What Happens When They Expect “Fake”?

There’s a lot of hoopla around a “scandal” that has broken out when it comes to transparency.

According to MobileCrunch, a leading mobile communication and technology site, a PR firm called Reverb Communications has “managed to find astounding success on Apple’s App Store for its clients.”  One of their tactics, especially, involves hiring “a team of interns to trawl iTunes and other community forums posing as real users, and has them write positive reviews for their clients.”

This development in itself is startling to some, but in reality, I’m not terribly surprised.  My younger brother, who just wrapped up his college degree in marketing, once had an internship within the mobile gaming industry, and once told me this practice is totally rampant within that community.  Completely commonplace.

For one, there’s a huge issue in subjecting interns to performing unethical communications.  These interns, too eager to please in a hostile job market, are being taught that this is a professional method in conducting online marketing.  Whereas these firms should be teaching basic, standard fundamentals like transparency – methods that ensure that the client whom they hired is protected and that their brand is safe – they’re instead teaching future marketing, communications and public relations professionals how to take shortcuts.  They’re ingraining these types of practices within our industry’s future.

But, I think there’s also a larger issue here.  When talking to my brother about these practices, he essentially told me that these kinds of practices should be expected by the consumer.  He didn’t mean it as a “this is actually an ethical practice” argument, but rather, that younger people (look at me, I’m not even 26, and I’m talking about “younger people”) completely expect these communications to be fake.

For one, it makes a communication professional’s job harder.  The burden of proof is on us to show that what we’re doing is, in fact, real.

For instance, one campaign I’m currently working on is called the Campaign for Quality Services.  It’s about adding the voice of food service workers to the debate around passing an improved Child Nutrition Act (end plug).  In the campaign, since my goal is about adding their voice, I’m striving to ensure that the voice is authentic and prevalent throughout.

In building the site, one of my first goals was to collect quotes and stories from workers – real, actual quotes from interviews and conversations that we shared.  But, what I’ve found is that simply adding the quote to a picture of the worker isn’t enough.  The audience simply doesn’t believe that the quote really comes from that worker whose picture is on my site.  Instead, I’ve found that I have to move to video on various pages.  The burden of proof is simply on me.

So, in essence, when a company isn’t transparent, when they lie about who they are and who they represent, it doesn’t just damage their company, and it doesn’t just damage their clients.  It hurts all of us within the field, who then have to take the next step in creating an environment where we’re believed.

The good news out of this, however, is that it’s situations like this that challenge us, and force us to think outside of the box.  It pushes us to innovate and to strive to create content that is more real and more authentic.  It forces is to really live by the best practices we preach, and to work to develop and discover new best practices.

In that way, perhaps there is some good in these developments after all?


RSS Reader Phobia/An Interesting Experiment

Seems like I’m not the only one who dreads opening up his RSS reader these days (hat tip: Download Squad).

Here’s an interesting experiment: one blogger, Halsted (AKA Cygnoir) has sworn off her RSS reader for an entire week, choosing instead to read blogs the “old-fashioned” way: actually going to the blogs she wants to read at that moment and reading the posts there.

From her blog:

“As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a bit overwhelmed by information right now. In a fit of pique (which just the other day I learned, thanks to FunkyPlaid, is monosyllabic) I decided to stop reading all RSS feeds for a week.

Day 1 has gone swimmingly, perhaps because I spent the majority of it in a workshop. Regardless, I did not check my RSS reader on my iPhone during my lunch break. Email and Twitter were my only two information sources, and I subscribe to the BBC world news feed with the latter, so I have a vague notion of the day’s headlines. I read my book, chatted with FunkyPlaid, window-shopped in Hayes Valley, and started a crossword puzzle.”

Yesterday was “Day 7.”  How’d she do?

“I’ve made my point to myself: I don’t need to keep up with 269 RSS feeds to lead a complete, informed, happy life. Also, I prefer getting my news from communities that encourage participation instead of from one-way news blasts.”

In an age where we’re slaves to the philosophy of “must not miss a single thing,” what kind of consequences are we imposing upon ourselves?  Sounds like we all need a little “web zen” these days.


