By Doc Searls
January 22, 1995


The end of a roll
The new game
The new rules

The end of a roll

Marketing communications used to be like bowling: the idea was to hit distant targets by rolling things out at them. You knew you wouldn't knock them all down every time, but with some skill you could hit most of them, especially if you put some kind of spin into your delivery.

But the marcom game made ordinary bowling look like knock-a-block. To win at the advertising lanes, you needed big, expensive balls and a real strong pitch to make an impact on millions of moving targets. Over at public relations, you only needed to hit a few dozen targets, but they were a lot harder to impress. This is where you needed a gentle delivery and lots of spin.

Every alley had its own special qualities. Direct mail addressed each target with a separate ball. Trade show booths were alleys where the pins were invited in, so they could be knocked down personally. But every marcom alley was still a one-way street. It was not the pins' job to roll the ball back at the bowler.

Well, the Internet puts an end to this game. The Internet is what Howard Rheingold calls a "many-to-many" medium. On the Internet, everybody gets to go bowling. The targets of marcom's missiles are finally in a position to roll some messages of their own. But chances are, they won't be interested in rolling them back at marcom. They'll go straight after the parts of companies that are used to having marcom do their pitching for them. They'll send emails to top executives. They'll post notes in engineering newsgroups. They'll root out the facts behind marcom's well-crafted claims.

Now marcom needs to play a new game -- one based on the interactive and (soon to be) ubiquitous nature of Internet connections.

The new game

The nature of marcom's work has always been a bit detached -- both from the large teeth of the company's internal gears and from the rough world where customers bought and used the company's products.

While marcom always spoke for various corporate functions, it didn't always speak with all those functions. Within the company, marcom's primary relationships were usually with a few selected marketing, brand management and sales people. Unless top executives took a personal interest in marcom, contact was minimal and usually delegated.

Marcom also had what it calls a "positioning problem." Other parts of the company often saw marcom's mission as diplomacy at best and cosmetics at worst; and in any case separate from the core functions that made a company run. Important, perhaps; but not essential.

Outside the company, nearly all marcom relationships were with agencies, publishers, broadcasters and printers -- in bowling terms, the organizations that made the balls and owned the alleys. Marcom also spent most of its money on those groups. Thus its markets were not consumers, but organizations paid to broadcast or publish messages, or to help exert influence of one kind or another.

While consumers might constitute a company's markets (because they paid for the company's goods), to marcom they were mostly targets. They paid nothing (at least not directly) for marcom's goods, which they tended to regard as a nuisance.

Through the Internet, however, consumers can do more than just consume. They can participate in marketing communications. This can allow marketing communications to evolve from a peripheral activity to a primary function -- one with close ties to sales, customer service, marketing, R&D, operations and just about every other activity that stands to benefit from customer participation.

This is why it is a mistake to think of the Internet as yet another broadcasting and publishing medium. Unlike every medium familiar to marcom, large bodies cannot dominate it. In fact, the Internet is indomitable, despite all those news stories about how Netscape and Microsoft are fighting to control it. *

The Internet is indomitable because it cannot be contained. It has no limits, no borders. It is not a place where, in Newt Gingrich's terms, a company can "get in the middle of an intersection and charge rent." It is hard to make something scarce on the Web, and even harder to make scarcity pay off. The Web obeys new structural and economic laws that seem to have more in common with the mathematics of loaves and fishes than with the traditional economics of scarce resources and diminishing returns.

Big companies and governments find they are in no position to control it. Even mighty Microsoft learned this lesson when its new Microsoft Network -- bundled with every copy of Windows 95 -- failed to corral even the company's own users (a massive failure that Microsoft's peerless adaptability made trivial in less than a month).

The World Wide Web's strange new economy is where Adam Smith and Karl Marx finally meet. For Smith the Internet provides a "simple system of natural liberty [that] establishes itself of its own accord," and for Marx it finally puts the means of production in the hands of the workers. In other words, it achieves the irony of capital-free capitalism: enterprise so free that it requires almost zero capital to start and run a new business.

To the energetic individual or company, the opportunities look infinite. Maybe everybody can thrive. Maybe everybody can participate. And maybe Microsoft, the FCC, Congress, Rupert Murdoch, Disney, the German government and every other large-looming entity with hegemonarian impulses will find it can't throw its weight around -- because this is something like outer space and everybody's kind of weightless here. All that matters is what you alone are in a position to contribute and how well you contribute it.

