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Reinventing advertising

Posted on: Thursday 20th of September 2012

This week’s issue of Marketing Magazine carries a cover story written by me called ‘Beyond Advertising: Why Consumer Services Is Trumping Traditional Marketing’.

The key passage in the article goes like this:

“The simplest and most important driver of change is the basic fact of the information age. Not long ago – the pre-internet era of three TV stations for example – information/content was relatively scarce and available consumer attention was abundant. But now we’ve entered an era of information overload and clutter and the tables have turned. Power is shifting from the content/information provider to the attention owner.

The power shift is also a metrics shift. For decades, marketers have obsessed with demonstrating accountability – proving they are delivering a worthwhile return on investment. A worthwhile return to the company, that is. Not the consumer. How many campaign metrics measure ROI for the consumer? But in a world where available attention is scarce and valuable, return on attention is the pivotally important metric. Measuring, and delivering, ROI from the consumer’s point of view is what it’s all about it: answering the consumer’s question “Why should I bother investing time and effort paying attention to this?”

The next obvious question is what does consumer ROI look like? Some answers have been proffered. Some say it’s all about entertainment and engagement, making the 30 second ad break more engaging than the show it’s interrupting. Some say it’s all about ‘relevance’. But ultimately these answers fall short because they miss another long term information age trend. Information isn’t just something consumers ‘consume’ as ‘content’ any more. In the age of Google, Facebook, price comparison sites and so on information is becoming a tool in the hands of the individual: a tool used to pursue the individual’s (as distinct from the advertiser’s) goals. It’s this that marks Real Racing GTi,, Supersavvyme and Nike Training Club [examples cited in the article] out from the crowd. They are designed as tools in the hands of their consumers. Just like any product. Which is exactly what they are.

In the industrial age, a division of labour grew up between products and services which were designed to solve consumer problems, and communications that were designed to communicate their benefits – that were designed as part of the company’s sales process and not as part of the consumer’s problem solving process. Today, with digital, that division of labour isn’t tenable any more. Products, services and information – especially digital information – all offer different ways of solving problems. However you choose to describe the form information takes, as ‘content’, ‘engagement’, ‘connection’, ‘channel’ or ‘message’, the real test is the test of value in the hands of the consumer.”

Right now, the advertising industry is in a state of endemic crisis.

  • As far as advertisers are concerned, advertising is too expensive. And there are always doubts about its effectiveness – is it really worth the candle?
  • For consumers, advertising is increasingly something to be blocked, skipped, avoided or simply endured like a cold, rainy day.
  • For media owners, whether traditional or the new Web 2.0 variety, there isn’t enough of it. Advertising has become the universal panacea of bust business models (‘I know, let’s gather and sell eyeballs!”). Trouble is, there are not enough eyeballs to go round, and even when there are, most of them aren’t looking at the ad.

There is, however, a simple way to resolve this endemic crisis. It has three elements.

  1. Awareness In this first element, it’s business as usual. Advertising is very good at creating brand awareness. Awareness is an involuntary act and, as the behavioural economists have shown, awareness breeds familiriaty and familiarity breeds preference (versus items you are not familiar with). This is why advertising will always be ‘effective’, though (as huge amounts of research now show) this effect is actually quite small.
  2. Brands as information services The second element embraces the logic of information as a tool in the hands of the consumer. As my Marketing magazine article shows, there are countless creative ways to generate communications that also act as services; that add value for the people using them. This transforms the content of the advertising to turn it into a genuine service.
  3. VPI and Intent-casting The third element focuses on process. Traditional advertising processes are organised around sellers sending persuasive messages to targeted audiences. As we all know, this process is incredibly wasteful a) because, too often, it’s pushing stuff at people when they don’t want it and b) because it’s still largely driven by guesswork.

In reality, only I know what I’m interested in buying or planning to buy, so logically speaking, the process of connecting buyers to sellers, brand to consumer, should be driven by me, the consumer, sending messages to the market saying ‘Hey, this is me and this is what I’m interested in buying right now!’. This is the process of ‘intent casting’ as described by Doc Searls in his book The Intention Economy. It organises communication processes around helping the buyer to buy, rather than helping the seller to sell.

Redesigning the communication process around this volunteered information isn’t just theory any more. There are new VRM services developing trying to find new ways for buyers and sellers to connect.

So: the way forward for advertising and marketing communications can be summed up by three key work areas: an element of business as usual – awareness advertising driven by the fact that brands still need awareness; a new approach to advertising content, the shift from messaging and persuasion to brands as information services; and  a new approach to communication processes characterised by a shift from top down push to bottom up intent-casting.

None of these in isolation can provide a complete answer. Put together however, they are a recipe for genuine transformation. I’ll explore each of these elements in a little more detail over the next few weeks.

Alan Mitchell

To read Alan’s article, ‘Consumer service trumps traditional marketing’ click here.