Is the Future of Marketing About Marketing to Marketers?

As Pundits Proliferate, They Have Become First Test to Pass

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Is the future of marketing about marketing to marketers?

Sounds a bit preposterous, but the answer is yes. Put another way, I've discovered the ultimate marketing channel to the consumer, and it is "we." Indeed, we're witnessing the rise of a 6th Estate of power and influence -- the marketing community -- and I'm not talking about what we create, copy-test, place and target, but what we actually say and express. Cultivate us if you can. Avoid us at your peril.

Don't believe me? Just peel the social-media onion a wee bit and smell the pungent marketing odor. In the blogosphere, there are thousands of bloggers who source directly from the marketing and public relations ranks. Double that for Twitter, which seem to matriculate another hundred "social-media experts" every couple hours. Conduct even the most basic Twitter search on user profiles and you'll find nearly 30,000 Twitter users self-identified as marketers. Nearly 8,500 use the term "PR," and another 8,000 use the term "social media."

Whatever the reason, from down-economy-induced idle time to the new prerequisites of open-source resume building, these new undeniable marketing (pun intended) cohorts are everywhere. Strike that; we are everywhere. "The whole notion of 'push' marketing to consumers is shifting to marketers operating 'in stream' within the social web," says my friend and "Social Media One Hour a Day" author Dave Evans.

Look no further than last week's Skittles brouhaha. Or the Super Bowl advertising buzz that I tracked for Nielsen. Or the Motrin Moms controversy many months earlier. Upward of half of the overall buzz came from the folks with marketing industry pedigree or credentials -- and the percentage conspicuously peaked even higher in the early waves of buzz. Put another way, marketers are complicit in pushing the snowball into a "buzzball."

That all this moves the needle is beyond question. Just consider the impact of search. In the pre-search world, marketers could critique one another into submission and no one outside our hermetically sealed silo would have a clue what we are saying. In the post-search world, all the marketer talk, fortified by heavy doses of link love, pushes straight to the top of organic Google-search results, meaning consumers are as likely to see our informed, often critical spin before they see the first billboard, display ad or TV spot. That's big.

Motivations and line-blurring
The psychology powering this plethora of pontification redounds to a "first to know, first to tell" mind-set that often sees the marketing 2.0 set penning brand case studies in the bottom half of the first inning. Indeed, we risk irrelevance if we wait for the final score. Patience is not a virtue. Even my own Twitter-happy gotta-say-something-about-this-brand-campaign fingers feed the madness. Then again, who cares about me? my follower list looks like an empty room compared to the rave parties taking place within the RSS feeds and follower lists of the stampeding marketing and social-media denizens.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of 'Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000' (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.

It's gotten so crazy that analysts, strategists, and creatives have become de facto media channels. Jeremy Owyang of Forrester is one of the brightest, in-touch minds in the digital space, but he's also got buzz reach that would make most media planners salivate. David Armano of CriticalMass is in the same category: brilliant mind -- one of our own -- but also media channel. Ditto for B.L. Ochman, Steve Rubel and countless others.

Then again, maybe that's the bargain we've all struck in this Byzantine conversational bazaar we've buzzed up. Social media both softens silos and mucks up the lines. Web 2.0 marketing is de facto research, and feedback-powered research is the highest form of loyalty marketing, right? Lines naturally get blurry, even confusing, when we're both observer and participant. Inevitably, we end up interpreting the very buzz we created or fueled ourselves.

Yes, I'm entering the confessional right now. A week ago, in a rare switcheroo, I actually deleted a Twitter post about what appeared to be an Achilles heel in the campaign hours before the Skittles viral eruption. I still have dreams about Mashable's Pete Cashmore "retweeting" my early discovery, but in the end, I got antsy about dissing a current or future client.

Which leads me to disclosure, yet another murky issue that's starting to get dialed up attention, first in a recent Forrester report about paid blogging, and even more significantly, in last week's major upgrade of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's ethics code, which tackles some of these complicated questions in earnest. (Full disclosure: I'm a co-founder of WOMMA and board observer.) To keep this simple, disclosure is a must, but it's far easier said than done in a Web 2.0 word of mash-ups, pass-alongs, and 140 character re-tweets.

Go-to-market strategy
But let's leave the murky waters for moment and put our CMO caps back on. If Armano, Rubel, Owyang, Ochman, Chris Brogan and Susan Bratton now have the marketing pull (intended or not) of a high-performance Google AdWords campaign, how might this transform our road map?

For starters, in addition to fine-tuning our usual key-influencer lists -- from power moms to gadget guys -- we also need to figure out ways of winning love (or buying insurance) with the increasingly empowered ranks of the marketing-vendor community, even the folks advocating our competitor's product.

This is no cake walk. While there's shortage of easy high-fives from the social-media set on anything that smacks of progressive marketing, let's not forget that these folks know all the tricks of the trade, and can smell an imposter, fraud or half-baked campaign a mile away. Indeed, if you look at the digital trail of road kill (especially in search results) from stupid or unethical marketing practice, the marketing experts -- not Joe Consumer -- were the first to throw the fatal daggers. "Et tu, Brute?" indeed!

Which leads me to my second tip. Think twice about over-spending or investing in media or other marketing programs if the "marketing community" is swimming against your current. You may never break through. On the flip side, if the marketers are syncing with your desired flow, that may well become a golden opportunity to drive greater efficiency and momentum. This is precisely where smart, focused listening pays off. Without brand radar, we can't fly the marketing plane. Make absolutely sure you've got superb listening radar in place because, trust me, the marketing folks in particular -- ever attentive to the upside of timing -- move fast. You (we) can't blink.

As for reaching out to them -- er, us -- don't leave this to guessing or an outdated white paper. Most of these folks are not shy about advertising how they'd like to be contacted. And in some cases they'll make it clear you shouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole. Second, while "outreach" tempting, be wary of diminishing returns from excessive pitching. As with consumers, let them "discover" you, and this is where your brand blog, Facebook page or Twitter account can indirectly start the relationship-building process.

And a final word of warning: More folks are jumping into "pay to say" zone (even with disclosure), and brands going down that path of what we might dub "blended sponsorship" need to be extra sensitive about consumer backlash. Even Google has big issues with this. Indeed, this debate is alive and well across the conversational airwaves. Remember, authenticity really matters in this environment.

So yes, the future of marketing is about marketing to marketers. Consumers are still the heart and soul of our buyer set, but a new gatekeeper and filter has entered the mix.

Talk about controlling our own destiny.

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