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digital commI was talking to an old friend of twenty-plus years today. We met in the late 80’s when he was a graphic designer and I was working in advertising and public relations. In the intervening years he segued into making a living as a fine artist. That pretty much ended when the recession hit hard. Most recently, he has developed a really neat case/screen/video accessory for the iPhone 5 (http://www.diffcase.com/iphone-5-cases.html) and I have been a sounding board for his marketing efforts.

Anyway, we discussed how much the world of marketing has changed since he and I were in the thick of it. In the ‘old days’ everyone had business cards and brochures. When they wanted to promote a product they put an ad in a targeted magazine or contacted the right media. There were known, well-traveled highways that usually performed as expected – although at a price.

Today things are different with the advent and domination of digital technology. It’s a DYI world for design, writing, production, distribution, advertising, marketing and more. For example, in the 90’s I would be paid about $200 for a press release (this was freelance – not agency). I would write it, get it approved, set up a media distribution list and send it out. Sometimes I would contact editors or reporters to urge its publication.

Today there doesn’t seem to be much need for those kinds of press releases – newspapers and magazines aren’t what they used to either. The want ads in advertising or copywriting that I see now list jobs for blog copy. What do they pay? Most are going for $10 to $20 an article/post  – sometimes there is only that famous come-on – ‘it will look good on your resume’.

Journalists – a dying breed. Typesetters – mostly extinct. Graphic designers – logo and corporate ID’s that used to bill out for several hundred to several thousand dollars are now being sent off shore and on sale for $50.

I agree that everything changes and that we can’t use old methods with new tools but I think we’ve also  lost something in the transition. To promote a product now you have to use the internet, Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Google ads and a bevy of other social media. This can be a full time job with dubious results. Before, if you put an ad in a magazine, you had a pretty good idea that xxx number of people would be reading that magazine. Your return on investing in an ad depended on how good the ad was and how good your product was.

Now there are so many portals, so many doors, so many alternatives – and you don’t really know what to choose. The promotion by a blogger might make a significant difference but bloggers have been known to ‘buy’ hits to make their numbers look better. And for those of you who have your own blogs, of the 500 subscribers you may have, how many really read your stuff consistently? Can you really deliver an audience?

Cold calls used to be a hard but effective way to drum up business. Now getting a face to face meeting is nearly impossible. It’s always ‘send me an email’, or ‘give me a link’. Even connecting with a real person on the phone is a unique experience.  At the same time technology is making it easier and easier to keep in touch, we are losing our personal touch.

A few years ago I read a book called The Long Tail (I think!). It was saying how the internet had leveled the playing field among the small and large companies and the ability of the web to drill down into smaller and smaller bites meant that vertical or niche marketing was easier than ever.

Well, it looks good on paper. I was thinking about the publishing industry. Years ago if you got picked up by a publisher you knew you would get ‘some’ promotion. Yes, you would only get a percentage of the sales price but a lot of grunt work – like design, layout, covers, publicity, etc. – was done for you.

Now everyone is on the self-publishing bandwagon. I agree that it is great that you can be completely in change of creating your own book but that means you have to do all the marketing, too. How many of the self-publishing efforts really make any money? How many of the wanna-be bands who cut their own record and post it on You Tube really sell anything? How many boxes of books and cd’s are sitting in basements and garages? Or, is it all Print on Demand now?

There’s always the over night sensation story – the girl with the golden voice whose video goes viral, the underground book that hits the List. But to me it is sounding like the carrot and the donkey. I think I heard Stephen King is into self-publishing now. Not too risky for a guy who made it through traditional publishing channels until he didn’t need them anymore.

Whenever I get a new ‘like’ or ‘follower’ on my blogs, I usually go to their website and check out who they are and where they’re coming from. After a while I started to notice how many ‘readers’ were actually budding novelists or poets or writers of some sort – and I also noticed how many were hoping that blogging was the ticket to ride. Then I realized so many of the blogs were just preaching to the choir.  People who read blogs often write blogs. They are not that mass market that creates the best seller or caps a career.

So what am I saying? It was hard to ‘be successful’ (whatever that means!) twenty years ago and it is just as hard today, regardless of the new technologies that give everyone the chance to speak their piece, play their songs, make their connections. When it all comes down to it, you still have to get face to face, heart to heart. Right now there are so many avenues, so many choices, that it is almost paralyzing.

We have gone horizontal after being vertical for millennia. This is not wrong, but it certainly is different. And perhaps to be successful in this new horizontal world we need multiple connections and will have to be satisfied with less individuality.

In the future undertakings will be group efforts. There will be less overt authority but more covert domination. The individual will be subsumed by the mass. Perhaps this sounds too dystopian, too much brave new world and 1984. But I think it is coming, perhaps not for us but for our children.

Who would have thought a phone conversation with an old friend would lead to this ramble! Thanks for taking the ride with me.

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