That the Internet has truly become the fabric of our lives means we are sooner or later in for a very jarring turn of history’s wheel. —Tim Wu, The Master Switch, The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
Wu’s foreshadowing is very much of the moment, thanks to the rise of platforms playing media gatekeeper roles coupled with eroding business models among publishers. Facebook, Google, WeChat, Twitter, and the like, continue to upend all media conventions, not just social.
For those of us working in the agency world, this flashpoint requires us to look at content — including advertising — in a fundamentally different light.
In Wu’s parlance, the growing urgency is influenced by who controls the Master Switch, meaning those who ultimately define what we see and experience on our devices.
Those with control own the distribution, interface, customer relationships, and hugely important today, the data. They shape our perceptions of reality and enable new means, and actors, to influence it (Donald Trump, anyone?).
The viability of legacy-based editorial and advertising practices hangs in the balance.
On one side, you have the publishers, who continue to jerry-rig Gutenberg’s press model into a friction-free cloud of information, entertainment and conversation. On the other you have the platforms who own the new distribution pipes, modern interface and innovation-edge that mobile is built on. And in the middle: The user, who while racking up massive amounts of attention on mobile devices, has shown little interest in digital display advertising that publishers — and advertisers — count on.
The urgency in sorting it out is starting to sink in. The scaffolding that the media business is built on — the packaging, delivery and discovery of content — is being rethought and optimized piece by piece for mobile.
Maybe publishing is not in fact dead, but like the proverbial Monty Python parrot, lying on the floor of its cage, eyes screwed tightly shut. —Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Ironically, publishing is flourishing. Just not for the incumbents built to deliver and distribute premium content, including the news.
According to Reuters’ 2015 Digital News Report, Facebook became increasingly dominant in delivering the headlines, with forty one percent of respondents cited using it to find, read, watch, share, or comment on the news each week.
Platform might reroute access, but we still get our news from a combination of TV, radio, print, and online. Traditional news brands continue to dominate online in almost all countries around the world, even if tech determines how we hear from those brands.
The fact that we get much of our news through brands we trust via platforms like Facebook isn’t new. The overnight rise of ad blocking around editorial content and unprecedented rise of media consumption via mobile apps most definitely are.
Overwhelming evidence confirms we don’t want mobile ads in current form interrupting our info-grazing experiences. And very clearly, Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP show the platforms won’t stand for anything that slows delivery of content.
Demand for that content is at an all-time high. According to comScore, over the past two years, total digital media usage has grown 49 percent with mobile apps having grown 90 percent. What’s more, Facebook and Google own eight of the top nine mobile apps in the United States (The Weather Channel is the only “traditional” media company that cracks the top 25).
If you hold the purse on media spend to build brands or company reputation, the platform-publisher convergence presents an almost paralyzing landscape to navigate.
Paralysis is not an option. There’s a race happening in the subtext— a requirement to drive brand innovation harder and faster than ever before to stay in sync with the platform-publisher conversion.
On one hand, you could take the simple advice of a growing group of analysts looking at digital publishing: Buy plenty of Facebook, Google, or don’t bother.
But here’s another, albeit complementary strategy:
Don’t think about this as an advertising dilemma to solve.
Figure out how you earn attention and engagement by doing things that create real value. This isn’t a marketing cliché or platitude.
The opening seems clear: Deliver distinctive utility or content. Try to socialize it across many points of presence.
In emphasizing engagement over advertising in our work, we’ve found getting concepts to spread through complex media gateways becomes clearer once you get the user insight, platform dynamics, value proposition and pitch right.
The list could go on. None of these represent ads, but do the work to get people engaged in a brand story. These stories and experiences are part of the new media ecosystem that all parties involved need to bolster their mobile positions. From a brand-builder’s standpoint it’s not necessarily dependent on who ultimately holds the keys.
Earning favor through ideas people identify with or benefit by is the only way forward — given who is best positioned to own the Switch (the platforms) and the power (people opting out of ads).
