Regardless of what you think about the current system, your feelings about privatization or the party lines that have been drawn, one thing to consider in all of this is the fact that it’s going to take a shared risk approach to fix the problem. Personally, I’m tired of scrutinizing the outflow of my tax dollars, especially to the needy or underserved - their happiness and integrity is as important as my own, even if it is assumed that they are not ‘incented’ to work harder to contribute to a higher tax base down the road. If you want to look at this from a purely fiscal standpoint (which is totally understandable), it would seem to be in everybody’s best interest to make sure that all socio-economic classes are healthy and strong so that they can contribute to our GDP in positive ways. This does not make me a liberal, left-wing, socialist, Democrat or Republican or any other baseless designation. It simply makes me human. It also calls into question the idea that we’ve lost faith in our own people on account of the fact that we’ve been blinded by abject greed. Which leads to a much bigger point: with the steady erosion of the middle class (at least what is perceived to be...), perhaps we we are getting closer to a ‘flat world’ of social participation. We are starting to blend our personal interests with those that affect the corporate bottom line. Instead of making this an issue of whether or not privatization should dictate the ebb-and-flow of commerce, perhaps we should look at what corporations should play in conjunction with government agencies and special interests groups. Ok, fine, this is idealistic, but then again, we said the same thing about our current president before he was elected and look what happened there: the people spoke out and opposing sides banded together. Look, I don’t have the answers. But I do know one thing. Pointing fingers and making this a political debate isn’t going to affect change. With a depleted surplus, the money has to come from somewhere, so the people that are capable should shoulder the responsibility until we can transfer the access and tools to those who can contribute on their own. What do you think?
Ok, so some of us are a bit slower when it comes to those cathartic moments. You know, the simple revelations that are more "duh" than "aha". This one came in the form of a really simple truth: that the Facebook Fan Page IS your following and commentary base for your blog or blogs (as well as microblogs).
Think about it: even the most popular blogs - at least those that are specific to social media thought leaders - are lucky to have a following of say 50 or more people. And unless you are bookmarking like a fiend, it's really not that easy to elicit commentary. That is, unless you are actively posting to your FB page.
This is where the FB genius begins to reveal itself. First off, the utility aggregates from all the major (as well as niche) blog and microblog platforms. Aside from the usual suspects like Blogger RSS feeds and Twitter/FriendFeed APIs, a great example of this is Posterous. Posterous is a new blog 'network' of sorts, so unless you are highly visible within social media and were an early adopter of the utility, subscribers and new comments will be few and far between. It also requires that you are heavily active on Posterous itself, since most influencers there are vigilant about generating and reading each other's subscriber posts.
But who has that kind of time? Further, how do we distill the content that we want to engage with?
Truth is, with 80M+ blogs on offer, it is really tough if not impossible. The other thing to consider is that we shouldn't abandon our blogs, but we should look at them differently: they are really content repositories that essentially feed spots of hyperactivity or hypersociability.
It's funny because I didn't think that my 188 fans was all that much - and maybe it isn't - but when you consider most blog followings, it's actually not so bad. About 10% of my followers interact with the content I generate, and all of this is easily measurable.
So, the bigger lesson here is go where your social graphs are interacting the most. These are sort of like social junctions where people can read, evaluate and interact with the content of their choosing. If you tend to write about stuff that is fairly esoteric and theoretical - like I do - this is especially important.
For me, the FB fan page is a saving grace because I can not only create engagement with certain posts, but I can also better understand what types of content people are reacting to.
Much discussion has been centered around the burgeoning landscape that is media convergence. The careful alignment of medium and message is undoubtedly one sign of the rapid advancement of how we tell brand stories. In my ongoing discussions with transmedia advocates and thought leaders such as Jeff Gomez (@Jeff_Gomez), Jesse Albert (@jessalbert) and Conn Fishburn (@connfishburn), it dawned upon me that technology, as vital as it is for delivery, is really sort of an afterthought when you consider what content ideation can really be or really become.
So let's forget about technologies for a moment.
Let's look at the nature of content itself. There may be an important and delicate wrinkle within content development that may lead to leaving stronger and more indelible impressions on our mindshare. Let's also make this a more theoretical examination of where content development can go, something more expansive than mere (albeit innovative) case studies we've seen from the likes of Coke, Audi, BMW or EA.
