Friday, April 15

Anonymous Social Collaboration and the Disposable Network

Recently I posted my fave SXSW start-ups. These included Color -- which had barely started up at all before raising $41M in VC funding -- and instant messaging mobile apps such as GroupMe and Beluga.

Color has continued a slow road to hype. Beluga sits patiently waiting for its new owner Facebook to make the next move. GroupMe hit the PR circuit to convince advertisers to sign on.

These companies have more in common than just being group collaboration mobile apps. All have a finite dimension to their social communication. Your Color experience is defined by your location (up to 100 yards around you), while GroupMe/Beluga limit the number of people participating in group pods. This provides an automatic filter to the social experience, preventing the amount of content / communication from getting out of control. It is a nice dose of order to the usually chaotic never-ending social sprawl.

Color's localized photosharing premise is useful within personal social environments: backyard barbeques with friends, in the office with coworkers. Not so sure about using it for bachelor parties. I also see an opportunity for larger public gatherings, such as sporting or music events. These provide context from a location standpoint (everyone physically around you) and a moment-in-time standpoint (everyone at the same event as you).

One drawback is that it's all (literally) crowdsourced content. Sure it might be interesting to see everyone's photos from the south stage at Lollapalooza, at least the first 50 of them. But what if you throw in some backstage photos from the bands? Then you have content with high social currency, plus a nice call-to-action for concert goers to download the app. Don't forget, Twitter seemed to have little redeeming social media value until the famous people started using it.

GroupMe is already taking this approach:
The company created a product called Featured Groups, which works a bit like Twitter's promoted trends in that it suggests topics around which groups can form -- such as Coachella or Bon Jovi -- and appears under a "featured" tab in the GroupMe app. If users form a group around those brands, they can opt in to get special offers, enter contests, sneak previews and event reminders. Since GroupMe's group limit is 25 members, group size stays manageable and based on a user's real-life friends, an important distinction from Facebook pages and Twitter follows, which can grow into the millions depending on the brand's popularity. 
GroupMe/Beluga's main issue is that you are constrained to communicating with people you already know. Your established social networks (Fbook friends, iPhone contacts) are the starting point for creating these small groups. Which works out great if your Lollapalooza friends are all off watching different bands. Not-so-great if you they are standing right next to you the entire time at a baseball game.

These apps have one other thing in common: they are disposable experiences. Color's photosharing stops after the last Lollapolooza encore. GroupMe/Beluga chat pods deteriorate once the group doesn't need to communicate as frequently. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The interactive space set a premise long ago that content should be immortal, even in social media. Every Facebook photo, witty tweet, building check-in, and restaurant review is archived indefinitely. Sure you could delete them anytime, but there seems to be inherent social pressure to keep them. It will be refreshing to leave your social media activities behind with your ticket stubs and used beer cups, guilt-free.

Friday, April 8

Unfriending the Social Media Director

I love it when fuzzy Dotcom buzzwords become the recruiting job title du jour = New Media Director, Emerging Media Specialist, Technology Evangelist, Digital Innovations Manager. The variations are endless!

I have nothing against specific 2.0 job descriptions. Community managers, mobile marketers, and new channel analysts all have important duties to perform. It is the job titles that don't convey a sense of purpose that drive me crazy.

Currently the most overused title being tossed around is Social Media Director. I stopped counting the number of recruiters pushing this over the last six months. Every company seems to have realized that they can't function without one, must have one, and need them right now.

Here's the most interesting issue: none of them can find qualified candidates. The recruiters are certainly confused. Should they find them at digital agencies? PR agencies? Client-side marketing departments? Is it a strategic, executional, or technical role? Do they report into the PR Director, the VP of Marketing or (God forbid) IT? Senior or mid level?

I love asking exactly what the position manages. The most popular response: "Well, you know, the company really expects this person to define that as part of their on-boarding." Runner up: "Well, um, you know, Facebook and things like that."

Therein lies the issue. If you can't explain the job title's responsibilities, then the title itself is too vague. It reminds me of the Days of the Webmaster (for those of you as old as Interweb dirt). Back in the early Dotcom years, anyone involved with a company's website could be the Webmaster. It didn't matter if you were the technical guy in IT who ran the site, the quasi-artistic woman who designed and hand-coded it, or the poor deer-in-the-headlights project manager who had to keep it updated.

