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Weekly Top 5

This week's top news include LinkedIn's growth, integration with Slideshare, Zynga's 'Empires and Allies', Cityville's mobile release, their lawsuit against Vostu, Angry Birds updates, Windows' new SDK, move to HTML5, the new

Nokia Windows Phone, Yahoo's new search tools, potential Hulu acquisition, Google's online reputation management tools, search updates, and adding communication abilities to Chrome.

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Weekly Top 5

PR – Public Relationship

The control a brand has, or rather the lack of it, was evident in two examples I saw recently. Both became viral, one at a very small level, and the other, a huge global one. You must’ve guessed the second one easily enough. Meanwhile, the first was ‘Bros Icing Bros‘ and linked to the Smirnoff brand, unofficially. You can read the details here. The way the game worked – “a person presents a friend (err, “bro”) with a Smirnoff Ice which they must then and there – regardless of time, location or context – take on bended knee and chug the entire bottle. The exception is if that friend himself (or herself) is carrying a Smirnoff Ice – in that case, the original presenter must chug both “Ices””  A case of user generated brand buzz, which perhaps did good for the product and was relatively non-detrimental to the brand.

And there’s the first example, which is easily becoming THE example now, for bad PR. BP – if the spill wasn’t bad enough, there was the spillage – the fake PR account – advice on what/why BP should or should not do with it, the tweet billboards, an old (fake) ad, the ironic sign, the ghastly, ghastly images, the user created logos, a coffee parody, and the post from the man who created BPGlobalPR. BP’s losses as a brand (intangible?) is much more than the real $costs that have been speculated. Meanwhile, it has finally reached out to the @BPGlobalPR account. (While on the topic, do check out Rob Cottingham’s excellent take on the subject)

The only commonality I’m looking at is the user generated content (or discontent). I don’t think this is an area which can be gamed easily. Sure, you can try to manipulate events and people, and search engines, try some good old PR, but there are no guarantees that it won’t boomerang. And I think it holds true across the spectrum – the two cases are polar opposites in terms of magnitude of the event, what the crowd did to it, and what the brand tried to do.

Deviating a bit. I read “Arundhati Roy on ‘War of People‘”, where she took the scope of the Naxal issue into corporate boardrooms, and was immediately reminded of Umair Haque’s latest post titled “Ethical Capital is Capitalism’s new cornerstone“. He defines Ethical capital as “the stock of techniques, tools, and practices not just for creating value, but for defining and refining values, that an economy possesses”, and CSR, social investment, social entrepreneurship etc as the baby steps towards building it. But the corporate world still doesn’t understand the rewiring, as he himself notes. And here’s where we loop back, I don’t think this building of ethical capital can be gamed either.

I can spot an increasing number of efforts – Pepsi’s Refresh Project, their efforts for production sustainability, Nokia’s eco profile for new products, their bicycle charger kit, to name a few. While the cynic in me sometimes disses official CSR, I realise its perhaps a level that has to be crossed before we reach out for bigger things. I also see efforts from the consumer side  –  CarrotMob (via Surekha)

I see all of this as a trend where users are linking the brands they use, and their consumption, to the larger context of their lives and the even larger context of the world they inhabit, and the culture they consume and create. The ‘badges’ have changed, they’d like to associate themselves with brands that accommodate or at least work towards these badges.  In the foreseeable future, I think that brands which understand this will not only align more people on their side, but also have inherent features and processes which would allow them to be transparent, reduce these costly mistakes, and admit to their mistakes without the PR approaches that are drawing flak now.

until next time, PR pressure?

The Fifth Estate?

I remember an almost-discussion on twitter a while back, with shefaly and gkjohn, on whether was a tech company or a media company. The context was the Android getting space on the otherwise bare Google homepage. That would have a reach greater than perhaps most, if not all media giants. And thus I thought about taking a look at what could possibly be the new form of a media conglomerate.

While Google’s dominance in search is complete, social search is another matter altogether, and if we go by Hitwise’s report on web user activity in Australia, social search is poised to overtake search soon. Though this is an Australia specific report and though it does leave room for arguments (YouTube is classified as social search though it is usually categorised as video search) it is definitely a trend. And while this page would give you enough statistics to show that ‘social’ is not really limited to Facebook or even Twitter, and includes everything from blogs to LinkedIn, if I had to choose one company which would be the player to beat in social search, it would be Facebook.

But first, Google. Google is now easily the print industry’s bogeyman, and despite robots.txt wars and pay-walls, Google  continues to explore the territory. From adding FastFlip on the Google News homepage to the ‘starred’ feature which allows you to track stories of your choice on a separate page, thereby lending the algorithm a personal touch, Google is upping the ante on a regular basis. Meanwhile, understanding that its lagging in the ‘social’ space, despite services like Orkut, Google is working on an integrated social strategy using everything from a user’s current network of contacts in Google services to a social search that includes contacts from other networks and from OpenSocial and Friend Connect to supporting OpenID and OAuth, and even having a tweet ranking algorithm now. This could ensure that Google becomes an important part of our social profile soon, though personally I’d think a lot before working on my Google Profile!!

Meanwhile, with over 350 million users, half of whom visit the site daily, Facebook is well placed to throw a spanner in Google’s works. Facebook’s biggest strength is the trust factor it automatically brings to search results because it draws these from a social graph – users and their inter-connections, and its a gigantic data mine. From the link shared earlier, over 2.5 billion photos and 3.5 billion pieces of content (links, posts etc) are shared every month on Facebook. There are 700000 active local businesses are listed. Meanwhile, it is trying to provide tangible business value too, from a conversion tracker to encouraging users to set up their accounts for news reading, it is now trying to dislodge Google from its areas of strength. Google is spread all over the web, and Facebook is a walled garden. But then, it spreads itself with Facebook Connect, which is implemented in 80000 sites engaging 60 million users every month.

