How brands talk

Found a ton of great Fishburne cartoons when writing a post over here. Here’s a great  one that didn’t fit that theme:

Slide29-550x412

For me, it brings to life two great fallacies about brands:

1/ That customers want to have a relationship with their brands. There may be some very special brands that are like that for some very ‘special’ people. Obviously, there are the Mac people. I’m told some people are very keen on sports clubs, but does anyone really want to have a relationship with their breakfast cereal?

2/ That consumers spend very much time at all thinking about what brands mean to them. Of course the wonks at branding agencies would love to perpetrate this myth (and indeed the one above). We’ll get people to “Like us on Facebook”, they plan with the most wonderful double think: “When I friend a brand on Facebook, I’m just messing around. When a ‘consumer’ does it, they’re really serious”.

Yes, you might be able to trick a customer into clicking on a Like button about your brand, but don’t be convinced that they care, or even remember you. And ask yourself further if the patronizing empty content on most brands’ Facebook pages is likely to have a positive effect on any poor sods who find themselves there accidentally.

Here comes the Sun

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Well, we find out that either the force wasn’t really unstoppable or the object wasn’t really unmovable.

And so, the News International empire is about to collide with the self-appointed monarchy of the internet, Google. It’s tempting to paint this as a battle of good vs evil, and more than a few Star Wars analogies have been thrown around already. But really it’s not that simple, of course. More like the battle of the presumed innocent and the presumed guilty.

The delicate subtext to much of this discussion isn’t easy to miss. Protest as they may that Murdoch is a crazy out-of-touch Luddite, there’s an unmistakable absence amongst his detractors of either certainty that he will fail, or explanation of why he should. As per usual, Andrew Orlowski provides one of the most insightful takes on the whole subject and an explanation for the sudden desire for aggressive action:

Really it’s a cultural divide. The web divisions at media companies – who can speak fluent “clayshirky”, quote from Freakonomics and are invariably Twittering at a New Media conference – haven’t brought home the goods; media company boards and shareholders now see them more as part of the problem than as the solution.

The reality is that no one really knows what on earth will happen in this showdown, and not many media companies are ready to come out and say that they won’t jump on the band wagon if Murdoch does somehow manage to get it rolling.

And of course we’ll have fun watching. It’s a good fight. No one in their right mind writes off the man who has somehow convinced almost 10 million people in the UK to give him over £20 a month to watch TV which is (more or less) also available free. And few will write off Google, because they’re the only people who’ve so far managed to make big money from advertising  on the web.

The freetards taste victory, but also fear the passing of the utopian summer we’ve all been having. I imagine Chris Andersen is busy trying to work out how he’ll eat all the words in his boring books if the crazy Australian manages to make it fly. Microsoft presumably can’t imagine their luck: there’s a battle going on, and they’re not the villains for once – although they may be crazy if they chose to pay Murdoch to list his content.

But as the debate rages in media offices all over country, there seem a few rather critical truths which are not being discussed:

