Thursday, June 28, 2007

Death of interruptive advertising

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Generally speaking, advertising and marketing folk aren’t renowned for their reserve.  On the whole, they’re more likely to be outgoing than introverted, gregarious than shy. 

And when you think about what they do, it makes sense.

Since the Romans pioneered the outdoor advertising market, with everything from ads for wine to brothels, the world of advertising has largely been an interruptive one.  We decide who we want to talk to, what we want to say and where to say it, then we go out and shout it as loudly as we can, as many times as we can afford.

Whether it’s in a newspaper or on TV, we wait until our target is doing something they enjoy, then we leap out:


Buy some stuff!

And it works.  For thousands of years, we’ve been jumping out at people, trying to distract them, grab their attention and sell them something, and they’ve responded by doing as they’re told.  Mass literacy led to mass media, which led to mass brands, and all built on digging people in the ribs whilst they’re going about their lives and telling them something there’s only a slim chance they really wanted to know.

So if we’re so boorish, why did people let us get away with this for so long?

The conduit for all this rib-digging attention seeking, mass media, carries an implied contract with its readers/viewers.  They expect to see ads in the breaks, and they know that the content they’re consuming is cheaper as a result.

So when we speak to them, it’s on our territory.  These are our media, they know the deal, and have developed natural techniques for filtering out our noise, decoding advertising subconsciously to determine its relevance and ignoring the vast bulk of it (which only prompts us to shout louder).  And when they want a little peace and quiet, they get Sky+.

Now marketing and advertising folk may be noisy, but we’re not stupid.  As interactive and direct media have emerged, we’ve tried hard to be more relevant.  More targeted and more discrete in our communications. 

We’ve realised that the interruptive model is broken, and we’re trying to be a bit smarter.  The web has led the charge as media have shifted the centre of their consumption from being predicated largely on availability to being consumed solely on the basis of interest, and everyone with a blog is proclaiming the age of the empowered consumer.

Certainly, we’ve learned that we can’t rely on our ability to butt in on peoples’ lives any more – they’ve become too adept at avoiding us.

The trouble is, this is only half the picture. 

I’ve written several times about the trialogue – the three-way exchange between consumers themselves and brands.  This new dynamic is founded in social media, where the interaction is principally between consumers. 

Here, brands can be facilitators.  They can bring value to the community, and reap rewards for it.  But interruption, lack of value and relevance are met with rejection.  Worse than simply being ignored, this behaviour is spurned by the community.

Because now we’re in their space.  This is their media, not ours, and the old contract has expired.  Interruption fails not because people can avoid our message, but because they now actively resent our presence.

So the answer isn’t simply about shouting and repeating ourselves less, and it isn’t just about being more relevant (although all these help).  We have to think about what we can do for the community, and what we can help them to do.  The value we bring is more direct, and in many ways it’s more transparent – but it’s how we earn our place in the social media environment. 

The contract has changed, and smart brands know their place.  We’re in their media now, and they know it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Social networking is changing the fabric of the web

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Back in the bad old days of the dotcom boom, all you needed to do to give your stock a boost was to append the suffix ‘.com’ to your company name.  Everyone was doing it, from oil companies to greengrocers, and somehow not to join in made you look like you just didn’t get the digital revolution.

Now, if you spend any time amongst the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley, the buzzword you hear is ‘Social Networks’.  Anything being pitched for funding seems to have a social networking component – the success of MySpace (sold to Newscorp), Bebo and latterly, Facebook have made these Web 2.0 business models very attractive as investment prospects.

So is Social Networking just the new ‘dotcom’, or is it changing the fabric of the web, and the next big business sector in media?

First, we need to understand what social networking is.  Most outside observers think about it in very narrow terms, equating it to what happens on Bebo – social in the ‘leisure’ rather than in the ‘collective’ sense.  But these sites (though important) are just one manifestation of social networking.

At its most fundamental, social networking is about the ability the internet gives people to share their experience.

So social networking covers a broad spectrum from sites where users expressly contribute information through to those that collect tacit data and share it back.

