A couple weeks ago, I attended the first-ever TEDxEast conference, and found a remarkably consistent theme to several speakers’ presentations. The notion of consumers and the public interacting with brands, concepts, and issues, in a manner that ultimately shapes the evolution of brand experiences, urban environments, and even creative thought and performance.
There’s a spirited debate in the design and marketing industry surrounding the pros and cons of crowd-sourcing design work, and even advertising. The topic’s been covered extensively, from WIRED to Mullen’s Edward Boches. I’d argue the Victors and Spoils approach delivers a more professional process, and potentially final product, than does 99Designs, crowdSpring, and others offering crowd-sourced creative — but others may disagree. I believe there will always be a market for exceptional creative, at fees appropriately reflecting this quality of thinking and product.
Companies from Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, to Pepsi/Mountain Dew, and others, are experimenting with the concept to harness innovation and creativity from the masses. For some, like Netflix, it’s a fearless approach that has proven to be marketing brilliance in achieving its goal of refining and advancing new video recommendation technology.
At TEDxEast, discussions covered everything from citizen journalism (i.e. Rachel Stern of Ground Report); to public participation in urban planning – for transportation or common spaces (Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives); to crowd-sourced fundraising for the arts (Perry Chen of Kickstarter); to a mesmerizing performance by Chris Elam of Misnomer Dance Theater, who challenged the audience to become more connected and involved in sharing their experiences with artists to influence creative vision and direction in more meaningful manifestations of art and ideas.
White’s vision of an automobile-free urban commons re-defines public spaces via transportation alternatives, and importantly, the public’s role in assuming responsibility and ownership, and in creating true communities, within the new greener environments that result.
In the same vein, speaker John Wood’s “Room to Read” odyssey led him to developing countries with the goal of crowd-sourcing literacy. He secured grassroots funding for 7,000 libraries and 765 schools; the sweat equity of local communities to build those structures; and local talent in the form of volunteer writers, authors and artists to make his dream a reality for more than 3.1 million children in 9 countries to date.
In Elam’s words and world, the audience becomes an active participant in broadening and re-envisioning what it means to be an audience member (or one could argue, a consumer). The simple act of carrying “the world in your pocket” in the form of smart phones, and via social media channels, creates more dynamic and immediate ways than ever to engage and participate in your experiences, and ultimately with brands directly. Clearly, Comcast, Dell, Zappos, and countless businesses using Twitter for customer service and promotions in driving sales and satisfaction, would agree. But it’s a novel and intriguing concept when applied to artistic performance.
This new hyper-connected mobile world we live in will amplify and extend audience and consumer engagement with the world, and fuel renewed brand experiences. We might as well get used to it, embrace it even. We are our own influentials. Branding as a push concept that is inviolable, as it’s historically been, is dead. The new branding is one of push and pull, engagement and dialogue, and increasingly participative and experiential in nature.
In walking out of the TEDxEast conference, I checked my email and found a message from a trusted Twitter friend who was crowd-sourcing blogposts for a particular charity to coincide with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. As a potential online donor, hoping to engage a community of online donors in the effort, I was happy to oblige. And not at all surprised by the request.
Last week, I attended the first-ever “Swagapalooza,” which was billed as an “experiment in viral media” and allegedly featured the world’s most-followed bloggers, twitterers, and digital influencers, all gathered at a nightclub in Manhattan to review new companies showcasing their products and services.
As we know, swag bags (or “goodie” bags) are often superficial aspects of an industry conference, awards banquet, benefit, or other event. At Swagapalooza, far from being an afterthought, they’re the Main Event. Nobody in attendance was pretending this was anything more than a series of shameless, promotional plugs by entrepreneurs. All documented in real-time in a meta, self-referential style by a live Twitter-feed broadcast on a monitor immediately to the right of presenters onstage. The effect was an entertaining social media Gong Show of sorts. Live tweets ranged from hysterical and often harsh commentary on speakers, products, and audience members… to annoyingly distracting asides — depending on your perspective.
