Friday, 28 December 2007

Facebook is making us crazy...

Christmas and New Year and the general festivities therein mean one very special thing to me - it is the time when everyone gets the hell out of our beloved capital and comes back to where they grew up. All the presents in the world could make up for seeing old friends and, let's face it, scores of acquantainces who knew us back when we still strived to be older and not younger.

Anyway, what was creepily strange this year was that everyone knew what everyone else was doing already. Facebook had got rid of the necessary yet dull start of every conversation between old friends, school chums and colleagues. There was no need to ask "how's the career/lovelife/house" of the guy who sat next to me on the school bus becuase each day I get a very handy little alert to tell me.

So, that should be fantastic - no more dull small talk and inane questions to get past in order to get to the really juicy bits of someone elses life. Should be brilliant and enable witty banter from the off. But it doesn't - it actually makes things harder and leaves anyone with particularly British sensibilities in a very difficult place.

For example, being fully aware that the person standing opposite you has just come out of a rather messy engagement fully broadcast on Facebook, complete with public wall postings of humiliation is great for the inner gossip in us all but, when confronted with said unfortunate individual, you clam up. Where do you start? You either avoid at all lengths anything vaguely to do with the matters of the heart and leave a gaping rather dirty white elephant in the conversation, fully aware that both members of the conversation know exactly what you're NOT saying... Or you mention the affair, as tactfully and carefully as you can, and in doing so come across as a rather sinister stalker who is watching this poor persons every move with great entertainment then find yourself promptly, and unsuprisingly, removed from their "friends" list the following day.

Worse still, is those people you'd rather never see ever again, know things about you that you'd really rather they didn't. Not always big dirty secrets as of course we keep them off our virtual profiles but just the humdrum facts that you can't escape. Half forgotten blasts from the past that you absent mindedly added to your list of friends have the upper hand in the game of "who's doing best". They know that your Porsche is more a Mazda, your mansion more a cottage and that as much as you know he's the one, your Brad is more a Barry. They know it all already and however happy you genuinely are with your life, not being able to tell the one person who made your life a misery then tiny white lie that you're obscenely successful and great is frankly, no fun.

The caveat, of course, is that it is just this very kind of person that also has a perfect profile filled with images of them skiing and partying and meeting famous people so the reverse is not applicable. They are painfully aware that you will of course have had a good look for the flaws on their own profiles and found absolutely none (I swear there are professional Facebook Butlers out there for this).

Polite society does not have rules for this kind of situation because polite society was never intended to let the rather one-way, voyeuristic, social past-time of gossiping to become a two way or even subjectively voluntary relationship...and that is precisely what Facebook has done. However, it's definitely not something that I shall be giving up for New Year because the annual awkward acquaintance brag off is definitely worth losing every once in a while. I'd rather have a Mazda anyway...

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Never mind the forums...

Forums are the smokers' staff room of the virtual world where everyone "is an arsehole" and everthing "is frankly shit". Launch a new site and within seconds you will have every man and his dog telling you exactly what is wrong with it and why you should simply give up and go work in your local supermarket. Of course, I recognise that in time forums become a fantastic arena in which to generate advice, but in the first 2 months after experiencing change forums seem to suffer from post-natale depression.

What it leaves you with is a bitter paradox. As truly forward thinking professionals, we need to be entering into the communications as soon as possible and reacting to the feedback. However, your first few weeks are, from what I can gather, bound by some law out of our control, to be a hellish torrent or demoralising negativity...much of which may be based in truth but which does nothing to move the audience nor the business forward.

The trick therefore seems to be to develop a 6th sense of when to start listening, when to pay lip-service and when to simply delete the posts and inform someone they need help...well, I have been tempted! However, the danger is never getting back into the habit of listening and conversing to your consumers. Maybe we simply have to accept that, like in any relationship, there's going to be a big old row but to keep the faith that once they've "let it all out", the storm will blow over.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Stick to what you know...

