Dec 31, 2008

Why I Write


I’ve been giving some thought as to why I write this blog. I mean other than narcissism. I mostly write it for myself. Or at least I try to. I write about things that interest me. Thus far, I’ve limited that to things about advertising and marketing that interest me, though I may expand that as time goes on. Or at least my definition of “things about advertising and marketing.”

I am often surprised, but always happy, to find that people are interested in what I have to say. As many of you know, I started this blog as an experiment, not intending it to actually become anything long-term. I’ve tried to keep true to that spirit as much as possible and not write for an audience. Which may, in fact, be why I’ve found one.

I haven’t found advertising to be very interesting lately. There’s very little I see that excites me on an intellectual level though I sometimes wonder if the anger, bitterness and above all, despair that overwhelms so many ad blogs doesn’t somehow color that. Or it could just be that the fusion of technology and culture that defines the interwebs these days is far more interesting than anything on TV.

I’ve become addicted to Twitter this year. To the point where I’ll sometimes catch myself walking and tweeting. I try not to tweet when others are around-- most people still find it rude. I know I tweet with, for and at the 100 or so people I actually follow on Twitter. They are almost all people I know in real life and with whom I communicate by other channels throughout the course of the day. I personally find it rather unsettling to follow people I don’t actually know: there’s a voyeuristic quality to it, the sense of being a peeping Tom into someone else’s private life.

When I analyze why I like Twitter so much, I keep coming back to how much it reminds me of “the park,” that almost mythical playground where I spent so much of my childhood. You never actually planned to meet anyone at the park. You just sort of knew that eventually they’d be there. Not everyone and not all at once. But soon enough you’d have enough people for a three-on-three basketball game, or maybe even full court. And if you just wound up playing horse, well, that was okay too. And Twitter feels like that on most days. That if I have to go home early for dinner one night, there’ll be enough kids left that it won’t really matter if I'm gone.

But this post is about writing and I’ve always loved writing. Loved it since I was in fifth grade and a poem I wrote called “Lamentations” won some sort of citywide poetry contest and was published in a magazine of kid’s poems that’s likely buried in the bottom of one of my mother’s many closets. Loved it since I was in high school and discovered John Leonard and the emotions he could pull out of a simple newspaper column. And the internet has helped me get back in touch with all that, with everything I've always loved about writing. You see, the great thing about blogging is the complete absence of editors. Of anyone who can say “no” and stop something I think is really worthwhile from ever seeing the light of day. I imagine it feels a lot like glasnost must have, that sudden feeling of liberation from those whose job was to make sure everything you wrote toed the party line.

It’s been a real gift, that feeling of liberation, and I wanted to thank all of you for sharing it with me.

Dec 28, 2008

The Great Unleveling


One of the great things about television commercials was the way they leveled the playing field. It didn’t matter what your product was: you could create 30 seconds of magic that was the equal of anyone else’s 30 seconds.

But as brands (and ad agencies) are finding out to their chagrin, that’s not the case online, especially with social media. That’s because once someone is spending more than 30 seconds with your brand, the level of interest they have in the category your product or service falls into plays a large part in determining the amount of time they'll spend thinking about your brand. So that an insurance company’s sites and apps, no matter how cleverly done or beautifully laid out, are never going to play in the same arena as a lifestyle brand like Nike or HBO.

Look at the more popular social media apps and you’ll find they’re built around products people want to converse about in real life: sports, travel, movies, TV shows, rock bands. Not insurance, plastics, rubber bands or prune juice.

TV Commercials Raised Awareness

Now the significance of all this is that for the past fifty years, brands have been able to rely on marketing to "create a splash" for low-interest products and services. So that a clever TV spot with a catchy tag line really could have significant impact on brand awareness for the general public. That's because that TV spot was competing for your attention with other 30 second TV spots (as opposed to other brands.) So that even if you were playing in a low-interest category, you could still work your way into the national psyche.

