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Why Social Is So Disruptive to Traditional Marketing

All the kings' horses and all the kings' men couldn't put traditional marketing back together again...

On a warm day in May 2009, I impetuously made a bet with a friend, an EVP at a huge traditional agency, declaring that within 36 months – digital marketing would dominate all media spend. My normally reserved friend let out a snicker of disbelief since traditional media accounted for 90%+ of all spend at the time.  As ridiculous as my prediction sounded to both of us, I was expressing my growing frustration at working with all the new digital options in social and mobile marketing technologies. My friend summarily declared me “bleeding edge” and that, it seemed, was the end of that.

Ah - if only it were that easy.  At the time, I was working at a mid-sized, profitable tech company and I was feeling the dysfunction faster than my friends at large companies. In effect, I had become the canary in the mineshaft within my marketing circle of friends.  I groped to understand how traditional agencies could profitably evolve in this new complex world (July 2010) and I publically shared my frustration with Facebook (December 2010). Mostly, though I was just trying to build an internal model of how all these options could work together.   

Over the next months, clearly all things digital (especially social and mobile) continued to gain unprecedented momentum so that within barely 30 months into my wager, just this past December, IDG declares:  The War is Over and Digital Has Won. Over 50% Marketing Budgets Go To Digital in 2012. It’s a “Wow” moment, confirming what I sensed many months ago; marketing was changing fast and irrevocably.

But unlike the canary in the mineshaft – I have no intention of just kneeling over. Instead, with 30 years of experience under my belt, I have a distinct advantage over my more narrowly tech-trained younger colleagues to understand what all this means and imagine a way forward.  

At the heart of the matter lies the reality that digital marketing, especially social and mobile marketing, are highly disruptive because these technologies are successfully challenging the established “Content as king” marketing technologies of the last 30 years.

In content based marketing, the brand message was the payload in the efficient, centralized, mass content distribution platform. It worked because its effectiveness was dependent on reaching mass audiences where people trusted the content. The more trusted the content, the more the content producers could charge brands.   

Then, in the blink of a digital eye, newer technologies offer marketers a community distribution platform that rivals the content distribution platform across the board. Social/ mobile marketing is cheaper to create and permits ongoing marketing that was not economical in paid media. It is also incredibly efficient at reaching scale (albeit somewhat chaotically). It is more nimble than content based marketing and most importantly, social marketing shifts trust from content to the community, thus delivering more efficient brand ROI (NY Times ad rates makes my point aptly).

This explains the crazy social/ mobile business valuations (e.g. - Facebook at $100B!). It also puts in perspective how the resultant violent shift in the “center of marketing gravity” left most content based companies; publishers, media companies, broadcasters, brands and the agencies, peering perilously into the gaping chasm beneath them.

So what does the future hold? 

2011 was scary for many marketing companies and it’s appropriate to take a moment to recognize this significant juncture in our business’ evolution. “The forces of creative destruction take time. New forms of economic output do not come automatically” (The Experience Economy, Updated edition 2011: Gilmore & Pine) describes the current cycle very well.  

It’s clear we can’t simply apply new social technology to the old marketing mix and expect it to work anymore than we can apply wings to a car and expect it to fly.  Nor can we maintain the naïve thinking that social/ mobile marketing can operate frictionless within traditional marketing planning.   

In crossing the digital marketing divide irrevocably, we can be freed from  entrenched notions about what marketing must be and get inspired by wonderful new socially based businesses such as:  “Map my fitness”- a fitness centric community encouraging community interaction and motivation; “Change My World Now” -  a specially designed social community for kids (built by r2i) to help them to discover their true “bright light.” And Zivity, a longtime favorite community for indie artists and photographers led by CEO Cyan Banister who introduced an innovative revenue share model that promotes community interactions not content consumption.   

While these seismic shifts are both terrifying and tantalizing, it will ultimately offer wondrous new marketing opportunities never before possible.  It’s up to us marketers (not just the technologists) to create this marketing future – together. 

Join The Conversation

  •'s picture
    Apr 16 Posted 5 years ago jon.bonning@gma...

    In this day and age, people want things to happen faster than the blink of an eye so it would make sense that digital marketing has surpassed traditional. There are so many choices to make regarding which product would suit an individual better although people still need that human connection to help them make that choice. Exploring digital content is faster, more convenient and so much cheaper on the receiving end; while on the other end those who want to express their opinions can reach their objective exactly the same way.

  • JudyShapiro's picture
    Jan 22 Posted 5 years ago JudyShapiro

    I love comparing notes given the diversity of experience between us – I grew up in a large agency, moved to large corporate America and then spent last 10 years in much smaller tech companies. I agree on some points – disagree on others…

    I agree with you that many behaviors can be tracked in social. My point was more focused on how hard it is to track the business outcome.  For instance, the business of measuring the value of a Facebook is highly flawed as I wrote in Ad Age: "What's a Facebook Fan Really Worth to Marketers" This applies to many social media tactics – Twitter, LinkedIn… You can track behaviors – but drilling down to a business conclusion is very difficult at the moment.

