For six years, Bob Garfield has been telling us the sky is falling. Some of us laughed. Some of us rolled our eyes. Some of us called him names. Now we are knee-deep in the calamity he foretold, and nobody is eye-rolling anymore. But we forget that even as Bob Garfield peddled gloom and doom, he was also offering a prescription for relevance in the post-advertising age.
Bob gave a presentation at the ANA Brand conference earlier this week in which he surveyed the damage, and then blazed a trail he calls Listenomics and what others call The Relationship Era, a new world order in which people control conversations about brands rather than submit to one way brand advertising messages.
Bob first talked about the concept in 2005 in AdAge. Some choice nuggets:
“Hear that? In the distance? It’s a crowd forming-a crowd of what you used to call your “audience.” They’re still an audience, but they aren’t necessarily listening to you. They’re listening to each other talk about you. And they’re using your products, your brand names, your iconography, your slogans, your trademarks, your designs, your goodwill, all of it as if it belonged to them-which, in a way, it all does, because, after all, haven’t you spent decades, and trillions, to convince them of just that? ”
A bit further down the article, “Everywhere, on the go, in real time,” says [Yale Law's Yochai] Benkler, a specialist in open-source approaches to management. “Perhaps the role of marketers becomes more of intermediaries to the community of users, to engage the users more in the design process and the distribution process, treating their users as co-producers of value.”
And near the end, Bob asks the question, “What’s left for agencies? If the conversation is dominated by consumers themselves, and they’re paying scant attention to the self-interested blather of the marketer, who needs ads – offline, online or otherwise? This raises the question of what agencies are left to do.”
In a 1991 presentation to the Communications Research Council titled “Knowledge Communities: The New Relationship Between Marketers and Customers”, Steve Rappaport, currently Knowledge Solutions Director at the Advertising Research Foundation, said,
Online networks are now – and increasingly so – undergirding change in the consumer information culture. Not only are they becoming an important source of consumer information, persuasion and satisfaction: They are ushering in an era of increased consumer interaction with marketers that is occurring within an expanding community of knowledge.
Some of these networks will develop commercially, some not. But the activity, whatever it is, is occurring in parallel to all the traditional advertising and marketing we do – and will affect those programs. We have a golden opportunity now to understand and exploit these systems for competitive advantage. Our job is to think of how.
Steve has written a few books on listening, most recently “Listen First! Turning Social Media Conversations Into Business Advantage“. I asked Steve to give me his take on listening 20 years later, and he said, “Today’s world is one of enmeshed brands and people, where connections exponentially multiply, are global, mobile and always with us. Certainty and predictability are quaint notions fondly remembered of a simpler time. Brands and people co-evolve with each other and the broader environment. Successfully adapting requires constantly monitoring signals of change, interpreting them and acting on them to harmonize brands and people with the world at large. Listening provides that signal advantage; it is a must have for companies that want to create lasting business advantage and enterprise value.”
In the above interview, I talked to Bob about the new, more democratic relationship that exists between brands and people. We also talked about brands as content producers and what they can learn from news organizations and media companies.
On that topic, Bob recently moderated a panel at SXSW on brand journalism. He summed up the session as a conversation about “the role of brands as brokers of content about themselves: blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter streams, videos, whether created in house or harvested from the Great Everywhere Else. It was a lively discussion about everything you’d expect: telling brand stories, employing journalistic tools, establishing relationships, building trust, ceding control, measuring results.”
He noted an example of a brand that wasn’t quite comfortable ceding control and letting its hair down a bit. Just as the conference started news broke about Chrysler firing social media agency NMS over its employee Scott Bartosiewicz accidentally tweeting, “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fuckking drive” from the corporate Chrysler account rather than his personal account, which was his intent.
As Bob noted, “Fired him for being funny. Fired him for being spontaneous. Fired him for being relevant. Fired him for alighting ever so gently, like a canary taking its perch, on a dowel of human truth. You know — the way social media is supposed to be, because the whole point of it is to discard archaic and abrasive concepts of messaging in favor of actual conversations. “