Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Designability & the Source of a Good Idea

Having been immersed in a variety of client- and agency-side projects lately, it's really interesting to witness the evolution in interactive process and protocol. UX (user experience) folks are acting more like designers, designers are acting more like information architects, and creative directors are expected on many levels to understand delivery systems and technology nuances. Like the very tools we've built and been offered to mash up, we are now mashing up skill-sets at a quick pace and in considerably high demand.

Razorfish's Consumer Experience Report last year really summed up this new movement in design sensibility, or "designability", and addressed a real need to re-examine how we look at building imagery, writing code, or even processing information. The real takeaway in all of this, in my humble opinion, is that good ideas are no longer the responsibility of a copywriter, art director or creative director, but that of anyone who is a stakeholder in the development of a brand or its respective products. That means if you happen to be sitting in the room, no matter if you're the junior account guy or the big boss, then you're a stakeholder and it's your undying pledge to the client to speak up. Put it this way, if creative agencies, for example, are being paid for their creativity, then fee generation should be commensurate with access to more than just a few folks who have been deemed "experts" on an account.

John Sweeney's now famous book "Innovation at the Speed of Laughter" taught us about the acceptance of all ideas. When you've spent any amount of time in an agency conference room, it's funny to think about how easily ideas get killed by ego and insecurity in a matter of minutes. Lately, however, I've noticed a pretty profound shift in thinking, and while there are plenty of folks in the room that will tell you why they don't like something, at least they're presenting a fairly sound argument and then listening to the rebuttle. It's amazing what a little economic adversity will do to open our minds.

So, getting back to the development process - and more specifically, designability - we can look at things such as a website, microsite, application or community platform as a point of commonality for the creative process. This is not only where all brand marketing functions can build a voice, but where an array of media can build and share their own. We all face a new and fantastic challenge, which is too somehow marry a compelling esthetic with engaging conversational dynamics. Further, we have to think in terms of scale so that our beautiful work can be improved upon and adaptable to the conversations that ensue and give a brand's perception its rapidly morphing shape in the world.

Keep reading, keep learning, keep wondering and keep developing. You don't have to be artistic to be creative, or creative to be artistic. You just have to be open to new ideas.

Through the Looking Graph

Our friends at eCairn have coined a brilliant new term for SEO called "Social Ecosystem Optimization" (trademark). Basically, the theory looks at computers as networks (cloud computing) and networks as messages (delivery-intent parallel). What makes this really unique is that it approaches the construct of brand connectivity in terms of social graphs that make up the currency which is spread outwardly (or inwardly, if you so choose). So, instead of thinking of social currency as content that is passed back and forth between influencers, you now can see it as real human capital. If you can accept this idea, the possibility of developing spheres of influence in a continuum seem far more plausible. Let's examine.

A couple posts back we touched upon the notion that time (the measurement of intervals between events) has created a silo that forces the hand of campaign development, as opposed to an ongoing conversation. The associated end-points often run the risk of precluding someone invested in a brand from perpetuating their advocacy, or quite simply, keeping that conversation alive and building upon it. Take the Motrin debacle, for example, a scenario in which one false move, along with a suffocating call-to-action and an immediate switch-back in brand perception, turned loyalists into angry detractors. But if a brand ecosystem can evolve in which the individual has no perceived restrictions on participation or respective value, then several possibilities are imminent:

- Spheres of influence take shape whereby sheer numbers (or quality of associations) and equity represent the truth (not a fictitious glimpse) and can "outweigh" unfair brand perceptions, or, fairly debate startling truths.

- Brand equity is a shared risk that engenders responsibility and examines human truths that can be associated with both negative and positive perceptions, in effect creating a "balance".

- The overlaps between spheres - areas of commonality - present new opportunities for product or service development, and in turn, feed directly back into the cycle that strengthens a given brand perception.

- Further, the individual now sits in a place of parallel existence with brand ambassadors, particularly those who are revered as celebrities in one form or another; therefore, the brand is truly humanized. 

So, what we are ultimately left with is that big ideas are those that transcend time, place and even circumstance. They can't really be encapsulated in a tag line or a positioning statement. More importantly, they reside within us, are formulated by us, and carried on through us.

As for search, as we've discussed before, the semantic web is quickly coming into view, peeking out just over the horizon. And as such, we are now faced with the wonderful challenge of optimizing real experiences, not just the values we ascribe to them.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The 10 Business Tenets of Social Media

We were hoping to avoid the whole "list thing" (everyone has a list, right?), but we figure any of you reading this can expand on it in your own way and share it with the rest of the blogosphere. So we'll start with a list, and then generate separate posts that feature the listed case studies speaking to each tenet. So enjoy.

1. This is not a popularity contest (be humble).

Life has become an extension of high school, which is why there is so much dissension in the workplace, and so many disconnects between brands and people. How do you think we got ourselves into a global economic crisis?

Let's not forget the point of being social: commonality. It's not just about you, it's about all of us, and creating what some call a "background of relatedness". It's precisely how our new President was elected.

Example: The Obama Campaign

2. Be real (share your experiences).

We also can't forget the importance of accountability and authenticity. Take responsibility not only for yourself, but for others around you. And when you speak, speak from the heart.

That said, people are fed thousands of advertising messages every day. We don't need better messages, we need better stories.

"Experience sharing" is what this is all about. Attach a product to an experience that's real. That'll get people talking about your brand. And buying your product.

Example: Yelp

3. It's not about being first to market, it's about being best to market.

The days of the internet gold rush are over. The speculative market is bust. We are left with two undeniable truths: brands and the stories behind those brands.

There are only five real stories to tell in the world (at least according to Shakespeare), and they've all been told numerous times. So narrate one of them with all the passion you can muster. And own it.

Example: American Express

4. Learn from your mistakes and those of others. Then help one another to improve the marketplace.

Adversity and defeat give us perspective. When we have perspective, we are successful.

If your market sector is heading south, then chances are so will your business. Marketplace stimulation is your best friend.

Example: eBay

5. Competition definitely breeds excellence. And leads to collective innovation.

Think it's counterintuitive for a "cool" brand with its own retail presence to join forces with the biggest retailer in the world? What about for that retailer to effectively allow an eCommerce provider to have a significant presence in its own stores?

Think again. Unlikely pairings are those that can spawn great successes.

Example: Apple, Wal-Mart & Amazon (peripherally) 

6. You're only as good as right now.

Remember yesterday. Think about tomorrow. But show people the value of now.

And if you do more listening than talking, you'll be surprised by what you hear.

Example: Twitter

7. Do it with higher purpose.

If the intent is there, there is fulfillment in everything that we do. Even the little things.

Social media marketing is not only about experiences, but the common interest drivers that lead us into those experiences, things such as social, environmental or political advocacy.

Example: Target

8. As individuals, we are the sum of our parts.

If people are considered to be cogs, there is no removing them from the machine, since "it" operates autonomously.

So do your part and feed the machine. It might end up paying your bills.

Example: Wikipedia

9. Profit requires participation.

The Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square were events representing incredible shifts in consciousness. These were not the work of one person, but many.

Business is no different. Allow each and every person - customers or employees - a voice, and enable him or her to share it. Then join the conversation and take action through equitable leadership.