At one end of this spectrum, the sites we all know, MySpace, Bebo, LinkedIn, Facebook, have experienced huge growth in audiences as people have discovered the power of connecting with others – either supplementing their existing social networks, or finding new friends and building new contacts.

This space is changing rapidly at the moment.  Facebook opened up their API (the code that lets other people and companies develop systems that integrate with Facebook) back in May, and within a month, 40,000 new applications have been developed for the site.  Ranging from a horoscope widget to a tool that lets you rate people anonymously, some applications have already attracted over 6 million users, and have contributed to a massive takeoff in Facebook usage in general.  If you’ve been getting a lot of Facebook invitations recently, this is why.

In the middle of the spectrum are sites like Digg and Flickr, where whilst you might add content yourself, the biggest area of activity is rating or classifying the content added by others.  The brilliantly un-PC site is a great example of this - 12 billion votes have been cast in the last seven years as people put themselves up for judgement and rate each other.

Finally, there are the sites which collect tacit information – data you leave behind as you use a site.  These are often similar to ‘collaborative filtering’ technologies employed by retailers like Amazon – ‘people who bought this book also bought books like this’, in that they aggregate the behaviours of many people in order to make recommendations back to individuals.
                                             (recently sold to CBS) uses information on the music you listen to on your computer to suggest tunes that match your tastes, based on what other people with similar habits listen to.  StumbleUpon learns what websites, images and videos you like, and shows you similar ones it thinks you’ll like.

But wherever these sites sit on this continuum, they’re networking society together in entirely new ways.  Whilst theoretically we could have done any of this stuff before the internet arrived, the reality is that it was neither economic nor practical.

So social networking isn’t just a flash in the pan – it’s changing the way we share information with each other, and allowing us to establish and maintain relationships with people we just couldn’t have stayed in touch with before.

Within this there will always be companies that are overvalued, or simply overtaken by new ideas.  But we’ve hardly scratched the surface of the value that social networking as a whole will create both for users and investors.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trialogue brands

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Last week, I wrote about how the emergence of the trialogue is fundamentally altering the dynamics of engagement online.  This three-way exchange between consumers and with brands has made itself felt right across marketing, influencing the way that price, distribution, promotion and even the product itself is created.

This is the point where user-generated content meets brands, and it’s an area fraught with difficulty for the unwary and rich with opportunity for the creative.

Most of the focus on user-generated content has been on the media phenomenon it has created.  Google buying YouTube for £850m was the richest of a series of UGC media brand acquisitions that have included Flickr (bought by Yahoo), MySpace (NewsCorp) and (CBS).

Other media owners have watched with envy as audiences have flocked to these sites, and brands have looked on perplexed – knowing the value of that audience (they’re hard to find elsewhere) but conscious that this isn’t simply a medium in which you can just advertise.

And whilst some have exported familiar techniques from the traditional armoury, running quizzes and competitions on MySpace, others have taken a radical approach, building the trialogue into the very fabric of their products.  The products I’ve chosen here are about as far from being digital as it’s possible to be – you don’t need to be virtual to take advantage of the trialogue.

When I was a kid, Lego was a fantastically creative toy that inspired endless innovation – you could build anything, as long as it was essentially square.  But now Lego have built the trialogue into their brand.  Lego Factory allows web users to design their own kits and order the parts, even customising the packaging.  But it also lets them share their designs and discuss them, building a community that helps Lego to stay close to their enthusiasts.  

Whilst running is a competitive sport, most training is done alone.  But Nike+ has turned a solo activity into a social phenomenon.  A sensor placed in your shoe sends data on your run to your iPod, which shows your distance run, calories burned and so on.  But when you synchronise the iPod with your computer, it uploads those details to the website, where it’s shared with thousands of other runners.  

When I looked last night, over 35,000 runs had been recorded in the past 24 hours, and people were mapping their routes, challenging each other and competing in vast global 10k runs.  As you’d expect, music is integral to the experience, and the iTunes playlists of top athletes can be bought from the store, whilst charts are compiled from runners’ favourite powersongs.

