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The Naked Emperor of Marketing

  |  October 17, 2000   |  Comments

Public relations tends to breed confusion because it operates in both the stratospheric levels of corporate positioning and strategic marketing, and in the trench warfare of publicity and events. All this was thrown into sharp relief by a story that surfaced last week that seemed to have little to do with PR, except for the necessity of putting out some publicity fires afterward. Gene tells the story of Amazon's covert dynamic pricing scheme based on profiles of its 23 million customers.

The focus of these columns tends to be ground level, techniques and tools, and occasional forays into the low-altitude space of PR ethics or the state of the media. Sometimes, to make sense of this new Internet-world terrain, you just have to get above those damned shrubs, trees, and low-lying hills and take the 30,000-foot view. It can be humbling.

Public relations tends to breed confusion because it operates in both the stratospheric levels of corporate positioning and strategic marketing and in the trench warfare of publicity and events. Distancing one's self from the term "PR" in favor of one or the other flight plans may make some sense. But the practice of public relations, by any other name, is still PR.

All this was thrown into sharp relief by a story that surfaced last week that seemed to have little to do with PR, except for the necessity of putting out some publicity fires afterward. Listen up.

No Privacy - Nowhere to Hide

Amazon.com announced a while back its new (formerly lack of) privacy policy, claiming the right to acquire, store, and use customer tracking data as it saw fit. So last week's revelation of Amazon's covert dynamic pricing scheme, a plan to vary prices based on profiles in its database of 23 million customers, came as no surprise. The basic idea? Loyal customers would likely pay MORE for the same item than a newbie. Once complaints came pouring in, Amazon rescinded the "test."

Power to the People

If you want to get a fresh perspective on consumer power on the Net, go to DVDTalk.com. You'll see the outrage that brought down this experiment in targeted pricing. (You'll also find some spirited defense of Amazon.)

The truth is, what Amazon attempted to do is something real-world retailers have always done. And if you doubt it, come buy gasoline at a Northern California pump this week. Or compare prices for almost anything in a high-competition suburban area versus a blighted inner-city neighborhood.

Our Zits Are Showing

Given the youth of e-commerce (pioneers have been in it only since 1995), marketing, advertising, and PR professionals are still largely transplanting techniques. We're playing in a world of shadows, trying to use the new media model as if it were made of the opaque stuff of bricks and sticks. Like a punch-drunk fighter, we remember the moves that used to work, but our timing is off. We look up to see our target dancing away in the shadows of the ring.

The Myth of Special Insight

A while ago, I designed a research program for a major PR agency intended to develop personality profiles of systems designers and programmers. That work - joined with findings from our focus group - resulted in a report, "Structuring Appeals to Programmers."

At the time it seemed inevitable that work like this, the mapping of human personalities and responses, would create a powerful tool to sharpen creative communications tactics. Instead of that, something far more serious took place.

The Ground Shifted

While clients still call on PR agencies for their strategic insights, the best PR consultants rely on their instincts, intuition, and empirical experience to build programs; they don't rely on science or research.

Clinical or social psychologists do not sit in on planning sessions for email campaigns or help set overall corporate B2B strategic communications objectives. I can't remember a recent PR strategic session where a social scientist participated. When it comes to the strategic and creative parts of a campaign, we generally wing it.

Who Needs Experts?

That's the fault line uncovered by the shifting ground. In the new realities, we may no longer need help deciphering a market that talks back. (Amazon, are you listening?) Between television and the Internet, we've developed a shared consciousness and the means to update our reality model dynamically and instantly. We no longer have to probe to understand the thinking of large population sectors because now we are those sectors.

Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah, Monday Night Football, Netscape, "The Wizard of Oz," Microsoft, and the New York Yankees are common to us all, one way or another. The Internet just added a new dimension - feedback and online interchange. It's not only a new medium, it's a new world without any place at the table for either hidden pricing schemes or inflated publicity hype.

The Internet is our common, human neural network, and to plug into it is to experience what works and what's bullshit. We are imprinted with the best and worst marketing approaches.

So What Happened to the Mighty Amazon?

That a company, arguably the creator of contemporary e-commerce, employed undercover dynamic pricing is amazing. How could the marketing gurus at Amazon believe dynamic pricing would go unnoticed in the glare of 100 million computer monitors?

It looks like this most contemporary of e-commerce companies was caught reaching back to an earlier, old-world model of doing business. Maybe, now that everything is so clearly public, there is an emergent meaning to the term "public relations."

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Zhenya Gene Senyak

Zhenya Gene Senyak of www.senyak.com is a bipolar writer/marcom pro based in a formerly lazy California chicken farming river town. A ClickZ writer, he's also the author of Prentice-Hall's "Inside Public Relations" and Public Relations Journal articles on cognitive dissonance and fear appeals, and is a contributor to Business 2.0, OMNI, Home Office Computing, Publish, and other onlineand offline media.

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