Example: Dell/HP/Starbucks

10. Focus.

There are at least 22 specific channels of social media currently in use, with dozens more associated touch-points. It was only about 14 years ago that we were limited to print, broadcast and radio.

We've come a long way, but we've also managed to get in our own way as well. In reality, our experiences can mostly be recounted through a few specific details.

This is the challenge of any brand in its attempts to connect with people. As insightful as a brand experience can be, we need to be economic with the rhetoric that is used to bring people into that experience.

Example: Zappos


Any successful business requires social responsibility.

Whether you're ready to admit it or not, who you are in life is who you are at work. Which means that if you can't get along internally and in "the outside world", your brand will suffer and therefore your business will suffer.

As rudimentary as this seems, it is still one of the most glaring issues in corporate America today.

That said, those who have chosen to hide behind computer screens or PDAs can speak in a variety of new ways. Of course, there is nothing more valuable than a smile and a handshake (or a Coke and a smile). Just that now, social media platforms might help lead people to get to the handshake. And a smile.

And a whole lot more...

Rethinking Celebrity - A Media Responsibility?

Last week I read an article on Darryl Flea Virostko, a big wave surfer who recently bottomed out due to drug addiction, and is fighting hard to stay on the road to recovery. While he has a steady stream of supporters, the thing that really struck me about this story was the lack of support from the surf industry itself. In fact, not one of his sponsors called him out when he was spiraling out of control nor did they offer to lend him a helping hand. It got me thinking about the notion of celebrity, and the dichotomous nature of how we relate to people who have attained "star status". The media is often blamed for creating stories that can deflate the esteem of struggling stars, but the real culprits are us, the folks who live vicariously through a star and turn away from them the minute they exhibit flaws that make them human like the rest of us. Sports provide a good anecdotal backdrop for this discussion.

There seems to be a golden rule as a fan of celebrities: praise separation. Stars like the late basketball prodigy Len Bias are a great example of "grooming ignorance"; in other words, we rear them, praise them, in some ways help cultivate their talents, and then lead them out to pasture, often times losing sight of their formative development, or, forgetting about them as humans altogether. In Len's case, here was a guy - like Reggie Lewis after him - who had a heart condition to accompany a healthy coke addiction, and few people bothered to take notice or keep tabs on the guy off the court. When you look back at guys like Lawrence Taylor - who battled drug and gambling addictions for years while he was an NFL star - it makes you wonder how any sports franchise could ever be responsible for putting someone in that condition out on the field and actually feel good about it, let alone tally the value of their "player acquisition". They had to have known that there was a problem. More importantly, they had to have known that an athlete can't be held responsible, entirely of his own accord, when representing an organization. But they let it happen anyway, and this type of irresponsibility is enabling the destruction of the relationships we as fans have with these celebrities.

Given the amount of controversy that's settled within its ranks over the last few years (and especially the last few months), baseball is probably the most glaring example of accountability lost (perhaps it was never really there to begin with). It's an interesting issue to dissect because baseball players, like most professional athletes, are incredibly fortunate in that they are well-paid and enjoy access to resources most of us wish we could have. Conversely, the demands on their time are great, and the pressures to perform are enormous. For one thing, baseball has more minor leagues than any other sport. For another, any major leaguer who hits the DL (disabled list) is vulnerable to being sent down to triple or double-A, meaning your career can be over in a matter of minutes. Now, it's doubtful that someone like Alex Rodriguez would suffer this fate, especially with a contract and endorsements that will net him more than a quarter billion dollars over the next seven years, but the point is that his recent admission in taking anabolic steroids could lead him down a much darker road to perdition: his self-worth.

What have we become as a society, what right do we have, to admire these people as celebrities, idolize them, and then practically within the same breath, castigate them as people who are suddenly undeserving of our respect, and ultimately, our forgiveness

Media can't forgive, they can only tell the story. And typically one side of that story. The sides of us that allow for vulnerability - and respective emotions that are commonly unreasonable - are what make or break those celebrities as people. And if they are the ones taking great risk to realize the fantasy elements we wish we had the strength to pursue on our own, then the responsibility is shared, at least as it pertains to the value we ascribe to them

With respect to social media, well, the conversations that take shape can certainly help buffer against these pratfalls, but until executives like MLB commissioner Bud Selig start holding themselves accountable in providing spiritual and emotional guidance for these star athletes who feed their $17 million-a-year salaries, we will see more and more celebrities die by the narcissistic vine and likely slip into obscurity, if not ill-fate. Narcissism, by the way, is a bi-product of loneliness. It should be our personal mission as fans to make sure that these men (or women) do not lead lives of quiet desperation.

I've heard too many stories of retired athletes (many of whom I know or have met) who have re-entered civilian life, wandering listlessly without the skills to assimilate and succeed in new business or family environments. How can this be? How can someone who has the extraordinary courage to surf 50-foot waves or the incredible ability to hit 50 home runs not possess the transferable skills to make a substantial impact in the private sector, or at home? Why wouldn't we want to help these people, if nothing else, for our own benefit?

Instead of embracing and celebrating the gifts they've given us, all too often we look for these exceptionally talented people to fail. It's part of the"eggshell ego" we've built up on a foundation of collective insecurity and passive entitlements. What we should be doing is helping these folks become who they really are: transformational figures who have the potential to inspire us all, and in immensely positive ways.

It's time we start building real relationships with the celebrities we've grown to love. We are as much a part of them as they are us. And they need us now more than ever. After all, they are people too.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Psychology of Circumstance (The End of Campaigns As We Know Them?)

In looking back at some of the great forms of iconic media content created during my youth - everything from Life cereal's "Mikey", to SmithBarney's "We make money the old-fashioned way: we earn it", to Seinfeld's oddball scenarios (loved the "Frogger" episode) - the beauty of circumstance unfolds in such a way that challenges us to imagine how we can put ourselves in situations where even subtle things can produce extraordinary shifts in perception. It also calls into the question the means for engaging people in increments of time, as in the case of network programming or campaign constructs.

Media has created a pathology for us, and the content we identify with is the blueprint. After all, we do live vicariously through our favorite show characters, movie mavens and sports stars. What's changing now is not only the relationships we have with those icons, but the people behind them. Further, myriad new communications tools are leaving us to chance, so that our interactions are not so much scripted, but inspired and truly collaborative in nature.

When you examine the concept of an ad campaign - in which there are distinct in-points and end-points - this seems counterintuitive, and in many ways counterproductive to the idea that a brand should not be bound to a lifecycle, but rather built around affinities that give it immortality, or, a shared legacy. If we borrow from Heidegger for a moment and look at this from a metaphysical perspective, in which we accept that time is merely a manufactured device to establish intervals between events, then we can also assert that a brand's legacy is at great risk.  

Granted, we live in a world of convention, so compromise is important as well as something to be valued. So, we can't do away with time per se, but we can extend it and make it feel indefinite. Regarding content, as Faris Yakob recently stated, this function goes beyond a viral capacity and into a "spread" scenario. Which means that as marcom agents, we need to think about the legacy mechanisms of a brand in every piece of code we develop, every design we craft and every byline or storyline of copy we write. And we also need to think big picture: that these assets live in perpetuity as dynamic representations of the brand. There are a number of great agencies like AKQA, Razorfish and Tribal DDB who have built successful initiatives by paying close attention to this.