Stupid Study: Who Do You Trust More, Bloggers Or Friends?

As someone who’s done a few studies during his academic years, one of my favorite concepts is that of the “useless study.”

Would you believe it, there’s a new study out (hat tip to TechDirt) that did some research on online influences. Turns out that our entire social media profession is useless, says the study, because “self-described social media users put far more trust in friends and family online than in popular bloggers, or strangers with 10,000 MySpace ‘friends.'”  So much for our profession, right, social media people?


Of more than 1,100 adults polled in December, nearly 80% said they were very or somewhat more likely to consider buying products recommended by real-world friends and family, while only 23% reported being very or somewhat likely to consider a product pushed by “well-known bloggers.”

“This shows that popularity doesn’t always equate to credibility,” said Robert Hutton, executive vice president and general manager at Pollara (the research group of the study). “Marketers might have to reconsider who the real influencers are out there.”

Yeah…no, it really doesn’t mean that, because you just conducted a stupid study.
How did the study operationalize “popularity,” “credibility” and “influence”?  They didn’t.  They just asked people, “hey, do you listen to blogs more, or your friends?” and then published the results as if they were valid.

What did the study group consider as a “blog”? Were they thinking about the most popular blogs, like DailyKos, Huffington Post, and so on? These are blogs where there’s not much interaction between a blogger and the audience.  They’re popular — but how do we define credibility and influence based on their popularity?  They’re extremely distinct and different concepts, and completely mutually exclusive.  The loudest person may be heard, but they don’t have to have the most influence.

What about blogs like DownloadSquad or Lifehacker?  These are blogs that “recommend” things.  Therefore, they have more influence.  I read these blogs to learn about the “latest and greatest,” and influence what I download and purchase.  Or what about sites like HeatEatReview, that tells me what frozen foods are delicious and what I should stay away from? Or CoolMomPicks, that acts as a pretty spectacular guide for moms?

Another variable: what if I consider the blogger my friend?  I’ve met plenty of people through blogs that I’d consider my friends, but I’ve never met them in person.  So, are they a blogger, or are they my friend?  Because I listen to those people.  If they say, “oh man, you’ve gotta check this out” or “I love this product,” I’m bound to listen.  “Blogger” and “friend” aren’t mutually exclusive, either.

And, really, what is this study?  Who doesn’t trust something more than their “friends?” I trust my friends’ musical recommendations more than I trust the Rolling Stone reviews, so should Rolling Stone shut down? If my friend says, “hey, you’ve gotta try this new cleaning product,” but Consumer Reports says it’s useless, and I trust my friend, should Consumer Reports just cease publication?

Really, I wouldn’t even call this a study.  I’d call it a question.  Study implies that you actually use research methodology.

So, my take?  Ignore this thing.  Please.

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me by my friend (girlfriend, to be exact) that you shouldn’t trust my opinion on this. I’m just a blogger, you know.

[tags]Stupid study, study, studies, influences, social media[/tags]


Using Social Anthropology To Create Resonant Campaigns

Alright!  Just when you thought my “social media and anthropology” series was more of a vapor-series than a real one, I’m back with part two!  In the first post, I was beginning to discuss the role of culture in new/social media, and how we can use anthropology and culture studies in order to produce better and more resonant media campaigns.

Why is this?  When applied to communication, research and knowledge of the target community helps communicators create more compelling strategies, solutions, and messages.   You need to learn how a group shapes its perceptions — and of course, how it expresses itself.  Otherwise, you risk striking a culturally off-key note.

After all, great communications always connect and strike a chord with people.  To me, the main ingredient in a real campaign is a compassion and empathy for my audience.  Think about Bill Clinton’s famous “I feel your pain” appeal.  Why did it connect with people?  Because a great communicator understands that the relationship between what he or she has to say and how it connects with others.

But say you need to appeal to an online community that you don’t really know all that well.  Or say you know about the subject that the bloggers talk about (say healthcare or politics or economics), but you know nothing about the actual online community.  What are you to do when you don’t know the “pain” that a group itself faces?  How can you understand, in-depth, how to appeal to a community?  Or how to even navigate it or get started?

