It’s become commonplace to hear doom and gloom stories about the collapse of traditional media, but in recent months there has been a concerted fight-back by the people responsible for marketing those media, aiming to prove that advertising with them still works. It?s even true.
The problem is that it’s not as true as it was. And that’s not the view of someone who believes that new media will inevitably supplant old media, it’s simply based on a few easily observable facts.
The first is that media is far more fragmented than ever before. So audiences are smaller and the amount of money going into each individual channel is smaller. And as amounts of money get smaller, the quality of the content gets eroded, so that in turn fewer people watch it. And so it goes on.
The second fact is that as more media become interactive, one of the byproducts is that audiences have more control over them. And as they exercise that control, one of the first things they exercise control over is how much advertising they watch. Again, this is nothing new; we knew for years that people skipped through the ads when watching TV programmes they’d recorded on video. We just chose to believe it didn’t have much of an impact.
The most obvious example of consumer control of advertising comes, of course, online. The furore a few years ago over pop-up advertising interrupting people’s online browsing blew over, partly because media owners realised they were driving users away, and partly because users simply downloaded pop-up blockers and carried on with their surfing. Then as TV has become more interactive, the tools have been there to skip ads in the form of hard-disc recorders.
Media fragmentation has played its part here too. The fastest-growing medium in US history is ad-free subscription-based satellite radio. This is the world in which engagement has become such a powerful concept, where advertisers and agencies are starting to look beyond reach and frequency to try and measure how involved consumers are with brands.
Some people go even further. At the Institute of Direct Marketing annual lecture recently, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide CEO Kevin Roberts stressed his belief that the job of marketers is ""to create loyalty beyond reason"", to move their products and services ""from being irreplaceable to irresistible"". The example he gave was the iPod; priced at a premium, critically viewed as not being the best MP3 player available, and utterly dominant in the market.
Roberts also believes that we’ve gone through the information economy to the attraction economy. In his fabulous phrase, information is a table stake.
I have my doubts about this. Certainly it’s true that people want to build relationships with brands; it’s part of the way they understand and navigate the world.
But they also want information about the products and services they buy. The rise of shopping comparison sites, recommendation sites and blogs shows that. What’s interesting is that this information has to be seen as being independent and authentic, but that doesn’t mean it can’t come from the company in question.
One of the most famous corporate blogs is Scobleizer, written by Microsoft employee Robert Scoble about the development of Vista. Intended to be read by the Microsoft development community, Scobleizer was notable for the free rein Scoble had to address his audience’s concerns and for the way he criticised the company and praised its rivals when he felt it was appropriate.
The end result was a blog that was credited with cracking the monolithic facade of Microsoft and changing the way the company was perceived by the community around it.
So, as we move towards a world where people want to make better-informed purchasing decisions but are also willing to be seduced by brilliant design, and in which control of when, where and indeed whether marketing messages are received is passing to consumers, two things recently come to mind.
The first came from a report called The New Marketing-IT Power Partnership produced earlier this year by the Kellogg School of Management and technical agency Sapient in the US.
It states that "the customer’s experience is the marketing", and goes on to say "customers make buying decisions based on their experience with the product/service and company. Traditional forms of advertising will not make a dent in revenues if the customer doesn’t have a good experience". In a world where ease of communication between people with similar interests is unprecedented, those experiences, good or bad, can travel further and faster than ever before.
Which is why I was also struck by a remark made at a conference called Advertising 2.0 just before Christmas. Internet expert and conference panelist Esther Dyson was asked about the future of advertising. "If I was hiring people for my agency of the future," she said, "I’d hire PR guys, because they’re the ones who really know how to influence consumers."
Michael Nutley is editor-in-chief of New Media Age