The quest for Bigfoot, sea serpents and the empowered consumer in the social media arms race
In the fairy-tale version of the social media revolution, consumers have all the power. This is a swell story to tell children, in between assuring them that they are beautiful and unique snowflakes, but it massively oversimplifies the situation, even as it's a story business-book writers seem to love to tell. There are now shelves full of these empowerment fables heralding the brave new world in which everything is transparent and open and shared, and brands cower at the strength of a proletariat flexing its collective might.
Ignore for a moment that while communications channels are fragmenting, we have witnessed a period of massive brand and media consolidation. The world may have never seemed so large, but there are giants in those waters - skittish giants, afraid of their own shadows. And so the marketing world presents them with a suitable boogeyman: the empowered consumer.
"If someone said to me, your job is to just make as much money as you can right now," says the head of strategy at a digitally minded agency who declined to be identified, "I'm going to become a social media specialty shop. No question."
The last revolution in media was a coupling of media services with creative. The current vogue for social media specialists is a segmentation. While social media is undeniably important to the way information is spread in the digital age (just as electricity was important to the way it was spread in the tv age), is it the ends or the means?
"Everybody seems to define social media based on the thing that they know the most about," says Jon Bond, who last year left the agency he helped found, Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal and Partners, and recently took the reins of the socially minded Big Fuel, as CEO. "So, if you're a pr agency, social media is addressing bloggers the same way you'd address any journalist. If you're a media agency, it's 'Can we buy space?' If you're a crm kind of agency, it's all about that." There are even those, he posits, who don't see past the couple of channels of Facebook and Twitter.
"On a broader scale it's all of those things and a philosophy," says Bond. "I call it the octopus, because its tentacles reach into everything."
Adrian Drury, analyst with London-based Ovum, says social has created, "an ecosystem of technology vendors basically delivering tools making it easy to go into social media and deliver targeted campaigns and also exploit the data coming back out of them."
Years ago, when I interviewed fisherman Frank Mundus, the captain who was the model for Quint in Jaws, he related a similar scenario, though under far different circumstances. Mundus had basically fished Montauk clean of great white sharks, and, in his day (the '50s and '60s) been a merciless hunter. When I spoke with him seven or eight years ago, he told me about a new sonar system fisherman then used for tracking fish and his veneer cracked. He saw an ad for this system and reported wistfully that it had said, "The fish don't stand a chance."
The audience that marketers once spoke to had resembled nothing so much as a giant bait ball (a massive swarm of fish that a shark or whale might feed off of). More recently, that audience has broken into small schools, which marketers try to aggregate and track through digital tools, swooping through the deep sea and collecting them in batches. With the data coming through social media, those fish don't stand a chance.
The method for collecting this audience, the marketer's grasping them in their tentacles, is far from intuitive, however. "It's the opposite of everything in media that anyone ever learned," affirms Bond. "There's only so far you can go in terms of connectivity when you're doing lowest common denominator for a large group of people. But today, it's basically niche marketing multiplied."
The audience is not yet a massive audience. "You need to put another zero or two at the end of the numbers participating in individual social media incidents to make it a meaningful part of the marketing plan," says Bond. In the simplest terms, unless you have big numbers you aren't going to sell enough stuff.
When you talk about social relationships, you start to get wound in spokes that affect everything. "Everyone complains about media fragmentation. Media fragmentation is our friend," Bond says. "What fragmentation allows you to do is increase the relevance for each fragment."
Our definition of what constitutes a mass audience is rapidly shifting. "We never really had mass audiences," claims Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester Research. We just had mass channels, and we mistook that for a mass audience.
As social grows, we [have] come to the realization that the audience really hasn't changed - it's just as diverse as it always has been demographically and psychographically ... I talk to clients who talk about reaching a segment of one. The concept of a brand relationship that is so flexible, automated and adaptive that every consumer could theoretically have his own relationship with the brand - that's probably a little more aspirational than practical. But brands can and will succeed at increasingly smaller segments. The challenge is how to make that happen in ways that are cost effective and increasingly programmatic."
"It's a two-way street," says Drury. "The Web has always given you as a brand the opportunity to go and have a much more direct relationship with the consumer without going through some other media platform that already has an audience. So you can create an audience around your own branded media." As a mix of traditional marketing channels and CRM two-way communication, it's "an incredibly rich thing that both enables you to create a conversation with the audience and extract data from your market that you feed into all aspects of your product life cycle."
Detailing the exponential geometry of the network effect, Bond says, "It isn't just about the relationship between consumers and the brand. This is where geometric complexity comes in - which is just math - [and] it's the relationship of people to each other. If you look at how many relationships you're managing as a brand - let's say you have 500,000 customers - but now look at the 500,000 possible permutations between those customers and each other and other people, that's a network. And so the complexity of that is geometric."
Saying the empowerment of the audience has been overstated isn't to say that the dynamic hasn't changed. Call it a conversation, or call it utilizing new channels, but there is less shouting at consumers (even those famously compressed tv commercials have had to tone it down).
