Posts tagged ‘digital’

The Destruction of Community and the Rise of the Fan Club

Via the miracle of YouTube, I spent the last hour or so watching a lecture the late Neil Postman gave in 1998 at Calvin College in Michigan. In it he brought up a compelling idea (actually dozens of them, but here I’ll just focus on one) about how technology has changed our definition of community. Traditionally, communities have been united by broad commonalities (e.g., geography, culture, history, etc.) even as the individual members of the communities differed on many particulars. Indeed, the trick of making a community function was for the individual members to find a way to work around their differences and disagreements to create a socially cohesive unit. Take away the negotiation and compromise on the points of difference and the points of commonality would not be strong enough to hold the community together.

Yet when we talk about communities in the age of interactivity, we often mean something very different. More often that not we are referring to a group of people who are in near total agreement on a particular topic. Because technology makes it easy–indeed almost effortless–to create new communities, people who find themselves in any sort of disagreement in an existing community need not work through their differences. They can simply start their own community where they do not have to put up with the annoyance of dissent. This may seem like a dream for a marketer who will benefit from gathering together a group of people who are deeply loyal to a brand, but a community it is not. It is a fan club. (Indeed, in its political incarnation it can become something much more troubling–a walled compound of people who would rather enter into an infinite loop of mutual affirmation than engage in honest and thoughtful debate. Insert your favorite–or least favorite–cable news network here.) Remember that the word fan comes from “fanatic”–a person with extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal.

But my purpose here is not to talk politics; I leave that for a different time and a different blog. In the age of social media, marketers throw around phrases like “online community” as if we all agree on what they mean. I submit to you than we don’t. As more and more brands venture into the interactive space, the ones who succeed will be the ones who are honest with themselves about whether they are looking to create a community or a fan club. Uncritical enthusiasm may seem appealing, but ultimately stronger brands are built on the support of those who see our warts and want to help us heal them.


May 18, 2010 at 3:40 am Leave a comment

Billion-dollar ad agencies versus twelve-dollar branded content

One of the warnings I give clients (as well as bright-eyed creatives) who wish to produce “branded content” for the interactive space–they typically have in mind some sort of video that they hope will catch fire and become part of the popular culture–is that they must understand they’re not simply competing with other branded content for the attention of consumers. They’re also competing with every amateur video on YouTube that shows a guy stepping on a rake and accidentally hitting himself in the nuts.

Clay Shirky’s recent post, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” does a nice job of explaining why big organizations struggle to react to the threat posed by cheap, low-quality competition:

In the mid-90s, I got a call from some friends at ATT, asking me to help them research the nascent web-hosting business. They thought ATT’s famous “five 9’s” reliability (services that work 99.999% of the time) would be valuable, but they couldn’t figure out how anyone could offer good web hosting for $20 a month, then the going rate. No matter how many eventual users they assumed, $20 didn’t even seem to cover the monthly costs, much less leave a profit.

I started describing the web hosting I’d used, including the process of developing web sites locally, uploading them to the server, and then checking to see if anything had broken.

“But if you don’t have a staging server, you’d be changing things on the live site!” They explained this to me in the tone you’d use to explain to a small child why you don’t want to drink bleach. “Oh yeah, it was horrible”, I said. “Sometimes the servers would crash, and we’d just have to re-boot and start from scratch.” There was a long silence on the other end, the silence peculiar to conference calls when an entire group stops to think.

The ATT guys, part of a company so committed to the sacred dial tone it ran its own power grid, had correctly understood that the income from $20-a-month customers wouldn’t pay for good web hosting. What they hadn’t understood, were in fact professionally incapable of understanding, was that the industry solution, circa 1996, was to offer hosting that wasn’t very good.

The world of content creation is facing a similar shift. YouTube sensation “Charlie Bit My Finger” is the most viewed minute of video in the last five years (175 million views and counting). It’s an amateur production–too grand a word really, for something so simple–with no budget, yet more people watched it than all the so-called “viral” videos that agencies spent millions of dollars making. How will big advertising  compete against such bottom-dollar threats? Emulating “Charlie Bit My Finger” is not the path. The video was dumb luck, and the people who captured the moment are unlikely ever to capture anything as interesting again.

Offhand, I think there are a couple of models that could work. First, agencies could set up something like a content greenhouse in which they try to grow their own low-cost solutions. Assignments could be given simultaneously to dozens of film students (for example). (Perhaps for a different product the assignment could be given to dozens of moms.) They’d be asked to come up with branded content on a budget of essentially zero. (Think of this as the logical conclusion of Adam Morgan’s argument that if you are having trouble coming up with a great creative idea, you should cut the budget in half and start over.) Sometimes you’ll get nothing of value, but that’s OK, because you haven’t bet a million-dollar production budget on the outcome. The key to the concept is low risk, high reward. For the film students in the greenhouse, their compensation would be the popularity of the work itself, and perhaps some sort of promise of future employment. That may not be a compelling proposition for a grizzled forty-something creative director, but it could be quite appealing to an ambitious, young hoodie-wearer trying to make his way in the world.