First, let's redefine what content is. Wikipedia defines it as "information and experiences created for an audience". We can this step further and define it as: "anything that can be shared."
See, what we share with each other via of word of mouth is content, and arguably the most powerful form of it. The ethereal elements, the intangibles, are indelible and everlasting. The ideas we associate with them are the most shareable and scalable. Which is precisely why we must try not to confine them within ad or media units and inhibit their ability to scale.
Let's look at some hypotheticals.
Movies as user-generated mash-ups.
TV shows as multi-channel annotations.
Books as ongoing topical forums.
Periodicals as user-suggested news repositories.
Music channels as user-created set lists.
Clearly you see a common theme here: user-generation. While this is far from being a new concept, there is an element of reverse engineering at play here.
For one, the guesswork that goes into what content providers think what people want is somewhat buffered by merely giving them what they want. For another, once this content is reproduced and redelivered through a qualitative creative process, the new ideas that are generated start to proliferate. What evolves become phenomena.
All phenomena formalize as ideas that are exchanged and transformed through circumstance and lore.
So we can even ascribe a simple formula for 'good' content development:
CONCEPT (C) + ADOPTION (A) = PHENOMENON (P)
The concept represents the initial idea. Adoption materializes in the form of scalable ideation - people talking and developing new currency around the initial idea. The new ideas that are generated and owned and proliferated by people within their social graphs make this into a phenomenon.
The ultimate takeaway here is that we should probably look at content as something that takes on its own personality, and does so by virtue of what it represents in and of itself. Just as brands are owned by people, content also thrives on the construct of mindshare. The associations we make are potentially the stuff of legend.
Now back to the technologies that will facilitate this new movement... ;)
Let's face it: media companies are in major trouble. And contrary to what some may believe, this isn't just an issue of being able 'to go digital'.
It doesn't matter if you buy, sell, plan, optimize, broker or bundle, the issue is less about offloading inventory than it is about proving its inherent value. Think about it: with more dollars shifting to digital with smaller overall budgets, the supply can't find the demand because outreach is more limiting across the board.
The ironic part of this, at least when it comes to content, is that media companies are still the gatekeepers. They should be. It's not as though they aren't looking to expand their offerings or invest in new technologies - because many of them are - it's just that, well, the model needs a facelift... and needs to wear many more faces.
Case and point: 'social media' or 'innovations' groups within media agencies are like red-headed step children. What possibly can a big agency CEO think when his own innovations group crashes YouTube with a series of virals that garners over 7 million views - quality views no less, with average engagements of over 2.5 minutes - in less than 48 hours, and makes the agency a measly $12,000 in revenue? The issue wasn't that they didn't run any other media alongside the seeding campaign... it was the fact that they didn't have to.
Now this is NOT to say by any stretch that we shouldn't implement mixed media strategies alongside social content or applications - quite the contrary. I've personally been a part of the campaign development for expensive apps that essentially sat idle while DWOM efforts fell flat on their face. Social ads have certainly proved their worth in building engagement and advocacy around certain platforms. But the rub is not so much attributable to an integrated construct, but rather the campaign construct itself.
In other words, we expect that consumers will engage and advocate on our timetable. It rarely works out that way. But there are ways to solve this problem. That is, if we're willing to re-engineer our thinking.
We need to think in terms of initiatives, not campaigns. Ideally, let's remove in-points and end-points from the equation. Sure, we can launch an initiative by running ad content within its normal media silos, and we can even run ads alongside our 'featured' content. But if we want the party to last, we need to distribute new ideas and tools to share - not more ads - so that advocacy can live on within our targeted social graphs, and allow these ideas to proliferate as phenomena.
Trust takes time. In fact, the run on this is indefinite. Why? Because consumers are thrown thousands of advertising messages at them every day. They're not looking for prescriptions, they're looking for conversations. Sure, they'll watch an ad, and they might even click through a banner. But what happens after that is not up to us... it's up to them.
The people are the media. A colleague said this recently, and it is so entirely true. Even 'traditional' channels like broadcast are seeing new life in the marriage between offline engagement and online conversation - and we have all the research to prove it. So, we can show people a glossy TV ad or cool page takeover, but if want to take this beyond the stunt or gimmick stage, we better generate impressions that are indelible. In other words, this content better be portable in some way, shape or form, and endemic to specific touch-points created and approved by each and every consumer.