  • Search engine inertia – The thought that consumers will change engine in response to the content that is available gives the impression that most users understand the distinction between search engines and what they do (or even search engines and browsers). This has not been my experience in user testing. This isn’t a point about Google  being so easy and fast that people are loyal to it. This is a point about users thinking Google is the web. Long-learned habits will take a long time to break. Clearly if Murdoch got almost all media outlets to follow him (not inconceivable), the absence of such results would drive users on, but as long as ‘Tiger woods crash’ returns hundreds of results, migration is likely to be slow.
  • The BBC – In the UK, the BBC – also committed to open, free access – makes any such anti-Google cartel a paper tiger.
  • Prisoner’s dilemma – the more media outlets are in the Murdoch alliance, the more tempting it will be to leave it.
  • Cover price – The cover price of newspapers do not make them commercially viable. The value for media owners is still the value of advertising, not cover price. So unless we are planning on driving people away from the web, back to newsprint, subscription prices are going to have to be way higher than offline pricing, since internet advertising doesn’t work. Numerous free-paper wars have shown how advertising in print can deliver profits. And, of course, most newspapers operate an at-least partially free model: what percentage, for example, of The Times, are given away for free? Conversely, what would the cover price on the Sun have to be if it carried no advertising? £1? £2? Would it be any more commercially viable than the Sun on the web with a paywall?
  • Purchase mechanic – It’s an obvious point but customers pay for newspapers with small change in an ad hoc arrangement. And the decision to purchase is often driven by the front page headline or image. Neither of these techniques exists online.
  • The newspaper is not just about news and sport (or opinion) – much of the content of the Sun is already monetized online (Page 3, Bingo); further considerable portions are being monetized very effectively online, just not by News International (classifieds, reader offers etc).
  • The print title is a social object – No I don’t mean in the tree-hugging, twitter-will-save-the-world way. Average readership of a national newspaper is 2-3 people. Being social, offline, supports advertising but not cover price revenue. Interestingly, most media owners love secondary reading, not seeing it a cannibalization of readership. Again, Murdoch risks damaging precisely this aspect of newspaper consumption. And, newspapers are social in another way too. Part of the attraction of mass media is that they can form topics for discussion in social groups. Online has actually been very efficient at enabling this. Paywall’s are very bad at encouraging this sort of behavior. Like music licensing, once I’ve paid for online content, I feel I should be able to share it, not with the whole web, but certainly with my immediate networks.
  • Subscriptions are not rare – The failure of music subscription services and of registration / pay-walling in general are taken (by the ‘free’ lobby) to mean that consumers won’t pay for things by subscription . In fact consumers sign up to all sorts of licence / subscription deals: for their Sky packages, for their broadband, for their mobile phones, for their travel cards, for football seats. The barrier to subscriptions is not a general resistance but the ability to demonstrate value.
  • Online all content is micro-content – At the point at which the consumer is going to be asked to part with cash, they are about to interact not with the entire contents of a newspaper, but with a particular piece of content (whether they’re searching on Bing, on Google, or on the Sun’s own website). Pricing, therefore needs to be proportionate.

So what it adds up to is the need to ask for the customer to pay more, for less, in a less convenient medium, in a way that they probably don’t know how to navigate.

But it’s not a one way lesson. Whilst Murdoch’s move creates uncertainty, the key lesson for the free lobby is that the content producers are being squeezed out of existence. Is this obvious? I think it is but it never seems to be admitted to by those hawking that ‘information wants to be free’. Or does information also ‘want’ to be of a high quality and across a wide variety of topics? An older and more certain cliche comes to mind: ‘you get what you pay for’.

Today newspaper websites are seen as a marketing tool rather than purely a delivery channel. The new marketplace means online papers will have to be commercially viable in their own right. With no indication of an acceptable online advertising model; we are still awaiting the revolution which does in fact come at the end of Shirky’s argument. Will we end up with free content? undoubtedly. Will it be any good?  Will Rupert Murdoch own it? We’ll have to wait and see.

Care less Wispa

Does anyone else think the following – one an honest-to-goodness advertising campaign (from Fallon no less) and one a piss-take of the world without computers – look suprisingly similar?

(And yes, that is Rolf Harris).

The entire cracked photoshop contest is a lot of fun, imagining what the world would be like if the internet disappeared tomorrow. Particularly good is the theatre audience watching a cat doing something cute (a la YouTube) and the real life Rick-rolling.

The Wispa campaign basically says: people like sharing this crap on the internet, now let’s take some pap and shove it on a billboard sign. There’s something interesting in the idea from the point of view of creating salient advertising – each poster will be unusual and might make the passerby wonder what on earth it is about? But – of course – it will also be meaningless to most people.

Salience is important, but… erm… what the hell has it got to do with chocolate bars.

The site explains:

“We’ve decided to give our advertising space to you guys as a thank you for all the love you’ve shown to Wispa.”

“We have bought thousands of billboards all over the UK and Ireland so that you can share your special messages with the world. Yes, that’s right, you let us know your special message and if it gets selected we will post it on a real billboard in the location of your choice.