Here’s where social anthropology has always come into play for me — namely one of the core methods of research, called an “ethnography.” (As a side note, in the workplace, I’ve always called this a “blog audit,” because “online ethnography” sounds really lame and really, really nerdy.)  An ethnography, simply, is a research method designed to “map out” a culture, group or community that you wish to learn more about.  Once you conduct an ethnography, you’ll likely know what to “do” and how to “do it.”

How? In anthropology, the ethnography itself is an account of a specific social system.  Included are generally a breakdown of roles, norms, values, motivations, symbols, and other social breakdowns.  The ethnography focuses on detailed observations of what the culture “actually does” — its social behavior, and reasons and motivations behind them.  It’s also extremely systematic, and insights come from a rigorous analysis of systematically collected data (cough, metrics, cough).  The best ethnographies are quite objective.

It’s also not just observation that gets the job done.  Ethnography is also based — and this is key — on a participatory model (are bells ringing in your head, my social media friends?).  Ethnographers take part in cultural events.  Participation lets the research “feel” what it’s like to be a part of the group being studied.  Participation works not only as a means of gaining insight, but trust.  Don’t forget — the social scientist (the “participant”) is also being observed and evaluated as the ethnography is conducted, so participation builds rapport.

The observer-participant model, together, lets social scientists — and in the case that I’m trying to make, us social media people — better able to understand and widen our perspectives on the culture we’re interacting with.  Because of it, we have better analytic insight and a deeper understanding of the culture and what makes it tick.  Once we have that, we can build better campaigns.

In my next post, I’m going to lay out the ethnographic model and map out the “social media equivalent” to these.  I’ll be going from the conceptual, theory-based stuff to the practical “this is how you do an ethnography with an online community.”  And no, don’t worry, it’s already mostly typed out, so expect it soon!


When Less Internet Time Is More

A strange thing happened to me when I moved last week. I had no Internet for six whole days.

A crisis, you’d think. How could a social media guy survive without the Internet for more than ten minutes?

So how well did I hold up?

Pretty damned well, actually.

I went to bed at reasonable hours. I woke up feeling amazingly refreshed and extremely happy and affable. I actually watched TV and paid attention to plots, rather than having it just be background noise. I actually called people on the phone — including my grandma, like a good little 6 foot 4 grandson. I took the time to relax a bit.

Now that Comcast is installed, I’m finding myself mull this over. I’m convinced — totally and utterly — that less Internet time can actually be more. I’ve realized that while I didn’t think I was, I was snacking. I’m realizing that I need more red meat, and less of the Ruffles.

That means making Internet time more valuable to me. That means no staying up late because of instant messaging. The same people will be there in the morning, I’m telling myself.

That means that I’m setting an Internet curfiew for myself. Yes, I’m not kidding.

Could it be? A more disciplined Internet usage? My mood, my sleep and my love of the Internet depend on it, I think.

Let’s see how long it lasts, no?


Getting “Getting Things Done” Done

The Internet has made me really, really, really lazy.  For instance, look at how long it took me to write a new blog entry.

Another case and point: Earlier today, I had to send, get this — an e-mail. Not an e-mail! That takes so much work. You have to open Gmail, click “compose,” and type. That’s like, a whole three steps. Sooooo tedious. It’s pure torture, I know.

Why do I bring this up? A lot of us have been playing with task management and contacts management programs — generally referred to as “Getting Things Done” (or “GTD”), because we’re way too cool to refer to it as something as unhip as “task management” or “contacts management.”

I’ve played with all of them. OmniFocus, Highrise, Things, I Want Sandy. All were tried on the great hopes that they’ll improve my life, make things easier, cause me to not forget a thing or a person, and so on. But they never did catch on with me. Why? Because I’m lazy. And so I stop using them. A few weeks later, something new comes out, and then I try that for a little while — but nothing ever sticks.

But the more I think about it, is it really laziness, or something else?

