20 days for 20 years

I’ve been thinking about what 2009 holds in store. 

At this point, I should of course wheel out all of the great reasons one should not make predictions (especially about the future). Or perhaps I should recall the fictional Magrethea in HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, a planet which decided to hibernate through Galactic recession – oddly tempting at the moment.

Slartibartfast of Magrethea

What I actually find myself doing is focussing all of my attention on one particular day in 2009, and one that is not that far away: January 20th. Of course, that’s the day that Barack Obama will officially be sworn in as America’s 44th President. 

Barack Obama

Whilst we’d all talked about the way the mass intelligentsia here and in the states had taken to digital media, it scarcely seemed possible that anyone could truly harness these new approaches as a presidential candidate. But Obama did precisely that, collecting hearts, minds and dollars.

It seemed even less likely that Obama would continue post election with either the consensual style he adopted in the campaign, or the digital media he’s used to do it. But still he is sticking resolutely to path which looks likely to remould politics and attitudes to politicians, as much as it looks to bring about the change to the American way of life which was such a centrepiece of the campaign.

And so to inauguration. For the first time in many years, Obama has forgone the massive donations of corporate lobbies and is working to finance the inauguration with the $5 checks of his base which were such a large part – symbolically and financially – of the campaign. We can expect the speech itself to be an even more marked departure. 

The theme is given as ‘a new birth of freedom’, and it is being positioned as a suitable celebration of both the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the 22nd Martin Luther King day.

I believe that Obama will not propose, however, any form of back slapping or self-congratulation for his nomination and election. I believe instead he will look to start a more radical redefinition of personal freedom from the perspective of responsibility, and of what it means to be an American. It will be ‘ask not what your country can do for you’ but for a different generation, and I believe with an even greater onus on practical participation.

It’s an interesting idea in a western democracy where we have come to be believe that politicians will gain favour by cutting taxing and increasing entitlements, the right course of action today is to encourage greater participation and contribution from the population, both in shaping the political movement, and in building and supporting communities.

Obama’s success in four year’s time will be contingent upon delivering a real vision of the American dream in action where the US of today performs the miracle of economic and social rebirth, not through handouts and state intervention, but through drive and determination. As Napolean said, the role of the leader is to “define reality and provide hope’.

The new first family change the perception of the US internally and externally just by the symbolic importance of their race. And, the freedom which is being reborn cannot, I believe, be a freedom to shop, a freedom to entitlements, rather I believe the emphasis will be on re-invigorating the spirit of hard work and determination which underwrote the freedom, and hope, of the founding fathers.

And, what better time for this message to be spread in America. As many of the new certainties of the Regan era flounder – the stock market won’t make us all rich (at least not all of the time), America hasn’t solved world peace (especially under hapless and incompetent Bush), jobs cannot be protected by governments from foreign trade.

George Bush

If Obama can achieve this, the amazing success of the campaigns will pale into insignificance.

And where does this leave democracy? If Obama succeeds in reshaping the imperial presidency, around a new need for leadership (post the Bush vacuum, the incompetence and corruption of politicians) around consensus through straight-talk, around a liberal and academic view of the world; then we will see yet another complete upheaval in the concepts of media and a political domino effect around the globe.

Traditionally politics hangs on the coat tails of the latest corporate successes. Here political America will vastly have outdone corporate American in understanding the potential of the new medium. Of course, the Obama campaign used vast amounts of traditional media. It’s not so much the vehicle of promotion that shifted but the vehicle of engagement.

I think he will do it, and it will radically change the way we think of politics, democracy and America for the next eight years. 

Oh, and Apple will release a slightly lighter 17″ laptop, Microsoft will eventually get a good operating system out, having taken several years of not-very-subtle hinting  to heart, and Google will port Android to PCs and make an even bigger killing.

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.

Now that we know what the future looks like part 2

A while ago I got a bit obsessed about what the human benefit might be of the effect that technology was having on representation and meaning in society. ‘Cheap, easy, global media’ has is no longer a theory in a university library. It’s the reality we get every day. So, once we’re past this, what do we actually want the world to be like?

I guess the key point is that no discussion about the effect of the internet on our lives has ever really seemed that interesting or relevant. Yes, it empowers certain groups, and yes, it would appear to hack away at what Godin calls the ‘TV industrial complex’, but the overall goals of our society seem somehow irrelevant to all this, and vice-versa.

So all this technology has given us a means to achieve something dramatic. Now all we need is something dramatic to achieve. Killing marketing might be fun (and is another good example of a suprising, latent socialism in our supposedly capitalist society), but it doesn’t exactly feel like a unifying goal.

We see the same ambiguity in the ‘progress’ of today’s globally-interconnected banks (can anyone remind me why that was a good idea?), and across many ways in which our lifestyles have changed.

