Historically, most human communication has been multi-dimensional. Conversations in the home facilitated interactions between everyone. Discussions and negotiations in the marketplace and bazaar featured give-and-take between buyers and sellers. Town halls, parliaments, legislatures, and the like included back-and-forth interactive communication. In short, communication has been a “multi-dimensional activity in use.”
But, this has not been true of directed communication. That has typically been linear and primarily outbound. Kings talking to subjects. Preachers delivering sermons to the flock. Most notably, marketers talking at or to customers and prospects through various media forms. And, advertisers telling customers and prospects what they think is important, lauding their brands, and hoping to persuade customers to buy.
Most of our marketing communication approaches have formed as a result of media and message distribution formats. Delivering newspapers and magazines. Broadcasting through radio and television. Mailing messages and promotions to consumers’ homes. All these marketing communication systems have been one-way (outbound) and linear. One might think about the current communication systems as a set of Lego blocks. Fitting one piece of communication to another, trying to build a convincing set of messages to encourage the prospect to buy. [FIGURE 1]
Indeed, Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) was developed initially in just that outbound, linear, media dominant way. The initial IMC goal was to organize and align all marketing communication activities into an interlocking set of marketer-developed messages. It was assumed that would be more effective than individual ones. That was the “IMC way” up until 1994, the year the internet became commercial. That signified interactivity and sharing across physical boundaries and political borders. Thus, communication became truly multi-dimensional. Marketers could talk to multiple users using different messages and different channels. But, consumers could also talk to other consumers building a vast referral network of discussion, bias, gossip, give-and-take – all outside the control of the marketer. That was the first major change in IMC: adapting to a marketplace that had become interactive and multidimensional, somewhat similar to the Tinker Toy model. [FIGURE 2]
To meet those challenges, IMC was reorganized from an inside-out to an outside-in perspective. The IMC planner was taught to start with customers and work back to the marketer: identify the media forms the consumer used, the searches they conducted, the “selfies” they posted, and other forms of data and information to find insights into the consumer’s or customer’s needs, wants, desires, and requirements. The goal of this outside-in approach was to better understand the buyer so that more effective messages could be developed and delivered. And, that is where IMC still is today. Customer-focused, data-driven, message-oriented. [FIGURE 3]
The Question: Now What?
In January 2017, my colleague Frank Mulhern and I organized a group of IMC students to assist in taking IMC to the next level. The student team, consisting of Jianran Zeng, Arwen Li, Rujuta Gandhi, Zoe Liu, Mengwen Li, Yinxuan Ma, and Miao Deng, set to work to develop “IMC of the Future.” Their primary goal has been to develop a revised, revamped, and more relevant IMC process and methodology to fit today’s radically changed communication marketplace.
This will incorporate the many communication system changes such as the use of Big Data, the emerging forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI), social and interactive media, understanding of consumer networks and the referral marketplace, communication automation, and the host of other tools and techniques emerging on an almost daily basis. In an ever-evolving business landscape, this is a huge but important task for IMC faculty and students alike.
Following the completion of the student project, the approach and methodology will be discussed and agreed upon by the full IMC faculty at Northwestern University before it is formalized and prepared for the classroom. Once proven there, it can be taught and then offered to the professional community.
All members of the IMC team recognize the importance of this project. Today, we are working on what will become “IMC of the Future” – a project that will fundamentally redefine our approach to customer-centric marketing and pave the IMC pathway for the 21st century.
Written by Don Schultz, Professor Emeritus-in-Service at Northwestern Medill IMC
Edited by Aneesha Subramaniam, Medill IMC Class Of 2017