Word-of-Mouth (WOM) vs. Broadcast is the emerging Mac vs. PC debate in marketing. There are relevant facts, but they don’t matter, because battles inevitably turn ideological. If you did the Mac-vs-PC ads for WOM vs. Broadcast, an episode might go as follows:
WOM: Hey Broadcast, how are you doing?
Broadcast: Great, I just finished a multi-million dollar Master Marketing Plan for my Fortune 100 client, with a textbook positioning strategy, a great branding theme and 3 superbowl ad concepts. All in just 3 weeks.
WOM: Oh wow! That’s impressive. How did the customers respond?
Broadcast: Very funny WOM. We both know it takes months of stakeholder conversations and focus groups before you can roll out a marketing campaign. If all goes as planned, 50% of our marketing will work; we just won’t know which 50% of course, ha ha. Even someone as good as me can’t break the Golden Rule of Marketing after all.
WOM: Well actually Broadcast, I just finished a 3-week concept-to-execution campaign for a small business, for just $800, where we used a Facebook page to talk to customers. And I know exactly which pieces worked, and why.
Broadcast: Oh I have a social media component in my master plan too. We’ll have a Facebook page AND a Twitter feed AND a blog AND a YouTube Channel. And we’ve already sourced the first 50 professionally written blog posts. So looks like I am a little ahead of you there, WOM. You really should try more planning instead of just jumping in. You’ve got to maximize reach and optimize your channel mix; it’s all about eyeballs baby.
WOM: You do know that Twitter is not always best for all types of conversational marke….
Broadcast: Tweet Tweet Tweet Tweet TWEET TWEET TWEET TWEET. I can’t hear you. TWEET TWEET TWEET TWEET TWEET TWEET
The WOM-vs.-Broadcast debate, which is currently at this level, is incredibly shallow and juvenile (though sometimes entertaining). The WOM camp is getting prematurely smug, and the Broadcast camp is defending the wrong parts of classical marketing. So let’s try to take the conversation up a notch.
Framing the New Marketing
It’s been a year since I wrote a marketing post (I posted Marketing, Innovation and the Creation of Customers in June last year), mainly because I’ve been too busy actually trying to do it. I’ve learned one big lesson: there’s a widening schism between the WOMers and Broadcasters, and neither side knows how to go from thesis and antithesis to synthesis. Both are pretending furiously though.
The WOM’ers, if I may call them that, view the Broadcasters as hopeless Luddites, who spend too much money pitching unwanted and obsolete messages loudly and boorishly to large, irrelevant and unreceptive audiences, and deluding themselves about their effectiveness because they measure nothing.
The Broadcasters — and this is a slightly unfair label since were doing WOM long before the rise social media — view the WOMers as naive amateurs who don’t understand the fundamentals of marketing and occasionally get lucky. They’d probably rather describe themselves as classicists, and swear by “fundamental” 101 concepts, like segmentation, positioning, controlled brands, channel mix and focus groups.
Both sides are right and wrong.
WOM’ers are innovating and breaking new ground, but their claims about their ‘discoveries’ are wildly exaggerated.
This is because almost everything they’ve discovered is highly tactical, and not very far removed from tool-use expertise. Stuff like optimal tweet length and timing. Their attempts at building an intellectually rigorous Marketing 2.0 theory that can supplant existing textbooks are laughably naive and pollyannish. It’s all about “authentic” people having “conversations” inside “tribes” apparently. And it seems the customer now “owns” the brand, and you should be properly humble, and gratefully cede all control, and feel honored that they’ve chosen to own it. Even if all they do is tyrannically mob-vandalize it. When the wise crowd says “jump,” you say “how high?”
Kill me now.
These are the fond utopian hopes of a newly-empowered, once-marginal group, who suddenly find themselves wielding influence. They are merely bashing values they don’t believe in, and calling it theory. And they believe they have some sort of democratic mandate from an oppressed voiceless customer, who wants them to do this. This is simply wrong. They’ve been empowered by a new two-way medium, not by customers oppressed by broadcast marketing.
On the other hand, Broadcasters/Classicists mostly are for the most part as clueless as the WOM caricatures suggest. They defend exactly those parts of traditional marketing that are being undermined completely. The idea of static segmentation for instance. I still use segment-language to communicate coarse approximations of my thinking to those who don’t speak WOM, but basically, the concept is past its expiry date. Most classicists continue to waste time with focus groups and lagging trend indicators even when wildly inappropriate, instead of learning real-time analytics. Almost none of them understand peripheral vision or know how to listen outside their core. While most of them appear to have heard the idea that brands need to evolve from static identities (company genes) to dynamic narratives (company genes and their expression over a lifetime), few have any clue what it means to manage at narrative level, rather than brand level.
Worse, they actually fail to defend what is worth defending, cravenly ceding the moral high ground to WOMers and their “authentic” rhetoric.