For better or worse, that’s no longer the case. Brands in less alluring categories are never going to achieve the same levels of interest and awareness as their more compelling cousins. (At least outside of the B to B arena.) Social media is conversational media and people really just want to converse about the things that interest them. If a brand happens to intersect with their interests, that's all well and good. But they’re not going out of their way to talk about you or even think about you.

Shifting Expectations

This isn’t to say that brands that make low-interest products should just give up on marketing. But they do need to be realistic about the amount of interest consumers are going to show for things like rubber bands or insurance policies.

And by that I simply mean an adjustment of expectations. So that they’re comparing their social media mentions to other rubber band manufacturers and not to Apple. Aiming their web efforts at office managers and other people who order supplies, rather than the general public. Because as I noted in "Clicking Through The Internet," the general public has no reason to want to think about rubber bands, let alone interact with them.

Letting Go of Ego

It’s a shift that seems common sensical and basic on the surface, but it requires a huge psychological leap on the part of clients who have to learn to accept that while everyone they know may have seen their funny TV spots for their foot powder, no one they know is likely to download their Facebook app. That’s a giant hurdle for people who’ve gotten used to the ego stroke delivered by mass media advertising, an ego stroke that will no doubt prove hard for them to give up.

Unfortunately, they don’t really have much of a choice in the matter. Advertising is no longer a one-way push medium. And the nature of the product being advertised really does have an impact on how much time we spend with the marketing. Think of it as a mall or a Main Street: there are certain stores we’ll spend much more time in, browsing wares that are fun or cool or just plain interesting. Those may not be the stores that make the most money or are the most profitable. But due to the nature of what they’re selling, they get the most foot traffic.

The new advertising landscape will work much the same way.

Dec 23, 2008

Merry Happy



This spot, from Belgian agency Famous, is my favorite for the season. As I told Anca Radu, who was kind enough to bring it to my attention, it's beautifully shot, beautifully scored, moving... and it actually has more than a passing relationship to the product being advertised (Electrabel, a Belgian utility company.)

Thanks so much to all of you for reading my rambles this year, for challenging me on things you didn't agree with, and for spreading the word.

Happy, Merry, Joyful Holiday Season.

Enjoy.

Alan

Everything In Moderation. Even Marketing


It’s a common enough experience: you sign up for email updates from a brand you genuinely like, and quickly find yourself the recipient of what basically amounts to spam.

Not because you’ve lost interest in the brand, but because they couldn’t control themselves: somehow they saw it as their duty to send you updates several times a week regardless of whether they had anything of value or interest to say. But updates for the sake of updates are most people's definition of spam, one that will soon have them searching for the “unsubscribe” button.

Now this is not some secret marketing formula I’ve cooked up: it’s common sense and most good marketers know this. So I’m surprised to see some of them throw it out the window when it comes to social media. It’s as if Facebook, Twitter and the like were immune from the laws of physics. So that I’m getting way more updates and information from certain brands than I could ever hope to process.

The worst offenders however, are those flogging their “personal brands” online. Too many of them seem to have taken the mantra “provide value” to mean that they need to retweet (literally, repost something someone else has already posted) every single blog post they encounter, rather than the ones that are truly unique or interesting or that come from a source most of their friends don’t have a connection to. (e.g. a video shared by a client in Shanghai.) And like spam, their tweeting instantly becomes noise-that-I-ignore.

One thing that strikes me about both of these situations however, is that the offenders seem to be acutely aware that there’s an audience out there watching them and so there’s a forced quality to all their emails and/or tweets, as if this was something they had to do rather than something they wanted to do. Whereas the best practitioners are clearly sending out information that reflects their own passions and if other people share in those passions, all the better.

Just something to keep in mind as we slog through the season of excess.

PS: There's an "Easter Egg" of sorts hidden (not very expertly) in this post.


Dec 22, 2008

Twitter News Feed


I wanted to share a very cool use for Twitter that I discovered inadvertently, via this article in the New York Times explaining Twitter to the unenlightened.