PR’s come a long way, baby. In the New PR, the free stuff is the new “pitch” or newshook. The bloggers are the new journos. But for emerging businesses presenting at the event, which included mSpot, Switch2Health, Surprise Industries, and Bruise Relief among others, it was an opportunity to introduce and market their products with the goal of creating a buzz online via social media channels. It remains to be seen what the impact will be on their brands and bottom lines, but considering the virtually zero level of investment of all involved, it’s hard to see a downside. Any return at all will be a bonus. Can’t beat that, especially in the current economic environment.
The fresh-faced organizer of the more than 200 people selectively assembled for this Swagapalooza experiment was 24-year old Alex Krupp, who conceived the concept with advice from Seth Godin. In keeping with the theme of the event, the keynote presenter was Peter Shankman, a PR entrepreneur who boasts experience with viral experiments of his own. Shankman’s latest endeavor applies an efficient crowd-sourcing type model to connecting reporters with sources for their articles. For those unfamiliar, Help-A-Reporter-Out (@helpareporterout) enables anyone on an opt-in email distribution list to receive nearly a hundred queries daily from media seeking interview sources. I confess to using the service to promote our clients, as well as securing visibility for our own business where we have a relevant voice to add to a story.
The event was nothing if not innovative. An illustrator from Image Think, also a presenter, worked in real-time to capture a “graphic recording” to document the proceedings for posting online afterwards. The result was a fascinating visual map summarizing presenters’ products and key messages.
Participants of the swag-meet seemed delighted with the outcome so far. Voyage TV, a travel company giving away a free trip for a winning tweet of 140 characters or less detailing a dream vacation, tweeted “Home run at #Swagapalooza! Big news soon” before the crowd was barely out the door.
Undoubtedly, Swagapalooza will raise the ethical bar for bloggers who review consumer products. The blogosphere has been buzzing for months with debates on the ethical implications of accepting corporate “sponsorships” of blog content. Absolute transparency in disclosing when bloggers and other digital cognoscenti receive free products is a must for any subsequent or related commentary referencing said brands and products on blogs, tweets, or anywhere else.
One could view the event as a step closer to removing objectivity and credibility from the blogging community, who claim to evangelize the concept of authentic engagement with the public and consumers. Indeed, the temptation to blog for no better reason than landing more swag looms large.
Swagapalooza participants, however, took a leap of faith in coming at all, considering the concept was little more than getting bloggers to show up for free stuff. For now, I’m willing to give this new form of event marketing the benefit of the doubt. You could even say I’m looking forward to its next iteration.
Oh, and full disclosure: I took home no swag. At least, not this time around.
Having watched the unfolding of news and events following the election in Iran, Twitter has won my renewed respect. Simply put, it brought truth to power. In a more compelling and impactful way than its ever done before. And clearly, in a way that no other channel or mouthpiece for factual information can match – in both its sheer volume as well as in its eyewitness accuracy of the often-gruesome details. This is true whether considered from a historical perspective, or even in the real-time 24/7 news-cycle that we expect and demand of our media sources today.
Our international neighbors can no longer gain a propaganda advantage by seizing control of traditional media channels to influence or stifle information on activities and developments within their borders. Not with the proliferation of computers and cellphones among the masses, even among those formerly most oppressed. And especially given the ease with which we can broadcast anything and everything, whether text or images and video, from applications readily accessible and available via any desktop or mobile device. Technology trumps ignorance, and in this case, repression and perhaps outright fraud.
Like many, I’ve questioned the true, measurable value of Twitter, from a marketing and business perspective at minimum. Clearly, some companies are in fact managing to derive significant benefits from the messaging platform. Dell’s recent announcement that Twitter users have spurred $2-3 million in sales for the computer manufacturer is a convincing case-in-point. Small businesses have optimized heavily social media such as Twitter to attract new customers (see Naked Pizza). For others, it’s a virtual customer service channel, or effective tool for monitoring buzz and consumer chatter on their brand or products.
But the Iranian election has vaulted Twitter’s utility as a real-time communications tool to unforeseen heights, and bestows true credibility for any remaining doubters. Twitter’s myriad uses include its evolution into a subversive media channel for distributing or receiving critical information, and much like the growth of the World Wide Web from its infancy, through reliance on an army of grassroots citizenry who sustain and support its use and expansion. A global grassroots communication infrastructure available virtually round-the-clock, at no cost to those who seek to gain or participate in the content exchanged among users. Including for the U.S. government, whose Department of State relied on it as a primary source of intelligence on post-election developments in Iran. And for traditional media outlets, like CNN, which a recent Daily Show segment parodied for its unfettered use of Twitter feeds to replace actual reporting and investigative content after the Iranian government’s crackdown on media.
