Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Logic of Crowds

“It’s all about me,” went the rallying cry of web 2.0. The governing principle was empowerment of the individual – Facebook pages about me, my MySpace, people following me on Twitter. As we move into an evolutionary world where terms like web 2.0, 3.0 and beyond are increasingly meaningless, I have to ask: “is it still all about me?”

Here let me suggest something a little subversive:

it has always been all about you (and me)

Communicators talk about “the people formerly known as audiences,” as though a great emancipation has begun. While the term, ‘audience,’ implies passive listening – audentia (Latin for ‘hearing’), it’s not as though the willingness to engage in a conversation has been absent. After all, the term ‘audience participation’ was first coined in 1940 when communications largely meant radio, film, newspapers and magazines. There has always been the theoretical potential to talk back to the creators of the media content you just consumed. Of course there was that niggling need to master film production or learn how to operate a printing press, but still… I had this toy printing press when I was a kid and ran my own newspaper until the crushing tedium of manual typesetting took the fun out of it. That’s talking back.

In the 1940s this man (Paul Lazarsfeld) came along:

He looked at communications during an election and found that, rather than media reaching audiences directly, it was mediated by opinion leaders... kind of like 'early adopters' of information. This led to his two step flow theory that looks something like this:

This is quite obviously not wholly the case any more because (a) opinion leaders have proliferated (including previously marginalized voices), (b) individuals are now in contact directly with each other, thanks to social media and (c) they're talking back more easily, thanks to technology.

Two step flow is dead. I've just shown you why. Instead we have a different environment that's less about the relationship between monolithic mass media entities and the individual and more about the individual and the communities he or she belongs to.

You're probably wondering when I'll stop pontificating and say something useful. How about right now? Let's start with a basic situation analysis:

  • Audiences are not so much fragmented as completely splintered
  • For all the talk about individuals and individualized communications, audience segmentation is still an effective tool
  • Audiences are self-organizing into groups (and companies like Seesmic are really enabling it)
  • Groups fill a 'bridging function,' connecting to other groups, borrowing ideas and content from each other
  • Understanding how groups (or 'communities,' if you prefer) work, who belongs, how they connect and talk provides insight into message flow and penetration
Let's look at one approach to this. Twitter is based on the individual, whether a person, an organization or a brand. To be really useful to the communications planner we need to see a bigger picture. Some sort of aggregation has to happen. That's where Tinker comes in. It's a service that enables you to follow events, not just individuals. It gives you a broader view of the chatter (sorry... buzz) going on about stuff that interests you and your organization. You get to see the connections between people and groups. Cool, no?

So yes, it's still all about me but that's not particularly helpful for communicators trying to do our jobs - getting the message out. It now has to also be all about communities.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Social Media Kindergarten

I've just posted a presentation to SlideShare about social media. It's a basic introduction intended for folks in the health sector but applicable to anyone looking for a quick understanding of what it's about and how to get started. Not that I'm hard-selling here but there's a bunch of other good stuff I've posted to SlideShare that may also prove interesting.

Communicating Through a Disaster - What We Can Learn From Mine Crises

Crisis communications is sort of like an acid test both of your mettle as a communications professional and of your organization's readiness to face the unthinkable.

I recently took a close look at three recent mine disasters in the US - very visceral events with lots going on before, during and after the crisis. The full article is here. An edited version of this paper will soon be published in Mining magazine.

For me the interesting part was digging into the anthropological aspect of death and how that shapes communications (or should shape it). Here's a cool article on the topic from the guy I quoted in my article. In the future I'll likely blog about the interplay of anthropology and sociology in audience understanding. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Kucha Pecha...

Pecha what? That was my reaction. I took Japanese in university but it's all rusted away into nothingness so I had no idea what this term meant. Turns out it's just a coined phrase meaning something like 'chit-chat.' It did come out of Japan but it's spread all over the world. Anyone with something to say is experimenting with this sort of intense presentation approach.

Functionally Pecha Kucha is a pretty cool idea. You might find it similar to the Ignite method (there's a discussion of it on Presentation Zen).

It's like speed-dating for presenters. You have a finite amount of time to tell your story in as compelling a way as possible.

- 20 slides

- 20 seconds a slide

- 6 minutes 40 seconds to deliver your presentation

Underpinning the idea is a belief tha
1. presentations have a finite length - this is good because our attention spans are finite
2. presentations are for presenting - they are not texts. They are intended to support a speech.

Communications is about persua
sion. I want to bring you around to an idea, equip you to do something or just think differently. It seems to me then that communications, whether social or otherwise, is really all about marketing. And marketing is about making a pitch.

I learned this in investor relations. I would use video, slide motion, cool graphics... anything to keep bums in seats. I also found that, after 20 minutes, all those brilliant MBA-holding investment banking types would tune out, their notebooks would close and the muted clicki
ng of Blackberries would intensify. We had lost the audience.

I did a little research and found out that the average fund manager or institutional investor sits through at least two of these presentations a day. In places like Zurich fund managers never have to buy their own lunches - they just go to investment roadshows. I guess it's kind of like
sitting through a time share pitch to get a cheap vacation.

Many presentations fail to capture the audience in the first place. You don't even have a chance of losing them 'cause you never had them. Your presentations bore them.

