FDR: Master of Marketing Technology

I just finished a wonderful book, The Defining Moment, by Jonathan Alter. The book focuses on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first 100 days in office, during which FDR successfully lifted the hopes of the American people from the depths of Great Depression-induced depression.

There are many facets to the story of FDR's first 100 days, but the one I want to focus on here is FDR's interest in creating an intimate conversation with the American people. Alter tells the story of Roosevelt sitting in the Oval Office writing his radio address, his first "Fireside Chat," less than a week after his 1933 inauguration. He looked out his window and saw a worker taking down the inauguration platform, and said to himself, "I want to give a speech that worker will understand." Then, while on the air, he imagined he was speaking one-on-one with this person. Often, just before giving a radio address, FDR would visualize a construction worker, an office worker, or a girl working in a store. The White House received thousands of letters from people who said they felt like the president was speaking directly to them as they sat by their radios.

For centuries, before the invention of microphones and public address systems, orators had to speak very loudly to reach large audiences. This stentorian style carried over into the early days of radio, with announcers using their booming voices in the only way they knew how. FDR was among the first to recognize the opportunity for intimacy that the new technology afforded, and he used this opportunity masterfully.

I believe that there are two kinds of technological innovations (which I describe in Chapter 1 of We): those that put barriers between you and your customers ("please enter your 16-digit credit card number") and those that bring you closer to your customers (the Apple Genius Bar reservation system). FDR taught us an important lesson. Instead of looking at the new tool of radio as a way to talk to 60 million people at one time, he looked at it as a chance to talk to one person, 60 million at a time.

[Read more by Steve Yastrow at yastrow.com.—CM]