“Essentially [gifs are] a whole new method of communication. If people are talking in this content and using it to replace words, strategically that means you can create a branded language. And you can one way or another get billions of people to communicate with one another through your content. We’re serving in places that you can’t buy ads. This is uncharted territory.”
That’s the chief operating officer of Giphy, Adam Leibsohn, making a compelling argument for moving pictures becoming the baseline for social media engagement at the first Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York last month. Together with Fast Company, Weber Shandwick convened top marketing, content and creative leaders to discuss “How Can Brands Survive the Era of Engagement?”
It’s an exciting question for everyone involved in brand comms now. Leibsohn’s right: We’re dealing with a brand new language. We’ve been talking about visual influence for some time, but it has become part and parcel of modern communications over the past 12 months. It’s now a reality.
Gifs, cinemagraphs on Facebook, Vines, emojis and stickers are no longer just fun trends. They are emerging as innovative, creative devices for brands to express themselves to consumers in new ways.
Shortform content packages are proving to be exponentially more engaging than passive, static media, and brands are now starting to get to grips with using them to effectively engage audiences.
There’s huge appetite among clients across EMEA and globally to understand all the media flux in play at the moment. Most importantly, they want to know how to transition effectively from legacy to digital ways of communicating.
Essentially, visual influence is about thinking through the eyes of those you want to reach. And earned still comes first: As ever, it all comes down to a great idea, and a set of creatives around that idea that earn the attention of not only people but also algorithms.
Brands are now realising that it’s about more than simply digitizing existing assets by republishing or repackaging: It’s about thinking digitally, and creating content for very specific environments like Snapchat or Instagram.
It’s also about understanding how those environments are evolving. Instagram captions are the new blogging, and Instagram itself is inspiring other projects such as Dronestagram — a picture-sharing site for aerial photos taken from drones.
And new platforms are emerging all the time. Pictoline is a visual news organization that produces simple, arresting visuals designed to make readers stop, click, and share. In just a few months since they started publishing, they’ve attracted 300,000 followers on Facebook and 66,000 on Twitter.
As some of the biggest brands in the world are discovering, agencies and clients no longer have to be the originators of this content. There are great opportunities to partner with YouTubers, Viners and Instagrammers who have big followings and outstanding visual skills.
Through Mediaco, we have countless examples at Weber Shandwick of how we have guided companies and brands to drive engagement in this new age of marketing. Things are moving quickly, but we have incredibly smart thinkers who understand the world not just through the lens of PR but also digital engagement: They think earned first and social first.
Two final thoughts on the flourishing of this new visual language: Last November, Mark Zuckerberg said that within five years Facebook will be mainly video. By June this year, the company had announced it was delivering over four billion videos every day.
And Snapchat — an app that many dismissed as being trivial; for teenagers to send sexy texts that automatically disappear — now has an estimated market value of about $16 billion, and is turning heads as a real time, engaging news platform for millennials, for instance, aggregating real-time, crowdsourced news around the recent San Bernardino shootings in California.
In 2015, visual influence was a trend for brands to watch. In 2016, the opportunities will start to become a reality, and brands and agencies will start to really embrace, experiment and adapt to this exciting new environment.
Chris Perry is Chief Digital Officer of Weber Shandwick
I talked to Mumbrella, an Asia-based media and marketing publication, about content pollution and how brands can build sustainable, successful engagement with consumers. Some key points:
Ultimately, brands have got to give people what they want. But it’s hard for brands to compete on entertainment values in any sustainable way. Brands can offer value, perspective and information around areas that are credible to the brand, and the company behind the brand.
…Many brands have had the ability to package their stories and push them out, broadcasting their way into people’s living rooms. But it’s much more complex now. You have to build an engaging environment.
There will undoubtedly be content pollution out there. But work that still has value behind it has viability.
More here, and a lot more to come on this topic from us.
Chris Perry is Chief Digital Officer of Weber Shandwick
How do you know it’s time to reinvent yourself? For Fortune, I shared the mental checklist I’ve used for the past 15+ years to make sure the work I’m doing is where the growth, innovation, and action are.
The root of the question for me is more fundamental: “Am I in the game, and by way of extension, is it where the action is going vs. where it’s been?”