The author suggested using Twitter as a streaming RSS service for news stories. And since my Twitter stream has become clogged of late with endless retweets to links of dubious value, I was intrigued enough to experiment.

My parameters were pretty simple: limit the feed only to those news organizations that pushed out stories with links. No chatter, no back and forth – I only wanted links to news stories. And happily, there’s no shortage of news organizations, from TV and radio stations to newspapers and magazines, that publish these sorts of streams, In fact, many of them even offer specialized streams, so you can get sports news separate from science news separate from weather.

I set them all up on a separate account from my main one, and ran that account off different desktop and mobile apps than my usual account. (UPDATE: Running both off of Twhirl these days, since it supports two separate accounts being open at the same time)

The result has been a really useful and fascinating stream of interesting stories and perspectives I likely would not have found on my own, a stream that’s updated more or less minute-by-minute. I like the serendipity of discovering these stories on my own time, without the pressure of feeling like I need to read each and every one.

If you want to set up your own list, please feel free to use mine as a guide. And if there are any sites you feel I’ve overlooked, your suggestions are certainly welcome.

NB: Most of these twitter streams were tough to find—lots of trial and error and guesswork. Few (if any) of the parent organizations had any sort of home page link to them and Google was of little help, returning stories said news outlets had done about Twitter, rather than the actual feeds

Dec 21, 2008

My Favorite Facebook Promotion



As many of you who've been reading this blog for a while know, my family and I are huge basketball fans and the local team, the New Jersey Nets, are a particular obsession.

The Nets discovered social media this year, setting up well-done groups on both MySpace and Facebook (well done too, because they recognized the differences in functionality, layout and fan base and because each site provided links to the all their other social media sites: Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and YouTube.)

So I was more than a little thrilled last Tuesday when I received an update from the Facebook fan group telling me that they'd be giving out free tickets to group members (there are close to 1,000 of us.) And even more thrilled this past Friday when the actual offer came out and it was strings-free. No registration, no caveats, no value-detracting limitations.

All you had to go was go to Ticketmaster (the online service that normally sells Nets tickets) enter the secret discount code, and voila!

Ten minutes later I had four tickets in my possession. Not courtside seats, obviously, but center court and best of all: free. Had I paid for them, the tickets would have cost me $100 minimum. Another plus: the game is for Friday, December 26th, which falls in the middle of winter vacation so no worries about school the day before or after.

That's quite a generous promotion and one that's definitely increased this fan's loyalty. It's also a great illustration of how a "Prom King Brand" like a sports team can use social media effectively.

Now if only Facebook would make it easier to distinguish "official" groups from fan-created ones. Or to find them in the first place. But that's the subject of another post.

Dec 18, 2008

Lemmings


Today, in conference rooms at ad agencies all across America, the following words will be uttered "And we can make it an iPhone app."

That statement will be met with great glee and approval.

The iPhone app in question will not be anything potentially useful like the Amazon store app or fun and quirky like Ocarina. It will be a game centered around the client's product, something like "use the Clorox bleach to get the stains off the t-shirt." (If the agency is really thinking today, different stains will be worth different point amounts.)

The account team will have insisted that the app be required to capture names and email addresses, since that is the only way the agency could sell it into the client. The client will appreciate that.

The creative team will have spent several hours and several thousand dollars of billable time creating comps of the game as well as several variations on the little icon that lives on the iPhone screen. The client will appreciate that less.

Everyone will clap and cheer and congratulate themselves for being so forward thinking and so digitally savvy.

There will be close to 20 people in the room and not a single one of them will think to ask "Why on earth would anybody want to download this thing?"

Dec 17, 2008

Interview With Valeria Maltoni


I did an interview this weekend with Valeria Maltoni, of Fast Company fame, on her popular blog Conversation Agent about the Pay-Per-Post/IZEA issue and the future of social media in general.

