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New wine, old bottles

Despite working with new technology every day (or maybe because of it!), I like to collect old wares, and my idea of a good weekend includes some time spent trawling through antique and vintage shops.

A recent acquisition was a set of books on ‘modern business’ produced by the Alexander Hamilton Institute back in the 1950s. I was, of course, drawn to the volume on marketing. On leafing through it, I was surprised by how relevant much of the information still was, after nearly 60 years and several seismic shifts in marketing and selling.

Here are a few snippets from the book (with my annotations):

“Marketing concerns itself with all those business activities which begin in the producer’s shipping room and continue until the goods finally come to rest in the hands of the ultimate user.” (This is a timeless reminder as many people equate marketing with just the advertising and promotional aspects of the process. This broad spectrum definition is today even broader as digital and social media marketing extend the process past the delivery of goods and into an ongoing lifetime relationship with customers.)

“The satisfying of human wants depends to no small degree upon the personal and subjective wants and desires of individual consumers.” (This is increasingly relevant as we have moved from the age of mass marketing, which was gearing up when that book was written, to today’s trend toward mass customisation.)

“The basic law of marketing is the ‘law of convention and revolt’. A new mode of life may be created or established, but it will last only until a new style is introduced, often by quick substitution.” (When that was written they were talking about seasonal changes in fashion; now a style can go in and out with days. It’s not strictly a business marketing example, but how long did the planking craze take over public consciousness – was it a couple of weeks, or even less?)

“The improvement of customer relations which is possible when customer needs and wants are studied, can often overcome mere price competition.” (Then as now, understanding your customers and building relationships with them is key to success. Digital technology has increased your options for building relationships exponentially – it’s much more rewarding and pleasant to do that rather than continually cut your margins.)

“The consumer has a choice.” (And these days it is easier and easier to exercise that choice – ignore this insight at your peril.)

“There is no substitute for the emotional appeal in human communications.” (One word: Facebook.)

Of course, while some aspects of 1950s marketing are still relevant, there are some key things that have changed, largely driven by the digital revolution. Looking at the impacts of technology rather than the mechanics, I think it boils down to a couple of points:

Flexibility is increasingly important: In the always-on economy, you need to be able to change direction quickly when something doesn’t work. This also means you need to be constantly measuring your activities so you can tell when something isn’t working. Particularly for small businesses, the days of producing an annual strategy, setting and forgetting it, are long gone.

The customer is king, queen, and all the other face cards: Consumers are firmly at the centre of the universe, in contrast to all marketing since the Industrial Revolution. That means you need to stop talking at your customers and start listening to them. This is the key principle of marketing in the digital age, and it applies equally to all businesses.

So don’t throw out your old knowledge and techniques – they provide the foundation of your business success, and provide an interesting historical perspective. But get attuned to the new customer-centred principles of the digital age.

Dr. Ray Welling is Director of Digital Strategy & Communications for healthcare communications consultancy Vivacity Health. He also manages a small digital content agency and strategic consultancy, and lectures in marketing at Macquarie University.

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