Notes on Community College & The Promise of New Media

So I’m on a bit of a suicide mission until Christmas.  You see, I made a rather tall commitment to my bosses at the company I work for recently.  In short, I feel it’s time to put aside traditional advertising strategies that have been used for years in favor of jumping into the internet as a primary marketing venue.  For this to be possible I have made the decision to temporarily sacrifice the majority of my personal life and free up the time it will take to go back to school.  I do this not because I feel myself to be particularly learned or in need of yet more collegiate indoctrination, but rather because it is the only way I can acquire a totally new skill set (specifically IT and commercial web development) to compliment my existing graphic design abilities.  To understand the reasons behind this commitment and why it feels a bit like I’ve put myself on the short end of a scary rope, I need to fill you in on a little background.  Ahem.


I believe that the future of advertising and marketing lies with the web – for everyone, without exceptions.  This sentiment is hardly new, nor is it unique to my own perspective.  In fact, since 1994 or so we’ve all been reading ad nauseum about a future where ‘old media’ will be tossed aside in favor of a delightfully interconnected world inhabited by global citizens who share the power of their collective consciousness and intelligence through the internet.  Old divisions will crumble, new possibilities for research and personal empowerment will abound, everyone in the world will invariably be made rich and happy with nothing more than the power of their ideas, etc., etc., etc.  It’s a familiar vision – with just one small catch.


It’s actually happening, right now.  No, really – it is, and it’s wonderful!  The only problem for folks like myself is that despite all the useful and empowering realities being created by the new internet, it also marks the death knell for traditional marketers who’ve created a livelihood by monetizing and commercializing mass media.


At this very moment, producers of traditional print media are in a state of panic because consumption of the printed page has been steadily declining for the past several years with no end in sight.  People still watch television, but they do it on their own terms thanks to products like TiVo and DVR services offered by local cable companies.  The radio is still a popular companion as we drive to and from work each day, but increasingly we decide to refine it through paid content services like satellite – or on demand though the podcast phenomenon – all with little or no commercial interruption.


All of this has implications that threaten established business models ranging across nearly every industry.  In my case as well as that of many others, it threatens our very way of life. You see, people don’t like advertising.  In the old days the enormous cost of producing quality content was subsidized almost entirely though paid sponsorship from commercial advertisers.  We could only watch our favorite television show if we were willing to sit though a certain number of cheesy sales pitches.  We could only listen to the latest pop sensation by also listening to the latest incentive to buy a new car, or junk food product, or weight loss pill.


Advertisers footed the bill for quality content (admittedly a relative term) produced by publishers, broadcasters and media networks while everyone else who consumed that content seemed happy with the arrangement so long as they felt they were getting something of value without having to actually pay for it.  These days, a few key technological changes have made it easy to enjoy that same content without having to deal with the commercial interruption which traditionally covered the cost of paying for its development.


For the next few years, we can expect to hear an increasingly shrill cry from marketers (and the people who pay them to sell their products) declaring the imminent death of quality content at the hands of unruly consumers who are no longer willing to justify the existence of their costly advertising.  As a marketer myself, I would be lying if I claimed to feel no sense of discomfort at the realization that much of my work has basically become ineffective in the new media environment.


In business, decisions are made based on anticipated return on investment.  Smart decisions bring in added value at reduced cost while poor decisions erode value and increase cost. If something isn’t working, it should be gotten rid of before it’s value-sucking nature sinks the ship.  Resources are not unlimited, and expensive media buys and advertising campaigns cannot be maintained if they don’t do what they are supposed to do – which is to increase brand awareness and propel target customers into making a favorable buying decision. There is nothing more uncomfortable than trying to explain to one’s client or employer why you are advising them to spend more and more precious marketing dollars every year on tactics and materials that are simultaneously becoming less and less effective.


So here we arrive at the reason for my recent unsettling promise to my own employer.  In keeping with this observation on the state of commercial marketing and it’s relationship to media consumption, I have staked my reputation and my continued justification for employment on the notion that old practices no longer work and it is time to move on to a strategy that does.  Specifically, I have advised moving the primary focus away from traditional media in favor of the internet.


What does that mean? Put simply, the time has come to stop buying the right to insert brief commercial messages into other people’s media content.  Marketers of the future will have to produce their own content, and it will need to be of a kind that target customers actually want to consume. Because most people have never cared for commercial messages and content, it will also be necessary to create good content with no immediately obvious marketing value.  This may be a tough pill for some to swallow, but attitudes must change if we are to connect with the new realities of our marketplace.  The past is over.  It’s time to move on.


If we as marketers are to survive (and if our clients and employers are to continue to benefit from our work) we must find new ways to connect with the consumer.  This will not be achieved by creating more of the same tired old advertising that has become so useless in the present media context, nor will it be achieved by finding new ways to trap consumers with commercial interruptions before being permitted to reach their desired content.  If we are to live in a brave new world of instant online media where it is no longer necessary deal with artificially interjected commercial content, we must ourselves be brave in the face of this change, and willingly bend to the new facts of the game.


Here’s an idea you may not have considered.  The skill set that is used by creative people to produce quality media is the same skill set that is used to create engaging advertising.  This suggests a natural compromise.  If you can’t beat ‘em, it’s time to join ‘em.  We as marketers must now create quality content that is (gasp!) noncommercial in nature.  That’s because, as I wrote earlier, consumers hate commercial advertisements.  Our task will not be to create clever commercial media that looks like the real thing.  Instead we must actually create quality media designed to legitimately inform and entertain… and we can’t imbue it with the typical commercial message as we would like to.


Content will drive consumers to investigate it’s source on their own.  Whether that source be the company that created it, or the site on which it is hosted, the consumer will be the one in the driving seat when it comes to determining the level to which they are exposed to our commercial message.  If we try to foist it on them through bullying or clever tricks they will not only notice, but be surprised and irritated.  The consequence of that is lost business and a degraded public image.


This fact is what has driven me to the ‘suicide mission’ I mentioned earlier.  I have committed to a full slate of web programming courses for the fall semester at MATC, the local community technical college, and I can’t leave until I know how to create and deliver the kind of content that customers want.


I’ve been designing commercial content for years, but now my task is to also become an expert at delivering new media in precisely the way that today’s consumers expect it.  That means learning how to be a developer in addition to being a designer.


It used to be that developers and designers were kept in separate corners of the creative process.  My experience has led me to the inescapable conclusion that this kind of relationship is no longer tenable, just as the old media standards of advertising are no longer tenable.  For my own part, I feel that to be useful and worthy of my daily bread, I must endeavor to become not just a content creator, but rather a content engineer.


So suffice it to say I will be burning the midnight oil for the next few months.  Somehow I will have to balance my work as an in house marketing manager, the needs of the clients whom I serve as a private consultant, and the demands of putting in the time and effort required to master new media and dynamically driven content.


I would encourage those of you who are just getting started in marketing or design to think carefully about your own plans for interacting with the inevitable media shift.  Like it or not, it will be affecting you as you continue your education and your career.  Better to get on the bus now than find it passing you by later on.