Isn’t e-commerce marvellous? Well is it? We seem to have sucked half the fun out of shopping at the same time as we were hoovering out a quarter of the inconvenience. And isn’t search wonderful? Well Google may have revolutionised the world’s information, but it has also invented a complex game of bait and switch for these increasingly soon to be redundent marketers to play, as they build whole web eddifices for non-human audiences.

What about media? Now every halfwit in the world (including me) can have their say on every issue and only the afforemention bait-and-switch people get to decide what floats to the top (using an algorithm not a person). Isn’t that brilliant? Isn’t it?

And isn’t it super what Barack Obama has done with the internet as a political tool? Well, yep, again it’s difficult to argue with all this if you’re an Obama supporter (as I am), but alongside all of the engagement we’ve seen, Obama has also raised frankly obscene amounts of money in a system which will allow him to massively over-match his opponent’s media spend. Is that a good thing? Many of us in Europe will cheer an Obama landslide if it happenss but if McCain had been the one to make the internet work for his campaign, how many of us would be claiming foul play, the insidious re-enforcement of a technology gap, and question about free speech and fairness.

So, every once in a while, perhaps we should stand back a bit, attempt to stop being dazzled by the complexity and opportunity of it all, and start thinking about how we can get all of this hope pointing in the right direction.

Could we find a way to use the internet to reduce consumption, to make presidential races issue-based, to find the most powerful personal stories and share them, to praise and elevate editorial, to decouple and re-understand risk in our banking systems, to redefine search so that it can’t be gamed, to find a way that groups can bridge differences not concentrate around similarities, or to find ways that our governments can engage more interestingly with their electorate?

Most importantly, surely we can we use this vast network of devices to make sure no one votes for Sarah Palin?

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.

Now we know what the future looks like

Back to the future

The whole phrase is ‘Now we know what the future looks like, what would we like to do with it?’

For the second post in a row I’m afraid I’m in a rather idealistic mood. But it seems to me, now, that we look at the structure of business and marketing as it’s being done by the market leaders, we look at posts by visionaries like this one, this one and this one, and we think we pretty much know how this is going to shake out…

The question of micro distribution of corporate reputation has been answered. The question of finding value inside organistations through enablement of individuals has been proven. The question of whether we think better separately or together has been answered.

So, my point is this. In the Future (doesn’t really need a capital does it, since it’s only a couple of minutes away), if we assume that we will broadly have a marketplace of ideas where we all now can have our say. If we will have a world where communities of interest can be powerful, and massively devolved. If we will have a world where companies can thive by coming up with powerful ideas and finding ways to communicate them quickly and powerfully. Then what do we want out of that world?

It probably sounds a bit irrelevant but it’s an important question. Because we’re not, any of us, I think really after better mp3 players, nor mobile phones, nor fruit smoothies.

But we also don’t really have the passions of the past. If we live in big cities, at least, we’ve started to see the back of racism, sexism, for the most part, intollerance; what are we worrying about now? Knife crime? I know it’s a serious question but it’s very recent and very media orientated. House prices? Economy? That’s just not intereting, really.

I think it’s about this (you’ll read a transcript of a Clinton interview about finding similarities rather than differences). For all the things that have been resolved, we live in a world where far too many inequalities exist for the wrong reason (there are good reasons for alot of inequalities of course).

But I’m in intrigued about views here.

If we’re all going to be a position where we have all this extra information, all this extra access to cheap, easy, global media, all of this ability to form communities, how do we use this to moderate our behaviour for the better?

And more to the point, what is we actually want to achieve? Or are we all going to turn into Miss World, and look for world peace and happy families.

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?

Ins and outs – a redefinition of digital marketing

First ever banner

Remember the first website you built. I remember doing them at university a bit but they were really awful. And then I did one for the company I worked in. And then, rather suddenly I was running a company that made them. And in the start people would argue about everything. Should there be persistent navigation? were all-flash sites bad? how about skip-intros? What about those ticker things that used to flash across the page?

And how should you do the coding? Make sure all your fonts are fixed size, and be brilliant with tables. Remember: It’s all about the home page.

And then accessibility was a thing, and then standards. And then we started sneering at people that couldn’t build a website without using tables, or who used fixed fonts. And then it was all about buttons and big fonts. And for a while there, it all seemed to be about being ugly, and then simple, and should it even have a logo any more? And wasn’t persistent navigation a bit tired, and surely users are now clever enough to navigate more complex interfaces.

Every year we think we’ve codified one more chunk, got closer to having all the design patterns sorted out. And every year we get new and – it has to be said – interesting challenges to think about. Does save make sense any more? Do we even care about the home page any more? Is Google your most important user?

Well I think the next one’s going to be bigger, more conceptually difficult, require more complex teams to figure out, and be the beginning of the end of the period where you can work out what to do by just looking at your competitors. It will also be a bitter showdown between the big web agencies (who build where the user ends up) and the digital marketing agencies (who try to get them there), finally standing squarely on each others’ turf.

