Archive for February, 2012

The social media websites that you use on a daily basis to connect with your friends are no longer the same sites they were eight years ago.  Major social media websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Myspace are moving towards a “standardized” format for users to access and edit their content.  This phenomenon has gone through much evolution over the past six years, and the effects of this standardization go beyond more than just making everything look nice and neat.  There are several other objectives behind this approach that are being used by marketers as part of a larger business strategy.

What it looks like:

First, let’s take a hypothetical look at the standardization that is underway.  Imagine that eight years ago, you once had the freedom to make a page look how you wanted it to look.  All you needed was an account, and then you were free to add pictures, backgrounds, and other interesting options through HTML and javascript.  This “profile” that you have created basically served as a miniature webpage for yourself, and the creative look was only limited by your own abilities.  Now, let’s say that one day you opened your page and the colors were completely different.  They all centered around a standard color scheme of the server that hosted the website.  The layout of your page looked exactly the same as your other “friends” which whom you were connected.   Additionally, the top and left side of your page became filled with advertisements for products that somehow related to many of the meta tags and text that filled your personal interest boxes.  And when you tried to type in the HTML code that you once used to personal your page, it came back with an error message.

This scenario is not very far from the truth.  The major social network websites have all been integrating many of these same tactics to standardize their websites for users.  A mini case study by a group called “Dire Boris” can be seen below with the standardization of YouTube channels.  Ironically, this video appeared on the front page of my iGoogle:

What it means to businesses:

Dire and Boris bring up many important points with their analysis of the new YouTube format.  One change that I have definitely noticed is the presence of internet ads on the site.   This is something that I began to notice over a year ago, but it seems that now their presence has proliferated dramatically.  Not only are ad banners now present alongside the related videos of many files, but several videos now begin with a 10-30 second ad that most of the time has nothing to do with the actual video (not to mention the infamous Reply Girl videos that are also used for promotion of certain content).

Indeed internet advertising has made its presence very clear in social media.  In some cases, it is very visible on every page that you encounter, but in other cases it is a bit more subtle.  Take a look at Facebook for example.  When the site was first launched as “The Facebook,” the format was very simple.  Users could input profile pictures along with their interests and activities, favorite music and movies, and they could build a network of friends and relatives by “friending” other users.  As the site continued to evolve, users were able to integrate photo albums on their profiles, which some argue led to the death of the Webshots website.  In 2012, many of those features still exist on Facebook but with some hidden secrets.  Now whenever you type the name of your favorite band, movie or book, a link will appear on your profile that takes you a profile or page of that favorite band or movie you listed.  Many of these pages are “official” pages of your favorite things, and they often feature messages from the band, movie or whatever it might be on the walls of the profiles.  There might even be announcements of new merchandise releases on these pages.  And you can even add other links to your profile instantly by clicking the standard “like” button.

So what’s so bad about this?  Aren’t users able to connect directly with their favorite bands and artists and build a community?  Wrong.  Very rarely are many of the bigger stars’ profiles actually maintained by the actual people.  The messages that are posted are usually used as another method of advertising specific products.  But that’s not the worst part.  What many users do not know about is that the information that they input onto their profiles regarding favorite things is used by the site to build a buyer profile that businesses can use to target their marketing tactics.  Every band and every movie that you list sends a clear message to marketers of what you like (and I mean “like” in Facebook terminology).  This is what generates all the ads you see on the right side of the website as you log in, and it is a very similar tactic to that which is used by Google for search input.

For marketers, this is a dream come true.  There is no more guessing involved when it comes to target markets, and businesses no longer have to blindly create products that they think will positively affect their consumers.  Rather, the consumers are providing all the input regarding what they enjoy, and businesses now have a quantitative data set that they can conveniently use to plan and execute marketing strategies.  There is no longer as much demand to spend funds on extensive field work and surveys when it comes to studying target markets.  All the data is now online, and best of all it comes directly from the users.  But on the flipside, how do the users feel about such a strategy?

What it means to users:

There are a couple of things that users should be very concerned about when it comes to standardization.  From the creative perspective, users are losing their freedom to create individualized pages that can define their presence in a social network.  When everything becomes standard, everyone looks exactly the same.  There are no longer individuals – just webpages with a profile picture.  And when this happens, how can someone stand out, make their presence known and build their own brand and reputation in such a grey world?

From the more philosophical point of view, individualism is diminishing even further into not only profiles, but compartmentalized online marketing profiles.  These online profiles are what define you and your personality on the web.  As businesses make their way into the social media realm, they are not looking at people but at the brand names and favorite things that make up these individual profiles.  In a fundamental way, this is a natural tendency for people to become attracted to one another based on common interest.  However, in order to build a genuine relationship, you would not keep your attention focused merely on things like favorite brands and interests.  You would have to look at that person for deeper qualities such as values and commitments, not just the things they “liked.”  Yet, this is not what some businesses are looking at.  There is no longer a goal towards building a community, but rather aggregating a target market.  The constant bombardment of ads as well as standardized content and platforms is contributing to what Eli Pariser labels in the TED discussion below as “filter bubbles.” This limited view of connecting people is no healthy way to build any kind of relationship.

