I recently watched a thought provoking TED talk by Eli Pariser on the dangers of Online “Filter Bubbles”.
Pariser noticed that Facebook and other social networks have started filtering what you see based on your actions on the site (Google's beginning to do the same with search results). In Eli's case, because he mainly clicked on the links of his liberal-minded contacts it started filtering out posts from his conservative contacts.
As he pointed out, what that does is create little “filter bubbles” around us online where we only get to see things we're already interested in, agree with, or are positive towards.
But, of course, as a sensible thinker – he doesn't want to just see the things he already agrees with. He wants to be challenged – to see alternative points of view (and so should we). Hence the danger of these filter bubbles.
Putting aside philosophy for one minute – it got me thinking about the impact on marketing.
I think we have a very similar situation going on. And it's about the difference between selling people what they need and what they want.
In the good old days (or bad old days, depending on your perspective) when marketing and selling was primarily in-person, you had a chance to “open your client's eyes” to what they really needed – even if they didn't originally realise it.
They didn't know they were paying way over the odds for their stationery. But when you got chatting to them at a networking event you were able to ask a few questions and help them see what was they were missing.
They didn't realise what an impact their poor leadership skills had on employee turnover and the growth of their business. But your presentation to the local chamber opened their eyes and they came up to see you after the event.
But nowadays, where so much of marketing has switched online, you just don't get those “eye opening” opportunties.
They might have come to your leadership seminar at the local chamber because they always go to chamber events and there wasn't much else on. On the web, there are a million choices and options for them to go elsewhere.
You might have had them as a captive audience for short discussion at that networking event. On the web, they just don't bother clicking on emails or discussion threads that they're not already interested in.
And they don't “bump into” you like they do in the face to face world. On the web, they search for what they want and if you don't match that, they never see you.
And with the increasing prevalence of filters, chances are they're not going to see anything at all you do on social media unless they're already interested in what you're saying before you say it.
So in other words, trying to sell what you know they need (even if they don't) is becoming inceasingly futile online. Like shouting into the wind.
What's the answer? How do you sell to people in filter bubbles?
It's not simple – but a good place to start is to switch your emphasis away from persuasion (from convincing whoever is in front of you that they really need what you have) and towards search (finding the people who already want what you have).
And if you do have something that people need but don't know they do, you've got to find some way of framing it in terms of what they already want.
They need to improve leadership skills? Couch it in terms of the business growth or improved productivity they already want.
Start with where they are, not where you want them to be and maybe you'll be able to break into their filter bubble
Many thanks to James Ward who introduced me to Eli Pariser's talk on TED, and to Julie Kay who added more thoughts on focusing on people who already know they need what you have.