Website Owner = Webmaster

Back then it wasn't embarrassing to have Webmaster printed on your business cards. Trust me, I was one of them. But it also was a pain in the ass explaining to your co-workers exactly what you did all day. "You know, website stuff." It was soon replaced by a variety of titles that actually explained your role = Website Technologist, Web Designer, Content Manager. I am waiting for this evolution to hit the whole Social Media job market.

For instance, Director of E-Commerce is more than a job description. It also explains how your employment success is measured = sell stuff online. There is no reason that these social media job titles can't perform the same duty. Social Commerce Manager makes a lot more sense.

Sure it still may require you to oversee all the quasi-social platforms that can't find a home within your organization. But at least you establish a context for how they should be utilized. Twitter unable to generate revenue right now? Maybe you don't need to worry about tweeting so much.

My bet is on a completely new title = Director of Advocacy. This role definitely expands beyond social media. However, its core essence is rooted there. Why do most marketers find promise in Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and niche community web sites? Why do they spend money on social media listening and flood any industry conference session with the word Social in it?

We are all chasing the same Marketing Holy Grail = consumer word of mouth. The chance to influence consumers, have them talk about us, and track the impact those conversations have on our brands (and sales). Social media has become the easiest way to participate in this magical process.

But Word of Mouth itself is a fuzzy marketing term. I believe it is the bastard step-parent of Viral Marketing. Both promise "free" promotion of your product or brand. Both require a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-they-do-spread-it approach. True, WOM can be jump started with marketing programs. But as many of us interactive marketers have been saying for many years = You can't make something go viral. Just like you can't make something go word of mouth.

But I believe Advocacy is more than just a word of mouth initiative. It is a formal strategy encouraging consumers to say positive things about your products and (more importantly) generate positive content that can be leveraged in marketing programs. Online is a very efficient channel to identify the consumers most willing to talk about you positively. It also is an efficient channel to aggregate the content that they create. Most importantly, it is an efficient channel to promote that content and reach non-users who may be influenced by it. This Advocacy Loop can be built on the backbone of social media properties and consumer behaviors.

I recently presented a case study on Brand-Distributed Consumer Advocacy that demonstrates just that. It is a small example, but enough proof that social media has a very important role.

The best part is that the Director of Advocacy cannot be pigeonholed into just being the Social Media Guru. To be successful, advocacy must be leveraged throughout your owned/earned/paid programs online. It should be utilized across not just online channels, but offline as well. All with a very specific goal in mind.

At least that is my current pitch. It usually results in very short recruiter conversations. But eventually companies will realize it as the natural next step. If not, then I already have my Social Webmaster business cards ready to send to the printers.

Thursday, April 7

The Interweb Unanchored – Decentralization of Brands Online

My parents are from the generation of Americans who still use the Yellow Pages. Not or the mobile app, but the actual physical printed Yellow Pages which is as thick as… well… a phone book. Ask them for a neighbor’s phone number or local restaurant address and out comes the Big Book of Information.

They aren’t Luddites. They have a computer and online access. If I offer to look it up on my iPhone, it’s almost a race to see who can find the answer first. And to be honest, the yellow book is fairly effective. It may not always be up-to-date, but it is faster than walking to the computer and looking it up online. It is just about as fast as typing into a smartphone. Same content, different access points.

Despite its efficiencies, most people younger than my parents would never think of pulling out a printed resource = phone book, encyclopedia, dictionary. I have been thinking about this a lot recently as I contemplate the future of the Interweb, specifically the role of branded websites. 15 years ago every brand needed a web destination. In the early days there wasn’t a solid rationale, but everyone was doing it and those URLs were going fast. The Dotcom Virtual Land Rush from 1995 – 2000 saw most companies establishing their online turf, investing a significant amount of money into making them a nice place to visit.

People looking for information about your company/product/service? Send them to your website. Want consumers to enter a sweepstakes or get a coupon? Promote that URL on the package. Selling stuff? Remember to add the https to your links. Running online banner ads? Better have a place to send people if they click on them.

