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What the Renaissance can teach marketers

By Russ Fradin, CEO, Dynamic Signal

FORTUNE — I’m fascinated by the story of Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua at the end of the 15th century. For many years, Gonzaga had been viewed as a young, untested leader. Then, he went off to fight for Italy against the French and, depending on whom you talked to, scored an impressive victory at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495. Eager to enhance his reputation as a valiant soldier and liberator throughout northern Italy, Gonzaga commissioned an aging but accomplished artist named Andrea Mantegna to paint him in a most flattering light. This indelible image — now hanging in the Louvre — was seen by thousands of 15th and 16th century visitors to the Renaissance church in Mantua each year, and it helped solidify Gonzaga’s political power far and wide. Mantegna’s ability to change the conversation for Gonzaga has real relevance today; and, as the following piece shows, modern marketers and social network influencers can benefit by joining forces in order to win over the consumers who currently inhabit our brand-hungry world.

The Renaissance patronage model of the late 15th and early 16th centuries led to a host of lucrative, mutually beneficial, and reputation-enhancing relationships between political leaders and artists. The commissioned artwork that resulted from these partnerships helped change the public conversation — and deeply influenced the citizenry — throughout northern Italy during this dynamic period.

But even though the communications media back then were frescoes, altarpieces and chiseled marble — as opposed to today’s blogs, podcasts and user-generated Web videos — marketers seeking to enrich their social media campaigns, and digital content creators seeking to gain increased exposure, can learn a lot from what went on 500 years ago.

With that in mind, here are a handful of parallels that link the Renaissance patronage model with the new social marketing model:

• Significant Change — Like today, the Renaissance was a period of extreme innovation. New technologies, fresh scientific thought and breakthrough business models punctuated the Tuscan landscape in the same way that they dot Silicon Valley in 2011. And, a rising political and merchant class in a burgeoning capitalistic society just out of the Dark Ages sought as much sway as brand marketers on the emerging 21st century social Web.

• Visible Content — It was just as difficult for the aspiring leaders of Renaissance society to reach their target audiences as it is for digital marketers today. Late 15th and early 16th century society was fluid and fragmented; most people still lived in isolated hill towns; and, increasingly, a sense of individualism was taking hold. Just as significantly, the Roman Catholic Church, which had exerted the same cohesive and gravitational pull as 20th century mass media, was being challenged. As a result, separate and distinctive works of public art were commissioned by newly wealthy patrons in order to influence citizens and communities. This visible content — in churches, piazzas and palazzos – was every bit as persuasive as what we see and read on the Web right now.

• Different Objectives — In the same way as their digital marketing counterparts today, Renaissance patrons used a variety of positioning techniques to help shape the desired content messages that were embedded in the art they commissioned; back then, however, it was called “self-fashioning.” And the way patrons self-fashioned depended on their ultimate marketing objectives. Did they want to trumpet their connections to the powerful, or curry favor with other members of the elite? Did they want to show their commercial credit-worthiness? Or did they want to serve the people in elective office?

• Multiple Audiences — Building a robust and sustainable brand franchise today means segmenting a host of different audiences on the Web. Renaissance art patrons understood this, too. But they tended to divide their target audience into three major slices: current citizens, whose immediate support was necessary; future citizens, who would judge for posterity; and, despite the questions about the Church’s power and role, Heavenly citizens, whose opinion would truly matter after death.

• Valuing Content Creators — Just as many digital marketers today have turned to influential content creators on the Web to help reach their intended audiences, Renaissance patrons sought the paid help of northern Italian artists to get their messages across. And, like many bloggers in 2011, painters and sculptors in 1511 were fighting for respect, recognition — and a public voice. In both cases – whether engaging with wealthy Renaissance patrons, or established digital brands — we see content creators gaining in exposure and stature.

• Shaping Content — Renaissance patrons claimed that they wanted their artist-influencers to create distinctive canvases, frescoes and sculptures independently, without any financial strings attached. But, five centuries later, we know that the patrons’ demands for self-promotion dramatically affected the nature, content and appearance of Renaissance art. The most sophisticated marketers today understand that in order to entice influencers to become effective brand advocates there has to be a more authentic process, characterized by the establishment of meaningful relationships that are based on trust and transparency.

Russ Fradin is the CEO of Dynamic Signal. Dynamic Signal provides white-label technology and services to help brand marketers run social campaigns in collaboration with influential and brand-loyal consumers.Dynamic Signal was founded in 2010, and is composed of digital media veterans from Adify, comScore, Yahoo, RealNetworks, and Google, and is backed by Trinity Ventures, Cox Enterprises, and prominent angel investors.