interesting column this week talking about the fact that CMO’s still have control.  He railed against the absolution of responsibility on the part of marketers, using the new buzzwords of consumer empowerment to justify the fact that they can throw more spam at the average user now because, after all, the user is in control. 

"First, the overheated rhetoric acts as a deceptive rationalization. Remember the theory of cognitive dissonance, that testy tension emanating from two conflicting thoughts at the same time. I worry all this talk about consumers being in control relieves dissonance. It allows us to absolve ourselves of treating consumers with respect. Hey, if they have control and, hence, the power, what possible harm could our junk mail, spam intrusiveness, and recklessness do?"

Pete touches on a very interesting point that I’ve talked about in the number of columns and post before.  It’s the idea of brand messaging going beyond the carefully manufactured advertising and marketing channels and being baked right into the DNA of the company.  Now, brand messaging is as much about customer experience and customer service as it is about the message we see in the typical 30 second television spot.  It brings up an interesting question about consumer control.  Is it so much about control as it is about the ability to connect with information in a new way?  As Pete rightly points out, marketers still have control over a number of aspects of the relationship.  It’s impossible to have a two-way relationship with one side being in total control.  The fact is that consumers control part of that relationship and marketers control part of that relationship.  The success of the relationship lies in the ability for the two sides to connect in a mutually beneficial way.  It’s not so much the consumers have taken control from marketers as it is that what was typically much more a one-way relationship has evolved into a two-way relationship.

"At the end of the day, we still control the message and the business processes that shape it, but we may need an alterative path to get there. Product quality, customer service, accurate claims, and employee empowerment are all within our control. And these are the input types that really matter, and always have."

Let’s explore a little bit closer how this has happened.  It really comes down to the number of channels available for messaging to get from the marketer to the consumer.  It used to be that those channels were tightly controlled and there were only a handful of them.  It goes back to the idea of power constructs.  The last hundred years our society has been all about power constructs.  The paths that lead from the manufacturing of products to the consumption of the products were few and were controlled by the powerful.  This was true in virtually any market you could think of.  With consumer packaged goods the ability of those goods to flow from the manufacturer to the consumer is controlled at various points along that channel by a few powerbrokers.  The same has been true in advertising.  The paths from the advertiser to the consumer were generally controlled by a few very powerful corporations.  Look at how the power construct in advertising typically played itself out:

  • At the top we have the advertiser.  
  • Below that we have the advertising agency that was responsible for crafting the message. 
  • Next you have the media buyer that takes a message created by the advertising agency and determines the channels to reach the target consumer. 
  • Below that you have the channels used to reach the consumer, whether they be broadcast TV, newspaper, magazine or radio stations. 
  • Finally, at the bottom, you have the consumer themselves. 

All the communication in this channel went one way, from the advertiser down through each of the successive layers until it reached the consumer.  There was no corresponding channel to allow communication from the consumer to flow back through all these gates to the advertiser.  In the case where an advertiser did want to get information from an individual consumer, they would employ a market research company to circumvent the entire power structure of communication and go directly to a handful of representative consumers, determine what they were thinking and report back to the advertiser (or perhaps the advertising agency).  Picture a series of locks on a canal, with all the water flowing one way and with each of the gates of the individual locks designed to let water out and not let water back in.  The only way for water to run back was a small pipeline with a pump on it and the switch to that pump was always in the hands of the advertiser.  They chose when they wanted to listen to the consumer and when they chose to ignore the consumer.  The consumer had virtually no power to push their message back to the advertiser.

Now let’s look at what the Internet did.  The Internet took a highly structured, albeit one way, channel and completely blew it apart.  Now water flows freely back and forth between the advertiser and the consumer.  This not so much took control way from the advertiser and gave it to the consumer as it eliminated (or is in the process of eliminating) the existing structure that information flows through.  It democratized connections.  Rather than a man-made channel with restrictive gates and locks that restrict the flow of information from one place to the other, the Internet has turned the landscape into a vast field during a rainstorm.  Water collects in a thousand tiny pools and flows according to the online landscape.  Advertisers can influence where those flows happened as much as consumers can.  The control of flow is now jointly owned by everyone.  Advertisers have not had their power taken away.  They just have to learn how to share it.  They have to live up to the responsibility that goes with a truly two-way relationship.  Because they can no longer control the channel the message goes through, they have to spend more time controlling the very message itself.  They have to make it bulletproof, capable of withstanding the BS test.  And you have to understand that that message can’t be carefully crafted, it has to be lived.  It encompasses everything they do in the day-to-day operation of their business.  It has to include all the touch points that brand has with the outside world.  Because every touch point is a small puddle in that massive field.  If they manage the information correctly it will flow in the desired direction.  If they abdicate their responsibility of meeting the customer halfway in providing a mutually beneficial proposition, then they have to bear the consequences when the flow goes in the direction they don’t want it to.  And if there is enough momentum in the opposite direction, they will get flooded by a tidal wave of consumer dissent.

All in all, it’s a healthier relationship.  One-way relationships tend not to be sustainable in the long term.  But as with any power shift, there’s a pendulum effect that will likely occur here.  As power finds its natural balancing point, it will likely swing too far in the direction of the consumers before it comes back again.

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