I believe that the biggest value in classical/broadcast-centric marketing is a certain attitude and philosophy. There are two elements to this, and together these elements constitute what I call the Classical Marketing Contract.
The Classical Marketing Contract
The first element has to do with the value governing the relationship between marketers and the marketed-to. The antithesis of authenticity is not artificiality/fakeness. That’s just a strawman argument. The true antithesis of authenticity is irony. And I don’t mean irony in the sense of recent hipster grads wearing “Yes, We Can” Obama t-shirts ironically and pretending to understand the Foucault they were force-fed in school.
I mean irony in the sense of classical marketing, be it a tailored pitch to a CEO for a $100 million account, or using sexy women to sell cars, or equating Coke with happiness. Both marketers and customers recognize, and accept, that they are interacting through some manufactured theater. Both know that there is subliminal manipulation going on, and that it is okay. Both know and accept that there are long-term social consequences and costs (for example, the perpetuation of specific stereotypes about women that happen to be useful in selling to men). The only case where all this is considered immoral is when such layered messaging is targeted at children below about 8, who lack the capacity for ironic processing.
This governing value of irony is a sophisticated and adult one, as opposed to the naive one the WOM’ers think can come to govern marketing, true “authenticity.” I believe that is impossible, not because classical marketing will resist, but because “authentic” is a very unnatural thing for humans to be (and if you think like me, it is not a desirable thing either).
The second element of the attitude and philosophy is the acknowledgment of the fundamentally adversarial relationship between marketer and marketed-to. All marketing, even “permission marketing” (at the opt-in stage) involves a minimal, non-zero level of adversarial intent, and a peremptory hijacking of attention against somebody’s will, through interruption or distraction. You can dress it up and call it being “remarkable,” but it is always a peremptory “look at me” act.
And this adversarial nature of marketing is again accepted by both sides. Customers cede some autonomy over their attention in exchange for choice, and accept the burden of separating signal and noise in the messaging that comes in through the ceded attention channel.
Irony is actually necessary to make this work, because if you’ve ceded autonomy over part of your attention, theatricality, mutually acknowledged artificiality and drama at least make the incoming messaging entertaining, even if you never buy 99% of the stuff that is thrust onto your radar.
This sublimation of an adversarial situation into an uneasy peace, accepted by both sides, and the adoption of an ironic stance towards the messaging, together constitute what I call the Classical Marketing Contract, by analogy with the Social Contract. In a social contract governance is based on the consent of the governed, and it sublimates an adversarial situation into an uneasy peace by trading some autonomy of behavior for security. The governing value of the social contract is empathy, which swings the natural competitive-cooperative balance of human society towards “cooperative.”
Replace governance, governed, behavior, security and empathy with marketing, marketed-to, attention, choice and irony, and you get the Classical Marketing Contract.
Can We Write a New Contract?
When I say classical marketing defends the wrong bits, this is what I mean. They should be defending these underlying values and the Classical Marketing Contract. Instead they defend the conceptual and technical apparatus of classical marketing. The textbook can be thrown out and replaced the moment we all figure out how to build a defensible theory of social-media focused WOM-centric marketing.
But the contract must not be torn up. Classical marketers seem to be universally acting contrite and apologetic, and promising that they will reform and adopt “authenticity” and drop the “attention-share” war-fighting mindset. And then they go back to their old values, feeling guilty about it. They shouldn’t. The values are nothing to be ashamed of. The contract, for all its flaws, is worth fighting for.
Because I don’t believe we can write a better one.
To see what I mean, consider a reductio ad absurdum. WOM idealists don’t like the adversarial nature of traditional marketing, even though customers don’t actually complain about the general principle (they complain about specifics like the quantity, quality and location of the interrupts). A belief seems to be taking hold among the idealists that it is possible to have a true peace, based on mutual respect, where all messaging is by permission only. That marketers and the marketed-to can honestly say, “let’s all be friends” and shake hands.
Related to this is authenticity. If there is no adversarial intent, true authenticity is possible. Even assuming you can get rid of adversarial intent, true authenticity is not even particularly desirable. I don’t know about you, but all that earnestly “authentic” messaging, both on social media (some authentically blathering idiot of an intern) and WOMized advertising on TV, which sounds like bad reality TV, make me want to scream.
The assumption that you, the marketer, are my friend, and are being open and frank towards me, and not attempting to manipulate me with overt or subliminal tactics, when it is sincerely held, leads to dull and ineffective messaging in general. If you are trying to fake authenticity, and doing it transparently badly, that’s even worse.
Please, please spare me. I don’t want authenticity, and I am fine with you trying to manipulate me. Irony is still the better governing value because it legitimizes everything that’s entertaining. I’d want that even if we could get rid of all adversarial intent.