The last 5 years has seen a decentralization of Brand Spaces online = social networks, user-generated content, mobile devices, networked TVs and video game systems. These force companies to contemplate life beyond the grounded, controlled brand website. First step was creating mini-brand destinations = Facebook fan pages, mobile sites, Twitter feeds, Youtube channels. But the amount of user-generated and socially-connected content is quickly overwhelming brands and paid search keywords won’t fix it. Brands cannot just stake out land plots and hope consumers stumble onto them. Relegating consumer conversations to your Facebook tab will have limited impact.

I watch people younger than me interact online and it seems the very idea of brand destinations are alien to them. They still want to interact with brands, but on their terms via some type of marketing osmosis that we are just starting to decipher. But it is apparent that they expect brands to find them, not vice versa.

Although there is still a need for branded areas to aggregate content, distribution of that content is becoming crucial. Social networks have paved that path. At some point search engines will have to focus on delivering content to users, not sending users to the content. Mobile and other access devices in the home don’t require entire websites formatted to fit their screens, just their content. Your brand site will transform into a data repository feeding the rest of the Interweb.

Brand sites are destined to become Yellow Pages 2.0. Many companies will fight this trend and pump dollars into maintaining them, redesigning them, and attracting people to them (and wondering why their traffic continues to decline). Your Facebook tabs and Youtube channels are next. I give it 5 years for the transition to become apparent. In 10 years, the only people visiting brand sites will be old people like me. Start planning your exit strategy now.

Friday, March 25

Celebrating a Shark-Free SXSW 2011

So I finally recovered from SXSW -- an entire week filled with meat, free beer, marathon interactive sessions, and great loud music. I was a bit concerned going into this year's festivities. Attendance for the interactive portion was up 40% to 18,000 people, anyone reserving a hotel room starting in January was stuck staying 30+ minutes out of town, and big brands were sponsoring everything from the convention center to free taco trucks. If SXSW was going to jump the Miller Lite shark in a Chevy Volt full of Pepsi Max, then this was the year.

Fortunately Austin didn't disappoint. More crowded? Yep. More parties with free music and beer? Yep. More trouble finding a lunch spot that didn't require a 30 minute wait? Yep. The only thing geekier than walking around Austin wearing a SXSWi lanyard? Wearing one while standing outside the pop-up Apple Store to buy a brand new iPad2.

I found the conference sessions just as stimulating and interesting as 2010. The post-session beer sessions with my interactive peers were the perfect nightcap as your brain swelled from innovation overload.

For the second year in a row I avoided most of the advertising/marketing sessions and went for the fringe topics = nonprofit social advocacy, location-based APIs, user-generated gaming. Discussions about crowdsourced digitization of historical photos -- in a room full of museum curators and librarians -- was relevant to any marketer: How do you manage user-submitted content efficiently, without micromanaging the process but ensuring quality?

Sometimes you ended up debating sock puppet-based transmedia marketing experiences (Ethics of Pervasive Fiction). Or enjoying IT banter around cloud computing services (who knew was so funny?) The most annoying emerging trend was digital slackers taking pictures of PPT slides via their cellphones.

Most of these sessions provided unique insights into how non-marketers are using the Interweb. Many which can actually be applied to marketing strategies. You realize that a whole bunch of people still leverage the interactive space for non-advertising purposes. It was nice to gaze at other industries' digital navels for awhile.

So here's my roundup of the cool hip new start-ups, trends, and movements. Impossible to uncover them all, but enough to reassure me that innovation has not stopped at Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare.

Geo-Event-Based Anonymous Social Media

Color (iPhone / Android) is part of a new emerging social category. Here is a summary:

“Rather than friending or following people, a Color user simply posts pictures. Users see pictures posted recently and nearby their current location. This concept seems fitting for events -- say, a sports game or a wedding -- where lots of people who don't necessarily know each other are taking photos of the same thing. If Color is used by a statistically significant percentage of folks, nearly every location that matters on earth will soon be draped in an ever-growing tapestry of visual cloth."

They caused a minor disturbance due to a recent VC infusion of $41 million.

Group Instant Messaging

A new make social networking simple movement is brewing. These apps allow you to create group message lists that don’t require sending/receiving SMS texts (they are sent via the apps). You can easily add people from your Facebook/Twitter/phone contact lists. Sounds really basic, but I found they were useful in Austin to keep track of people and coordinate meet ups. They also allow group members to invite others into the "pod," thus allowing an interesting two degrees of separation social network to form.

