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Maslow’s Modern Marketing Mashup

October 26, 2010

How Social Media is changing traditional Marketing and Advertising!
(Revised edition of a piece I first wrote back in April 2009)

Of course I wanted to play with alliteration! I could have squeezed a few more m’s in for good measure (especially ‘modified’ since this is a rewrite), but the four above will do the trick, I don’t want to annoy you too much … yet!

Social Media Marketing – Some insights from Abraham Maslow
‘Traditional media is dead’
or so the occasional advertising and marketing discussion goes. The argument is usually centered around changing consumer behavior and the emergence of new media such as online social networks. Books such as Meatball Sundae by Seth Godin (a must read by the way) illustrate how traditional products (the meatballs) fit poorly with emerging media and marketing trends (the sundae). There is strong evidence to show that TV and related advertising has become less effective than it was and that the ‘broadcast’ model is not always the best approach. Many commentators aim to debunk the ‘death of traditional media’, Tony Thomas for example suggests that social media can amplify traditional ’solutions and create a platform that delivers more effective and powerful communications’.

Media dynamics
Personally, I think the death of traditional advertising is wrong, however so is the assumption that new media and traditional media can sit easily together. When television emerged, radio was far from eradicated from the media scene. TV did however change radio forever, some formats began to fail and some personalities in the radio era failed to survive or make an effective transition to television. Similarly the internet has not and will not eradicate TV, radio or print, however it has changed them forever and the change is far from finished. Social media is another of the continuing transitions for the internet, the delivery of a truly interactive and personal format for communication (marketing included). The biggest fundamental change is not the destruction of format (print, radio, TV, etc) but rather an alternative that is doesn’t fit nicely into a broadcast (one-to-many) paradigm. Social Media by its nature is ‘many-to-many’ and as a result it is ‘messy’, different in structure, tone, performance, access, delivery and construct. Social Media suits Godin’s visual metaphor of a ‘Meatball Sundae’. Little wonder that not everyone wants to try it.

Making sense of social marketing
Marketing science (if I may be so bold) is predominantly focused on understanding ‘broadcast messaging’. The result is a set of models and perceived ‘truths’ that do not fit well with heavily interactive and fragmented communication. The same models are also ineffective at monetizing these channels. In this blog, I am looking back to 1943 and Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs as a model that can shed some light on why traditional marketing struggles in this environment, hence the title …

Maslow’s Modern Marketing Mashup
You may have studied Maslow in High School or University. If not, or if you need a refresh, wikipedia can help you out here. Basically Maslow said we have a hierachy of needs, starting with physical and safety needs (lets call them practical needs for conciseness), moving through belonging and esteem (lets call these social) and finishing with self-actualization (lets call these personal – as we are talking about self-fulfillment needs).

Like many foundation theories, Maslow was discounted by later social theories for a number of reasons, usually relating to the hierarchy itself (my Sociology study is getting rusty with age). The weakness can be illustrated by a homeless or starving poet – or any other example where multiple needs are sought simultaneously or higher-order needs are sought when lower order needs still remain unfulfilled. There is also my favorite, that “there is no possible way to classify ever-changing needs as society changes” (Lim and Khruschev, 2002), as this argument suits my ‘new media’ discussion and focus on change. In reality, I do not think that the issue is changing times, but rather something more connected to changing personal situation – stage of life and personal focus – or what a marketeer might call segmentation and demographics.

What can we learn from Maslow
My premise is that ‘broadcast marketing’ and most advertising has worked to target practical needs and some social needs, basically the bottom half of Maslow’s pyramid. Food, sex, health, property, money, mobility, employment and some belonging. I would go as far as saying that as it moves up the pyramid, its effectiveness weakens, and by the time we are talking about social needs such as belonging, the broadcast marketing is ‘fake’, based on aspiration rather than reality. I am arguing that marketing is ineffective in addressing the top-half of the pyramid because its very nature is divorced from individual personal fulfillment needs.

This hasn’t really been a problem for marketing and advertising until now because nothing in the media domain could get granular enough to play seriously in this personal actualization space. The participants in this area remained, in the main, family, friends, community, teachers and other direct human interaction.

What has changed?
Emergent digital media (Social Media) can now facilitate direct human interaction (you all know the sites) and it can also automate, approximate and stand in as a defacto for human interaction at the higher social and personal fulfillment needs and desires of the Maslow pyramid. Since this is now a reality, society has been shown that messages can be interactive, they can be targeted, and they can be humanized. As a result, audiences are becoming less willing to accept poor messaging at the base of the pyramid. Broadcast marketing is becoming less effective in its heartland because the game has changed and expectations of deeper meaning and personalization are much higher.

We all put up with broadcast advertising lumping us together, oversimplifying or completely faking reality to fit in a 30 second slot and considering us all stupid, largely because the engagement occurs while we are relaxing or occupied. We accepted this because it is not our core social or personal (top of pyramid) needs that were being addressed. This in not the case any longer!

Now, as with other forms of human interaction, we demand personal attention, quality of message and authenticity. This does not fit easily with marketing theory and practice, it is harder to craft, distribute, measure and monetize. Some will say that granular social marketing is the domain of individuals not the organization, and yet we all need to hear from organizations at a personal and authentic level and the smarter organizations will work this out. The others, as has happened before, will become extinct and although other media will survive and flourish, the commercial organizations who cannot adapt and communicate effectively with their end-users in this contemporary setting will loose out to the ones that can. I’ll avoid the temptation to shift from Maslow to Darwin here!

I don’t have the answers to marketing models for this paradigm other than to suggest three guiding principles …
1) If the message is not authentic don’t say anything,

2) The message needs to come from the people at the coal-face with credibility and speed,
3) Do not broadcast from ‘on high’ and let the community speak and generate content.

You need to reconsider what control is all about. Get these three principles right and the result will be authentic, compelling and viral.

Thanks to Maslow, Seth Godin, Tony Thomas and Brad Howarth for the thought starters and to Geoffrey McDonald Bowll and Dominic Miller for reminding me about this post from last year. I have updated it a little with last year’s personal learnings. Thoughts? …


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