We don't own mindshare, we merely 'rent' it. Just as companies don't own brands (people do), the currency we generate becomes the collectively owned property of the tribes we engage. We can buy a ticket to the party, but it's up to the group as to whether or not we'll be staying there, and for how long.
Technology can facilitate, but it can't really expedite. We've learned to communicate faster, but not necessarily more efficiently. Truth is, we've overwhelmed audiences with too many options in too little time - we've commoditized our own media markets. We need to be smarter about the channels we choose, and even smarter about the experiences we recreate or share.
Tell stories and develop overarching narratives. The longest running and best running 'campaigns' in history were those that became the stuff of lore. That built or enhanced our cultural value system in some way. We're at the point now where consumers are dying to collaborate, and further, they want to be shown that their purchases aren't simply meaningless activities. This goes beyond developing a relationship with a brand, and into a place where people can celebrate the connections they make with each other as a by-product of a brand's efforts. Ads alone can no longer accomplish this. But enriched experiences can.
Never forget the power of a legacy experience. With extended narratives come the reminders of why we live as consumers. To enjoy a sitcom in our living room with our families. To shop at the mall with our friends. To attend a matinee with a significant other. To check out a live show in the square. To take a leisurely stroll through the park. If we can empower those experiences - no matter what channels are involved - then we've empowered the people we want to reach in allowing them to share those experiences with others.
Think in terms of the relationship, not the upside. Consumers have made it clear - especially with the social media blitz - that there is only so much we can 'milk' from them before the honeymoon is over. Direct sales don't happen unless the decision to purchase is an informed one. To boot, corporations are starting to realize that whatever they do on the inside is reflected on the outside. It really is a brave new world. And it's marching to its own heartbeat.
The bottom line for any of us communcations agents is quite simple: we need to reinvest in people if we expect them to reinvest in what we have to offer. We have no choice but to put our hubris and agendas aside, and innovate with the very people that have the potential to become true stakeholders in brands.
They're ready and willing. The question is, are we?
Marc Brownstein posted something interesting today in AdAge’s Small Agency diary on how ‘free media won’t be the end of paid agencies’; his post and respective comments carried very salient points, but I thought what was missing was the notion of how media really needs to be earned, and what that entails.
For starters, one key distinction should be made: "free media" should really be labeled as "earned media". In the social realm, and considering the glut of branded content on offer, this distinction must be acknowledged because many brands don't have the equity (or the relevance) to create engagement by simply offering up free content. As one colleague put it recently, in a social context, we ARE the media, and therefore it must be an earned dynamic.
Another point I'd like to address with respect to what binarypoet said is the notion that "agencies can push big budget campaigns to more targeted audiences". I think you'll find a lot of pushback here. For one, shareable content shouldn't be confined to a campaign construct (how can it be?), and for another, innovative thinking demands that we move away from creating ad-like objects. So at the end of the day, big agencies will most often strive to serve their big media models, not earned media, simply because there is way too much management and operational inertia. Don't get me wrong, there are many talented people within these ranks, it's just that the new economics don't favor the system.
Finally, your point about TV is really interesting; I think this is a legacy medium that does speak very well to online extensions (there is plenty of research to back this up). The great challenge now is to develop ways that can bundle media and at the same time create content that can live 'beyond the buy'. Further, there are new opportunities to develop show properties through the use of 'online piloting'. But, to binarypoet's point, the system and respective models must change, and how soon that will happen is the billion dollar question.
I’m going to be perfectly honest with you. I am a failure. It is important that you take note of this because I don’t want you to develop any false notions about who I am or what I’m about to share with you. Because it’s important for you to understand that what I am about to tell you is something you already know, but you may just not know it yet. Further, I think you and I are more alike than you might think. But we’ll get there in just a few moments.
I have spent my entire professional life in the pursuit of communication. To relate to other people. To share and cultivate love and acceptance. I have taught myself how to copywrite, shoot, edit, design, and even program, because, truly, honestly, I desperately wanted to share ideas with the world. To make an impact. To be a part of something much bigger than myself.
And through all of this, by and large, I have been told that I am “unfocused”. That I need to “specialize”. That I need “to carry a bigger title”. That I should go back to school and get an advanced degree, or take a job at a big agency in order “to advance my career”. But see, therein lies the rub. I can’t do that. I’m not qualified.
