Pulling power of knowledge is a ‘win-win’ for buyer and seller

Companies must stop pushing traditional marketing messages and start to provide the sort of quality information demanded by the consumer of tomorrow

When John Naughton, professor of public understanding of technology at the Open University, brought his Marketing Society annual lecture to a close last week there was a faint mood of disappointment in the air. “Ho-hum” was the reaction. Another internet-changes-everything speech. Been there. Done that.

Naughton’s central observation was that the effects of the Net were probably greatly over-estimated in the short term (think dot-coms) and greatly under-estimated in the long term. The biggest effect, he suggested, is the shift from a “push” to a “pull” communications environment.

Advertising is a push process. The advertiser decides what information to send. But “the Web is a pull medium”, observed Naughton. “Nothing comes to you unless you choose it and click on it to ‘pull’ it down onto your computer. You’re in charge.”

A critical characteristic of push, Naughton continued, is “its fundamental asymmetry”. Publishers and broadcasters are active and creative; consumers are passive audiences. Companies are knowledgeable, consumers are ignorant. But the internet is changing that too, enabling people to publish information and access knowledge. Companies’ ability to pull the wool over audiences’ eyes is fading fast, to be replaced by “something much more balanced”, suggested Naughton. Look at what happened to Kryptonite, whose bike locks could be opened by anyone equipped with a Bic biro. “The company knew of the flaw, but did nothing until news of it was published on a cycling website. And then all hell broke loose”, he says.

But what does all of this mean for marketing? Naughton was wise enough to avoid answering. But we have to find some answers. So here goes.

Modern marketing is pretty much defined by Naughton’s twin themes of push and information asymmetries. Now Naughton is suggesting that, long term, internet pull rather than broadcast push is becoming the central communication paradigm. If so, adapting to this tectonic shift will require more than pumping a little more cash into Web advertising plus a little more interactivity. Starting small, as an almost marginal activity, marketers will have to become experts at providing sought-after information. In retrospect, it could be the best thing they ever did. Fact is, push messaging and the ability to take advantage of information asymmetries are two of the worst things ever to have happened to marketing.

Why? Because together they generate marketing schizophrenia. This happens when a company’s products are designed to meet a consumer need, but its marketing isn’t – it’s designed to meet the “go-to-market” needs of the company instead.

Helping the consumer search for value

This worked just fine in a world of push. Consumers had to make do with the information that was pushed at them. But in a world of pull, consumers increasingly pay most attention to the information they go in search for. Just as it’s sought-after products that win market share, in a pull media environment it’s sought-after information that wins attention share. For shoppers, that is information that helps them make better choices, quicker and easier: useful go-to-market information. So marketing must switch its focus from the messaging needs of the seller to the go-to-market information needs of the buyer, helping the consumer in his search for value.

Enter information asymmetries. If you are an expert in a position of information power it’s tempting to use this power to bamboozle, hoodwink or simply avoid telling the whole truth (think financial services). Providing consumers with useful, “empowering” information seems to go against the expert’s interests. Except for this. Spin merchants forfeit trust.

Information asymmetries between experts and the rest of us are a good thing, not a bad thing. And they’re here to stay. Information asymmetries are a sort of division of labour. Experts spend years learning and worrying about stuff so that we don’t have to. If we got rid of experts, the modern world would grind to a halt.

But, thanks to marketing schizophrenia we have a tragic situation where the people with the greatest expertise about products and services – producers – are also the least trusted. Consumers will turn to anybody – friends and family, pressure groups, regulators, even the media – before they trust the information a company produces in its marketing or publicity material: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Thus marketing schizophrenia corrodes trust and creates costly friction and misalignment between buyers and sellers.

But now the Web is levelling these asymmetries by publicising wrong-doers, while providing us with the opportunity to reinvent marketing as a win-win service via the provision of quality information.

What is quality information? It is information that is designed to meet the needs of the consumer as a consumer; information that is fit for purpose, easy to access and use, and trustworthy. Just like any good product, in other words. Quality information happens when a company sees its accumulated knowledge and insight – into markets, science, technology and so on – as a resource to be placed at the disposal of the customer; as part of the service to the consumer, not as a means to the end of closing a sale, or a source of power.

Just imagine, for example, the kudos and trust that would build up over time if a brand’s reputation for quality information was as assiduously built and as jealously guarded as its reputation for quality products; if the brand owner knew, down to the finest detail, exactly what information consumers found useful, in what form, how and when?

Improving marketing effectiveness

Imagine what would happen if the brand owner became the consumer’s first port of call for trusted information. How would this change the company’s marketing effectiveness, media costs, relationships with pressure groups and regulators, bargaining power with retailers and so on? And just think how much extra value could be added for consumers if marketing budgets were deployed as a consumer, rather than as a corporate, service.

All these possibilities flow from Naughton’s analysis. But making such a transition will be far from easy. Right now, for example, most marketing departments and agencies are still obsessed with how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of messaging, not how to seize the opportunities of quality information.

Of course marketers have to survive in today’s predominantly push environment. But we also have to prepare for tomorrow. Today, any marketing department or agency that’s not setting aside some resources to explore the win-win opportunities (and difficulties) of making quality pull information work risks long-term irrelevance. And that’s not a ho-hum matter at all.

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