Corporations Still Control Marketing Conversation, But Less Now Than Before

Nick Carr’s recent column for Guardian Unlimited is called, “How corporations still control the marketing conversation.”

I like the implied admission that these conversations — what we used to call publications — are controlled at some level by the corporations who pay the bills through advertising. (Excluding, of course, Ms Magazine and Consumer Reports.) Hey, admitting the problem is a great place to start! He even turns the mirror on his own sector of the media business:

“Even in traditional media, the line dividing marketing and editorial content has long been a blurry one. Many newspapers and magazines publish in their pages advertorials written by companies, even though they know that many readers don’t distinguish the paid content from the articles written by journalists.”

But, ironically, he concludes with this:

“It has long been assumed that the internet, by democratising media, would level the playing field, shifting power away from corporations and to individuals. A lone person, using a computer and a web connection, could broadcast his opinion about a company or a product to the entire world. There’s truth in that, but it’s not the whole truth. As the line between media and marketing blurs further, corporations are finding that the web may give them more power to influence what people see and do. In the end, conversational marketing is more about marketing than about conversation.”

When the NY Times let ATT wallpaper the print pages of the business section in January 2007, horrified readers didn’t have an easy channel to voice their feedback. Or when it has launched new sections of the newspaper — such as Automobiles or Small Business — not because there was suddenly more news about those topics, but because advertisers would pay the Times more if they wrote more stories on those topics, there was no forum for public discussion. When the Wall Street Journal promoted Dell advertorial videos as video news coverage (with another tech vendor’s commercials running before and after the advertorial, to make the ruse complete!) the traditional journalists at the Journal and its competitors looked the other way. When CNET, ZDNet, PC Magazine, CNN, Fortune, or Car and Driver have lent their voices, words, logos and names to advertisers for use in ad creative — it’s something we consumers just have to deal with, quietly.

When websites — especially the new generation of “conversational” sites that , oh my!, make it easy for their readers to express themselves right there in the publications (attached to the story itself, not on page 28 where “letters to the editor” are hidden) — explore more relevant approaches to advertising, they DO open themselves up for criticism, actively. They invite it, in fact, because they recognize their survival depends on listening to reader feedback and improving from it. Conversational media and conversational marketing certainly “level the playing field” and “shift the power away from corporations” more than old school media and marketing ever has. It ain’t perfect yet, but it’s a move in the right direction.

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