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Marketing in a Digital World

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Before beginning graduate classes this semester, I had a warped sense of what the term “marketing” really means. In my undeveloped definition that was formed through a journalistic lens, I looked at marketing as a way PR companies or advertisers used manipulative techniques to ultimately sell a product, service or idea to unsuspecting consumers. In a way, my courses have helped validate that very narrow assumption, while simultaneously forcing me to ask myself not just what marketers were doing, but why and how they were doing it. It also forced me to think like a consumer, an ironic twist in my personal development because I had never really considered myself a consumer. From my past experiences as a journalist, I knew the power of media to influence viewers…but I never really applied that same power to marketing, or if I did, I unconsciously separated myself from “regular” consumers.

Watching a commercial has become an inactive exercise, something that happens in the background while I’m checking my phone, patiently waiting for the main programming to return. This is subliminal processing, a way the human brain senses low-strength stimuli; stimuli that occur below the level of conscious awareness. Before this course, I didn’t recognize that this simple action of turning to my mobile device during commercials was something most human beings were also doing, somewhat unconsciously. What I also didn’t realize was that marketers had recognized this as well and were scrambling to regain the attention of viewers during those precious few minutes that ads would air. In their scramble for consumer attention, a digital migration was taking place, not just by consumers, but by anyone who had a product, idea or service to sell. The television, although powerful in its ability to demand the attention of consumers, is losing its ability to keep their attention. More and more, people are not only turning to their mobile devices during commercial breaks, but they are bypassing television completely in favor of ad free entertainment and content online. The advertising model that took more than 50 years to put in place on traditional media, is slowly collapsing thanks to the flexibility, mobility and creative potential of digital media. And all this has happened in just the last couple of years, with changes continuing to accelerate with every passing day.

Since arriving in Newhouse in July, a common concern that I’ve heard from professors, classmates and visiting professionals alike is “how are we going to make money on the internet?” It’s an uncomfortable reality for many people who work in media and entertainment; imagine that the content you’re spending your days and nights working on, the content you’ve spent your entire life learning how to create, is now available on the internet for free. Mobile, which is quickly becoming the platform that most of the world uses to consume content, is struggling to figure out how to monetize that content. Years ago, Napster was involved in a huge lawsuit after record labels took them to task for providing music to consumers for free. Now imagine Napster on steroids, providing not only all the content being produced today, but also all the information and content that’s ever been created in history, to anyone who knows how to use the internet…for free.

How do we even begin to regulate this? Who do we sue? How do courts write up the laws and even more important, how do they enforce them? Napster lost their case against record labels, but the majority of people who listen to music today still acquire it illegally, including myself. Streaming services such as Tidal, Spotify and Apple Music have created models where consumers can pay for the content, by offering more value than just the music itself. So instead of buying an album on Spotify and listening to it, Spotify has created a platform where consumers can pay an affordable fee each month to not only listen to one album, but to also get access to a lot of new music that Spotify curates carefully in order to suggest new artists or musical tastes that your friends or networks might also enjoy. Spotify also allows you to share your musical taste with your network, allowing consumers to create an identity within the service that uses your personal data to accurately suggest new content from a new artist, who previously would have required their music label to take out an ad on TV, put up a billboard or buy ad space on the radio in order to promote that same new content. Music used to be enough to get a consumer to pay; today that’s not enough. Digital media companies like those aforementioned, and other video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have recognized that consumers are looking for an experience. Consuming data is free, but to consume that same data in an easy, personalized and creatively engaging way will cost you $7.99 a month. And so far, this model is working.  This phenomena, known as feature creep, shows that “as more and more becomes possible technologically, companies have to add more features to convince people to purchase products.”

The way marketers get consumer data, which I personally consider the holy grail of marketing, has changed dramatically with the advancement of technology. The methodology of how marketers collect consumer data has become more immersive, targeted, accurate and at times uncomfortably intrusive, to the point where consumers have lost control of what ideas, products or services are marketed to them, blurring the lines between privacy and opportunity. Marketers can buy your data from social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, in order to better understand who you are, what your interests are, how you engage with the digital world, what devices you prefer, how often you get online, why you get online, what you buy online, how you buy it, etc. Their ultimate goal is to learn how to better market to their consumers, which is incredibly important in a world where consumer attention spans are rapidly decreasing, while the content available to consumers is growing exponentially. The question now becomes, how personal is personal data? When does intrusive marketing start to encroach on the privacy rights of the modern consumer?

During my undergraduate studies, I took psychology classes which explored how human beings communicate with each other. Similarly, marketing uses psychology as its foundation, using it to explore how human beings interact with products, brands, ideas and services in addition to studying how our interaction with each other influences are purchasing behaviors. Marketing is a complex blend of psychology and advertising; a fascinating look into what consumer’s value by using dollars as the metric to measure consumer engagement. A marketer’s dream would be the ability to read the mind of consumers, but since that technology isn’t readily available…yet…they’ve turned their focus on gaining a deeper understanding of how consumers think by studying our online activity. I personally believe social media is the world’s greatest marketing tool to date.

For example, TV shows no longer have to wait for the Nielsen ratings in order to see if a show is connecting with audiences. Instead, they can just get on Twitter, create a hashtag, and not only follow the level of engagement in real time, but also learn what people actually think about the content their watching. Similarly, music artists and labels no longer have to wait for record sales to determine whether their music connected. They can track, in great detail, how many times their songs have been played on streaming services, how many people have shared their music, who those people are; and to take it a level higher, they can go to their videos on YouTube to learn exactly what people think about their product. As consumers, we don’t even realize how much free, honest and constructive information we are giving to companies. In the pursuit of self-expression, the modern consumer has created a separate online identity (avatar) where they can post their thoughts and opinions in an unfiltered and uncontrolled setting.

This is a marketer’s dream. The days of the arduous, costly and inaccurate surveys, questionnaires and focus groups are coming to an end. Qualitative research, which typically took 1 to 3 months to complete, has been replaced by social media, which allows marketers to have personal interaction with individuals in order to understand their thoughts, feelings and attitudes regarding a product, price or advertisement…in real time! Quantitative research, which involves systematic procedures designed to obtain and analyze data from large scale market samples by often employing econometric/mathematical modeling is becoming easier to do thanks to technology. Google analytics is probably the best tool on the internet that marketers can use to understand their consumers, and compiling the data is done automatically for no cost.

If you told marketers in the 1990’s that this kind of data retrieval would be possible, would be done automatically and would allow for the easy segmentation of the market…for free, most of them would have said that the idea was unrealistic or even unimaginable. We no longer have to imagine, this digital marketing convergence is now reality. Now the question becomes, how fast can big company’s adjust and adapt on a platform (internet) that changes faster than anything we’ve ever experienced before?

In my humble opinion, I think companies have to use Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle to re-evaluate if why they’re doing anything in the digital space is in line with their mission statement. By anchoring any digital activity on that why, they can then move forward with figuring out what content they should distribute and how they should distribute it. But without the why, the internet will continue to seem like a global treadmill, where every company, brand and individual is sprinting with no direction, wondering why their digital footprint on the internet remains static and temporary.

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