A Digital Archaeology of 21st Century Marketing

Jan 30, 2019

Article Image1,000 years from now, when digital archaeologists look back on 21st century marketing, what will they conclude? Based on our “ancient” emails, notes, blogs, martech stacks, and content, what will they think that we believe about marketing?

It’s a valuable thought experiment because we rarely look at our work from the perspective of people who live in different times and operate under different assumptions. Since marketers primarily talk, read, research, and listen within their own community, our ideas can become isolated.

If we examine ourselves like an archaeologist trying to piece together the habits, beliefs, and norms of a distant culture, we can better understand our ourselves. Why do we create this content the way we do? Perhaps we can reverse engineer the unspoken ideas that shape our work today. Let’s try this thought experiment.

  • The 21st Century Marketing is Measured in Myriad Ways—The archaeologist looking back might discover a mess of surveys and blogs describing how marketers measure their success. But what were the marketers actually responsible for? Customer acquisition? Revenue and profit growth? Social media engagement? You probably measure all three and more. The archaeologist may conclude that marketers believe they have control over all those metrics. Or at least their CEOs think they do.
  • There’s a Contradiction in the Expectations—Although 21st century marketers seem to believe they control growth, they lack faith in their attribution models. As reported in eMarketer, a Kantar survey of 468 marketing execs found that more than half perceive gaps in their multi-touch attribution models and conversion ROI. Essentially, marketers admit that they don’t know what works, but businesses are expecting them to cause growth (and various miracles). No wonder marketers have the highest turnover rate of any job function on LinkedIn!
  • The Big Challenge is a Timeless One—When Chief Marketer asked B2B marketers for the biggest challenge in generating new leads, 57% said, “It’s getting target prospects to engage.” Among all technologies available to them, marketers told Chief Marketer that email, search, and live events are producing the highest ROI, in that order. If someone does engage though, who knows if that is what ultimately caused them to buy? Will the digital archaeologist think we’re primitive for not better understanding cause and effect?
  • Mediums Versus Messages—A survey from Target Marketing finds that the average marketer allocated 27% of the budget to content marketing in 2019. Of that, 32% will go to content creation (human work) and 27% to distribution and promotion (machine work). That’s a close race between humans and machines. Blogs and articles command 29% of the creation budget, trailed by video (18%) and infographics and other images (14%). The creative work isn’t easily automated, but…
  • Content is For Machines First and People Second—Perhaps the digital archaeologist will struggle most with this concept. Are people or algorithms the primary audience for marketing? It’s not clear cut. For instance, when run you an SEO keyword strategy, you don’t write “content technology” five times in 500 words for the reader. That is for the search algorithm, which hopefully concludes that the article will be attractive to people who search “content technology.” Similarly, YouTubers use nonsensical chains of keywords to woo that platform’s algorithms. The algorithm is like an editor who must be placated before our content can be seen by the human audience. The algorithm cares most about engagement, so maybe our purposes are aligned. But is our audience training the algorithm, or is the algorithm training the audience?

The Archaeologist’s Report

Here the archaeologist might pause to review these cultural artifacts and what they say about the state of marketing. Since she won’t be born for 1,000 years, I’ll take the liberty of doing it.

In the marketing professions, we are increasingly judged by our ability to shape human behavior such that strangers become customers who buy what we sell. When they buy, we don’t know exactly why they did, but if they don’t buy enough stuff or pay enough for the stuff they do buy, we might lose our job.

Our everlasting struggle is to get people’s attention and provoke “engagement” – what we 21st century folks think of as clicking links, opening emails, liking content, filling out contact forms, etc. To get there, we’re spending more and more money on software platforms with a variety of chores. We use them to plan, create, store, manage, distribute, share, track, automate, and analyze content such that people will have experiences that motivated them to buy something. Those experiences can provide a non-material payoff, like relief, joy, or a sense of empowerment.

Towards that goal, the 21st century marketer has started spending as much or more money on technology than people. That choice has caused tension, not least because machines are bad at making most content (music being a notable exception).

On the other hand, the algorithms are adept at targeting people who would want that content based on their search patterns, social media lives, and ecommerce habits. Whereas machines have the computing power to tailor a selection of content for any number of individuals (i.e., the Netflix approach), marketers don’t. If the algorithm likes our content, people will see it. And if people engage with the content in prescribed ways, then algorithms will like the content even better and show it to more people willing to engage, and...it’s a little circular, no?


Thus, the big question that will vex the archaeologist: for whom did the 2019 marketer create content? A thousand years later, could an archaeologist perceive how content had, after millennia of adapting for human consumption, began to adapt for machine consumption? Maybe that transition will seem so obvious that it’s not worth questioning. Maybe the archaeologist will be an algorithm, not a person.

These are important questions for people who use marketing technology and people who create it. We’re all dealing with this conundrum of how to reach a human and non-human audience at the same time.

Personally, I’d rather we write for people first and machines second. Let’s train the content machines and not be trained by them. Even better, let’s leave a legacy for the archaeologist that shows we served our businesses well while doing right by the human audience.

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