Are Marketers At War With Consumers?

Are Marketers At War With Consumers?

Do you view marketing as an act of brute force against the consumer?  The odds are that your knee-jerk response is,“no.” But the language you use when you talk about marketing may indicate otherwise.

Is your marketing-speak peppered with words like target, campaign, preempt, and penetrate? We choose the language we use for specific, if sometimes sub-conscious, reasons.  And when we use the words of warfare to describe our efforts to communicate with and influence people it says something about the way see view our discipline and our role vis a vis the people who buy our products.

Marketing isn’t about us vs them – it is about us and them.  It is not something you do to a person, but rather something you do for them. Try this.  When you talk about marketing, use words like partnerservice, invite and collaborate.  See how quickly your entire marketing approach changes.

Marketers: If you still think you're in a war to 'capture' customers, it's time to surrender. Click To Tweet

I wrote those words in March 2007 (no, that’s not a typo). In the years since, Jay Deragon introduced the term youtility and Jay Baer borrowed it for a bestselling book by the same name — sure signs that marketers have finally turned the corner from selling to service. Right?

Not so fast… Despite the proliferation of pundits who declare it dead, traditional interruption advertising still swallows up nearly $600 Billion marketing dollars worldwide. More modern marketing approaches tend to get coopted quickly. When I wrote about real-time marketing in my 2010 book microMARKETING, I wrote of agility and timeliness for sure, but also about how rapid response to consumer needs would be a differentiator. Today, when we speak of real-time marketing we more often describe Trojan Horse-like sneak attacks. Despite the right rhetoric (and even the best intentions) content marketing is often so consumed by quantity over quality, scale over substance, that you can hardly call it a service for consumers — done poorly, its an outright attack on attention.

And so it was fitting but also frustrating when I happened upon an excellent post by Ron Ploof of StoryHow, in which he points to marketers’ continued use of military terminology to explain why most marketers make bad storytellers. Ron writes:

Marketing’s use of warfare terms to describe its relationship with customers says much about the motivation behind creating content for them. Instead of drawing inspiration from a place of empathy, we as marketers are predisposed to address our prospects as adversaries to be conquered. Storytellers, on the other hand, don’t seek to capture an audience’s attention; they seek to earn it. And therefore, marketers must change their approach if they want to use storytelling to connect with customers.

Empathy is gained by putting yourself in the shoes of others. Imagine yourself as a prospect who’s reading your company’s marketing copy for the first time. How does it look? Is it customer-relevant or just company-self-serving?

He’s right, of course, and goes on to pose a series of questions designed to put you in your consumer’s shoes when otherwise you might simply have the consumer in your sights.

  • What are your customers’ circumstances?
  • What are their motivations? Where did those motivations come from? How can you use that information to help them get what they want?
  • What are their blind spots? Might they need information delivered in a different way?
  • What do they know? Can you build upon that knowledge?
  • What do they need to know? Is there a foundational piece of content that they must read before they can proceed?
  • What do they believe? What’s the source of that belief? Does the belief help or hurt them?
  • What are their strengths? Weaknesses? How can you help them mitigate these risks?
  • What are their frustrations? Can you help eliminate those frustrations?
  • What questions do they have for you? Have you answered all of them? (Credibility bonus points for answering those that are either uncomfortable or you don’t want to answer.)

Ploof’s point — if you don’t understand your consumers (not just what broad group they belong to, but what truly matters to them) you can’t serve your consumers. Failure to do so makes marketers bad storytellers. It’s worse than that though — it makes marketers bad marketers. Marketers who may get the near-term results they expect but not build the long-term trust they need. Marketers who must constantly buy their next audience when they could have built their own audience. Marketers who settle for doing their job when they shouldn’t be satisfied until they’ve helped their audience with the jobs they need to do. Marketers who are conquerers instead of connectors.

To be blunt, it’s no longer 2007. It’s 2015. These are not new ideas. If you’re still struggling with these shifts, you’re not just at war with your consumers. You’re losing. You may as well surrender.


Photo credit: Library of Congress

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