Some time in the last five years, attention became the only currency in town. We might argue it was ever thus- since the dawn of time stunts, snakeoil, and slogans have all had their place. Yet with the advent of social media and online news, eyeballs are everything. We exist in a race for clicks which rewards the extreme at the expense of the erudite, the controversial over the considered.
What’s particularly sobering right now, however, is the extent to which the attention economy is shaping the tenor of our political debate. The primacy of the impression has created a political discourse which draws its inspiration increasingly from the world of clickbait. Inevitably, this environment privileges the most provocative of views. What is lost in the middle is nuance.
Donald Trump, it was recently reported, has generated almost $2bn in earned media over the course of the course of his campaign to date, dwarfing Republican and Democrat competitors alike. Meanwhile, a reported 82% of newspaper coverage of the EU referendum focused on Brexit versus remain.
This more polarised tone of voice has also spilled over into how we engage with one another around the issues. Those who disagree with us are easy to dismiss as trolls while, as Jerry Daykin points out, the self-selecting nature of social media creates filter bubbles which comfortably reinforce our own world view and make other opinions ever more alien.
Contemplating the extraordinary wealth of ideas and inspiration coming out of this year’s South by South West Interactive, it struck me that while they initially seemed disparate (visualizing music libraries, social media and revolution, the path to better crowdsourcing), many of the panels and ideas that excited me most had certain key themes in common.
Fundamentally, they all addressed the emerging challenge of our time-how to successfully navigate the age of abundance-an age where there is more information, more content and more connectivity that we could possibly have imagined even a decade ago.
The power of conversation
Unsurprisingly, Clay Shirky was first up to tackle this theme, with a characteristically barnstorming take on social media and revolution. His start point was that abundance is a profoundly powerful and disruptive political force-the power of abundance to disrupt is a recurring Shirky preoccupation. Abundant media, in this case, escapes the control of regimes. (And organizations. And more prosaically, brands). As he demonstrated, there is no history of a regime becoming more authoritative post internet access and a strong correlation between internet access and democratization.
His over-arching point however was around the power of conversation and the idea that freedom of information is much less important than freedom of conversation. It is through conversation that individuals synchronise opinions and co-ordinate action. As Shirky more eloquently put it:
“We systematically overestimate the value of access to information & underestimate the value of access to each other.”
So, to extrapolate a little, conversation (or social context) is a powerful tool in helping us navigate a world of abundance. Continue reading →
One of the most powerful and disruptive aspects of the web is its ability to facilitate low effort, large scale sharing. In the beginning the primary disruption came from our new-found ability to share information. This is a force that has transformed the communications landscape forever, as well as radically altering the fortunes of the music, film and news industries. It may, however, be only the beginning. The power of the web to enable sharing started with shared information but it isn’t stopping there.
Marketers remain primarily concerned with this pesky information sharing problem. In the beginning (let’s call it the viral video era) marketers embraced this as a wonder of our time. We could get people to watch our TV ads without having to spend money on media-nirvana was here! The assumption was that a broadcast model would endure, with consumers acting as millions of convenient distribution points for our content.
Then of course, we realized that people could not only spread the messages we wanted them to, but a host of other, far less favourable ones. People were saying mean things about our brands on the internets! We may call it the “United Breaks Guitars” era or “The Rise of Buzz Monitoring”. Now we live in age when savvy brands are all too aware that they do not control the dialogue and that, as a result they need to get ever better at listening, monitoring and responding to that dialogue. To understand just how seriously some brands are taking this challenge, just take a look at Gatorade’s or Dell’s buzz monitoring war rooms-this is no minor investment.
So, yes, the free and easy sharing of information has changed the way we communicate forever. Far more disruptive, however, is the potential the web opens up for the sharing of goods and services.
In Clay Shirky’s truly excellent speech at South by SouthWest last year (nicely summarised here), he outlined three types of sharing. Sharing of information, sharing of services and sharing of goods. Drawing on Michael Tomasello’s primates research, he explained that we are evolutionarily hard-wired not just to share our information but to enjoy sharing it. This is in part, he explained, because sharing information costs us very little, whereas sharing goods and services costs time and potentially assets-something we’re mostly hardwired (through loss aversion) to avoid. The music industry was transformed forever, Shirky pointed out, when sharing music became not a question of shared goods (tapes and CDs) but of shared information (digital files). So we have an inherent willingness to share information-what the web has done is transform our ability to share.
It was a inspiring and exceptionally intelligent talk. Just a year on though, I believe we’re moving towards a scenario where the ease with which we share information has created both an infratructure and a cultural climate where we are ever more comfortable with the notion of sharing goods and services as well. Or perhaps one where that distinction is less and less relevant. The power of a maturing social web has increased both our ability to share goods and services and our willingness to share. Continue reading →
There are seven words that make my heart sink these days more than any others. No, they’re not “high heels are bad for you: fact”, or “there is no chocolate left for you”, but: “then people can upload their own versions”.
