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Citizen Marketers and other reading June 8, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Citizen Marketers.
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I’m back from a month-long hiatus!

After starting this blog for my Introduction to the Digital Age class at Johns Hopkins University with Nicco Mele, I am now reviving it for my Public Relations in an Age of Digital Influence course with John Bell.

I have already written about one of the assigned readings on this blog, so today, I will be focusing on a book that I have not yet had the opportunity to review — Citizen Marketers by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba.

There are three key points in the opening three chapters:

  1. Empowered customers absorb brands into their personal identities and become part of the brand experience as filters, fanatics, facilitators or firecrackers.
  2. A small — yet powerful group of people (about one percent of customers) take action to share their connection to a brand with others. These people are instrumental in passing along word of mouth about a product.
  3. The advancement of technology allows for the democratization of market forces that impact brands.

McConnell and Huba are right on with all of these points. Web 2.0 has fundamentally changed the way that people and products are related. The collection of tools broadly referred to as social media allow every person to share with others his or her opinion about a product or idea. No longer are the media and the companies themselves the only ones who are able to communicate about a product with others on a broad level. Blogs, message boards and social networks are connecting people across space and time.

Despite all of this, I am not sure I agree with the author’s assertion that we live in an age where the “people are the message.”

There are four parts essential to communication — a sender, a message, a mode of communication and a receiver. Without any one of these, communication cannot exist. It seems that on every occasion where McConnell and Huba argue that the people are the message, they are still saying that people are the sender. Consider the examples they give in chapter one:

People are the message when people say “word of mouth” is the most influential form of media on their decision making. […]

People are the message when the excessive number of advertising messages creates demand for products to block them. […]

People are the message when their intent is authentic. […]

People are the message when they have roots of credibility.

In each of these cases, people are not a message. They are either senders or receivers or both. The content of the word of mouth that they pass along or receive is the message.

Maybe the point isn’t that people are the message, but that corporations no longer control the message.

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All work and all play… April 9, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Play Money.
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“This is really another world,” Caldwell was saying. “The Internet has really affected the world like nobody has understood yet. There’s gonna be greater impac, people are gonna be spending more time on their computers. TV is gonna go the way of the dinosaurs, eventually. There’s more and more people doing stuff online than ever before. There’s more women coming online. There’s more older people coming online. There’s more poor people coming online” (p. 17).

The world of virtual worlds is foreign to me, so reading Play Money by Julian Dibbell was eye opening. From coworkers, I was only vaguely aware that this subculture of people exsited; never could I have imagined that virtual worlds and virtual money contributed to a multi-million dollar online economy in the trade of virtual goods.

Dibbell provides two reasons for why the use of online roleplaying games (also known as MMORPGs, for Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) for monetary purposes has arisen. The first is rooted in psychology. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about a condition he calls flow. Flow is the phenomenon where people get satisfaction out of an action simply for doing the action. This is the reason why many MMORPG players will repeat a task over and over to improve their character, even if the task is repetitive and boring.

The second reason that Dibbell points out is economic. The virtual worlds of these online games operate under scarcity and inequality. There are limited resources, and always others who have more. This fuels a desire to gather more, build more, learn more and achieve more.

Dibbell raises an interesting philosophical question when he notices his daughter playing. Why can’t everyone have the bliss of play? Why does that natural desire to play fade away into, as he puts it “production and reproduction?” I have two issues with this. First, the way he described “play” in the world of professional online gamers, doesn’t seem much like play. It, in fact seems very much like a job. The IM conversation in chapter 21 certainly shows how seriously these games are taken, almost to the point where they don’t seem fun anymore.

Second, I wonder whether the shift from play to work is natural, or chosen. I am reminded of the adage that one can either have a happy life or a meaningful life. It seems that the shift toward work might be from a desire to have an important life and not just a happy one.

The Longer Tail April 3, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in The Long Tail.
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Why does The Long Tail matter? Because, as Anderson points out, it heralds the rise of the economy of choice.

One thing I couldn’t help but think about while reading the second half of Anderson’s book is how he holds unlimited choice to virtually idolized standards. Without getting into why unlimited choices is good, he continues to profess the importance of each person being able to find a niche in which he or she feels most comfortable.

I am glad he cited Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago Law professor who authored the book Republic.com. I first read the book 4 or 5 years ago. In this book, he effectively argues that the fragmentation of media (as a result of increased choice in a digital economy) allows the public to filter information through their own personal prism. People are free to get all of their information from people who share their own political ideology — conservatives can exclusively watch FoxNews and liberals can only read DailyKos.

This also echoes Googlezon and the story of EPIC 2014. If indeed technology advances to the point where it can repackage and create personalized information streams, the we will truly be living in an unlimited long-tail economy.

But at what price?

