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Can marketers learn from Buddhists?

Yesterday, as part of National Education Week, I audited several classes at my daughter’s high school. One of them, Non-Western Philosophy (yeah, high school has changed in the last 30 years), was starting a two-week study of Buddhism, starting with the life of the Buddha himself. It was the last place I’d have expected to be reminded of Internet marketing, but I was (maybe because I have a one-track mind).


Now understand, I’m a Christian. What I know about Buddhism fits snugly in a thimble. I’m not proud of it—it’s just true. So sitting in on a half-hour discussion of the Buddha’s life yesterday probably multiplied my knowledge of Buddhism tenfold, which wasn’t hard to do—until yesterday I didn’t know I was supposed to put “the” in front of “Buddha.”
But I was struck by the parallels in Buddhist thinking to what marketers must do to adapt to the Interent.
Buddhists, rather than manipulating the world to their ends, instead pursue an unrelenting path to enligtenment—whereby they understand the most important things. To succeed on the Internet, marketers must stop merely trying to get attention—they also must pay attention. Understanding who their customers are and what they need is achieved through listening to what customers say and watching what they do. Sure, marketers will always need to be persuasive (cynics would say manipulative), but the more they pursue enlightenment about their customers and their needs, the more in tune with them they will be.
The Buddha also encouraged his followers to put his teachings to the test, rather than trying to interpret what he said or what others say or write. This is also important to the modern marketer. Instead of tying ourselves in knots about best practices dreamed up by consultants and other soothsayers, we must test everything we do. Even if a smart consultant has seen a technique work ten times in a row does not mean it will work for your business. Only by constant experimentation and testing will you find what the best practices are for you.
In case you find all of this to be sacrilegious, understand that I am aware that the Buddha, were he alive today, is unlikley to have pursued a career in marketing. Much of the Buddha’s message was one that bordered on ascetism, and marketers (even on our best days) are motivated by money changing hands. But I wonder (armed with my 30-minute graduate degree in Buddhism) whether the Buddhist attitude toward money is healthy for marketers, also.
The Buddha seemed to be focused more on avoiding attachment to worldly things, such as money, rather than steering clear of money itself. If true, that also holds lessons for Internet marketers. Instead of focusing on quick-win sales, we need to do the right thing by our customers and expect that things will work out. It’s attachment to those outcomes that causes us to short-circuit the true path to marketing enlightenment.
And make no mistake about it. Adopting the approach of listening and watching customers instead of hawking products is as big a change as any religious conversion. Long-held beliefs are tested when we cut short the planning process and just get out there to interact with flesh-and-blood customers, measuring whether what we did was right or wrong.
It’s not comfortable, but not even the Buddha promised that life would be comfortable.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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