Google and Facebook’s recent changes to user privacy policies will make it more efficient to find users, and then throw marketing at them that appears to come from other users. These are only the latest steps in the march to automate the entire marketing process or, as I see it, the rise of Zombie Marketing. We marketers should talk more about what’s causing it, and what it means going forward.
As for its causes, I think we’re even talking about technology because we’ve failed to make our case convincingly to our clients and employers. Remember when procurement was big news a few years ago? The number-crunchers had the audacity to presume they could analyze and judge our work better than we could. Now, the technologists are promising they can do our work for us or, once it’s driven by perfect data, in spite of us. The pitch is so powerful that it was credited as the driver of the biggest ad agency merger in history.
What do we offer in our own defense? We tell stories. We come up with creative ways to get people to spend time witnessing our creativity. While accountants manage our decisions and funding, and technology conceives and delivers our work, we hold onto the belief that we’re the only ones in the room who understand the spiritual dimensions of branding… even as it’s likely there’s another corporate department waiting in the wings to tell us how to tangibly realize it. My bet is on human resources, which arguably manages the people who drive social media interaction, and thus the levers for P2P communicating.
So, while we give one another awards, and make presentations of our successes riding the waves generated by procurement, technology, and other forces beyond our control, I worry that our profession and job responsibilities are diminished.
Now, as for what it means, I think the premise of Zombie Marketing is kinda scary. Commercial data-collection capabilities should make any NSA spook blush with envy, and I don’t think most consumers are consciously aware of how much is already known and then concluded about their behavior. The Zombie model strives to perfect this activity by making it unlikely that an online user can hide or obfuscate his or her real identity (the new Facebook policy), and then automatically tee-up recommendations on products or services to friends and family without users actually making them (Google’s GOOG +0.48% latest policy change).
I know, I know, I’m glossing over the fact that user substring identifiers aren’t cached at the ISP level, or whatever, and weavers complained when the first looms powered-up. But the bigger picture is that Zombie Marketing relies on tech to emulate the ways content used to be developed, and then matches it to online experience in a simulacra of conscious choice and active dialogue. There aren’t any people involved. Just zombies producing and sharing stuff that makes needles spike on computer dashboards.
What’s really interesting is that this development is positioned as a user benefit, and much of it is automatic unless consumers opt-out (and doing so isn’t obvious or always easy, and one could argue that even opt-outs create a class of users who have their own profile that might be useful). It presumes that consumers asked to be tracked, analyzed, and then have their experiences mediated by content chosen by algorithms running on supercomputers.
They didn’t, of course. They…we…just want commercial speech that doesn’t waste our time, or insult our intelligence. Marketers don’t need to read minds in order to deliver it, and no amount of data-driven matchmaking can take the place of creating information that’s truthful, meaningful, and reliable. Creativity is the mechanism for making that content accessible, understandable, and memorable.
Zombies can’t produce such content, only marketers can. We need to reaffirm not just our role in its creation, but its centrality to the future of marketing.
Marketing, and advertising in particular, has always adapted to changing environments, and that includes technology. Mass-distribution print, radio, and then television were transformative in so many ways — the formats of sponsored and then interrupted TV programming defined the how and whenof the commercial speech that appeared on it, for instance — but the ultimate power of marketing derived from its ability to identify and share what peopleneeded to know, not just mirror what they wanted to read, hear, or see. We marketers used to own and stand for that.
The rise of Zombie Marketing, like procurement before it, is the result of our abrogation of that authority. Both are imperfect replacements, since you can’t automate communications, any more than you can reduce it to numbers on a balance sheet. Until we figure out how to stand for something that is as objectively real to the executives around us, and useful to the consumers we serve, however, the technologies coming from companies like Google and Facebook will dictate marketing’s story.