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Marketing in the Modern Age

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Company or cause, marketing plays a vital role.

For companies, the marketing discipline helps sell products with the ultimate goal of boosting shareholder value. For causes, social marketing moves people to action for their own good -- cajoling consumers to change unhealthy behaviors or to support a particular environmental program, for example.

These two branches of marketing typically have been separate, with mainstream marketing and social marketing keeping polite, if somewhat distant, relations. Some social marketers have felt that they rise above the rough and tumble of the marketplace, dealing instead with grand issues and ideas. Traditional marketers, with their rigid metrics of success and failure and laser focus on showing a return, have viewed social marketing somewhat askance for lacking similar rigor.

But now, due to cultural shifts and technological advances in social media, the divide that has separated social and traditional marketing is narrowing significantly. In the 1950s, when research psychologist G.D. Wiebe asked, "Why can't you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?" the response was that, generally speaking, you can't. Today on the other hand, soap-sellers have something valuable to teach brotherhood-sellers. And vice versa.

Three trends are at the root of this melding of marketing.

First, marketing today is far less transactional than it used to be only a decade ago. Back then, the focus of traditional marketing was, "let's convince consumers to buy our products." Now, marketing has become far more interpersonal. It is aimed at building a lasting relationship with the individuals and communities who use and care about products. In this new environment, it is the conversation itself that truly matters, not the channels through which it unfolds.

For much of the last century, commercial marketers were guilty of channel-mania. They looked at the so-called "four p's" of marketing -- product, price, place and promotion -- and cut promotion into many slices: advertising; public relations; direct marketing; shopper marketing; above the line activities; below the line activities.

But now, there is no single "right" slice. There is only the question of how to make disciplines work together, harmoniously and effectively. When you remove those artificial divisions, you see the world in a whole new way. You recognize the value of a less agency-centric approach and a more audience-centric one, of practicing the same "discipline agnosticism" that our audiences do.

Social marketers have had a head start in this way of thinking, perhaps because they so often had to do more with less.

Second, behavioral economics has had a major impact on marketing. It has allowed a window into how people make decisions -- whether to buy a certain brand of shampoo, or schedule a cancer screening. Commercial marketers are thus spending more time studying the increasingly detailed maps of human behavior that have been developed by psychologists, neuroscientists, and social scientists.

Behavioral economics has, in a remarkably short time, provided a new intellectual framework for those of us in marketing and communications. It has fostered a "culture of investigation" into human behavior and decision-making. And it is a new lingua franca for anyone working on behavior change, facilitating communication across disciplines, specialties, and orientations.

Lastly, successful marketers have become content providers. We are all functioning under a new communications model, in which a unidirectional talking to people has given way to an omni-directional conversing with people, enabled and required by social media. In today's interpersonal marketing environment, marketers are less communicators than they are conversationalists. And the hallmark of a good conversationalist is the ability to provide engaging content.

To be sure, commercial marketers can draw more from social marketing. For example, they need to develop a stronger appreciation for the power of motivation and conversation -- engaging audiences on their own terms.

Likewise, social marketers will find it useful to behave more like commercial marketers by being more willing to take creative risks, further pushing the envelope of emotion and innovation. And they should examine more critically what it means for something to be evidence-based -- and whether too-strict an interpretation of that concept hampers innovation. An absence of data or literature should not be a reason to abandon a great idea.

I am not suggesting that we stop worrying about effectiveness. But we should not confuse it with measurement. It used to be said that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. That's nonsense.

So often is the case that in life, as in marketing, people become closed off to new ideas. Typically, Mark Twain was spot on when he opined on the topic.

"Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned," he said.

To capitalize on the changing landscape of communications we do have to put aside some of the learning -- the orthodoxies and the conventions -- which trammels us and can prevent a "bias to action." It is this bias to action that ultimately serves a cause as well as it would do a company.

Young is the CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. This was adapted from a speech he gave at an international conference on social marketing.