In the old days before motion pictures, people traveled from town to town giving 'magic lantern' presentations. People like adventurer Richard Haliburton would talk about exotic places and voyages and illustrate their lectures. That's right, illustrate. No bullet points, no graphs, no text in 4 pt. Pictures to help them tell a story. That's what presentations are all abou

It's time to liberate Powerpoint. Watch Al Gore present in An Inconvenient Truth. Check out one of my favourite presentations... on strip malls (required viewing for all 905 dwellers). Come out to one of the Pecha Kucha nights (there's a group in Toronto). Make your own tight presentations.

I'm not shilling for Pecha Kucha nor am I advocating a purist world of 20 slide presentations. I'm just saying make shows that entertain and inform. Be a presenter. If your audiences wanted to read your presentation they would have stayed home. Give them something that was worth coming out for.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Some Longish Thoughts on Short Content

Hello. If you're one of the folks who followed me over from Ning to Google Blogger, thanks for trailing after me. If you're just dropping in, thank you too. FYI, Communications Hell is intended to be a place where interesting communications situations are dissected and, with any luck, some useful learning gets generated. In the coming weeks I'll be porting content from the Ning site over here. Of course if you want something looked into or have some experiences to share, drop me a line.

Short content. You know where I'm going with this. But no, this is not just another article on Twitter and truncated texts. I'm not going to go into excruciating technical detail about how to roll out a Twitter strategy (you'll have to pay me for that!). Instead I'd like to propose a way of thinking of this form of communication.

I used to think that Twitter was just Facebook
for folks with ADHD but events in Moldova forced me to a sobering reconsideration.Moldova - wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is one of those dreadful post-Soviet states whose leadership ran it like a corrupt little fiefdom.

Earlier this year the ruling Communist Party just happened to win another election in a landslide. A journalist, Natalia Morar, used Twitter, blogs and text messaging to organize resistance to the government.

A series of protests rocked the capital as 'flash mobs' formed and descended on pre-arranged meeting places. While the government didn't fall, a crack of sorts formed and there's a glimmer of democratic light peeking through. It reminded me a little of Joe Trippi's chronicle of the Howard Dean campaign, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Once again, I am forced to point out that we can't confuse the technology platform with the behaviour it enables. Twitter is good enough for now. So is text messaging. Both will be replaced by something else as technologies evolve. But the way we use brief messaging is what is interesting. If you remember, text messaging was an afterthought, a bonus feature added to mobile phones. No one expected that it would be so ubiquitous. It's a reflexive mode of communication for anyone with a mobile phone. Twitter, while not ubiquitous (yet) is redefining how we want to communicate.

So what is the behaviour? Simply put, a way of condensing our conversations. We strip the message down to the bone.
Immediacy and simplicity characterize this genre of communication. The best of 140 character Twitter messages are pithy, focused on le mot juste. The worst are just garbage, random assortments of clumsy txt abbrvs. wrttn by the sblitrit. I quite like the 140 character music reviews found on Musebin. Here's one for Tom Waits' Mule Variations CD:

A record about dogs, horses, old houses and ugly stories told with a piano, a sax and haunting percussion that, by the end has you howling.

What can we learn from Musebin? For one, it's useful. Music reviews are consumed by folks needing to make a decision - should I go see Tom Waits in concert or get this CD? Help me make that decision but don't make me wade through a 1,000 word review. Get to the marrow of it... in 140 characters.

For media companies and agencies, the question is often 'how do we monetize this genre of communication?' On the client side the issue is more 'how we integrate it into our communications planning?' While I have some ideas about how folks (aside from Twitter itself) will make money from this form of communication (check out Sawhorse Media to get some ideas), I want to deal with the second question.

Utility - this is one thing often missed by people who think: our organization needs a Twitter strategy. What can you tell me via Twitter that I really want to read? Why are you interesting and relevant to me? This is a vital consideration. Unlike conventional advertising (which can often survive on flash), Twitter has to really do something - entertain or supply something useful. For example, Sarvodaya, a Sri Lankan relief organization, uses Twitter to keep folks abreast of relief efforts.

When you are planning the Twitter piece of your strategy you need to ask yourself - what appetite does our audience have for our musings? What will motivate them to follow us? Often it's the nakedness or the wit of the conversation. Is your organization adventurous enough to talk like that or are you cautious? Or, if you use it as to drive folks to fuller content elsewhere, is that content good/valuable? Can you deliver on that consistently? I return to the ADHD idea - dull Tweets make audiences scatter quickly. For the love of God, don't be boring.

But what about resource allocation? Those who are seduced by Twitter often over-allocate their communications people and dollars without considering what share of voice it really has. The Moldova revolution was composed almost entirely of under 25s. If you are focused entirely on this demographic then by all means pile in but if you need to connect with other segments then some sober thinking (and parceling out of the budget) is needed.

Will Twitter revolutionize how we talk to each other? Um, no. But it's a symptom of a new(ish) way of communicating, another channel to engage your audiences. Sure you can change the world with Twitter (on occasion). You can sell more stuff too. But perhaps a more modest goal would be a more authentic conversation.

For the record, I bought that Tom Waits CD based on the Musebin review.

PS Send me your best and worst of Twitter strategies and executions. I'll feature them in a future post.