Complainers tend to be chronic complainers. You know, those people you may follow on Twitter who gripe about cell phone service in the morning, Ticketmaster service fees in the afternoon and the wait time at a newly opened restaurant at night. And as such, we tend to tune them out.
Even the aggregate data seems to have little effect. The trash collection service that spills garbage all over the driveway every week still meets complaints with a shrug; Time Warner Cable service reps still tell the customers they are wrong when their Internet signal is weak; and when the airline loses your luggage, they still offer you the same $20 stipend (though, perhaps, United is more careful with guitars these days).
"I don't think the relationship people have to brands has changed, just the tools have," says Forrester's Ray. "We have to remember that the social tools will continue to change. Today we think of all those people complaining as being fairly disconnected." Pointing out that the Web sites we visited 10 years ago are no longer the top sites visit today, Ray adds, "New tools are going to completely change what we think of as social media." He imagines Yelp on steroids.
While today the question might be, "'Well, who's paying attention to those hundreds of people who complained?'" says Ray. "Tomorrow it might be turned into relevant data for people to use to make their purchase decisions." The key word there being might. Ray feels confident it will happen.
In all likelihood, the brands that have always succeeded will continue to prosper. Tropicana isn't going to lose market share to some orange juice brand that is better at being friends with people (provided, of course, it doesn't change its label).
The cynic might say that Gap's logo brouhaha was much ado about nothing. The bad logo inserted the brand into people's conversations and even if they were talking about it in a negative way, they weren't talking negatively about the clothing. Gap makes cheap jeans, not high-end design.
Though fears of consumer backlash or empowerment are common, social media can function as early warning systems for brands or integrate more deeply into product development.
Using the example of an auto manufacturer who once had its only one-on-one communication with a consumer at the dealership, Drury again points to the value of the data that comes out of the new dynamic. "As a manufacturer, do you change the role you have in the value chain and actually try to have a direct retail relationship with the end user? No, that's probably not what you do. But what you do is you try to use social media basically for lead generation ... ultimately this is about extracting data out of the social media conversation and you're either using that to push people into the sales channel or using it as part of your product development process."
The conversations are still, at this point, brand driven. "Inevitably a lot of brands go and get their pr agencies to run their social media communications for them," says Drury. "They are there to either to push a message, or in the worst case, do crisis management."
What ends up happening is the pr agency will try to create some buzz for a new truck the auto manufacturer is releasing. They'll pretend-"crowd source" the design of some cosmetic and largely inconsequential element of the vehicle. "That only gets you partway down the road," says Drury. It's likely the part of the road we're most familiar with. "The really interesting thing is when the consumers come back and say, 'What we'd really like is a prettier electric version of this vehicle,'" and that data goes into product design, he says. If you want to turn these conversations into legitimate two-way communication, you've got to use that data in interesting ways, other than just in the marketing department."
What Drury is most excited by is the fundamental changes to business models and production that can come about through the spectacular changes social media has witnessed. In his view, marketers have no, or a very small, part in this development.
Of the proliferation of social media specialists: "There's an interesting analogy here with search," says Drury. "You went through a period where you had a bunch of people who felt that they understood search better than everyone else. The SEO specialist popped up - expert in the dark arts- everybody is going to have to skill up and understand how to use this platform."
"Unlike SEO, which doesn't effect the entire organization, social does effect the entire organization," says Forrester's Ray. "There will be a call for some people in the organization to be social media experts; there will be a larger call for many people in the organization to at least be social media- enabled and capable."
It took more than 10 years, but we've gotten to a juncture where you are seeing fewer specialty interactive agencies, because all agencies need to understand, at one level or another, interactive services. "There's clearly a need for some social media-focused agencies right now," says Ray. "It's nascent; it's changing rapidly ... but 10 years from now, won't every agency, whether it focuses on PR or media, for instance, won't every agency need to be social media-enabled?"
Chances are, if you're reading this magazine, you have "liked" the inside baseball Facebook page for What the Fuck is my Social Media Strategy? You may also be familiar with abillionhits.biz, a deadpan site that takes these sentiments to the extreme and doesn't miss a detail. An email to founder Alex Blagg comes back with a response carrying this autosignature: "Sent from my iPad 7G Nitro."
Asked how he became a social media expert, Blagg (needless to say, in character) replies, "One day I woke up and I realized, 'I'm an expert.' So I put that on my online bios and the rest is history." His bio sounds like others you may know. Only more so. Blagg discovered the Internet at a young age as a "Prodigy prodigy," and says, "Before social networking even existed, I was creating the patterns and forms that would become social media."
Like any good social specialist, he has contempt for the old media models. "All these old concepts of revenues and profits and business models and monetization - those are very antiquated 1.0 terms," he tells OMMA. And because he's "already gotten all the hits," clients should listen to him.
Blagg refers to the elegant genius of social media in Huxleyan terms, whereby the consumer welcomes the tools for his own demise, though with an exuberant delivery. "Social media facilitates the idea in the consumer's mind that he has any sort of power or influence, while allowing us to use those same tools that make him think that - to further exploit him," he says. "Whether it's Foursquare, whether it's Groupon, whether it's Twitter, it all comes from the underlying ability to give consumers the tools that they need to help us exploit them."