Here's an excerpt:

In a recent conversation around the sanctity of social media at Amber Naslund's blog, you distilled the issues into three fundamental questions: (1) sponsorship worth; (2) audience; (3) credibility. To me these seem to be also the timeless principles that marketers and advertising professionals have followed or should be following? What changed with social media?
Read the rest at Conversation Agent

Dec 16, 2008

The New York Times Launches The Counter-Revolution

Ann Handley, of Marketing Profs fame, and I have often discussed how one of the most significant achievements of the Web 2.0 Revolution has been the overthrow of the editor.

For years, these gatekeepers determined what we read and, more importantly, what we didn’t read. Whether it was a magazine editor rejecting stories because the writer was unknown or a newspaper editor rejecting letters because they’d already vetted the two “pro” letters they planned to run, getting one’s name into print and in front of the masses involved overcoming significant hurdles.

The editor was an all-powerful judge. There was no transparency, no way of knowing what criteria were used in accepting or rejecting articles, letters, even TV shows. The editor was supposed to have a higher level of taste and to be an expert in predicting both the audience’s desires and enhancing the publication’s status. But reality was more like a game of follow-the-leader: editors (of all stripes) tended to hew to a very specific formula and had limited incentive to let new voices in.

There was also the intimidation factor: many people did not submit to publications (or TV networks) because they were afraid of rejection: they believed the editor did, in fact, know best, and that a rejection meant they were no good. Just as many were unfamiliar with the intricacies of submission (and believe me, they were intricate) - such things were purposely kept shrouded in an air of mystery to discourage the great unwashed from overwhelming the gatekeepers with their submissions.

Web 2.0, with its free and easy self-publishing techniques (everything from YouTube to Google Blogger) changed all that in a way whose effects are still being processed. We eliminated the gatekeepers. And allowed a whole new array of voices to rise to the top. Voices that were different and unique and enhanced the intellectual discourse. (Okay, “Sneezing Panda” videos don’t enhance the intellectual discourse, but you get the general drift.)

So it was with more than some dismay that I saw that the New York Times had decided to address the dilemma of how to deal with stories with hundreds of comments by reinstating the editor. Right now, when you click on the “comments” section of a Times article with, say, 478 comments, you don’t see the most recent comments or the ones that readers have voted up. What you see is the “Editor’s Selections” (see visual below)


Now the Editor’s Selections comments are generally erudite and display more than a passing familiarity with logical reasoning. But they’re also the editor’s selections. So that once again that gatekeeper is in there, deciding what the masses should see and what they shouldn’t.

That scares me, because it’s so counterrevolutionary. It’s as if the Times couldn’t wait to restore the ancien regime where the aristocracy knew what was good for the peasants and told them so.

Democracy is messy. That’s as true in politics as it is in content. But it’s the only way to ensure that all voices are heard and that the hierarchies that cause societies to ossify and eventually wither, don’t come back into place.

In other words, I wish the Times had the second tab in their comments section - “Readers Recommendations” show up first.

That would be keeping in the spirit of the revolution.



Dec 14, 2008

Odds & Ends

Blog Hos: “Social Media Is Special” brand Kool-Aid drinkers are all up in arms this weekends because one of their heroes - popular blogger Chris Brogan - took a $500 gift card from K-Mart in return for writing a blog post about it on his non-marketing related fatherhood blog Dadomatic. Intelligent discussion on the topic can be found over at Amber Naslund’s Altitude Branding blog. My Two Cents: Brogan’s Dadomatic - a group blog with feel-good posts like “How to Slow Down Christmas” is a perfect venue for K-Mart and for sponsored posts. (I mean it's not like anything's being compromised with the addition of a sponsored post.) That, and K-Mart has no place to go but up after their debacle last year where Wall Street Journal editor Laura Llandro was arrested for placing an errant pair of flip-flops in the wrong box, thus inadvertently saving about $9 on an $800 purchase. K-Mart was unrepentant and Llandro wrote a scathing piece on the experience that received prominent placement in the paper.

