How pre-digital era marketers shifted their customer relationship approach in the digital age

In the beginning was the newspaper and marketing was about one-way communication. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, classified ads, often covering the entire front page of a newspaper, were arranged by product category. This offered a simplified, pre-Google approach to search for their readers. Targeting was by profiling the readers of a particular journal. It was assumed that British readers of The Times in London, for example, were an altogether different bunch from those that read the Manchester Guardian.

In the twentieth century, mass communications were focused on broadcast media, initially radio and after WWII on television. The attraction of adding spoken words, moving images, music and later colour to the marketing mix was too strong for marketers to resist. Although the advertising industry claimed to be highly proficient at targeting and created their own scientific discipline out of it, they really weren’t. They had little idea of who was watching what and if any of it was really motivating viewers to buy things. Marketers spent millions of dollars on ever more complex market research projects, trying to determine what worked and what didn’t. However, the answer to that perennial question remained as shrouded in mystery as discovering how socks disappeared from washing machines.

In the 1990s, in the early years of the internet, a whole new discipline opened up – digital marketing. The first clickable banners appeared linking marketers directly to their customers. With the addition of the first e-commerce transactions in the mid-nineties the digital dream seemed unstoppable. A marketer could run an ad, generate a measurable response, identify from whom, and potentially even make a sale. The loop was closed.

With the arrival of MSN, Yahoo web-search and Google at the end of the nineties, a new era began and data was the new currency. All those huge, global research projects where psychologists and analysts had spent months poring over stacks of field research on soap powder usage in the Home Counties were a thing of the past. In the blink of an eye, the boardroom in Atlanta was directly connected to the supermarket in Belgrade and everyone was suddenly a marketing expert.

At around the same time, Ford famously rolled out the latest version of its unfortunately named and best-selling Escort model, after one of their biggest ever consumer research projects. The US car giant had asked almost every vehicle owner in Europe to identify the best bits of their current car. Ford took all the data, fed it into some whizz-bang software and created a monster by combining all those favourite bits into one new vehicle. It was a huge flop. Google is great at doing many things, but new car design is best left to an Italian with a sharp pencil.

After the boom and bust of the dotcom crash, the early years of this century saw a new platform develop for digital marketing, the mobile phone. Omnipresent, ever smarter and initially ever smaller, phones combined communication with information and entertainment, inside the pocket of your jeans. This offered marketers a number of new tricks, including highly personalised messaging and the geo-targeting of ads. Surprisingly some of those developments have not taken off as fast as might be expected. The idea that you can walk past a supermarket and are served an interactive ad offering you some irresistible goodies and an instant redemption coupon was perhaps too good to be true.

With the advent of phones and the internet came another new phenomenon; instant consumer feedback. Marketers had to find new and innovative ways to pacify irate customers who’d just found a Band Aid in their yoghurt and wanted to share it with the world. But perhaps the biggest change of all came in the past ten years with the rapid advancement of social media. Social offered more than feedback. It was the beginning of two-way conversations between marketers and their customers. Suddenly pre-digital age industries that had hidden behind million dollar ads and market research reports had to enter discussions with, and quite literally answer to, the people it thought it knew – but fast realised it didn’t.

Once the initial shock had been overcome, the marketing industry realised it was sitting on its biggest opportunity ever. Instead of creating expensive content and telling people things they didn’t believe anyway, now all they needed to do was become intelligent curators. Social media users would generate their own content and share it with their peers. By stimulating the right discussions about their brands, then highlighting the good bits to a wider audience, marketers still had some element of control over how their brand was being perceived.

The increased transparency and speed of communications in the digital age has created many new threats to classic marketers and long-established brands. However this has been far outweighed by the advantages gained. The complexity of 24/7 multi-channel marketing continues to increase almost daily, and nobody has yet figured out how to manage the flood of data being generated intelligently, to create simple, actionable steps for big marketing organisations.

In the digital age, we are perhaps now where the mid-nineteenth century newspaper advertisers were over 150 years ago: getting your ad on the front page and in front of the right audience is still an important first step. There is still much work to be done.