This puts marcom's usual customers in a very different position. Publishers and broadcasters are no longer the only avenues to consumers. There are potentially countless new publishers and broadcasters. Everybody's bowling alley is now a two-way street. And those streets do not all funnel through dedicated company functions (such as customer service 800 numbers).

The new rules

Here are just a few of the new rules. Since this is interactive, I invite you to send me a few more -- and to replace or improve the ones listed here. This is just a start. Revolutionizing marcom is a job for all of us.
  1. The Internet is the ultimate base medium -- it will either undermine or support all other media. Think of the Internet as a phone system, a postal service, a library, a distribution hub and a yellow pages -- all in one. Only, unlike all those traditional institutions, nobody controls it. Anybody can participate in any of those roles.
  2. On the Internet, all communications are personal. The "mailto" link on every working Web site goes to an individual. If a site lacks that link, or if nobody responds to a mailing across that link, the site is virtually dead.
  3. Communication = conversation. Markets are conversations, whether they consist of one person or ten million people. Marcom needs to take advantage of this fact, both within the company, and between the company and the conversations that constitute its markets. **
  4. A company's "Intranet" connections should equal or exceed its Internet connections. Without groupware you get gropeware. Whether you use Notes, Groupwise, Collabra or POEMs (Plain Old E-Mails)... you need to make, and use, your internal connections. In fact, your company will be no more effective than its collaborative platform. Making that platform work should be everybody's -- especially marcom's -- job.
  5. Customers are the best sources of useful information -- and the most abundant. Now they're good for a lot more than money.
  6. There is no strength in isolation. Ivory towers are the last refuge of the clueless.
  7. Relationships matter. More sales are becoming marriages, and fewer are one-night stands.
  8. Service is everything. If you can't service your customers, they'll find suppliers who will.
  9. Branding requires substance as well as style. If you can't walk your talk, nobody will follow your lead or listen to what you say.
  10. There is no market for messages. In fact, there never was, but now the customer is in a position to say so.
  11. Logic and reason sit on the mental board of directors, but emotions cast the deciding votes. This is why share of heart matters more than share of market and even share of mind.
  12. The purpose of marketing communications is not just to tell & sell but to learn & earn. Every company needs to learn from customers and to earn their interest and loyalty. If they don't, they'll talk to nobody and sell nothing.
  13. There is no market for secrecy. Customers rarely demand that companies keep secrets. But they always demand more information. Don't hide it.
  14. Your "position" is a fact, not a statement. And the only fact you can't change is where you come from. This is the one thing you can't lie about, and the first thing people want to know about you.
  15. Marketing should be as simple as a handshake. Your marketing should answer the same questions people ask strangers when they meet for the first time: If your answers to any of these questions are unclear, or if you can only explain them at length, you're not making sense. This helps: one or two word answers work best.
  16. Information isn't data -- it's the communicable form of knowledge. Derived form the verb to form, information literally changes what we know. The goal of a communications strategy therefore is to inform and to become informed. It must work both ways -- an exchange that makes a difference for both parties.
  17. Competition is necessary to a marketplace, but not sufficient. Customers want choices; and every product choice results from many people, and many companies, adding their goods together, not just opposing each other. The next time you hear a story about the U.S. versus Japan (or Mexico, or Germany...), look inside your PC. On average you'll see labeled products from up to 13 different countries. Peace at work.
  18. Conversation isn't win/lose or even win/win. It's play/play. Think of marketplaces as homes and communities, not just as ball courts and battlefields. The press loves sports and war metaphors for a good reason: stories are about conflict and struggle. No story starts with "happily ever after." This is why the press' job is to make trouble, often where there isn't any. Really, they can't help it. But the truth is usually much more complex, much less dramatic and rarely as conclusive as the stories told by the press. Just remember: if a customer loves your company and buys your product, that doesn't mean he's taking your side. If you think he is, you may end up fighting your wars alone.
  19. Honesty is the only policy. "If you can fake that, you've got it made," George Burns says. Unfortunately, most of us can't. It's very hard to fake one side of a conversation. And truth is a lot easier to maintain than a lie.
*See Microsoft + Netscape. [ Back to *]

**See The Web and the New Reality[ Back to **]

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