Any "bubble" has at its core a sense of obsession, kept alive by a sense of abstraction. The obsession tends to be an awareness of "something big"going on combined with a fear of missing it. The abstraction tends to manifest itself in one-stop-shop buzz terms vague enough to cover any aspect of "something big" while remaining noncommittal on the specifics.
The latest bubbles? "Web 2.0," "User Generated Content," and "Social Networking."
Look at the press releases of anyone paying mind-boggling valuations on 15-people, fast-growing-audienced, near-zero-revenue companies and you'll see what I mean. Conferences are dedicated to these abstractions, gurus paid big bucks to talk about them. Every marketer today wants to figure out how to tap into all this, while scared beyond recognition that the masses will run off with their brand (something I heard in a recent meeting).
Look, I'm from Washington, D.C., the land of generalization and labeling, so I know that this all is very common human behavior. But I think what gets lost -- what, is, in fact, the great inoculator against bubbles - is a focus on very common human behaviors. Sometimes, and excitingly for sure, revolutions are made in life, politics, and business because a brand- new behavior or force is unleashed. But most of the time, at their essence, revolutions come from better answering someone's existing needs.
My rule for product development in any company I have run answers one simple question: Does this make someone's life better, easier, faster, cheaper, more efficient, more beautiful, more important than it was before?
The iPod is a glorious piece of machinery, as innovative in performance, brand, and marketing as any. But at its essence, it allows folks who already love and collect music to have what they want when and how they want it on their person with total convenience: a better Walkman.
I had a Facebook when I was in college, and we used it to learn about folks, see who the hot men and women were, strategize how to make friends. It took Facebook, and the world of broadband, to make that experience the most easy, efficient, communication-oriented way of extending that need. MySpace, Digg, YouTube - you name it - all fit my criteria to the most basic, common-sensed, non-hyped, non-bubble, non-abstract level.
The remarkably revolutionary period we are in - where the individual is in control - is fulfilling humanity's most basic needs. How can I keep up with my friends and find new ones (MySpace); how can I find people to share expertise in my areas of interest (Amazon reviews, Yahoo groups, my own HealthCentral Network); how can I share my voice or wisdom and self-actualize (from blogs, to comments, to photo and video sharing, to leaving reviews); how can I manage my life with ease (bank, buy, book); how can I ensure that I've missed nothing and garner insight in worlds that matter to me (Google News, e-mail alerts)?
These needs are as old as the hills - signposts in the morass of bubble-speak.
The best marketers are experts in human behavior. Indeed, there is risk in entering the fray, but there is reward in being thick-skinned: I am so comfortable and sure of my product, I'll stand up to the voices who question, tease, or criticize.
One marketer said to me recently, "Why should I pay for someone to dump all over me?" These new worlds are clearly less edited, but I came from the news business and I can tell you many journalists wear their ability to write tough stories on their biggest advertisers as a badge of their independence.
Here is the punch line: The courageous will be rewarded. Every year that I ran WashingtonPost.com, our top sports writer produced a scathing story on the Baltimore Orioles, and in our first year of "targeting," we ended up accidentally surrounding it with Orioles ads. When the head of marketing called me, I thought it was to ream me out. But he called, laughing, to thank me, as it turned out to be the best online sales day in their history.
Basic human behavior: Oriole fans read Orioles articles and buy Oriole tickets - no matter what the dialogue says. Nothing abstract here. Basic human behavior wins.