Twitter continues to push the envelope in evolving the role of media in society. In the beginning, its advantage was its immediacy of reporting news events, though the Mumbai bombing and Hudson River plane landing incidents are in the distant past – in Twitter time anyway. Back then, media and public detractors carped that 140 characters were insufficient to provide a meaningful, or sometimes even factual, account of these significant news events. Despite the downsides, Twitter remains a powerful tool for communicating news instantly and from the ground. Who would have thought that only months later, the public and media alike would depend on Twitter as the single functioning news source for this defining moment in international politics.
As noted by a panel of reporters and media during the well-attended “140 Characters” Twitter conference in NY this week, even the media concedes that the “Twitter effect” often improves their performance and their final product. If nothing else, it succeeds in getting people to take notice and pay more attention to the world around them.
I daresay Twitter is starting to grow up. And though it’s taken some getting used to for a skeptical Twitter user of a couple of years now, I’m feeling a bit like a proud parent. Here’s hoping we’ll continue to see similarly inspiring uses of social media, whether for more effective marketing to new customers, or for plain ole’ communication sake. Tweets have finally come of age.
I recently engaged in a lengthy Twitter dialogue (as lengthy as that gets) with Robert French, @rdfrench , an insightful teacher of public relations at Auburn University. Our topic? The biggest changes occurring in PR during the past ten years.
His question got me thinking. We read every day about another newspaper or magazine calling it quits, as traditional publishing struggles to create a sustainable business model in this brave new world of social media. Print and broadcast media have been segmented, de-fragmented, and literally co-opted by new media tools, technologies, and platforms. Readers and viewers do everything from create and interact with content via blogs, YouTube, vlogs, Flickr, Twitter, Digg, et al, to control where and how they view content both online or off, via Tivo, Hulu, and the rest. You literally can’t keep up, no matter how fast you’re tweetin.’
My take? PR hasn’t changed nearly enough in the past decade. PR should be leading its own industry evolution to adapt to the wild, wild west of social media. Are we doing enough? The old rules no longer apply.
As an old-school PR vet, I began my career building contact databases consisting of thousands of reporters, editors, and producers… clearly, the ground has shifted under our feet. The shift happened subtly, yet with profound implications for the PR business. Does it still make sense to use news releases as a core tool of outreach? If real-time, personal communication blasted out 24/7 in the form of mobile data is now the norm, should we still focus our resources and priorities on how media used to function in producing news content for our society?
Today’s social media environment demands collaboration and engagement with your audiences. Often directly, no media required. There are great examples of pioneering new efforts to inform and mobilize the grassroots via social media. Witness the Obama campaign. Ditto for boutique PR agencies forging new paths, whether harnessing social media for clients (@TDefren at SHIFT Communications, @briansolis at FutureWorks) or achieving remarkable success as “virtual” operations (@missusP at PerkettPR). This ain’t your grandfather’s PR, kids.
As the latest imbroglio over Skittles’ home-page-cum-Twitter-newsfeed experiment attests, one can always get attention. In the old world, all publicity was good publicity. By that measure, Skittles’ execution was brilliant. By today’s standards… it’s a lot less clear. PR practitioners need to cede control. Accept that “engaging” may be the new PR, as much or more so than educating and influencing. How about focusing on helping clients create and produce original content, whether blogs or otherwise? Craft stories designed for them to interact directly with their customers via social media. Help them identify whom to target in social media conversations, how, where, when and why. In short, facilitate and enable conversations. Then get out of the way.
Would love to see some of the behemoths in the PR industry (you know who you are) take a leadership role in re-defining PR for this new era of communication and marketing. Not by attaching a “new/social media” arm or other reactionary move, but by reconstructing the business with social media integrated at its core. We’ve made progress, but still have a long way to go. Who knows, maybe we’ll even improve and evolve our own image as a profession in the process.
What are your ideas for the new PR?