After 20 Years of Marketing, What’s Changed?

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In this, our 20 year anniversary, we reflect on the most significant changes over our professional careers in marketing.

The Evolution of Marketing

There is no question that marketing has gone through a series of rapid changes over the last twenty years. Most of these changes have resulted from rapid changes in information and communication technology. Technology has changed the way we connect and communicate with people. It has changed the speed at which we communicate, increased the channels we use, and brought us closer than ever.

As a full source marketing resource, these changes have profoundly impacted who we are and what we do at Allegra. Our general mission has always been to add value to the local organizations we service. That includes providing the best marketing resources available to Surrey’s ever growing business community. In this, our 20 year anniversary, we reflect on all those changes which have brought us closer together today.

How They Find You (Inbound Marketing)

We think that, perhaps the most significant changes relate to how people find your business. Google has become one of the biggest companies in the world catering to this end. 20 years ago, business listings in print directories like YellowPages were essential. Many business owners were skeptical about investing in a website. And SEO was unheard of. Over time, however, Google continually improved the relevancy of their search results, added geolocal sensitive maps, and made the business website the central communication tool for the company. Consumers search first and browse later. Marketing investments also shifted from print directories, newspaper ads, and magazines, to websites, SEO, and search engine advertising. That’s not to say that traditional media is not used and unimportant, it’s just that the emphasis has changed and there are many more options.

Being easily found has been a consistent marketing goal. What has changed is where people search. Take word of mouth as an example. Word of mouth has always been very important to a business’ marketing goals. While traditional person to person communication still occurs, more in some industries than others perhaps, the emphasis now is on social communication. Sharing a video, for example, with all your social connections can result in that video going viral very quickly if all your connections, and their connections, and so on, do the same.

Even in terms of what is considered authoritative opinion has changed. Your friend might really recommend a new pizza shop. But that’s just one person’s taste. If you check them out on Google Maps, Facebook, or Yelp, you might see dozens of ratings and reviews, giving you a much broader perspective. One person’s word is not a good enough recommendation anymore.

That’s the same with most of the traditional media. Signs, for example, still function as a method for brand awareness. But even if you’re looking for a print shop, you drive by Allegra and see our front signage, you’re not necessarily going to stop and come in. You know that you can Google to find the location of all the print shops in South Surrey. Seeing one sign is like that one friend’s recommendation. Even if they repeat their opinion emphatically over and over again, what we want is the reassurance from others before we even step through the door.

Speaking of doors, 20 years ago, saying hello was either done by telephone or visiting the business location. Now it is primarily email, social media, or instant messaging. The door was a key performance indicator (KPI) for most of your marketing goals. Getting someone in the door meant that the marketing converted the stranger to a potential client. Again, it’s not that a location visit is not a KPI anymore, it’s just not the only one, and not even the most significant or valuable. Business relationships are often created far before there is any face to face, pushing the most significant marketing KPIs up the communication stream.

How You Find Them (Outbound Marketing)

I remember when we opened Allegra, primarily as a print shop, in 1997. One of the first employees we hired was a sales person. I remember a map on his wall of the local businesses obtained from the City of Surrey. His primary responsibility was visiting each business, obtaining the print purchaser’s contact information, and trying to arrange a meeting. Our marketing responsibility was giving our sales person the resources to sell our printing services. We kept our stock of marketing collateral, our business cards, promotional products, and brochures, stocked just for those purposes.

The marketing model itself hasn’t changed a whole lot, but the methods have. The print purchaser is not always at their business location, or they might not be available to meet. The business might not even have a business location. Many local businesses startup from home, and it’s not really appropriate to meet there. Face to face meetings are much further downstream in the sales process.

There were communication inefficiencies in the traditional method. If a print purchaser was happy and loyal to their printer, it would be a waste of time to try to convince them otherwise. If the business did very little printing, it would be a similar waste of time to sell them on our services. What sales persons needed was a crystal ball telling them who would be most interested in what they were selling. But of course, most didn’t.

Social media, to a degree, solves that problem without needing magic. Social media had been around long before businesses started using it for marketing. The most successful uses of social media were for dating. By targeting communications with just those potential dates who fit the profile of whomever you wanted to date, one wasn’t limited to just those they randomly happened to meet. You didn’t have to waste time getting to know their basic interests just to discover they weren’t compatible. This was especially advantages to those whose preferences were somewhat unique or niche.