I think that it’s because it actually becomes more of a chore to enter information in such an amazingly organized way than to just do the work. I call it “Getting ‘Getting Things Done’ Done.” It takes so much time and thought to figure out how to organize the task, “tag” it appropriately, ponder who will be involved, who to invite, how long the task will take — and so on — I just figure, “screw it. I’m just going to make a mental note” or “I’m just going to search my inbox for this contact’s e-mail.”

I have, however, been playing with something cool — I’ve taken Sandy and integrated her with Twitter. So, whenever I want to schedule something or write a reminder, all I need to do is type “d s” into my Twitter client (to directly message Sandy) and then go for it. Whenever I have a meeting coming up, or need to be reminded of something, Sandy sends me a direct message. Pretty hard to forget, and all without a click of the mouse. I’m on day 3 of this set up. I wonder how long it will last.


Social Media and Social Anthropology, Part One: Technological Constructivism

With all of the developing technology and tools, many social media and new media communicators have been bogged down in the role that technology plays. Without seeing the evolution of technology, the view is that you cannot succeed — and that you must adapt to all of these technologies. Technology, it is believed, is the enabler and therefore determines culture — the view is that it is predictable, traceable, and it has effects on societies and their history.

This view is called “technological determinism,” and many people can get lost in the idea. I’ve seen many clients and organizations fall victim to it, and it’s reinforced by popular culture. Subscribing to this idea tends to lead campaigns on a wild goose chase, with no strategy other than to “seize the technology.” The strategy, therefore, usually becomes “well, let’s throw all of these things up against a wall and see what sticks,” and the organization never get the results that they were hoping for. A distrust of the social media realm usually evolves, and the organization concludes that social media is not “worth it.”

I tend to disagree with this deterministic view because I believe more in the role that culture plays in the evolution of technology. Over the last 10 years (yes, I’ve been blogging for a decade), I have seen this to be the case. I believe that there is a distinct reason why the word “social” is used in the phrase “social media,” and therefore, I tend to fall on the other side of the spectrum — called “technological constructivism.” To constructivists, human action shapes technology, which births adapted technology, which is then shaped more by culture, and the process continues. The “enabler” to constructivists is not the technology, but rather the culture behind it — and the culture that shapes how it was created.

Thus, constructivism follows these steps:

1. There is a culture with a need
2. A technology is developed to meet that need
3. The culture consumes the technology in ways that are meaningful to them
4. Consumption habits dictate new needs of the culture
5. Subsequent technological revisions are based upon these habits
6. The pattern continues

Here’s a perfect example: think about how Twitter started. The culture of blogging became more intricate and involved, and the makers of Twitter saw a need for technology that would facilitate and allow a group of people to “micro-blog.” So, they created the Twitter platform — which was initially designed as a “what are you doing?” solution. When we started using it, we began to reshape the utility from “what are you doing?” to the much deeper “what are you thinking?” And thus, the culture was born.

When the Twitter developers saw the type of cultural evolution that was taking place — for instance, our use of “@” — subsequent revisions to the Twitter platform have been programmed to allow this type of culture to flourish. In other words, we made the technology what it is, rather than the technology creating what we now do. This is a clear example of constructivism, because the evolutional trigger was indeed culture.

The constructivist argument can also explains why Pownce never took off as a micro-blogging platform. Pownce was a “second-mover” (meaning that Twitter came first, and then Pownce was created later), and seems to be vastly technologically superior to Twitter. Pownce allows for more diverse means of “sharing” (including files, pictures — much more than just text). But our networks — our “social” networks — remain on Twitter. According to the determinists, Pownce should be the leader in the micro-blogging platform, but it’s clearly not. For most of us, it would take a gravitational shift towards Pownce from our core group of friends to switch to that platform. It’s the network and the people that are valuable to us, not the technology.

So, what does this mean? The constructivist view means that in order to be successful in the “new media” space, we need to refocus our attention from technology and towards culture. Some great leaders in the social media space, like Kami Huyse and Brian Solis, have been pointing out in the last year or so that social media is a lot like social anthropology, and a few of us have had this conversation on Twitter.

Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to explore this concept to a greater degree and with greater detail and elaboration. My goal is to explain why an anthropological approach towards blogger relations and community relations — and with that, social media and the communications realm as a whole — is very much needed, valuable, and will lead to successful campaigns.

Specifically, I’m going to start with the practice of ethnography, which is an anthropological research method based on observation, and explain its value and its techniques. From there, I’ll explain how ethnography and online research should be parallel, and should be, in fact, the same thing. Then I’ll argue the benefits and value of the ethnographic technique towards campaigns, their successes and the overall “bottom-line.”


Super Tuesday Anticipation is Killing Me, But Not As Much As Election Night Coverage Kills Me

I know I’ve gotten semi-political over the last few posts, but it’s because the intensity of the ’08 primary season is making me giddy, nervous, hopeful, and overall, sending me on a little bit of a roller coaster ride.

Super Tuesday is on the way, and with that, there will be a marathon watching of MSNBC (if you look at my last post, you’ll see why I’m not watching CNN.  By the way, I sent a very polite complaint e-mail to CNN and never got a response — no, I’m not being sarcastic, like I usually am…it was quite polite, I swear).  Super Tuesday is kind of like my Superbowl, which will have preceded this two days before.  And since I’m a Giants fan (and a Tom Petty fan for that matter — he’ll be performing during the halftime show), I’m kind of in my Super Glory.

But the election coverage, with all the pundits, is mindnumbingly boring.  You know, how they talk and talk and talk about the same things, and then they bring in Pat Buchanan, who likely shouldn’t talk.  He gets into a fight with Rachel Maddow, then Chris Matthews says something that gives you a brain aneurysm, then they go to their consultants who have usually endorsed a candidate and we hear spin, then they hide the exit polls from us as if we can’t really comprehend things or understand the idea that it’s just a poll.  The schtick is getting boring — which means I’ve been looking for something new to augment those occasional, excruciating moments.  And following a few live-blogs are nice, but they still leave my political belly hungry.

My good friend David Wescott to the rescue.  He and the team at Virtual Vantage Points (an APCO blog that collects feeds, mashes them up, and spits out really interesting community text clouds — with expert commentary on “what’s going on” in these communities from the bird’s-eye perspective) will be live-blogging the events.  The Super Team will consist of former Vice President G.H.W. Bush’s Chief of Staff (Craig Fuller), a former deputy White House press secretary (B. Jay Cooper), and a former ambassador (Marc Ginsberg) — and of course, my good friend and ever-partner-in-crime, David Wescott.  I think that’s a pretty sweet collection of people.

What’s even cooler — and keeps with the “bird’s eye analysis” of Virtual Vantage Points — is that they’ll also be live-blogging the live-bloggers from across the web and live-tweeting the live-tweets.  Give them a “follow” on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SuperTuesday.

I think it’s a great opportunity to get the best-of-the-best, and I’m looking forward to hearing some new (and very welcomed) perspectives.


CNN: Send Us Your Racist Comments, We’ll Post Them On Our Site!

While CNN has been falling out of favor with me (I find them to be extremely sensationalistic, which is why I now gravitate towards MSNBC), I tend to alternate between CNN.com and MSNBC.com throughout the day to find quick news updates. When I headed over to that site just a few moments ago, I found myself some nuggets of pure racist gold.

As part of their I-Report project, where CNN solicits content from their users, they occasionally write “news stories” that are a collection of comments that they receive. Because when I think breaking hard news, I think of an ensemble of demented comments from the readers of CNN.com.

Today, CNN asked their users to submit their reactions towards Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama. Naturally, in order for these reactions to be published, you’d think that these comments would a) be on the topic with Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama (hence the title of the story, “CNN.com users react to Kennedy backing Obama”), or that b) they’d be appropriate.

No. Apparently, that would be giving CNN too much credit.

Take a look at this gem that they actually posted:

“Arnold Burton: ‘No wonder Obama won in South Carolina. Fifty percent of the voters were black. The African-Americans of South Carolina would vote for any black, no matter what lack of experience the candidate possesses.'”

