Thursday, December 6, 2007

Step forward the Geek Marketer

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

The Geek Marketer will inherit the earth – or at least the marketing department.  A new breed of marketer is bringing together a marketing background with a hard-core interest in technology and social anthropology – a cross-disciplinary hybrid that’s able to span the traditional divide between digital and marketing.  

Steve Rubel, who first identified this new strain of marketers, writes in his blog that dozens of Fortune 500 companies are appointing geek marketers to take control of an increasingly complex, digital world.  They’re recognising, he says, that as technology transforms business, these people have a key role to play.

The rise of digital media has raised enormous challenges for organisations, as demands are placed which cross functions and skill sets within them.  Marketing has borne the brunt of this, as for many businesses digital has opened up a direct communication channel with their consumers.

As this evolved, marketers have been faced with more data, and more ways of using that data.  From cookies to behavioural targeting, from RSS feeds to dynamic keyword insertion, technology has rapidly brought massive and increasing complexity to their roles, and companies that have been able to master this have created competitive advantages for their businesses – leaving others behind.

But whilst businesses have wrestled with the fusing of technology and marketing, digital has brought other skills together as well.

Increasingly, the traditional role of the media agency is changing.  Media agencies are organisations who use consumer insight to fill holes in other people’s media.  They use relatively shallow levels of consumer understanding to determine where they should place the messages they’ve been given, but have no influence on what should be said.

But in digital, the lines between creative, content and media have become blurred.  Consumer insight no longer is the sole responsibility of the agency coming up with the TV ad – instead it’s coming from those who understand how an audience relates to its media.  And executing on these insights is no longer a straightforward process either.  

Now, ideas cross between the creation of content – be it advertorial, widgets or social networking programmes – ‘traditional’ creative ideas involving advertising, and media ideas.

When the Talk to Frank drugs advice programme wanted to extend their reach using the internet, they did it not by running advertising to drive teenagers to a website, but by working with MSN to create a bot - a computer program that’s capable of responding to questions in everyday language posed about drugs.  They knew that over 50% of teens used instant messenger every day – it is their ‘natural’ environment – and within 12 weeks over 250,000 teens had added the FrankBot to their buddy list, having over a million conversations with it, and asking over 20m questions.

This isn’t a media idea, and neither is it a creative idea.  It’s a hybrid of both, with technology added in.  It would be relatively easy to discover that teenagers have very high usage of instant messenger.  But a normal media/advertising response to this would have been to place advertising into this environment – filling the holes in someone else’s media.

Instead, the creators of this programme reflected the way their audience used this medium.  They embedded themselves in their consumers’ usage of IM, making themselves a part of that consumption pattern, and the result was a 17x increase in the number of conversations they had with teenagers.

So the ability to fuse the disciplines of technology, marketing, media and creative is a potent driver of effective communication – but it can only be delivered by people who have an understanding of the digital habitat and of the ways and norms of the people who live there.  

Whether you call this marketing, advertising, media or technology, this hybrid approach is increasingly important as businesses seek to engage with customers in the digital age.  And as this happens, step forward the geek marketer.