“So if your mum lives in Birmingham you could post her a special message, say a poem, and we’ll try to give you a site as near to her as possible.”

Here’s one:

(It’s for a dog!)

All of them are up on the site. There’s also the ‘gold panel’ of ‘normal’ (there needs to be about five sets of inverted commas around this freak show) people like Cara Stripp. Does anyone older than Cluster (see above), really think that these profiles aren’t made up?

As you have probably guessed I love Wispa, and was really keen for Cadbury to bring it back. So a few years ago I got involved with the bring back Wispa facebook group, and even though it is now back, I still spend lots of time on the site chatting to other Wispa fans and getting involved wherever I can.

I love Wispa because it’s something that I grew up with and it holds good memories for me. Everyone remembers their favourite sweet as a kid and for me it’s never changed. I like the special texture and just the fact that it tastes so gooooood!

My love of Wispa has become infamous and I often receive Wispas as parts of presents from friends and family. I even have Wispa earrings and a necklace which were specially made for me!

The thought process seems to go along these lines: People are really motivated by social media. People follow recommendations from real people. So if we make up some ‘real people’ and have them recommend us, and then get a sort of weird implied (but not really obvious) recommendation in return for some free poster sites, then everyone will love us.

We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again. The term ‘social media’ is a bit misleading for the advertising types. It is media, but not in the sense of ‘media buying’. You can’t purchase a chunk of it.

It’s certainly a truthful observation that there is a phenomonen around social media that people like it and respond to it, but it does not imply that it can be used for commercial messages. Good commercial messages can be amplified by social media. But that will happen if they’re good, interesting etc; not because they appear to be social in nature. Fallon must know this… it’s the point of the Gorilla.

I find this whole stage of advertising evolution really embarrassing to watch. It’s like a Wispa sponsored X-Factor at Sunderland townhall: “People love X-Factor, let’s get us one of those…. obviously on a smaller scale though, cause we’ve only got a 100k budget”.

Last acts

Dixons ad (comparing to John Lewis)

I’m certainly not claiming to be any sort of advertising pundit.

However, the recent advertising campaign for Dixons strikes me as quite remarkable, and not in a good way. It has already sparked a lively debate. I’m sure that was at least part of the intention. In fact, I can just imagine a bloke from the agency with a La Roux haircut telling the client that this would make it ‘social media’.

First of all, no matter how good the strategy behind it, is it really a great idea to give your client the strapline ‘the last place you want to shop’?Clever wordplay it may be, but it also making a negative statement about the brand, and not a small one. It is acknowledging a commonly held belief that Dixons offers an unpleasant experience. Especially considering that the advert is for the online store rather than than the scrappy Dixons with abusive staff who have now disappeared from our high-streets (or become Currys), which brand would want to say this? Is there no worry that customers will remember it. Imagine it as a store fascia! Unsurprisingly, the strap line hasn’t made it on to the actual site.

Secondly, by reducing their offer to pure lowest price, Dixons is severly limiting any future value proposition it may put before customers. While Selfridges, Harrods and John Lewis (the stores shown in comparison) all have well deserved reputations for service; by lampooning themselves, Dixons can hardly expect any consumer to be left in any doubt about what they are offering now or in the future.

And here’s the other problem with going for a purely price-commoditised proposition. I have absolutely no doubt that consumers do go to stores to find what they want before finding the best price online. And, of course, geeks have already starting using phones to check competitor prices even as they stand in the competitors stores.

Now if you’re in Harrods, and not a total geek, I can imagine that a good sales person will be able to convince you to pay a small premium to have the product there and then, with Harrods’ service promise. This is not, however, a viable strategy for online. The sort of consumer who looks in-store and buys online is not going to stop at just checking the price on Dixons.co.uk. They will check it in Google, Kelkoo and the rest.

So to win in this strategy, Dixons would have to guarantee lowest prices. Of the products I looked at, they were matched or beaten by players like Amazon and Play in most cases, and even more suprisingly they didn’t appear in Google shopping, even for the very flat screen TVs they were talking about in the ad:

Capture

(Look over in the cheap seats (PPC slots) for the two DSGi brands).