Or am I?
I’ve written print campaigns. I’ve built websites and mobile storefronts. I build social platforms. I’ve directed commercials. I co-wrote and produced a feature documentary that actually won an award. I can write a business plan and a marketing plan, and know the differences between the two. I can manage a P&L sheet. I’ve started three companies. I’ve even planned and purchased media. I can do just about anything you can do, or at least claim to do.
More importantly, I like people. I genuinely care about what they have to say. I’m good in a room. And I’m not an idiot.
Most importantly, I have failed. I failed in the sense that the companies I started didn’t last or make much money. But with each, I took invaluable lessons away from the experience.
So then, you might be wondering, what’s the issue? And on a macro level, what’s the point?
Well, for starters, I’ve stopped blaming everybody else. It doesn’t matter that recruiters most often don’t care about ‘transferable skills’, or that most agencies and media companies ‘just don’t get it’. Not only does it not matter to me, but it certainly doesn’t matter to the rest of the world. Audiences and consumers certainly don’t give a shit - they want to be dazzled and entertained. They seek inspiration. They seek to align themselves with some form of legacy.
You know what? I don’t give a shit either. It’s not that I don’t ‘care’, because I do. I care a lot. I just don’t have the time or the energy to waste anymore on trying to convince the ‘change agents’ that I have a vision. I can only show, not tell. I can only do what I ultimately seek to do... Which is to make a profound difference in this world. I’m 37 years old and only have one life to live. As Andy said to Red in The Shawshank Redemption: “You can get busy livin’, or you can get busy dyin’.”
The point I’m trying to make to you is that I have some idea of what I am capable of. I am a failure not because of my potential, but because of my inaction. Because I’ve spent years with one foot on the sidelines seeking the approval of people that were never going to validate my dreams, or help me find a path to enlightenment. All of that exists from within.
So to all of the agency tycoons, media mavens and business titans out there, let me ask you this, if you’re still listening. What is your legacy? What are you going to leave to your children? To the world? Aside from money, houses, cars and a title? More importantly, what are we going to do together? I ask these questions because as much as I hate to admit it, I need you. You have far too much influence to be ignored. And while that may change, what got you to this position was extraordinary. And I’d like to openly acknowledge that.
Look, we live within a cultural paradigm. At some point in our collective, formative development, we diverged. We were hurt by something and came to the conclusion right then and there that we needed to protect our self-interests and compete. And while competition has bred innovation, we have in many ways lost sight of who we are as a people. We have been conditioned to believe that we must be better than one another, to steal market share, to own mindshare. But none of it is really ours. It probably never was.
Don’t get me wrong, making money is great. It can be very fulfilling. It is important. There’s nothing wrong with having things. But innately, don’t you want more? Isn’t it no real mystery that the ‘things’ we have are simply not enough, and never are enough?
So what if I told you - what if I simply reaffirmed for you - that you can spend the rest of your life doing what you love, and continue to make money, all the while playing a major role in expanding and advancing our collective conscience and goodwill?
No, I’m not telling you anything new. But I am pleading with you to turn these ideals into realities. I am asking you to look past the spit-and-polish conference tables, the fish tanks and glass backboards, and join me... join ‘us’... in helping to cure the ills of the world. I am asking for your hand and for your guidance. Because I cannot possibly do it alone. And for you, I will make the solemn pledge: that I will stop at nothing to get things right.
So think about why you got into this business in the first place. What you dreamed about in ad school or business school. I know it wasn’t just about making money.
So let’s begin the conversation that is the next stage in our lives. I hope these words find you well.
There is something to be said for the good ole’ days when brands pulled no punches in an attack/counter-attack mentality that resembled chess matches in a public park. What was once a “less filling, tastes great” environment has now become a breeding ground for geckos, ducks, lizards, bears and a slew of other negligible icons that act more out of self-importance than they do in calling out the value propositions of their competitors (actually, I like the Sobe lizard – we tweet each other occasionally... Sorry, dude). Further, when you look at the technologies being used to communicate these sentiments, parody seems to be the theme of the day. Granted, in the 80s and for most of the 90s, we were limited to a default suite of three types of media – print, TV and radio – but that’s entirely the point, and a fairly obvious one at that: if we now have more to choose from, why aren’t we doing more? More importantly, why aren’t we doing things differently?
