Column: Productivity -- The Drone Becomes a Din

  • by October 1, 2007

The conversation that is today’s media will challenge everything we know about marketing. Among the most significant changes in store is this: Everybody gets punk’d. Corporations no longer own the media, so they can’t keep people from lampooning them. Being the butt of a joke or the target of a rant is normal. Any company that tries to stifle criticism will only engender more criticism and lose more trust. This is not to say that companies have to sit by and just take it. They are welcome to fight back. What marketers have to give up is the expectation that they can gavel down contrarian voices. Instead, they must learn to debate.

Many of the new rules of conversational communications will be counterintuitive. One example comes from Mike Godwin, general counsel for the Wikipedia Foundation. Godwin told The New York Times that the best response to a critic is to get five other people to agree that criticism is “absolutely correct.” This is much more likely to “sap” the fervor of a critic than egging him or her on with a rebuttal.

Not getting punk’d is the bigger black mark. With everybody having a say, corporations don’t get the last word, and maybe no word at all. It’s not just that the media are old. The way media are used is getting old too.

A second new principle can best be described as follows: Kids need tools, not protection. In the open access media world of the future, protecting children from the media will be possible only with draconian measures.  Instead of trying to wall off kids from undue influences, it’s smarter to give them the tools they need to be in control.

This is not to dispute the vulnerability and special needs of children. It’s simply to note that when the media are in the hands of many — not just a few corporations — restricting access is nearly impossible. Teach Kids to deal with media, otherwise, they’re thrust into the marketplace unprepared and defenseless.

In fact, kids have radically altered the marketing landscape already through sites like YouTube and MySpace. Kids today are expected to be in charge.

Participation is the essential characteristic of every technology at the disposal of teens and preteens. In a very real sense, marketers are at the mercy of kids. A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, the most storied consumer marketing company of all time, now speaks passionately of the modern “let-go” world in which marketers will retain control of their brands only by ceding more control to consumers. Technology has given consumers new capabilities and tools, with which kids are usually the most proficient.

A third upcoming challenge: Signal to noise gets weaker. Today’s clutter is the product of a marketplace in which marketers were the only ones who got to speak. Imagine life tomorrow when tens of millions of consumers will be speaking with their own loud voices as well. Cacophony is coming.

Share of voice is fast becoming an outmoded metric. Brands compete for attention with all of their consumers. There is no way to measure the relative dominance of marketing spending in an amorphous, constantly shifting communications context.

The drone of conversation is rapidly becoming a din. Noise is drowning out the signal, so marketers can no longer depend upon the clarity and primacy of persuasion-based marketing strategies to carry their brands. No more out-shouting the competition.

We must rethink the presumption that changing attitudes is the best way to change behaviors. Bombarded with a flood of perspectives, consumers will be more reliably motivated by direct incentives to change their behaviors, whatever their attitudes. Indeed, social psychologists have shown for decades that more often than not changes in attitude do not precede changes in behaviors. It’s the other way around.

Where few brand appeals will be clearly or memorably heard above the conversational noise, behavior-based marketing strategies will come to the fore. Forced to cease attempting the impossible task of changing attitudes, marketers will shift their focus to just changing behaviors, whether attitudes change or not. In other words, once the conversation really gets going, marketers will have to quit talking.

J. Walker Smith is president of marketing consultancy Yankelovich, Inc. (

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