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Is digital marketing getting predictable?


What’s happening in digital marketing these days? Not much, so it seems.

This past week I attended, albeit briefly, the TFM&A show in London. I normally love trade shows – the glitz, the glamour, the schwag - the buzz always gets me really inspired. This time it was all a bit different though. Maybe I’ve been getting used to the B2C arena in the last 1.5 years and become somewhat removed from the furore that is a B2B marketing tradeshow, but overall there was a strong theme I couldn’t shake – it’s all the same.

Turning down one aisle to another, every vendor’s booth might as well have been touting the same snake oil remedies to your problems. Unfortunately the snake oil was just a permutation or mutation on the basics: email marketing, SEO, CRM, viral marketing or the best/most potent of all – social media. The queue for the social media keynote alone was an unbelievable 4 wide, wrapping around booths and across aisles for at least 300 feet. Of course this is representative of the fact that social media has become an important tool in the marketer’s toolbox, and more importantly that our industry is booming, but is that it? For what it’s worth, I thought the exact same thing at the DMA show in Las Vegas in late 2008, and it seems to be a recurring theme or question of mine –what’s the next big thing in digital marketing and where’s it going? Why are the booths all touting the same old thing, or just a variation of it? Social media is our most recent revelation, but it’s a testament to how much like a fat kid on a smartie our industry has become. Are we so starved for newness that social media is the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning?

We all know that marketing is all about getting to your target audience, and in the last 5 years it has become paramount to display the relevant messaging to your audience for the best yield. Digital marketing represents a medium that is extremely cost-effective, thanks in no small part to the internet revolution and how ubiquitous it is across all demographics and markets. As the web matures, behaviours mature, and products need to match those behaviours. In that respect, a part of marketing has always been inherently underhanded – we aggressively seek out and exploit new areas that show any sign of being lucrative. First it was the web in general (1.0), then it was communication channels like email, RSS, and now it’s all social (2.0). From a wider perspective, it just seems that marketing will always be moving 5 steps behind the general population, and playing catch-up to ‘fish where the fish are’.

It’s worth mentioning that not for one second am I inferring that I know any better than those many (clearly successful) service providers; nor do I know that the next big thing in digital marketing is X, Y or Z. I’m just saying that at this rate, digital marketing (and I’m not even touching traditional marketing here) is getting, for lack of a better word, predictable. As marketers, we have a basic set of tools, applications, systems and processes that we need to do our jobs effectively – a CRM for contact storage, an email platform for communicating, PPC for quality traffic, a web team for site optimization, and so on. But more and more I see these as assumed infrastructure rather than golden fleeces, and although vendors will always improve their offerings, they’ll always be offering effectively the same thing.

This post is sounding like I’m becoming jaded more than anything else, but I can’t help saying it: I can’t wait for a new paradigm - a fresh new way of approaching marketing (and our audiences) that stops us from being lemmings and instead lets us be part of the creation of products that promote themselves by addressing specific, real needs in a market. Until then, we seem destined to go buy the latest fishing rod by going to these ‘cutting edge, industry-leading’ tradeshows and getting swarmed by a sales crew who tout their ‘unique’ solution as the Holy Grail. Call me (very) sarcastic, but when one interested attendee actually asked a vendor ‘OK, so what are your USP’s’ I almost snorted. In the context of the show as a whole, I think I could have answered for him, although I don’t think my answer would have closed the deal.