The Humanity of the Pickle Barrel
As we've progressed, we've regressed.
Here’s the audio version of this newsletter:
“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” — Elbert Hubbard, 1911
You need a pickle barrel.
Not because you need to eat more vegetables (although your mom would still insist you do). But because you need more intimate and personal conversations.
I grew up in a small town in Connecticut — the kind with a town green and a white-steepled church, population 10,000. And I remember going with my mom or dad to the bank and the post office, and the teller or clerk behind the counter would know them by name. They might even ask how I was doing in school or on my baseball team.
It seems like a data-driven fantasy now, but those were the days when you didn’t need three forms of ID to pick up your mail or make a withdrawal. It was the way business was done.
Going back a few generations, the general store was a center of small-town life, where citizens would go for supplies.
But more than being simply a retail shop, it was a place to see fellow residents, swap stories, and even hear some gossip over the pickle barrel — a large, wooden barrel where pickles floated in brine and you picked one out. Typically, there was someone seated nearby, just watching, or maybe playing checkers.
They knew you; you knew them. Maybe they’d strike up a conversation with you. Or make a remark to the clerk behind the counter.
It felt like an extension of family. When you walked away from the general store, you felt like a person and not a number.
Outside of interacting with a small business, when is the last time you had a brand experience like that?
These days, we’re left to felt like we’re a statistic or a cog in a system. Two forms of ID, login, and an encrypted password later, we're left feeling positively inhuman.
“We want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of engineers.” — Winston Churchill, 1948
We were told that the great promise of social media was that it had the potential to bring back the humanity in business. In its earliest days, we heralded the opportunity to have conversations with customers, to get feedback from them directly, and to create 1:1 (or at least 1:few) interactions.
And yet… Where do we stand with that progress?
Every time a new social platform opens up, it falls prey to marketers. Where’s the humanity?
Now, I don’t begrudge a company from making money, and there are few options for social networks that don’t include some sort of advertising, but it somehow feels like Groundhog Day.
The internet has been around for two decades, and yet we’re seeing the same kinds of advertising that were prevalent when television was introduced. There has to be a better way.
Aside from platforms, advertisers themselves are under pressure with a huge increase in the use of ad blocking technology particularly Apple’s new privacy feature that explicitly asks iPhone users whether an app should be allowed to track them across the other apps and sites that they use.
The interruptive and annoying user experience is angering consumers, and they’re increasingly making the decision to install software to prevent advertising from taking over their browsing experience.
And now they have a way to withhold their data.
“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” — Edward O. Wilson, 2009
The point of all of this is that while advertising is still a necessary part of the content ecosystem online, marketing leaders need to find a better way to meet the expectations of consumers.
The decades-old, twice-broken model of advertising is outdated — the interruptive model didn’t work for television, and it made its way to the internet, and eventually to social media.
We need to wake up to the need for human interaction and stories.
Simply advertising to them is lazy. Perhaps it means a more hands-on style with a focus on community management in addition to paid media. There’s value in creating connections and leveraging relationships, especially when we have products and services that people genuinely care about or want to tell others about.
We’re on the precipice of losing the opportunity to create the long-promised personalized content that never seemed to materialize. If we want to create an emotional connection with consumers and leave a lasting impact, mass marketing is no longer the way forward.
We need to show the humanity behind the brand and demonstrate an interest in connecting with consumers the way they want to engage.
Then maybe we’ll be able to reclaim the pickle barrel conversations.
The next guest on the Timeless Leadership podcast is Tom Peters. Tom’s name is synonymous with excellence, and his latest book is a look at the urgency of excellence in how we show up as humans.
Join us at noon EDT on Thursday, May 13 on Fireside Chat.
If you miss it, you can listen to it on your preferred podcast player.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.