Commentary

Crowd-Sourcing Ourselves

With literally billions of pages in mobile social networking inventory and activity occurring monthly, the mobile platform seems to be faced with the same conundrum as its online counterpart. How do brands find their way into massive hives of activity without being dissed or simply ignored while users go about the more critical process of connecting with one another? Widgets, branded profile pages, paid posers all have been tried with uneven results. Unless users already have a personal relationship with a brand, an artist, a media publisher, it seems unlikely they will strike up a virtual or ersatz "friendship" with them in a social network. And throwing banner ads into this space is notoriously ineffective.

The challenge, of course, is twofold (at least). How do you focus a social networking user's attention on the brand's value proposition in a place where users generally eschew brands? And then, how do you come up with something of real value?

Maybe you can let them in on the process? In an interesting experiment, Yallie K. Media and its principal Ayal Kleinman is letting users at mobile social network Mocospace preview music tracks from top artists, some of which are still in the process of being recorded. "The idea was that if we 'leaked' or exposed music first, even in 30-second bursts, and give them the opportunity to have first crack at it, they would do this on mobile phones," says Kleinman.

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Located at Mocospace.com/streets, the page has the rough look of a personal profile page and links short pieces of tracks by a blend of high-profile artists and lesser-knowns. Kleinman has released an Akon track before it was available anywhere else, and even tested tracks before marketing decisions have been made about promoting them. Kleinman issued a track on the site that was already well along the marketing process but found that users had an unexpected response. "The feedback said the singer reminded them of Mary J. Blige, and that gave us direction for where to target people and relate to her as the new Mary J. Blige." Kleinman uses polling on upcoming tracks to determine levels of enthusiasm. "If you don't get overwhelming response one way or another, then how much can I depend on this [track]?"

By letting users feel as if they are part of a process and not just subscribing or "friending" an artist or brand, the project seems to have gotten over one of the major humps of marketing into social media. Users don't have to ask "What are you doing here?" -- because the value prop is in the lead. They are here to see what you think, and to make you part of the music process. The profile has about 50,000 people visiting regularly, responding to polls and ranking a series of tracks. Kleinman says he doesn't want to over-promote Streets lest it lose some of its intimacy. "They are in this covert space, this exclusive club where they get access to music," he says.

For the music artists, the process circumvents the usual marketing and research channels. "We are taking control of the experience," says Kleinman. "The content owner wants to know the feedback from the audience. We can create a crowd-sourcing environment."

Of course, what they are creating here is a genuine dialogue and exchange of value. It seems to me that is trying to perennially "crack the code" of emerging platforms like social media or even mobile, marketers and media forget one of the most fundamental aspects of digital: it flattens hierarchies.

At its most basic, the interactivity that digital media introduced undermined a host of top-down relationships, between editors and readers, brands and consumers. Even as late as 2002, I recall newspaper and magazine editors I interviewed bristling at the prospect of emailing with readers, let alone actively publishing in real time on blogs. Now, the best journalists use crowd-sourcing. Two of the most popular Twitter members are Martha Stewart and Business Week Executive Editor John Byrne. Martha actively polls her users on things and gets reactions to stray thoughts. Byrne actually asks his Twitter followers to suggest questions he can pose to the CEO interview he is going to conduct in the next fifteen minutes.

You can't resist or ignore the basic leveling effect of digitization. You find ways of leveraging it. If that is a given, then the next obvious step a brand takes within the context of a social network is to act like a real friend: tell some secrets. All Kleinman is doing is letting the user watch and even have a hand in making the sausage. You don't just say that new media "empowers users." You leverage that user power by enhancing it, not just responding to it.

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