Marketing in the 21st century means selling long tails to mermaids.(Photo by Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images) NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES
Marketing has always fascinated me. My first full-time job, many years ago, was working for an advertising agency as a computer graphic artist, and it gave me an understanding of the process of promoting and selling from very small (a car dealership) to very large (a chain of some of the largest malls in the US at the time).
Over the years, I revisit the field, because marketing is constantly evolving in response to the business environment. Today marketing and advertising are vastly different from they were three decades ago, though certain things continue to hold:
Seek the Long Tail
This has always been true, but today it is critical. What the Internet has done is to make it possible to target a niche audience in ways that were impossible back in the day. It has also fractured the marketing space into literally millions of micro-markets, each of which conceivably may have just a handful of people in the world.
However, that handful is very likely to pay a premium to have their wants satisfied. One of my favorite case studies of this is in the marketing of mermaid tails of all things. Back in the mid-1990s, a young man named Eric Ducharme had worked for a bit with the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaid show, and wondered if there might in fact be a market for more realistic tails.
Eric Ducharme, the Mertailor ERIC DUCHARME
Prior to then, most such tails (for movies or commercials) were made custom from rubber or polyurethane, could cost upwards of $10,000, and, because they were exposed to the pressures and chemical effects of salt water, usually didn't last long. Eric, billing himself as The Mertailor, began producing tails using newer materials at a lower price-point, and began marketing in part by word of mouth and in part by reaching out to the Internet. What he discovered is that there was actually a huge pent up demand among young women (and not a few young men) for something that would let them live the fantasy of being a mermaid. He experimented with different materials, and began offering lower-end fabric tails at prices that were considerably more affordable, and used the networking power of Facebook, Twitter, and later Instagram to let his customers (many of them quite famous) sell his tails for him, making him a quiet millionaire in the process.
I've always found this particular case study because it is, in many ways, emblematic of 21st century marketing. The market was too diverse and too non-obvious to have succeeded in the previous century. While the company's reputation spread by word of mouth. That word of mouth was amplified a million-fold with social media in a way that most businesses only are just beginning to explore. It is the perfect manifestation of Long Tail marketing.
The Long Tail was a concept that first gained traction in the early 2000s, an awareness of the fact that monolithic markets were fracturing. In the fifteen years since, that has become far truer. Gone are the monolithic certainties of huge, mostly captive markets. Instead, traditional retail is in its death throes because markets are complex, interwoven, and constantly changing.
To say that this has been a challenge from the marketing perspective is an understatement — the Long Tail has all but buried the conventional wisdom about how marketing worked. However, stories like Eric's also have proven to be a boon, because it forced the development of new tools to target and more effectively aggregate different segments of this tail, providing very specific markets of highly motivated customers rather than large, expensive and indifferent markets of apathetic ones. This has meant that we are now seeing the emergence of a new understanding about what marketing actually means.
Social media guru Geoff Hughes actually summed it up nicely:
"First, spend the time to figure out the niche that you are going to focus on becoming an expert in.
"Second, make sure your content is educating and entertaining because no one goes on to social media platforms looking to buy anything, they are going onto those platforms looking to be entertained or educated.
"Third, stop looking for instant gratification and realize that you need to create a trust with your potential audience, and that doesn’t happen instantaneously. To build trust, you must supply them with a lot of valuable content that entertains and educates them. Once you build a relationship with them, when you do offer them something, they are ready to buy with confidence."
Authenticity is hard to define, but ultimately means that you believe in what you are are doing, and that what you are doing is right for the rest of the world.GETTY
Millennials and GenZers are the most media aware generations ever. The website TV Tropes is a Millennial invention and a bible for anyone under the age of 39. The site has deconstructed much of popular culture into extensively hyperlinked tropes, and through that and similar lenses younger people have become very cynical about being manipulated by the media. They can smell lack of authenticity.
Too much marketing in the past was about creating illusions. The illusion: driving along coastal highways, not another car in sight, the vehicle gleaming and spotless, its passengers wealthy, beautiful people, while eagles and deer looked on in approval. The reality: car payments, rush-hour traffic, regular trips to the dealer because the gleaming vehicle lost its shine a decade ago but the job just doesn't cover getting a second loan so you're stuck trying to nurse it along for just one more year, beautiful people nowhere in sight. Marketing sold the illusion of prosperity, but the glamour has faded.