Of course they can. But why on earth would they?
The assumption-without careful consideration of motivation, incentive and user experience-that users are desperate to upload their own content is the new “let’s do a viral”. Yes, some great pieces of film are much parodied, painstakingly re-edited and lovingly mocked-the Downfall parodies series, for example, is a gift that just keeps on giving. But these examples are few and far between, requiring a depth of involvement, from a committed and talented fanbase, that few brands can command. We used to believe that if we built it, they would come. Now, all too often, we believe that if we build it, they will build another one….
So, as ever when putting pen to…screen…I ask myself: what do I have to add? My perspective is simply this: that, as Oliver points out, when it comes to designing participative experiences, we don’t actually have a choice. No-one on the planet needs any more evidence that the brand monologue is over and that communications that fail to deliver real utility or real entertainment are doomed. Yes, in the immediate term, there are still some occasions where we can let the consumer sit it out. Chrysler’s Superbowl ode to Detroit, for example, seemed to work pretty hard as a solo. But their days are numbered, even if we only want users to participate so far as to share a piece of brand content. (As this excellent Trendstream report notes, almost 30% of video consumed is recommended by friends).
If our choices, then, are participation or irrelevance, then we had better, collectively, get better at designing for participation. Perhaps we had better turn what is at best an art and at worst an afterthought into something approaching a science. Okay, it’s (still) nothing like a science…but perhaps we can apply a little more rigour. Continue reading →
Why it’s time to stop thinking about the consumer and start thinking about the network.
Two things happened this week that made me realise just how redundant it is today to think about a single, individual consumer.
First, I had a briefing on a new project. Some lovely (and smart) people had done some thinking on the consumer-the classic pen portrait. They’d thought hard about it and they’d done their research but I found myself thinking that it didn’t tell me what I really wanted to know. While they were telling me about the individuals, I was thinking about the network. Asking myself:
What content are these people sharing?
Why do they share it?
How do they share it-active endorsement versus more passive sharing (ie via social plug-ins)?
Where do they share it?
The brilliant Griffin Farley has already touched on some of these questions in his excellent thinking on propagation planning. As he so pithily puts it, “plan(ning) not for the people you reach, but for the people that they reach”. If you haven’t checked out his excellent presentation, I strongly urge you to do so. It’s one of the most useful pieces of thinking I’ve come across on influence and social spread.
So what do I have to bring to the propagation party? Well, while influencers are undoubtedly important, I think peer to peer networks may be even more so. Or perhaps the point is that everyone is an influencer today-albeit to varying degrees. There is no-one we talk to today (hermits and Trappist monks excepted) who doesn’t exist within a network-and the shape, structure and dynamic of that network may just be the most important thing for marketers to know about them. More important, perhaps, than demographics, attitudes or psychographics. As Mike Arauz puts it, in another wonderful presentation, “The effectiveness of our work is dependent on our ability to engage and empower networks of people connected by shared interests”.
To take this a step further then, perhaps we should stop producing pen portraits of individuals and start providing a portrait of a network:
How big is the network?
How loose (or tight) are the connections?
Are those connections symmetric or asymmetric?
What fuels those connections-friendship, a shared cause, shared interests, altruism, personal gain?
The second thing that happened is that, having developed a campaign recently around the principles of social spread, a client, not unreasonably, asked how we could be confident that it would scale.
We had a high degree of confidence, no question. We were targeting a highly creative, motivated community-and each member of that community had his or her own fanbase. The core community-and their fanbases-would be actively incentivized to spread the word as far as possible within their personal networks. With luck, it’ll be awesome….
Yet, perhaps inevitably, it’s hard to predict exactly how the campaign will spread. Of course there are some norms we can apply around the number of connections in the average social network and around users’ propensity to interact with content shared by friends or by brands in social channels. We can use the most robust and predictive data we have. However, we still lack quantitative planning tools that truly reflect the networked consumer. We have vast quantities of data that will tell us what the average 18-20 year old guy is watching or reading but not nearly as much data on what they’re sharing, spreading, using or participating with. We have isolated incidences, greatest hits and occasional case studies of course.
We have very limited data on how sharing varies across different kinds of networks-asymmetric vs symmetric, loose ties versus strong ties- although what we have is fascinating-this presentation from Luke Wroblewski is a must-read for my money. Interesting data is also emerging on why users share content and how this varies across the globe.
However, we still lack a consistent, robust and continuous data stream we can use for forward planning. So perhaps the next generation of planning tools-tools for both account and media planners (if that distinction remains in 5 years time) need to reflect the next generation of planning-planning for the networked consumer. Whoever captures, owns, understands and uses that data will have an extraordinarily powerful tool at their disposal.