I didn’t land at this view lightly. I’ve known the pain of ending up on the wrong side of the curve. But like any painful experience, I learned fundamental lessons that have served me extraordinarily well over time.
I go in to detail on those tough experiences over at Fortune. It’s the first time I’ve written about my transformative moment of becoming mindful of changes in play, and being proactive about being on the right side of those changes. But it probably won’t be the last.
At Weber Shandwick, we like to build new things. Or, maybe better put, we feel an obligation to explore by doing to understand digital media change and its implications for clients.
We know lessons are learned in the trenches — the continuous exploration of hypothesizing, hitting, missing and improving the work we make.
Some insights learned driving digital into the DNA of our our firm have been codified into distinct practices, like Mediaco, which helps clients become media companies.
The commercial success of Mediaco lies not simply in content production, but change management — helping clients update their culture and way of creating communications that factor in new processes, talent, technology and applied learning.
We’ve learned across 100+ Mediaco client engagements that you need a mechanism to make change tangible. In many cases, the mechanism is a website or content hub where new media content is brought to life. It serves as the visible focal point teams use to develop new content packages designed for a distinctly new and changing media environment.
To us, what’s more compelling is playing out behind the screens — the training, experiments, social media extensions, paid media pilots, and more, to deliver a new type of distributed, engagement-driven communications.
We’re applying this mindset and approach for ourselves inside Weber Shandwick, which is why today we’re sharing our own platform for learning: Media Decoded.
When you check it out, you’ll see we distill key themes, provide perspectives on shifts in the landscape, and learn from innovators reshaping media. We want to share some of the most interesting, most material subjects and encourage sharing and discussion around them.
In the process we look to transform our own communications and insights we can bring to our client work, like how we:
Strive to deliver substantive content versus oversimplified how-to’s, listicles and other filler content, and in the process address knowledge gaps we see others not covering.
Test and deploy advanced versions of Mediaco Publish — our own content management and workflow system we built specifically for brand publishers.
Create a system to pull in insights from a network of 3,500 employees and hundreds of contributors and innovators in our extended network around the world.
Pilot promising new capabilities from early-stage content creation and distribution partners we’d like to introduce to clients.
Use our global content engine to fuel a stronger social media presence through our network in 120+ cities in 81 countries around the world.
We strongly believe new media and marketing success requires a combination of relentless curiosity and experimentation, combined with a core humility that requires us to constantly re-evaluate our approach and the results we drive.
Media Decoded is a vehicle to share how we are going about it all. As part, we’d like to draw on insights from bright, creative minds outside of our walls, too. So if you have something to add, we’d love to hear from you. Drop us a note as we help to decode the world of new media, evolving daily before our eyes.
As media résumés go, they don’t come more distinguished than Vivian Schiller’s.
After starting as a production assistant at Turner Broadcasting, she climbed the ranks to become head of CNN’s documentary unit in 1998. After running a joint venture of The New York Times and Discovery Communications from 2002 to 2006, Schiller joined The Times as general manager of NYTimes.com, leading the integration of print and online newsrooms and driving journalistic innovation. In 2008, she was named CEO of NPR, where she brought another legacy media brand into the digital age. This preceded her appointment as NBC News’ first chief digital officer in 2011. Two years later, Schiller went to Twitter to head news partnerships for the platform.
Now, as an independent consultant helping brands and media entities thrive in an ever-evolving digital media space, Schiller has one of the most informed perspectives in the business. (Disclosure: Weber Shandwick is one of the companies she has consulted.) She sat down with me to talk about how media is changing, how brands can adapt, the rise of the brand studio within online publishers, the importance of data to journalism, and how to foster innovation in media.
CHRIS PERRY: Vivian, you have seen media from all angles. Now you’re independently consulting with media companies and brands and agencies. What are you seeing that’s interesting in the market these days?
VIVIAN SCHILLER: I’m seeing a tremendous amount of change, and a tremendous amount of uncertainty. Which, actually, I think makes it a very exciting time in media. There’s so much change, and that leads to opportunities. I’m an optimist, so I think this is actually a fantastic time for media. There are so many different ways to reach audiences and so many ways to have an impact.