    Now onto the notion of effectiveness of traditional media. My experience has taught me a different lesson than you. It taught me traditional drives business for all types of companies – large and small. Traditional advertising built the major brands but it also built small companies via newspaper, radio and direct mail – easily accessible to smaller companies.

    The problem is not that traditional didn’t work – it was that either it was hard to track or too expensive to maintain. Social marketing provides a potential answer to that problem.  

    I will end with the point where we agree – bad marketing is bad marketing. Traditional marketing tactics are more familiar so they tend to be better crafted. In the new wild west of new marketing – there are many many many (get it) bad practitioners out there. You are correct – they don’t know a good site from a bad. A good CTA program from an silly outreach. Businesses bear the cost of this incompetence. I hope this becomes less of an issue as social matures.  

  • Flyn Penoyer's picture
    Jan 22 Posted 5 years ago Flyn Penoyer


    To your point...

    "But your point about digital being more trackable is true most specifically only for banner ads. I would argue that ROI for social marketing is not as clear cut, e.g. What's a Facebook fan worth?"

    I disagree with this statement... banner ads are far
    from the only social media that can be tracked. You
    can find the value of your Facebook fans, your
    LinkedIn activities and the rest.

    Secondly, to this statement...

    "Nor do I agree that traditional has not worked well. In fact, it worked very well to build major brands because it was the main game in town..."

    You are correct that "traditional" marketing, brand
    marketing, works for billion dollar coporations who
    can spend tens of millions on advertising.

    But that is the top few percent. Most of the people
    reading this are in medium or small businesses.

    Brand advertising is a total waste of money for
    such a business and is totally un trackable. You
    cannot effectively measure brand ads as brand
    advertising requires longer ranges of time to
    effect the market, timeframes small and medium
    businesses can't hope to sustain.

    Most of the marketing I have seen suggested,
    done, and executed by my small business clients
    follows the brand model -- just look in any phone
    book in the country, or at 100 websites -- they
    all are following  for the most part the "brand"

    Small and medium size business owners are
    wasting their money websites and marketing
    efforts that have no unique selling proposition
    and no call to action.

    Finally, just look at the Linkedin profiles of small
    businesses and entrepenuers -- they are all
    written in the brand style -- and the even the
    LinkedIn experts have the same brand approach.

    The problem is most of the social media people
    have never studied marketing -- they are expert
    at the "vehicles" (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.)
    but not marketing.

    That is why you see social media campagines
    where traffic is sent to website pages that have
    no call to action or copy that would convert the
    visitor to a prospect -- in fact they don't even
    have a list building mechanism on there site.

    The most obvious example I have seen is in
    the pay-per-click arena. I have never found a
    small business person that had a PPC effrot
    where the traffic was sent to a landing page
    designed to generate ACTION.

    In the internet marketing world, guys like
    Dan Kennedy, Rich Scheffren, Frank Kern etc.
    you would NEVER see such an effort.

    In fact in one recent video Kennedy says:
    Any small business person who is not doing
    list building, either doesn't know what it is,
    or they are stupid.

    I would bet you can go to your connections
    list and visit 100 random websites and not
    find a single one with a strong call to action.



  • JudyShapiro's picture
    Jan 21 Posted 5 years ago JudyShapiro

    Agree fully - the checklist approach looks good on paper but delivers scant business results. That mentality is borne of a lack of depth... but it what people do when they dont know what to do :) 


  • JudyShapiro's picture
    Jan 21 Posted 5 years ago JudyShapiro

    Hmm -interesting perspective and I agree to a level. "Traditional" advertising was tough to track versus direct marketing.... 

    But your point about digital being more trackable is true most specifically only for banner ads. I would argue that ROI for social marketing is not as clear cut, e.g. What's a Facebook fan worth?

    Nor do I agree that traditional has not worked well. In fact, it worked very well to build major brands because it was the main game in town...

    The digital future is around the mashup of social, content and commerce. Traditional media becomes a supporting players in that mix.

    Thanks for sharing. Judy  

  • Jan 21 Posted 5 years ago Chris Miller

    Great piece.  Thanks.  It sums up some of the stuff I've been working with my media brand clients on.  I've shared it with them at my blog at

  • Flyn Penoyer's picture
    Jan 21 Posted 5 years ago Flyn Penoyer

    I think there might be a much simplier but deeper rooted
    answer for the success of digital over traditional marketing.

    For most businesses traditional marketing has not worked
    all that well. Besides the fact much of what is recommended
    is not eaisly tracked, it is almost always "brand" oriented

    If you read Richard Hershaws great book Monopolize Your
    Marketplace place you'll learn that brand marketing is only
    effective if you are a Ford, Pepsi, or Johnson & Johnson and
    can afford to spend a gizillion dollars on your efforts.