Too Many Comments?: I’ve noticed that the New York Times is trying out a solution to posts with hundreds of comments: an editor’s selections tab that’s the default comment tab. Interesting in that it once again places power in the hands of editors, e.g. people with their own agenda, rather than letting readers have the final say. Every revolution has its setbacks though.

Charlie Brown, Senior Copywriter: AdBroad is featuring this very funny video someone made spoofing “A Charlie Brown Christmas” - high production values and very funny script- brilliant spoof if you work in or around the ad business.

Mortgage Crisis, Part 2: Fund manager Whitney Tilson (a good friend of mine from back in the day, hence the plug) is on 60 Minutes tonight in a story spotlighting the second act of the mortgage crisis. If you’re really interested, you can download his presentation here (it’s in the right-hand column under “T2 Partners”)

Dec 11, 2008

iPhone Magic


So there’s a really amazing list of iPhone tips over at a blog called TapTapTap. But what’s more amazing is that none of these tips are to be found anywhere in the little iPhone manual that comes with the phone. (Not that said pamphlet really counts as an iPhone manual...) Nor are they easily found on the Apple site either.

And yet they’re all pretty basic tips. Like, for instance, if you’re in Safari and you hold down the status bar at the top of the screen, the page automatically scrolls back to the top.

Who knew?

Point is, they’re the sort of easy-to-remember tips that would make most people’s iPhone experience better and more useful. Not the sort of esoteric tricks involving AppleScript that one usually expects to find in these sorts of posts.

Compare that to the experience you get with a Blackberry, where your very first email is a message from RIM with ten useful tips and keyboard shortcuts.

Now if I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that Apple was trying to create a class of super user, the same sort of people who find the Easter eggs in software and who lord it over those who don’t know the difference between RAM and V-RAM.

By the same token, if I was cynical, I’d say it was a conscious omission, because if you’re selling the iPhone after all, things like user manuals just aren’t that necessary.

But truth is, I’m just baffled.

Anyway, if you own an iPhone, check out the TapTapTap post. I’m guessing you’ll learn something.

Dec 9, 2008

See Me In DC on Thursday


I'll be speaking this Thursday, Dec, 11th, at the Clickability/KickApps Summit "Harnessing the Power of Social Media in Government & Public Interest"

It runs from 11:30 AM to 3:PM at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC

Here's the line-up:

11:30 AM – 12:15 PM: Registration and Lunch

12:15 PM – 12:20 PM: Welcome

12:20 PM – 12:35 PM: State of Social Media, Alex Blum, CEO, KickApps

12:35 PM – 1:05 PM: Change and Social Media Tools—A Primer, Alan Wolk, Creative Strategist

1:05 – 1:25 PM: Social Media and Education, Mario Armstrong, NPR Technology Correspondent

1:25 PM – 1:45 PM: VOA Case Study, Todd Marks, Mind Grub

1:45 – 2:45 PM: Panel — Best practices & Tips: Sandy Carter (IBM), Mario Armstrong (NPR), Craig Stoltz (Stoltz Digital Media), Rebecca McMenamin (Voice of America), moderator: Michael Chin (KickApps)

3:00 PM – 4:00 PM: Networking reception and light hors d'oeuvres


If you'll be in Washington, stop by and say hello.

Dec 8, 2008

Social Media Is Nothing Like High School


There’s a meme that social media is a lot like high school. I’m not sure it’s true though. In fact, I suspect social media is the polar opposite of high school.

Let me explain.

That meme comes from the fact that for many, success in social media is defined as having the largest number of friends, followers, blog comments, etc. It’s an easily defined measure of importance that they feel gives them bragging rights

But check in with any actual high school student and I’m guessing they’ll confirm that the “cool kids” at their school in fact, have some of the most tightly edited groups of Facebook friends.

Why?

