Gary Vaynerchuk is standing at the front of the stage in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Centre showing us the future of marketing. He pulls his mobile phone from his jeans and holds it above his head.
“This is now the television,” he yells at the crowd of several thousand marketers. “And the television is now the radio.”
And when Gary Vaynerchuk says something, marketers listen. Because he signed a million-dollar, ten-book deal with his publishers, and owns the VaynerMedia digital agency that consults on social media to many Fortune 500 companies, and has 1.35 million Twitter followers. Gary’s the foul-mouthed, T-shirt-wearing, down-to-earth guy who knows this shit.
So when Gary announces that the mobile phone is now the television, it sends a jolt of positive reinforcement through the crowd. They had gathered to hear him open this year’s INBOUND conference in Boston. They had all invested (emotionally and financially) in the inbound method, championed by software-maker HubSpot.
Gary’s keynote was delivered on the eve of the presidential election. I didn’t think I was missing anything by watching the keynote rather than following the election. According to my Facebook feed, the election was a foregone conclusion.
Gary, however, could teach me about the future of marketing. Gary’s point was that if you’re not producing content optimised for mobile screens, you’re missing out on the same opportunities that TV producers had back in the 1950s. That was the start of the second great mass-communication wave. This is the next wave, he was saying. Things are changing.
As the speech ended, my Facebook feed started lighting up with these strange messages.
Tell me this isn’t happening …
I feel sick …
I can’t watch this, it’s too horrible …
Something big was going on, so I did what everyone does. I rushed back to my hotel and turned on the TV.
The election results were coming in.
The end of the world
It’s hard to judge how significant events are when you’re in the middle of them. The election felt like a profound change for many people—a lurch back to a darker, nastier time. But almost immediately after it became clear that Donald Trump was to be President, level-headed people started explaining how things may not be as bad as they first seem.
That’s the way we calm ourselves down. We get reasonable. We think things through. We scan any expression of values for a hint of policy. We search through the cloud of emotion for a pattern. We turn to the experts.
I spent that first day of the INBOUND conference doing just that. Even though I’ve been practising content marketing for a long time, there are interesting new challenges and questions you run into when you start playing with marketing automation software like HubSpot. The software itself is pretty useless without the human input of content marketers. But how much of a difference marketing automation can make with it was still a relatively open question for me.
A question I couldn’t think about, because 60 million people had just cast a ballot for this man either despite or because he was odious, racist, and semi-literate.
I tried to comfort myself with the thought that, well, Americans had elected some pretty dopey people to the highest office before. But this seemed different. This felt worse.
Sounds of the city
Back at the hotel I put my phone on charge, sat down at the desk to type up my notes, and closed my eyes. Outside I could hear city sounds—rudely blaring sirens, and the overhead thump of chopper blades. It took me a few minutes to realise those sounds weren’t passing. Something was going on.
So I switched on the news.
On one of those over-complicated screens that US TV does so well, there was grainy footage of a crowd gathering in front of Massachusetts State House, next to Boston Common. They were shouting and waving placards, but you couldn’t hear what they were saying because all the background noise was from the helicopter filming it. The subtitles on the screen said something about a spontaneous gathering protesting the election of Trump.
I thought, The last time an angry crowd gathered up on that corner, it led to a group of people throwing a whole lot of tea into the harbour, and then to a revolution.
I grabbed my phone and my jacket and ran out into the city towards the sound of the choppers.
Running into the crowd
By the time I got to the top of Winter Street, I could see groups of people streaming down Tremont beside the Common—away from the state house. Yellow-jacketed police on pushbikes were hovering around the side of the rally. They rode back and forth like impatient kids trying to negotiate traffic.
Behind the police, half-a-dozen people in civilian clothes filmed the cops with camera phones. This is the legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. As the reporters fly above us all in helicopters, ordinary folk try to capture the confusion in detail. It was hard not to see it as a metaphor for something. You know—new media, people power, all those clichés.
