The Consumer: A Staggeringly Foolish Plan

  • by January 6, 2010

THE CONSUMER: A Staggeringly Foolish Plan by Paul PartonBeing 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.

5 comments about "The Consumer: A Staggeringly Foolish Plan ".
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  1. mike hensgen, January 11, 2010 at 12:01 p.m.

    At last ! A little perspective is a wonderful thing.

  2. Andrea Learned from Learned On, LLC, January 26, 2010 at 8:29 a.m.

    "Curation" is the word, Paul. By putting that extra effort into selecting speakers, knowing those speakers know their stuff/how to present and wrapping it in higher quality video production and delivery, TED wins. And still, what TED does is very straightforward, and could be easily done by others. It shouldn't be a rush to get "anything" up online and NOW. Being more deliberate about what you distribute, and not worrying about whether it will get 1 million views in the first hour, may just be too hard for a lot of businesses/marketers to comprehend. Quality over quantity sounds so boring...

  3. Elena Alexseeva from PhotoHand, January 26, 2010 at 12:27 p.m.

    I have to disagree with your assessment of YouTube. It gives you exposure to programming from other countries that you might prefer to the US content. I haven't turned on my TV set for three years now.

  4. Kevin Lenard from Business Development Specialist, January 28, 2010 at 9:15 a.m.

    Interesting POV, Paul. I don't think it is 'cynical' at all, just insightful, which is really the seed of your article: "a little curation", as Andrea picked up on and Mike alludes to in saying "a little perspective is a wonderful thing".

    What you are all getting at is 'journalism,' really, as opposed to 'social media,' blogging, commenting (like this), etc. It speaks to the fact that journalism will never die, although it has been overwhelmed by the tidal wave of 'self-publishing' of late. People want a considered, well-researched point of view and we cannot get that from most blog posts (don't go over xxx words if you want people to read your post!).

    What I'm convinced of, the more pundits shout about how 'social' is revolutionizing human communication (the telegraph and telephone were both revolutionary social technologies, we seem to forget), is that human beings love to experiment and be on top of trends. Facebook drew more of us in than Second Life ever did (the latter was tough to wrap your head around), but is waning in popularity (time spend engaged with it, unless you are a teen) as people become familiar with what it is really good for (keeping in touch with acquaintances, as you point out, which is what Zuckerman designed it for) and they tire of it. I suspect that as the real value of Twitter surfaces (an instant, public, free global news service -- not a platform for each of us to be a short-term celebrity) we'll see people move on, and back to serious news providers.

    The revolution in the news service world is that geographically based suppliers, the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Tribune (and 100,000 others) were created when distribution was via physical sheets of newsprint, in the age of CNN, we simply don't need 99,900 of those ancient suppliers! The iPad, Kindle and Sony Reader, through their apps and pipeline, are going to help mould the new business model for serious journalism, as I wrote about in my last post:

  5. Walter Sabo from HitViews, January 29, 2010 at 10:29 a.m.

    1.6 Million subscribers, registered fans, is not a big deal but 37,000 viewers is?

    1.6 million would represent a top 3 cable show. MSNBC, CNBC, and even MTV rarely hit 500,000 viewers.

    It's important to note that no one goes to youtube for youtube, they go to watch the shows.

    Fine article.

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