Is this a good thing for democracy? Sunstein doesn’t think so. I appreciate that Anderson recognizes the other side, but he doesn’t, for me sufficiently address the opposition. He simply retreats into comfortable territory. Choice is good. More voices are being heard.

But are more voices being heard? Or are more voices just out there. To me, it seems that the cacophony of noise out there is preventing other voices from truly being listened to sometimes.

The rise of the niche March 27, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Uncategorized.
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If the 20th century was all about mass media, Chris Anderson says that it will belong to the niche.

The first part of The Long Tail (a book by Chris Anderson which stemmed from an article he authored as editor of Wired magazine, which has a blog bearing the same name) is about the economics of aggregate niche marketing. To understand the power of the collective sum of niche audiences, Anderson first looks at the economics of “hits” and “misses.”

When storage and sales space is a factor, businesses will inherently gravitate towards items that will sell in greatest volume (because they appeal to the greatest audience). This is an economy based on “hits;” only the most popular movies will be picked up for mass distribution, only the most well-backed CDs will be stocked on Wal-Mart shelves, and only the most popular DVDs will be carried at Blockbuster.

When shelf space isn’t an issue, then things change.

This is the great “why” to the question “why is digital media important for business? Because online media fundamentally shifts the way that people find, choose and purchase goods. Space isn’t an issue with digital products — the binary elements that make digital work are virtually unlimited and universally adoptable. This means that in an online marketplace, there is a nearly unlimited opportunity to distribute goods.

Anderson identifies three forces that shape online economics:

  1. Online economies democratize production. By digitizing, consumer goods become more easy to distribute, injecting more goods into the marketplace. This effectively extends the long tail
  2. Online economies democratize distribution. Online sales communities are open to anyone with an internet connection — and unlimited by geography. The availability of consumers has an upward force by creating more access to goods and flattening the tail.
  3. Online economies have the power to connect supply and demand. With “recommendation” tools, such as the ubiquitous feature on Amazon.com, online stores have the ability to direct attention to goods that are available that reflect the shopping preferences of consumers. This effectively uses “hit” preferences to make consumers aware of “niche” availabilities.

In my opinion, this last point is the most important, because it illuminates an important part of the Long Tail that Anderson has yet to address in this week’s readings (though I suspect he might in the second half of the book). In order for a Long Tail economy to work, a collection of niches is not enough — there must also be universal “hits” to link users through recommendation services to comparable niches.

Overall, it is important to note that niches, while once neglected, have become a powerful economic force in a digital economy. The sum of these small-audience product, in terms of dollars, can be just as great, if not greater, than the hits.

Smart Mobs II March 20, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in New Media, Smart Mobs.
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Last week, I started off my post by summarizing Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold with the term “community.” The second half of Rheingold’s book extends the community sentiment not just by discussing communities of people, but what happens when mobile technology permeates every corner of that community and weaves it together. (As a side note, the term “weave” seems especially apt in this circumstance, especially since the title of one of Rheingold’s chapters is Wireless Quilts.)

Traditionally, community has been restricted by location. Communities coalesced around the town square; they were places where people could physically unite to discuss the issue of the day, gossip about neighbors and connect with fellow citizens.

Along the same lines, information was restricted by location. To obtain money or financial information, you had to go to a bank. To get a pair of pants, you had to go to a tailor. To find out about a restaurant, you had to ask around until you found someone who had previously dined there.

But what happens when all of that information exists all around us, embedded in the social fabric? If you can point a cell phone or a mobile environment reader any given object and get reviews, recommendations, coupons, and more information about it? What if we live in a world as Weisner (p. 87) envisioned, a sore of “ubicomp?”

At that point, community isn’t just about people. It is about the people around us and the material environment that they live in.

And what if every stranger you ran into wasn’t so strange? One day, everyone might have the ability to follow any other person’s digital trail and track their personal reputation, as Rheingold suggests in chapter 5. Virtual communities like eBay operate on trust and the “shadow of the future.” In a digital world, as that shadow becomes increasingly discoverable, it also reshapes the ability of people to misrepresent themselves to the people around them.

And last, what if word of mouth isn’t restricted to the physical? If ubiquitous mobile techology makes communication easier, you are able to see events like the protests leading to the fall of Estrada in the Philippines (p. 157) or the growing protest in Seattle during the WTO Summit.

What if you can locate a stranger 3,000 miles away, learn everything about them engage them to act on behalf of a cause, or convince them to vote for a candidate, or buy a product, or share some news with a friend?

So what is the “why question” that bundles all of these questions?

Why is wireless communication technology important?

And the answer?

Because it revolutionizes what a community is and what it can do.

Cell phones and open source March 13, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Smart Mobs, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.
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If the word that best summarizes the themes of We the Media and Naked Conversations is “conversation,” then the word that encapsulates the readings from this week is “community.” The revolution of digital media is the result of two-way communication and peer-to-peer interaction. Smart Mobs and the selected reading from The Cathedral and the Bazaar show what happens when peers of interested individuals ban together to form communities.

