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Social media may be creating a generation of dummies

I blog, therefore I am?

Steve Rubel is SVP, Director of Insights for Edelman Digital, and a social media and marketing thought leader.  I respect him tremendously.  But when interviewed recently by Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson on their podcast For Immediate Release, he said something that disturbed me profoundly.  He mentioned that he had given up his standard blog and was now only micro-blogging.  The reason, he said, was that people no longer have the time to read.

He’s wrong.  It’s not that people no longer have the time to read.  It’s that they no longer have the desire to read.  Because they don’t think it’s important.  That’s disturbing.

But what’s even more disturbing is the apparent readiness of thought leaders in social media to accept this fact and by words and deeds to further encourage it.  When instead they should be leading the discussion that this is something we should perhaps be concerned about.

Why be concerned?

Because ideas, analysis and opinion usually require more than 140 characters.  Because a successful society needs a citizenry that can think, and evaluate the validity of an argument.  I’m not saying that every member of the population needs to make The Journal of Foreign Affairs his or her favorite Sunday afternoon reading.  But I do think the greater the number of people who are at least capable of reading an article in The New York Times from start to finish, without becoming confused or disinterested, the better it will be for our country and the world in general.

Democratization of the creation and distribution of information is great, but what good is it if we’re creating a generation of information consumers that is intellectually incapable of separating the informational wheat from the chaff?

Unfortunately, by word and deed, there’s much that goes on in the web 2.0 world that I’m concerned may be breeding a generation of dummies.

Words and deeds that bother me

Our infatuation with all things visual vs. written word

Don’t get me wrong.  I love YouTube as much as the next man. But although pictures may speak louder than words, they don’t necessarily speak more intelligently.  My concern has less to do with video itself – after all, there is fantastic video content on TED Talks – but that so much video favors the superficial, the snackable. With people becoming seduced by the endless amount superficial, snackable video out there, they are developing an appetite for content, and only for content, that is the intellectual equivalent of cotton candy.  And soon their systems won’t be capable of digesting anything else.  The philosopher said Cogito ergo sumI think, therefore I am,  not I snack, therefore I am.

I also believe, though I have no scientific evidence to prove it, that there is a greater depth of involvement with information when we take the time and apply the concentration required to read something.  We also may stop, and ponder a paragraph, before reading further, which we’re less likely to do when watching video.

Our obsession with churning out content – twitter posts, blog posts, comments – for the sake of our Google juice

Does anyone talk about quality vs. quantity anymore?  We’re all suffering from information overload.  But the sad thing is that a good deal of the overload is sifting the garbage from the stuff worth engaging with.  How about posting a little less, and thinking a little more?

Giving in to the lowest common denominator

This is what Steve Rubel has done.  And when a thought leader like Steve does it, it’s doubly concerning.  It’s what the TV network news stations did two decades ago, turning organizations that had formerly helped to inform and intellectually empower a nation into a mirror in which the nation’s most unflattering features were merely reflected.

The dismissal of learning for learning’s sake

Lately I’ve heard buzz among social media “thought leaders” about the worthlessness of a college education.  “Nothing that I learned in college prepared me for what I do to day.”  The first thing I would say to that is, if most of what you’re doing today are the kinds of things I’ve written about above, then that reflects more poorly on you than your college education.

I would agree that there is much I learned in college that is no longer relevant to what I do today.  But the most important things I learned are more relevant than ever.  I learned how to think, I learned the importance of investigating opposing points of view, I learned critical analysis, and I learned to value intellectual integrity.

And as far as the “no longer relevant” things are concerned, that’s beside the point.  College was a time of exploration and discovery, of things I might learn and become, and  things I wouldn’t.  I am thankful that I had that opportunity, an opportunity many never have the privilege to enjoy.

What we can do?

Well for one, we can start talking, as I am in this post.  And encourage further conversation.  The more we talk and discuss, the more this discussion will spread.  And if it even gets one person to start thinking about the importance of getting a complete picture on an issue, reading different points of view about it, or in general just taking the time to read and be exposed to different ideas and perspectives, and thinking critically and thoroughly about stuff – well that’s a good thing.

I wish more of us would resist the temptation to post, post, post – flooding the blogosphere, Twittersphere etc. with endless streams of information, half of it bogus, self-promoting, superficial or simply spam.  Post when you have something useful to say, or found something that you have taken the the time to read and come to a conclusion as to whether it’s really worth spreading or not.  If not, use that time posting for something more worthwhile — like reading.

