Towards a Marketing Model for Relationship Space

[April 4, 2012]

A major barrier to clear digital communication is the welter of cultural associations people make with the online world. Among other things, people see digital space as an entertainment medium, or a living encyclopedia or a means to create community through sharing data. 

Trouble is, none of these three scenarios leaves the door open for advertising. Sure, if you’re watching the latest episode of a broadcast network TV show online, you can more or less tolerate the appearance of a 15-second spot. After all, it’s what you’re programmed to associate with network programs.

Watch that same episode after several minutes of googling, tweeting or ‘booking, and something funny happens: you find the same 15-second spot intolerable, because you’re not in the right mindset. That’s because advertising (or PR or “user engagement” or social media marketing) is inherently alien to the culture that’s grown up around digital space. In contrast to how we see TV or film, we tend to view digital space as an extension of the real world—wherever we happen to be at the moment.

If we’re at home, digital space feels like an addition to the living room. If we’re at work, it feels like an a-dimensional conference room. And when we travel, the mobile Web rolls with us. In this context, you can no more expect users to accept a jiggly banner online than you could expect them to accept a jiggly banner that pops out of their kitchen counters.

Unlike TV, which is objective, finite and inherently commercial, digital space is subjective, unbounded andpersonal.

Ironically, many of the tactics we’ve used so far to push our wares online have contributed to the problem. Tell consumers to open “My Account” or occupy “MySpace” or invite “My Friends” and you can hardly be surprised if they eventually respond to your ads with a resounding chorus of “Get off my lawn!”

Selling a relationship and…
What’s missing is a marketing model that can operate effectively within the deeply personal experience your customers have online. Because digital space isn’t a selling space. It’s a relationship space. And, sad to say, there’s no quick fix or regimen of design tweaks that can solve this problem. If you’re going to influence behavior, you need to do more than mimic the look and functionality of a social networking site. You need a marketing model based on establishing and maintaining a relationship with your customer.

Now, a natural fallout from this approach is that it needs to be nurtured in a branded space capable of creating excitement and sustaining interest over time. And, let’s be clear, the sustainability of your approach is critical to its success. It’s the classic trade-off between a real relationship and a chance encounter that happens to be mutually beneficial.

Why bother? Why not create a Facebook page for your brand? Here’s why not: Though the notion of “going where they are” is seductive, the average branded Facebook page succeeds only in promoting Facebook itself.

To see what I mean, compare the Facebook pages for Kia and Momma Mia! Cover up the timeline / marquee area and ask yourself if the proliferation of white boxes on pale blue backgrounds, punctuated by a random photos and user-generated content, actually constitutes a branded experience. 

With the logos covered, how can you tell a Kia-owner’s post about driving to a performance of Momma Mia from a Momma Mia-lover’s post describing her conversation about that same performance, while driving home in her Kia?

…spelling out your value.
As I see it, the solution to these problems starts with the realization that reaching people online means connecting person-to-person. You have to put yourself in the highly unusual position of actually caring about the people you want to reach. 

Stop for a moment and think about how transformative that is. Would you send anyone you actually cared about a sanitized laundry list of “tips”? Would you ask them to “help us serve you better by completing a brief survey?” Would you start each phone call with “Welcome to my communication device”?

No, marketing in relationship space is a completely different phenomenon. Instead of making elaborate claims, you must spell out your message through the value your Web presence delivers year round. The challenge here is to get beyond tissue-paper-thin pseudo journalism and offer your audience content they can’t find on YouTube, PopUrls, Mashable—or USA Today.

“Hey, we’re not a publishing company,” I hear an exasperated voice out on the horizon say, “we sell tires.” Fine. Set up an e-commerce site; no one will judge you. But if your brand promise promises something more than this month’s discounts, know that your investment in digital marketing will be wasted unless its geared from the start to build a one-on-one relationship with real people in as close to real time as your budget and imagination allow.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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