Why Participants Matter in Performance Marketing (Part 1)

Part one of a four-part series on the “new” Performance Marketing

Part I:  Ban “consumer” for a week

Posted by Daina Middleton, CEO, Performics

When did it happen? Somewhere over the last five years, a significant shift happened in the relationship between “consumers” and brands. For those of us living in the marketing and advertising industry, the significant transformation and the speed of change caused by the evolution of technology and information have resulted in our jobs becoming profoundly more complex. Indeed the job of a marketer today is much different from the job of our Mad Men predecessors. Yet, it’s remarkable how our marketing terminology, tools and processes, which having guided the profession for the last sixty years, resemble that former era. They are ripe for a makeover. 

This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll talk about a project I have been working awhile now. The end goal for me, having worked in the industry for over 20 years, is to shake up the marketing world and begin a revolution – a revolution around a new type of Performance Marketing.  Ironically, the process of creating a revolution begins very simply with vocabulary.  Not so ironical if one considers conversational media is becoming main stream.  If the medium is about conversations, then words matter.  Vocabulary might seem like a nit in the scheme of things, but in fact it is profound because it lays the foundation for the marketing program and sets the tone for the ensuing engagement.  Every day marketers use words like consumer, audience and target.  Where did these words come from?  It seems as if they have been forever part of our culture.  Upon reflection and in a participation culture, they are derogatory, insensitive, even insulting.  Words like target, audience, and consumer, don’t accurately reflect the participatory culture, and imply a dependence that is not only inaccurate, but has been fueled by the recent distrust in Wall Street. 

Please understand I have always been a consumer advocate. The first 15 years of my career in marketing I considered myself a consumer advocate – at least as much as one can be in a marketing role. I felt, and still do believe, that truly understanding consumer needs and even the underlying roots of these needs are important to developing effective brand experiences. I also strongly feel relationship is of utmost importance – meaning the holistic consumer relationship could not solely be the responsibility of marketing. This is challenging in the corporate structure, where teams are organized in silos for the sake of scale and efficiency. Somehow we worked through this relatively well until digital came along, change transpired at an incredible rate and the world as we knew it didn’t seem to work as well as it once had.

Because I worked for a big global company on a market leading product line, I had the privilege of working with brilliant agencies to mastermind beautiful creative masterpieces that really were literally a form of performance media – mostly designed around a television “big idea.” By necessity, these ideas were translated into digital ideas after they were thought out for TV. Despite the fact they were stunningly beautiful, if they didn’t function well – which generally meant user experience sucked — they failed miserably. Failure happened more often than not for several reasons:

  1. These creative agencies are masters at creating entertaining pieces designed for television, a medium meant for leaning back and being entertained
  2. Lack of technology experience meant most digital translations were outsourced by big creative agencies to small shops who created stuff that just didn’t work correctly
  3. Media was an after-thought in the process – usually done by a different agency
  4. Probably most fundamental, we approached the problem assuming people were waiting to be entertained by us with a “big idea,” not because they wanted to have a relationship with us

Technology has literally changed individuals’ expectations. They don’t want to sit back and “consume.” They want to have a dialogue, participate and interact, and having a campaign that works well, that invites participation, becomes much more important than a “big idea,” no matter how stunning or creatively beautiful. We all know technology matters. In fact, the best programs we developed at HP were elegant blends of media, creative and technology. The seed that resonated with me and, honestly, prompted me to leave corporate America, was there are more fundamental issues we haven’t addressed, starting with the word “consumer.” Is it even the right word? Where did it come from? We live in a world permeated with consumerism. It’s deeply embedded in our culture, our economy, our industry, but where did it come from?  Is it even appropriate today?

History projects itself

I know, you are thinking about Mad Men, a show that clearly is examining the history of our industry. This must be the origin of consumer, right? The Mad Men era portrayed in AMC’s hit series represents another tumultuous time for the advertising world when the introduction of TV turned our industry upside down, much like what the Internet has instigated recently. In fact, it was this time when nearly all the tools and language we use today were born. Consumerism was alive and well then, but to understand the origin of consumerism, we must turn back time even further and go beyond the boundaries of our country.

Peter N. Stearns, provost and Professor of History at George Mason University, defines consumerism as “a society in which many people formulate their goals in life partly through acquiring goods that they clearly do not need for subsistence or for traditional display.”  See http://provost.gmu.edu/stearns/books/consume/

Until recently, consumerism was thought to be a product of the industrial revolution, emerging at the turn of the nineteenth century.  Most Americans would expect this. We do everything first related to consumerism, the good and the bad. Only in the last decade have historians claimed it originated in eighteenth-century Western Europe first, spreading to the US later. In fact, the first consumer product was sugar, suggesting a taste for something by no means necessary – no pun intended. I would like to do a post purely on sugar, and the irony of it being the first consumer product. A short time later, tulips, initially imported from Asia in the sixteenth century, became popular in Holland and were a developed market in the region by the 1640’s.  Is it only me who thought tulips were always from Holland?  In the late seventeenth century tulips became a status symbol and the average price of a single bulb exceeded the average person’s salary.  Clearly demand for tulips is consumer behavior – the flowers themselves had no vital utility as food.  Tulips represented the consumer behavior of having something of value that others couldn’t have. See  http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_17/b3678084.htm Consumerism grew as European peddlers and market fairs evolved into the first retail shops. With shops came shoppers and all the things we know and love today about the retail experience.

Though the consumer notion did not originate here, it gained steam in the US at the turn of the century. While the industrial revolution did not cause consumerism, it, and government concern for the economy along with the spread of department stores and even PR and advertising, certainly contributed to the rapid rate of development. 

Goods were produced in America at an astonishing pace from 1880 to 1930, and government officials feared overproduction and economic depression. This led to a steady stream of enticements designed to make people consume, and advertising aided this consumptive process. The first US advertising agencies launched in 1870’s, followed by the first French agency in 1922. After World War I, the advertising industry rose at a steady state.  Businesses needed efficient ways to entice the “consumer,” whose role was necessary to save the capitalists from their own efficiency. The government made a concentrated effort to get the country back on its feet, strongly urging citizens to buy products from businesses hiring men returning from the war.

Enough of a history lesson for now, but hopefully I have introduced a few ideas to get you thinking about how this is relevant to 2010. Today’s world nowhere resembles post World War I society or even the 1960’s era of the new TV medium. All advertising supported content models created when broadcast media emerged are evaporating with the birth of the Internet. While mass media may survive, the rules participants, brands, and agencies engage in to conduct marketing have all changed. It’s time for a new Performance Marketing model to take center stage.  Now that I have set the historical stage, in my second post, I will dive deeper into actual words.

Daina Middleton is CEO at Performics. Contact her at daina.middleton@performics.com.

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