Break free from you own compulsion to read and follow everything and everyone.  My God, how can you possibly follow more than a few hundred people on Twitter and not feel overwhelmed.  Be selective, be critical, take the time to really read what people are sharing with you and make decisions about which of those people are really worth hearing from.

Keep blogging, and podcasting, not just micro-blogging.  Big ideas, themes and points of view require more than 140 characters.  If all we feed our audiences is the equivalent of intellectual cotton candy, then we are accessories to the crime of turning their minds into mush.

Finally, talk about this.  Share your thoughts with others.  The more people talk about this, the more we can help to create a web 2.0 culture that still values quality of thought and writing, intellectual discipline and integrity, and validation of sources, facts and information.  And to cultivate a web 2.0  community that doesn’t simply surf,  snack and spread, but thinks, analyzes and informs.

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On Digg, related content appears next to your ad, instead of your ad appearing next to related content

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Digg is experimenting with a new ad format it’s calling Digg-fed content ads.  When you place this new kind of banner ad on Digg, it appears with links to former stories from the Digg homepage relating to your product or category or the interests of your prospective buyers.  Let’s say you’re advertising a food product with an ingredient that’s believed to reduce cholesterol.  Your banner ad could contain links to former Digg stories that support your claims of cholesterol reduction.

Sounds like an interesting way to monetize by leveraging the specific qualities of Digg’s information aggregation and rating model.  Digg thinks “ads will feel more relevant (and thus work better for brands) if they feature the kind of content we look for online.” I guess that’s true, because they provide the reader with background information, immediately accessible, that can help him or her evaluate assertions or claims made in the ad.  On the other hand, the advertiser can apparently control which links show up, and which don’t, which means the featured Diggs won’t necessarily paint an objective picture.  It also blurs the boundaries between the traditional separation of editorial and advertising content.

I thought the whole thing is also an interesting twist on the Google model of ads showing up next to related content.  In the Digg model, the content shows up next to the related ad.

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Said the advertising to the academic, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”

I’m a little late to this one but I’d like to share some thoughts all the same.

Last March, Eric Clemons, who is a professor at the Wharton School, one of America’s top business schools, wrote a post on TechCrunch entitled “Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet.” It caused quite a stir.  Professor Clemons’s key thesis is that online advertising will ultimately fail.  There will be less of it in future because in today’s interconnected world, people don’t want, need or trust ads.

While the piece’s title refers to online advertising, Professor Clemons goes further:

“… simple commercial messages, pushed through whatever medium, in order to reach a potential customer who is in the middle of doing something else, will fail.  It’s not that we no longer need information to initiate or to complete a transaction; rather, we will no longer need advertising to obtain that information.  We will see the information we want, when we want it, from sources that we trust more than paid advertising.  We will find out what we need to know, when we want to make a commercial transaction of any kind.”

Earlier in the post he asserts that “the ultimate failure of broadcast media advertising is likewise becoming clear.”  So he is not talking about the eventual demise of online advertising only, but of advertising in general.

There is much in Professor Clemons’s post with which I agree, as well as some excellent perspectives that really got me to stretch my mind.   Especially thought provoking is his description of paid search as “misdirection,” because it sends consumers to pages that are not necessarily the most valuable to them, but rather to the sites of companies that cough up the most money.  (For this reason he believes Google’s business model is probably unsustainable.) Anyone who knows this blog also knows that I not only recognize, but am inspired by the changes web 2.0 and social media are bringing to fundamentals of marketing, communications and brand-consumer relationships.

Still, I am not convinced by the good professor’s thesis that advertising’s role in the marketing mix — online or otherwise — is necessarily doomed to oblivion.  The reason is that Mr. Clemons has a very info-centric view of advertising, as you can see by the previous quote and in the definition of advertising below that he offers in his post (passages in bold are mine):

“Advertising is using sponsored commercial messages to build a brand and paying to locate these messages where they will be observed by potential customers performing other activities; these messages describe a product or service, its price or fundamental attributes, where it can be found, its explicit advantages, or the implicit benefits from its use.”