For business, it became the same when companies like Facebook began focussing on collecting demographic data to the same degree Google was collecting website data. Today, sources like LinkedIn are the most efficient method for sales persons to find their best potential business dates. And Facebook and Twitter are some of the best sources for targeting advertising to very narrow demographics and interest groups.

Targeted marketing today is much more than retelling your brand story to include a particular demographic. It is much more literal. You can control who, where, and when your marketing message is communicated. And the results are unquestionable. Properly targeted marketing has far higher conversion rates. The reason is obvious. Just like the consumer has better tools for finding the services they need, businesses have better tools for finding the clients they need.

A bonus advantage is that even poor results, along with sufficient data, can teach a business about their true ideal market. Through our mistakes, we can learn our true customer. 20 years ago, targeting depended on intuition, psychological profiling, and very poor data to go with it. It was nearly impossible to determine that not meeting your marketing goals meant that your intuition, profiling and data were wrong. There was little data to suggest that a pivot in your target and brand would have better results. Today, we call those suggestions analytics insights, because they are based on clear marketing opportunities indicated by the wealth of data collected. Those insights save businesses and help them grow.

How We Market

The changes in marketing audiences and behavior as a result of changes in communications technology have resulted in an entire new suite of marketing tools for any size business or organization. Today, data driven analytics is as essential to marketing strategies as it is to investment strategies in other fields like stock trading. The demand for demonstrably results and return on marketing investment is higher than ever, and will only get more demanding as we head into a world of big data and the internet of things. 20 years ago, you might hire a marketing agency to develop a brand, then use that brand across your print and advertising. Now, even brand development is often thoroughly A/B tested with clearly defined KPIs.

The marketing department is much more than just your designated in house or outsourced marketers and sales persons. Especially with inbound marketing, nearly everyone in your business plays a role, often with use of social media. It’s normal for staff to contribute to the organization’s blog, post on social media, and interact with others who have shared professional interests. Professional development requires continual research, which often involves those sorts of social interactions. And the effectiveness of those posts and interactions are being tracked. The “marketing department” is more of a hub for marketing data analytics, providing the doers and decision makers feedback and insights into what is working and what is not.

I’ve already discussed how profoundly important the website is for centralizing a brand’s marketing efforts. But it can’t be stated enough because this is really a profound and significant difference from 20 years ago. Regular investment in one’s website is as important, if not more important, than a sales person or even a building rental. The website is how people find you. And there have evolved a suite of tools to help, along with a brand new expertise required for optimizing the website to get traffic. SEO professionals did not exist 20 years ago, just as social media influencers and marketers did not exist.

Website building technology has developed as well. We have everything from the DIY website builders like Wix to CMS technology like WordPress. The web developer is someone who can best utilize the technology to produce the desired results. 20 years ago, every website was hand coded. I remember because that’s how I did it. Flash and video formats were an emerging technology. They both took time to find their niche. Then there was the emergence of mobile technology. Website building technology has settled down somewhat, at least for now while we are waiting for the next technological disruptions in information. AI assisted builders might be next, again shifting the expertise upstream to those who can best utilize the AI assistance. A website must be much more than just a fancy interactive online brochure. It really needs to be the central hub for gathering and distributing a brand’s marketing and communications information, data, and cross-channel campaigns.

Cross-channel communications is not exactly new, but its ubiquitous use at even the small business level is unprecedented. 20 years ago, a larger company might use television, signs, and print advertising to push a seasonal message to market. A company may still use those traditional channels, in addition to search engine advertising, social media advertising across several sources, instant messaging, email, their website, youtube, and any combination of the numerous communications methods available.

