There’s a wonderful old adage that says “Where there’s confusion, there’s money to be made.” The rapidly evolving world of social media presents a bewildering environment for marketers; “should we be in social media?” “What kind of conversations should I have?” “Is it unseemly to tweet when you hold an MBA?”
Reasonable questions all… Of course, given that adage, all sorts of new ventures have sprung up to fill the breech. Some truly offer clients valuable advice and tactics, others simply spread further confusion. And too many traditional agencies seem lost as well, torn between acquiring expertise through buying smaller companies and burying their heads in the sand to avoid this expensive-topic that so far, seems to defy scalability of the sort the mass media (and yes, digital should now be considered a mass media)
So while this definition may be a little slow getting to the table, at this point, it’s been tested and proven in real world situations. Considering social media as both crowdsourced opinion and crowdsourced PR provides focus for marketers, a focus that–even if there are other minor aspects of social media that may be relevant too–can help drive new initiatives.
As crowdsourced opinion, social media can help tighten insights and bring genuine relevance to the way we position brands to consumers. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs are all searchable by clever planners who can farm them for opinions without the artifice of a focus groups’ two way mirror.
As crowdsourced PR, social media allows brands to directly reach out to opinion leaders and try to influence them. Thinking about these platforms as a means to shape brand stories to bring them closer in line with their ideal positioning makes social media less of an unknown and far more measurable against a specific outcome.
Social media can be confusing. But if you simplify it down, you can make it pragmatic and actionable. Which is always a helpful, helpful thing.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
Mary Jo Foley, who regularly blogs on ZDNet regarding all things Microsoft, wrote a post yesterday describing how CEO Steve Ballmer neither confirms nor denies any purchase interest in Twitter. Responding to a question on Tuesday about whether he might buy the microblogging service outright, Ballmer did little more than top line pro and con arguments. In just five sentences, he used “not clear” twice and “far less clear” once.
In an earlier time, this kind of non-response response would suggest he’s dodging the question. But these days, there’s a very good chance the Microsoft leader is doing something far cagier…
He may be crowdsourcing it.
With all their resources, Microsoft can get a raft of M&A analysts on the job in no time (and no doubt already has). But as Ballmer goes on to say in his (non)response, “…as an independent, they have a lot of value and a lot of credibility, I think, with their user community. Would they have that same credibility with the user community if they were captive? Not clear.”
For those keeping score, that was his third “not clear.”
My supposition doesn’t mean he can’t make the decision on his own–quite the contrary. Ballmer definitely will make the call. But he might not be at that point yet. Raising the issue might be a brilliant tactic to quickly amass informed opinion from a huge diversity of viewpoints–a treasure trove of input unfettered by corporate myopia and much more representative of the marketplace. Just by suggesting the argument, someone of his stature fires online debate among informed and passionate industry pundits and opinion leaders. In short order, he will be able to assess a wide spectrum of prevailing thinking on issues like how Microsoft might leverage Twitter, how it could evolve this new asset into a ‘real time search’ unit, and how to align social-computing technology into Windows. Best of all, these perspectives come fast, cheap, and readily accessible.
Crowdsourcing opinion in this manner makes smart business sense. The final purchase opinion will be his, but the information informing it could come from sources far and wide.
That much IS clear.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
Last week’s news that Wrigley canned their three digital AOR’s in favor of independent shops who will operate in a state of perpetual “jump ball” for future campaigns (Wrigley’s uninspiring website is here) is just the latest example of the creeping influence of crowdsourcing on brand marketing, particularly since those agencies will work directly with Wrigley’s brand teams, rather than through its creative agencies, DDB and BBDO. Hmm… Good luck with that.
I’m sure Wrigley calls this efficiency, but perhaps not surprisingly, I can only see it as hubris, plain and simple. Let me be clear: I actually like crowdsourcing. I think it offers a lot of upsides, even as it aggressively threatens the traditional agency compensation structure status quo. In fact, when clients ask me about crowdsourcing, I give them the name and details of one of the best purveyors of it: crowdSpring.
Why would I do this? Why would I allow, even encourage, clients to go this route?
Because doing it right is hard. Really hard. Crowdsourcing thrives on thoughtful interaction. If you want people to work for you, you owe them the fundamental decency of personal feedback. You must provide direction to everyone–good, bad and ugly. And you have to do it publicly, for the entire crowdsourcing community to observe. Play favorites and the crowd will turn on you. Set high expectations without offering your own heavy engagement and they will walk away. It’s not as simple as ask and receive. Nothing ever is.
