In Marketing, People Are Not Numbers

—Sam Ford

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review on 2/13/2013. Read it here.]

For marketers, there was much to like about the broadcast era. It was easy to pretend things were simple, even when they weren’t: general aggregate numbers and basic demographic data served were “close enough” for understanding audiences.

Now, though, media content is controlled as much by the audience as by traditional distributors. We find ourselves in the age of what my coauthors and I call spreadable media. Sharing articles, video, and other content is an everyday part of life for a significant portion of the population. “Close enough” really doesn’t work all that well anymore.

Still, corporate logics have tried to preserve the old models and to fit new phenomena into familiar management patterns. Here are three fundamental ways companies are trying to resist the nature of today’s media environment.

1. Transforming People into Data. As companies became their own online publishers, they used the logic of “stickiness” to maintain an impressions-based model for understanding audiences, defining success by visits, clicks, likes, time spent per page, and so on, and turning audiences into quantitative data that can be easily collected and compared.

Similarly, as companies monitor what people say outside corporate-owned platforms, they often convert conversation into stats. In Spreadable Media, we call this “hearing,” because it focuses primarily on recording what has been said. Companies have invested deeply in making sure they have collected most or all mentions of the company and that they have easy ways to convert that to “sentiment” and “share of voice.”

But most companies put little emphasis on “listening,” an active process focused on the context of what the audience is saying. As “Big Data” becomes the predominant buzzword across marketing disciplines, companies risk paying even less attention to deeply understanding the full context of the communities they are trying to reach.

2. Maintaining a Distance. How we talk about content makes it the active ingredient and audience members the passive carriers. “Going viral” insinuates some scientific phenomenon through which audiences have no choice but to spread certain content. “Meme” adopts the language of gene replication to describe how material spreads. It’s implied that you don’t need to “know” the audience members themselves but rather just track the resulting pandemic.

Some marketers do see audiences as socially connected networks rather than aggregate data but still have the impulse to find some other shortcut to actual, meaningful participation in those communities. One of the most popular concepts in marketing today is “the influencer,” a model which presumes that any community includes a few people who, if they get on board with an idea, will bring everyone else along for the ride. Once again, the company doesn’t have to actually participate in relationships with most of their audience — just the shepherds who everyone else follows mindlessly.

3. Making Them Come to You. A core myth has traditionally governed marketing: that the industry is solely focused on the art of persuasion, on trying to align audiences with whatever the corporation wants them to do. Marketers still see their calling much the same as they did in the broadcast era: to pump out one-way messages and get audiences to buy whatever the company is selling (figuratively and literally).

The era of spreadability provides a transformational opportunity: for marketing and communications to act as the listening ear of the company, and to help better align the company to address the wants and needs of its various constituencies. Often, the information, service and expertise companies provide customers are as important as products and services themselves. Marketing and communications will best serve an organization when they put their primary emphasis on serving its audiences.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy at Peppercomm and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. Sam can be found on Twitter @Sam_Ford.