One of the biggest challenges that I face on a day to day basis is getting clarity and focus on what a website actually is. It's not just about deciding what it should be but about keeping a team on track to do that and only that.

The joy, and issue, with working in the online world is the ability to try so many different things, so quickly and relatively easily. Even specialising in one subject is not enough - the truly successful sites out there do one thing for one consumer group in one basic way and they do it bloody well. Being so single minded is tough and not always very fun, it requires real courage of conviction and belief and a team that all buy into one vision so that no matter how great the next idea is that comes along - you don't touch it unless it's 100% core to what you set out to do.

Getting this across to large teams can be tough - it requires time and patience and isn't always the easiest theory to explain nor what they might want to do. One of the arguments that comes back often is "what harm will it do if we do XXX as well"? I've often been at a loss to argue with that outlook...what harm could it do? My gut feel has always been "lots" but I have struggled to find the logic that supports that.

In the offline world, when you know what you want, let's say a new handbag, and are faced with a long row of shops you have never been into, you judge them on one thing - the shop window. You will walk down the street looking for a window filled with all sorts of handbags - not a clothes shop with one in the window, not a shoe shop that also does handbags, not a brand shop where you know they might do bags - but a handbag shop. Sounds dumb and obvious but it's true - you look for what a shop appears to be on the surface, a specialist in handbags will have lots of handbags in the window and nothing else. You might get it wrong and miss out on the shop that has the best bag at the lowest price in the back of the shop but to be honest, it's raining, you're tired and you're not about to go the hassle of dragging yourself in on the off chance so you pick the obvious shop window full of the one thing you want.

And so let it be with websites. The "harm" that adding extra non-core content and services does is that it takes away from what you are the expert in. The virtual shop window, the homepage, necessarily becomes cluttered with bits of everything you do instead of screaming at every visitor that you are, always have been, always be the true expert in your field. By sticking to what you set out to do and never swaying from that path you cannot help but convince the consumer you're the best.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

What's in a name...

Informed my mother this morning I was struggling for what to write in my blog today - a worry as it's only Day 3 but I'm sure I'll continue to find inspiration. Her eyes glaze over and she looks at me like I'm some kind of bizarre Star Wars loving, Buffy addicted, science fiction freak who has finally lost the plot and become a complete cyper recluse. Ok, so the majority is not that far off the mark but it did make me think about attitude towards "digital specialists" througout business and the reputation they are still yet to shake off.

For years, there has been a small but select group of people around me who know and love the brave new world online. They were the early adopters of social networking, all things gaming, Web name it, they've a buzzword for it. Throughout that time my naturally slightly mathemetical and scientific brain has meant my interest was more than a little piqued, hence my current career. It's been great, picking up bits of information, learning the words, sounding intelligent and foxing everyone else around me while deploring how little the rest of the world understands and how we'll always be in the minority. I'm not entirely sure we ever thought what would happen if everyone else did catch up or if our egos could handle it. Best bet was to keep learning away and talk in a slightly different language that no-one else could really understand and then they might just go away.

Fact is, they didn't and we don't - talk in a different language that is. More worrying than the maternal disappointment is the sheer fact that a retired English teacher who obsesses over Shakespeare is not only fully aware of what a "blog" is but has formed an opinion about those who maintain them. It was only a few months ago I was convincing the family in general that I didn't know how to fix the printer even though "yes, I do work with computers...".

So is that ok? How do the digital brethren (I might not have an I-Pod but digital's in my job title) feel about no longer holding all the knowledge now the geeks have inherited the Google Earth but everyone else has got in on the action too?

Personally, I believe, the world will always need the geek...sorry the "digital specialist" because the opportunites and possibilities are truly endless and without the obsessives finding their way we'll simply be lost in space. So I'm happy that everyone else is coming along because it's about time but I'll still be listening to my early adopters, my geeks, my obsessives because there's a bloody long way to go yet...

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Long Tail of Brands...

I'm going to see "The Damned" in concert tonight - the original punk band that apparently had their lime light stolen by The Sex Pistols. I can't profess to hold an opinion on any of this as it was all way before my time but either way I'm off to re-live a youth I never had.