And what is worse, in my opinion, is that despite all the outcries by users against these changes, the major social media websites are doing very little to respond to such opinions.  Dire and Boris’ comments on the YouTube forum are only one example.  Facebook has seemed to pressure users in adopting their “timeline” profile to replace the old format, and any dissenting opinions towards this seem to be non-existent (Heaven forbid they have another uproar when they released the infamous News Feed).  Clearly, there is a sense of domination within websites that were designed to connect people on an equal level and build online communities.

Putting the “social” back in social media:

How can we bring back the activities that we once enjoyed on social media websites without feeling like are being bombarded by marketing left and right?  The broad solution that I see which can help everyone is for the users, the businesses, and the social media websites to have a sense of respect.  This value of respect applies to everything: respect for ourselves, respect for others, and respect for the online environment in which we exist.  Businesses must respect the idea that people are not going to always log onto a social media website with the intent of buying something; they might merely want to connect with family and friends and learn about what is going on in their local community.  At the same time, users must also respect that a business’ presence on a social media website is not necessarily bad either.  Not all businesses view people as profiles.  In fact many privately owned organizations’ main intent with social media is to gain general publicity and awareness in a community.  The ones who must display the most respect towards neutrality are the social media websites themselves.  They must reevaluate their role – to provide an online setting for all of their users to enjoy their online experience, without showing favoritism towards those with the most money.

The best way to build respect is through authenticity.  People need to be authentic and honest when it comes to being social and building connections.  In more simple terms, people need to be real.  And this means stopping such tactics to collect information from users.  This means not looking at people in categories.  This means treating people as people again.  As our society moves online, these basic human relationship fundamentals must still carry on there.  And if people can recognize the need for these, we will have a better social media sphere.

Every day of your life is influenced by a corporation.  Whether it’s the food you eat, the clothes you wear, or the technology you use to read this very blog entry, you are maintaining a relationship with a corporation.  This relationship might be one that is favorable to you with many benefits and results, or it might be one that you might not necessarily want but have to accept (e.g. having to buy a particular product because it’s all that you can afford).  However, this relationship is not like any other relationship that you might have with anyone else in your life.  It is not one that is like that you would have with a friend, family member, partner, or lover.  It is a relationship with something that is rather odd to grasp your fingers around.  It is one with an inanimate entity.

Corporations as inanimate entities?  Such an idea sounds like it could be pooled in with the many other derogatory names and statements that have been made to describe the identities of corporations in the 21st Century.  From the beginnings of the Reagan Era leading up over the last 30 years to the Occupy Wall Street movement, corporations have become the centerpiece of criticism for corruption, filth and greed.  Recent events including the bailout bills and the financial crises of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and Goldman-Sachs have perpetuated this idea that corporations are the devil that lives in the blood of American society.  Yes, there are those at the top of their game who have mishandled money and kept their finances tucked away, refusing to invest any money to create jobs and stimulate the economy.  However, the idea of a corporation must not be lost in the midst of the arguments and protests.  It is true that at the conceptual level, corporations exist as a free enterprise to create jobs for working class citizens and to provide products and services for those same citizens.  Fundamentally, they are the foundations that made the United States a unique nation among the world, bringing people together to work hard and build communities.  In a work environment with a strong emphasis on values and identity, the employees and their customers can build relationships that can bloom into friendships.  Today, this vision has become lost among both the corporations themselves as well as the people they serve.  The identity of a corporation has become damaged, and they must repair this identity to keep the communities that they once built from falling apart.

In order to rebuild these communities, corporations must acknowledge the relationships they share with these citizens and thus find ways to foster and nurture these relationships.  Research by scholars such as Grunig and Ledingham has shown evidence that theories of relationship management can help corporations and organizations in general build stronger bonds with the people they serve.  These bonds are based on several factors that play a part in most relationships, including respect, dependency, and mutual benefits.  However, the hardest part about initiating such a relationship is that a corporation is still what it is: an inanimate object.  Because of this attribute, many public relations strategists have had to portray their organizations as actual people.  This idea has been one in development over decades in the corporate world.  Heck, Mitt Romney is making it a main talking point of his campaign (which of course, Steven Colbert took full advantage of in his Super PAC attack ad).  On the outside, this idea seems alien.  How can a name like Apple, Best Buy, or Kraft be portrayed as a single person?  And most importantly, how can a real person have a relationship with a “notional” person?  I wonder what Mitt really meant when he said, “Corporations are people, my friend…”

