Friday, May 29, 2009

Thin-Slicing Our Communication Streams (Being Personable)

95% of the web is hidden from us. It is a distribution and communication pipeline that, in the simplest of terms, cannot possibly reveal itself visually to all people, in all places and at all times, although ironically, it still exists within this construct.  But what if we could do our best to represent ourselves as brands in the best and most dynamic of ways? Further, what if we could connect via the grey spaces in between? The semantic part of the web is creating what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “adaptive unconscious”; this is a form of rapid cognition in which user-generated media (blog content, video content, podcasts, etc.) form patches of streaming thought that allow us to connect on a higher and more focused level. It is important, therefore, that we are heard, even if we can’t always be seen.

Thin-slicing, as Gladwell describes, is the process by which we can make quick, informed decisions. If we go step further, we can postulate that social media communication thin-slices tribal interaction, and marries brevity and poignancy in our active dialogues with each other. Being personable, therefore, allows us the chance to tap into our collective conscience so that our purchase decisions represent a value system that we all share. Further, those in hiding – people who exist within the grey spaces of the web and are not visible – have a new opportunity to participate and become influencers.

It may sound lofty, but a simple landing page on your website can serve as the gateway for one of the most important and prolific conversations you can have with potential advocates of your brand. And it all happens through the thin-slicing, or optimization, of your brand communication streams.

Every thought we convey in writing or through multimedia is a means of dynamic self-expression. Being personable is all about articulating our emotional touch-points beyond words and pictures and through utility. Utility allows each one of us to be relevant to others who want to be a part of or are already a part of the conversation. In other words, our conversation.

What brings about our conversation is essentially what Louis Cheskin describes as “sensation transference”. This means that our words represent very acute and powerful emotions that not only describe our state of being, but the desire to relate with others. Therefore, it is critical that we choose our words wisely when we represent ourselves to others, and of course this translates to the various forms of media we choose to deliver these modes of self-expression.

The currency we create in the form of words, pictures, videos or even gadgets reflect a part of ourselves that is indelible. If we consider the social web as its own grid or matrix, we become lifestreams that connect with a build new social graphs. In essence, we become an active and influential part of the world at large. Further, the connections we make are predicated on a foundation of common interest, making our dialogues transparent and authentic.

Bringing Our Social Personalities Into Application & Utility

Most people think of social media as a MySpace or Facebook page or an application or widget; these are merely micro-channels. Often times, they’re not even the most effective channels. The real power of social media is in the social graphs themselves – in people and their personalities. And this is a good thing too, because people own brands, not companies. In fact, people are brands.

The thing to understand about the social media phenomenon is that spontaneity isn’t random. The dialogues we carry on through social media are governed by a set of rules. And as humans, or social animals, we all need rules. In fact, when properly observed and respected, we thrive on them. Therefore, it is imperative that brands not only develop a strong personality, but establish boundaries, just as we do with our children or the people that we love. Our concern for their “digital balance” is what creates an element of trust and understanding as well as a clear line of communication.

Listening, and then responding appropriately, is key.  The “noise” that we experience where there are disconnects in communications – particularly amongst groups or tribes – is based on our need for validation, not for relatedness. So when we look beyond ourselves, and defer to the ebb-and-flow of our tribal communications, ideas and experiences of great value are allowed to flourish.

Giving and discerning the right amount and right kind of information creates and maintains a healthy digital balance, and carries over into any medium.

It’s easy to think of brand utility in terms of things that we can use. But where there is at times a void is when brand utilities no longer serve as relevant parts of our daily lives. This boils down to a fundamental failure in our line of communication, a stopping point in our ability to share or build conversation around communities of people.

While it is important to think about what a utility can offer, it is even more important to think about how it can scale. Utilities are really representative of the social graphs that grow and shift within the media landscape, which is precisely why the landscape constantly changes. In other words, we need to treat tools in the same way we treat people – with respect, creativity and inspiration.

Social utilities foster human interaction. So when we think of building a website or an application, we should think of how that platform or tool can make a real difference. We need to update it constantly. We need to respond and act. We need to give new participants a voice in an ongoing conversation. We need to ask advocates what it is they want, and then provide it for them, in real-time.

So instead of creating widgets, we create lifestreams. Instead of passing along badges, we pass along codes of conduct. Instead of conducting tweet-ups, we create movements.

