So Where Exactly Is Competitive Advantage?

Reading an article by Alexander Repiev struck a chord with me. Intringuingly titled The Augean Stables of Academic Marketing I had to confess I didn’t know what Augean meant. Googling to find a defnition I was shocked at the bluntness of its meaning.“extremely filthy from long neglect” said Princeton.

“Requiring heroic efforts of cleaning or correction” said the freedictionary.com

“resembling the Augean stables in filthiness or degradation.” said dictionary.com

Is this really state of marketing theory? The notion of Augean coming from the fifth labour of Hercules whose task was to clean up the stables of King Augeus who had been remiss in keeping on top of the job for years.

Alexander Repiev has choosen a powerful metaphor for his take on extant marketing knowledge and practice. I have a hunch he’s on to something. The marketing stable probably needs a spring clean.

No more so it seems than with the apparent uncritical reliance on classic marketing frameworks and tools. Do the analysis and out will pop the answer. Those “Quenchers of Creativity” as Alexander calls them. I agree. Yes they are helpful in mapping a version of reality, and as he goes on to say “At best those matrices, chains, “analyses,” etc., are reminders, visualizations, etc.”

They nevertheless pre-dispose the marketeer to sterile analysis. To grey descriptions of ‘facts’. They make someone highly proficient at flying a ‘desk’ and completely unskilled in the social skills of business. When has a PEST analysis inspired anyone? How can a SWOT analysis encourage the spotting of patterns that connect? (Bateson) when their purpose and method is splitting into parts. Where is the conversation about issues of categorisation, where is the talk of both/and instead of either/or? How many times do we have to hear the puzzled calls of ‘so which box does this fit in?’ or ‘this could fit in more than one box!’.

The skill of analytical thinking is celebrated in the stable of Marketing to the exclusion of everything else and large numbers of marketeers are wading around knee deep in the muck it generates. Ah I hear you say ‘where there’s muck there’s money’, so let me be clear, I’m not arguing for a cessation of analysis. I am arguing for a re-balancing, a re-thinking, a re-imagining of what matters in marketing practice. Its as if the ‘skill’ of marketing is only regarded as skilled use of analytical problems tools. Use the analytical frameworks ‘properly’ and you ‘know’ how to do marketing. Know of a range of analytical frameworks and use them ‘properly’ and your competitive advantage will spring off the page. The personal responsibility for making sense is abdicated to a matrix.

The challenge facing the Marketing stable is its stability. Its stability of subject matter (despite claims of new and different, just how ‘new’ is viral really?) Its stability of Positivistic ontological and epistemological assumptions.And lying deep within its underlying core are ideological principles of awareness and understanding of ‘other’, of sense-making (Weick) a concern with challenging paradigms a passion for innovation, skill in generative thinking, systemic thinking, leadership, entrepreneurship, social influence, and organisational learning. These notions however have all been hived off from the essence of marketing thought into separate subject specialisms all stepping out on their own Herculean labours in the search for competitive advantage. Subject Specialisms that would rather be anything than associated with an intellectually adolescent-subject like marketing that is seen to be trapped in the lower reaches of Blooms taxonomy.

It seems Competitive Advantage has left the marketing stable, and perhaps the horse that’s bolted needs to be caught and brought back. Once the stable has been cleaned of course!

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A Curious Case of Social Media Addiction

I have been dabbling with social media and networking for over two years now. One of the things that has struck me are the similarities of between general social media and networking interaction and my knowledge of the gambling industry. What is especially curious is the way in which my role as a ‘blog poster’ casts me in the role of ‘player’ rather than ‘designer-developer’. The BBC news site carried an article on the 19th March 2010 titled Technology addicts offered treatment. This is a news theme that is covered from time to time and it got thinking about my own behaviour and the ways in which people engage (or not in social media/ networking activities)

Take this post for example. Its been a few weeks (again) since I posted. Lurking at the back of my mind has been a nagging concern about that. The little voice in my head has been saying “you really should write another post…go on…get on with it.” When the time or the headspace hasn’t been available to do this I notice I’ve become irrititable too “not the damn dog walking again…do I really have to fix the venetian blind?….can’t it wait!?. Minor signs of addiction onset? Quite possibily.