Time to differentiate. Time to stand out and start delivering knockout punches.
Without giving away free ideas (God forbid), let’s examine some inverse relationships that can lend to this notion of ‘reactive advertising’... And some of the potential consumer touch-points.
Greenwashing – alright, so pretty much every brand on the planet is touting some form of green-friendly something or another. In some cases, it may be true, but in many, this amounts to spin-doctoring of the highest order. I know first hand because I’ve worked with activist groups like NRDC and have seen some of the abject bullshit that these companies sling at the public. That said, this has to be the lowest hanging fruit for true, green-compliant companies to tout. Here’s the catch: most consumers don’t know what ‘green’ is, so there’s an educational curve. You’ll have to spend the time and the money to teach first, then tout your wares second. But if you can, you can certainly knock a few of the big boys off the green block.
Company Culture – this one seems like an easy tactic, although I’m sure there are a number of red flags. You probably can’t call out the fact that a competitor’s CEO is bedding a bunch of young blondes – I mean hey, those are just allegations – BUT, you can point out how great your own little cultural ecosystem is. You don’t hear a whole lot about employee testimonials, or better yet, why an employee defected from the competition. If you’re smart enough about it, you can give consumers a real glimpse inside of the very thing you have with each other that makes for a good product.
Labor Practices – yet another dicey element, rife with potential legal crossfire, but I think we all know a few major brands out there who are cutting major corners in this regard. You can take a more diplomatic approach and discuss how strong employee benefits lead to a stronger product... And of course, insinuate, insinuate, insinuate!
Pop-Culture Trends – now this is an area where I simply do not understand why brands don’t take more potshots at each other. For example, there’s a certain automotive company that recently ran virals of gay dudes washing one of the Transformers cars as a co-promotion – LAME. If I were a competitor, I would have a field day with this. Further, you can run a whole initiative of different stories that jab the competition just by looking at the material they post online.
Random Stuff – Further along the UGC front, there are so many nuggets in the rough coming from people all over the world that can be re-purposed and expanded upon, and even made ‘category relevant’. Just use your imagination. Your creative teams will thank you.
All in all, if advertising wants to stay relevant, it better start taking more risks. All the fodder is there, so let’s look at the flaws within the system to garner new insight into what can be done. And won.
It's easy to get caught up in the madness and uncertainty of media chaos. We eat, breathe and consume information and utilities as part of a daily, frenetic diet - one that is certainly not balanced or necessarily supplemental, which is probably the way many of us like it.
And then we often forget who we are, where we came from or even why we exist. This conundrum presents itself in a slipstream of thought, a struggle to reinforce our identities, and ultimately, some form of higher purpose.
I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest effort, Outliers. I suppose any book that you can buy in an airport by default is susceptible to an onslaught of talk and relative criticism (although it is selling quite well), so I decided to wait a bit and let the surge settle. I have to say that as a follow up to Blink and The Tipping Point, Gladwell has found a nice cadence with his narrative and brought colorful expositions to the more statistical nature of his real-world examples.
Here's where I'm going with this.
I had dinner the other night with my father and my soon-to-be father-in-law, Richard. It was the first time my father met my fiancee's (Emily's) parents, and the experience turned out to be delightful. It's one of those things where you bite the bottom of your lip for the first ten minutes hoping that there won't be a clash of egos or anything else that tends to surprise you about parents. What really struck me was the depth of knowledge that both men shared - not just in book smarts or academia - but in pure, emotional, and dare I say, metaphysical, intellect. This is something we often take for granted with our elders, or, something we simply don't look for within them.
Quick backstories: My father is a German-Jewish immigrant who left Nazi Germany in 1940, took the trans-Siberian railroad to Shanghai, China, and lived in a tenement with a Catholic priest and a group of Eastern European families that could represent the United Nations of Benetton, in a scene straight out of Empire of the Sun. Eventually he emigrated to the US, graduated high school at 16, and earned 4 degrees, including a doctorate in biochemistry. At 76, he still practices internal medicine 8-12 hours day. Oh, and did I mention he received a heart transplant in 2001?
