28 July 2005

The Future of Marketing - Not Mindshare, but Sharedmind

I participated in an industry roundtable this morning on the topic of marketing via wireless devices. Around the table were representatives from various advertising and marketing agencies, content producers and providers, companies that would seek to do such promotions, ISPs and aggregator companies, and me as the token academic and futurist, more or less. Most of the companies represented are household names across the technology, media, content and promotion business, both here in Canada, and many places around the world. It made for an interesting two-hour conversation.

The moderator began by asking me to frame what have been known as “cell phones.” I explained that by calling them cell phones, we are limiting our conception of the possibilities because that label induces us to ignore the true effects of mobile devices. In fact, in addition to phones, many people (and especially marketers) consider these devices as TVs, radios, cassette players, walkie-talkies, or Instamatic cameras. Contemporary mobile devices may be able to perform some, or all, of these functions, but, as we know from McLuhan, the function is not the same as the effect. What I shared with the group as the opening gamut is that mobile devices are telepathy machines – they create the effects of ESP, linking minds directly to one another in a way that enables us to share experiences. It is through this instantaneous and collective sharing of experiences that the true potential of mobile marketing can be achieved.

The problem is that most marketing executives, and particularly those who have senior positions in the advertising agencies, have a broadcast era conception of what it means to do mass marketing. Like the traditional view of mass media – media for the masses – mass marketing is traditionally viewed as one company broadcasting their marketing “message” (i.e. content) out to a mass of people, often through a number of different and distinct channels. However, under conditions of instantaneous, multi-way communications, these mass forms are accelerated to the point of reversal – mass media and mass marketing become media and marketing by the masses. The implications of this are profound: The marketing companies’ job is no longer to control the content, but rather to create an environment in which their customers can participate in collectively creating the marketing campaign.

This is an understandably frightening notion to those who have grown up under the rubric of controlling and managing a brand. Allowing an audience or one’s customers to define the brand goes against everything we learned in Marketing 101, but is entirely consistent with the reality of the Internet, and the way it enables trans-modal engagement among its users. “User as producer” in a cool environment means that it is the user that completes the experience in an environment that is set by the branding company. This means creating opportunities for instant creative collaboration, and the dynamic creation and evolution of the environmental experience itself. In a sense, the marketing campaign doesn’t exist until the audience (or users) create it.

This is not about the traditional notion of “capturing mindshare” – essentially having one’s attention hijacked –which will quickly become an anachronistic concept, actively rejected by today’s tech-socialized audiences. The coming dominant force in marketing to the pervasively proximate is to create conditions whereby the audience’s attention is willingly and freely given in active participation. Capturing mindshare can only be temporary; participatory sharedmind is forever.
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Robert said...

I would say that there has always been audience participation in branding. No matter what the medium the sender of a message can never have absolute control over meaning and interpretation. The audience influence on meaning and branding is just being intensified by new technology.

Mark said...

You're right, Robert. A "brand" is the conception that emerges in the collective mind of the audience as a reaction to the uptake of the company's communications, be they explicit communications via advertising channels, or implicit through their products, services and other actions vis-a-vis the larger society.

It's the intensification that makes things really interesting. The Laws of Media tell us that extreme intensification results in a reversal of the medium's original characteristics. What this creates in the case of branding is a way for the audience to intensify their involvement. Somewhere or other (I think it might be here [pdf]) I talk about how the hidden ground or context of what a company does provides the next thing that they will do. Technology hardware companies exist in the context of software, and later become software companies. Product companies exist in the context of services and later become service companies. Service companies exist in the context of experience and are now becoming experience companies that create environments in which the audience/customers themselves provide the services, or "content."

A number of relatively new companies are doing this in a variety of forms with respect to their offerings. For example, Starbucks takes the provision of coffee ("product") from the generic coffee shop ("service") to the coffee theme park ("environment/experience"). Very few, if any, traditional "marketing-oriented" companies are doing this with respect to their branding and marketing activities at all, let alone doing it well, and I believe it has much to do with the amount of control these sorts of companies have maintained over their brand and image in order to "control" mindshare. But even as we are beginning to realize that control is illusory, and a complex world is best understood in terms of chaos and emergence, the successfully branded company of the very near future will give up control in favour of creating an emergent environment of sharedmind.