So let's stop thinking about media in terms of silos, and think about them in terms of scalability and adoption. Campaigns have been designed, in large part, to compartmentalize messaging. But when the functions of that messaging can live outside of time parameters and provide real utility and personalization, then we are creating a whole new world of possibility.

Nike/Livestrong's recent Hope Rides Again initiative is a great example of this. The effort is described as "building a grassroots movement to help raise awareness, fund research and end the stigma that many cancer survivors face". People are then inspired to show their commitment to this cause by "filling sidewalks, driveways" and other places within our everyday physical environment to show a statement of intent, in turn making the overall message individualistic and personal. The point here is that long after the little yellow boxes of chalk are distributed and the brand ambassadors are tasked with new jobs, the brand legacy will continue to develop and live on...or in this case, live strong

As for the psychological component of everyday circumstance, we need to remember that purchases, as well as the commitments we make to brand initiatives, are emotionally driven. The emotional self is loud and colorful, while the spiritual self is quiet and not rooted in language or rhetoric. This leaves us with an interesting quandary, which is to try to be in the moment so that the two parts of the self can communicate, and thus bring us into a state of enlightenment, where we are fulfilled in the choices we make. The key here is to examine behavior in such a way that we can identify some sort of context for "enlightened action".

It's time (pun intended) that we embraced this principle and deferred to human truth to lead the way, whether we are creating ads or simply going about our lives. So go out there and spread your message!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

ChiRunning Across the Media Landscape

In thinking about the notion of transmedia planning (engagement marketing) and the thoughtful expositions drawn out in Henry Jenkins' book, Convergence Culture, it struck me that the delicate practice of developing sound brand strategy and successful tactics is sort of like running through a marshland. Danny Dreyer's ChiRunning concept seems to be an interesting analogy/discipline for how we can navigate the wild and wooly landscape and align consumers with touch-points that keep them in safe harbor from the pratfalls of technology inhibition or "message envy". Let's explore.

There are four primary tenets to ChiRunning:

- Run injury free
- Increase efficiency with a mid-foot strike
- Increase your speed while reducing the effort
- Finish a pain-free marathon and look forward to running again

So, starting with the first tenet, running injury free, let's take this to mean that we can remove or reduce any transgressions relating to past brand experiences, i.e. "brand baggage". This is the first real thrust into reputation management. With a new campaign or open-ended initiative, we have an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and establish new parameters for conversational development, primarily through full disclosure and transparency. Further, by allowing consumers to become stakeholders, a weight is lifted in having to prescribe messaging or push sales. A new story is about to unfold, and it evolves through channels that are organic to idea- and experience-sharing, off- or online.

Now we've re-entered the landscape, and in increasing efficiency with a mid-foot strike, we are effectively riding the wave of mid-tail content and respective utilities that are on offer for these consumer advocates. Text, video, photos and other forms of social currency are gladly created and bartered, and the brand is providing tools to enable these experiences. The groundswell surges. Opinions take shape. In some cases, new product ideas are being developed. Most importantly, brand advocates are creating communities that begin to dictate the ebb-and-flow of branded conversation, and the content being created in and around that conversation hits specific focal points within the tail that raise the bar on quality.

At this next stage, we're increasing the speed at which these dialogues are being had and reducing the effort in guiding them. The relationship with the brand is becoming intimate. Social rules have been implemented. Crowdsourcing generates new insights, yet keeps the rules in check, allowing the brand to mature at a steady pace. Most remarkable, the brand, in taking on this new life and perspective, is responsible for an invisible parallel that puts people who share common interests in line with one another. The balance is undeniable.

Finally, we find ourselves, as brand stewards, running a pain-free marathon, exploring different media avenues, and protected by enough brand equity to be able to experiment without great risk. We can stage that event, Tweet-Up or conference podcast, or form that Ning group; if nothing else, we can see where we stand within specific environments. Our humility and transparency keeps us alive and well. And we look further to the road ahead...we look forward to running again.

Having made the traverse, we can now sit back, reflect and plan the next adventure, knowing that we may not necessarily be able to predict outcomes, but that we can adapt to them and shift our perception within the landscape at any time, and at any given place.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Google Voice: Indexing Real Life Into Search?

This post is a collaboration with our friends and colleagues at eCairn up in San Francisco - Laurent Pfertzel and Dominique Lahaix.

Google's recent move to become the gateway for "shaping the share of voice" (Grand Central) brings about some possibilities that will not only challenge the conventions established around search, but introduce some progressive new forms of thinking. For one thing, most content isn't found through typical search indexing; it has involved into "nanosearch" or "microsearch" functions - just look at how utilities like Twitter are dominating and populating fields of content. For another, we are about to contend with the first real iterations of the semantic web (artificial intelligence). Yet ironically (and somewhat counterintuitive to this), what we must really now consider is that our lives as a whole - our real lives - are now being indexed into search, and in more ways than we can imagine.

As we all know, Google made a fortune with its now famous "we organize the world information" mantra. Facebook, and to a large extent LinkedIn, in combination with other social networks and utilities, are about to do the same with their "we organize the world of people". Granted, the actual methods for monetization will continue to be a sticking point, but if there isn't proof in the pudding, Marketing Vox ran an interesting data-point on how things are rapidly shifting.

What does this mean for the Google pagerank algorithm? For nearly a decade, it's been the invisible cog that the Google machine uses to decide the most relevant information for a search. But the definition of "most relevant" has changed, and continues to change. It's becoming less content-driven as people engage in social media, and more about exchange links, videos, music and so on. By Tweeting a link or adding it to their Facebook page, people tell their connections what's relevant. Further, new search solutions are coming in with platforms that pose a serious threat to Google's monopoly in the world of relevance. As Nick Arnett said, "Twitter is a people-driven, massively parallel headline organizer".

As a very anecdotal data-point, when eCairn published the top 150 social media marketing blogs into its monitoring platform, to no surprise of the group, most of the traffic came from Twitter, Del.icio.us, FriendFeed and StumbleUpon, and far less from other blogs' inbound links or even Google search. Here's the detailed summary provided by Dominique Lahaix:

- One top blogger saw our list and tweeted it

- Twitter stated to bring a lot of traffic, initially individual tweets, then Twitter search

- Del.icio.us came second, as the news spread to more and more bookmarked people

- Almost at the same time we got StumbleUpon traffic

- Early the next day, people started making "derivatives" from our list (OPMLs) and it made the front page of ReadWriteWeb

- We got almost no traffic from search engines (max 100) although we're on page one (#6) for a Google search on "social media marketing blogs", #2 for "top social media blogs" and #8 for social media blogs

So here's where we're going with all of this: if Google doesn't want to see itself outpaced in the race to organize our internet life, perhaps they've purposely, and very wisely, chosen to invest beyond our current social infrastructure. The company, which spawns and supports a number of rising verticals through highly effective open source technology, seems to be looking at a much bigger prize: everyday experiences, and those that are not necessarily designated to, or definable by, offline or online functions. Hence we circle back to Grand Central, it's new voice recognition platform that will likely upend Skype's 400 million-strong captive user base and change the telecom game...among many other things.