My father-in-law, a Russian-Jew, was born in Boston and grew up with nothing but the shirt on his back and tattered shoes. He shared a tiny apartment with his two brothers, and ran a paper route so he could scrape together a meal that he would share with the family while his dad was out trying to muster up work. Eventually, he saved up enough money ($300) to buy a Plymouth, and after turning down a full scholarship to Harvard Law School to ensure he could care for his mother in California, he accepted a scholarship at Bolt (Berkeley's law school), where he graduated second in his class (there's a nice segue to this, hang on). At 72, he runs his own law practice and is bar accredited in 5 states. In February, he will be taking his 6th state bar exam, and plans on practicing until he is 76, but will likely go on much further than that.
For those of you who haven't read Gladwell's book (I won't give too much away...), Outliers discusses the unique relationship that environment has with focus, and the delicate balance between God-given talent and the means with which we cultivate that talent.
My father described a woman in class when he was a resident at UCLA who was absolutely brilliant with theoretical analysis, but when it came down to making critical decisions, she was completely inept. Gladwell in his previous book, Blink, describes this as being able to "thin-slice" our decision-making: the few-second intersection where empirical knowledge marries instinct. Well, unfortunately this woman didn't have the gut-checking chops to make it as a doctor (a career she desperately wanted) and now teaches psychology at an Ivy League school.
My father-in-law, Richard, graduated second in his class behind a guy who stuttered. When I say he stuttered, I mean to say that he could barely get a word out. Richard's theory was that the guy was so brilliant that the wheels turned too fast inside his head, and therefore he had trouble speaking. Richard said that the guy finished his exams nearly an hour before everyone else, and would consistently show up to class late, munching on an apple or a banana. He never took notes. He would doodle random images, often disturbing classmates who would curiously glance over and then shudder. He never became a lawyer, but last Richard heard, he led a reclusive life as an author of "clinical logic" books, somewhere in a rural area on the east coast.
The obvious takeaway from both examples is that there are two different types of intelligence: one that you can apply, and one that merely allows you to imagine application. What's not so obvious are the pathologies behind these examples, and very critical, and often subtle, differences in our conditional or situational foundations.
The difference between the success of the woman or the mute man and my dad and Richard could have boiled down to a formative point in their childhoods. My dad and Richard - despite being raised in very challenging environments - were encouraged very early on to explore their talents, to read, to write, to learn, to adapt. These other folks clearly reached a stopping point in their emotional or even cognitive development that rendered them useless as functioning members of a prospective trade culture, whether in a court room or in an operating room.
There is also one undeniable factor in all of this: passion.
Passion is what gets my dad and Richard out of bed every morning at 5 AM. Passion is what drives them to succeed at all costs - to win. Passion is what also drives them to always seek the higher ground, even if an easier solution is presented to them. The ethics and moral fortitude they live and work by on a daily basis is something we can all learn from and be inspired by.
So this inspired some thoughts of my my own with respect to our industry, and some things we should consider that go beyond developing a marketing strategy or building a piece of technology:
Build your social compass. We are experiencing a profound shift in consciousness. But we need to cultivate and maintain it. We need to integrate a stronger set of ethics not only in the ways we do business, but in the ways we communicate with our audiences. When we tell stories, we need to think of the lessons that can be applied, not just a lead in to a sale. Look at it as helping to rebuild our cultural value system.
Go with your gut, and be accountable for it. It's easy to make hasty decisions and then pass the buck... or the puck. What's not so easy is to take calculated risks with data-sets that may change tomorrow. We don't have to be right, we just have to be open. Innovation doesn't happen any other way. And success often doesn't happen the first few times out of the gate.
Take your time to build the relationship. Do you really know your audience? How can you - they're constantly reinventing themselves. We all are. Psychograhics and technograhics are predicated on shifts in the environment. All we can do is assimilate and hold on for the ride. However, it is important to note that people don't change, they just become who they really are over time.
Brand markets, not people. "Follow your nose, it always knows" can be construed in this day and age as "watching the herd". Fact is, profiling only goes so far. While their constitutional makeup doesn't change, people can be entirely unpredictable. Crowds change the score, and can do so in a split second. Our challenge is to garner insights from those interactions, when they happen, as they happen.
As we head further into transmedia narratives, think about pathology and circumstance and how they can apply to the next conversation you start. You might be surprised by what you find out. And you might just discover the inner genius that constitutes the Outlier.