Logging In: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

We have watched the Internet weave its way into the fabric of just about every facet of daily life. First it was content, then communications, then commerce, then search and so on. Now the digital behemoth seems poised to devour traditional advertising and marketing as we know it.

By now, even casual observers of the digital revolution have figured out that the Internet, in its many forms, is moving to the center of the media universe. This evolution is not only shaking up where we all go to get information and entertainment, but also affects almost every business model in the media and business world.

The quickest to get it, of course, have been consumers themselves. Before most marketing types could even say "Web 2.0," consumers had already figured out new ways to do almost everything online, simply because they could save time, money and trouble. In the process, the whole 19th-century model of scarce distribution and abundant attention has been flipped on its head.

Virtually any product is digitally accessible everywhere. Consumers can instantly find everything they need to know to make choices, making it harder to get consumers to listen to our brand pitch. This incredible shift in consumer power has upset the long-standing marketing applecart that had brands talking and consumers listening. Now consumers are talking and brands are unfortunately still talking--instead of listening and having a conversation.

As you might imagine, the ripples across the marketing world are already getting pretty interesting.

To start with, the traditional advertising agency and its 75-year-old media-driven business model are sinking under the weight of its increasing irrelevance. But ultimately, an even bigger story will be how brands, big and small, try to adapt to the new realities of this digital revolution.

The challenges are significant. For example, since the Web has now become the medium where a brand can most effectively tell its story, organizations need to combine the functional mission of the IT department with the messaging mission of the marketing department. Easier said than done. Have you ever tried to get IT and marketing to work together?

Over the past 15 years, IT departments have built cultures based on engineering, risk avoidance and predictable process, the exact opposite of marketing. As a brand's has become its most valuable marketing address, how can a company orchestrate the speed and flexibility it needs to satisfy consumer expectations?

The answer is where most companies will fail. They will stick with the old way of communicating until their competition one day wipes the floor with them using effective digital solutions. Even C-level edicts, at that point, will not help because it takes a great deal of time and effort to change not only the organization, but the attitudes that drive it.

So we find ourselves at one of those classic inflection points, where smart, nimble organizations can leapfrog their competition. The only barrier now is the executive will to take action. Whereas the disconnected nature of media in the last century separated sales, marketing and IT, the realities of 21st-century media must bring them together. It has to start within an organization. And with the digital channel acting as the touchpoint for almost every critical step in the sales process, it's time to unify not only the departments but also the tactics to create a customer-centric strategy that adapts to market conditions in close to real-time. Anything less will open the door to a faster, smarter, more flexible competitor.

The mission now is to change behavior--ours and our customers'--not just change messages. Consumers demand that we move at their speed even if it means we live in a perpetual beta world. The alternative is corporate heads firmly planted in the sand, defending the status quo until we pry it from their cold, dead hands.

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