While I can’t speak for Mitt, I can speak for the idea that any organization would be nothing without its people.  Because people are the ones who make up organizations, it is possible to form a relationship between a person and an organization.  It is something that is not new at all; people have been forming relationships with organizations for years.  These relationships have been ones in which the person identifies his or herself with the organization that is a part of their life, and it is a relationship in which both parties benefit mutually.  In many cases, the relationship exists primarily because the person is a member of that organization, and they therefore share many of the same values and characteristics of that organization.  The brand image, mission and values will influence the members and cause them to alter their own identities over time.  Over time the relationships will grow from mutual partnerships to friendships grounded on trust and understanding.  Examples include sports teams, Greek organizations, and military units.  Despite these close relationships that members within an organization might have, those who are not members of the organization might have more of an outsider role.  True, there might be a relationship that exists, but it will never become as strong as those who have been accepted as members.

In order for a corporation to fully grow a relationship to the point that they are viewed as friends in the lives of ordinary people, they must emphasize a few strong points about their organization.  The first point is their overall vision and mission.  They must identify what they are doing and how they are helping to make the lives of ordinary people better.  When people look for a product or service, they are looking for one with the most quality and one in which the benefits exceed the cost.  They will look to the one who can offer them this product or service, and it requires the ability to attract attention.  Just like with meeting new people, corporations must find ways to first engage the constituents and help them to see what they’re all about.

Once they have established the foundation of that relationship, they must sustain and maintain this bond so that it can remain strong.  This stage requires an emphasis on the values that are shared among members of the corporation.  Values are what tie strong relationships together.  They are the bedrock virtues that influence the actions of people and keep everyone on the right track.  Values are a sensitive yet prominent area of any relationship, and it is important that they are not only identified but also followed.  The corporations values should be at the forefront of everything they do, and this will help to maintain trust among corporate members and their constituents.  A listing of values by top corporations can be found here.

Now for the hard part: how can an entire corporation, made up of thousands of members, be able to emphasize vision, mission and values and expect to represent this idea as a single person?  To make this happen, it will require the cooperation of every single corporate member.  They will have to become full fledged representatives of the corporation and essentially take on the brand image and identity of that organization in their daily lives.  A worker at McDonald’s cannot simply say that he works at McDonald’s; he must wear a piece of attire every single day with the McDonald’s logo, identify himself not by his first name but as “McDonald’s,” and essentially center his entire life around the McDonald’s corporation.  When people talk to this worker, they are not talking to an average Joe; they are talking to McDonald’s.  His values are the same of that corporation, and his values will influence his actions, thus influencing the relationships with the people in his life.  This is the only way McDonald’s can become a person.

Does this sound realistic or just plain ludicrous?  Such a scenario would require a person to compromise much of their own identity.  This might not be in the best interests of most reasonable people.  After all, everyone was a different person before they began working for any organization.  However, there is still a bit of hope in the relationship strategy of public relations.  I suggest two possibilities.  One is the continue emphasizing values between organizations and people, but also to acknowledge the differences that exist between all that are involved.  There is no way to make everyone the same.  What we can do is find common values that are in place which will benefit everyone in the relationship, make those values the foundation of the relationship, and then learn from our differences to understand how we can take our relationships into new and different directions.  The second possibility is to diminish the hierarchy between the corporation and the people it serves.  Too many corporations have been on a powertrip from their success that they have treated constituents as property.  If they are trying to become friends, this is no way to nurture any relationship.  What they need to do is treat them not as customers, not as research subjects and not as property; they need to treat them as equal partners.  With the developments in social media, corporations can communicate directly with people to solve problems and harvest new ideas.  It will not be an easy road, but through compassion relationships can be built that will bring corporations closer to becoming friends of the public community.

I close with a video of an organization that I think truly embodies the idea of values first, and they have great potential to form that friendship type of relationship that every organization seeks to have with the people they serve.  And although they are not the branch of service in which I served, I still give them great respect for having, in my opinion, the best ad campaign of any of the armed services.

Snowboarding, skydiving, mountain biking, rafting, whatever your sport might be.  Extreme sports have spread from coast to coast and have become a pastime of many cultures worldwide.  Many people take an interest in exploring these activities, but only a few brave souls make it their deliberate mission to become masters at such death-defying feats.  The adrenaline rush of stepping off a helicopter, then carving nose first over the edge of a cliff and down an icy slope is one that can only be experienced by the bold skier or snowboarder who was there to do it.  However, that one-of-a-kind adrenaline rush is not the only reason for going the distance.  Those brave souls who take on such risks want to be seen as well, and they want to tell their stories so that others can see what they’ve been through and perhaps one day take on the same challenges.

