The notion (and practice) of community driven consumer activity is, as with so many other things, cyclical.
For years, people lived in small microsocietal enclaves, relying on one another for word-of-mouth news and shopping recommendations, and sharing health and nutrition tips as they were discovered. Local gossip spread locally, and all was well in the Middle Ages.
As the world expanded, so did communities, becoming less microsocial, and more macrosocial. Urbanization supported mass technological, scientific, and industrial evolution, but at the cost – arguably – of social health. Social dynamics experienced a metamorphosis, from one reliant on group dynamics, to more individualized and self-centered ones.
In the latter 20th and very early 21st centuries, this self-centered societal infrastructure reached its zenith and, in keeping with the aforementioned cyclical nature of things, began to reverse its arc, affected by both internal and external influences.
Recently, driven both by personal impulses and available tools, platforms, and supporting business-models, individuals have begun practicing an exponential degree of community-thinking and action. No longer do all people rely so heavily on corporations for their information, news, and activity choices – preferring instead to rely on their peers for suggestions, and themselves for determinations. We have cycled back, as a society, to an almost medieval microsocietal infrastructure of consumerism, wherein we form smaller enclaves, or networks, and assign to those networks values, depending on the context thereof. What used to be the medieval “guild” is now our professional network; the erstwhile “pub” or “inn” or street corner now manifest as our social network; and a slew of other networks have risen up to mirror, to one degree or another, the sewing circles/ curanderos/ mother’s groups/ secret societies, et al.
No longer can large corporations confidently “push” their products or services into a population, en masse. The population has become too diversified. While it may not yet be firmly evident, I believe that the world has become less homogeneous, as individuals seek out smaller communities to match their interests and skills, and become empowered to act as participants in the establishment of market trends, rather than followers. It has been a long time since Main Street Michael was invited to share his opinion about a major brand. Average Joe is beginning to get the hang of letting companies know what he thinks via Twitter and other feedback channels, and these companies are responding! Plain Jane loves the idea that she can be discussing her love (or hatred) of a particular product on her blog one day, and have the creators or distributors of that same product invite her to speak to their product development team the next day.
We are currently experiencing a “shakeout” period, wherein marketers are evaluating, through experimentation, to what degree it is advisable to bow before the consumer and listen more than talk. It is clear, however, that “brainwash” product marketing can only manifest itself if the target consumer is willing to brainwash him/herself in the face of a supremely well-positioned enticement (see “iPad”). It will be the consumer network that drives adoption, not the seller. The local guild will share their preferred mobile business apps, and your friends on FB will parse the news for you. Expertise will percolate by mass vote on Quora, Founders Space, and elsewhere, and – in the short period we are currently entering, when the advertiser has not yet fully determined how to manipulate the landscape to their advantage – we will enjoy a dynamic and somewhat tumultuous period of social behavior not unlike the marketplaces of hundreds of years ago, when we developed a stronger sense of what we wanted and needed BEFORE we went to the market; and yet relied upon our fellow citizens to recommend the best vendors, and turned to the recognized experts for additional guidance.
Communities are helping to clarify the value of marketing as more than just a product pushing mechanism for increasing sales figures. Marketing should never have been relegated to the status of “sales support”, “collateral creation”, and “Press Release spewing” that it was in so many companies. Identifying the nature and need of the customer, and connecting it with impact to the identity and value of your offering is far more than just sales, advertising, PR, or branding. It is these things and a panoply of intangibles, sprinkled with a big handful of common sense, and served upon a bed of freshly grown business acumen. It’s no longer about making sure that the customer gets it, but rather reaching that moment when the customer understands that YOU get it. Enlightened marketing today must engage and activate specialist communities to become evangelists for your offering. Today’s customer is too busy sharing their views to adopt something about which they have not had the opportunity to establish an opinion. I want to believe that most companies and marketing agencies will embrace the notion of sharing the responsibility of developing awareness with their target customers, but I’m afraid – in time – some agencies will find a way to manipulate customers one again, and where companies used to tell people what to buy, unscrupulous brands will find ways to tell people what to think, and the cycle will continue, moving in and out of moments of rightness, as the poet Wallace Stevens once put it.
For now, we should revel in the short period surrounding us, when marketing is able to exercise its full range of capabilities, respectfully connecting the offering to the market in a manner that reveals a relationship between brand and consumer more fruitful than has been evident for a long time.