So what are we really looking at here? To start, three factors come to mind:

1. Pieces of our "phone" conversations - at least those don't initially violate IP or privacy issues - will flood search queries.

2. These pieces will overtake content indices (text, video, podcasts, etc.) by the sheer volume of conversations.

3. Behavioral analytics (via AI) will take shape in the form of "active capture" versus "active reach".

To clarify, the nature of these conversations will lend themselves to a delivery mechanism in which topical elements or points of commonality previously established through "normal" search parameters will now be verified though real conversation. Further, there are a slew of revenue opportunities linked to micro-targeted environments, and it's certainly not inconceivable that that in this very same way, you will be able to connect people with specific ad content and/or messaging at a precise moment within a physical environment.

Think about it: you and a friend or colleague (or someone you've never met before) are having a chat about cheese at a conference, and all this chat is being broadcast and monitored through the Grand Central platform. When sub-topics like "curdling" or "melting" are mentioned, these exchanges are indexed into search. When queries are run - both on the consumer side and ad network side, for example - you are then strategically fed specific micro-messages on kiosks and digital banners/displays within the environment. You might even opt in to short-code for that cool looking curdling instrument you saw on one banner, and through your PDA, you've made a purchase in a matter of seconds.

What this presents to us is the notion that everyday exchanges will become these fairly stealth (i.e. non-intrusive) engagement points that feed the larger search machine, and, provide a reciprocal framework for accessing the things we want, when we want them. And this is only the beginning...

Friday, March 13, 2009

New Contributors

I'd like to take a moment and announce the arrival of two new contributors, and just let me say that I am thrilled by their involvement simply because I think that any platform that inspires and supports community should be authored by a collective of people who have unique and complementary perspectives.

Thor Clark is a friend and colleague who is a search expert, and cut his teeth for a number of years in paid inclusion at Yahoo! before venturing out on his own. His latest effort - GO Platforms - seeks to bring a unique and highly effective direct response offering to search. Thor and I (sounds like a bavarian tribe, doesn't it?) are also teaming up on two new open source utilities...stay tuned.

The other guy (who still needs to actually register as an author - eh hem) is Ezra Cooperstein, a content expert who spent his formative years at CurrentTV and is now leading the innovations practice at Initiative (2008 Media Agency of the Year) here in Los Angeles.

If anyone else out there who just so happens to read and like this blog wants to join in, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.


The Social Worktable, Pt.2

Normally I wouldn't "self-promote" (at least not shamelessly), but I figure that if the information could be useful, then why not. I wrote an article in iMedia Connection on the union of media and creative camps, which should provide specific examples of how the social worktable can really work (or fail).

Enjoy - and by all means, throw me some feedback!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Social Worktable

My girlfriend and I had dinner last night at a great local eatery called The Nook. The restaurant has a "community table" in the center of the floor, and our experience there got me thinking about how agencies have been trying to adopt and foster more collaborative environments, particularly between various creative, media and technology groups. 

Several years ago, a creative director friend of mine told me about how the agency Mother, London had set up literal workbenches in its offices. Apparently, no one, not even senior management, had their own space, and the concept did help establish a more "free-flowing" exchange of ideas. The intriguing thing is how this might have evolved.

When we initially sat down at the community table, not one person would exchange glances or make the slightest hint of eye contact. Clearly this was an infringement of personal space. But as we started eating, people at the table started to ease up a bit, and then a few comments were traded about dishes that were served to various folks around the table. Over the course of the meal, we didn't exactly befriend each other, but we did acknowledge that we were all sharing a culinary and cultural experience that was, at the very least, fun and interesting.

As a consultant, I'm starting to see a more progressive social dynamic in my experiences with brands and agencies. One agency in particular I'm working with has benefitted from its size (about 120 employees), and so, by default, client and internal development meetings seem very productive, and there is a mutual respect in the room - even for "outsiders" like myself. As important, what I've also noticed is that the leadership in the company make a concerted effort to "blend in"; group creative directors on up to the CEO establish a healthy presence amongst the various camps and are very active in keeping communication lines open. These folks are literally "on the floor", constantly there for support and a part of the conversation. The CEO even sits in his own cubicle area, opting for this instead of a glass house for an office, which sits directly across from him. He actually likes it, and you have to think that this can only send a positive message to agency employees and clients alike.

On the brand side, the challenges with sheer organizational size are understandable, although not insurmountable. I've noticed a shift here as well. The exchange of ideas have, in some cases, inspired certain groups within an organization to physically change places in order to pursue the development of concepts further, and ultimately, create greater chances for success. These moves are not often mandated by upper management (at least from what I can tell), and are supported by fellow employees. In one scenario, a mid-level manager opted to sit directly across from his direct report (a senior-level person) in order to be more "productive" and "in the know". The move has actually - much to his surprise and everyone else's - decreased his work hours and increased his workflow efficiency. Given our economic times and an accelerated need to generate sales, perhaps these are the little things we need to do in order to succeed...and succeed with some degree of "life balance".

So what does a "social worktable" look like? 

It can be any size really, but obviously big enough to accommodate every participant in the conversation. It should be warm, friendly and comfortable. It should have a fairly large and open surface. It should reside in a "strategic" location within the organization that channels and focuses the collective energy of the group (you might need to consult a spiritualist on this - I'm not kidding). There should be ample light and accessibility to a nearby restroom (had to throw that in ;). Perhaps it is made of wood for "human absorption". Most importantly, it is a place you look forward to visiting, and respect leaving. In other words, it is something that you take with you when you go back to your personal space, and something you make valuable contributions to when you return. It is, in effect, a living, breathing thing.

Bogged down in rhetoric and the sometimes unrealistic pressures to succeed, we tend to forget the purpose of why we work, or the altruistic drivers to succeed at what we do. We need to be reminded of this, and we need each other to do so. Much in the same way the Algonquin Round Table became a focal point for ideation, we are all knights of the social worktable. 

Time to innovate!

Can Behavior Really Be Predictive?

Google's announcement that it will be releasing two new behavioral targeting products begs the question as to whether we're still holding onto - and whether we should hold onto - the notion that consumer patterns are predictive in nature. It's an interesting move by Google, when you consider the fact, among other things, the search goliath has its own cookieless browser (Chrome), which is optimized for video/rich media delivery but not the more standard ad units the behavioral model currently uses. Perhaps given its sheer size and market capitalization, Google is looking to expand a few different slices of the pie and see what gains the most traction.

But let's first look at the nature of marketing and advertising in general, particularly as social media becomes more of a focal point in outreach and analytics. Advertising has been largely based on the idea that we can somehow calculate meaning. Marketing has been driven by the idea that we can somehow predict behavior. Media have traditionally sat in flux, waiting to blur the lines between them. And this is precisely where meaning gets lost, at least when it comes to "personalizing" ads.

Social media has taught us that "fixed" targets and "fixed" messages no longer have any real impact, and as such, there seems to be some significant value in the behavioral approach. The idea here is to effectively "retarget" or "remarket" a message or story based on user preferences. So I frequent a page, and based on browsing history and other factors relating to purchases, I will be fed ads that personalize or customize the experience to my needs and interests. If my interests change, so do the ads.