Probably not something you would use all the time. Can suffer from “chatroom clutter” if too many people are invited to participate. They require everyone to have the app installed, which is the biggest weakness. The leaders:

“Beluga offers a mobile app and web service that enable simple, instant, and rich group messaging from your phone. Use Beluga to plan a night out or just share updates and photos with your close friends and family. Like SMS, it’s instant. Like email, everyone’s in on the conversation. Best of all, it’s private.”

They were just bought by Facebook

“Start groups with the people already in your contacts. When you send a message, everyone instantly receives it—it’s like a private chat room that works on any phone.”

The Democratization of Video Game Creation

GameSalad believes that video games have become too complex and expensive to create. They developed a visual game builder that allows anyone to make their own video games, without understanding programming and graphic production -- object-oriented gaming. Could result in a new breed of amateur games that redefine the industry. Or just a bunch of crappy games that no one wants to play.

Crowdsourced TV

CurrentTV's Bar Karma is a fully-produced TV show whose episode plots are determined via crowdsourcing:

“You decide the creative direction for Bar Karma, and that process starts right here. You can contribute to anything from the episode's overall story down to what the characters are wearing. It's up to you. Impress the Bar Karma producers and community with your suggestions, and your name just might end up in the credits.”

The plot is developed based on user submissions and alterations. CurrentTV then selects the final plot and produces it. The Storymaker plotline builder was developed by the guy who created The Sims and Spore.

Geo-Location Mobile Gaming

I found the start-up mobile game company Dokogeo really exciting. They hosted the session titled Beyond Check-Ins: Location Based Game Design (presentation audio).

They have two games that mash up physical space with game play, in ways that are much more interesting than a basic Foursquare-style “check-in for points” game. Both utilize Google Maps and your phone’s GPS to incorporate your physical location into the experience.

Seek N Spell is an app that mixes up Scrabble, scavenger hunts, and tag. After downloading a Google Map of your immediate location, the game drops letter tiles around the area. You then race from spot to spot, picking up the tiles and spelling words. The person who spells the most (and longest) words wins.

Dokobots could define a huge new “endless game” trend. It is a geocaching Tamagotchi game that covers the entire earth with game pieces. Here are two good summaries = 1 | 2.

You walk around collecting robots and batteries from the live map based on your actual GPS location. Your robots travel with you, you can take pictures with them, mark locations that they have “visited”, etc. Then you can drop them off at any time. If someone else picks up that robot, then they can see all of its pictures and travels. You can also track the robots that you dropped and see how other people used them (like those traveling garden gnome photos).

I found it easiest to pick up objects while driving around in a cab, but walking is just as rewarding. It just launched three months ago. I find the concept fascinating and something that my kids would become instantly addicted to.

Collaborative Creativity

4Chan creator Christopher Poole's keynote speech also made your brain hurt (summary | presentation audio). If you haven't checked out the site, then do it from home. It's not safe for work, kids, small animals, or anyone on probation. But the idea of real-time user-generated disposable Internet memes is about as pure as the Interweb gets. He also unveiled his new slightly-less-likely-to-get-you-arrested collaborative site called Canvas, which is currently in invite-only beta.

A bit more safe for work is the collaborative time waster Fridge Magnets. It is a visual chat room where you try to build words out of letters, while others on the page try to do the same. Sometimes playful, sometimes aggressive, sometimes downright creepy.

The Music Industry Isn't Dead Yet

Yes, there is still music at SXSW. You have to tolerate stepping in drunk hipster as you rush from bar to bar, but it is worth the hassle to see awesome bands who you have never heard of. Here's my shortlist of great live shows:

  1. Typhoon
  2. David Wax Museum
  3. A Place to Bury Strangers
  4. Local Natives
  5. Gold Panda
  6. Surfer Blood
  7. Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  8. Casio Kids
  9. Strfckr
  10. Night Beats

Without a doubt the event will be even larger next year, but I still recommend attending. Just bring your shark jumper, book your hotel room this July, stay away from the street pizza, and see a couple bands while you are there.