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A blog about, frankly, anything

Social Media And The Stupidity Of Crowds

Konami announced last week that they’re not releasing Atomic Games’ first-person-shooter “Six Days in Fallujah.” By all reports the game was intended to recreate the experience of the war-torn city after which it was named.

The game was already under scrutiny for setting the conflict in a war that is still unresolved. The company reportedly received complaints from veterans of the war and their families and friends. However it appears the final straw was Atomic Games’ president Peter Tamte’s recent interview with Joystiq. Specifically, that Atomic Games used genuine Iraqi insurgents in the design/development of the game.

As pointed out by Gaming Insider, the videogame landscape is littered with titles set on battlegrounds, both real and imagined. Admittedly most of these settings are WWII. You’ll find titles set in Vietnam but those have not proved to be big sellers on the order of “Call of Duty” and its ilk.

There are two things going on here that are interesting to note:

  1. the disproportionate response to the voices of a small, but vocal, few
  2. why we find it acceptable to purchase videogames set in WWII but abhorent to make (much less purchase) a game set in an ongoing conflict like Iraq.

I’ll address the first issue here, and the second in future post.

angry mob

Might Makes Right?

The decision by Konami is another example of digital disproportionately amplifying the voices of a small, yet vocal, number of opponents.

We’ve seen this before, most recently with Motrin’s mommy bloggers and Tropicana’s package redesign; a company reacting to a few vocal influencers. But in all of these cases it’s worth asking some questions:

Are the number of people complaining representative of the larger population? Or are they simply a very small, vocal minority, who happen to wield the digital microphone that is the World Wide Web? Kahneman and Tversky, via their Availability heuristic, demonstrated quite clearly how the rantings of a small minority can be mistakenly perceived as the overwhelming din of the majority.

It also calls into question to what extent the complaints about this game (or the Motrin commercial or the Tropicana redesign) really would have negatively affected sales. In the case of Tropicana, were their redesign to have happened 15 or even 10 years ago, I can’t help but think a consumer walking through the grocery store would’ve simply looked at the new package, mumbled “that’s stupid, i liked the old one better” as they dropped the product in their shopping basket.

Further, as a shareholder of any of those companies (which I am not) I would be appalled to learn that the company is making decisions that cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars seemingly on a whim. i.e. recalling media spend, consequently throwing out millions spent on production or unwinding packaging and design decisions that cost millions of dollars.

I’m all about marketing being more about conversations and relationships rather than simply outbound communication (it’s how I make my living). Technology allows us to tap into conversations that we never would have heard otherwise. But it also allows conversations to spin up, by facilitating a virtual “mob” mentality; mobs that might otherwise have never emerged.

What criteria should a company use to gauge when it should take action based on the brute force of a few. Is it purely quantitative? i.e. the numbers complaining reach some numerical threshold? Or is there a need for a new role in organizations? Someone who acts as an intermediary between an enterprise’s most loyal consumers and its executive management. A kind of brand ombudsman, if you will. Is this the responsibility of a community manager? Or someone higher up?

In a future post I’ll write about the changing roles in organizations as a result of the influence of digital technology on the enterprise. This is one example where it’s quite possible we need to rethink how businesses structure themselves to meet the needs not only of new customers but of their most loyal.

People Want To Be Marketed To

Let’s face it. We all have needs. We have needs for things beyond those things we need simply for survival (shelter, food, sex, etc). Once we meet Maslow’s foundational needs we begin wanting things that aren’t as easily attainable (relatively):

New tools, things to help in recreation or things to help us save time, to do something better or feel better about ourselves.

Common sense says that when you identify something you want from another person you should make a request of them. Why does this same principle not hold true commercially? Shouldn’t people make requests of brands when there’s something they want? We do this already, when we walk into a retailer or navigate to amazon.com. The whole notion of permission marketing is founded on this idea.

But does it work the other way around?

Should brands make requests of consumers?

“Hi, this is Walmart. The economy really sucks right now. Is there anything you need that we can help you with?”

In one sense brands already do this via advertising. The difference is that they make some intelligent (hopefully) guesses as to what we might want and then offer it up to us. But this is also inefficient, especially as the needs and wants fracture further into smaller and smaller niches. Even more so, as the places people go (in terms of media habits, behaviors, etc) also splinter.

So what’s left?

How about people being transparent with respect to their wants and needs, such that brands can observe them and, if there’s a match between a request and an offer, the brand can respond. Seems to make sense. The best way we have of doing this now is behavioral targeting (BT). However there’s a lot of anxiety around the use of BT. The prevailing concern is that the information gathered by BT could be used for nefarious purposes. These concerns tend to be exaggerated and can be easily addressed via anonymizing tools, equivalent to how retailers mask all but the last 4 digits of your credit card on your receipt.

I doubt this will happen within the next 5-7 years, mostly because most people still live in fear of the web when it comes to issues like privacy. However as younger generations, who grow up accustomed to granting more transparency online in exchange for its benefits, will move us beyond our generation’s willies about the web.

Wanted: A New Kind of Agency

Advertising, being a form of communication, is tightly coupled with media. One way to look at the history of advertising is as an evolution of our mastery of media. e.g.:

It started with printed copy. Then good printed copy.
Next came printed copy and images. Then good printed copy and images.
It evolved to spoken copy. Then good spoken copy.
Next came spoken copy and moving images. Then good spoken copy and moving images.

With digital, the smart ones figured out early (late 90s/early 2000s) that good copy and still images, combined with some utility, made for good communication and helped build brand equity. Want to learn about a product? Want to ask questions about a product before buying? Want to get support for a product? Want to find a community of others who’ve bought the same product and share tips or criticisms? Web1.0 enabled that.

Lately though (i.e. the last 5 years), it seems that advertising online has been more about entertaining, as opposed to communicating. It’s been about games and videos and, frankly, fluff that links tenuously, at best, back to the brand. Worst, it’s questionable to what degree it effectively delivers on its raison d’etre of entertainment. And digital agencies are usually stocked with graphic designers and Flash developers and architects who excel at creating games and animations and other kinds of entertainment.

But the agency of the future (and perhaps I’m really describing the creative director of the future), is someone who understands how to apply good copy (written and/or spoken), images (still and/or moving), interaction and data. It’s someone who can look at a brand, take the fundamentals of what that brand stands for, and using the data, APIs and open source frameworks available, build a tool that users of the brand find useful. By implementing best practices in terms of human interaction and design, along with creatively integrating visuals and copy, the use of that tool is elevated to an experience.

We need to find the technologists who understand the resources (the data, the APIs, the technologies that transform) and have new ways of thinking about how different technologies can plug together or have new ideas about new kinds of “glue” to build, and marry them with “creatives” (I hate that title) that know how to tell a story in a way that’s compelling, while at the same time delivering something useful to the consumer that connects with the brand.

Try to find an agency that embodies these characteristics and you won’t fine one. At least I haven’t (if you know of one shoot me an email or leave a comment). Or are we really talking about a new kind of marketer? One who can balance brand marketing, technology, psychology and social networking – a “technopologist” in the words of the WSJ.

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//02/25/2010 - added Tynt tracking code to try out Tynt