Is it really possible that they didn’t think of this when planning the campaign?

The main point though is that I think this advertising is smart-arse creative written for smart-arsed creatives and planners. It’s an advert aimed at industry people.

But who is the real target audience? Is it really aimed at customers of Selfridges et al? If so, I think it misjudges the value those customers place on service. And, it’s not exactly an excerpt from ‘how to win friends and influence people’ to mock your customers. If it is aimed at a more standard high-street shopper, isn’t it just a bit too clever.

Indeed Neil O’Keefe, current DSGi marketing director says: “With this campaign we aim to reach an even wider, particularly younger audience.”

I would love to see the testing results about how this ad influences intention. For those who understand it at all, I’d imagine it’s more likely to drive people to the doors of Dixons’ competitors than to include Dixons in their online repertoire. In part because the younger, smarter audience understands the concept of price comparison, and in part because, in the hustle and bustle of the tube, or wherever you see these ads, people may not even spend long enough to know they’re not for Harrods, Selfridges or John Lewis. An interesting test is whether you’d ever run this creative on the web? When price comparison is one click away, they suddenly seem completely unusable.

Very strange. Slightly desperate. And, I’m guessing, the last thing the ad agency (M&C) will do for DSGi.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

Twittles

In the last post, I talked a bit about the new Skittles site. This post really comes by way of an apology for a small experiment I ran following that post, and a couple of unexpected observations that came out of it.

The experiment was to try and take over the twitter search feed which had previously been (all of) the Skittles new ‘social media concept’ home page. The idea was to turn it into a large advert for something other than Skittles. As alluded to by Amelia , I could have chosen a a very ‘specialist’ or even offensive product. Instead I went for a simple, delicious and peanutty competitor, Reese’s Pieces – not least because I’m mildly addicted to them. 

Unfortunately by this stage, the Twitter feed was no longer the site’s home page (instead being relegated to the ‘chatter’ section). Something tells me it might quietly disappear altogether fairly soon.

Frankly, it was very easy to do. Indeed, it could easily be accomplished using brute force alone. All you need to do is set up a twitter account and constantly repost comments about your product with the word ‘skittles’ (not even the hash tag) in them.

So far, so good. I coloured it up a bit by also creating an identity for my product and an appropriate little picture. 

Manually putting the posts in is a bit dull so I set up a (google) app engine page to do it, using one of the Twitter APIs. That sounds fiddly but actually wasn’t much more complex than adapting some code samples from the web. App engine itself is relatively easy to understand, and it’s free.

I’d originally plalnned to post ‘Personally I prefer Reese’s Pieces to Skittles’ at regular intervals. GAE doesn’t currently have prebuilt fixed interval event calling (what’s called CRON) although this approach would still have been easily done. Instead, I turned it into a poll, where other users would click on a link saying, basically, ‘click here if you prefer RP to Skittles’. Each time it was clicked, the poll question was reposted.

And that was it. Every post on the Skittles chatter page for most of the weekend was someone saying they prefer a competitor product, and showing a picture of it.

There were a couple of issues, aside from being pointless. Firstly,Twitter limits tweets per hour which made the page hijacks bunch up a bit (although, again, I can think of multiple straight-forward solutions, if this were a serious attempt to cause trouble).

Secondly, someone – perhaps Mars or their agency, perhaps Twitter themselves, perhaps a search engine or a spammer was following posted links automatically – leading to loop that would ‘vote’ for RP every second or so – until tweet sending per hour was reached. Again, this could be easily fixed for a proper attempt to regulate the flow.

Was it vandalism? It certainly looked like it on their site, but really that is more a reflection of the Skittles’ approach. The way Twitter search works means that a feed with no followers, which is only a few minutes old, can dominate the search results. There is no inbuilt mechanism in this sort of setup to infer the authority of the post or the poster.