Which, coming from the world of journalism, that’s what I care about the most.
CP: Yeah, right. There’s clearly a, as you say, just a huge shift that’s happening in the business. Clearly there’s a need to be on the right side of the technology curve these days.
CP: So it would be great to maybe talk a little bit about what you experienced on the newsroom side, really getting The New York Times, NBC, NPR, some of these places, oriented towards the digital future, and then maybe what are you seeing even spending some time with these newer digital first publishers?
VS: Right. So it has been an evolution. Most news organizations, by this point in the middle of the second decade of this century, are realizing that they can’t just expect to publish content and broadcast content and expect that people are going to come to them.
Everybody seems to be with the program that you have to go out and reach your audience. What many are struggling with, though — and this was certainly the challenge in every place I’ve worked, from The New York Times to NBC, to NPR — is: How do you hold onto your legacy? How do you hold onto the values of brand and your core legacy platform — whether it’s radio, whether it’s the printed newspaper or NBC Nightly News — but also make sure the values, the journalism, the brand, are reflected in the way that you go out to users — whether it’s on a six second Vine or a Facebook post or a photograph or a listicle — and how do you make sure those brand values translate?
So this is what all news organizations are struggling with. There are many, many success stories out there, and as platforms continue to evolve, we’re seeing a lot of creativity.
CP: Yeah. So this is something that you and I talk about quite a bit, this notion of all kinds of different ways to format the news and really invent new formats in the process. But there’s also the organizational change that’s required to actually allow for that to happen and do it in a meaningful way. What’s your take on what’s happening, again, from a structural and organizational standpoint, even in some of the incumbent businesses, to take advantage of this?
VS: Right. Well, I think that Peter Drucker said it best when he said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
I think that is absolutely true. So the cultural part of this is the hardest. I mean, at this point there are certain principles. There is more or less a roadmap. Not to how necessarily what’s going to be popular in the future, but at least how you think about a world that we live in now, which is about distributed content.
But, like you say, sometimes the organizational structures in the cultures are not set up for it. So the single most important thing that any legacy organization is going to [do is] adapt their culture so that, while they’re not throwing away their legacy revenue and the legacy way they are doing things, they bring in the right people and the right minds and maintain an openness and a willingness to sort of test and learn their way towards a different model.
I think the legacy news organizations are learning from the digital natives — from the Buzzfeeds, the Vices, the Voxes — and I think some of them are very successful at bringing some of those principles onboard.
I see a lot of that happening at The New York Times, for instance. At The Guardian. Ironically, at newspapers. I would point also to The Wall Street Journal and to some of the things that are happening at Gannett. It may be because they experienced disruption earlier than other forms of media, they are learning to adapt.
I think broadcast and cable television is a little bit slower — maybe because their venue model, frankly, is still very strong. But they are going to have their own reckoning. There’s no question it’s coming.
CP: As we go, though, deeper into that point of difference around not everyone can tell a good story and not everyone can build an audience for their stories, there are some major, major blind spots that I see that aren’t being talked about more in a corporate setting and that will have very direct impact on the success of these brand publishing, content publishing programs.
The first is data. So you go into some of these digital-first publishers, and they don’t have armies of reporters and journalists exclusive. They have armies of engineers building product to understand that user behavior and incorporate that user behavior back into what’s being produced and how it’s being optimized.
What are you seeing there in terms of, again, legacy or incumbent businesses making that shift to data, and how big a deal is that from what you’ve experienced in your travels?
VS: It’s a very, very big deal. The results among legacy media companies right now are very mixed. Everywhere you go, every legacy company goes, “Oh, data. We need data. We believe in data.” It has almost become a cliché. So there is a lot of data coming into these organizations, but honestly not a lot of insights that I see being extracted.
That is beginning to change. You are beginning to see some publishers understanding and experimenting with data in order to create more compelling product experiences. At the end of the day it’s about creating a more compelling product experience.
