As a marketer will you choose to industrialise or to make art?

Will you choose to appeal to the maximum amount of people as possible via the safest of methods or will you appeal to those on the fringes? The people who may not immediately drive huge traffic or revenue for you but will make your business stronger in the long-term.

This is a question posited by author Seth Godin, who delivered a keynote speech at C3 in New York last week.

Here are Seth Godin’s thoughts on ‘the fork in the road’ and the decision on which direction you may want to take. 

Invention of mass-marketing

Mass marketing goes all the way back to the Stoke-on-Trent born potter Josiah Wedgwood who is responsible for the industrialisation of pottery manufacturing and in turn the invention of what we consider to be the essentials of marketing in a pre-digital age. 

As soon as Wedgwood had his factory up and running, he had a problem. There weren’t enough people wanting to buy the products he was making.

To solve this, Wedgwood became the first person to build showrooms for his wares and he became the very first direct marketer, sending detailed and illustrated catalogues to prospective customers.

Wedgwood was also responsible for money-back guarantees, travelling sales people, free delivery offers and self-service. Wedgwood basically invented mass marketing. 

But mass marketing needed mass media to survive. Advertising was needed to pay for the factories which made the mass-produced stuff wanted by the general public thanks to the advertising it saw.

The basic principle of mass-marketing according to Seth Godin is as follows: average stuff for the largest possible amount of average people via average methods.

And that’s how things worked for an awfully long time...

How mass-marketing changed

Let’s take a look at the music industry. In 1972 the music industry was perfect. You bought a record of your favourite artist or song. You played it until it wore out or you got bored of it. You then went to the record store to buy another one.

On your drive to the record store you would listen to the radio where you would be played new music by other artists available in your record store.

In 1972 you couldn’t not make money in the music industry. Now it’s impossible.

Virtually every song ever recorded is available for free to stream via any desktop or mobile device on a vast array of platforms and services. Thanks to the internet, there is more music being listened to by the most amount of people in the world right now and the music industry is on its knees.

The internet changes things from perfect to impossible. According to Seth Godin here’s the one thing about the internet that’s important to remember: the internet is the first medium in our lifetime that wasn’t invented by marketers for marketers.

The internet essentially began as a way for various computer networks to communicate with each other in an emergency. We then hacked a bunch of other technologies on top of it to give us what we recognise as the internet today.

It's very easy for marketers to see the internet as a medium similar to television, where ads can be broadcast to passive viewers. Only here it can be done for free.

Marketers realised they had a massive audience they didn’t need to buy air-time to capture their attention on or stamps to deliver direct mail to. And that’s how spam, display ads, pop-up ads, black hat SEO and all the other things you hate about the internet sprang up. 

It’s the internet marketer’s version of industrialisation.

The fork in the road

Maybe there’s a different way of thinking though, one away from industrialisation.

What did the first person who owned a fax machine do with it? They told someone else to buy one so they could fax them something. Otherwise what’s the point of having a fax machine?

The same goes for Twitter. We’re still telling people about Twitter because we want people to follow us on Twitter (especially people we actually know). Twitter didn’t need an expensive ad campaign, or even any campaign at all, it relied on word of mouth.

Word of mouth that was generated by that selfish part of all of us that tells people about its platform because we want to see our own follower counts increase.

All of the most popular applications and platforms we use the most are about one thing: connection. Email, social, chat, it’s all about keeping in contact and engaging with the people and things we care about.

Connection is becoming a key component in the digital economy. AirBnB works because it connects people who have a house with someone who needs a house. The more people who use Twitter or the fax machine, the better it works. This is a move away from the scarcity economy we’re used to: “I have something you don’t therefore I will sell it to you for enough money that I will make a profit.”

If you pick the fork in the road that heads towards industrialisation, the one that sees you fighting for a few seconds of scarce attention from the majority of a largely passive audience then you may win in the short term, but not in the long-term.

You will lose in the long-term because we as consumers have figured out that we don’t have to give you our attention. We have a choice. Our attention also doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee, if you blanket target your mass-marketing to a mass-audience who is now to say whether the returns will be worth it.

A good question to ask of your brand or business is to ask “will you be missed when you are gone?” If you didn’t update your site, send another marketing email, upload a new blog post, are there people out there who would care?

Marketers need to figure out how to build their connection to humans. To figure out how to do something different, new, brave, important or interesting enough so that people would miss it if they couldn’t receive it. 

The perks of being a weirdo

Take a look at a normal distribution bell curve...

Marketers traditionally wanted to appeal to the middle chunk of that hump, where the normal people live. The people on the edges aren't normal. If you’re Walmart, you only want to appeal to the normal people, not the weirdos on the fringes.

This used to make perfect sense. Only now thanks to the internet, the bell curve has melted.

People have a choice now and when given a choice, people don’t actually want to be normal. They want to have what they actually want in a highly personalised way. Most people don’t want to conform or be offered the same thing as everyone else. They want to be weird. 

The core of your business is the weird. The people who care enough about your brand to choose you over anyone else. The internet amplifies our desire to be ourselves and to make choices which truly suit who we are or desire to be. If someone can make a product for you, then that’s what you want.

The only customers who care about you are the customers you should be caring about. This is where the long-term results kick in, as people realise they don’t need Walmart anymore, your business will see that 1,000 well-connected people that care about you is better than aiming for millions of average, disengaged people.

It is better to whisper to a few people who want to hear from you, than yell at a faceless mass who have never heard of you or are unsure what it is you’re offering. 

The fork in the road is whether you choose to industrialise or make art.

Seth Godin uses the term ‘art’ here to describe something a human being does that has a chance of failing. ‘Art’ can also be used to describe a time when someone does something that might connect them or us to another human being. 

Whether these definitions of art relate to your own or not, the point is that without real human connection, modern marketing will fail. 

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 14 October, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (3)

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Jon Weberg

An absolutely great post! I learned a lot from the reading and just would like to says thanks for posting it!

over 3 years ago

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video production company sydney

interesting how things have changed

over 3 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Q: Mass market or weirdos?
A: Both

If you *only* do mass marketing then you're spreading your resources to thin to properly address those groups of users who really like your products.

If you *only* target your best users, you run the risk that there will be other pockets of eager users out there, but you'll never find them.

Market to your best users, but also do some mass marketing and monitor the results. When you spot a new pocket of users who find your product especially attractive, add them them to "best users" category.

over 3 years ago

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