Sunday, November 22, 2009

Marketing as a Double-Edged Sword

Believe it or not, there's actually a large subset of the population that believes that all marketers are evil lying scum. They tell you to watch out when a marketer opens their mouth, because they're about to try and sell you something that will slowly kill you. We can probably attribute part of this to the cult followers of the late comedian Bill Hicks and his take on marketers.

To be fair, he did have a point. Due to the efforts of more traditional old-school marketing, we had the Flintstones hawking Winston cigarettes on television. What Mr. Hicks failed to point out in his comedy act was that marketing is little more than a tool used in business, and as such, it can be used to do terrible things like convey the idea of how cool it is to smoke cigarettes to children, but it can also be used to do good things.

Most people probably think of marketers as people who spend their time in office buildings brainstorming ways to sell retail products to consumers to help the bottom line. While this is the most well-known aspect of marketing, it's not what marketing really is. Marketing is about ideation and the dispersion of those ideas. And if you do it right, then maybe, just maybe, you achieve the goal you set out to accomplish by influencing a lot of people and getting them to take a desired action. (In Winston's case, it was to get more people to buy cigarettes.)

It's funny that more people don't understand or embrace the deeper concepts of marketing because all of us have something to market. If you don't believe me, go on and spend some time browsing the profiles of people who are trying to find someone to date. Most of them are terrible; it's painfully obvious that they don't understand what marketing entails because they don't have the slightest clue how they should be marketing themselves.

Personal ads aside, most people do have something that they want to market. They have an idea that they want to spread to others, either about their church, about a politician or a political cause, or about the fact that their college football team is better than every other one. People resist adapting and learning how marketing works because it seems synonymous with advertising, which is by far the most annoying emergent property of the age of technology. The truth is, Obama didn't win the 2008 election because he spent more on television ads than John McCain; it's because he had a remarkably enthusiastic group of people that liked what he stood for. (Because of this, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a small handful of people in Illinois that wrote his name in on the ballot for president in 2004.)

Good marketing, to be effective, should be built right into the product you want to sell. If you're running an e-commerce site, I'm not necessarily talking about the quality of your merchandise you're shipping off. In the first chapter of my book, I talk about why you should be building your site from scratch instead of jumping on a platform: because you want to have fine-grained control over the quality of the product. You want to be able to manage the user experience, because you have to sell them on liking the shopping experience before they'll buy anything from you. And if you jump on the platform that your competitors are using, then you don't have any advantage in offering a better shopping experience to the customer on your site than they could get from those competitors.

If you post a profile on with a picture that isn't really you and claims that you don't live with your parents when you actually do, you might have an easier time getting people to meet up with you, but you'll have a much harder time developing any kind of long-term, meaningful relationship with anyone. Sure, it's better if you don't live with your parents, because then the marketing is built right into the product (you). But effective marketing is also honest; you don't get anywhere by deceiving people.

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