There’s a fear in journalism world that, “Oh, if we have this data and we know what’s popular and you give it to the reporters, the reporters are going to see that and they are going to want to stop reporting about ISIS in Syria, and they are only going to want to do cat videos.” That’s nonsense, first of all. I would give journalists a little bit more credit than that. But also, that’s not really where the data is that useful. The data is most useful, again, [in] creating better product user experiences.
CP: Right, and I think translating that for our clients and even a lot of our staff that’s really engaged in this work, it’s not so much data that’s up here, but data that’s down here.
VS: Yes. Actionable data.
CP: So the more that you can put the data in the hands of the people making the content, so to speak, and make that content better, the better ROI you’re going to get from that. I still see a major disconnect between big data from a decision-making, from an executive level standpoint, so to speak, and more about, “How do you bring that and equip people to do better work?”
VS: There’s no question. In the world of publishers, as a general rule, the digital native companies are doing a much, much better job at this.
There’s no such thing as, “That’s not the way we do things.” A lot of the legacy companies just haven’t had that data. You don’t know how many people are reading your story in the newspaper. I mean, you can sort of extrapolate from circulation and single copy sales. For broadcasts you get a Nielsen rating. It’s not the kind of data that you can use to make decisions to improve your product. It’s much more longitudinal.
As a result, those cultures have grown up with a sense that, well, since we don’t really know, we’re going to do what we think is the right thing, and have done very well with it. The digital native companies don’t have that legacy. They have been hungry for this information and use it and turn it around to make their products better.
You see this happening in a big way. I would put Buzzfeed and Vox really at the top of the list of knowing how to make their data very actionable to make a better product.
CP: So the other piece that, again, maybe not so much of a blind spot, but is just the very fast rise of the brand studio inside of the publishing houses.
VS: Yes. Right.
CP: Through maybe one perspective it seems obvious. Who better to create content for the publication or the publication’s digital environment than the publishers themselves? Opens up a lot of questions about separation between church and state, but I think we’re past that.
In my mind the bigger issue is, how do brand-side clients take advantage of that when they are dealing with their own change management issues and the complexities that go with thinking about content in a different way?
What’s your take on the rise of the brand studio and what it’s going to take to really see that pay off for the publishers that are investing in it?
VS: Right. Well, I think for publishers, since legacy revenue is declining and you need to find new revenue streams, I actually think it is among the most promising new revenue streams for publishers for exactly the reason that you say.
It taps into a core competency of a news organization, which is largely my perspective. We know how to tell stories. We know how to take pictures. A lot of them know how to do very good data visualizations [and] package this in a way that is compelling to audiences.
I can understand why publishers want to do it and I can understand why brands want to go through these publishers, because it makes sense. But it’s only part of the picture.
What is necessary for a brand to become truly a publisher is not just tying into a good content creator. That’s great. But to really take a deep look at their business, to understand the cultural change that is necessary, if you’re a brand, to get yourself into the publishing mindset and to think about how you structure your organization, how you think about multiple revenue streams, how you think about that balance between what they are used to, which is directly selling or pitching a product, to more directly… Or selling to an audience that has an affinity to that product. That’s a much more complicated process.
I don’t know that the publishers are quite there yet. They can create the content, but in terms of that full 360 view I think it’s more complicated than that. So you’re seeing that entire economy begin to evolve.
CP: Yeah. It’s a whole new economy that doesn’t necessarily squarely fit into any legacy approach, whether that’s coming at it through an agency, a media buyer, a publisher. There’s got to be a negotiation to make this work.
VS: And all of those disciplines are converging, right? So what used to be very separately, “This is what we go to an agency for, to do the creative for this particular campaign, this is our comms messaging, these are the stories are want to tell,”… All of these things are beginning to converge.
Good news organizations, it has to be said, are still extremely mindful […] You obviously don’t want your brands and your advertisers and your sponsors to influence the pure editorial content you’re doing. But with a few exceptions and a few errors that we see pop up in the news, the good ones are keeping that separate in the right away.