    Social media for a number of reasons has forced people back
    to a more direct response approach which is far far better for
    the small to medium size business.

  • BilalJaffery's picture
    Jan 19 Posted 5 years ago BilalJaffery

    I agree but often times, I find that most people trying to jump to the 'digital' space lack the true understanding of the medium. As McLuhan said, 'medium is the message' and I often notice a 'check list' mentality from old-traditional campaigns when it comes to digital strategy planning.





  • glee's picture
    Jan 19 Posted 5 years ago glee

    Very well written Judy.  I think it's one of the most exciting times ever to be in marketing.   There are a lot of changes, but with that, huge opportunities for marketing to make major impacts to companies, consumers and change the world.   Nice post.


  • Manish Parihar's picture
    Jan 18 Posted 5 years ago Manish Parihar

    I agree with Paxton Morgan: excellent article..!

    One of the concerns that can be felt after reading your post is about those people who failed to jump across the digital chasm that has been created between the old-school-marketers and the new-age digimarketers...  

    everybody needs to learn these new tools of marketing..

  • jackjflorio's picture
    Jan 18 Posted 5 years ago jackjflorio


    On your coimment " Pharma folks are the last ones to adapt . . . " I have experienced this is for a few reasons (but they are changing for the positive . . )

    1. Pharma feels "we are different".  Our business is not the same as others.  This really is not true.  Although the basis of our discussions with physicians over the years has been more clinical, scientific and factual in nature rather than emotional, the physicians are making choices for their patients - comsumers - for many of the core traditional reasons consumers make choices, like ease of use due to lower side effects or better compliance due to fewer doses per day, etc.
    2. We are a regulated industry with FDA and DDMAC.  While this is true, the agency just issued some new guidelines.  Some of the industry is disappointed that the guidelines are not robust enough.  They see the obstacles and not the goal on the other side.  They want a clear path.  However, others see the goal on the other side and are figuring ways to navigate with the guidance and avoide the obstacles.  The agency has repeatedly said they control the message and not the medium.  More companies are starting to get this.
    3. Pharmaceutical marketing has been very inbred within the industry.  This is changing rapidly.In my visits with Pharma, every company had added people in their marketing organizations who come from outside the pharma industry and bring strong consumer / social-digital media backgrounds.  Pharmaknows they must change and are doing so now.

    Judy, we are truly working in very esxiting transformational times.


  • JudyShapiro's picture
    Jan 17 Posted 5 years ago JudyShapiro

    Well done Jack! For reasons that stump me often Pharma folks are the last ones to adapt ... when IMHO they should be the first! I hope you are having as much as I am ... 

  • JudyShapiro's picture
    Jan 17 Posted 5 years ago JudyShapiro

    Thank you Hank ... It is wonderful that many of us are beginning to mesh the two - it is never an either/ or between digital and traditional. But the engine now is shifting from a 4 cylinder kind to an 11 cylinder engine.... More fun to drive - all around ;)  


  • jackjflorio's picture
    Jan 17 Posted 5 years ago jackjflorio


    Your story resonates with me !!!

    After 30 years in Big Pharma - plus antother 10 in Biotech - when posed with the idea of Social Media marketing to consumers in health care, I said Impossibe !!!, even, Rediculous !!!

    Well,with some research under my belt and my eyes open to the new world I have engaged in a new career as CBO or LiquidGrids with a passion.  

    As you will see on my Twitter page (relatively new I might add) "Long time pharma exec turned on to the power of social media and the potential to revolutionize the life sci industry and to empower patients to drive change"

    It is a wonderful new world !!

    Thanks for Sharing

    Jack Florio, CBO - LiquidGrids

  • JudyShapiro's picture
    Jan 16 Posted 5 years ago JudyShapiro

    Thanks so much! 

  • HankWasiak's picture
    Jan 16 Posted 5 years ago HankWasiak

    Great article Judy. We are of like minds. In discussing all of this with my classes at USC it beomes very clear that while traditional media will remain a part of consumer consumption the context in which it is consumed is forever changed. Digital makes traditional better.




  • Jan 16 Posted 5 years ago @Rhuarhii

    Madison Avenue marketing [old style] is interruption marketing based on the few controlling what the many could see, read and here. That world is dead. Or at least exiting stage right with the remnants of its influence. Meanwhile the everyman has taken centre stage. He topples governments. He shows up companies doing that best to skim the market and he blogs, tweets and posts on his wall from everywhere and anywhere using his smart phone. The days of he robber baron are over. Long live the new barons of 21st century media. Content is still king. It's just not the same content that you were thinking about...

  • Paxton Morgan's picture
    Jan 16 Posted 5 years ago Paxton Morgan

    Excellent article!

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