Smart Mobs

Smart Mobs is a play-on-words — it describes both the intelligence of small mobile devices to serve as instant, hand-held connectors (a “mobile device”), as well as the groups of networked individuals joined together by this technology (A “mob”). Although the book was written in the earlier part of the decade, his observations and the philosophy behind them ring true today.

The notion of the commons is an interesting one, and author Rheingold is right: cooperation is what makes this technology interesting.

What was most fascinating to me is thinking about what has happened even in America alone since the book was first published to impact our mobile society. First, the explosion of the BlackBerry as a communications device nearly negates an observation made by Rheingold in chapter one. While when he was writing, texting was not seen as an appropriate business activity in America while it was used in places like Japan. Today, the BlackBerry has become a status symbol among professionals who want to show that they are connected to their work, their colleagues and their clients.

The second interesting development has happened even more recently — the takeoff of Twitter. Twitter blends blogging with mobile technology, allowing users to use the Web, instant message software and their mobile devices to send short “life updates,” revealing to their friends what they are doing and thinking in real time.

Sending messages through mobile networks truly accomplishes the goal of community, connecting people to one another across untold distance virtually any time.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

If the commons is an important concept to Rheingold, it is essential to Raymond. The Cathedral and the Bazaar is a treatise on the virtues of open-source development. Rather than locking development of new technologies behind the walls of a single company or inventor, the best work can be accomplished by cooperation among the collective. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The open source model of software development allows each person willing to contribute to the whole (based on their level of interest and expertise), ultimately yielding a product that meets real users’ needs.

Perhaps the most illuminating section came when Raymond compared open source development to project management. It was especially resonant to me because the other course I am taking this semester is Digital Media Project Management. Raymond summarizes the five necessary tasks of traditional project managers as defining goals, monitoring progress, motivating staff, organizing activities and marshaling resources. Raymond says that in the context of open source, each of these needs is irrelevant. Marshaling resources is unneeded because resources are only limited by a willingness to participate. Participants don’t need to be monitored or motivated because the group is self regulating and participants self-select to participate.

The impact of search March 6, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in The Search.
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Earlier, I lamented that the first part of The Search read more as a historical primer on Google than anything else. I was disappointed that Battelle had covered much of the who, what and where, but not much of the “so what.”

After this week’s reading, I felt much more satisfied.

Chapter 7, “The Search Economy” was perhaps the most illuminating of the book. It is hard to believe that one company — a company that runs a search engine — has such an overwhelming impact on the economy. Especially for online businesses, the ability to be discovered through search can be the difference between a business’ success and failure. After reading about the case of 2bigfeet.com, it became clear that a simple tweak of a search algorithm can mean the difference in thousands of dollars in sales.

(Note: As a test, I googled 2bigfeet.com to see how they fared in search today. When looking for “big shoes,” they came up as number 4.)

Search is not just important for being discovered; in many ways, search can define who you are. For example, today, if you google “Dell,” you generally get positive results. This wasn’t always the case. Until relatively recently, if you googled “Dell,” you would get several results in the top ten about “Dell Hell.”

What is Dell Hell? The term was popularized by Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine in a series of rants against the company following repeated negative experiences with his Dell laptop. Because of Jarvis’ visibility and the popularity of his blog, this meme gained steam, links and traffic, and quickly started to rise in the search ranks.

Dell is a very visible company, and lots of people were searching for it online. What does it say to potential buyers who are researching Dell that when they input the name into Google, it returns a bunch of results about how poor the quality of the product is and how bad the customer service is? Essentially, it creates a blemished online picture of the company.

It appears that Dell worked around the system and used various SEO techniques to reclaim the prime online real estate when a user searches for Dell on Google. By creating a series of sites with unique domain names (domains that were indexed separately by Google’s crawlers), it was able to claim most of the top ten search results in Google.

As Battelle alluded, there are some ethical questions about the type of search engine strategy that Dell employed. Is it fair for a company to build a whole bunch of pages with separate domains to crowd out negative search results? Or is it a fair response to the disproportionate (and long-lasting) impact that blogs have on search?

Blogs and business culture February 25, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Blogs, Naked Conversations.
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Finally.

In the second half of Naked Conversations, we finally get to any potential downfalls of businesses using blogs as communication tools. Until chapter 9, Scoble and Israel are nothing but blog cheerleaders. I agree that they are powerful, and that the way they allow people to communicate has fundamentally changed. But they are not without their pitfalls.

The appeal of blogs, for readers, is that they are expressed in human voice. Business, however, is anything but. True, business are made up of people. But the exciting thing about blogging is that it is fluid and can be done at any time. It is free and unrestrained. Organizations, are not.

