Glaciers never appear suddenly. Big change takes time. That's why strategists employ long-term trends: They reveal the surer bets among alternative futures, which are then used to guide decisions today.
Dot-com-mania, in contrast, preached only the short term: disruptive business models, transformed power relationships, hockey-stick growth curves, and other overnight impacts. To be sure, some network effects, such as power curves, tipping points, critical mass, viral marketing, and other novel dynamics, must be reckoned with, today. Still, most of the ballyhoo was either youthful exuberance, Faustian braggadocio, or stockbroker snake oil. All of it was shortsighted.
The best illustration is the incredible speed with which online access penetrated U.S. households, faster than telephone, radio, even TV. It was true and important if your mental model was mass media: When you're selling soap and soda pop, only 100 percent of everyone will do. In retrospect, it's clear popularization of this new consumer communication device (approximately 70 percent of the U.S. population in less than 10 years) did not necessarily and by itself cause profound change.
To apperceive major technology-based change, you need a long view, usually 50 years at least, because change takes that long. More accurately, humans need that long -- whether steam and electric power of the first and second industrial revolutions, the armored mobility and fixed-wing airpower that define the two major modern military eras, or the transistor and microchip in electronics and computing. The time lag between a technology being feasible and full-scale adoption correlates with a simple truth: The old guard passes it on. Then, the young Turks who grow up with that new technology as a given rise to the highest rank. The time lag is two career spans.
As far as the Internet is concerned, network society's flowering will occur in the time it takes for today's computer-literate schoolchildren to become the day after tomorrow's power generation. Few of us will be around to see it. Still, we can all take the long view. Even in our modest online marketing domain, we can look both ways in time to discern our trajectory.
One long view is information-based marketing history. In the five phases of that trajectory, we seem to be leaving the second and entering the third -- with all the usual growing pains:
Some visionary companies dabble here. They establish two-way, ongoing ties with lead customers, product enthusiasts, and early adopters as well as ordinary customers. They listen much more systematically. Today, co-evolution is at best still an aspiration.
Online marketing's informational trajectory doesn't solve day-to-day problems. It's a reason to solve them. Looking over time, backward and forward, feedback-driven speed, negotiated messaging, and co-evolution are perceivable -- but only as potentialities on a discernible trajectory of a business we must have will to bring into being.
If it were only a matter of having the will to make it real, we'd already be there.
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