Enter Point of View (POV) cameras.  These cameras have emerged through the framework of film and technology advancement for decades in extreme activities, and they have put a new spin on the way real life events are portrayed behind the lens.  The days when mounting an expensive full-sized video camera onto your bike helmet are obsolete.  Now, this technology is available worldwide at an affordable price to just about anyone.  Many of these models of camera, made by manufacturers such as GoPro, Drift and Contour feature lightweight and compact designs as well as ultra durable materials that enable the cameras to be mounted just about anywhere from helmets to surfboards.  Options such as super slow motion enable the capturing of even the smallest details of any shot into awesome imagery.  Couple these features with the breakthroughs in HD image processing and the storage capacity of SD cards, and it is now possible to take a camera that can fit in the palm of a human hand and create a film in 1080p HD that can compete with a professionally made movie.

Today, the abilities of POV cameras have enabled users who practice just about any sport to film their experiences firsthand in full HD.  The last few years of the X-Games have seen many of the competitors using POV cameras during many of their moments throughout the event.  Competitors used a couple different techniques to do this; they took the traditional approach of having a partner film them through the park, or they mounted the cameras directly to their gear for a direct perspective that would be too risky or completely unachievable with traditional hardware.  And the results they produced were brilliant.  For the first time, viewers could see what Shaun White sees as he cuts and shreds through each vert of the halfpipe.  But this phenomenon isn’t something that is just being produced by the pros.  The affordability of this technology puts many POV cameras at an average of $200 a piece, which for a small band of amateur skaters is a little allowance and some minimum wage that can be invested into something that will last forever.  Users around the world are able to produce their own movies, and with video sharing sites such as YouTube, they are able to share them with the rest of the world at an instant rate.  Many of the manufacturers themselves are also helping to promote this phenomenon with daily videos of users in their extreme everyday lives, sparking network conversation and lending inspiration for those willing to take on the next challenge.

Extreme sports might be awesome to watch, but POV cameras aren’t just limited to glamorizing the excitement of only these events.  Other real life events, such as the realism of combat, have been captured using this same type of camera technology by military and law enforcement.  Stemming from the car-mounted cameras used by police officers, these agencies took the same concept to the next level by looking at smaller cameras and mounting them directly to the users.  Combined with a radio signal, this hardware enabled such agencies to see the action as it was happening and evaluate their tactics, techniques and procedures.  It also gave documentation of events that actually happened.  A general who had never seen a day of close combat in his life was now able to see exactly what his troops were going through.  World changing events, such as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, while still kept classified were watched as they happened and recorded on video.  The military saw the value in embedding such hardware that they dedicated specialized combat camera, or COMCAM, soldiers into their ranks to capture these events.  At the same time, an unintended outcome occurred; the military and law enforcement members now had a tool given to them to tell their story as they saw it from their eyes.  The photojournalist stories produced by reporters on the battlefield provided various insight to combat situations, but they would only be told if they were published.  Now, service members could instantly publish video of their experiences, some of which might never be seen on a mainstream network.  Search for “helmet cam combat footage,” and you will find hundreds of videos from armies around the world depicting their intense experiences in combat.  These aren’t clips from Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down; these are the raw, unfiltered firefights and bloodshed that can only be captured by those who were actually there.

Even with the advancement of POV technology, there are some ethical concerns that come into play as to what images and stories can and/or should be told.  The brand image of such technology promotes intensity and extreme life events that can’t be captured by any other means.  Yet, there comes a question of whether some life events should be portrayed and presented to an audience who would normally never take part in such activities.  Although extreme sports and combat firefights display overwhelming human emotion and courage, other events such as the aftermath of a brutal attack or the inside of an emergency room while just as thrilling might invoke ever more severe reactions by those who would be unlikely to see them under live circumstances.  A state of cognitive dissonance can resonate that will lead to viewers turning away from such extreme videos or change their perception of such activities.   What once seemed exciting can quickly become disturbing to a novice audience.  Despite these effects, these perspectives are just as true as the high points of the events, and their existence must be acknowledged.

In an essence, the use of POV technology looks to bring more respect to those who are brave enough to live through such activities.  Those who dedicate their lives to intense experiences can tell their stories in ways they only dreamed of decades ago, and they can now form stronger communities of those with similar experiences.  Additionally, those viewers who choose not to practice these events in real life but would rather find entertainment through them must now develop their own sense of respect as they can see exactly what those brave ones go through.  The future of POV technology looks to incorporate even more life events that currently challenge such perspectives.  Professional sports is an area of growth, especially in the NFL where much emphasis is placed on the “instant replay.”  If you want to know whether the player actually caught the ball, why not put a camera on his helmet?  Just about any activity is subject to this growth, and it will be interesting to see how ordinary people will continue to tell their life stories through HD.