I think that the most difficult transition for marketers and businesses alike has been the sheer explosion of marketing options, and they aren’t going to slow down. 20 years ago, a marketing consultant might have suggested what they had studied from general market research or psychology, or learnt from their own professional experience. We now know that that kind of advice is biased and overgeneralized. What works best for each business is as individualized as their particular audience. And there are just way too many available options to say that this or that combo done just this or that way is going to work best for everyone. But that’s again where the data and testing comes in. Because we can track, report, and analyze the marketing data, through repeated trial and error we can produce demonstrable evidence about which sources and channels, and even which combinations, are providing the best conversion returns for their costs. The success of a marketing campaign is not an absolute figure like total sales. Marketing success is a relative figure of continual improvement over multiple metrics. Today, the qualified marketing consultant is someone who can help you set up the process by which to test, track, report, and analyze your efforts so you can calculate and compare your returns to make the best possible business and marketing decisions for your business.

In any field which intersects with technology, the amount of time invested in professional development and research must increase at the same rate technology increases. Otherwise, one becomes obsolete in their profession. This is especially true for marketing professionals in any field. A marketing consultant doesn’t necessarily need to be an expert in every available option, but the marketing consultant must at least be aware of the available options. This is completely different from 20 years ago where marketing was much more of a mechanical process, once learned, often as a trade through apprenticeship, it was just a matter of improving one’s skills at that trade through experience. Going into the future, it’s possible that there will be so many options that no job is repeated twice. That means that the skills acquired to do the job will only ever be used once. Every new marketing campaign will require as much research as the last. Those working on the campaign will need to be fast learners, the sort of workers who know how best to learn new approaches and technologies. And the sorts of personalities who accept learning as a constant in the workplace.

What is Marketing?

The changes in marketing audiences and behavior as a result of changes in communications technology have also expanded what previously was considered the traditional marketing department, as well as our fundamental notions of what constitutes marketing. In a sense, the lines between between the message and the medium have become more blurry. As employees, consumers, business owners, and business service procurers, we are all both marketing, being marketed, and being marketed to, at the same time. With every choice we make, we play an essential role in both message and medium, for both inbound and outbound marketing, for messages both to and from us.

This is why every member of an organization needs to be considered as a valuable member of the marketing team. In a social world, everything we do is communicating something, even our responses to the communications we receive. The days of separating public and private communications are drawing to a close. We see these changes in how we view brands today, not just as product icons and logos, but more as integrated lifestyle trends. A business’ brand represents their culture throughout all their communications. Marketing doesn’t just stylize and promote that brand, it has to adapt to cultural changes as new staff and markets interpret and influence that brand culture.

What counts as marketing is ubiquitous. New marketing options will continue to challenge our definitions. Communications has been fundamental. But how we communicate has not. What we thought of as marketing 20 years ago is, in many cases, considered spam today. There needs to be something genuine in the communications methods, something personal and meaningful. As soon as you package marketing in a box or give it a label, it ceases to be genuine and effective. Whether the aim is to improve your SEO through better website content, connect with new potential leads through social media, or get viral brand awareness through guerilla marketing tactics, relevant and meaningful communications needs to be at the core.

I personally believe that relevant and meaningful communications has always been at the core of ethical marketing. Otherwise, marketing is indistinguishable from propaganda with the nefarious purpose of manufacturing political consent. I’d like to believe that people are getting wiser to such attempts at coercion through media. I’d like to believe that communications and information technology is making us better lie detectors. Exactly what is considered relevant and meaningful changes. And the means of communications exponentially evolves. Even people and their values change. But what fundamentally keeps us together is communication. And communication is impossible when it is ingenuine, irrelevant, and not meaningful.


Allegra genuinely wants to help businesses and nonprofit organizations succeed in their marketing and communications. We have 20 years of experience doing just that. Whether you’re a local startup company, small or mid-size business, independent graphic designer, print purchaser, or marketing agency, we’ve gathered the most comprehensive collection of marketing resources available under one roof in Surrey. Print anything, anywhere. Explore your marketing options. Expand your website and digital marketing presence. Combine traditional direct mailers with email, blog, and social media. Discover Allegra, your single source for marketing resources!

Contact Us Today For A Free Marketing Consultation Appointment!

Questions? Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!

Is there anything I’ve left out which you would like me to cover in this or a future post? Do you have any interesting case studies of your own you want to share? Do you completely disagree? Are you a marketing professional? If so, what changes have you seen in the course of your marketing career?

I’d love to know!

Tags: evolution of marketing, marketing, marketing evolution


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