The only good kind of authenticity is ironic authenticity, where the decision to play “authentic” itself is an artistic one, like the faux-reality-TV mode of The Office. Even those kids attempting to make their slapstick videos go viral get this, fortunately. We sometimes mistake the amateurishness and poor production values for “authenticity,” but it isn’t. The fact that producers of the classic viral videos usually try to be outrageous tells us that they are operating within the classical marketing contract. Good.
But continuing the reductio ad absurdum, the absurd end-state is when marketers are completely authentic and non-adversarial in everything the say/do, and all messaging is by pure permission only. People only hear what they want to hear, from people they trust, and the message is always “authentic” with no layers of meaning and intent. Since even the marketer’s “opt-in” interrupt involves an element of manipulation, this means the only people allowed to market are your own friends, and the only way a marketer can get to you is through a chain of friendship links, and hope that the trust doesn’t weaken along the chain to the point where permission is not implied.
I hope I don’t need to say it, but this is idiotic. Such values would reinforce mutual-admiration echo chambers which could never be penetrated by new information. It would create a fragmented universe of deluded, self-reinforcing cults. That spells A-M-W-A-Y.
Fortunately it isn’t happening broadly, but it is still important that we question any philosophical stance that would lead to the conclusion that this is a good idea.
Towards a Synthesis
My hope is that we retain the classical marketing contract, and feel comfortable tossing out any obsolete conceptual apparatus. On the WOM side, we need all the ongoing experimentation and discovery of tactical knowledge to eventually build up to a solid theory that can be put into textbooks. We’re not there yet, but without the right marketing contract governing the relationship between marketers and the marketed-to, it will take far longer.
I’ll end with one little idea, the sort of thing that I believe belongs in a new theory of marketing, which illustrates the real conceptual, non-ideological differences between WOM and Broadcast, and why the classical marketing contract is still the right way to frame the analysis.
Mutual Belief vs. Common Knowledge
Broadcast isn’t just an inefficient ancestor of social-media-accelerated WOM, and it isn’t just for mass products (like Budweiser or Coke) that can tolerate the inefficiency due to the reach.
Broadcast and WOM are different because they create different types of knowledge over different time frames.
Broadcast directly, and immediately, creates what logicians call common knowledge. WOM creates a different type of knowledge called mutual belief that may or may not grow into common knowledge. To understand the difference, let’s consider Google vs. Bing.
Remember how you first found about Google? In my case, a computer-scientist friend came up to me excitedly and told me, “You’ve got to try this thing called Google, it is way better than Altavista.” It was like being personally let into a secret. This is how WOM works. Isolated pockets of people learn about something. But the isolated groups don’t know that the other isolated groups know.
It is 1998. I know about Google, you know about Google. But unless we happen to be in the same small group (technically, small world), you don’t know I know, and I don’t know that you know. We are in a state of mutual belief.
If I overhear you mention Google, now I know you know, but you still don’t know that I know. If we talk, things move up one degree.
Common knowledge is the state where I know that you know that I know…. ad infinitum, and you are in the same state. Under WOM dynamics, common knowledge can only appear when a message diffuses and echoes sufficiently broadly, and individuals have discovered each other’s knowledge state to sufficient depth (you don’t need an infinity of interactions, at some point we all make the leap to ad infinitum).
Here’s the deep bit about broadcast. It creates common knowledge instantly, by taking advantage of a shared context containing previous pieces of common knowledge. Broadcast media like TV create this base. All football fans can watch a Superbowl ad and instantly know that every other football fan has seen it too.
This is incredibly valuable because the market can now talk within itself, leading to network effects. For Google, the sign of the leap to common knowledge was when it became a verb in common knowledge (“I googled this…”), which requires an assumption that knowledge of Google is common knowledge. This took years.
For Bing, it took minutes, because they used broadcast. Perhaps not very effectively (I haven’t heard anyone say “Can you bing that?”), but the point remains.
In classical WOM, common knowledge is restricted to small groups, and the basis of previously shared common knowledge often does not exist, and has to be artificially created. Jeremy Epstein, who does Dan Pink’s marketing, had to create a “Bunko Breakfasts” series so that readers of the book (The Adventures of Johnny Bunko) could bootstrap from a mutual belief state to a common knowledge state, within a small group.
So a marketing choice between WOM and broadcast should depend on, among other things, your assessment of the distribution of common knowledge you need. If you merely want everyone to know, WOM will do. If you are happy with small groups in common knowledge state, WOM will do. If you can wait years for a message to spread so that it naturally makes the leap to common knowledge, WOM will do. But if you want instant common knowledge, even very good WOM can’t do it. You need broadcast.
And yes, broadcast requires the classical social contract to legitimize and enable it.
And even within pure WOM, if your content is remarkable enough to spread broadly and make the organic leap to common knowledge, you probably need the contract too. Google didn’t need a remarkable message because the product itself was so remarkable, but for most things that want to follow the Google diffusion model, you need a remarkable message. Which means you need to hijack attention. Which means things are at least a little adversarial and ironic. Which means you need the classical marketing contract.