The Consumer: A Staggeringly Foolish Plan
Being a generally optimistic chap, I rarely fall victim to cynicism. But I've found myself wondering recently whether new media hasn't started to get, well ... a bit old.
The gold rush toward social media this year was staggering. Staggering to the point of foolishness though. It was as if all marketers felt that social media would be a panacea for the ills of massive global economic collapse so they ran headlong towards it. But by the middle of the year it was becoming clear that social media was being viewed as a channel that needed to be included in any communications plan rather than a mindset that should be embraced by an organization. TV... check, outdoor ... check, Facebook page ... check, Twitter feed ... check. Engaging brand idea that calls for consumer participation ... not so much.
But considering a presence on a social media site as evidence of a social brand is dangerous. It doesn't make sense from a traditional media perspective and it doesn't make sense from a social media perspective.
It's becoming increasingly clear that for most of us, Facebook is a really good multimedia address book. Only a small sliver of people in anyone's friends list actively and regularly participate. (Which, by the way, is true of all social mediums.) You all know who they are in your own circle of friends. And I'm sure you value them. They've become our own personal pundits. Journalists and those who share our interests, comment on things that have real relevance to us, and who make us laugh with jokes that are tailored to us. But beyond the enjoyment we get from occasional glimpses into their lives, Facebook is a digital Rolodex.
It's becoming similarly clear that YouTube's function is more database than it is entertainment destination. An article in this magazine a couple of months ago quoted the Nielsen three-screen report in stating that people watched an average of 151 hours of TV a month compared to three hours of online video a month. And while I'm sure the number of viewing occasions per month is substantial on YouTube (because so many of us are prompted to check out something ridiculous with fair regularity) - we're going there with purpose rather than to graze on fun. We're on a mission. We're not just browsing.
There are indeed a number of YouTube personalities that are drawing repeat audiences - but even the largest among them only has 1.6 million all-time subscribers (about the same number as tune into a fairly popular show on basic cable). And you can still be on their 'all-time most subscribed' list with little over 160,000 subscribers. So in audience terms, it doesn't really cut it as an entertainment destination even though it is a very effective and useful entertainment database.
To draw those two examples together, I noticed that a friend of mine - one of my own personal pundits - had racked up a fairly sizeable number of YouTube views of a talk he gave recently. More than 37,000 people had watched it the last time I checked. Now, there is no question that my friend is a brilliantly entertaining and insightful speaker - and widely friended to boot - and it's not the first time he's had a talk posted to YouTube, but it is the first time his audience has risen above the hundreds. So what was the difference this time?
Simply that his talk was hosted and posted by TED. TED is a great idea. In channel terms, it is a conference series. In philosophical terms it is a commitment to "ideas worth spreading." But really, as with so many great new brands it is an exercise in curation. In their case, a flawlessly curated collection of international provocateurs who give us a peek into their worlds and their minds. It is tremendously engaging and tremendously social. I doubt many of us have been to a TED conference but given how widely and freely the content is distributed I'd be surprised if a significant number of us hadn't watched one of their speakers - and perhaps contributed to the conversation by leaving a comment or an appreciative note of thanks. Which, in the end, is exactly what determines whether or not a brand is social. Not the channel through which it distributes content, but the level of engagement it generates among its fans. Which, I must keep reminding my cynical self, remains quite a young idea.