What we tend to forget, however, is that these preferences change at an incredible clip and change dynamically. Our sphere of influence - those people that we crowd around, converse and collaborate with -  can also change instantaneously, greatly affecting the environments we visit and how often we visit them. So will that same ad and its related content then travel with me? 

Preference-based environments are great provided that they provide great content, but as we've seen, display content for the most part is sub-par, which is also why CTRs are still abysmal. Further, as we as consumers seek more and more utility in the ad content we engage with, portability is almost always a sticking point. We've already witnessed this struggle with ad-supported content through the likes of platforms such as Joost and Slingbox. Hulu - which seems to have a much firmer grip on this ad model - also faces inherent challenges, especially with the decreasing demand on inventory and a greater demand on free, premium content.

Perhaps one way to reskin this cat is to adopt more of an online WOM (word of mouth) approach. When you look at the dynamic of word of mouth - in which you have the real-time ability to course-correct messaging based on direct consumer intelligence - it organically seems to work in concert with the retargeting concept. So, in theory, you garner feedback as an ad network or 3rd party vendor, redirect that flow of information, and based on mechanisms like meta- or microtagging, you then index and deliver the appropriate ad content. There are also platform providers/networks like TruEffect (not a 3rd party) who are levering consumer intelligence and "delivery visibility" to create a 1-1 relationship between the ad unit (brand) and the consumer.

This does not solve the redistribution problem (such as having affiliate options for placement based on "new" environments the user visits), but it does provide a window into the possibility of looking at ad content as something truly personal, and, potentially offers more options for a consumer within a particular online environment.  Cross-marketing (and cross-pollinating) messages has been one method to compensate for the devaluation of premium and remnant online inventory, but it is a discipline that is often debilitating to brands and cannibalizes the relationship they carry on with their advocacy bases - it is similar to what sites do when they try to upsell the crap out of you before you've even had the chance to make a simple purchase. So, we'll need to look for affiliate solutions that extend outside of an immediate environment, and media companies can explore new opportunities to "redirect and gather", not only ad content but sources of information as well as monitoring intent to purchase.

So is behavior still predictive? Maybe. But perhaps it is more adaptive than anything else. Remember that you can course-correct a message, but not necessarily a conversation - that is simply not up to you ("you" being a brand), it is up to the consumer. In a peripatetic world, committing to conversations versus set ideals seems to be the most logical means of existence.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Confessions of a Social Boomer

The following is a true story and an example that will be used to illustrate the power of web ubiquity in an upcoming book/treatise on social media as it relates to business (sorry, hopefully the promotional plug wasn't shameless - got to alert folks of stuff in the works ;)
The point of this piece is also to show how technographics supercede age or economics (unlike the traditional demographics), as well as geographics to a large extent.

I met "Dan" at my mother's Christmas party this last December at her boyfriend's home in Newport Beach, CA. Dan and his wife are relatively new friends of theirs from the neighborhood. Dan was fiddling with his iPhone, which caught my eye, so I decided to introduce myself. He was an affable guy, asked me what I did for a living, and after hearing a little bit about me, told me about his short but colorful love affair with the iPhone...and subsequently, all things social.

Dan is 63 years old and was a car dealership owner for over 35 years. He owned 6 dealerships across Southern California, until he transitioned the business entirely to his son, "Ricky", who is now 36. Dan's initial reason for retiring was, as he stated, "a result of consumer loyalty that was on the steady decline". In a nutshell, Dan felt that he was losing the relationships he had built for so long with his customer base and had internalized this. That is, until he got his new mobile phone.

Dan spends very little time, if any, in front of a computer. But he loves his iPhone; he has a Facebook app installed on it, which he uses constantly, along with his Google search app, eBay app and his Amazon app. He loves the fact that he has everything he needs on his phone. He also has discovered something remarkable about his little piece of technology: it keeps him in constant contact with his friends and family. More so than ever before, and in more ways than he ever imagined.

Here's where the story gets really interesting.

Dan started building up his classic car collection using his eBay app. He connected with "Bill", a 38-year-old guy and father of three in Salem, Massachusetts who was looking to sell a couple of old cars he had, but needed tips on restoration. Dan not only gave Bill the tips he needed, he showed Bill how to upload photos of the cars onto the eBay platform, as well as how to initiate strong opening and closing bids. Wanting to see their true value realized through auction, Dan watched the cars mix into the marketplace, and then, satisfied with the consensus, eventually bought the restored cars from Bill. Bill was so grateful that he started a common interest group on Facebook of restoration aficionados, and told all his friends and family out on California about Dan - billing him as a "real car guy" you should consider buying any car from.

Dan, out on California, started to see a groundswell of activity in a relatively short period of time. People were reaching out to him on Facebook and asking him to join new car consumer groups through eBay. He was building advocacy, simply through participation and sharing his experiences in the industry, as well as his core passion for classic cars. Further, he was fast becoming a subject matter expert, a fairly ironic designation considering his years in the auto industry. 

Dan shared his new discoveries with his son, Ricky, who was elated because he had been talking to all his friends about forming advocacy and common interest groups on Facebook, Ning and MySpace. Ricky went on and on about how a bunch of his friends had younger brothers (Millenials) who were in bands and were looking to stage local events to support certain environmental, social and political causes. A light bulb turned on.

Was it mentioned that Dan is retired? He is. It's just that it's relatively easy to get people to buy cars if they're interested in who you are and they can relate to you. So, Dan is now "semi-retired", and has a new-found love for cars, as well as a reinvigorated desire to advocate the brand that he has lived by for over three decades.

Dan and Ricky hold bi-monthly events at their dealerships, "mini festivals" if you will, that bring local communities together, mostly through philanthropy and in celebration of unique art and music culture. Their attendance has regularly averaged in the several hundreds to a few thousand. And they have a social media business model that is constantly evolving.

Ricky has a MySpace music page that acts as a promotional vehicle (pun intended), sponsored by the dealerships and co-sponsored by everyone from local after-market suppliers to grocers. Through Facebook, they have several group pages catering to different types of car and music aficionados, even those who like certain types of "driving music".  They've even identified an active group of classic "brand X" (their parent company brand) enthusiasts who are into swing and be-bop. 

Through Dan's status updates on his Facebook app, and Ricky's use of MySpace and Twitter, they are able to keep people in the loop on these events, as well as new promotions and related consumer product information. More importantly, they've enlisted the community to help them stage the very events that they sponsor.

As a result, the family dealership sales have been stronger than they ever have been in their 35-year history. And all of this has happened in spite of the parent company's sales being down overall by over 43%.

Fathom that.

Here are a few fun facts to consider:

Nearly 61% of US consumers who recently bought a mobile or wireless phone were influenced by online product reviews and user commentary, while 30% of purchasers were similarly influenced by blogs, according to the Media Influence on Consumer Choice survey by Ad-ology.

