As We Move From Citizen Journalists to Citizen Marketers, Am I Obsolete?

A Marketer's Social-Media Survival Tactic

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Michael Ramah
Michael Ramah
As the debate rages about how professional news reporters will survive in this environment of citizen journalists armed with inexpensive tools and low-cost distribution, I'm posing a similar question: Where do expert marketers with years of outreach and client service under their belts find their place in this world of fast, cheap social-network-enabled dialogue and market research?

Don't mistake me for a whiny dinosaur. I'm proud of my earned expertise as a marketing strategist and brand planner, and I'm first in line to acknowledge the changing landscape, to encourage 24/7 global conversation and tout the benefits of innovative intelligence-gathering tools. But recently I was reading McKinsey Quarterly's July issue, in which marketing professor Donna Hoffman said she believes consumer-driven Web 2.0 conversations will eventually replace marketers. And I have to disagree; we can't throw out the marketing textbook with the bathwater. The real value of the marketer now is to delve into the conversations and reams of information and build a strategic framework -- to discover how, in a medium dominated by navel-gazing narcissists, we can insert a brand in a meaningful way.

Consumers from 7 to 70 have embraced Facebook and Twitter, and man do they love to hear themselves talk. Social media provides everyday people with an audience, allowing them to debate politics, gossip about celebrities and glorify or bash products and services with whomever has signed up to listen, like mini talking heads in a meta media universe. To Hoffman's point, it's true that individuals are empowered to become marketers. By virtue of their online savvy and assertive personalities, they can put their stamp on a product or service and send their message of like or dislike far and wide, to the networks they've built from their living rooms.

But while there is unequivocal value in many of those conversations, there's also a great deal of superfluous noise and distraction. Kudos to Wall Street Journal columnist Elizabeth Bernstein for tapping into this idea -- in her case, the onslaught of personal information via Facebook -- in her recent column "How Facebook Can Ruin Your Friendships." While acknowledging social networks hold some allure for her (linking her with friends, long lost or far afield), she's annoyed by the oversharing of details that would never rise to the surface in a face-to-face or phone conversation between friends. Are we destined to deal with this kind of overexposure forever? Much of it will likely die down once the novelty wears off (see Virginia Heffernan's New York Times Magazine piece "Facebook Exodus" for anecdotal evidence of just that), but the medium and the conversations and the personal influence as-powered-via-connectivity are here to stay.

For the past couple of years, brands of all stripes have been sprinting to secure Facebook pages and Twitter handles, scrambling to get themselves as much visibility as possible on the social media map. They want to appear young and nimble, and they love the idea of an inexpensive portal where they can talk to consumers and glean information fast. Indeed, most of them have succeeded in setting up their presence, branding it and starting conversations.

The question now is, who are those brands talking to, and who is talking about them? What are audiences saying and what are brands doing to acknowledge it and follow through with action? All of this communication is noise until someone can get inside it and fashion a framework of response that services both the consumer and the brand's needs.

Marketers today are listening, as we always have, but now we can do it better, faster, in more places and more productively than ever before. It's our role now to use the ever-evolving tools to cultivate audiences of like-minded consumers and engage them in meaningful dialogue rather than targeting them with messages. And what will never be obsolete in the new-marketing marketplace is the ultimate goal -- a holistic communications program that utilizes multiple channels and determines the level of outreach appropriate for each particular audience. Ad Age editor Jonah Bloom said it so well: "Social media isn't a box to be ticked or a department to be manned or even a campaign to be launched. It's about thinking differently about marketing, customer service, the entire company."

It's our job as marketers to be ombudsmen of sorts on behalf of brands, ensuring they aren't getting lost in blather but are finding the key pieces of information that they need to make insightful choices, intelligently influence audiences and get measurable results.

Michael Ramah is a partner and director of strategic planning at Porter Novelli.

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