Jun 25, 2007

Your Brand Is Not My Friend: Web 2.0 Unmasked. Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4 (via MP Daily Fix)
June 2008 Update (via Adweek)
SXSW Video (July 2009)

Wherein we turn our attention to blogs and the folly of using them as advertising vehicles.

Why is the "blogosphere" so popular? I mean there’s got to be something that gets so many people reading the opinions of a bunch of blowhards like myself.

The main reason, is no doubt authenticity. Bloggers are, by definition, writing for no one but themselves. It’s the unvarnished truth, or at least the blog writer’s version thereof.

So why is this so important? Well, mostly because people have lost faith in the mainstream media. Big time. They see the mainstream media as manipulated by everyone from PR agents to terrorist organizations. I mean the very existence of a phrase like “media savvy” tells you that something is wrong. But at a time when we’ve got everything from terrorists posing random unrelated crying children next to dead bodies for maximum effect on the BBC to Paris Hilton and her even classier parents negotiating to sell her jail stint story to the highest bidder, it’s hard to actually take anything you see or read in the mainstream media very seriously.

Enter bloggers. Mavericks who write for their own satisfaction, beholden to no one. Which makes them a lot more interesting than the guys who get paid to write the news for a living.

Take the ad industry. The trades are full of regurgitated press releases and scared execs verbally masturbating to each other’s work. Daily columnists like Stuart Elliot are busy trying to cover “larger trends” for “broader audiences” and basically ignore the day-to-day workings of the business. (How’s that for generous?) And then one day I discover George Parker and his Adscam blog. Parker, a foul-mouthed Brit who’s spent several decades as a copywriter, mostly on tech accounts, has no problem telling it like it is. (And then some.) His rants come off as authentic even when I don’t agree with them (his constant trashing of DraftFCB, for example) because they’re clearly uncensored and clearly heartfelt. And the conversations that stem from them ring true as well because none of the people posting on there seem to have any sort of (corporate) agenda either. Just lots of equally heartfelt opinions, even if that opinion can be summed up as "I hate my last agency because they screwed me over."

But here’s the rub: Adscam is exactly the sort of blog that 2.0 advocates would like to advertise—excuse me “engage you” on. (They do not, as I’ve been told several times, work in “advertising.” Yup.) The attempts they’ve made on this front are so well, amateurish as to seem laughable. Let me give you some examples: Nikon recently handed out free cameras to a bunch of bloggers, including Web 2.0’s unofficial spokesman Joseph Jaffe as loaners. In return, the bloggers (few of whom had ever expressed any sort of prior interest in photography) were supposed to post pictures they took with the cameras and write about how wonderful their new Nikon cameras were.

That’s right. For the cost of a seven hundred dollar camera, Jaffe and his ilk were given the ability to totally destroy any credibility they once had. To wit: Jaffe just posted about the birth of his new son. And used the opportunity to note that the lovely pictures he’d posted were taken with the aforementioned Nikon camera. Turning something that should have been a somewhat poignant moment into just another advertising opportunity.

Another situation involved Microsoft paying a bunch of tech-bloggers to use phrases like “people ready” (or whatever Microsoft's tagline is these days) on some microsite and have their names associated with it. A great uproar ensued in Geekistan followed by much tech blogger backpedaling.

In both these situations the brand in question wound up coming off like some sort of pedophile. Some big creepy unwanted entity that’s intruding, uninvited and unwanted, on a private conversation. An over-the-top metaphor, perhaps, but there’s no exaggeration to the feeling many readers had that they’d been violated. Because (all together now) Your Brand Is Not My Friend. And when I’m talking to my friends, I don’t want to talk to your brand. I may talk about your brand, but that doesn’t mean I want to talk with your brand.

The blogosphere, as my friend CK points out, is all about independence, objectivity and trust. (She calls it authenticity.) And she’s right. I mean if I thought that say, Nikon was paying George Parker to write about how wonderful their campaign was, he’d permanently lose me as a reader. Even if he was open and up front about it. Because it’s a slippery slope: once you take that first step, the doubt is always there-- is that really what he’s thinking or did someone pay him? Which is the exact issue so many people have with the mainstream media these days. Why replicate it in another realm?

Now blogging itself has become a popular tool for many corporations. It’s an easy solution for unimaginative agencies: get the CEO to write a blog. It’s trendy, it’s hip, it sounds good when you’re talking to other CEOs on the golf course. “Hey guys, I have a blog now!” But I don't see how it's a viable solution. A CEO clearly has an agenda. So his blog reads like a serialized version of an annual report. His opinions are safe and neutered and only the most gullible of us assume they weren’t written for him by some in-house PR flack (excuse me, “corporate communications officer.”)

So next time you feel compelled to suggest that the CEO write a blog, remember that a far better solution might be a well done FAQ. Not nearly as sexy. Extremely low key. But it’s one of the few things on a web site that’s generally written from the consumer’s POV. Here’s all the stuff I, the consumer, want to know. With answers. Arranged in a way that makes sense for me, not you. My questions define the document, not your answers. You’re finally being silent and telling me what I want to hear rather than what you want to say.

That my friends, is a conversation.

Part 4 (via MP Daily Fix)

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