Cultural Sanctimony: Can the Digital World Overcome its Arrogance?
People who grow up in insular cultures are often more certain than those with wider experience. When I first arrived in Eastern Europe, I was eager to learn about the culture and was intrigued by the novelty of difference. I was very happy to discover that I didn’t have to look far to find people who were eager to instruct me. However, I soon realized that sometimes the locals were wildly off the mark when it came to analyzing their own culture because so few had experienced any other.
My Crash Course in Cultural Preferences
In the post-Soviet bloc in the ‘90s, one would only have to step off of the plane to notice that these countries lacked much of what is common in western markets. My new friends would patiently explain to me that the differences weren’t due to a lack of development, but to cultural preference: For instance:
Hypermarkets: In the early days of the reconstruction period, there were no decent places to shop. My cultural guides explained to me that there wasn’t much potential for western style hypermarkets because people preferred their local store (which regularly offered such delicacies as rancid meat and dairy products well past the due date.)
Within a few years, big stores like Geant, Auchan and Carrefour appeared and were an immediate success. The nasty old ladies in the stores, who seemingly had no one left to be rude to, took to yelling in the streets instead of at their customers (who were now conspicuously absent).
Take-out coffee: Once, when I was traveling in the United States with my girlfriend, we stopped at a Starbucks. After buying the coffee, I started towards the door. She exclaimed “where are you going?” and gave me the look that she usually reserved for when I committed some domestic felony such as leaving the toilet seat up. For her, a cultured person didn’t drink coffee while walking down the street.
Of course, in a few years, Starbucks imitators became common place in Eastern Europe. Before long, no self-respecting yuppie would be seen walking down the street without carrying an expensive cup of coffee.
Eastern Europe has long since grown up and become one of the most dynamic and sophisticated regions on the planet. Unfortunately, it seems that the Digital World still has some integration to do with the rest of humanity.
Digital Cultural Chauvinism
In the Digital World, there are sacred myths pervasive through the culture similar to what I found after the Berlin Wall fell. Moreover, these fictions are often self-reinforced within the Digital community. Two of these are:
ROI: Digital Media people are certain that they are superior to traditional media people because they can deliver ROI metrics. However, this is mostly a result of Digital positioning itself as a direct response medium. As the popularity of Social Media is beginning to show, there are other considerations that defy measurement.
In actuality, marketers aren’t really all that concerned with ROI metrics by medium, but with their own ROI metrics (which they usually do not share with media). For example, auto companies don’t expect to earn money in a launch year, but over the model life (usually 3-5 years). Many campaigns aren’t even focused on sales. (See What Do Advertisers Want?)
In actuality, client’s use metrics for negotiation and arbitrage more than for media choice.
Old Media is Irrelevant: According to ZenithOptimedia, in 2008 “Old Media” made up 90% of total advertising spend worldwide. That seems quite relevant to me. Admittedly, Digital Media is gaining ground quickly and that number is predicted to drop to 85% by 2011, but for the foreseeable future ad budgets will be dominated by incumbents.
Moreover, online performance can be greatly enhanced by offline activity. Any web site that has done a co-promotion with a TV station knows this. Amazingly, when Digital marketing agencies see a spike in CTR’s, they immediately attribute it to some optimization they did and rarely look at offline activity.
As someone who has spent time on both sides, I am frequently frustrated by many Digital people’s dismissive attitude towards anything that existed before 1995. Before one seeks to “break all the rules,” one should first consider the possibility that there are often good reasons for rules to get adopted in the first place. Some of these reasons are still valid even in a wired world.
Erik Qualman – Boeing is a Poster Child for Old Media
An excellent example is the recent post by Erik Qualman on his blog, socialnomics. For those of you who don’t know Qualman, most likely you soon will. He is an up and coming Social Media guru and his new book, “socialnomics,” is sure to be a hit.
Qualman, an MBA, is intelligent, charismatic, well spoken and seems to have excellent personal hygiene (always helpful in the corporate world). His writing is insightful and informative and he has almost 20,000 followers on twitter. He has a lot to say, says it well and has obviously found an audience (including me).
He recently took Boeing to task for a TV brand image campaign that he didn’t like. He (probably accurately) pointed out that the campaign would do little to sell planes and dismissively declared that “old school marketing tactics just will not cut it anymore.”
He then proceeded to explain to the poor, misguided folks at Boeing how they should run their business. He was even gracious enough to offer them advice for “Free.” (Presumably, after reading Chris Anderson’s new book.)
Are Digital Gurus Psychic as well as Smart?
Now, I personally have no idea whether the campaign was good or bad because I don’t know what the brief was. I do, however, believe that Qualman’s premise that they were trying to sell planes is specious at best. Maybe they were targeting investors, potential employees or even potential jury members; or maybe something else. I have no idea what the campaign goals were so I have no basis to judge whether it was successful or not.
Qualman, however, believes that he knows what the goals were and just assumed that Boeing was acting foolishly and irresponsibly. That’s unfortunate and all too common.
Digital people often posit that something which doesn’t make sense to them doesn’t make sense at all. Rather than turn the observation into a learning experience for himself, Qualman seeks to preach to those “old marketing types” that their day has come and gone. For, he seems to believe, there is nothing valuable that he doesn’t already know, no insight which he is not already privy to, no wisdom he does not already possess.
As I mentioned above, Qualman seems quite intelligent and is usually an extremely good spokesman for Social Media and Digital Media in general. If he had any experience in general brand management or offline communications, he probably wouldn’t write such a half baked post. Yet, he is and probably will always remain a Social Media expert and will continue to see everything else through the prism of that tribe.
I May Not be a Guru, but…
Since this is a digital blog, I guess I can also offer some free, unsolicited advice (because I’m such a nice guy):
With 10% market share, a good market strategy would be to focus on the other 90%. Telling potential clients that they “don’t cut it,” is probably not a good way to go about that. Erik Qualman says that marketers should be more like Dale Carnegie and less like David Ogilvy, and he’s right, but shouldn’t that go for Digital people as well?
With all the possibility that the new, Digital World presents and all the money that there is to be made, a more serious approach is required. Digital people need to deny themselves the moral candy of arrogance, though sweet it may be.
Full Disclosure: I do plan to buy Qualman’s new book and actually read it as well.