41% of Baby Boomer internet users have visited online social networks. A majority (61%) of these users in the US have visited sites that offer streaming or downloadable video (NPD group, September 2008).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Managing Hysteria & Empowering the Greater Good

One of my best friends called me the other day on the way home from work. He's a financial analyst for a local fund here in the LA area, and covers primarily small to mid-cap growth stocks in sectors such as technology and media. He's exceptional at what he does, and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that he examines the cultural aspects of how businesses succeed or fail. He embraces the notion of social currency and firmly believes in it; this was the topic of our conversation, and it got me thinking about hysteria's role in ultimately affecting positive change.

During the Great Depression, people did two main things: they entertained themselves, and they drank (perhaps they drank to entertain themselves). Some have construed this as a form of escapism. Roosevelt's assertions about big business excesses were certainly something to consider in cause and effect. Ayn Rand, a visionary who offered insights that defined a new generation of capitalists, dug deeper. She spoke of the human condition in terms of how socioeconomics create the drivers that dictate the ebb and flow of commerce. In times of great adversity, it would make sense to seek the comforts of culture, good or bad. They tell a compelling story about the desire to assimilate and create a background of relatedness with other people. And often times, this happens in our darkest hours.

Physician and author Niel Micklem in his book, The Nature of Hysteria, sums it up from a mythical viewpoint: "The history of hysteria's changing face in changing cultures makes a fascinating tale of a disease whose features lend themselves with readiness to publicity and yet remain to a large extent a mystery". This same pathology is what seems to exist within our cultural super-ego (from an earlier post "The Id, Ego & Super-Ego of the Social Media Mind"); it is something that regenerates itself, much in the same way we undergo economic cycles. Where we break those cycles is a true question of insight and determination.

If you can accept that "through darkness we are brought into light", even the more detestable or desperate acts of the human condition - things such as prostitution, substance abuse or thievery - can be put into new perspective. If we care to examine these underlying psychological drivers and match them with the environmental elements that condition our actions, we might find that there are windows of hope, as narrow as they may be, in the most unlikely places and at the most unlikely times. I'm using extreme examples here (and alluding to Biblical references) to illustrate the point that all people, irrespective of socioeconomics, crave to be loved and to share to share that love. One of the sobering challenges of life is that we often don't know how to. Or we don't think that we can because we've been conditioned to think this way.

Right now, a certain veil has been lifted. We can connect behind a screen. We can be inspired, even pushed, to get out from behind that screen and interact with someone in a real, physical space. When we speak of social currency, there are tangible assets that we share, but what we are really sharing is the possibility of being loved, accepted or quite simply, understood. When we make mistakes (which we do every single day), we tend to think of ourselves as failures in some way, a constant reminder of some story we have manufactured about ourselves at a formative point in our personal development. But the reality is that we can always restore our integrity, so when we make a mistake, and humble ourselves to see the lesson in that experience, we are actually succeeding at the highest level. Curious about your own evolution? Want to "quantify" it? Count how many times a day you restore your integrity through a handshake, a phone call...or dare I say a Tweet. Better yet, watch what happens to your life.

When Kevin Roberts (Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi) gave us "lovemarks", this was my takeaway. Despite some of the criticism he has received for producing material that was considered to be self-involved, I believe he touched upon something deeply ingrained in all of us. If you apply the lovemarks concept to corporate culture, you can recognize very progressive shifts in consciousness. Companies and brands become living, breathing things. And like the Berlin Wall or Tiananmen Square, these events are not the work of one person, but many.

This last week, the Dow sank to an unprecedented low, and some experts predict that it will likely fall further to something in the 4500 range. A stock index, much like any other marketplace, lives and dies on the vine of consumer confidence. Who engenders that confidence? Company cultures. Who defines those cultures? Company leaders. It ain't rocket science, but it is an exact science. And clearly there's no more room for excuses.

So when we look at the value of media, and we add in all the developing social media channels with which we can relate to one another, we begin to understand the why we are so powerful as communication agents. Because we help each other see the value in ourselves and each other. Great leaders and great managers live by this. They use media touch-points as gateways to create possibility. 

I personally believe that knowing what we possess that has yet to be realized (our potential for greatness), we should never experience anything like this again, no matter how cyclical economics can be. Call it what you will, Manifest Destiny or otherwise, we need to stop making excuses for ourselves and just act. The companies that are doing this are not only surviving, they are excelling and innovating, as well as helping to pave the way for our future.

As for the capital markets, perhaps speculation will give way to true performance, setting new benchmarks for a cultural evolution (or revolution, to look at it another way) that transcends all things business and all things personal.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Theory of Connectivity

If we look at business as a system of transactional values relating to human interaction, we can also look at the concept of ROI as a manifestation of business thinking that is catalyzed by enlightenment. Naturally, you might ask how this can be summarized in some formulaic way, so let's create a system of values in order to redefine what ROI really means. Just know that I'm taking cues from the likes of Guy Kawasaki, Charlene Li, Josh Bernoff, Ed Keller, Peter Kim, Andy Sernovitz, Al Reis, Alex Bogusky, David Droga, David Ogilvy, Lee Clow and a slew of other thought leaders here, so this theory isn't just coming out of left field. 

First, we must all remember that emotion drives purchase decisions. Underneath that, we look for purpose in just about everything we do, no matter how small the act. So the variables are then:


Now let's create simple equations for these variables:

E + P = A
(emotion plus purpose equals affinity)
P + T = E
(purpose plus truth equals emotion)
U + P = B
(utility plus purpose equals Brand)

We can rightfully assume that brands are people, so if we can deduce that brands also happen to be the businesses we run, then these variables are all reflexive. In other words, one variable can be removed from the equation, but all must exist in the "universe" of a brand in order for it to be successful.

Now let's go a step further. If we can accept that opinions shape the knowledge we develop and ultimately acquire as our own (such as what I am doing here through inspiration from the many people that I admire), then another fascinating thing happens: we have the opportunity to act in the moment. Remember that we are all capable of being enlightened when we think and act in the moment. So...

my business thinking + your business thinking = Enlightenment

If we refer to the variable of E, we can now establish that emotion drives enlightenment, a "sub-variant", if you will. Therefore, purchases are the culmination of emotional reflexivity. So when we are enlightened, we make purchases that we are not only confident about, but those that bring us closer to the relationship we have with a brand. In other words, our relationship with other people.

Think about it. Where does the term "human being" come from? Are you a human being? Moreover, are you being human

If you're suddenly overwhelmed by the concept, you should be. We're not wired to be in the moment. Which is why we're not always enlightened. But we can be, and we have plenty of opportunities to be in our daily lives. Whether we choose to capitalize on those opportunities is a matter of perspective, and I'm using "capitalize" in both senses of the word: to engage and to activate purchase.

So let's go back to practical application. Let's assume that your brand is your business. It's important to note here that this does not necessarily equate to sales. If you sell a product only a few times, you probably don't have a business. But if you allow people to invest in your brand, they'll buy your product without you having to "sell" them anything. And they'll keep buying it. Now that's good business.

We can now make the connection that investing in awareness (through the use of social media, for example) is as important, if not more important, than investing in things like direct response or direct marketing. Some media folks love to talk about how digital advertising, for instance, produces ROI. Not true. Digital advertising, along with carefully selected forms of other marketing or advertising channels, can produce ROI. But so can a guy selling you a household appliance on your doorstep. What increases sales is what you say to your friends after he leaves, regardless of whether that conversation happens on- or offline, or both.