Or this one:

“Eric Woodruff: ‘Obama has all the support he needs from the elitists in the media. There is not one single candidate who gets as much media support as him. … Is it because of the issues he champions? Is it because he supports universal health care? No, its not any of those reasons. The media supports him for one single reason. That reason is this: He is black.'”

Here’s what I want to know: why is CNN allowing their website to be used as a forum to promote racism? Why are they allowing the kind of comments that insinuate that “black” people’s votes don’t count as much as “white” people’s votes or that their opinions should matter less? It’s despicable, pure and simple.

Also, the last time I checked, Barack Obama is bi-racial, and is just as “white” as he is “black.” Just wanted to throw that in there, too, since this is apparently a concept that many people — including CNN — cannot grasp.

[tags]CNN, racism, racist, Barack Obama, prejudice, media, black, white, bi-racial[/tags]

Gallup: Opening Up The Electoral Process With Social Media

The great “predictors” of “what’s next” are always looking to tout “the next thing.”

2008, in particular, is rumored to be the “Year of Open Data.” 2008 also happens to be, I don’t know if you’ve heard, a presidential election year. I know, hold back your surprise. You must be asking yourself, “why hasn’t anyone told me this?”

Enter Gallup.  Gallup is one of the biggest collectors of data. You know them. They’re the “polling people.” They poll everything under the sun. Politics. Economics. Health care. Government. You name it, they know what people think about it. And they’re starting to open this process up to the online community. It makes sense: the online realm is public opinion at work — it’s the new “town hall,” as the cliché goes.  Gallup is a leader in measuring and discussing public opinion. It’s a natural fit.

Recently, they’ve already began to enter the social media realm by producing some top-notch video-based “daily briefings” that they post on both their website and on YouTube (which makes it quite embeddable on blogs — a good move on their part).

But they’re also starting to open up their data and their experts in a really great way. They’ve started a round of conference calls with bloggers and online opinion leaders, featuring their editor-in-chief, Dr. Frank Newport. I had the opportunity of attending the second call in this series yesterday, along with Mark Blunmenthal, the editor of Pollster.com. I was able to ask a few questions, namely about the record turnout on the Democratic side of the primaries and how it may be affecting polling accuracy, as well as the youth vote and cell phones (something I’ve always wondered about).

Dr. Newport was very candid in his responses, and gave some very satisfying answers. He explained, for instance, that there are several pockets/groups of citizens who “care” much more than they have in previous elections, and obviously that affects turnout. When there is a much more randomly distributed vote, polling accuracy isn’t as affected as when there is a non-random distribution. Makes sense once he explained it, but what’s great is that I was able to actually ask these questions.

It’s a great opportunity, and it has the potential to really open up the electoral process. We bloggers are always asking “why?,” and this is a great way to ask it.

I see this benefiting the online community in some very specific ways:

  1. As bloggers, we’re hungry for primary sources. This provides us with not only great data and video content, but allows us to interview experts.
  2. We get to understand polls, in-depth. We’re used to news shows reporting basic numbers that flash on the screen (who’s up, who’s down), and they don’t give us more than a snapshot with minimal data. But now, it can be more than just the simple “horse race” numbers that are taken at face value.  We can really explore, understand issues that matter, how these issues matter and to whom, overall trends, and possible outcomes.
  3. Bloggers can see how the issues that they discuss/care about fit into the larger picture, with a simple question.
  4. Polls can become more approachable. They can be interpreted for us by the expert. It can be as wonky as we’d like, or as down-home as we’d like.  For instance, Mark Blumenthal and I are on very different levels of understanding with polls.  Mark asked some specific, in-depth questions about sub-groups and longitudinal cross-what’s-it-analyses, and I asked some very basic questions about accuracy and methodology.

I really enjoyed this open process, and I see a great benefit for it. I’ll more than likely be attending these calls from now on, and perhaps you should join me. We should all hear about how the issues we care about play into the larger public opinion.