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Agile Marketing Series: At The Corner of Main and Maple

Marketing: An Anecdotal History

Let’s visit a fictional marketing past and try to make anecdotal sense out of how we went from shopping at the general store on Main Street to “friending” multi-national corporations on Facebook.

Miller’s General Store, At The Corner of Main and Maple
Zoom in on a storefront sitting in the sun just where Main Street ends, tucked between Tasty’s Cafe and Bunyon’s Shoes in the middle of Anytown. The sign over the front door: Miller’s General Store.

Everybody loved Mr. Miller.

With his clean shirt tucked behind his green canvas apron, Mr. Miller sells everything from avocado seeds to zip ties. We knew him when we were kids, and, though he’d lost a step over the years by golly, old man Miller still kept a pen and scrap of paper at the ready for anything our hearts desired.

Consumers had a one-to-one relationship with his business. It was part of the community. The next time you came to store (slingshot in your back pocket, no doubt) Mr. Miller would reach behind the counter and present, as though magic, the thing you had requested the time before.

And he had it on hand the next time, too.

“Probably due for a fresh batch of hairpins, turpentine and gauze pads?” he’d say. He knew us so well. He spent a lot of time and money per person marketing this small scale, too.

Tune in, turn on, watch advert.

Radio and television made it possible to speak to a mass audience, ushering in an age of advertising and marketing we’ll call the Mad Men years. It suddenly became feasible to sing a jingle to a “target” audience—namely, the people who could afford radios and televisions.

Businesses no longer had to understand individual customers. They could look at the world in terms of groups. “Don’t be the only house on your block without a Whirltag!”

With these mass targets came measures of how close marketing had come to hitting the mark: CPMs, share of viewership, demographics. The goal was to get the right message to the right people at the right time as efficiently as possible.

But which half of my advertising dollar is wasted?

The 1970s saw innovation in all this market data, using huge computer databases to measure and refine targeting. This was the dawn of direct marketing. Measure it. Test it. “Say you saw here!” Tweak it. Print report.

To the detriment of Madison Avenue admen selling the sizzle, these new direct marketing techniques could be empirically traced to direct sales. Which was great, if all you were measuring were raw, short-term sales of grilled-cheese grills and ab rockers.

But what about longer purchasing cycles? Repeat customers? Long-term effects for the brand?

You get a free sandwich after the tenth punch.

Next in marketing history came relationship marketing and, with it, a profound shift in thinking: Customers don’t buy products; they buy into products. They buy into brands. They buy an idea about themselves, and they are willing to pay a premium to have it reflected upon them.

If only Mr. Miller knew how much we cared about such things!

Relationship marketing forced marketers to think beyond market share to create brands consumers wanted as part of their lives. How else can we explain the explosion of member programs, clubs, frequent visitor cards, secret sales, reward gifts, and all the rest.

Let’s work on this relationship.

Nevermind. Instead, let’s amass all the data in the world.
Marketers now know more than just consumer age, education level, and geographic area. Marketing knows what people like, what they looked at online, what they ordered, what they returned, what they sent as a gift, what they Tweeted, posted, linked to, and all that unbelievable amount of web and mobile detail.

But beyond digital data, marketers also have to consider CRM data, retail sales data, overall economic data, employee performance data, stock performance data, the data that tells you how well you’re collecting data, and data about how much of that data is worthwhile data.

Marketers have three choices:

  • Ignore the data and perish
  • Consider only some of it and get lucky
  • Embrace it all (and probably realize it’s not going to hurt you) and thrive.

Embracing agile means you don’t have to know it all.

In fact, agile marketing means you have to know less. It means taking small steps and not being afraid to fail. It also necessitates the requirement to enforce the practice of never failing the same way twice.

Agile marketing comes from what businesses have learned by building software over the last 20 years: Give the world something that works as fast as possible, and be able to modify, evolve, improve and grow—ultimately striving to delight customers in a one-to-one way similar to Mr. Miller at his general store.

The big idea isn’t over, but marketers no longer have to pull it out of a hat.

Instead, out of millions of small ideas, the big idea emerges.

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