Clearly I was being a pain deliberately but there can’t ever be a reason why a lonely twitterer shouldn’t be able to say what they want to themselves (bear in mind that ReesePieces1, my Twitter identity had zero followers for most of the experiment – although even this bizarre character picked up three SPAM followers in a couple of days). And Skittles can scarcely object to their customers using the brand name – that’s the entire premise of this whole stunt.

So, my apology is to anyone who found the experiment intrusive or annoying, although it certainly showed what I wanted to test.

Whilst I’ve found the whole Skittles site launch most peculiar, it has been interesting to watch both the reaction to it, and the variety of thinking about what it means.

For me, the most telling aspect has been the brand’s reaction to trouble. Having Twitter as the dominant social media format certainly was quite brave. When that started going wrong, they switched to Wikipedia. Well it didn’t talk about deviant sexual practices, but you’d have to conclude that no one at the agency had really read it.

This is what it said at launch:

Skittles is a brand of chewy fruit candies produced and marketed by Mars, Incorporated. They have hard sugar shells which carry the letterS. The inside is mainly sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oil along with fruit juicecitric acid and natural and artificial flavors.

…..

Skittles are not kosher[3][4] or halal in the US or Europe.

Since then, the main Wikipedia entryhas been toned down a bit (by the agency?) and the Skittles.com links to Wikipedia have been updated to point at this bland varieties page. The Skittles.com home page now points to the brand’s YouTube channel (the area they control most) and shows the brand’s TV ads… which is exactly what every other ‘convenitional’ FMCG brand site is. Was it worth it?

Chasing rainbows

Now that's what I call marketing - ET sells Reese's Pieces

Listen, I’m not going to start believing my predictions. I promise. After all, one correct hit in all these years is not good odds. However, I do find it a bit spooky that I wrote this post last week talking about just how pointless FMCG-brand websites are, and how useless FMCG brands are therefore likely be on Twitter, and in less than 5 days, Skittles relaunches its site in a special efffort to prove me right. Perhaps they’re watching the house.

(For those who haven’t seen it, the site isn’t really a site, it just points at Skittles-related social media like Twitter, Wikipeida, Facebook and YouTube. The point is supposed to be that the concept of a site is becoming less meaningful and your brand should be in disparate locations. This is all true. But it doesn’t matter when you’re Skittles, because no one cares).

It also showed how mind-numbingly bored the twitter community must be. Because it properly lit up for the first time in ages. The discussion went something like this

‘What the hell has Skittles done to its site?’

‘I dunno, but if I twitter about it, I appear on it’

‘Wow that’s circular (and I also like it because I’m secretly seeking social approval because I never got picked for the football team in school)’

‘I think Skittles are shit’

‘Look, you just turned up on the Skittles site, in twitter, talking about how the Skittles site is shit because it uses twitter’

‘How post-super-modern. Now I like the Skittles site’

‘Skittles are made of dead flies’ eggs’

‘Now it says ‘skittles are made of dead flies’ eggs’ on the Skittles’ site’

‘Blah’

‘Blah’

‘Blah’

‘Blah’

‘Blah’

‘Blah’

‘Blah’

‘Blah’

‘Blah’

‘I wish everyone would stop taling about Skittles’

‘I wish everyone would stop taling about Skittles’

‘Talking about not talking about Skittles is actually talking about Skittles’

etc

Now.

Stop and think. Put yourself in a deep state of reflection. Imagine the quiet trickle of a river. Forget all about microblogging. And ask yourself: are you going to buy any more Skittles? If you only had slightly old cheese and Skittles in the house, which would you eat? Do you believe Skittles are healthy? Would you give them to your three-year-old child?

Thought so.

It would be somewhat better if the idea was new. But it’s such a clear rip off of the Modernista! site from last year that I’m suprised they even changed the colours.

It’s not just proof of how redundant FMCG brand websites are, it’s an admission of the fact, by an agency. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an improvement to have one replaced by… nothing at all. The agency hasn’t even put up marketing messages for the individual brands – instead showing Wikipedia pages (as, ahem, predicted by Mystic Meg here). Jesus guys, at least string the client along a little bit. Or is this your big ‘going out of business’ sale?