Any retailer will tell you how hard it is to predict demand for individual lines.  Regardless of the sophistication of predictive models, trend-spotters and other sooth-sayers, there are always things you thought would shift like hot cakes but instead just take up shelf space.  Less frequently, but just as frustrating, are those at the other end of the scale – surprise hits that customers just can’t get enough of, and inevitably are on a six-week lead-time from the Philippines. 

How great it would be if you just sold things that people like.  Better still, if you only made things people like, and knew they’d buy them.  Threadless, the online t-shirt store, carries only designs its users have uploaded – and manufactures only those that get a critical mass of votes.  You won’t see them having sales to shift that unmovable stock. 

A clothing brand, a toy, a sports shoe.  Each has empowered a community of its consumers, and by connecting them together has itself benefited.  But these aren’t just ‘soft’ benefits.  They’re driving new revenue streams, repeat purchase and real engagement – consumer relationships whose strength is founded not in the transient moment of a product need, but in the enduring nature of humans to be social animals.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The rise of the Trialogue

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

When Moses climbed the mountain to collect a set of tablets, he wasn’t expecting a consultation exercise.  No focus groups had been conducted, and no quantitative research.  The tablets came with commandments on them, and there was a certain amount of implied definitiveness that came with that term.

And media’s been pretty much like that for most of the several thousand years since then.  A small number of people told a large number of people what they thought, and there was very little opportunity for the mass to respond – and if they did, it was subject to the editorial control of those in power.

Which is why when the web appeared in 1994, people started getting excited.  A new paradigm was emerging, they said.  In the future, where there previously had been a monologue, there will be a dialogue.  Consumers will be able to respond to communications just as easily as they can receive them, and the implications for brands are enormous.

I went to a conference in 1996 in Edinburgh, where hundreds of marketing and media folk debated hotly the exciting opportunity this new world of dialogue would bring their brands.  We spent three days talking about how brands would be able to have a dialogue with consumers, and that this would be a more powerful means of communication because of the level of involvement that consumers would have.

Throughout the debate it was clear what benefits a dialogue with consumers could have for brands.  The trouble was, there wasn’t much in it for consumers.  Speaking for myself, I don’t really want to have a dialogue with Persil, or Sainsbury’s or Yoplait.  I don’t even want to have a dialogue with Audi or Vodafone or Selfridges, in which I would normally be expected to be considerably more interested.  

Ultimately I want them to get on with being them.  Make my clothes clean, connect my calls – the hygiene factors are important, but the emotional elements are just as much theirs too, and I either buy into them or I don’t.

So the ability to create real, meaningful dialogue often ended up being too costly, too difficult and often simply too much work for the value generated.

But emerging over the last few years has been a new dynamic, infinitely more powerful than the dialogue ever promised to be, more threatening, more revolutionary and more valuable.

When we look back in another ten years, we will see that the true impact of digital media was not to find new ways to connect brands to consumers, but in connecting those consumers (or “people” as they like to refer to themselves) to each other.

This simple fact has created a new ecosystem.

Now, people collaborate together to create software, which they release back onto the web where it outperforms the ‘commercial’ competition.  They share information about medical conditions, challenging the authority of the medical establishment.  They co-operate to drive down fuel prices, publishing the cheapest price for your postcode.  And they join forces to bring down brands who let them down, publishing video of underperforming products.

The age of the Trialogue has arrived.

The challenge this poses for brands is that they’re no longer handing down the tablets.  Their consumers have relegated them to the position of supplier, and are talking about them, not to them.

Whilst this is a threat to those who adhere to the status quo, it’s an opportunity to those brands who can reinterpret themselves as facilitators.  They recognise that the bulk of the discourse will take place between consumers, and their role in this is to enable, empower, listen and just occasionally, talk.

The trialogue will influence every aspect of marketing, from product design ( through to product recommendation (, and its potency derives from opportunity brands now have not to talk at people, but to be a small part of billions of their conversations.