I jogged up the hill, past more police on foot, to try to get a better view of where the crowd was heading.
At the highest point of the Common, up on Beacon Hill, it was eerily quiet. Half-a-dozen police huddled around glaring at people. Down below you could see blue flights flashing through the trees. A cold-looking couple walked past with an even-colder looking Scotch terrier.
Slowly, the chant of the crowd crept up across the Common like a tide: “Not My President, Not My President …”
The future of marketing
One of the big attractions of the INBOUND conference every year is the keynote given by HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. There’s something a bit cultish about the devotion shown to these guys. I’d been on a tour of the HubSpot offices earlier in the week, and some of the fellow guests took photos of Brian’s desk. And of Dharmesh’s favourite chair. It was a little weird.
But that passion comes from the fact that these blokes are smart, and have built a business around recognising the way business and communication is changing. Using content and automation to build an audience and nurture leads seems pretty obvious nowadays, but they clocked to it ten years ago. They wrote the book on inbound marketing. And they’re influential enough to have 19,000 people (yes, that’s the number they were bandying about) come to this conference.
The theme of their talk was the future of marketing—where they saw it headed, and what they were doing to keep up. Some of their insights—like ‘we’ll see more video’, or ‘we’ll see more automation’—were unsurprising. But one of their big interests were bots. Chatbots in particular. Although the idea of chatting robots still sounds a little science fiction, we’ve already experienced them online, or with Siri on your iPhone or Amazon’s Alexa.
I confess, I always thought these bots were a bit of a gimmick. I never use Siri, but my kids love her. They can spend hours asking Siri to beatbox (try it, it’s fun).
The sound of search
But Brian and Dharmesh said chatbots were the future of search. A growing percentage of searches are done via voice, with natural language. Ten years ago, they pointed out, search used to be about guessing keywords that were matched to a static index. Today, search engines (using semantic search) are clever enough to work out what you really want to know based as much on where and when you are—not just the words you use in your question.
The big idea behind this is the merger of technology and humans. Not in the spooky ‘robots that look like people’ way. It’s more like technology is becoming the clothes you wear. Designed for comfort and function. And if the success of Apple teaches us anything, for fashion as well.
But what does that mean for marketers?
It means you’re no longer buying just a tech stack. It’s more like a marketing lifestyle.
Inside the noise
The protesters turned into the Common and started marching towards the Parkman Bandstand near the middle of the park. As they appeared in the half-light, you could see others coming from the trees to join them. I started running back down the hill towards the crowd.
They concertinaed at the bandstand. The chant started alternating between “Not My President” and “Black Lives Matter”. The line coming up from the other end of the park never seemed to stop. More and more of them swelled around the paths.
I noticed a young woman with short, bright red hair, crouching down on the path about 20 feet away. She had a cigarette lighter in one hand and a plastic American flag in the other. She was sparking the lighter, trying to get the flame to catch on the flag, but it kept getting blown out in the breeze. Finally, she got it lit. But the flag was made of cheap plastic, and just curled up immediately into black ash before blowing away.
I turned to the two guys standing beside me, who had just arrived with the latest wave of marchers.
“I don’t really have strong feelings either way about the election,” one of them admitted. His friend laughed and nodded. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he added. “I just came down here to Snapchat this.” He started waving his phone toward the crowd.
In the belly of the beast
I’m trying to resist drawing any trite analogies between the response to the presidential election and lessons about digital marketing and content marketing. Except to say that when you’re standing in the middle of it, it’s impossible to figure out what is really going on.
We are still in the middle of all the noise. We look to the past to find a way of understanding it, of rationalising it. But that’s also a false comfort. This is clearly not the same—there are too many clues pointing us towards something we’ve not encountered before.
That’s why you get that queasy feeling of uncertainty when you investigate this stuff. It’s why people are getting so passionate about gurus like the guys from INBOUND or the guys from the Content Marketing Institute who seem to have all the answers.
And that’s why the only way you can really figure out what’s going on is by getting into the middle of the crowd.