Marketing is fast becoming digital.  But the market targeting now done with computers has been around at some level for a while now, and there may be some lessons for us in it.

In times past, you targeted your marketing and sales by placing your name (ads, posters, Burma Shave road signs … whatever) where you thought your prospective customers might show up -- fishing ads in the sports section, theater listings in the entertainment section, luxury car ads in coffee table magazines, and so on.

Sounds crude but it worked if you were careful, and it saved money by allowing you to place -- and pay for -- your message only where it was more likely to be effective.

Getting Better All the Time

Since computers and networking began taking over the marketing and sales world, the process became more effective and more flexible, but not radically different in concept from those “old days.”

Think websites with keywords or paid “ad words” to improve their standing on search engines. They were just another way of trying to get your message in front of prospective clients that you knew little about ahead of time.

In the 1990s, with the giddy enthusiasm over the web, the similarity to classical marketing seemed to disappear — or so we were told. The marketing and sales community convinced itself that the Internet and World Wide Web had changed the rules forever. Gurus of all stripes urged their clients to get themselves on the web and watch utopia dawn and clients of all stripes dumped a ton of cash into “dot-com” advertising that, after the first blush, produced marginal results at best.

The dot-com marketing collapse of the late 90s, while attributed by many to defects in technology or communications, was actually a belated manifestation of the reality that doing the same kind of marketing with a radically different medium was a tenuous proposition, especially if the new lash up had yet to be proven or even carefully researched.

The reality, although missed by many, was that a particular way of selling your product was shaped and constrained by the medium and new media brought new opportunities but new constraints as well.

New Age or Electronic Voyeurism?

Now we are seeing another sea change in sellers’ ability get in front of prospective clients. This time, it's by collecting information on individuals from a distance and using that information to tailor programs to each individual.

As the technological resources to collect and process information about the masses has grown along with the portion of society carrying devices that can act as collection points, we see virtually everyone with major access to the Internet getting into the collection business: search engine firms, online stores, mapping and GPS data providers and, of course, the National Security Agency.

Now, an app has appeared capable of listening in on what is going on around you, identifying voices and music and perhaps who you’re talking to ... or whatever.

Predictably, we again hear the siren song of digital marketers: “if you can just find out enough about your targets, you can hit them where they live whether or not they asked for it ... and they will buy like lemmings rushing to the sea!”

Indeed, knowing lots about people you want to sell to may give you a certain advantage over your not so well connected competition. But by counting on that advantage, we also may be heading right back where dot-com marketing was in the 90s: with our tools and technology ahead of our understanding of how their targets’ will respond to them. If that’s true, the next bubble could make the 90s look like child’s play.

Déjà Dot-Com?

There are a number of eerie similarities between then and now. Perhaps the most important being the failure to understand and deal with how people change over time. In the early 90s, when web marketing was just coming into its own, the marketplace responded enthusiastically, some say more than was reasonable, as people rushed to buy things on the web, at times just because they could.

Looking at these early results, the dot-com marketing community did some “very fuzzy” math based on an implicit assumption that if things were good now, they would just keep getting better, even if they leveled off somewhat.

That, of course didn’t work, and customers over time decided they really didn’t want to buy all that stuff on the screen. Moreover, many industries and firms found that their products didn’t really fit the new medium and their early returns were more novelty sales than real demand.

So the question we face today: will we take the short term view as in the 90s, crashing and burning when the market’s behavior makes our whiz-bang tailored pitches either ineffective or worse, insulting? If we do, we will probably deserve what we get. But it needn’t be that way.

A Better Perspective

If we can take a longer view of our current digital world, however, we may be able to see that what works will be based on customers’ likes, dislikes and preferences, and if our marketing instead of our products becomes the subject, those customers are not likely to embrace us.

The ultimate answer may lie more with the human behavior field than with marketing.

Questions like: what is the decay rate for novelty in a new medium. How long will it take before large market segments become threatened by the growing amount of their personal information and behavior patterns finding their way, no matter how benign the intent, into the marketing and sales world? What approaches to web based marketing are likely to yield better long term results?

These questions need to be asked, researched and to the greatest degree practicable answered before we jump off the digital marketing high dive. Of course, the folks selling all that new technology won’t be doing this kind of research. After all, they are the primary beneficiaries and they usually get paid up front. Unfortunately, the academic community doesn’t seem to be all that interested in these questions either hence the paucity of good research concerning them.

Perhaps we should look at what has worked over time, using that experience as a measure of what is likely to work in the future.

  • People usually buy from firms they like, and those firms have prospered over time even if they didn’t blaze new digital marketing trails. From this, we might assume that if you do things that make your customers and prospects like you, you will do well over time.
  • People like to buy from firms that provide them with one stop shopping, hence the rise of the Amazons of the world (even the Sears Roebuck megastore back in the day) where you can find and buy just about anything.
  • People can get reviews of products on the web as well and will buy good stuff at a good price, so focus on the product quality and value first and then find ways to tell the world you are the best (if you’re not, you have more than a marketing problem.)
  • People don’t like firms that don’t respect them, and collecting personal information, even if the customer unknowingly acquiesced to the collection, doesn’t make for warm or fuzzy relationships.

So what can we do?

It seems clear to me that while society, every part of it, must embrace the changes that are coming over the hill almost daily, we must be careful not to jump on technological change just because it’s there and we can.

Instead, we must balance the changes taking place around us with the changes taking place within us… a much slower process. We do well to remember that even though people glued to their smart phones and tablets all around us may be acting like robots, they haven’t yet become robots and they will reject what they find uncomfortable or insulting.

Even in the midst of this techno-carnival going on all around us, we have the tools and should have the judgment to move at a pace that makes sense in both the technical and human realms ... if we will do it.