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We don’t need to imagine a marketplace where everyone has superpowers. The Internet promised us one in the first place. We just wasted two decades building out only the seller’s side first.

We’ve been thinking too small.

Specifically, we’ve been thinking about data as if it ought to be something big, when it’s just bits.

Your life in the networked world is no more about data than your body is about cells.

What matters most to us online is agency, not data. Agency is the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power (Merriam-Webster).

Nearly all the world’s martech and adtech practitioners assume we have no more agency in the marketplace than marketing provides us, which is kind of the way ranchers look at cattle. That’s why so many bad marketers assume, without irony, that it’s their sole responsibility to provide us with an “experience” on our “journey” down what they call a “funnel.”

And that’s why it’s hard for them to imagine anything for people that isn’t a grace of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and the rest of the marketing establishment.

Assuming the Internet is a grace of big companies and marketing is the biggest con of our time. It’s time to stop falling for it.

To see what’s possible, we can start with Marshall McLuhan, who says every new technology is “an extension of ourselves.” Also, “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

All human progress derives from tools humans have invented to extend personal agency. With those tools we have shaped our selves, our societies and our institutions—from the first wooden spear to the latest Android.

Thus Customertech — tools for customers — will inevitably enlarge our agency and change us in the process. For the better.

So much better, in fact, that we will have superpowers.

For example, with customertech, we can —

When customertech gives us these superpowers, the marketplace will become a Marvel-like universe filled with enhanced individuals. Trust me: this will be just as good for business as it will for each of us. Because enhanced customers enhance the businesses that engage them.

We can’t get there if all we’re thinking about is data.

We can get there if customertech developers deliver the goods listed above, and martech is ready to engage.

Why martech? Because there are a LOT of martech providers out there, and a couple thousand of them liked what I told them about customertech a couple weeks ago at the Martech conference. (I’ll put the speech up soon.)

Here is what martech looks like right now:

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Logos of 5,381 companies are pasted in there. Click on the link above for a full-size version that shows them all, in full glory.

And here is how martech has grown in the last few years:

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(Hats off to Scott Brinker for the gargantuan amount of work it must take to put those together every year.)

It will be interesting to see what parts of martech survive after adtech collapses this year. That’s what I’ve been predicting in People vs. Adtech. And now Forrester says it’s end times for digital and display advertising (writes @LisaLacy in The Drum). Forrester thumps the report (very expensive, behind a paywall) with the headline The End Of Advertising As We Know It, and the subhead “CMOs Should Shift Billions From Ad Interruptions To Branded Relationships.”

Inside Radio, which presumably has access to some of the report, says “Forrester predicts three trends ahead:

  1. A shift from spending toward ‘branded relationships.’ Some 56% of consumers are now seeking deeper connections with brands through intelligent, conversational relationships.

What we see here is an industry is talking to itself, smoking its own exhaust, mistaking figure for ground.

The figure is advertising. The ground is the marketplace, which is made of people, also called customers.

Those people have made it abundantly clear that they are done with advertising. They also don’t care about brands. As Bob Hoffman explains in There’s no bullshit like brand bullshit,

Okay, just for the record let’s state the obvious:

• Yes, having a strong brand is very valuable.

• Yes, the highest goal of advertising is to create a strong brand.

Now, let’s get to the bullshit

• No, for the most part consumers are not in love with brands

• No, consumers do not want want to have a conversation with your brand, or an “authentic relationship” with it, or co-create with it, or engage with it, or dance with it, or take a shower with it.

They want it to work well, taste good, be reasonably priced, and look pretty. End of story.

As I’ve said about a million times (and Prof. Byron Sharp has said much more articulately in his book, How Brands Grow) most of what we call “brand loyalty” is simply habit, convenience, mild satisfaction or easy availability.

I promise you, if Pepsi would disappear tomorrow, most Pepsi “loyalists” would switch over to Coke with very little psychological damage.

Nike devotees would throw on a pair of Adidas without having to enter rehab.

I’m with Bob, and so is the world. Nobody wants a “customized experience“ from a “branded intelligent agent.” Especially after customers get enhanced by customertech, and have truly intelligent agents of their own.

What martech really needs to do, and CMOs along with it, is get ready to dance with customers who take the lead.

The companies that win will be the ones ready to engage with customers enhanced by superpowers, including those listed above. The ones that lose will be smoking the same old exhaust.

By the way, I made this same case to Mozilla in December 2015, on the last day I consulted the company that year. I did it through a talk called Giving Users Superpowers at an all-hands event called Mozlando. I don’t normally use slides, but this time I did, leveraging some of the very slides Mozilla keynoters showed earlier, which I shot with my phone from the audience. Download the slide deck here, and be sure to view it with the speaker’s notes showing. The advice I give in it is still good.

BTW, a big HT to @SeanBohan for the superpowers metaphor, starting with the title (which he gave me) for the Mozlando talk.

Bonus link: Kevin Cox’s Technology Matters, which lists fifteen ways his customertech, employing complex adaptive systems, gives customers superpowers.

The first version of this post appeared at ProjectVRM earlier today.

Written by

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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