David LaFontaine is larger than life. To explain that would take up all the space available for this entry. He is an ex-journalist who once (unsuccessfully, thank heavens) was targeted for revenge during the political turmoil of 1980s-era Venezuela. He followed that up by chasing celebrities as a tabloid reporter for the Hollywood Star. And those two facts barely scratch the surface of his sensational biography.

These days Dave is a Los Angeles-based, globe-trotting consultant to international news agencies and an author, academic, multimedia producer and consultant to various Silicon Valley startups. He is also a partner in DigitalFamily.com with his wife, fellow digital consultant Janine Warner.

I approached Dave recently to collect his thoughts on the challenges of post-modern marketing and product placement. Here is part of our conversation.

Kevin Featherly: What is the primary challenge that your Silicon Valley clients face?

Dave LaFontaine: When you get down to it, the challenge for just about any company these days really revolves around marketing. After you come up with your product, you’ve got to figure out how we get people aware that we have it and that it is worth reaching into their wallet and pulling out some hard earned shekels and laying it down for them.

KF: Meaning a product that is not recognized by the public is not really a product at all?

DL: Correct. And the problem that we are seeing now is that—as much as everyone is focusing on the breakdown in journalism and how newspapers are shrinking—really what is behind all this is that the advertising models are all broken. That’s because of fragmentation, millions of choices and the short attentions spans of the audience. It has become more and more difficult to get your message out to people.

I see this with the classes I teach [at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism]. I ask my students how many of you here watch TV on an actual TV? And maybe one hand will go up. How many watch all your video on a laptop or tablet or smart phone? All their hands go up. How do you hear about things? Well I hear about new stuff through social media, through my friends. That’s how I figure out if there is a new little gizmo that I want to buy or a new phone or this new must-have pair of shoes.

I don’t look for it, it finds me: You hear that more and more.

KF: I still do things the way I have always done them, but I also understand what it is to check out the extra extended, web-only interview for the Daily Show and I participate pretty avidly on social media. So I get both worlds. But these folks are only in one world?

DL: They are what we call Digital Natives. But really, everything old is new again. All it is is a reaffirmation of the oldest form of advertising and marketing—and the most powerful form still: word of mouth.

KF: What we are talking about here is product positioning. How is your thinking being directed in terms of coming up with a solution? Maybe there isn’t a solution, maybe there are a million of them and you have to pursue them all?

DL: You are getting to that wonderful quote that says, “Nothing works, but everything might.” There is not a silver bullet solution to this. You do a lot of stuff.

But it all comes down to storytelling—the ability to tell a good, compelling, shareable story is something that separates really, really successful companies from those that have good products but just don’t quite make it.

The example that everyone looks at now is Apple Corp. Apple has its base of fanboys—it’s complete fanatics who will buy iAnything.

KF: For now?

DL: For now. But that’s because the Apple story is the compelling one. They have this group of hardcore fans that will get excited whenever Apple is doing something and talk about it endlessly, and that is just basically free marketing and advertising for Apple.

What I’ve been trying to get these startups in Silicon Valley to realize is that your standard marking and advertising tropes, your standard P.R., doesn’t really work anymore in this world. This really formal voice of authority—it turns people off.

Topics: Design & Development, Digital Natives, DigitalFamily, Marketing, product positioning, word of mouth

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Kevin Featherly is a creative content specialist with more than two decades of experience in writing, videography, photography and graphics production. He is a former managing editor with Washington Post Newsweek Interactive and former news editor for McGraw-Hill’s Healthcare Informatics. Learn more about Kevin at: www.featherly.com