Collective Marketing

As is becoming usual (yay!), check out the comments on my last post for some interesting followup.

So the last post could have been titled “Managing the Collective”, and talked about how to connect Latour’s wacky ideas about actor-network theory with the world of corporate management. Today I want to spend some time connecting those ideas to the world of marketing.

First, a quick review. In Latour’s world, a collective is a group that has been well constructed, with members knowingly joining the group with full knowledge of what the group stands for and entails. Such groups are extremely unstable entities, requiring continuous care and maintenance by their members or they fly apart. Latour goes so far as to claim the non-existence of groups whose members take no actions with regard to the group.

How does this apply to the world of marketing? There’s this idea in the world that “markets” exist. They’re just hanging around “out there” in some sort of Platonic ideal space, and the goal of marketing is to reach those markets. So marketers create advertising and go to trade shows in an attempt to make a connection to their targeted market.

However, if we take Latour’s advice and follow the actors, let’s examine what a member of that perceived market is thinking. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the market in question is mousetraps (as in, “Build a better mousetrap…”). The potential mousetrap buyer is not a person who self-identifies as a “mousetrap buyer”. They are probably a home-owner, housekeeper or janitor who’s been tasked with getting rid of mice. When looking to buy a mousetrap, they are not concerned with the mousetrap, they are just looking for something to let them accomplish their task.

What’s the difference from a practical point of view? Why should the mousetrap marketer care how the potential customers identify themselves? Let’s take things from the Platonic ideal market scenario originally proposed. In this scenario, there’s a “mousetrap market” out there, people who care about mousetraps. So if we tout the technology of our better mousetraps, people will come and, as the saying goes, beat a path to our door.

However, in a Latour-ian collective world, the market does not exist just out there waiting to be discovered or reached. Such a market has to be created. It is up to the marketer to make a series of connections between the potential buyers of the mousetrap and the mousetrap itself, to form a sticky networked web that envelops the buyers. Like the last post, it’s the difference between publishing an org chart and doing the footwork necessary to reify the org chart.

So to market to the collective, one has to make real connections to potential buyers. For instance, when we go to buy something new, what do we most often do? We ask our friends what they bought, especially if we know our friends care about the subject and have done research. We lazily leverage our friend’s research.

In the Platonic ideal market model, the marketer should concentrate on mass advertising because the mousetrap market already exists, and its members already know what they should care about, so the goal is to disseminate the information about mousetraps as widely as possible. In the collective market model, it makes more sense for the marketer to concentrate on influential experts and trend leaders, who have done the research on mousetraps, and will boil it down to a simple recommendation for their friends.

There’s an obvious connection here to marketing books such as The Tipping Point, with its talk of Mavens and The Law of the Few, and Crossing the Chasm, with its talk of evangelists and early adopters. Those books made sense to me at the time, but I like the idea of dropping them into the theory framework of Latour’s collective, if only because it lets me convince myself that spending a month reading Latour was worth it.

The point I’d like to leave with is that markets are created, not discovered. And I don’t just mean that in the cynical “advertising rules us” sense. It means that creating a better product would be enough in Platonic ideal market world because the market already exists. But in the world of the collective, the better product has to be accompanied by efforts to let potential customers know about the better product, explaining to them why it’s better and how it serves their needs better. A connection has to be made to the customers, often through a series of mediators (like expert friends). The process of making such connections is messy and complicated and ongoing, and it’s often ignored by engineers and technologists, which is why Joel thinks engineers need a Development Abstraction Layer. Given Latour’s framework of needing to continuously trace the connections to maintain the existence of groups (and markets), the success of Betsy Weber as TechSmith’s Chief Evangelist makes a lot more sense to me.

I’ve got to spend a bit more time with this theoretical framework and flesh out the applications a bit, but I like how it’s starting to shape up. The idea of human associations being transient things that require work to maintain is a lesson I’m learning over and over again in life. And yet we tend to assume the opposite, that things are just there, that org charts and authority and markets just happen. I wonder why that is? I’ll think about that another time…

7 thoughts on “Collective Marketing

  1. I’ve been evangelizing a product, and you are SOOOO right that there is no “market” you can just drop it into.

    And yet we tend to assume the opposite, that things are just there

    Maybe because for the first 18 years of our lives, they are? Childhood is dominated by relationships that are dictated and maintained by external systems, mostly “family” and “school”. It’s very surprising to go to your first high-school reunion and discover which friends you no longer have anything in common with, now that you’re not spending all day in the same place with them.

  2. I had a VERY different experience at my 20th high school reunion. All the time we spent together was and remains exactly what we have in common. We know an aspect of each others’ history *really* well. And now we are all in a different phase of life, far enough along the path that even the folks whose paths diverge from your own seem familiar because you know others in similar situations.

    Wasn’t it Vonnegut who said that the older you get, the more important it becomes to keep those near you who knew you when you were young?

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