And that’s why I encourage clients to try it for themselves. Because it’s freaking hard. Really hard. At its root, an exercise in crowdsourcing is an immersion in creative direction at its most basic and busy, and most brand managers I know would make awful creative directors. Most creatives make awful creative directors because dealing with all those imaginations all of which need guidance gets draining. With crowdsourcing, ideas pour in with astonishing volume and speed and you have to assess them, redirect the potentially useful, and gently shunt aside the awful on the off chance that the creators of that initial tripe might go back later and hit a long ball for you. Spending five days with a project where hundreds of people offer their ideas and demand feedback will usually remind brand managers just why they chose the bookish side of the business, and why they actually need creative directors. As smart as they may be, few have the mindset for the task. Aesthetics are a series of judgment calls without any absolutes. You can always be wrong. And just in case you don’t think so, people will be quick to remind you of it.
As Bill Bernbach said, “I warn you against believing advertising is science.” Indeed. Practiced well by people who know and respect the craft, creative direction is something much, much more. It is art. And magic. And all too often, it is an exercise in wrestling with the intangible.
They don’t teach you how to handle that at Kellogg or Wharton.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
This morning, an article in Advertising Age landed in my e-mail no less than four times before 9am. Mike Wolfsohn, the Executive Creative Director of Ignited wrote a strong blog post on his agency’s site outlining his frustration with the Zappo’s RFP process. He describes how Ignited analyzed the actual time spent with this potential client’s review of their comprehensive response and took issue that it amounted to only five page views averaging fourteen seconds each.
The key issue amounts to the trackability of interaction, which Mike understandably views as cursory. Given Zappo’s hard-earned reputation for outstanding customer service, he believes their consideration to be woefully inadequate. In Zappo’s defense, they opened up this review to what essentially amounts to agency crowdsourcing. and given their desirability as an attractive roster client, they underestimated the overwhelming response they would receive. By Brandweek’s estimation, more than 104 agencies responded to their very detailed RFP and the sheer volume of material that reached their small marketing department could probably fill a wing of the Library of Congress. As it turns out, that estimation was low: in his thoughtful response to Mike’s post, Zappo’s head of Business Development Aaron Magness cited the number of actual respondents as 170.
As someone who has some experience with crowdsourcing, one of the biggest negatives about getting all that freely generated material is the respondents’ need for feedback, which can all too quickly bury the organization behind the effort. Anyone who gives a brand their time and thinking rightly expects some sort of response for their efforts and when they actually do get it, the work improves substantially. But it is a very tall order to respond to every submission with meaningful and focussed feedback. If you’ve ever lived through an all agency creative gangbang, you know the problems.
The simple fact is that our society has recently and powerfully evolved to embrace a Web 2.0 empowered two-way marketplace. We expect to give and get feedback. When the demand for that feedback grows too large, the sheer manpower demands to answer chokes most organizations. This is not simply a Zappo’s issue; this will be a growing issue for all marketers and one that will demand we evolve our organizational structures to answer. The real convergence today is the rapidly colliding worlds of advertising and word-of-mouth PR outreach. Marketing organizations need to create mechanisms not just to send messages out, but to prepare for meaningful, ongoing consumer dialogue and engagement.
The outcome of this particular situation remains to be seen. But as one of the agencies who responded, I want to wish Zappo’s good luck with this challenge. Of course, I would also be more than happy if anyone there wants to call me for advice. Element 79 loves that brand.
by Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
Ex-Vice President Al Gore delivered the keynote address at Digitas’ Digital Content Newfront this past Wednesday in a speech Adweek characterized as ‘putting agency creatives on notice.’ Speaking as one of the co-founders of Current Media, Mr. Gore used the theme of sustainability to outline how he sees the media landscape changing radically and a new form of advertising emerging, powered by user generated content.
The crux of his thinking boils down to this quote: “In the 20th century, the advertising model was based on the same principles that the Industrial Revolution was based on: scale. It was big, it was blunt, very expensive, and very intrusive, and audiences have now begun to resist that old advertising model even as the environment in which it is presented changes a great deal. The new model is very different because the media landscape is completely different.” Few advertising professionals would bother arguing that thinking. The arguments begin with Mr. Gore’s assumptions that ‘a new model’ even exists.
Advertising’s ‘new models’–and there are plenty of them–are all in beta. And will probably remain there for the rest of my career. The rate of technological change is just waaaay too fast for anyone to declare they’ve solved it and put their pencils–or cell phones–down.
Mr. Gore cites Current Media’s reliance on “VCAMs” (Viewer-Created Ad Messages) that users generate for brands that advertise on the network. Everything is spec, the advertiser compensates the ad creators directly, and the payment increases dramatically if they choose to use the ad somewhere else. This is a decidedly cost-effective solution; video crowdsourcing if you will. Those inclined to think positively of this notion will compare it to the Threadless model, which it clearly resembles.
