To truly embrace the Internet, marketers must learn to let go

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Howard Dean's use of the Internet as an organizing and fund-raising tool for his (ultimately failed) presidential bid has lasting implications for political marketing. But anyone who claims today to know what those are is shaping the facts to fit a pre-determined conclusion.

So says David Weinberger, the funny, fiery and engaging marketing consultant and author who served as an unpaid senior Internet adviser to the Dean campaign.

"The attempt to draw lessons from the Dean campaign is premature," in Weinberger's view. "We don't know yet. This is a historical event, like trying to figure out what the causes of the Civil War were."

While the lasting impact can't yet be discerned, there are some immediate takeaways-for politicians and brand marketers. The latter are investing in the Internet like never before; online ad revenues hit a record $2.3 billion in the first quarter, a 39% gain from last year, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau.

The chief lesson is that in the age of the empowered consumer, marketers have to learn to let go-a horrifying prospect for advertisers and their agencies, who are used to controlling the message right up to the point of impact with consumer eyeballs.

It was, says Weinberger, Dean's willingness to cede control to supporters that energized voters, allowing a quirky Vermont governor with inconsistent views to win 18% of the vote in Iowa: "It had less to do with this semi-politician than with a huge sense of relief that they weren't being marketed to."

Weinberger spoke at an iMedia Summit in Cambridge, Md. (full disclosure: I appeared as a speaker at the conference, and organizers paid my travel expenses). He is a quirky and passionate former philosophy professor and comedy writer for Woody Allen-his rumpled appearance and nervous energy make the fit obvious-who runs a one-man strategic consulting firm called Evident Marketing (his e-mail address: [email protected]). He also co-authored "The Cluetrain Manifesto," a book of marketing theses that became a media phenomenon in 2000.

Asked whether consumers are as alienated by brands as voters are by politicians, Weinberger-who earlier said the morning session was held "a little early for me to be foaming at the mouth"-yelped, "Are you kidding?"

"Marketing is the language of war, of tactics and strategies," he said. "Then there's this weird sexual thing of market penetration. They view us as the enemy. They're marketing to us because we're not doing what they want. They want us to buy their crap."

He believes TV is simple and tends toward stupidity, and that marketers need to take advantage of the Internet's nuances and "raw, unfinished quality" to engage in a more "human" dialogue with consumers.

"Don't think of the Internet as a broadcast medium," he said. "Think of it as a conversational space. Conversation is the opposite of marketing. It's talking in our own voices about things we want to hear about." But, he admitted, "the hardest thing for companies to acknowledge is that they're human."

Learning to let go means allowing for dialogue with and among consumers that includes negative as well as positive brand statements. Dean supporters, he said, would often "bitch and complain" about the candidate, but the frank discussions increased their loyalty.

Then again, Dean only won in his home state, and then after he had dropped out of the race. Still, to dismiss or diminish his campaign's Internet achievements and their potential impact would amount to a failure of imagination.

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