Tom Burg, a twelve-year veteran of Silicon Alley, blogs for us about marketing, the digital economy, and how social media is transforming the way we all communicate.
Back in the mid-90s, when I started my marketing career, just about everything I knew I learned through textbooks and classes taught by marketing professors who’d last seen the inside of a boardroom back when Bic pens came to market. Marketing itself was heavily based on case studies and focused on market share, with big budgets tied up in campaigns with a life cycle of six months or more. Unless you worked for a company with virtually unlimited budgets, there was no incentive to do quick tests and refine marketing approaches. Incremental progress was limited at best.
Moving to New York City a bit later to pursue a marketing career in the “Internet” seemed like a pretty safe career bet. I got to conceive and explore new business models; it was great fun. Unfortunately, many of those late-90s ideas were either before their time or required what (seemed back then to be) unfathomable amounts of capital to make work. Then came the bust.
What upstart Internet companies asked of old-guard companies was to embrace new business models and entirely different ways of distribution. Few businesses back in 2000 felt required to make any of those changes, so it’s small wonder why it took the digital industry another decade to get to where it is today. Today, it really is about the future.
As Wikipedia puts it, a futurist “[engages] in interdisciplinary and systems thinking to advise . . . organizations on such matters as diverse global trends, plausible scenarios, emerging market opportunities and risk management.” What do I do as a digital marketer? Figure out market opportunities, understand global trends, and develop scenarios that I hope will help products gain an audience. Basically, I’m a futurist.
The digital world of today is breathless, relentless; it’s evolution in overdrive. Take online advertising, the sub-industry I’m in. A huge expansion in business models and approaches to advertising is upon us. Instead of the old direct advertiser-agency-publisher continuum, we’re now in a business that includes hundreds of known companies that are working in 22 separate “buckets.” In order to keep their investors happy, most of these companies are focused on doing one thing well. That yields, say, 12 companies doing “creative optimization for display advertising”–there’s probably a long-term place for just two or three. Most of those other buckets have a similar glut. Take ad networks–do we really need 400 or more of them? Do ad exchanges that specialize in inventory subsets, such as just video or just mobile, help or confuse advertisers and agencies?
By all accounts, things are going to get more complex before there’s much consolidation. Figuring out where to spend my time is like trying to decide when to step on board a 200-mph bullet train. Among hundreds of companies and approaches, and unlimited predictions about where the marketplace is going, I need to figure out the digital products and strategies that the marketplace will embrace 9-12 months from now. If we time the marketplace wrong, it can be very costly. But if we wait to get it right, we have no chance at all.
My belief is that the only way to successfully choose a marketing approach is to focus on major digital trends. In this series, I want to identify the changes and ideas that can make digital marketers more engaged and more valuable to their employers. For instance: how can we make sense of the staggering amount of data we sit on today? How can marketers learn to think more like engineers, merging product design with the items that give customers the greatest benefit? How do I create and take part in relevant conversations rather than force people to listen to a canned presentation? What kind of skills should I focus on developing today so that I can bring the next Facebook to market? Some of this is only relevant to marketing, but much of such changes affect the way all of us live and work.
It would be easy to just tell marketers to bone up on their math skills, or learn how to utilize social media to listen better, but most of the classic marketing elements haven’t gone away–curiosity about the world around you and an ability to tell a great story will still take you a long way. It’s just that the way to research that world and tell those great stories is changing profoundly.