Opening Up a Can of… Marketing

OER philosophy

What might it mean to do ‘open marketing’? Would it involve being anti-strategic? Foregrounding mechanisms to opt out and ignore messaging? Making advertising and promotional materials that can be reused and repurposed? Demonstrating clarity, accessibility, and absolute truth on Twitter? Said another way, does open twist the objectives of marketing, or does it elicit new ways of understanding what marketing is in the first place?

These are questions I have been asking myself—and working on answering—since joining Rebus last summer. I find them compelling to chew on, partly given my previous histories in publishing, marketing and communications, and academia. At first, I thought the answers would be obvious. Then things got a little complex and fraught. Now (as I write this), certain answers are maybe getting clearer.

De-Commodifying Marketing

Broadly, marketing can be interpreted as the creation and activation of systems in which consumers and products interact. A product might be a material object, a service of some kind, or a more abstract offering—a club membership or volunteer opportunity, for example. It might be commercial, bought with currency and designed to generate value for the buyer. But a product might also be non-commercial, without an explicitly stated monetary price.

What’s more, products can also be non-physical, like ideas, beliefs, feelings, or senses of belonging. We also market these non-commercial, immaterial things, through efforts to convince other people of our arguments, our joys, and our perspectives on the world. In this case, the act of ‘consumption’ is more one of adoption or acceptance or alignment. And instead of the product becoming depleted over time, it may grow in diversity and extent, becoming a tenet, a movement, or a revolution.

Trade, Exchange, Translation

Within various trading systems, some kind of exchange generally takes place: money for an object; attention for an idea; effort for an effect. Often it is quite linear, and depends on an agreed-to convention that translates the value on one side of the exchange into the value of the other (e.g., one month of this software subscription is equal to $9.99).

This is where the idea of openness becomes interesting to me as a marketer. What if that exchange system stopped being so linearly translated? What if openness suggested ecosystemic flows, in which non-commodified value moves around cyclically? What if that value grew as it was moved around, rather than dissipating? Could ‘open marketing’ somehow create conditions in which systemic value increases, for all the members of the exchange/cycle/whorl/community?

Flashes from the Past

Although I was an academic for the last decade, my marketing past remains present to me: public and media relations for a science museum; advertising and promotion for several trade publishers; product and service consulting for corporations. This was my previous education, my training in conventional marketing.

More recently, I led a hybrid initiative for a food-focused university in Italy. It merged research and recruiting, public scholarship and communications. I travelled to 14 countries in 18 months, sharing ideas about education and storytelling and political action and local development. My intention was to create a space for understanding food as an “ecology of ecologies.” I was, ultimately, marketing an idea. Little money was involved. Instead, everyone put in whatever forms of value they had to offer (time, meeting space, food). Strikingly, this ethos sometimes hit friction. In one country, my prospective collaborators wanted to be paid—for their own time, for a room rental, for a caterer. There wasn’t really any space to negotiate this point on their side, and in the end we didn’t work together.

I think now that this project must have been my first foray into something like open marketing. And the major takeaway—one I’m still processing—is that trying to create an open system of value generation might be nice, but it also may not jibe with existing, ingrained systems of commerciality.

Back to the Present

So what does this mean for Rebus Community? Should we still deploy the (very useful) tools of ‘positioning’ and ‘convincing’ and ‘selling’ to reach prospective audiences, or is that anti-open? Joining a forum discussion thread may not involve cash, but users still have to put in time and attention. In return, our platform needs to return value, right? Broadly, then, what kind of exchange should open marketing enable? And how can open marketing keep playing nicely with other, existing systems of trade?

I see this as an opportunity to experiment, to twist and remix strategies, tools, processes, calls to action, and returns of value. Yes, one of our goals is to make sure people understand how to participate in the Rebus ecosystem, and to make it inviting and rewarding. But another goal is to leave space for those same people to generate value for themselves, for their institutions, and for open education more generally.

If all this happens together, then it might be that we are weaving open marketing into a larger ecosystem of publishing. If, so, it would mean that value keeps circulating and expanding in the community, and that opportunities to engage (or not) stay foregrounded. And it would also mean that we smile widely when ‘open marketing’ gets reinterpreted and remixed by the next person who chooses to do so.

Tell us how you would answer the questions David has posed. How do you approach the marketing of your open textbook? The conversation continues on the Rebus Community Platform.

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