And of course today, there will be loads of interest on the twitter search. But what happens tomorrow when everyone’s moved on? They’re not coming back!

The problem isn’t that people don’t like Skittles. I happen to hate them. But, I do have an unnaturally strong affection for Reese’s Pieces, and even that doesn’t get me looking the little beauties up on Twitter. I never ever think:  ‘Hmm, I wonder what people are saying about Reese’s Pieces today?’ (Incidentally, and to save you the bother, the answer is nothing much: 5 tweets in 24 hours. Altough there is a quite a vibrant Maltesers discussion going on :-)).

The biggest conflict here is between the words in the phrase ‘digital creative agency’. Agency means you have to charge your client for doing something they couldn’t perfectly well do themselves, creative should mean ‘new ideas that add value’ (thank you Ken Robinson) but acutally ends up meaning ‘suprising or pretty ideas’, and digital means (has come to mean) that you can’t buy your way in very effectively. Try making a cake with that recipe.

As far as I can tell, there’s only two interesting things about this site: Why on earth it has an age restriction, and how the hell agency.com sold it to their client – why couldn’t they have put that video on the web?

Soap operas

tide-classic-ad

So Ted McConnell, P&G’s general manager for interactive marketing and innovation has just told a conference audience that he didn’t want to buy any more ads on Facebook (thanks to Dan W for the link).

He succinctly summarises his thinking:

“What in heaven’s name made you think you could monetize the real estate in which somebody is breaking up with their girlfriend?”

This might come as more of a shock if anyone were actually currently buying the endless inventory of Facebook. Despite the fact that you can theoretically target your audience by the colour of their pubic hair and their cat’s favourite cheese, most of the ads I see (and lets face facts, I barely even notice most of them) are for… Facebook ads:

Facebook ad for facebook ads on Facebook

I really hope someone can tell me that ad has been taregeted to me (twice).

The truth of course, is that the last place you can reach your customers before they search, is on Facebook itself – they’re way too busy finding out which of their friends is now in a ‘complicated’ relationship or is playing a new game of scramble.

McConnell hints at the very conceit in the constuction of the phrase ‘social media’ and ‘consumer generated media’. It may be both social and consumer generated but that does not mean it’s a place where people want to hear about low-fat yoghurt or taking part in medical trials.

Social media banner placements are so woeful they make traditional online media placements look good. But, we all know most banners are still ignored. In a social setting, they are completely invisible.

Of course, this is good and bad. Its good because hopefully it will reduce the amount I need to learn about teeth whitening, sanitary protection, mid-sized family vehicles and no-end of products which simply are not relevant to me.

It’s bad to the extent that virtually every good idea we hear about on the internet is supposed to be supported by advertising. And of course, now we’re in GRAVE FINANCIAL PANIC, it’s no longer fashionable to have no viable business plan. It’s like the dull old early noughties all over again, for heaven’s sake. Facebook, presumably, can go on for quite a while selling pieces of itself to MIcrosoft for eye watering sums. But what about the other poor souls. Who’s going to stump up for the Twitter SMS bill? Will you buy just one advertising campaign for this poor suffering dot.com. Your £15,000 can pay for a branding exercize for a start-up today!

Economics, presumably, will do its thing. As more inventory arrives on more and more sites where the user will work harder and harder to assiduously ignore the ads, the price for impression will fall forever lower. What’s the lowest it can be bought now? 5 cents CPM? 3? Soon, Startuplr.com will need to show 100,000 terrible, ineffective impressions to make $1.

At these sort of rates and responses, direct mail is starting to look pretty sexy again. As is prayer. And of course, all the while google get to charge upwards of $20 CPC for some of it’s best  keywords.

To get back to he point, the interesting question is where will P&G spend their money. Utopians might say ‘on the product’ or ‘on utility’ but the truth is that branding and brand promotion must still exist. And it must still exist because consumers use non-rational methods of making decisions (debate). And so, it still makes sense to try and add to the pure satisfactions of the product or service.