A coworker of mine put it best — communications officers are there to present opportunities; lawyers are there to present risk. Unfortunately, most businesses are risk averse, desire to be safe and in control, and will reject the use of blogs for communication purposes.

The risks are numerous:

  1. Negative comments
  2. Disclosing confidential information
  3. Loss of message control
  4. Time vs Audience
  5. Employee misbehavior

And others.

I truly believe in the premise laid out by Scoble and Israel. Blogs do have power, and there is plenty of potential for businesses to leverage them (I wouldn’t be working where I do and doing what I do if I didn’t believe that.) However, presently, I think many businesses are, culturally, not in a position to truly embrace the blogosphere. Over time, this will change. People will become more accustomed to blogs as they seep further into popular culture. As this happens, business culture will begin to accept them as well.

Still, cultures change slowly. This is going to take some time.

But we’ll get there.

The Search (Part I) February 18, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in The Search.
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In his book, The Search, author John Battelle poignantly points out that when advanced technology works well, it is like magic — the user doesn’t know how it works, but is impressed that it does.

Much like We the Media catalogues the rise of citizen journalism, the first half of The Search reads as a history of the search function. It describes what it is, how it works, and who the key players in the world of Search are (namely Google).

In this case, understanding the history is especially important. Search in America and around the world has become ubiquitous, but the vast majority of people are unaware of how the “magic” works. They have never heard of terms such as “page rank” or “crawler,” but it is terms like these that make search — and the vast knowledge it provides — possible.

It was especially interesting to read about the CEO of Google coming to the realization that his company is not just a technology company. Google truly is, in every sense of the words, a media company. It just isn’t media in the 20th century sense.

While our assigned reading only covered the first half of Battelle’s book, I still ended this week’s reading feeling empty. The history is important, but Battelle leaves out much of the so what factor in his writing.

Yes, it is interesting to know how search works and how Google rose to become the media empire it is today. But what is missing from the reading thus far is the following question: what does this mean? How does Google impact our society? Is it a positive or negative thing that online search has become such an integral part of our digital culture?

As a final thought, I am reminded of my first thought when opening the cover of the book and reading the title of the first chapter. “The Database of Intentions.” It deeply reminded me of a flash video I had seen called EPIC 2014.

If you haven’t seen EPIC 2014, you should check it out. The video was created a few years ago by the Museum of Media History, and outlines a fictional history of the rise of a digital media empire that allows users to maintain their own database of knowledge. In this fictional future, Google merges with Amazon to create “Googlezon,” a media company which ultimately takes out the New York Times (by using advanced search combined with Amazon’s preference recommendation to deliver personalized news for every person on Earth.) It is an entertaining video, and relates well to Battelle’s discussion of the overwhelmingly fast growth of Google.

Is a Googlezon in the future? Only time will tell. For now, I hope that the remainder of The Search delves deeper into some of the societal implications of search. The book thus far has been informativ; I just hope it goes beyond historical documentation.

The power of blogs February 11, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Blogs, Naked Conversations.
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The subtitle of Naked Conversations — how blogs are changing the way businesses talk with customers — is no hyperbole. The way businesses are communicating is changing, and Scoble and Israel illustrate this well in their book.

Although the latest Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that that trust in business is on the rebound around the globe and that, as an institution, business is trusted more than media and government, only about half of people have a high level of trust in business. The majority of Americans (and people in 17 other countries surveyed this year) say that they place the greatest level of trust in “people like them.”

That is the benefit of blogging. Blogs are inherently conversational. Consider the features of blogs:

  • They are generally written in first person and express the voice of the writer
  • They link between and respond to other blogs and bloggers, creating a virtual community
  • They allow for visitors to leave comments on the blog and engage in conversation with the blogger and other visitors

These qualities add a human dimension to a faceless technology. Rather than just sitting in front of a computer, blog visitors are able to engage and see the human side of the blog author.

I think Scoble’s recount of how Microsoft bloggers put a human face to Microsoft is a particularly poignant example. Referred to as “the borg” or “the evil empire,” Microsoft had a public perception problem. By embracing the bloging phenomenon and creating an environment where their employees could blog freely allowed people to see that Microsoft wasn’t an evil empire — it was an organization powered by real people.

As media fragmentation continues and people continue to slide down the spectrum from consumers of news to participants in history, conversational marketing will become even more important. I am not sure that it will continue to be in the form of blogs though.

Shel Holtz, was right when he warned that corporate blogging should not be overrated (p. 109). While powerful, it is just one tool, and a sea of new technologies exist around the corner. Some of these technologies, things we might not even be imagining right now, may prove to be 100 times more effective than blogging.

What is important (and Holtz, Scoble an Israel all agree on this point, as do I) is that the rules for corporate communication have changed.

And blogs are a great way to communicate in this new communication environment.