So how can social media/ networking addiction be explained? Well, my layman’s knowledge of addictive behaviours gleaned over a couple of decades in the gaming industry might offer some insights. If you want a more informed and professional view you should check out the UK’s leading expert in this area Professor Mark Griffiths

Lets take the The Illusion of Control. Psychologist Ellen Langer described this phenomenon wayback in the 1970s. It relates to the mistaken beliefs that people hold about how they can control the outcome of future events. It is closely related to what is called Gamblers Arrogance, which is where very regular gamblers believe they ‘can stop playing whenever they choose, they just choose to keep playing’. In my case its probably chasing the illusion of social influence! Writing a post gives a strong sense of ‘being in control’. From a formal academic perspective there are no peer review processes to go through (although social media peers will review what is written), and crucially there is no need to approach a publisher. I’m in control. I create the content, I press the ‘publish’ button. I can post or not post whenever I choose. Can’t I?

The curious thing about setting up a blog is that you begin to believe you have readership to serve. No posts and you’re letting your ‘public’ down. No posts and Google won’t regard your blog as fresh and you’ll be banished to the oblivion of search page 57. No posts and they won’t be cross posted to Twitter, Facebook, Friend Feed, Delicious, Reddit, Digg and all the other social networking sites you have diligently set up accounts for. Set up because without them you simply won’t be heard. You’ll have no reach. You’ll be a…nobody!

The most compulsive thing about social media/networking are the stats. Instant feedback. The quick hit (sic). The gambling industry runs on statistics. In particular ‘cash box’ take. The amount of money a game nets each hour/day/week. It is a powerful independent arbiter of just how appealling the game content is. For the social media/networking addict stats work in the same way. Post content, wall content, forum content is all driven by popularity metrics. Hits, clicks, followers. They all indicate how you are doing, how you are percieved. They drive compulsion. I recently helped a friend create a Squidoo article. The previous articles were getting between 5 and 20 readers a week. Writing one about Stefani Germanotta Before The Fame (That’s Lady Gaga to you and me folks) and my friend gets a whopping 250 readers a week. Now that is a buzz. That’s where the endorphins kick in and you want more of it, and the only way to get it is to write another post. Your’e in control. The outcome is down to you. You decide what’s written, where the links go, who they go to. Every editorial decision is yours. If it flies its down to you. If it flops its you again. It beats being an armchair football team manager hands down!

And so some posts are ignored, some are hugely popular, some nearly make it with a few readers but not enough to say its a top post. Now this is where another dimension of compulsion kicks in. Nearly writing a very popular post entices you to write ‘just one more’. Just like the gambler the next post is going to be ‘the big winner’. You have to best the last post, you study your previous form (from the stats) you talk to other professionals to get tips. You keep going and you are more likely to keep going if you had a popular post when you first started. This proves you can do it, you just have to re-create the magic.

So if social media/networking is as compulsive as this how come some people don’t engage? If anyone has set up a Ning community site they may have found that the world is not made up of technological obsessives. Not everyone is a technological determinist who believes that the next new widget will transform your life. I guess the answer lies in the fact that we are really dealing with a social not a technological phenomenon. Or is that too either/ or?

People aren’t addicted to ‘the technology’ they are addicted to what the technology ‘does’. If the technology doesn’t satisfy some personal or social need, or solve some personal or social problem then there is no way they can be ‘hooked’. Compulsive social connectors have the roots of their problem in issues of need for control and this includes a thirst for knowledge and gossip, need for independence and sense of self. People who get these needs satisfied in other ways in other ways probably don’t need to Blog, use Facebook, Twitter, or Ning. That doesn’t mean that as human beings they are not socially addicted!

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