Increasingly, marketing isn't just one-way street
Is advertising dying - and Madison Avenue just hasn't realized it yet?
Some influential writers, ex-agency executives, and consultants in Boston are making the case that a major change in the way companies sell things is taking place - and that most businesses and their marketing partners aren't yet aware of it. Instead of interrupting you in order to get your attention - this column is brought to you by Dunkin' Donuts' New Ultra-Caffeinated Turbo Roast Coffee - their strategy is to let you stumble across their products online. The essence of the new strategy is to spread useful information about a given topic (like how to brew the perfect cup of joe) through blogs, social networks, Twitter, and video sites like YouTube.
"Before, you had to buy access to the consumer in some way, like purchasing a direct mail list or buying an ad in the Yellow Pages," says David Meerman Scott, a Lexington author and speaker best known for his book "The New Rules of Marketing and PR."
"Now, companies can talk directly to their customers."
Scott is one of the organizers of a thrice-yearly conference called the Inbound Marketing Summit, which got its start in Boston in 2008; the next one takes place this week in San Francisco. Boston is also home to several companies that aim to profit from the advertising revolu tion by selling software or services to help companies communicate with customers in new ways, such as BzzAgent Inc., Brand Networks Inc., and HubSpot Inc. And the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council is convening a summit Thursday to explore how companies can measure the returns generated by this new approach to marketing.
Lots of different terminology is being tossed around to try to describe the shift, from social media to content marketing to social marketing to inbound marketing. The word "social" implies that the personal connections between individuals who can help spread your message to others are increasingly important. "Content marketing" alludes to creating content that people choose to spend time with, whether it's a list of tips for maintaining a beautiful lawn or a funny video, like the "Will It Blend?" series created by the Utah blender maker Blendtec. "Inbound marketing," coined by the Cambridge-based software company HubSpot, implies that a company has a prominent presence online and is delivering value to customers so they'll come find it, rather than simply broadcasting "outbound" messages and hoping for the best.
A recent survey by Cambridge's Forrester Research found that 53 percent of social media marketers expect to increase their spending, even amid the recession, and 42 percent expect it to stay about the same. One reason is that it is perceived as less expensive and more efficient than traditional marketing.
The new kind of campaigns can seem logical - or a bit abstruse. Helaine Smith, a Boston dentist, has posted YouTube videos demonstrating her purportedly pain-free approach to anesthetizing patients; she also offers a free, downloadable e-book on the connections between good oral health and one's sex life. (Sex always sells on the Internet.) For the career site Monster.com, Boston-based Brand Networks created a free application that Facebook users can install, which delivers a constant feed of relevant job openings. More than 80,000 people have chosen to add the application to their profile pages, according to Jamie Tedford, BrandNetworks' founder and a former executive at Arnold Worldwide, a Boston-based ad agency.
To promote a tech-oriented home makeover show on Verizon's FiOS TV network, the Marlborough agency Advance Guard devised a somewhat bizarre idea: One of the hosts of the show altered a robotic Teddy Ruxpin doll so it would utter messages sent to it via Twitter. For a time, the Twittering Teddy could be viewed live on a Web video stream.
"At first, the client was like, 'What?' But when they saw the response to it, they were wowed," says Advance Guard founder C.C. Chapman. The teddy - and the show - got lots of free exposure on well-trafficked blogs like BoingBoing Gadgets.
"I'm not classically trained in marketing, but most people in this space are not classically trained," says Chapman. "It's about street smarts as opposed to book smarts."
This new wave of advertising can be traced back to pivotal books like Seth Godin's "Permission Marketing," published in 1999, and "The Cluetrain Manifesto," published in 2000, which urged marketers to think about carrying on a conversation with customers, rather than a monologue.
What's interesting is that very few of the thought leaders of this emerging field hail from the biggest marketing, advertising, and public relations agencies. "When you see a paradigm shift come along, the people who dominated the previous age don't necessarily do well in the new ones," theorizes Paul Gillin, the Framingham-based author of "The New Influencers."
"Ad agencies are in some ways crippled by their own incentives and culture," says Mike Troiano, an entrepreneur who earlier in his career worked at ad agencies Ogilvy & Mather and McCann-Erickson. "The guys at the top of the food chain are the guys who do television ads, and below them are print, and then direct marketing, and then you have interactive. I think you're seeing a lot of those sophisticated digital media people moving out of agencies and into their own shops."
Most of the new shops are still small. BzzAgent, which operates a network of "agents" who sample new products and services and then "buzz" about them online, has 90 employees. HubSpot, which sells a suite of software to help companies manage blogs and their position on various search engines, has about 85. And those are two of the largest. But even the smaller firms and sole proprietors command very loud megaphones. Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs, the organizer of this week's Inbound Marketing Summit, has more than 60,000 followers on Twitter, for instance.
If there is a clubhouse for these new marketing mavens, it may be the Kendall Square offices of HubSpot. Every Friday at 4 p.m., the company hosts a live Web video show that chews over some of the new dynamics of the company-customer relationship. Beer is served, and the live studio audience usually numbers 50 or so. Guests have included Gillin, Scott, Chapman, Twitter cofounder Biz Stone, and rap star/entrepreneur MC Hammer. Internet viewers can communicate with the two hosts via Twitter messages.
"Madison Avenue was the center of the world for the old style of outbound marketing," says HubSpot chief executive Brian Halligan. "If inbound marketing is what's happening next, then we think Boston has a chance to be the next Madison Avenue."
Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com.