The rumors of my death have been wildly exaggerated

The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated

If you believe that the only role of advertising is to provide information about a product or brand, or for that matter, that a person’s rational evaluation of a particular brand’s attributes and benefits is the only basis for the choice of that brand over another,  than his thesis makes perfect sense.  But of course we all know that human beings are not especially rationale creatures, especially in their brand choices, and that advertising in many categories plays a role beyond simply conveying product benefits.  It may be out of style to say it, but the truth is that even in an online world where we have easy access to all sorts of information about brands, people are still influenced by other factors in their brand choices than a simple assessment of the benefits received relative to the price paid.

We all know that brands have dimensions beyond the attributes and benefits they offer.  Brands can represent an idea, connect us with a feeling, signify a particular attitude toward life, or express a value with which we personally identify.  Advertising plays a role in shaping those dimensions in our minds, and when the product attributes and quality of two brands are more or less equal, it can be primarily those emotional qualities that determine whether someone chooses one brand over another.

I doubt this will ever change.  It’s in the nature of who we are as human beings.  I remember reading somewhere that it is in our psyche to ascribe human characteristics to inanimate objects.  That’s what’s at the heart of our propensity to ascribe emotional and image dimensions to brands.  It’s through those associations that brands are one of the ways we define who we are to ourselves and to others.  And that’ something else I see no sign of changing.

This doesn’t deny that a brand’s image today is driven much more  than in the past by the thoughts, opinions and impressions that people can now share with thousands of others on line.  But even though online conversations play a bigger role than ever in shaping the collective perception of rational and emotional brand dimensions, this doesn’t mean that brand communications, created by marketers, no longer have any influence at all.  Brand perception is shaped by a myriad of sources — online conversations, ratings and reviews, personal experience, comments from others when we use the brand, our perception of others who use it, and — yes — brand communications.  Just because that last factor plays a smaller role than it did when we lived in a marketing world dominated by one-way messaging from marketer to consumer, it doesn’t mean it plays no role at all today or will play no role in future.

But even if you come from the information angle, I think there is still a role for advertising.  Just because I’m not actively looking for information about a particular product or category, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want information to find its way to me.  I’m a Mac fan.  I’m happy to get “uninvited” messages about a new Mac product or an upgrade to my current one.  Or even to hear about a new flavor of my favorite tooth paste brand.  (I’m a flavored tooth paste junkie.)

One of Mr. Clemons’s arguments is that advertising will fail because people don’t feel it is a trustworthy source of information.  But in future, it’s quite possible that advertising will gain in credibility because marketers will be forced to provide a higher level of truthfulness and integrity in their messages and claims, precisely because in a web 2.o world, any inaccuracies or attempts at deception will be quickly exposed and shared mercilessly.

There seem to be a whole bunch of people making extremely black-and-white statements about the future of marketing and communications these days, about whether advertising as we know it (or knew it) will fail or succeed, evolve or be doomed to oblivion.  No one really  knows, but certainly a lot of people seem to act like they do.  Rather than channeling all this energy into debate on these questions, which is a bit of a tempest in teapot, we should focus more on exploring and sharing what’s working, what’s not working, and how old and new media potentially work together.  And then see what happens.

Does that mean that this is the last time I’ll ever raise my voice in the debate?

Probably not.

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All I want for Christmas is Josh Bernoff’s social media report

Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research, co-author with Charlene Li of the groundbreaking social media study Groundswell, recently issued a Forrester report entitled The Growth of Social Technology Adoption.  I came across the link on ReadWriteWeb.  Delighted at the chance to download my copy, I went straight to the site, where I was stopped dead in my tracks.  Unfortunately, all I got to read was the synopsis, because the full report costs $279.

Now I don’t want to appear cheap or ungrateful.  Josh, Charlene and Forrester have been quite generous in sharing their social media knowledge.  For example, you can go to the Groundswell web site and create, free of charge, a basic Social Technographics profile for a demographic and geography of your choice.  I also recognize that Forrester Research is a business, and businesses need to make money.

Still, social media is in its infancy.  And many of its standard bearers, bloggers like me, promote the cause on their own time and with their own finances.  Sure, I have a day job in marketing and communications, but my forays into social media are not an official part of that job — yet.  I’m working to change that, and one of the ways is by constantly deepening my understanding of social media and slowly but surely bringing that knowledge to bear on the work I do for my employer and our clients.  But for now, whatever resources I leverage to build my knowledge base, if they involve a monetary cost, I fund out of my own pocket.  And $279 is a bit steep for my budget.

