16 September 2009

May I market to you, please?

By Rodney Lim

(Published in’Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

They stake out from rented booths in our malls and shopping spaces. Armed with brochures, product samples and a voracious sales grin, they descend upon weekend shoppers like wolves upon sheep.

They intercept you to sign you up for a free credit card, or a mobile plan, whatever. When you politely decline their offer, it only fuels their resolve. Irritated, you try to get away quick, and when you finally shake them off, you heave a sigh of relief … only to turn a corner and are pounced on by another zealous promoter with another deal you cannot refuse.

From reputable financial companies to children’s books to stupefying scams, these sorts of brazen in-your-face marketing seems to be everywhere these days.

Popular online marketing guru Seth Godin labels these dubious practices INTERRUPTION MARKETING to describe their strategy of deliberately interrupting customers to get attention.

Although they call themselves marketers, their methods place them on the far fringes of accepted marketing practice as they have more in common with the door-to-door sales rep of old. In a time gone by, they thrived because rabidly competitive markets justified their hard-sell, and people were more willing to give them attention.

These days, Interruption Marketing is merely annoying and counter-productive. It reeks of desperation and can lead to contempt for your brand.
To be fair, these folks are just doing their jobs, but the companies behind them need to understand that interrupting people to get their attention in the information age is a lost cause.

First, consider the kinds of media fragmentation and the amount of marketing messages hurled at us every day (about 3,000 per day by one count), and you would realize there is no way anyone can pay attention to all or even most of them. People only tune in to what is important to them. Going bigger and louder to get attention is useless because people who are simply too busy with far more important things will just shut it all out.

Second, when a simple Google search can link anyone to virtually anything, it becomes increasingly unnecessary to shove anything in anyone’s face. When customers can choose what they want, when and how they want it, they also expect to initiate and control interactions with marketers. Consequently, most attempts to sell them things they have no expressed interest in are just treated as spam.

In this regard, a closer look at many of the mainstream marketing practices that we are familiar with – the commercials that butt into our favourite TV shows, the random phone pitch in the middle of a work day, and the supermarket promoters working the aisles to win you over to Shampoo X when you want to buy Shampoo Y- will show that they are all based on the idea of interrupting people to gain attention.

Clearly, if all these are just manifestations of the Interruption Marketing Concept that we so abhor, then a paradigm shift is needed to engage with customers in a non-disruptive manner.

Godin proposes PERMISSION MARKETING concept. He postulates that because attention is a privilege, companies need to get consent from people before marketing to them.

On the Internet, for instance, marketers have learned that email campaigns are more effective if they are targeted at people who have checked the boxes for consent on online forms or brochures.
Hence, Permission Marketing is really about relationship-building where companies and their customers choose to enter into long-term and mutually beneficial relationships (Godin likens it to dating).

Instead of trying to market to them, marketers invite and empower customers to become partners in the creation of products of services they seek. It is a more efficient way of doing marketing as those who give consent are likely to come from the higher value and more loyal segments. As the stakes are raised for both parties, there is an increased need for respect, sincerity and learning about each other.

Permission Marketing is not without problems. For instance, is it alright to email someone to ask their consent to send them marketing messages?
Or asking Web-users to opt-out (as opposed to opt-in) by manually unchecking a bunch of boxes lest they be swamped with junk mail?
How about companies that use consent as a ploy to get the proverbial foot in the door, the ones that give away freebies in exchange for users’ email or phone contacts only to spam them to death later?

One could argue that these are not genuine permission seekers, but it does raise pertinent trust issues.

Permission Marketing is really what marketing should be – a trust-based, mutually-beneficial relationship where customers need marketers just as much as marketers need them.

Ultimately, marketing is not only about getting customers to pay attention. It is also about paying attention to customers. Think about it.

Rodney Lim is a lecturer with the School of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at rlim@swinburne.edu.my.