VS: Again, you can’t just put your content out there and assume it’s going to find the right audience. You need a very targeted, strategic approach that’s rooted in [asking], “Who are we trying to reach? What do we want to be known for? What does our brand stand for? How are we set up to create content for each of those platforms, for each of those demographics, at what time of day and making sure you have a very targeted approach to therefore how you distribute the content on those platforms to reach those audiences?”
So this is not rocket science.
Well, there is a little rocket science, actually.
VS: Yeah. There’s a little rocket science involved in this. But it’s important stuff.
I’m pleased to see that many publishers are coming along and understanding it. But we’re a long way from there being sort of the deep capabilities from many of these organizations.
CP: Even if the notion of brands as publishers isn’t the right way of thinking about it… It’s more brands as programmers. So you really need to be thinking about not only what is that story you want to tell, [but also] the formats that best tell the story, the time slots where it’s going to make the most sense for that content to resonate. And that really borrows from the world of TV.
VS: Right, that’s true. Well, to be a publisher is to be a programmer now. I mean, again, if the theme of this conversation is all the worlds are converging…
CP: It’s all coming together. Yeah.
VS: Exactly. You can’t just create the content and cross your fingers. You have to program it. It’s absolutely right. I mean, this is something that television has known for a long time. I think a lot of television organizations are still struggling with then how to convert that programming core competence into other platforms because it’s a different kind of programming.
But absolutely. I would say that publishing and programming are one in the same. Of course, the quality of the content matters. But it won’t add up to a hill of beans if you’re not getting it in front of the right people.
CP: So we still have lots of people that are very interested in the world of journalism. Clearly the world has never been in greater need of… It really provides more opportunity to go and tell some amazing stories through all the ways that we have been talking about.
But if you’re a student going into J-school, how do you think about it and what do you think is going to come out in terms of opportunity?
VS: [There] has been a sea change in journalism schools in the last 10 years, where it used to be that you would go in and you would major in magazine writing or broadcast reporting. Students now […] You’ve got to become a master of all trades.
So the advice that I would have is: Do it all. Learn how to shoot. Learn how to edit. Learn how to be on camera, even if you have to do it yourself, by holding your camera up in front of you. Learn how to write long form. Learn how to write short form.
Learn how to code. You don’t have to be an expert coder. But you need to understand the fundamental technology, and you need to be able to speak a language so that, when you’re working with technologists in whatever you do, you’re able to move together to create great products.
Understand the business side. Of course, underlying all of that is you need to understand the fundamental tenants of journalism. What makes for good journalism? Good, impartial, compelling storytelling.
But beyond that you need to understand the entire spectrum of the business. I am thrilled that there is still such deep interest in journalism. I think the generation of journalists that are coming of age now, they are going to crack the code and figure out what the models are that are going to keep this industry alive and thriving for generations.
CP: So the résumé. CNN. New York Times. NBC. NPR. Twitter. All in a digital — and, more deeply, a change management — role.
How are you able to have that great a look at so many organizations and really foster a culture of innovation that clearly has created a nice, sustainable view and an impact that you can have more broadly in the media business?
VS: Well, I think there’s a few principles that help foster change in an organization. One is to make people feel like they are in a safe space. That they can make mistakes and they are not going to get punished for it.
One of the most important things to create change is a culture of test and learn. That you could test something, and if it’s not working… If it works, great. You iterate.
That’s wonderful. The whole concept of the minimally viable product, I think, is extensible to every industry. But also, if it’s not working, it was well-intended. Let’s shut it down. Let’s celebrate. Let’s figure out what we learned from it and move it. So people feel safe to innovate. They are not going to be punished for it.
That breeds innovation. Innovation breeds innovation. That sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. If people in an organization see others are stretching their wings, they are going to want to do it too.
Sometimes you need to make changes in leadership so that you’ve got the right culture flowing downhill. But these kind of small steps begin to create a culture then that breeds innovation.
The other ting that I found is very valuable, and it’s one of the great ironies of our time. Never has it been easier for people to connect at great distances, but never has it been more important for people to come together face-to-face.
So the idea of co-location and not siloing organizations, making sure the technologists are sitting in the newsroom, are part of the conversation from the get-go, that social media is something you think about from the beginning of the content creation process and not at the end… Like, “Oh, can you slice me off a little of that internet for the story we just did?” All of those things make a huge difference.