Another possibility is that something analogous to the early days of silent film could emerge in advertising. Think about what happened in the second decade of the 20th century: Using rather crude technology, a few auteurs emerged who were able to consistently capture magic on film. No complicated special effects, no $100 million budgets. Just whatever they were able to make happen in front of the camera’s aperture. It came down to the genius of one man. Could something similar happen in advertising? Perhaps some of the agency world’s creative superstars will shed their cumbersome organizations and set up shop with a $300 camera and a couple of tungsten lights. They may even offer to produce branded content for free and be paid by the view. For the people who are really good at it, it could be the smartest business deal they ever make.

April 8, 2010 at 10:26 pm Leave a comment

The internet will spend less time trying to sell you things and more time helping you do things.

Picture 4As evidence that the interactive space continues to trend more towards utility and away from Flash-heavy animation, I give you, a site whose sole purpose is to identify the best times during movies to leave your theater seat and, as John Foster Dulles used to say, shake the dew off your lily. Above is the site’s scouting report on Star Trek.

What’s more, will give you the low-down on what you missed while you were away. Despite excellent reviews, you will see that Star Trek nevertheless has multiple pee times available. Ridiculous though this all is, would you bet against the idea than an advertiser to step up to sponsor it? 7-11’s Big Gulp, perhaps?

If our civilization should last a thousand years, let men look back and say “this was their finest hour.”

May 22, 2009 at 12:35 am Leave a comment

Who cares if you can get free MP3s online? How about a free college education?

Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef has started something truly remarkable in the online world–it’s called the University of the People. Its purpose to put a college education within the reach of those who cannot afford it. It’s stunning to think about the collective cognitive power this idea could eventually release into the world. The greatest natural resource on the planet isn’t oil; it’s the brains of the humans who live here. Increasing the productivity of those brains is almost certainly the best investment we can possibly make. Reshef started the University of the People with an investment of just $1 million and is hoping to raise another $5 million from private sources.

The university is currently pursuing accreditation in the United States and offers degree programs in business administration and computer science and hopes to be serving 15,000 students within four years. I hope they blow past that goal and are educating hundreds of thousands within a decade.

Thanks to the great Steve Fedorko for the heads up on this story, which you can read in its entirety here at Technology Review.

May 20, 2009 at 1:34 am Leave a comment

Geospatial Science: You only need to know about it if the products you advertise are used somewhere on earth


The good folks at Penn State University they’ve embarked on something called the Geospatial Revolution Project, which is basically about exploring what becomes possible when geography goes digital. Not only does geospatial science have enormous ramifications for defense, intelligence, human rights monitoring and the observation of climate change, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what it will do in commerce and marketing. The Obama campaign, for example, used geospatial mapping to take precision targeting to levels never before seen in political advertising. 

But set advertising aside for the moment. There’s going to be a big future for those who can develop useful branded applications based on geospatial science. If your product can be purchased, used or connected to in certain places, there’s a very good chance that an app designed to improve consumers’ experiences is heading your way.  Take a look at  the Geospatial Revolution Project site (and well done introductory video) here to get an idea of what the future may hold.

May 6, 2009 at 1:30 am Leave a comment

The death of direct mail – or at least of the organization that delivers it


Georg [sic] Jensen has written an insightful article for the American Interest Online about the grave problems of the United States Postal Service. With all due respect to the longstanding incompetence of Chrysler and General Motors, if ever there was an organization that has been begging to go out of business through half-assed management and non-existent strategy, it’s the Post Office. Here’s a taste of what Jensen has to say about their future:

“By rightsizing the infrastructure and implementing secure and legal ‘electronic postal mail delivery’ like other countries have, the USPS could become profitable and sustainable within two years, preserving far more jobs than if it continues to operate as if the Internet has not changed the world forever. Darwin, Deming and Schumpeter are all looking down on the USPS to see if it becomes a victim of natural selection, or a beneficiary of it. As things stand today, its survival prospects don’t look so good.”

Of course, if the USPS tanks, the private sector will rush in–or perhaps in this economy, it may be more accurate to say “limp in”–to fill the void and deliver the time-share real estate offers on which so many direct marketing careers depend. Certain though that is, it is equally certain that mail will only continue to become less important. Electronic communication eliminates another reason for it with every passing day.

On a final note, am I the only one who finds it astonishing that Postmaster General used to be a cabinet position? Does anyone need another indication of how far snail mail has fallen? Today the head of the Post Office no more deserves a seat in cabinet meetings than the president of Quizno’s does. But a cabinet-level position overseeing electronic communication–that, friends, may be worth discussing.

April 29, 2009 at 12:47 am Leave a comment

Does the internet need a border fence to be profitable?


Brad Stone and Miguel Helft write in today’s New York Times that the exponential growth of internet usage in developing countries is bleeding the profit from many web-based companies. What’s happening is very simple: People in places like Turkey, Indonesia and India are spending extraordinary amounts of time on sites like YouTube and Facebook–far more than the average consumer in North America, Europe and Japan. They’re sucking up a tremendous amount of bandwidth. The problem with this is that thus far advertisers has placed little to no value on the eyeballs popular sites are attracting in the developing world. If these foreign consumers can’t or won’t buy their products, they don’t want to pay for reaching them.

As a result, the big online players have to ask themselves if growth that cannot be monetized is something they really want. It’s not out of the question that some of the most popular sites on the web will become restricted to residents of certain countries. Though this seems a betrayal of the egalitarian ethos of the internet, failing to make money is a betrayal of the reason the companies exist in the first place.

April 28, 2009 at 1:27 am 2 comments

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