From Targets to Shapers

Advertisers are using new media to design
products based on input from users.

A basic shift in product design is happening, quickly and relatively quietly. Simultaneously, as new media fracture the mass audience and provide people with ever-expanding choices, traditional advertising is changing.

In this morning’s New York Times this change is explained. Consumers are being invited to help select attributes of new products by responding to web polls and other participatory devices.

Why is this important?

For several reasons. It demonstrates that competition is so strong today that products must be designed that consider the real needs of the user and not the perceived needs determined by the manufacturer. Responding to the needs of the customer gives the producer an edge in several ways.

It gives the product greater potential for acceptance and use. It demonstrates that the producer is listening to the customer. It gives the product word-of-mouth buzz which is the best form of advertising. It enhances the potential for acceptance of new products.

Why is this important to someone, such as church folks, not engaged in product design and manufacture, you might be asking. I think it’s instructive because it demonstrates that we must engage with people, listen to them and respond to their concerns if we are to have a relationship.

I hear criticism by some in the church that advertising outreach is peripheral to the task of real ministry. My concern is that this criticism misses the mark. We live in a culture in which communication through radio, television and on the web is so commonplace that it’s a part of the environment that we take for granted. These media are ways to engage people; not the only ways, to be sure, but they are so commonplace today that if you’re not using them, it’s quite likely you’re not reaching out to the potential audience that wants to hear from you and might want to get involved with you.

I don’t see these media nor these techniques as superfluous to the challenge of creating genuine community. I see them as one more opportunity in a digital world to listen to people, identify their needs and engage with them. Messages on these media can encourage them to consider engaging with a community in which their deeper, more profound needs can be addressed.

These needs are more important than consumer products. For example, an invitation can be extended to those who are searching for authentic contact with other people to a community in which they can experience meaningful relationships with others, grow in self-understanding of themselves as beings infused with sacred worth, explore lives that have purpose beyond material consumption, and discover opportunities to serve others who need support, encouragement and protection.

If we can utilize participatory media techniques to identify these desires and deliver invitations through new media to those searching for this community, why not do it? It’s short-sighted and theological questionable to behave otherwise.

So I’m watching how major marketers go about making this transition to new media and new engagement with their audiences. And I’m seeking greater understanding about how to communicate effectively and engage more meaningfully with people who are searching for more meaningful and purposeful lives.

In advertising this is a paradigm shift. In the faith community it isn’t. In advertising it’s about viewing people differently, from targets to shapers. But the faith community to which I belong has always viewed people as more than the sum of their purchasing power or consumption habits. It seeks to empower people to shape a more humane and compassionate world based on justice, purpose and hope, believing that this is the world we are given by a gracious God. Why wouldn’t we seek to engage people through all available means to empower them to understand life in this way?

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