Because the next phase is where we let go of the concept of domain. It’s about thinking about the users’ lifecycle as needing managing before they even get to you. It’s a question about thinking about the opportunities to capture intent in more than search engine landing pages. And it’s going to be a question of becoming a lot more sophisticated in thinking about what content you will share, how you will consume and repurpose content, and how your users will see your brand.

Possibly my favorite factoid about the internet is that 50% of all searches on Yahoo! (and they must love this) are for the word ‘Google’. In a world where the average punter doesn’t know – or doesn’t care – to this extent, but they are willing to tell Google or all of their facebook friends that they’re looking for a new car or interested in a boob job, the way in which we concieve of capturing and converting intent just became a whole lot more interesting. And so did CRM (or rather the management of a users lifetime value), and so did sales and service.

Early approaches, especially behavioral targeting of advertising have looked like privacy invasions – or as google would have it, ‘increased relevance’. Privacy will be an issue, but skills and dexterity are the main problems and it will be fascinating to see who’s got the most of those. Not advertising agencies, of course, but quite possibly the media agencies, the digital marketing agencies who are a bit more interested in the detail, and of course, the marketing teams in large corporations; not to mention digital media owners like WordPress (scroll down for relevance targeted links!).

Is it just me?

Amid the phenomenal suprise of the new… 3G iphone, Jobs also slipped some other news into the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote. It seems Apple is re-releasing an old favourite from Microsoft: 

Yes, it’s the sick older sister of Windows ’98. The ill-fated ‘millennium edition’ of Windows which barely made it into the noughties.

This new platform,  (apple) mobile me is a ‘breakthrough web 2.0 app interface’ allowing the user to access their calendar and mail over the internet:

wwdc-keynote_154

And here once again, Apple shows it’s tremendous audacity:  re-inventing Outlook Web Access some five years after Microsoft built it, and declaring themselves ground breaking and market leading.

You’d be forgiven for thinking they were poking fun at their own addicted fanboys with the ridiculous ‘me’ reference.

Third time lucky

3.0

Amelia’s amusing analysis of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 came coincidentally on the same day that I was at a conference thingy and had been having exactly that discussion: what was 2.0 and how much of it was pure marketing sentiment. I couldn’t disagree more. I think 2.0 is a radical shift in society. It is, as Amelia says the shift from an internet of geeks and possibility to an internet of the mass market and reality.

What, if anything, 3.0 means is another matter. Clearly there is a quasi-technical meaning being discussed (as on the Wikipedia page), but surely we should be concerning ourselves instead with the social impact of these changes.

  • Expectations about data integration will go through the roof. Just as information became ubiquitous in 2.0, the joining and manipulation of data will become so now. Brands will have to respond to this. Expect some powerful movements in traditionally data orientated services, particularly FS.
  • The ladder of involvement will continue, with a new rung being added above ‘blogger’ or ‘publisher’ for ‘providers of utility’
  • Concepts of enterprises and the borders of corporations will continue to be challenged

Amazon and Google (and to a certain extent, Microsoft) have clearly started their engines to take advantage of this next generation with app development, elastic computing, utility computing and so on the subject of much debate this week.

There’s a powerful version of inverted marketing too (where consumers are rewarded for hand-raising) which feels like the inevitable consequence of abstracting and linking data.

How will it impact your brand?

Music business

 Bill Gates with a Zune (photo Reuters)

Couple of good quotes / stories I found in a desperate attempt to do some catch-up reading of my Economist stockpile. Strangely enough both items from the same page in the July 7th issue (p. 69).

In A change of tune  (paywalled), we have Warner Music chairman, Edgar Bronfman saying “The music industry is growing, [but]… The record industry is not growing.” In these few short words, he’s surely captured an important truth.

Interest in music and music listening has probably never been more healthy, but the record companies seem unable to find a role for themselves. The economist writer moves on to suggest that artists will replace their lost (record sale) revenues with tours, merchandise and personal appearances, leaving the labels to become glorified managers. The tracks themselves become marketing material for the artists. Seem far-fetched? Look at how Prince took his latest album to market – as a ‘free’ giveaway on the Mail on Sunday.

An interesting piece, although there remains the huge hole in the rights debate about what on earth might happen to great film and TV shows, how do they get paid for? If we want Studio 60 and The Shawshank Redemption, we’re going to have to fund them.

The second piece is an article about the release of the iPhone: Where would Jesus queue? (also paywalled). Having marvelled at the hype, fervour and – perhaps most impressively – lack of disappointment once in consumers’ hands, which surrounded the launch of the “Jesus phone”, the writer recounts a story from outside the store where he was queing.

It seems a passerby who had just arrived from Mars wanted to know what the queue was for. “What are you all standing in line for?” she asked. The response from some wag in the queue was “Zunes!”. That’s a good joke and it goes to really demonstrate the extent to which Apple has captured the public’s imagination with innovation and great, user-centred design.