schlappohr / Pixabay

It’s just not possible. I can no longer stay silent on this whole subject. After reading this article and this article about how tech has ruined marketing and the old ways still matter, and after working with my partner for a couple of years now (something that has changed my own perceptions of marketing completely) I have come to realize that marketing pundits are arguing about the wrong marketing paradigms.

The truth is, marketing in 2017 – not just online marketing, but all of marketing – is forever changed by one overriding fact: We marketers are no longer in charge of the message.

Of course, we like to think we are, because our jobs – and by extension, our companies’ revenues – depend on it. But we are not.

Instead, customers are in charge of our message. Competitors are in charge of our message. Google is in charge of our message. Or, perhaps I should say, more accurately, the internet itself – in its current “mobile is eating the world” state – is now in charge of our message.

I can see you all sitting up stiffly now and staring at your screen. “What the hell is she talking about?” This is definitely not a comforting thought.

The truth is, while marketers debate endlessly about the latest technique, we are in the middle of a digital revolution. We are experiencing the biggest shift in marketing since the printing press, which I would argue had more influence on humans and the state of marketing than TV or radio did. The printing press enabled all humans to do something efficiently that they had previously been unable to do: communicate with each other, one-to-many, when they weren’t physically with each other, expanding the reach of a single idea.

TV and radio just continued that trend. And, of course, YouTube took it to ridiculous extremes, where anyone – not just the established media – could spread an idea with incredible speed. One audition by a cheeky and slightly strange woman named Susan Boyle, who had been quietly and unanimously taking care of her mother for years in a village in England, could go viral and be viewed by millions literally overnight.

We marketers are missing the point

The problem with all of these endless discussions about marketing and channels and branding and content and search engine optimization and viral and the millions of techniques pundits argue about is that they are missing the point. Like I said, we are no longer in control of our message. We were, up until a few years ago, but we aren’t anymore.

It doesn’t matter what you do, if you are thinking of marketing as a method of “getting your message out there.” Whatever you’re doing is about as useless as doing nothing. Why? Because the market for your products and services is moving along without you, at internet speed.

As I type this, people searching for your solution are using Google, and even while they are on their way to a store or even standing in the store. They are seeing who Google is placing on that all-important first page. They are reading reviews written by other buyers who had been looking for a similar solution. They are seeing what those other people bought. They are weighing their options using literally millions of pieces of data that they have at their disposal, in real-time, in nanoseconds.

I called my first book Rivers of Revenue because that’s where you need to be in order to make money. You can’t create a river of revenue; even the biggest most influential and big-budget companies can’t create a river of revenue if the buying public isn’t ready. (I remember a blitz of TV ads that ATT ran for a video phone back before smart phones. No river there, consumers and the technology weren’t ready yet).

Customers create rivers of revenue when they find a solution that makes sense for them. They buy and they comment and they share. A river of conversations forms. You’re either in that river or you are not. Your content is either relevant to people having those discussions and sharing or it’s not.

Thankfully, you can literally see those rivers forming, by seeing what people are searching for most, using tools such as SpyFu, Google Trends, and Google Analytics. You can see which articles Google ranks most highly using Google Analytics, (or just searching for a topic in Google). You can see which articles people are sharing most using Buzzsomo.

I don’t care what medium you’re trying to use and optimize – search, social, pay-per-click, email, direct mail, advertising, PR, or whatever – the first place to start is by finding those rivers of revenue, those ongoing conversations that are even remotely related to your product or service, and figuring out how to become part of that conversation.

The point is, all of this is going on with or without you, and it affects you because you are either “in it” or “out of it.” There is no revenue to be gained if you are out of it. Which brings us to my second point: hubris versus humility.

The other problem with marketing: it’s based on hubris, not humility

It’s fun and empowering to sit in a room with your co-workers (or just alone by yourself!) and brainstorm. This is where most marketing efforts start. This windowless room approach is a holdover from the heady days of advertising, the “Mad Men” days, where everything revolved around “the big idea” and “branding.”

But things were different then. The agencies and their clients were still completely in control of the message. They could afford their hubris. There were no online reviews saying, “Don’t waste your money. This cheap thing broke after 2 weeks of use.” Or a video showing a swarm of bedbugs on the hotel sheets in a fancy hotel, placed in a travel site.

Agencies and companies are no longer in control of the message. Yes, of course, you can write your own copy on your site, and in your marketing materials. But if that copy doesn’t address what people are already saying and thinking, what is already working for your competition, and what Google is already displaying, it simply won’t “register” with customers. It will be a complete waste, and your revenue will continue to slip while others manage to move up and forward.

“Don’t be that guy,” applies here. Imagine a room full of people who are chatting excitedly about a particular topic. Now imagine someone walking in who desperately wants to be noticed and liked, but instead of joining in by listening first, this person just starts shouting out things that he thinks are important.

The people already in the room will do their best to ignore him; if he becomes too irritating, they will leave the room or push him out of the room.

This is how we react to spam and irrelevant advertising. We don’t want to be around it, and we do what we can to get away from it. And we will always remember “that guy” as the one who was inappropriate and irritating.

It would have been a completely different story if he had come into our conversation courteously and humbly, willing to put ego aside, learn what matters to us and how we find and exchange information, and then start to participate gracefully.

Before we co-founded our current company, in my role as a revenue coach, I interviewed customers for our clients in order to be that listener. I found that the “what’s important to our customers” list that companies and their agencies created in that windowless room was ALWAYS different than the “what’s important to us” list that I uncovered in customer interviews. So this problem has been going on for a long, long time.

New tools for marketers

What’s different now is that you have more ways than ever to find out what matters to your customers, and, by extension, what matters to Google. Google cares what matters to customers because Google’s popularity and success depend on Google getting this right. Google is not your marketing enemy; Google Analytics hasn’t “ruined” marketing as Sam talks about in this article. No. On the contrary, Google wants you to give your customers what they want, and will do everything possible to help you, including giving you insights into what matters to people now and where the conversations are going.

You can even see what is working for your competitors now, which is yet another way of finding out what customers are responding to. Again, SpyFu is a great tool for this – in the PPC section, you can literally see the ads your competitors are running, which ads are doing well and which ads they dropped. You can see (approximately) how much they paid.

“What about differentiation?” you might be asking. “Are you recommending that we just follow trends and competitors around blindly?” No, I am not. I am recommending that you find out what matters to your customers, by doing proper research (a combination of interviewing current customers to find out how you can make it easier for them to find you and buy from you, and using online tools to figure out what they care about and what they’re responding to).

But something else has changed in this Digital Revolution. Your digital marketing stuff is interactive.

Anyone who comes to your site is clicking around. They are doing something with your content. You can even watch them doing it in real-time or see heat maps using Hotjar, and you can see where they came in, how long they stayed, and where they went with the “referring sites” tool. The truth is, your sites, ads, emails, and other digital efforts are functional environments, not just one-way messages. Your commerce site better be at least 90% the same as the top, hot shopping sites or you will confuse your audience and they will bounce out quickly.

It doesn’t pay to deviate from well-accepted usability standards. It does pay to use those standards to your advantage, creating a non-confusing interactive environment, which also contains content that resonates with customers because you aren’t being “that guy.” Instead, you’re being respectful and interested and humble. You are willing to walk away from that “exciting idea” and just give them what they want, see how they interact with it and continue to improve on it.

You are now marketing in partnership with your customer, who, truth be told, would be perfectly happy if you gave them the right information at the right time in their buying process, and then did exactly what you promised you would do. That has been, and always will be, where revenue comes from.

This article originally appeared on the Digital Revolution Show and has been republished with permission.