But as a ‘new ad model’ it fails on the very ‘sustainability’ issue Mr. Gore thumps so relentlessly. Is such a model sustainable for a less sexy packaged good? Is it sustainable when the novelty wears off and users catch on to the strong economic bias for Current’s self-interest over their own? And how can this model’s basic assumption that “strategy is meaningless, prevalence is everything” make sense with video, when the assumption of some sort of ubiquity advantage has been proven so blatantly wrong for internet banner advertising?
He did make valid points and Mr. Gore’s adoption of a new model is laudable. The fact is that his ‘new model’ will be far from the last one he–or any of us–adopts.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
About a week ago, Bob Merlotti–unrepentant funnyman and founder of the innovative advertising organization Skeleton Crew–posted yet another one of his casually hysterical status updates on Facebook. It read simply “Bob Merlotti wears the scarf of indignity.” Now I don’t know what life event prompted this thought–if any. And aside from the fact that as a huffy sort of adjective, ‘indignity’ falls into that wonderful linguistic subset of intrinsically funny words, little distinguished this specific update from dozens of his other witty posts. And yet it clearly struck a chord. Within minutes, four people had chimed in, offering absurdist sartorial builds on his initial bit, ranging from ‘the english derby of righteousness’ to ‘fez of futility’ and ‘bathing suit of exasperation.’ By days end, that simple post generated sixteen replies.
In the massive numbers of the internet, sixteen replies equals the approximate register of a single leaf falling in a thousand acre forest, but for those of us who jumped in (and you bet, I jumped in too), the experience was like a taking a few turns on a swingset–simple, silly and undeniably fun.
What was it about this particular post that made it such an irresistible invitation to play? Why did such a relatively high number choose to add to this particular thread?
In his highly accessible and brilliantly informed book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky details how today’s widespread communication tools radically reduce the cost of participation, fueling social upheaval around how quickly and powerfully groups form and act today. Whether a group forms to disseminate information, drive political change, or crowdsource large scale projects, reducing the cost of participation increases the likelihood of success exponentially. In a time of more change and fewer absolutes for both the marketing industry and society as a whole, Shirky’s informed analysis helps provide a framework for adapting to this new reality and the financial repercussions it creates.
Getting back to Bob’s post, his clean, easily-imitated gag structure clearly lowers the cost of participation. With Facebook, that cost refers not to time or money, but rather fear of extremely public failure. Anything you post on Facebook instantly pops up on the newsfeed of hundreds and even thousands of others to see and judge, intimidating many from jumping in. But in this instance, Bob provided an initial gag structure that was both delightfully clever and easily replicated, requiring only a silly, alliterative clothing/emotion combination. Once you free associated say, ‘hot pants’ with ‘hussiness,’ you could play too. And so ten people did almost immediately.
Unlike a very special episode of ‘Family Ties,’ we didn’t all learn something. Still, it was a day-brightnening experience and an intimate lesson in community building–if you make something easy and fun, all sorts of people will want to play with you. Thanks for that Bob.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
“Big agencies are dead, blah, blah, blah…” Yeah, I get it. The dunning weight of overhead slows a big agency’s ability to innovate even as our world splits and multiplies into all sorts of constructs with the ferocious intensity of paramecium on fertility drugs. Dozens of new ventures pop up every week in the form of micro-agencies, unbundled specialists, project freelancers, and that flexible catchall moniker—marketing consultants. Nimble and quick, these new marketing offerings boast an obvious advantage in cost and flexibility.
But the hard truth in any idea business remains that innovation first flowers in individual minds. And those individuals can work literally anywhere, from big agency structures to someone at her desk in the basement.
The key difference separating those two individuals is access. Thinkers in big agencies have a direct pipeline to the clients that buy and implement their ideas; freelancers stand outside the gates, working phones and email, hoping to gain an audience. So while large agencies battle negative assumptions related to speed and innovation, their client access provides a clear leg up.
Which is where the ‘big agencies are dead’ diatribe comes up short: an idea without an audience may as well be a daydream. Big agencies have more access and, to an ever-varying extent, the advantage of trust. Or at least the occasional indulgence.
Obviously that access can disappear at any time; management changes, CMO’s come and go, acquisitions create redundancies. To some degree, all of us have learned to adapt to this environmental volatility.
But for today we have access. Today we have an open door. And while we have it, we need to keep beating that door down with ideas.
Because sooner or later, one of those crazy new agency alternatives will crack it open and earn an audience.
By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
PS: Of course, there is a post script regarding those instances when brand managers and CMO’s decide to throw open their doors and invite anyone in to pitch ideas. And it relates to both the promise and the problem of this kind of crowdsourcing. On one hand, you greatly enhance the sheer volume of creative ideas to consider. But on the other, you assume responsibility for managing those ideas, providing cogent feedback, cajoling them into full development, and determining which will be best of the lot. It’s a situation akin to sending personal notes to all of your friends on Facebook; it’s daunting, slow, and exhausting. Why should you take on those headaches?
That’s what you hire an agency for…