Alex Steer

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Just get it

896 words | ~4 min

A stray conversation brought up this thought: are people who work in marketing unusually anxious about how digital they are?

I'm using digital in all the common range of ways: technologically adept, internet savvy, well-informed concerning (especially) social media technologies. As for anxious... well, if you work in marketing, or spend time with marketing people, you know what I mean. We seem to be obsessed with how digital we are. This can either mean we become the trainspotters-cum-trendspotters of the web, endlessly going on about (what we think are) bleeding-edge internet technologies, or it can mean we make a point of how unconcerned we are with the latest fads, which can itself become a sort of self-preservation mechanism, a sign that we're aware that the rest of the industry is pretty concerned with digital fashion.

Okay, we've found ways to be smart about it. Most of us know now that 'doing some digital' or 'being on Facebook' is a recipe for rubbish. But that doesn't stop us from obsessing about the channel, rather than the stuff that goes on it, as if we were saying, quick, let's do some television. (Actually, that happens.) We know the content we make has to be good (but of course we all think the stuf we do is good)...

Though stop there. Because I've just fallen for the same old trick. By describing the web as a channel for content I'm thinking about it like a media person, like a marketer. I'm obsessing. If I were feeling a bit Nike, I might dust myself off and say, stop worrying. Just do it.

But then again, without the media hat on, I remember that the internet doesn't feel like a channel when I use it. It's not like TV or the radio, or even like telephones or the postal system. Those are all media with which I have occasional interactions. The web's different. It's just this thing that's part of life now. I know how to live online. It's not a big deal.

Sometimes when I talk to marketing people about the web, I think, can't you just give it a rest? Why don't you stop talking about content and engagement and channels and user-generated content and crowdsourcing and touchpoints? Why can't you think about the web like the rest of us do?

Why can't you just get it?

I don't turn up at your house and talk endlessly about your fixtures and fittings. I don't meet you down the pub and tell you exactly what you're wearing, down to the last detail. Because that would be weird, wouldn't it? Just like it's weird to those of us who grew up online when you come along and you obviously haven't the first clue, not how all the bits and pieces work, but how it feels to use them without thinking. You remind us of those chimps in the PG Tips ads: almost like us, but somehow not quite right, like you might topple over any moment, or do something crazy.

Honestly, it's like speaking French. I understand French grammar and have a decent vocabulary, and I can read books and newspaper articles pretty well, but I've never taken the time to live in France, or attend conversation classes, or do any of the hard work that's needed to be really, genuinely fluent. That's why I'll never be able to wander into any French bar and start a conversation with someone, even though I can ask for directions and order food.

If you haven't put in the hard work of using it a lot (for stuff other than the odd bit of Googling and office emails), you don't really understand the web. Don't assume that because you work in marketing that you understand how to be online. You'll just end up standing on street corners, shouting 'OU EST LA PISCINE?'

And if you do actually get it, if you're one of those people that cares, don't pretend you don't. Just because you work in marketing doesn't mean you have to stop being a human being and start with all the engagementy consumery channel-blather between 9 and 5. If you've been using Facebook since 2005 and Twitter since 2007, chances are you know the rules of good behaviour and interestingness, just like you know the rules for generating sentences in your native language. You can spot the online equivalent of malformed utterances just like that. Don't pretend otherwise: don't offer spurious marketing-land justifications for not pursuing web marketing ideas, if the real reason not to do it is that you know, as an ordinary web user, that they're just terrible, boring ideas.

There are no short cuts here, and there shouldn't really be any leniency. If for some reason you want to spend your time on this earth helping products and services get people's attention online, learn how to do it well. That doesn't mean swapping case studies with other marketers. It means getting the social life of the web. It is like learning a language. There are lots of people who can help and advise you and stop you going horribly wrong, but unless you take time and take an interest there's only so much they can help you. C'est la vie, as they say.

# Alex Steer (27/08/2010)