So here’s my request to Forrester.  How about a special rate for independent social media proponents like myself?  Google provides many services — Google Analytics for starters — free of charge.  They recognize that by helping marketers to learn how to use online advertising more effectively, it will ultimately help Google’s business.  In the same way, if Forrester helps me to nurture my expertise of the social media space, that should pay off in the long term for Forrester.  I will be better able to show my clients the value of social media for their business, get them started in the space and eventually purchase Forrester reports, tools and services that help them engage successfully.

Or how about a discount for people who bought Groundswell?  (I’m sure I still have that Amazon receipt somewhere.)  Or for writing a review of the book on a  blog?

And if all of this doesn’t move you, Forrester, how about just getting into the Christmas spirit?  I’ve been a good boy all year — especially as a standard bearer for social media.  I hope when Santa comes down my chimney this year, he’s got something in his sack from Forrester.

Merry Christmas!

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We can to do better than pre-roll advertising

I recently received an eMarketer notice entitled, “Online Video Advertising Starts Looking Good.”  eMarketer says that 65% of internet users now view some form of video advertising and projects that by 2012, 4 out 5 of them will.  I presume these are US statistics.  Now, 4 out of 5 is 80%, which doesn’t seem like that much of an increase.  What’s more, eMarketer defines an online video ad viewer as someone who sees any form of video advertising at least once a month.  That doesn’t sound like much either.

You also have to ask what we mean by viewing? Right now, video pre-roll commercials are one of the more common forms of online advertising.  But if this is the best format we can come up with, it hardly looks like a promising start to goodness, much less greatness.

Here’s a recent experience I had, which you’ve probably had at some point as well.  I was investigating a topic online, and clicked on a link to a video relating to it on MSNBC.  Before I could watch my video, I was forced to watch a pre-roll advertisement for a bottled salad dressing.  There was no discernible connection between the video I wanted to watch and salad dressing, food or meal preparation. Nor do I use bottled salad dressing. But if I ever do in future, I will be sure never to buy this particular brand.  Not because the ad was bad, but because the advertiser forced me to watch it.  So I guess technically I viewed the ad.  But it would have been better off for the brand if I hadn’t.

Pre-roll ads adhere to old marketing thinking that the marketer can still control the message in an age (today), and an environment (the internet), in which consumers demand to be able to choose the commercial messages they want to receive and the time and place to receive them.  Forcing an advertising message down my throat when I am in internet “search mode” is the perfect way to irritate me and turn me off to your brand.

The future of online advertising will really start to look good when, similar to Google AdWords, the technology can tailor the online video ad to the content of the video I’m watching, increasing the likelihood that the product advertised might be relevant to me, and allow me to opt in to hear the message if I so desire.  I would think this is technically possible now and the only reason it isn’t happening is because marketers are reluctant to give up the control of message delivery they’ve enjoyed up to now.

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Should Facebook and Myspace advertise?

I was intrigued by this post today in TechCrunch suggesting that Google may consider increasing its presence in mainstream media and traditional advertising.  (Honestly, I didn’t know that Google ran any traditional advertising but there you go.)

I’ve also toyed with the thought if mainstream advertising would also make sense for the big social community brands like Facebook, Myspace, Bebo and others.  It first popped into my mind as a little joke to myself, prompted by a podcast episode a few months back by Mitch Joel (Six Pixels of Separation), in which he assessed the differences between Facebook, Myspace and Linkedin as he saw them.  I realize that for some, the notion of online communities running conventional ads may sound like blasphemy.  But is it?

For those of us who have already gotten to know these different communities, their positions within the social media universe are relatively clear.  (And I do mean relatively — as in somewhat.)  But as social media communities move out of early adaption into the mainstream, and the number of offerings increase, it will become more and more difficult to tell them apart.   Especially for the less leading-edge segments of the population who aren’t so comfortable with the space yet, or still too intimidated to take the plunge and join an online social network.

For them, an engaging message from a Facebook or MySpace, delivered in media channels and formats they are familiar with and understand, might be just the nudge they need finally to log on and find the social community that’s right for them.  And might be just what the communities need to accelerate their expansion and build loyal user bases.

Pretty radical, huh?

What do you think?  Should social media communities advertise?

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