Monday, May 24, 2010

Trusting those who weren't paid to tell you something

On Wednesday to Friday last week I attended Dave Duarte's Nomadic Marketing course at UCT, and on this course I discovered what is supposed to be this year's Next Big Thing, Foursquare.

Foursquare is a social networking platform for mobile that centres around reviewing and sharing knowledge about a city. How it works is that people 'check in' to various spots around their city and leave comments, suggestions, ideas and feedback about the place that they're at. These comments also notify their friends.

So if I want to try a new restaurant out, for example, I would log in to foursquare on my phone and it will tell me where the nearest restaurants are to me right now (via GPS and googlemaps). I don't need to know this beforehand, and so essentially I don't need to have ever heard of the restaurant. As a marketer, it makes me think: is there therefore any value in 'brand awareness'? I don't need to have been bombarded with messages about which restaurants are the best in Cape Town, and I don't need to try and remember information that arrived when it wasn't relevant to me? (ie. when I wasn't looking for a restaurant at that exact moment).

We all know that 92.3% of stats are bullshit, but even so: a vast majority of people (between 70 and 90%) would trust their friends or even strangers over advertising. People have been barking on about the power of word of mouth for years. But now this word-of-mouth functionality is easy, instant and mobile. Assuming foursquare takes off, you will be able to see exactly what everyone (and especially all of your friends) thought of this restaurant just down the road from you.

Obviously, it means that marketing communications can't lie. No more fluff, no more exaggeration. But will there even be a point to advertising? If awareness is of limited value, and reputation is built by delivering something that people value rather than saying anything in particular, then why say anything? Your consumers will do the talking for you.

And what will the role and value of a brand be in the future? Brands are supposed to be shortcuts to make consumer decision-making easier (you don't have to think about the functional benefits or social ingredients of every soap in a store because the brand already stands for something in your mind) - but the route to mass peer reviews is becoming almost as short as the shortcut in your mind.

Granted this only works for location-based businesses at the moment, but I'm sure similar things will emerge for products and services soon. I've loved the platitude that "people are the new media" for ages, but only now can I appreciate what a massive shift this is going to be.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Some real green action in SA

Thanks to a cunning little banner ad on the Mail and Guardian this evening (making me wonder if they are starting to sell their adspace on user behaviour models or interests, and if chrome is mining me for every click and search and rss feed... a topic for another debate, another time) I discovered that South Africa has its very own electric car design. Granted, an electric car is only as clean as the national grid's electricity supply, which, in our case, is hideously filthy thanks to Eskom's obsession with coal. But it's an exciting step towards a cleaner future. Good on the Government and the IDC for the investment!
proteas in the cape floristic kingdom, one of the most biodiverse and threatened kingdoms
And on the same day that I drove past the first enormous wind turbine being erected in Coega. Maybe we won't be the last country to come to the table, after all

Friday, May 7, 2010

The future of Collective Experience

I had a strange thought while debating the growth of closed social networks with a friend this morning: that the only things that offer true collective experience are mass media, and terrorism.

Everyone remembers where they were when September 11 happened. Everyone remembers what they were doing when the London Underground was bombed. Massive and terrible events like that shake us from our little bubbles that we move in. It's not that our lives are isolated - we are more connected than ever before - but our connections are still exclusive; they are determined by shared interests or passions or careers. It takes something like that to make us break out of our closed networks and feel empathy for a larger group.

The other thing that let us do so was mass media. You used to be pretty sure that when you went to school in the morning, your classmates would have watched the same show as you the night before. You could discuss the stupidity of the star-crossed teen lovers characters, or argue over who looked hotter in the beach scene. Tannies had heard the same joke on the radio as their gardener's nephew, and seen the same ad. Mass media was blunt and irrelevant a lot of the time, but the very fact of its inability to target accurately meant it forced people to have collective experiences that had the potential to bring them together. They had something in common to talk about.

As digital media becomes ever more fragmented and targeted, we are fed information and content and shows and advertising that is supremely relevant to us. It taps into our interests and idiosyncrasies. We never have to sit through shows we hate anymore, waiting for something better to come on. But we also never get challenged. We read things about matters we already think about. We chat with people whose opinions we admire or agree with. It's great that we can connect around shared interests with people from around the world. But does it mean we no longer share experiences with the people from a few blocks away?

Is personalised media ultimately divisive, widening the rift between a Constantia trustafarian and a Gugulethu mom? What collective experiences do we have left, other than terrorism or natural disaster, to bring us together and spark our human empathy? We think we're throwing off the shackles of geography and building global community on our own terms, but perhaps the most local connections are the most real and seeing only what interests us limits our ability to grow.