That's ROI.

Social media, then, can be valued at a true Return on "Intent", not so much "Investment". Put it this way: do you buy your friends? If you do, then they're not really your friends anyway. No one wants to be bought and sold. It's called slavery. We're far too evolved for that nonsense.

All we need to do is pay attention to directly at what's in front of us. Sure, it can be a tall task given that we're constantly trying to play chicken across a superhighway of content and experiences...but it can be done. More specifically, people will talk about your brand if you give them a reason to do so. If you inspire them to do so. And they'll buy from you if they can develop informed opinions based on conversations with people they know and trust. The very same people who are your brand. 

Try out the Theory of Connectivity when you find yourself in the moment. Let me know what happens, I'd love to explore the possibilities with you. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Activation Proclamation

Susan Kuchinskas' article this week in iMedia Connection on location-based advertising spurred a few thoughts on the possibilities of media activation. It seems, in a really odd yet dynamic way, that we are headed for a reality in which real estate effectively plays a central role in building conversation and commerce like never before. Tony the Tiger's "Follow your nose, it always knows" will become something like "Follow your phone, the brand is throwing a stone". Sound a bit out there? Here are a few scenarios to ponder.

We can start by looking at how online utilities are creating new, portable "micro media" in airports, doctors' offices, restrooms, elevators, pizza shops, cars, service uniforms, people's arses...you name it. This is certainly not to say that just about anything and everything should be used for media placement. If I start seeing ads on status bars and embeddable banners, I think I am going to hurl. However, in organic consumer environments - places we frequent every day but don't necessarily spend "quality time" in - we have opportunities to engage in 1-1 conversations that are collaborative and unique.

Picture this: you and a friend are hanging out at the park and see a non-toxic "brand cloud" float by (yes, an actual cloud composed of vapor) that represents the image, and has the product info for, a new bike accessory kit. Okay, so you swipe at the thing, finding it intrusive and ridiculous, but your friend's brow raises because it just so happens that that he has his nephew's birthday coming up and has no clue what to get him. You can pretty much guess what happens next. Your friend enters the "x branded" community on his phone, gets immediate ratings and reviews on the product, finds another "friend" just a skip away in the park to talk to about it, then follows a microblog update to the nearest retail location. He even suggests a mashup for the product's utility and uploads a version of it. And the best part? You, the annoyed one, get to watch the cloud evaporate harmlessly into the atmosphere.

The ubiquitous web - in which reading, writing, publishing and now manufacturing are becoming the core drivers - is leading us into a state of transformational consumer experiences. In fact, we can look at ubiquity through the lens of retail distribution. Wal-Mart and Apple's partnership in selling discounted iPhones is a clear indication that inventory and price-point no longer decrease the equity value of a brand, but on the contrary, make it more accessible. Then there's the new iPhone app that Amazon is offering in which people can take photos of items they want to buy, store them in a shopping cart, and then reference Amazon's entire catalog of items to complete purchases with a single click, usually at a discount. What this tells us is that the same brand advocate can co-exist in different consumer environments without cannibalizing a product's scale or reach, and more importantly, there are a multitude of options with which to activate that advocate's purchase intent.

If we can rightfully assume that this advocate's information and experience sharing is seamlessly transferred and made contextually relevant to other experiences in the real world, what's to stop "offline" media from making a serious resurgence, and playing a vital new role, in activation? Think of things like digital billboards, magazine layouts, kiosks, OOH displays, mobile stations and interactive keypads feeding into a single focal point: you. Perhaps your "carrier" source is your phone or your PDA, but the point is that you provide sensory input that transforms a simple experience like walking through a retail store, or better yet an airport bathroom, into an incredible data exchange. And all this, without having to be bothered or intruded upon.

Brands can look at this as a means to constantly reinvent their positioning in a world that craves individualistic ideals within environments that, by default, look for the approval of crowds. Not only can they tap directly into relatable elements that can spawn real-time community involvement from a single person, but they can be influential at all times and in all places (well, just about). These spheres of influence are what build real advocacy and loyalty in a society that seems to be changing by the second.

Keep your eyes peeled for what's careening around the corner... 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Id, Ego & Super-Ego of the Social Media Mind

I've met a lot of great people through social media. My career has certainly benefitted from the power of my network. What seems to have taken shape, however, is a certain elitism in the arena we've come to know as "social media marketing". This is not necessarily a bad thing, but really more of a fascinating case study in the way we think, particularly as marketers.

The Id, as Freud explains, is the part of the mind that focuses on selfishness and instant self-gratification. It is also, by Freud's calculation, "dark and inaccessible". When you think about the dynamics of social networking, this seems to call out an inherent need to discover the truth, and in some way or form, to be aligned with it. Social media groups are one example of this. You have a certain passion for something, some form of interest that has commonality, and you identify with it and identify with others through it. Yet when we actively engage with a group, we can discover certain barriers. Often there are heirarchies to observe,  respects to be paid, even background checks to undergo. Have you ever been rejected from a group? I have. And in all cases, I wasn't given "due process", or at least I didn't feel that I was. In the groups that I am a part of, there is a certain protocol to the way we communicate. This is usually a good thing, since as social animals, we do need rules. Where things get a bit challenging are instances in which "leaders" organically emerge, and sometimes they dictate the flow of informational exchanges to the extent where the integrity of an idea or an experience can get lost.

Which leads us to a place that can take us to a level of inflated self-worth: the ego. The social web often seems to placate to the whims of the ego. Blogs and microblogs, for example (and I hope I'm not stepping into my own land mine here ;), have become wonderful repositories for self-expression, but they have also have evolved into popularity contests and platforms for shameless self-promotion. Advertising industry blogs and forums are notorious for this. Again, don't get me wrong - there are a ton of great insights generated in these environments - but there is an element of "celebrity" evolving that, in my humble opinion, defeats the purpose of collaboration and idea sharing. If you don't believe me, try contacting one of these celebrities and see what happens...usually nothing. The best part is when, say, a celebrity asks you to follow them on Twitter, but they have no interest in following you. This is in large part due to the fact that they already have hundreds if not thousands of followers, and people they follow. And sure, you can DM somebody, but the point is to be reciprocal and equitable in your communications, to effectively be "in line" with everyone else. 

Then there are the ideals that comprise the super-ego. According to Wikipedia, the super-ego is described as a "type of conscience that punishes misbehavior with feelings of guilt. For example: having extra-marital affairs". Infidelity is an interesting analogy for this, especially when you consider that who we are in life is who we are at work.  So, in looking at the social media landscape, as marketers we have many loyalists and advocates that are ready to speak and act on our behalf...but are we always loyal to them? Are we looking out for their best interests in giving them a solid platform with which to speak? Are we truly engaged in the dialogues they've committed to starting or joining? More specifically, how many times have you seen a group page, network subset or community platform abandoned by a brand? 

This "cultural super-ego" within the social web is one that we all need to keep in check. If we're not careful, it could streamroll to a point where people become disenfranchised from the very groups or communities they've joined to share and hone their voices. On the bright side, it's also something we can carefully observe and learn from. All we have to remember as marketers is that people are ready and willing to share their perspectives, we just need to respect their contributions and keep those conversations ongoing, both online and off.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Monetizing the Microblog

Today's article in AdAge about Twitter's new push to derive revenue from search leaves me with some pretty mixed feelings. I'm all about finding ways to support services and utilities of great value, but this a very tricky challenge, especially when you consider the integrity of these platforms. 