I think we’ll see lots more experimentation and some pretty bad mistakes. We’ll see lots more ads, and ignore almost all of them. And , at some time in this period of self-imposed adversity over the next 14 months, someone will find a way to more perfectly capture, understand and influence users’ intent and interest. This will keep Facebook’s over ambitious promise of capturing users before they acutally search and will make someone new a great deal of money (incuding P&G’s). Unless Google gets there first.

It’s uncanny

There's a graph so it must be true

Seth Godin here, picks up on a subject which Russell Davies discussed in Campaign last year. The Uncanny Valley. That topic is actually about when robotics (and the like) become too believable, and people begin to respond less well to them. How does this work in marketing?

For me, it’s a bit like when you meet someone at a conference, or when they come for a job interview, and you suddenly realise they’ve been reading your blog. But Godin and Davies are talking about when companies do this to consumers using just a few data points. Using just a couple of snippets of information, companies can start getting all ‘aren’t we good friends’ and ‘first-name-terms’. It’s particularly freeky when the company in question is somewhere you’ve only shopped once, or someone who makes some crappy facebook app you installed years ago.

Godin says, “The relevant issue here for marketers is what happens when our databases and predictions get too good”. Of course, most companies are still struggling to spell their customers’ names right, so we have a while to go yet before creep factor sets in.

From a direct marketing point of view – as I mentioned here – the fundemental flaw to the reasoning appears to be this assumption that faking it is ever going to really work – not because we haven’t got big enough databases or models, but simply because the cost of doing it well (e.g. all the variations of tone, copy, proposition etc) would become too expensive. There’s always also the issue that many communications are best done in a transparently public setting – people need to know not just that they’ve seen it but that their friends, colleagues and neighbours have seen it too. What’s the point having an iPhone if no-one else knows how cool it is?

And we also run the risk, it seems to me, of displaying to the customer just how much is being written down. Privacy policies can feel very abstract until you start to actually have the bredth of what is stored played back to you (it’s a very interesting experience for example to have a look through your Google history). If the government knew this much about us, we’d never put up with it.

The spirit of privacy laws is actually pretty instructive here. Data should only be kept and used where that use can be justified. Should the people I bought a collander off in 1992 still be mailing me collander deals now? Obviously not, and frankly they’re wasting their time as much as mine.

Counter-intuitive perhaps, but companies should be looking to throw away as much customer information as they can, while maintaining the information which genuinely improves customer service. A little more of this disipline could make the move towards greater customer intimacy, actually feel like a benefit for the customer.

A little bit (of) interesting

Today was interesting. It was Interesting 2008, the Russell Davies ‘unconference’; in its second year and continuing rude health. The underlying thought appears to be the same: the first step in being interesting is being interested. Accordingly a very large bunch (maybe 400) cogniscati gathered in an incredible (and extremely well buntinged) hall – Conway Hall in Red Lion Square – to hear some of the best presenters in the UK talk about their pet subjects.

If you were being satirical, you would say it was the world’s best people on branding, advertising, etc talking about their favourite colours, shoes, fashions, music or whatever. Of course, what it was actually about was people talking about things that were close to their own hearts, they thought would be interesting for 10 minutes (i.e. not their jobs) and where they’d found some interesting material.

We had Winston Churchill, Why horses are afraid of crisp packets, the extent to which we can really understand the second world war with only 60 years’ perspective, the relative density of World of Warcraft, the rise and fall of Patagonia, and why a lego fetish is a good thing.

I honestly don’t think there was a bad presenter all day. Although, this last bit – the selection of speakers – is really where Russell Davies showed his hand (despite very amusing and scene-setting opening- and closing- remarks).

Was it middle-class -bourgeoisie guardian-reading nonsense? Absolutely. At one point half the speakers joined together for a Guardaian sponsored recorder playing session.