CP: Okay. So out of all of that culture shifting and change management, what are you most prod of, looking back on some of the places you were at?
VS: I have fallen in love with every organization that I’ve ever worked at. I have this problem, which is, even when I talk about a place like CNN, which I left in 2002, when I talk about CNN I still say “we”. I just cared about it so deeply.
I’m just always mostly proud of the kind of stories and the kind of journalism that we told, and the ability to have an impact and to have people a little more informed or inspired throughout their day. That has not changed. The means to reach people has changed, but that core idea that we’re telling stories that are going to impact people’s lives — that, to me, is eternal.
From a PR perspective, the ascendance of visual influence requires that CEOs use video, visual social posts and mixed media needed to engage people online, including journalists and producers sourcing content for online articles.
As Facebook’sInstant Articles introduction suggests once more, social and traditional media platforms are deeply interconnected. Both are dependent on visual storytelling optimized for mobile. Eventually it will be hard to distinguish between the two.
Of course there’s a video to go with this year’s study, too:
A full 15 years after the publication of the book “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” Doc Searls stopped by our New York office to reflect on how far we’ve come (or not), where media are headed, and what CMOs can do to start realizing the full potential of the Internet.
Chris Perry: “Cluetrain” was so timely and influential for people who were really trying to connect the dots between what the Web could bring to communications, and what we could do to mobilize around it. How did the four of you come together, and what sparked all that interest when the site went live and the book took off?
Doc Searls: One interesting thing is that, even back in ’99, none of us were young. None of us were whippersnappers. I think three of us were around 50 and one of us was about 10 years younger, which seems very young now to me. But at that time it seemed, you know, that we were veterans. We’d all seen the Net coming. Like going back into the ’70s and ’80s, we saw what became the Internet developing. We thought, “This changes everything. This clearly changes everything. This clearly makes people, individuals, far more empowered than they ever were before.”
What happened instead was, rather than recognizing how this empowered everybody, it was kind of like, “Let’s put malls here. Let’s build all the crap that we already had in the everyday world.”
The website was a rant. Basically, we did not put a lot of art into it at all. We just thought, “Let’s put out the stuff we think is true.” What happened was, almost immediately, it caught on. The Wall Street Journal picked up on it and did a cover story for the Marketplace section. Almost immediately we got a book offer. We picked up on the first one that came along. And then, that summer, the summer of 1999, we wrote the book.
CP: So what came out of the book was not only individuals, but agencies like ours, and other companies, ended up being very curious about it. It’s like, “Jeez, how do you take that step to move from a certain way of operating to a whole new one?”
DS: [PR now] is better in many ways. There are lots of very smart and clueful PR companies and people, and the best firms are evolving into a whole new species adapted to the abundance of clues in the marketplace. But every day I still get lame press releases and pitches from people who have bought my email address and send me crap that’s clueless about my work as a journalist, and often about what they’re pitching as well. I’m sure when the end of the world comes, some PR firm will be ready with press releases pitching it as a “disruptive innovation” or whatever.
The problem is, and has been from the start, that marketing wasn’t built for conversation in the first place. It was built for statements. It was built for strategy. It was built for lots of things, but not talking directly to customers.
And one of the problems was that, politically inside organizations, marketing especially, in those days… There were no chief marketing officers. That was not even a term in those days. There were VPs of sales and marketing, and VP of sales and marketing was always a sales guy. It was not a marketing person.
I once brought this up with my wife many years earlier, who is very successful in business. I said, “Why is it that VPs of sales and marketing are sales people and not marketing people?” She said, “That’s easy. Sales is real, and marketing is bullshit.” I said, “Wait a minute,” because I had been in marketing. I said, “No, it’s not like that.”
Here’s the thing: Sales touches the customer; marketing can’t. So what marketing has to do is all the stuff that’s before touching the customer, and a lot of that is just strategy and that kind of softer thing, but not really touching the customer. So a lot of it does, frankly, turn into bullshit. A lot of it doesn’t, but there is a risk of that.