Thing is, as a teenager, growing up in the '60s, '70s or '80s gave you all sorts of groups you could subscribe to with pride - whether you were a mod, a rocker, a punk, a yuppie, disco or goth there were large groups of people similar to you that stood out from the norm and shaped your decade. The brand of every group was clear, for example, the punk stood for anarchy, rebellion and a freedom of spirit and whether or not you were a part of that group you knew the group values and had some level of respect (certainly with hindsight) for what they were doing.

Ever since the mid '90s all this has begun to fade. The half hearted attempt that was "grunge" stood for nothing in particular that I can remember and that was very much my era. You could be led to thinking the brands of youth culture and well and truly dead...

Bollocks. It isn't - or at least I think it isn't. It's just been dragged through the Long Tail Process along with everything else we ever held dear...and it's fantastic. Take a virtual stroll through MySpace, Bebo and the endless others and there are now millions of brands influcencing youth...they are their own. Web 2.0 has given young people the opportunity to create their own brand, to control the pictures, fashion, music and words that they want to be associated with. They no longer have to make do with the brand that "best fits" them because they create their own that is 100% right for them.

They directly network with the people they want to influence, with abrand they create and protect with as much ferocity as any FMCG Brand Manager. Don't believe me? We all do it... When was the last time you uploaded a picture of yourself on Facebook that made you look ugly,dull or stupid? Or changed your status to say "___ is insecure and desperate for your approval"? You just don't - you filter out the rubbish and make sure that the one time this month you did anything of any interest you put it on that profile page quick smart.

Fantastic - the only issue it raises is that we are on the cusp of a new consumer. No wonder brand marketing is a dying art - why would we now align ourselves to a poorly fitting product from a poorly fitting brand when a higher level of personalisation is ever present? I don't want a BMW that puts me in the old fashioned "BMW driver" category...I don't want to match myself to a car brand, I want a car brand that matches my brand.

Brands in business, unlike natural brands, haven't caught up yet - they are one of the last remaining areas of business that have not gone through the long tail yet. Maybe the invention of sub brands by some of the bigger brands shows a slow recognition - choose Tesco's, then choose Finest or Value...but it's a tiny step on the road. Response marketing and products have all adapted in response to the "evolve or die" concept...brand marketing is now faced with the same ugly choice.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Why it isn't working...

Studying "Pyschology of Politics" back in 1999 never seemed more relevant than to satisfy a bizarre curiosity I may have had to find why exactly Hitler was such an arse. I never imagined that it would give me an insight into a particularly nasty paradox currently facing the publishing industry of the late 2000s.

The key learning that stayed with me - a miracle really considering the level of general abuse my brain underwent at Newcastle around the same time - is that the qualites that make someone able to become a leader (ambition, single mindedness, drive, arrogance, self belief) are the EXACT OPPOSITE to those which make some a good leader (a good listener, belief in the group). The more you think about the more true it is, the best leaders the world has ever seen were not born politically ambitious but were either born into it such as Queen Victoria, or thrust into it such as Churchill.

So, bringing this back to the media indutry we are faced with the same paradox. For decades, editors have been employed, lauded, rewarded and loved for being self-opinionated, arrogant, single minded mini-Caesars who believe that above and beyond anything - they are right. Of course, they have to be - if you sell opinion, your opinion, you've got to believe in it. However, in the new age of "Web 2.0", "UGC" and all the other associated buzzwords - a new image of a successful editor is born. One who believes their sole role is to aggregate and help the voice of the consumer, who puts the consumer's opinion first and equal only with that of other consumers. This is an editor who is unassuming, without the need to broadcase their opinion and possibly self-depracating.

The Successful Online Editor and the Successful Offline Editor are 2 ultimately different people and asking one person to be both, successfully is an impossible ask... The solution, whether it be separate people, separate teams, separate companies or a clear idea of offline versus online importance is still not clear