Was it brilliant? Absolutely. A room in London was filled with some of the cleverest and most critical people of their generation, who allowed and understood their peers to do the most difficult presentation of their lives. We were a good audience – of course – but only for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, intense acts of bravery were conducted on stage as people with a lot to lose tried to be interesting to this dragons’ den.

Hats off to Russell, hats off to the speakers, and here’s to Interesting 2009. I’ll definitely try to be there. I’ve been racking my brain all day about what I’d talk about and I’m coming up blank. The best I’ve got is:

  • Untranslatable words / words that have never existed
  • Object orientated programming and what it can teach you about knowledge and YOUR life
  • How education works in other countries
  • How the WestWing (the TV show) changed the world
  • The Toyato Production Sytem, who nicked it and how it’s changed the world

Hopefully ee you there. And a pleasure to meet a whole bunch of you today, It’s been one of those days that makes it clear the new world isn’t a temporary one.

More: here and here

No one to hear you scream

2012 Olympic celebrations in Trafalgar Square

An interesting comment on the last post came back to a topic which I seem to be asked, or ask myself, more and more often. If social media increasingly leads to closed groups, and tomorrow’s media consumers are increasingly avoiding the mass media, what will happen to mass-participation media events, and don’t we as a culture lose something if we lose common points of reference. What on earth will we talk about around the water cooler?

In particular, I’ve heard this as a strong initial response to Clay Shirky, who argues here that however ‘sad’ it is to play World of Warcraft, it’s a better use of the ‘cognitive surplus’ than watching a re-run of Gilligan’s Island for the 100th time. (Incidentally, what was the cognitive heatsink that we had as kids in the UK? Clearly Neighbours later on but before that? Rocketman?).

Of course, this is not a new idea. I remember years ago, a planner explained to me why you couldn’t advertise cars with direct mail – it wasn’t enough for me to know how cool my new Audi is, I need to be certain all my neighbors knew too.

Perhaps the point about ‘mass-participation media events’ isn’t that their power is diminishing (witness Apprentice this year), but rather that they are fewer and more extraordinary.

There also seems to be a point now that whole social groups can have ‘mass-participation’ events which they all know about but which are entirely closed to those outside of the group: that wierd feeling you get when everyone in a room’s been reading the same status’ and knows each others business without having ever discussed it.

It remains worth remembering a serious challenge that has been raised by commentators including Esther Dyson and Andrew Orlowski, about how these groups aren’t necessarily healthy, challenging or participatory. Often preferring to define very strict group rules and mores.

The final point, of course, is just what we mean by participation. By 2012, when the Olympic games is going on in London, what will the experience of watching it be like? If you’ve seen what NBC has planned for Beijing, the mind boggles about what it will be like in 4 1/2 years (three times the gestation period for a standard YouTube) but most certainly there will be opportunities to observe almost everything about the event, to turn the event into a private mass media event for your network, to ‘virtually’ compete and to compile, annotate and share your own coverage. 

With apologies for shoplifting to Hugh MacLeod, mass participation media events have always – of course -been social objects. So in the era of mass media, it’s not a surprise the objects themselves tended to have the same traits. Whilst we may still have global events to built frameworks around, surely local (and group) interpretation and meaning can be added to createsocial object which can be more intimately shared.

The reason, it seems to me, that nobody understands microblogging unless they do it themselves, is that they don’t understand how small social objects can be.

And, to revisit the negativity of small disconnected groups (and ever-decreasing differences of opinion in those groups), technology can take these objects and make them available to huge audiences. Anyone can write a blog, anyone can produce a LOLcat (as Shirky jokes), and by 2012, everyone will be able to participate in our global media event.

It is this access to open social objects which is at the heart of participation in all cases. It’s what got all the bloggers I know addicted, it’s what makes teenagers turn the telly off and Facebook on, and it’s what makes Amelia’s wired retired fall in love with Skype, so they can share the smallest of social objects – not  just their grandchildren’s first words or their first tooth, but their everyday stories about the day at school.

And do I really need to know how many people watched The Apprentice altogether if I know that my family, friends and colleagues watched it. Isn’t that enough?