January 28th was World Data Privacy day. Google renewed its privacy vows, and everyone must’ve had a good laugh. This kinda explains why. And while Facebook makes claims that its recent updates to Privacy Settings had 35% users thinking about privacy and configuring their settings, revelations like these don’t help.

RWW had a good post on Data Privacy Day on Facebook’s volteface with regards to privacy, which also made me think about the evolution of the web and the two sides of the coin – the convenience of recommendations based on my likes gleaned from my interactions on a network, and the privacy of that data.  The last part of Samir Balwani’s excellent post on Social Media ROI begins to address exactly this area.

A few other players in the game emerge when we look at a larger landscape of web access. The iPhone vs Android vs (you could also say) Symbian/Maemo battle rages, even as 65 million users access Facebook on mobile. Google now has its own operating system and the gPad (concept) pictures are already floating on the net (within a few days of the iPad launch). Nokia, Apple and even old Microsoft, they are all media in themselves too. The common factor is data about us.

The reason why all this is interesting is because unlike the earlier forms of media we have known, neither Google nor Facebook are content creators. They are aggregators of content – from  known publishers from old and new media, and more importantly, from us, the users. Our consumption patterns and interactions will be the data from which marketing insights will be gained. As these networks increasingly become media, the search for revenue models and the trends of using these as marketing/advertising platforms will also increase. This needs to be kept in mind as we spread ourselves across the networks.

until next time, virtual realty :)

Bonus Read: Why Facebook is wrong: Privacy is still important

Newsmakers

Its ironic that I have to start the post this way, but

Disclosure: I work with The Times Group :)

There was some amount of Twitter buzz a couple of days ago on the article carried in the (city edition) Times about Arindam C’s new book selling a lakh of copies in 10 days. This also appeared in a post at “Don’t trust the Indian media”, in the context of ‘paid-for news’. The post dealt with the TV medium primarily, but also noted that in the coming years, consumption will be not be medium specific.

Like I’ve written before in the context of content marketing, the key factor, irrespective of platform, amidst the changing nature of advertisers, publishers and consumers and the relationships between  them is trust.  In a sense regular advertising is also paid-for news, but its form is such that one immediately knows its paid for. With the influx of advertorials and paid-for news, the lines began to blur fast, with  credibility beginning to suffer.

In an increasingly user generated environment (almost all of social media is just that) advertisers (brands) now have a way to source positive content without paying obscene amounts for it. They can find relevant spokespersons who have their niche, but contextually relevant fan following. Of course, on the flip side, finding them is still a task. But they already have a name for it – ‘social influencer relationship management’ 😀 The other point is that even the nature of sharing – blogs/microblogs/statuses are in a constant state of flux. Meanwhile, like Shefaly pointed out in the comments, it is still relatively easy to get away with non-disclosure on the web.

But despite all that, and the fact that I believe in the loop of objective-> idea/strategy-> medium, I’d say that the web is more advanced than other media in terms of content marketing, primarily because user generated content, and discontent, has been an integral part of its evolution. Users, potential users, all talk to each other, and trust evolves. A crowd is involved, conversations happen. Also, with more and more lives being lived with an audience in mind, and people becoming conscious of how they’re perceived online, hopefully it will ‘become too costly to be evil’ (non disclosure)

And that’s why its erm, refreshing, when I see brands making a strategic commitment to the digital space. Pepsi recently junked Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years and has included $20 million in grants for the Pepsi Refresh Project. Some say, its a risk, but to me its about as risky as putting a 30 sec ad that might get trashed. Moreover, its not an isolated thing. I recently read about Pepsi using Foursquare to fund a youth mentoring program called Camp Interactive, which helps youth explore technology and environment. Consistent efforts like this will get them unpaid editorial space and buzz at least in the online space.

Closer home, Nokia is using a digital dominated strategy for N97, in its first 4 months of launch. I liked it because of the reasons stated – “Digital media blends very well with the product features of N97 Mini. Also, the audience to be targeted is all available online.” That sounds like its reasoned out well, though I’d also like to see a similar approach to execution too. There are a couple of things I am hoping for in addition to the obligatory display advertising – that Nokia not make this a short term venture, because though this product might become non priority for them in a few months, the poor sod who bought it will still want to connect with them online. The second hope is that they experiment with content marketing, and go a little beyond the ‘over-the-counter’ blogger outreach stuff.

In the case of Pepsi, its a concept, an idea. In the case of Nokia, they have a product based strategy. In both cases, there is a potential for natural buzz, which to me is the way it should be. Buzz should be a result of a good product/strategy, too many time it IS the strategy, and that is what has caused things like ‘paid-for content’. The bigger hope in all this, of course,  is that an increasing commitment to the evolving digital space will force advertisers and brands to be on the ball, and in that, a better mindset will evolve, one that believes in a two way communication approach, as opposed to blind advertising and paid-for content.

Its interesting that on one hand, networks, brands and individuals are trying to carve out a niche based on trust, using digital media for reach, and on the other hand, we have the news media, the original custodians of trust,  despite guilt , oops,  guild feelings, using their massive reach to push one way communication.

until next time, news making

PS: See you in a fortnight :)