What could be better than advertising?

by Doc Searls

The Economist asks, Will Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking sites transform advertising? Good question, but it's the wrong one.

The right question is, Can we equip customers to become independent of sellers and their controlling intentions — Including the unwanted crap that constitutes far too much of the world's advertising? For the good of both sellers and buyers?

This question came up for me when I saw the third paragraph of the Economist piece:

Messrs Lazarsfeld and Katz, of course, assumed that most of these conversations and their implicit marketing messages would remain inaudible. That firms might be able to eavesdrop on this chatter first became conceivable in the 1990s, with the rise of the internet. Thus the main thesis of "The Cluetrain Manifesto", written in 1999, was that "markets are conversations" which the web can make transparent.

I'm not only a co-author of , but guilty of being the guy who foisted the "markets are conversations" line on the world in the first place. For all the good intentions behind that line, it's still woefully misunderstood, and what the Economist says in that paragraph is no exception.

Because we weren't just talking about "transparency". We were talking about turning markets into places where buyers were not just seen by sellers as cattle to be herded into walled gardens, as "targets" for one-way messages, or as tools for other marketing purposes.

To me the most powerful line in Cluetrain came from Chris Locke who wrote,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

"Deal with it" doesn't mean "Make better advertising" or "Target your advertising more effectively" or "Turn your users into marketers" (which is Facebook's latest idea). All that is just just more grasp.

What we need is better reach by customers. Better advertising doesn't do that. We need something else entirely. Something that lives on the customer side. Something that makes customers and users more powerful, more independent, more valuable than just "consumers" (which calls "gullets with wallets and eyeballs").

The problem we still have is a conceptual default. We think, talk and design "solutions" that work entirely on the sell side. We have CRM (customer relationship management) systems that are less about helping real customers than about "managing" them. What we need is VRM (vendor relationship management), by which customers get to manage vendors as well. With CRM+VRM, both sides can truly relate on mutually beneficial terms.

Until CRM meets VRM and starts working out real relationships, we'll keep thinking the only answers come from the sell side and keep putting old crap in new wrappers.

Meanwhile it will help to remember what advertising does and does not do.

Advertising is about supply finding and "creating" demand. Nothing wrong with that. At its best it's good and necessary stuff. But think about what will happen when demand can find and create supply. That's the real holy grail here. And it's one that will take fresh development effort on both the supply and demand sides. The difference between those two right now is that the supply side has been working on targeting, creating and controlling demand for the duration, and the demand side is still getting started.

Earliner this week at in Atlanta, my opening keynote explored the possibilities here. Because I think there are countless open source development projects, new and old, that can be put to use answering the question I raised in the second paragraph above. If you feel like naming some of those projects, and sharing your ideas about what we can do with them, weigh in through the comments section below.

I'll get that presentation up shortly. Watch this space for that.

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