What this means in practice is that marketing has to not only talk the talk but also walk the walk. Does your product or service actually do what you're claiming? Does it meet a real need, or is it simply a dangling shiny? Note that if your audience needs dangling shinies then for that audience you are authentic, but the days of manufactured need are fading.
Again, authenticity is key here.
"You need to be clear on the outcome you’re looking for. There’s a Wild West of automation available––in fact, social platforms are constantly fighting the surge of these growth tools, in a world where efficiency, connectivity and attention are most important. Test everything. But remain human. Inauthentic peer-to-peer digital interactions will be the ultimate brand & trust killer in 2019. Heart always wins."
Advertising is an attention tax. After a while, people unconsciously screen out advertising — they simply no longer see it. The more annoying it is (the higher that tax); the more likely they are to build negative associations about it. This is one of those areas where artificial intelligence is so powerful ... and somewhat scary. It is now possible to target an ad to a person based on their activities within the last minutes, hours and days.
It is worrisome from the standpoint that the information needed to make this magic happen also means that those who provide the search also have a disturbingly realistic and comprehensive understanding of what makes you tick, and the potential this has for such information to be used in nefarious ways. However, it does mean that any advertising is increasingly finding its mark, and more going from a useless distraction to a (somewhat) useful one.
In general, marketing should do more than tout the advantages of your product. You, as the marketer, are biased. You know it. Your customers know it. It's a part of the reason independent game play-throughs have become so popular. It is a form of endorsement, of course, but that endorsement comes with the very real caveat that if your game (or product) sucks, those same people will not be shy about letting you (and your customers) know. Ironically, being willing to let your perfect product get beat up like that is a sign of authenticity.
This also creates something of a conflict of interest for the reviewer; something that I don’t think has completely resolved itself in the broader realm of journalism. Every journalist (and this includes bloggers, podcasters, vloggers, really, anyone who provides reviews) has to weigh the value of their independence vs. the value of endorsements. In twentieth century media, that decision was fairly easy — you endorsed based upon what your editor would allow, because they paid the bills. A good editor knew when to weigh in and when not to. This maintained something perhaps best termed journalistic integrity.
Today, most journalists are freelancers. This complicates the relationship that they have with potential sponsors, because if a freelancer is seen as being too biased, they lose credibility, especially among the younger generations. The older audiences have a somewhat different issue having to do with confirmation bias, which overall tends to be stronger as you get older. In either case, however, the keyword is trustworthiness.
This means, from a marketing standpoint, that it is fine talking to a journalist to get coverage, but understand that ultimately that coverage comes with the caveats that they have to be seen as being impartial, or at least to signal to their readers when they have a conflict of interest. It means you won't necessarily get perfect coverage of your products, but in the end, that probably does you a disservice anyway.
Okay, maybe not that interesting ...GETTY
This is easy in principle, difficult to pull off in practice, but almost invariably worth it. This doesn't mean you have to be funny, though that usually doesn't hurt (but using the same joke or shtick too long can backfire).
"Build a foundation of referrals from every customer you acquire from paid traffic sources. This increases the customer lifetime value, and allows you to offset increasing media costs. Your product or service should deliver a great experience to the client. Focus on helping the end user and delivering so much value that you will at a minimum, retain your client base. Use that base to build a larger audience and network."
Being interesting shows you've done your homework about knowing your audience. Part of that is moving beyond what is euphemistically called market research, big data sentiment analysis and deep data science. I write extensively about the latter two, and while the technology is cool, the danger that it presents is that such analysis invariably distances the marketer from his or her audience at a personal level.
If you develop software solutions, your audience doesn't want to know how it's better than other products in your niche. They want to know if you can solve their specific problems. They want some surety that you can deliver what you promise through testimonials and recommendations from others in their space. They want to know how responsible you are as a corporate citizen.
Too many companies, especially in the IT and AI spaces, believe marketing involves setting up a website with a picture of the leadership, swirly glowing graphics against electric blue backgrounds and the buzzwords du jour plastered everywhere (a few years ago it was Big Data, then Data Science, now it's Artificial Intelligence, no doubt heading towards Cognitive Computing by 2020).