Since YouTube's player was used as an example in the article, let's examine its use of search for a moment. Naturally, YouTube content is going to dominate search queries, after all, it's owned by Google and YouTube has the biggest captive network of users (including TV) arguably on the planet. As such, filtration and targeting remains partial. Take for example the latest Pizza Hut virals. If you watch this content on a YouTube player, you'll notice two things. First, the Google ads that overlay on the bottom third run Dominos text first in the rotation (or at least they did the last time I checked). Second, when you run a search for relevant content, Domino's mostly populates this field. Granted, Dominos likely has way more content that is available and indexed, but the point is that YouTube seems to be showing favor to the brand with most paid keywords, not necessarily the brand whose content we're seeking. 

So how does this affect a utility like Twitter or Plurk? Well, filtration and content management, which includes the quality and efficacy of searches, has been a hot-button issue amongst the Twitterati and microblogging community at large. The fact is that we need the improvements in this area, especially for those who have amassed a substantial following. The problem we face here is that if we monetize these improvements - which have been largely facilitated through open source tools like Twhirl and TweetDeck - we are potentially going against the grain of net neutrality. For one thing, paid search will inevitably control the ebb and flow of queries. For another, indexing will make it increasingly more difficult for individuals and smaller businesses to meta tag (or microtag) their content, whether it's text or video.

Much in the same way Facebook has endured harsh criticism from its user communities for plans to monetize data and ad-supported content, utilities like Twitter better tread lightly in charting this new course. One possible solution might be to focus on affiliate partnerships that capitalize on levering outreach programs, as opposed to focusing on the default mechanisms of search. This means that the platform itself should not be optimized for search, but rather the ways it can optimize other search efforts through things like interface customization or indexing exchanges within specific environments like blogs or forums.

We'll just have to see where this goes, but one thing's for sure, we've got a pretty powerful tool we can use to speak out about it...

TV 2.1 (or something like that...)

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes' announcement of a "TV Everywhere" plan raises an interesting debate over the claim that people should pay to have access to content through multiple channels of distribution. So basically, you pay a single fee to enjoy content streams over the web, phone and/or a cable box, regardless of frequency or in most cases, amount. While one can understand the need to produce a viable revenue model to support content development (after all, ad dollars have been paying for content), are media execs like Mr. Bewkes drastically underestimating the power of The Mid Tail? 

Let's start with share of viewership. Mr. Bewkes asserts that with this subscriber model, 85% of households would essentially be getting this access for free. But let's consider a likely scenario, which is that viewers will more often opt for a web-only or broadband service in lieu of a cable package. When you look at services like Hulu, and preference-based platforms like Slingbox, the numbers don't lie -- Hulu is now the 4th largest video service on the web. You also have to consider that video networks probably represent a larger captive base that most of the prime cable networks combined. There are rumblings that this is certainly the case with YouTube.  

Now let's look at the value of the content itself. There's a reason why people have been paying for premium channels, HDTV and on-demand services: because there is a greater demand for hi-fi content when the marketplace is saturated with mediocre channels and mediocre content. However, as the Tail extends and more concentrated pockets or niches of quality programming emerge, it seems that there will be less of a "direct" demand for hi-fi content simply because it will be readily available to you. Watch any show on VH1 or The Food Network, and you not only have great programming options, but plenty of options for interacting with that content beyond your TV.

Now we can consider the ramifications for an ad model and the demand on inventory. TV advertising is flat. Why? Because viewership is transitioning to a more "holistic" experience. This means that while people are watching more content on multimedia devices, they're also activated to watch more in their living room - recent ratings analyses support this correlation. In essence, the interactive hand is feeding the traditional hand and vice versa. This is a true form of convergence. So, there still seems to be a loyalty of sorts to ad-supported content, and it seems that the demand on inventory will continue to be, in many ways, dictated by the experience more so than the placement of content itself.

Which brings us to video advertising. Remember that adoption rate in households? Let's assume that the percentage of web-only services, per Mr. Bewkes's assumptions, trumps the 15% mark to something far more substantial - say 25% or 30%. This scenario begs a few questions, the main one being that if browsers are optimized to stream better and more interactive video content (Google Chrome, for example, is optimized for video streaming), then why charge for access to that content? Don't forget that people are willing to deal with ads if they are entertained. And as video platforms get better at delivering ads, and more importantly, integrating branded content, the ad dollar opportunities seem more and more promising.

So is Mr. Bewkes cannabalizing his own future for the need to control the access to content that is already readily available? Perhaps this may be the case. But there also may be some value to his thinking, which is that it will give the cable nets a chance to finally vet out their revenue models, as well as provide more viable options, within a media landscape that seems to be changing daily, if not hourly.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


An incredible phenomenon has emerged and is evolving thanks in large part to folks like HP, Dell, Starbucks, Oracle, Apple & Network Solutions. It's called "Suggestioneering" (registered trademark).

Suggestioneering is product development in which communities of people, or key influencers, gather to share ideas around a product and make recommendations relating to its scalability, promotion and/or utility. In a nutshell, you make suggestions to your peers, or people you don't necessarily know but have something in common with, about the products you use, would like to use, or know about. These could be mash-up concepts, or quite simply basic product ideas. You become the point of primary influence based on your behavioral traits and your content preferences. 

This is already happening within social media. These communities are rapidly taking shape, and suggestioneering merely formalizes and aggregates this community activation to the extent that the information you seek, and the products you endorse, are tied directly to quantifiable experiences you've had, or indirectly been a part of. Essentially, you ascribe an experience around or tied to a product that gives it the ultimate contextual relevance and utility. That experiential data is then indexed and organized in such a way that enables the search process to deliver suggestions to you and your peer group instantaneously.

Here's where things get really interesting. Technographic analysis is bringing us to a new level of targeting. Peer to peer relationships are forming between people who have profiles that were previously considered to be unlikely or unmatchable, and are now driven by common interest variables that not only activate the intent to act (such as making a purchase), but demonstrate actions that supercede age or economics. This means we have opportunities to mine powerful data without having to violate individual privacy. All we have to do is ask for information, and do so in an intelligent and aspirational way. Social media, in combination with other forms of innovative media, communications methods and technologies, allow us to have this access.

One such combination of social media and digital communication sharing is, and will continue to take shape in the form of, the semantic web (artificial intelligence). This is where language or rhetoric, and its choices in use, will create and determine new variables for suggestioneering. The remarkable thing is that these variables will constantly change...because they have to. And want to. This means that your words and subsequent actions are indexed and reconfigured to that you not only build your own sphere of influence, but that this sphere will mash up and cross over into other spheres of influence, providing the most qualitative, as well as quantifiable, information sharing experience imaginable. Just imagine if ex-New York Times columnist and linguistics philosopher William Safire had this kind of information to analyze, tell stories and create dialogues with.

Stay tuned as I expand on this topic with friend and colleague Jon Samsel, SVP of Online Marketing at Bank of America...