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Disrupting the Disruptors: the Flight from Communities

15th June 2015

Nick Masters Discusses the Need to Create New Marketing Approaches Based on a Shift in the Way Clients Search for, Accept and Consume Information

Professional Services Marketing Handbook (9780749473464) The following is an excerpt from the Professional Services Marketing Handbook

Why Marketing Isn’t Working
If the definition of madness is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results, many marketers must be starting to question their sanity, as their tried and trusted methods begin failing to deliver familiar outcomes. After years of steady growth, e-mail marketing response has fallen off a cliff, search advertising spend is rising without comparative increases in leads, traditional PR impact is waning and core website traffic is softening. Even mobile apps – where they exist – are demanding ever-greater levels of nurturing and refinement just to stand still.

Given that the bulk of ‘digital’ marketers work in organizations still rooted in a legacy analogue world, this is doubly disturbing: first, because their reporting is clearly going to show up these changing trends over time; and secondly, because having just won around challenging stakeholders to a new way of thinking and acting, the sands have shifted again, and a new set of ideas have to be argued through and stakeholder support sought. This time around, however, the stakes are somewhat higher. The changes that digital technologies are now infusing into the business landscape are far more fundamental and deep-rooted than previously, and therefore require a much greater level of understanding and subsequent reaction by businesses.

To stand a realistic chance of adapting to meet these challenges, companies have to make a break with the past. However, the gap between a problem and its solution is nearly always further than it seems, because in the words of the old joke, ‘if you want to get there, I wouldn’t’ start here’.

Through design, apathy or happenstance, most organizations look at the world from the inside out. While essential to the success of the business, customers are viewed as external to it, and therefore to be accommodated rather than integral to its processes. And this is where the problem starts in an interconnected world….

Disrupting the Disruptors: The Flight from Communities

Quite simply, our personal adoption of disruptive technologies is, perversely, disrupting a function (marketing) that has always prided itself on being disruptive. For a long time now, marketers have been ‘warming up leads’, ‘creating communities’, and ‘executing engagement strategies’. Many of these activities, though, are no longer credible because the exchange of information between individuals within any specific personal network (cohort) is regarded as more trustworthy or actionable. If one person is recommended to do something by somebody else in their network (even if it’s just to read a particular article), it’s more likely that it will happen than if compelled to do so by a random e-mail.

It might be convenient for a large organization to ascribe attributes to their clients and targets and call these ‘communities’, but in an age where we are all bombarded with information, unless what we are sending out is clearly actionable and of immediate interest to the recipient, it will be rejected and ignored. Aggregating content into products, based on such broad assumptions, is increasingly difficult to justify in a world where information flows so freely.

In the wider social context, this is not a new phenomenon. In his paper first published in German in 1887, ‘Community and society’, sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (Tönnies, 2003) identified the shift from smaller communities, which were regarded as definable unitary entities, to a more urban society comprised of fragmented networks of association, or cohorts. Crucially, such associations differed through being made from personal choice rather than external ascription, strengthening an individual’s trust in their specific cohorts rather than the arbitrary groups (communities) to which it was assumed they belonged.

This is where it all gets interesting. Businesses require structure and organization to operate efficiently, but also to measure and manage that efficiency. As such, it makes sense for areas of knowledge and expertise to be grouped together internally, and similarly it makes sense to rationalize the marketplace into discrete areas that can be targeted through marketing, business development and sales activity.

However, there is an increasing mismatch between the structured groups used to target individuals and their view of how they wish to find, accept and consume that information. As information becomes an increasingly key commodity in business decision-making, it is imperative that we all understand the nature of this change and operationally adapt to its processes to meet the needs of a world where information is more readily distributed through cohorts rather than to communities: where communities are defined as structured and defined groups where predominant communication originates one-way from centre to constituents (one to many); and cohorts are unstructured groups, which are self-replicating, and where responsibility for information dissemination shifts to the individuals (many to many).

So how do we begin to move towards ‘cohort marketing’? The good news is that a crucial element of it is relatively straightforward – just start creating and distributing useful and relevant content. However, to achieve this aim we have to start to think of information as a utility rather than a support mechanism.

In this model:

  • Access to information online means that clients and users can be less loyal. They are guided by who best answers their information needs. Furthermore, they are more likely to trust information recommended within their networks.
  • No organization can guarantee to get its messages in front of a desired or targeted audience anymore, as users decide on their own sources.
  • Google will be a major factor in deciding the reach and therefore the success of your activities. With various studies showing that Google is used for the vast majority of business search traffic and most business decisions are partially researched online, its dominance in the B2B search market is almost total.

About the Author: Nick Masters, Head of Online at PwC, has been involved in online communications since building his first site in 1995. He was a founder of a start-up venture during the dot-com boom in 1998, but has spent the past decade at PwC, where he is currently global head of online.

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