In the last few months I've bought a new car (a Toyota Rav4) and I also bought an expensive new guitar (a Paul Beard "Mike Auldridge Signature Model" Resonator Guitar to be exact). The week before I bought the Toyota I was convinced I was going to buy a Subaru. The Toyota wasn't even on my radar. And a year ago, I'd never heard of a Paul Beard guitar; now I have to have one. What advertising magic worked on the "desire" synapses in my brain?
In both cases, traditional advertising had nothing to do with it, but marketing certainly played a big part. In the case of the Toyota, I was sitting in a bar one night and got into a conversation with an auto mechanic. I told him I was going to buy a Subaru and he just shook his head. I asked him what car I should buy, and he said: "Buy a Toyota. They are the easiest to repair and run the longest." The next day, I was at the Toyota dealer and the Subaru dealer is probably still wondering what happened to me.
In the case of the Paul Beard, I had joined an e-mail list of Resonator Guitar enthusiasts. On that list, everyone talks about how great the Paul Beard guitars are. And Paul Beard himself comes on every once in a while to answer a question or two. Next time I was in my favorite guitar store, I went right to the Paul Beard's and walked out with a new ax.
Just this week, another Resonator Guitar maker used a traditional "free giveaway" type of marketing gimmick, but because it was in the context of an e-mail discussion list, it didn't seem like marketing. He had just developed a new type of "tailpiece" for the resonator guitar. He offered to donate one to the e-mail discussion group; he would send it to the first person who requested it, they would try it out, and then they would send it to the next person on the list and so on. The result was that the first person got it, raved about the product on the list, and reluctantly sent it on to the next person who did the same thing. Now this thing slowly makes its way around the list, each person trying it and raving about it; it was a brilliant idea.
People buy things because people they know recommend them. There is an e-mail discussion list for just about any strange topic you can think of (I'm on two lists alone for the people interested in the Irish Bagpipes!). Companies not taking advantage of engaging people through direct discussion via e-mail lists are missing an important marketing channel.
You may think that my Resonator Guitar example is too small or only good for niche industries, but think back a few years when streaming video was the hot topic. Rob Glazer of RealNetworks worked the traditional top down approach - getting his message through traditional marketing channels, conferences, and speeches. On the other hand, Mark Cuban, back in his Broadcast.com days was on every relevant e-mail list discussion every day, answering questions, engaging people in conversation. And look who's the billionaire.
This is the mistake that Friendster recently made when it fired one of their engineers for posting information about Friendster's infrastructure on her personal blog. Believe me, engineering-type wonks are a big part of Friendster's target market and the engineer's firing launched a massive protest and mass Dump Friendster movement across the Internet. Of course the irony is that Friendster's business model is based on the power of community and community discussion. I guess no one can accuse them of drinking their own Kool-Aid.
The point is that e-mail marketing goes beyond broadcasting out a marketing message to an opt-in list. E-mail marketing is also a dialogue - a discussion among birds of feather. Companies ignore this at their own peril. So here is your assignment class: find the relevant e-mail discussion lists in your industry and force your CEO to post something. Who knows, it just might help you get off the conference stage and into the audience where the real selling is going on.