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Ghost in the Machine: Looking Glass Into the Knowledge Class, Part 3

  |  November 20, 2002   |  Comments

The knowledge class is visible and addressable for the first time -- but only online. Understanding this could impact the fortunes of our clients and agencies. Last of a three-part series.

The Internet is critical to the future of marketing because it provides a looking glass into the knowledge class of postindustrial societies. In part one, we discussed who the knowledge class is and two of the Internet's three organizing principles -- egalitarianism and elitism. In part two, we tackled efficiency. Today, we'll look at what kinds of communications will be effective.

What Works? Empowerment and Listening

Empowerment works. It works better than entertainment. According to the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, CA, there's a subset of consumers who are hungry for information they can use to get the best results from shopping, researching, comparing, customizing, negotiating, and all the other tasks along the consuming dimension of everyday life.

Content alone won't cut it. Unlike other modes of communications, computers can also accomplish tasks. Enabling the user to become useful, to accomplish a task, to fulfill an intention is the key to making an online experience successful. In contrast, most offline marketing employs entertainment to engage a passive consumer.

Task-oriented empowerment cannot, of course, occur in the entertainment media of TV and print. The theater of online operations instead consists of all the idiosyncratic business processes by which companies do real things: qualify leads, sell products, fulfill orders, and service customers. The digital job is to take two or more of these processes and re-engineer them through a Web interface. This must be done in a way that the benefit to the user exceeds her expenditure of time and attention.

Put the user in the driver's seat of some human/machine interaction, and get something accomplished there. It's just not clear agencies or media want to go there -- or whether they can get there if they do. Regardless, empowerment is the first thing that works online.

The second thing that works online is listening. Web users are talkative. Research conducted by RoperASW for Burson-Marsteller documents that the Internet attracts a disproportionately high percentage of influentials, people who eagerly and frequently share their opinions in public venues and private networks. Just over 8 percent of the U.S. online population, they share their opinions with four times as many people and twice as often. This gives them an effective reach of eight times their number.

Some may remember a book from a few years back, "The Cluetrain Manifesto," by Internet bad boy Christopher Locke and company. Speaking for all opinionated consumers who are ready and eager to share their opinions with companies whose products and services they use, this manifesto called on companies to listen.

Some do just that. Procter & Gamble's new corporate Web site invites consumers to participate in product development and try out new offerings. The manager of the site's overhaul put P&G's point of view in simple but dramatic terms: "Procter & Gamble was the biggest shouter in the 20th century. We want to be the best listener in the 21st." Pepsi is also traveling that road.

Tools for listening are being developed. They go well beyond online surveys and focus groups. We now have first-generation applications that turn open-ended comment into numbers and process incoming email into FAQ files. There are tools that turn multi-user discussions into schematic maps showing who's talking about what, how often, and to whom. Some tools put human minds to work inside simulated market mechanisms so collective human decision making can be harnessed to configure product attributes and the prices people would pay for those products.

Advanced listening is the path to co-evolution. It's a desired end state in which a company and its customers swap information over time, starting all the way upstream at product research and development and ending all the way downstream with loyalty and lifetime value.

Egalitarianism, elitism, and efficiency are values around which the Internet was built. Two communications tactics that will work there are empowerment and listening. The reason to understand any of that is the Internet is an opportunity to create two-way communications with a highly influential socioeconomic stratum for the first time.

That's the opportunity.

The challenge is when we look into the glass, we'll find it's a mirror. The knowledge stratum we're looking at is ourselves.

People like us create and produce most communications activity in U.S. business. We could make it our business to organize two-way communications with the knowledge society. The question is, whose side will we be on? Will we embrace the historical reality of an emergent knowledge stratum, or shall we continue to act as if the Internet were just another channel, and only that?

We're busy making the Internet just another channel. The more successful we are at that, the less important it becomes. At the same time, history happens. We shouldn't hide from it.

I presented one version of history here. It explains why the Internet is more than just another channel. You may think the Internet is important for other reasons. What's essential is that we all continue to ask key questions. We owe that much to our clients and our agencies. The fact we're no longer irrationally exuberant and duped by pie-in-the-sky paradigms does not let us off the hook.

Find and tackle what's important.

Adapted from Len's keynote at the Jupiter/IAB 2002 Advertising Forum.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Len Ellis Until recently, Len Ellis was executive vice president at Wunderman, where he charted the course in data-based and technology-enabled marketing communications, including the firm's strategic alliances and worldwide interactive strategy. Earlier, he was managing director, interactive integration at Y&R 2.1, a Young & Rubicam start-up consulting unit. He joined Y&R Group as managing director, interactive services at Burson-Marsteller. Len led interactive services at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer EuroRSCG, and started and led the information industry practice at Fleishman-Hillard. Len's book of essays on marketing, based in part on this column, is "Marketing in the In-Between: A Post-Modern Turn on Madison Avenue." He received his Ph.D. from Columbia and reads informational and mathematical theory for fun.

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