Reaching the unreachable

Marketing, I think, can be divided into two eras.

The first, the biggest, the baddest and the most impressive was the era in which marketers were able to reach the unreachable. Ads could be used to interrupt people who weren’t intending to hear from you. PR could be used to get a story to show up on Oprah or in the paper, reaching people who weren’t seeking you out.

Sure, there were exceptions to this model (the Yellow Pages and the classifieds, for example), but generally speaking, the biggest wins for a marketer happened in this arena.

We’re watching it die.

The latest is the hand-wringing about the loss of the book review sections from major newspapers. Book publicists love these, because it’s a way of putting your book in front of people who weren’t looking for it. Oprah is a superstar because she has the power (the right? the expectation?) of regularly putting new ideas in front of people who weren’t looking for that particular thing.

Super Bowl ads? Another example of spending big money to reach the unreachable. This is almost irresistible to marketers.

Notice the almost.

In the last few years, this model is being replaced. Call it permission if you want, or turning the world into the Yellow Pages. The web is astonishingly bad at reaching the unreachable. Years ago, the home page banner at Yahoo was the hottest property on the web. That’s because lazy marketers could buy it and reach everyone.

Thanks to the Long Tail and to competition and to a billion websites and to busy schedules and selfish consumers, the unreachable are now truly unreachable.

If I want a book review, I’ll go read one. If I want to learn about turntables, I’ll go do that. Mass is still seductive, but mass is now so expensive, marketers are balking at buying it (notice how thin Time Magazine is these days? Nothing compared to Gourmet.)

And yet. And yet marketers still start every meeting and every memo with ideas about how to reach the unreachable. It’s not in our nature to do what actually works: start making products, services and stories that appeal to the reachable. Then do your best to build that group ever larger. Not by yelling at them, but by serving them.