Not another cliched Gutenberg blog post!

Not another cliched Gutenberg blog post!

Printing Press

It’s become way too common to compare the impact of the internet with the arrival of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press all the way back in 1440. Bloggers and conference speakers continue to argue that the web changes everything we know about marketing and business in much the same way that Gutenberg’s ink-stained wooden contraption supposedly changed what it was to be a writer or publisher.

Poppycock. I don’t mean to downplay the internet at all – after all, I still refer to the days before my home connection as ‘the dark time’ – but I would argue that it does little to change the fundamentals of marketing and business. Then again, I would argue the same about the printing press. What changed wasn’t how marketing worked or how people should relate to their consumers. It just made those elements even more important, if that were possible.

Consider if you were a writer back in the Fifteenth Century. Would you have changed how you wrote because of the printing press? Did grammar suddenly alter or words shift in meaning? Of course not. The job of being a writer changed not a jot. What was a good poem or novel or textbook before 1440 was still a damn good read after Gutenberg pulled the covers off his machine and started banging out bibles. What the printing press did was enable more people to read those fine words. It made the process of duplicating and spreading those words far easier than ever before, putting a whole industry of scribes out of work. It spread the conversation between the writer’s pen and the reader to exponentially more people, which is a far better analogy for how the internet has impacted business. Your job is no different, but the results can be spread further and easier.

The internet is merely a tool – or a series of tools – that allows anyone to amplify the same marketing principles that have held true for centuries. Not change them. Not ‘turn them upside down’ as some ‘marketing experts’ continue to shout. But amplify them.

The perception that marketing has somehow changed or that business must somehow behave differently has more to do with how business evolved away from those basic principles over the last one or two hundred years.

If you were able to wander a small village back in 1440, or even a few decades ago, you would come across shopkeepers who understood only too well the importance of building a strong relationship with the local community. You would see what we would call ‘reputation management’ at work in pubs and living rooms and town squares as people discussed the latest butcher’s special or the terrible service at the tea shop – and the efforts the business owners would put in to influencing or entering these conversations. Not that they would describe their casual chats with customers in such a manipulative-sounding way. These things were instinctive to any business owner; you want the customers to like you and what you offer! The business was beholden to the customer and not the other way around.

Yet the industrial revolution and the upscaling of every stage of the consumer process left far fewer opportunities for those conversations to happen or those relationships to be created. Corner shops have given way to supermarkets where you barely see the same checkout attendant twice. Cafes now fight for space with fast food joints where the mantra of customer service is “Do you want fries with that?” This led to a belief that the business was in control, dictating and broadcasting their will and with little concern for feedback or reputation management until such a time as these things impacted a balance sheet. Rather than describing the current move towards relationship marketing over the web as revolutionary or somehow new, we should really be looking at the last 100 to 150 years of business practice as an anomaly – a digression from the common sense marketing that has pervaded business since the first time someone swapped a few brightly coloured shells for a piece of meat.

The industrial-strength growth of business over the last two centuries has led to a perception that this was somehow what marketing has always been. Small businesses launching today are more likely to look towards the practices of big corporate leaders for examples of how to ‘behave’ in order to become successful, despite the truth that their ‘smallness’ is actually a virtue. It would probably make more sense in this new global village of the world wide web for the boardrooms to look to the small traders and village stores of old for an insight in how to maintain a strong customer base when everyone’s voice can be heard.

Instead of turning marketing theory upside down, the internet has actually turned it the right way up again, after a century or more of following the wrong path. If you want to call that a revolution, then I guess you can. After all, a wheel that turns always comes round to the top again.