Ultimately this shared responsibility we take on is representative of the cultural super-ego that exists within the social web. It is crucial to our evolution that we cultivate it with the utmost integrity and never know when you'll need a friend. Or a new tribe, for that matter

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Ubiquitous Web

These are exciting times in the world of digital (and all media for that matter). I personally believe we're still in the nascent stages of what is considered "Web 2.0", but I thought it might be helpful to summarize this transition towards "The Ubiquitous Web".

WEB 1.0 - reading & writing (static) "push" The Informational Web

WEB 2.0 - reading, writing & publishing (dynamic) "pull" The Influential Web

WEB 3.0 - reading, writing, publishing & manufacturing (transformational) "instantaneous" 
The Ubiquitous Web

Web destinations are steadily giving way to web applications. This does not mean that portals or other types of destination sites will go away entirely, but they will literally act as portals, or pass-through environments. Not only will functionality be a byproduct of user customization, but the components of those environments will be dynamic and modular in such a way that their use will become almost entirely transitory. 

Destinations represent the "static" that has become the world wide web. To boot, there are billions of choices out there. 

But what if we didn't have to choose anything? What of we could just be, whatever we wanted, wherever we wanted, at any given time?

Applications are providing the gateways for this shift into ubiquity.

In the not-so-distant future, people will create and promote their own products, using resources licensed from the brand and distribution tools given to them by their peers. As such, brands will always carry the value of their legacy. But the products they represent will constantly be changed and redefined.

Behold the present and embrace the future...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

MicroProgramming: The New Content Frontier

I remember when I was a writer/producer at NBC and the thought of tagging a promo with an actionable url (or just a url) was "revolutionary". Then with the advent of the content-rich web, it was interesting to hear how IPTV and VOD would fragment and destroy the television experience for viewers. Of course things have evolved much further, and multiple screens have become touch-points for an experience that seems to closely mirror some crazed, content chaos theory - if it's there, and it's cool, it's likely to be watched. 

Which is what makes content portals like Hulu so very interesting. With Disney's plunge into the mix, Hulu will likely go from the world's 4th largest captive network (including all cable nets), to something that may overtake everybody's favorite behemoth, YouTube. Now, keep in mind, this has very little to with the highly coveted "video content monetization model" (which has yet to take shape), or even content development (although it should), and everything to do with how we, as viewers, consume our media.

First, we have to consider the correlates between online content viewership and long-form content on your TV. Recent studies have shown that those folks who view topical, genre or show-specific content online are likely to seek out and watch this same content in their living room. Starz Online issued a detailed report to TelevisionWeek in January and Neilsen has backed this info up with findings of its own. To boot, folks like Integrated Media Measurement have reported that during most weeks, TV viewers are spending as much as 15% of their viewing time online. And, as Lead Researcher Amanda Welsh stated, "Rather than simply cannibalizing audiences as has been feared, offering content online presents a huge opportunity for television content providers to reach elusive ad-avoiding audiences and to achieve higher engagement with them."

Well, it's no wonder then that Primetime and cable nets like NBC, ABC, VH1, ESPN, GSN, Comedy Central and a host of others are all embracing the once-feared "fragmented" programming model - it actually works. Watch any of your favorite shows these days and you can join polls, forums, blog commentaries or video commentaries, most of it captured in real-time. You'll even see more cross-promotion (network to network) between competitors. Why? Because audiences are about shared interest; increase the market for shared viewership, and you can increase your piece of the pie.

Which brings us to how show content is being promoted online, such as it is on microblogs. Nearly every major network - prime, cable, online or otherwise - has a healthy presence on Twitter, and their updates flow like dynamically-enabled news content or RSS feeds...go figure. I'm a sports fan, so I get my updates from ESPN online, then go to the TV to watch specific clips. It's both interesting and bizarre because two things are evident: a) I now watch TV in intervals, and b) I still don't want to watch these clips on my computer or my iPhone. This may change, but for now, this is my experience, and I know I am not alone.

But there's another twist to this part of the story: search. Remember we mentioned YouTube earlier? Run any datapoint on social media, and you'll find that linking - not originally sourced content - is what gets page rank; in fact, we ran a case study on this in March, and sure enough, we found that most indices are flooded with links and cross-postings. What this tells us is that content may be king, but what people say about that content is even mightier. Hence the YouTube dilemma: microtagging videos ain't gonna do the trick, especially with a Google algorithm that doesn't seem, at this point, to filter or scale very well.

