I’ve been following a lot of financial news of late. Not just because it’s interesting, in a “the end of the world is nigh” kind of way. Because it’s immensely complex. And I like complex things.
If the world economy is now perhaps the most complex socio-technical phenomena out there, reading and listening to its experts is fascinating. There simply is no possibility of consensus and agreement among the myriad of voices and opinions wagered in the world of high finance and global economics. All of it is interpretation.
Global financial news now travels and develops so quickly that when not simply reacting to news, experts are forced to make hurried interpretations of what financial news means. By the time these individuals have a moment to pen an article or appear on the media, they are as likely to repeat trending analyses as they are to proffer a fresh interpretation of their own.
Language, and how we speak about the events that concern us, is so fundamentally critical to what we do and why, that it bears note. For those of us in social media, be it at the product and business end, or at the implement and execute end, our language and talk binds us. It is the framework with which we understand what happens in our industry.
Social media, because it is a medium given to talking about its medium in its medium, produces an extra degree of talk. And where much of it is anchored in facts, events, and realities, it is amplified by perspectives, opinions, and interpretations. Many of these, of course, are developed in order to preserve and grow yet another small business or reputation.
Like the language of economic and financial analysis, the language of modern-day marketing is challenged. It is challenged to describe new phenomena, but in terms and concepts inherited from the old. It is challenged to offer new insights and guidance, but with understanding rooted in the old. And while it frequently insists on change and innovation, it does so in terms and with ideas as traditional as they come.
On the economy: “when it recovers.” (Who’s to say it will?) On marketing: “customer relationship.” (What, honestly, does that even mean?) On the economy: “it’s cyclical.” (Until it’s not!) On marketing: “brand value.” (is possibly just a concept made up by brands!) On the economy: “when jobs come back.” (Unless they have been transferred to the next empire of wealth) On marketing: “customer loyalty.” (What person thinks of him/herself as a “customer?!”)
The problem is that marketing is just language. It’s just an interpretive schema through which a group of people observe, understand, and describe the world. Nothing, but nothing, suggests that it be true, accurate, or real. In fact, for all of its wisdom, and of late, it’s commitment to transparency, it is still as good at lies and falsehoods as anything resembling sincerity.
Like economic analysis, marketing speak is collective interpretation. A type of discourse designed to further coordinated activities by means of providing discursive guidance. We do as we speak. What we do, we do. What we speak, makes sense of and communicates it.
Marketing is, in short, a world unto its own. What means does it have of realizing new ideas? What power does it have of engendering real innovation and change? What understanding can it truly offer? None or little, if it is not self-aware, self-reflective, and self-critical.
Marketing facts obtain from quantitative observations and data, accompanied by qualitative analyses and explanations. These explanations are not true to the quantitive world, for there is no such thing. They interpret the quantitative world. Stats and data are stats and data, numbers that can be made to say anything you want. Marketing explanations are true to themselves — that is, to the language in which they are spoken.
The function of marketing language is to be believable: to combine both observation, description, explanation, and guidance. It is this last bit, the normative effect of marketing speak, that it needs to be most self-critical of. For this is where marketing speak wants as much to reinforce its own self as it does provide insight. It’s a language in which many people fashion careers and make enormous financial decisions. So it is required to have a built-in normative aspect: that part that suggests, that recommends, and that seeks agreement.
What if the consumer has no interest in a brand relationship? What if s/he simply buys what is needed, at a price or in packaging or from a name or based on a review, but ad hoc and mostly disconnected from the “realities” in which marketers have come to believe. What if, in contrast to the reasons marketers provide for consumer behavior (and this is profoundly important when it comes to social media marketing), “consumers” (aka individuals) have reasons of their own?
What if marketers actually need to rethink and invert their entire mental model of what consumers (individuals) are doing, and what they are doing with what consumers are doing? And what if there’s no genuinely insightful insight possible into the workings of modern-day late-stage socialized consumerism unless and until marketers cease to defend and perpetuate the old conventions of influence-shaping marketing activities upon which their own linguistic community depends?
Would you invest in the old?
I don’t have a new language to offer, and were it that I did, I wouldn’t be able to communicate sensibly here. I mean simply to raise the question: are we adequately self-critical? Do we know why we draw our conclusions? Are we really in synch with socialized “consumer” behaviors? And until we are self-aware, and until we have broken down our legacy concepts — relationships, branding, awareness, value — can we be trusted to see and to know insightfully what has changed and is changing?
I don’t want to be led by the language of marketing. I want to be led by deep insight into how social media work. What people do with them and why. How culture and our sense of self, of others, of our communities are affected and informed by these new technologies. By the unique properties of reflection, echo, shine, and share that characterize this medium. And by the profound manner in which all social commerce is now driven by an engine of communication and social action, gesture and attention — and how this presents a terminal encounter with broadcast messaging and marketing. Word.