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Are We There Yet?

  |  February 12, 2003   |  Comments

Profound change is never immediate -- a long view of online marketing.

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:

  1. Direct response advertising. The initial breakthrough enabled the consumer to respond, for example, redeeming a coupon, returning a postcard, or calling on the telephone. Because response is an effect, effectiveness of the stimulus can be measured, making the communications accountable.

  2. Data-based targeting. In the 1970s, when computing power democratized from mainframes to desktops, data-based marketing became commercially feasible for many businesses. It was widely adopted because superior precision of delivering stimuli to specifically appropriate households or individuals increases effectiveness.

  3. Feedback-driven speed. Prior to the 1990s, only one medium was two-way and worked in real time: the telephone. The Internet added two more channels: email and Web sites. Both have two-way capabilities (though very different) and both are near real time. Today, orchestrating sequences of data-governed and data-capturing two-way interactions across these two-way channels in near real time is a leading edge.

  4. Customer-guided marketing. End-using consumers have control of commercial messaging with personal video recorders, call blockers, anti-spam filters, and other tools. This could result in a culture of concealment in which consumers seek to hide from marketers. Alternately, it could open an era of negotiated messaging, such as opt-in and opt-out, permissioned and double permissioned, filter-compliant addressing, cookie-setting prompts, and so on. The technology side involves machine-to-machine handshakes and data policies. The human side involves earning trust as a prerequisite to intimacy. This is today's planning horizon.

  5. Company-customer co-evolution. Off in the distance is the informational vision of a tightly coupled company and its customers. Information wants to be exchanged. Tight coupling is the logic of all information systems in processes such as just-in-time inventory and build-to-order manufacturing and in markets for equities, insurance, and so forth. Wired editor and author Kevin Kelly put it this way:

    Co-evolutionary relationships... are in their essence informational. A steady exchange of information welds them into a single system. At the same time, the exchange -- whether of insults or assistance or plain news -- creates a commons from which cooperation, self-organization, and win-win endgames can spawn.

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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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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