Because if you’re a “cool kid” you can’t be seen hanging out with just anybody. You only want to be friends with other “cool kids.” And the more exclusive your friend list, the better. It’s the kids on the outside who are going around trying to friend everyone at the school and earning the reputation of trying too hard. The “cool kids” on the other hand, are decidedly uninterested in knowing anybody outside of their little circle of exclusivity. Or, to look at it another way, they don’t need external validation of their status.

And while I’m not advocating a return to adolescent pettiness or stuffing rival CMOs inside a locker, there is a lesson for brands here. Which is stick with the people who already think you’re cool. In social media anyway, where people are really only just there to socialize.

Don’t try and reach all sorts of people who barely know your brand or who aren’t particularly interested in it. It just makes you look desperate and, especially in a social media setting where (as we all know by now) Your Brand Is Not My Friend™, it’s really quite annoying.

By sticking with people who already think you’re cool, who want to hang with you, you’ll build up a far more dedicated and valuable base, people who are open to your message and who may, in fact, help spread it.

I’ve written before about “Personal Prom King” brands-- those offbeat brands for whom we have a strong level of affection and loyalty. (Mine, for instance, is Thor-lo socks.) And that’s a great place to start. If your brand is really low-interest, you may need to find another, slightly larger group to attach yourself to: maybe crockpot users, if you’re a spice manufacturer.

The idea here is to narrowcast, to find a small, narrowly-defined group of people who’ll be your loyalists and to whom you’re one of the cool kids too.

You may not wind up being the coolest brand in social media. But you won’t be one of the geeks.

Dec 5, 2008

Research I'd LIke To See


Was wondering today if any research had ever been done into how brand image affects people's online product reviews.

In other words, if you buy an iPod and hate it, are you less prone to write a negative review because you know that most people love iPods and think they're cool?

Or, on the flip side, if you own a Toyota Camry, does the flack from the whole "Saved By Zero" fiasco make you less likely to write a positive review, even if you love the car?

Not looking for educated guesses here-- it would seem obvious that some are influenced. What I'm interested in is actual research into what degree people are influenced and what percentage of them are.

Dec 2, 2008

The Great Twitter Ponzi Scheme


I’m constantly amazed at the number of articles written about how to gain more followers on Twitter. And the number of people who spend considerable portions of their day following this advice by trolling for extra followers and trying to boost their "numbers."

Because like the current real estate mess that hedged on the erroneous belief that an unlimited pool of buyers existed, the Twitter Ponzi scheme hinges on the equally erroneous belief that there is an unlimited pool of people looking for social media experts.

And of course nothing could be farther from the truth.

There’s an extremely limited pool of people who actually find this stuff interesting. Most of whom. I’d guess, are already on Twitter and so they wind up passing the same links and experts back and forth, like some cyber game of Hot Potato.

Now like any good Ponzi scheme, the Twitter one rewards the people who get in on the ground floor. So the Scobles and Kawasakis all have thousands of followers and followees and have built names for themselves based on the cleverness and/or usefulness of their tweets.

But their success doesn’t make it easier for the next round of wannabe Twitter gods: it makes it harder. Much harder. I mean there are only so many ways to say “Pownce is going out of business” in 140 characters or less. Let alone link to the half dozen articles about it.

This is where the Law of Diminishing Returns, that thing you learned about back in high school economics class, kicks in. Every new “expert” becomes less valuable than the one prior, since there’s considerable overlap in the sort of specialized information they’re providing. By the time you’re up to your thousandth “expert” there’s little in the way of extra value. Except perhaps to see patterns in the chatter though (a) this can be accomplished via Twitter’s “Trending Topics” list and (b) can just as easily be seen by looking at the tweet streams of 500 people as 5,000.

Ponzi schemes work because they promise unlimited return for limited investment. And because some people actually do win: the players who get in early. Well, those early slots are long gone now. So do yourself a favor: use Twitter to connect with the people who actually matter to you. As Mack Collier preaches daily, it’s all about quality, not quantity.

Don’t be a sucker.