Tuesday, May 12, 2009

• What social marketing can learn from learner-centered education

If a lot of the philosophical language surrounding the new social network marketing sounds vaguely familiar, it should: we've heard it all before from the good folks in the educational field.

Beginning in the late sixties, picking up force in the seventies, and becoming the foundation of pedagogy in the eighties, the "learner-centered" approach to education called for a shift of control from teachers to students. The idea was that students were in a better position to know how they learned than were the teachers. Given the freedom to do so, students would essentially teach themselves, while the teachers simply provided the resources. To reflect this new approach, teachers were no longer "teachers," but "facilitators," while students became "learners." Lessons were no longer meant to be uni-directional, with one person standing in front of the class imparting information, but to be multi-directional, a "dialogue" in which the ideas and thoughts of the students were of equal, if not more importance than the authoritative course material.

Much the same has been occurring in the realm of social network marketing. Its proponents insist that the consumer is better positioned to know which advertising techniques work, and which don't. We are to move away from simply broadcasting information about our product or service in an authoritative and uni-directional fashion, choosing instead to engage in "conversations," the content of which is driven as much by the public as by the company trying to sell to them.

And how has this worked?

Well, in the educational field, it turned out that when you asked students (sorry, "learners") the most effective way of teaching them (sorry, "facilitating their education"), they responded by telling us to either entertain them, or leave them alone. Course curriculum became subject to whatever pop-culture trends were enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame at any given time, and classroom instruction turned into classroom discussions in which the only opinions that counted were those of the "learners."

Speaking as a college prof who is tasked with trying to teach the products of this system how to write a coherent sentence, I'd have to say it's been less than a resounding success. 
"After that I applied for [name of college] and had to write a English test to get in and believe it or not I passed with an excellent mark they even called me to welcome and congratulate me into the program, yeah I was just as surprised as you" (personal essay from student, aged 23)
The profound illiteracy and lack of general knowledge with which we're faced on a daily basis is disturbing -- not to mention debilitating to our motivation. The multi-billion dollar educational system is a sham, and we know it; but there's nothing we can do about it. Too much has been invested in the philosophy, and those most fully indoctrinated in it (public and high school teachers) are hardly likely to suddenly admit it's all been a big mistake. Meanwhile, those of us with the least indoctrination are in the post-secondary institutions, and therefore unable to bring about meaningful change where it would do the most good -- in the lower grades when students' minds are still open to learning.

In the advertising industry, things are showing signs of going in much the same direction. It turns out that when you ask consumers (sorry, "participants") the most effective way of advertising to them (sorry, "engaging them in brand conversations"), their response is eerily similar to that of the students: either entertain us, or leave us alone. In place of uni-directional ads, they want YouTube videos which can be remixed and redistributed to their friends. Instead of information about product features, price, and availability, they want to see the CEO of the company sending out 140 character Tweets about the boring meeting he's in. 

Speaking as an advertising commentator, I'd have to say that this, too, has been less than a resounding success. Despite the millions of words praising the effectiveness of social network marketing, there have been shockingly few examples of anything approaching a decent return on investment. Where companies set up their own social networking platforms, the only visitors they get are those already committed to the brand: which is fine, but the very nature of such platforms encourages confrontation, and those visitors can easily take offense if their comments or incidental complaints aren't dealt with in the fashion they expect. And where the brands are trying to invade pre-existing social networks, they open themselves up to mischievous attacks which have a far higher potential of going viral than do the brands' feeble attempts at being "hip."

The danger, of course, is that advertising, like education, will find itself overly-committed to a system that simply doesn't work; but which nobody is willing to step away from.

Students don't want to go to school, and if you ask them to redesign it to their liking, you end up with a social club. Likewise, consumers don't want advertising, and if you ask them to redesign it to their liking, you end up with...well, a social club.


Chuck Nyren May 12, 2009 at 4:26 PM  

Great comparison.

I've railed about WOMM ... well, ad nauseam. For the sake of the industry, I hope your piece goes viral!

Christopher Simpson May 12, 2009 at 4:44 PM  

Thanks, Chuck. It's too late for education -- I figure it will take at least another generation before the situation is so dire that even the educators admit something has to be done -- but there may still be hope for advertising. (The social-conscience side of me kind of wishes it were the other way around, though.)

Chuck Bonelli July 7, 2009 at 12:46 PM  

Maybe there is room for both... Those who connect traditionally will enjoy continued success.

Those who choose WOMM will connect with folks who don't even consider traditional advertising when making a decision.

The most successful will be those who integrate the message - multi-media & multi-method.

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