2006: The Year Mass Media Got a Clue

“Time” magazine just arrived in my snail-mail box. On the cover was my own mug staring back at me. Seems I’m “Time” magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year. So are you, and so is anyone you know who ever created content and put it online. “Time” also extended this honor to anyone who consumes online content:

For seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you.

While we bask in the glory of this accolade, I have to ask: what took them so long? In December 2004, Roy H. Williams wrote:

The Age of the Baby Boomer ended in 2003. The torch has been handed to a new generation with new ideas and values. Sure, we Boomers still hold the power at the top, but the prevailing worldview that drives our nation is completely other than the one we grew up with. Businesses that don’t get in step with the new world order are going to find it increasingly difficult to succeed.

Being a Baby Boomer isn’t about when you were born. It’s about how you see the world.

Baby Boomers were idealists who worshipped heroes, perfect icons of beauty and success. Today these icons are seen as phony, posed and laughable. Our cool as ice, suave lady’s man James Bond has become the comic poser Austin Powers or the tragically flawed and vulnerable Jason Bourne of “The Bourne Identity.” That’s the essence of the new worldview; the rejection of delusion, a quiet demand for gritty truth.

In 2006, we witnessed what Williams called “a quiet demand for gritty truth” mature into a riotous call to arms. Monsters like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, digg, and the rest of the Web 2.0 love babies came into their own, devouring big business and media egos in their wake. We moved from an era of individualistic my.website.com to a social, community-oriented view of our.website.com.

This wasn’t the year customers finally took control, it was the year big marketers and big media figured out they’d been in control all along.

We can’t blame it all on the old-school mass marketer for taking so long. When Pavlov trained his lab dogs to salivate to a ringing bell, he inadvertently set the stage for over a century’s worth of conditioning-based consumer messaging. In the early decades of the 20th century, characters such as J. B. Watson and Edward Bernays “proved” that when businesses rang the right bell the right number of times, they could conjure desire and action in their audiences through branding alone. Consumers were treated like dogs.

In 2006, the emerging media market reached critical mass and seriously threatened these long-held marketing assumptions. Businesses are no longer in control of the strings; they can neither evoke desire nor elicit responses like they used to.

We’re witnessing the emergence of a personal experience economy. A brand is defined in consumers’ minds, not by a company-bought perception. And those consumers behave more like finicky cats, notoriously self-motivated and generally not biddable, unlike Pavlov’s dogs.

Previously, advertisers found it easy to hide behind mass of big ad budgets and the stunted speed of truth; in other words, money and posturing could temporarily hide the stench of irrelevance. Finally, technology has empowered people with Web access to do what we’ve been doing all along: call a spade a spade. The difference now is the word gets out to more people much faster.

To succeed, marketers must adapt, or they’ll sink in the quicksand of consumer apathy.

In 2006, personal transparency stepped to center stage. In 2007, we’ll see business transparency become more prevalent. Smart marketers will embrace the reality of what consumers are saying and how they are approaching their products. They’ll learn to engage consumers like elusive cats and quit patronizing them like dogs. Smart marketers will begin to think beyond rudimentary marketing based solely on demographics or high-volume traffic. Dead are the techniques that worked on customers as recipients; they are now participants in every sense of the word.

We’ll also see mass marketing’s last, desperate gasp. Campaigns will likely get wilder and more intrusive, but that will backfire. Commercials will get more entertaining but less persuasive. And, of course, the cost of online traffic will continue it’s upward trend. As a result, metrics based loosely on reach and frequency will become insolvent.

What’s your plan for marketing in 2007?

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