Yet, from a marketing standpoint, these actually provide surprisingly little bang for the buck. True engagement in general means interacting with your customers through social media channels, and even there, staying one step ahead of the platforms themselves. It also means that you often have to think larger scale media production, from vlogs to professional quality video content. This is becoming increasingly the norm as all the social media channels prioritize full feature media distribution:
Paul Xavier, founder of Next Level Creators, lays this out in very stark terms:
"The toughest marketing challenge we are facing today is making time to consistently create video content for all of our organic & paid advertising commercial campaigns.
"On average it takes us a total of 4 full days for the production process alone to create a campaign that covers Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google Search / Display, LinkedIn & TV. as we only create multi-use video content.
"[Our] primary focus is systematizing & creating efficiencies in our production process from market research, script writing, production, campaign setup & launch so that it takes the least amount of time possible while producing more profitable campaigns. We've cut our entire content creation process timeline in half from 8 days to 4 over the past year while seeing an improvement in the profitability of the video campaigns we are producing but it is still the #1 challenge we face as 4 days is a large amount of time."
In general, being interesting means that you are no longer going for first impressions. The relationships between the marketer and their audience become longer term, far more a conversation than a simple interaction, and that ultimately translates into a commitment to be human with your customers.
"Stop trying to sell your product or service on the first date. Develop a voice that engages them with your brand, entertains perspective clients, and educates them on how your product or service makes life better. Develop a rapport with every touch point you make, this ensures your brand becomes a household name like Band-Aid, Kleenex, or Preparation H, yeah, I went there. When was the last time you saw a PrepH commercial or Ad? Forever ago, right? Yet, if you had hemorrhoids, the one product you would know to buy is that one."
Understanding (and making more effective use of) the relationships that connect people, places, organizations, things and events together will be critical in the 21st century. This is a big part of what AI will help do. GETTY
Marketing in the 21st Century involves using data effectively. One of the biggest sea changes that's taking place today is the shift away from ad word oriented marketing and towards resource-based, or semantic, marketing.
Imagine, for a moment, that for every product and service out there, you were able to embed some unique key or token that not only identified that product, but also made it possible to get up to date information about that product in real-time. Imagine every video or podcast or image out there could be traced with such tokens, could be monitored to see who your audience is and ultimately how to reach out to them. Imagine this information driving everything from looking to a job or a car or a house to driving media campaigns; creating alerts when conditions arise that are relevant to the sale of your company's products or services, with little to no intervention on the part of developers or data analysts.
This is where marketing is going. Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which has been the driving force for marketing in the last few decades, is giving way to a deeper web of inteconnectivity where the role of marketing is to ensure that the products or services that someone needs are available to them right at the time they need it. Such solutions create clouds of metadata around people, products, organizations and events that can, with the proper lenses, create frictionless markets that drive down customer acquisition costs and increase customer retention.
Such semantic technologies, in conjunction with machine learning for categorization and pattern recognition, can also help to determine when marketing is ineffective or even counterproductive, because they are not just using keyword matching but are actually identifying conceptual relationships that make it possible to determine the gist of your customers' words and actions, and consequently be able to better respond with content that better matches their needs.
Technology will transform marketing, but technology without creativity and putting human values on that marketing will destroy it. That is the role that marketing professionals will play in the next century. GETTY
At the same time, this technology also means that marketing itself will need to strike a balance. As the lag time between promotion and response diminishes, effective marketing means providing value, not just an annoyance tax, to your customers within a diminishing window of time. It means that your channels are not just your own Twitter or Facebook feeds but the growing array of long-tail journalists, thought leaders, mavens and gurus, who are attempting to get their own voices heard.
It's a hard time to be a marketer today. It is an exhilarating time to be a marketer today, and the ride is likely to just get wilder over time.
Kurt Cagle is Managing Editor for Cognitive World, and is a contributing writer for Forbes, focusing on future technologies, science, enterprise data management, and technology ethics. He also runs his own consulting company, Semantical LLC, specializing on Smart Data, and is the author off more than twenty books on web technologies, search and data. He lives in Issaquah, WA with his wife, Cognitive World Editor Anne Cagle, daughters and cat (Bright Eyes).