YouTube has another problem in the form of exclusive content and the accessibility of higher quality, mid-tail content. The networks got smart when they realized that a seemingly endless tail of marginal video content would take a hard left and inevitably force content providers to raise the bar on quality. Case and point: people are still paying for premium content, and they're doing this in large part because they're sick of watching recycled content on YouTube, or worse, home video stunts. When you look at average engagement time of video views - even the most popular - this points even further to the fact that good storytelling wins out. Let's see if YouTube can save face with its new content deals - don't count out any of the players in this programming game.

Finally, mobile has arrived (well, it's at least on the cusp of broadband greatness in the U.S.), and will offer up a flurry of hyper-targeted video content. In other words, MicroProgramming. It's taken quite a long time for mobile content to make its mark here - it was projected by some to be a $12B market by 2007 - but we now see a relationship formalizing between text or microblogging and content engagement. This is exciting.

It's funny because 10 years ago or so, we feared that we would be watching content in a small box. Well, that still may be true, but let's not forget that good programming is good programming, and we'll watch it in, on or around the most comfortable spaces we can find at any particular time.

Cheers to MicroProgramming. The new content frontier.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Theories Behind Connectivity - On Creativity & Marketing

On creativity...

Ideas cannot be broken down into silos, only people can. When people look beyond themselves, ideas happen.

You don't have to be artistic to be creative, or creative to be artistic.

You just have to be open to new ideas.

On marketing...

Do not confuse "belief" with "advocacy" or "evangelism". There is nothing to "get", only something to share.

So, if I believe in something, I don't need to advocate or evangelize it. I'll just share it, rather than be assumptive.

And if you so choose, you can then advocate or evangelize it.

Online ratings systems, discussion forums and blogs are the forms of social media consumers believe are the most valuable sources of information. Trusted sources also included family and friends, word-of-mouth and Consumer Reports. (Society for New Communications Research, 2008). More than two-thirds (68%) of online Americans say they visit online blogs, communities or social networks. 47% of all respondents say that blogs, communities and social networks have influenced their decision to purchase particular brands or services to at least some extent. (Insight Report from MarketTools, September 2008).

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Social Worktable, Pt.3 (Creative Pathology)

I've been working with a couple of independent agencies on various integrated initiatives and it's been an absolute blast. One of the things that has made it so pleasurable is the openness and objectivity of the creative teams themselves, who have a real willingness to listen and learn and not just constantly fight to be heard. 

There have been some interesting articles written lately on agency size as a contributor to disconnects in the ideation or development process. The assertion is that once an agency reaches a certain number of employees, it loses the passion and capacity to perform at its best. Taxi - a very progressive agency based in NYC - is one shop that has has taken this theory to heart and has successfully spun out second and third versions of itself (Taxi 2, Taxi 3). This may be an effective tactic, but I also think there is another solution, which is to build an internal team that loops in key people from each group and acts as a strong liaison between them.

This is far from a new idea; we've seen a lot of shops big and small try to employ this concept. However, what seems to have happened in each and every situation that failed is the fact that people bought into the theory, but were far from willing to actually invest in the practice

This is where the notion of a "creative pathology" enters the picture. As important as it is for creatives and other team members to understand their history and successes as they relate to the contributions they can make now, is the establishment of a historical process - the good, the bad, the negligible. So what might this entail?

 - Powerful and relatable sayings. Sure, every shop has quotes on the wall, but some are far more effective than others (think of Ogilvy's famous line: "We're not selling mattresses, we're selling a good night's sleep!"). It's also important to think in terms of actionable results.

- Multi-disciplinary inspiration. Art, philosophy, politics,'s all had a hand in what ultimately gets conjured up in our collective big brains. More time should be devoted to discussing these game-changing events in history, without having them relate back to what needs to be pitched tomorrow. Keep this free-flowing and open-ended.

- Personal histories. Again, why are you here? What is it that you seek in being an agency creative or a developer? What are your big-picture aspirations? It all matters, and it all shows up in the work, whether you choose to see it or not.

- Social responsibility. This is a theme commonly discussed on this blog; we must all assume a shared risk and ownership in the things we bring to the table, and those things we know (marketing assets) that may make it out to society at large. It's both internal and external, and it really matters. Really.

- Post-mortems. It's annoying and time-consuming, but we need to be able to learn from our mistakes, not just in terms of results, but in terms of what lead up to the results. The more we look inwardly at this, the more effective we are the next time around. The key is to not point fingers, but to be accountable.

There are probably dozens more things to entertain, feel free to add to the list. It's especially important right now, because the agency model may be struggling, but the creative process is still a wonderful haven for those who want to touch the lives of people in different places and in different ways, no matter how subtle the effort is.