CP: So do you guys take credit for all these statements, at the end of ads: “Join the conversation”?
DS: I hate it. I actually hate it. I think, “You don’t get it. That’s not what it’s about.” What I meant by it in the first place was that markets are naturally physical places where people engage.
Every time I see “Join the conversation,” I follow that and see what actually happens. What usually happens is nothing, which means it’s just a BS problem again.
The Internet + media
CP: As we then fast forward maybe 10 years from “Cluetrain,” you have different schools of thought on what utility all this Internet-based capability can offer. There is one school of thought that says the Internet should be — at its core — a customer service medium. But then you have this huge trend around everyone looking at this medium as a content and media venue. Where do you balance between those two?
DS: I don’t think it’s a medium at all. The Internet is like gravity, and it pulls us all together. And we have hardly begun to figure out what to do with this yet.
It’s perfect for customer service. It’s perfect for sales. It’s perfect for forming social groups. It’s perfect for helping families communicate with each other. It’s perfect for sharing photographs. You can do anything on it. There is no limit to what can be done with it. And so what it’s done is sucked in all the other things called “media.”
CP: Speaking of media in all their different forms, and what’s happening with journalists and newsrooms, what’s your take on these? Where do you think this will end up?
DS: I think there’s a lot of creative destruction, but the destruction kind of happens first. The music industry is sort of the most obvious one in some ways, partly because it’s fought back the hardest.
But journalism, which is a profession of mine, I don’t make money at that any more. I couldn’t. Most journalists are out of business if they want to make money at it at this point. I can’t begin to name or count up the number of journalists that I know who are now doing other things. They’re not making money as journalists any more. That is over.
“Cluetrain” has been available from the start for nothing online, and people still buy the book. So there’s still this goodwill, a recognition of value. One of the things they say about this is that information wants to be free, but value wants to be paid for. We haven’t discovered new ways to value things yet.
CP: You have these personalities like the Walt Mossbergs of the world, and Kara Swishers of the world, who can afford to go out and they can become their own brand, and again, brand a new type of company. But Andrew Sullivan quit blogging.
DS: Right, and somebody was telling me he was making $800,000 a year. I had no idea it was that much. That’s on subscriptions. Wow!
To me, blogging is “CC: World.” It’s just emails to the world.
The way I blogged was, somebody would ask me a question, I will respond on my blog, if it makes that kind of sense. I’ll answer it out there and think of it as just “CC: World.” And I can go back and change it if I think of something better.
Blogging doesn’t have to be that big or heavy a deal, honestly. And I think a lot of people have gotten a lot out of it. I think it’s been deprecated a bit by Twitter and by Facebook and by these inventions that have made it easy to write it in other places. I think Tumblr is in there somewhere as well.
But I think all of civilization is scaffolding anyway. I could look outside the window here at all these buildings. Fast forward 20 years, half of these aren’t here, or they’re clad with something else, or something else has replaced them, or who knows.
CP: Yeah, that notion of “under construction” is really appropriate for a lot of the conversations we have inside of the company, and then with clients. I think for us, one of the more interesting areas that we’re diving into is that language is under construction. Moving from words to pictures, pictures to video, video to all kinds of different flavors of video, to the whole Emoji movement everyone is now talking about. That displacement of words to more quick, quick-sharing, image-based networking, again, is something that we see people engaging in more, clearly. The networks that allow this are seeing some pretty explosive growth, valuations. Where do you think that’s going?
DS: I think it’s all experimental. My advice to everybody is just keep trying new things. There’s a lot of stuff that is what I call “snow on the water.” Most tweets are like this at this point. They’ve got a half-life of seconds, sometimes. A lot of them get missed.
I’ve got 20-some-thousand followers on Twitter, and yet, if I use a short link for something, I’ll get dozens maybe clicking on that link — meaning that most of what people are seeing just scrolls by, just scrolls by.
To me, finding what’s durable, and permanent, and meaningful in the midst of all the noise is really hard right now, which is why you need to experiment more and more, and look at more and more ways of seeing what you can do that has some level of endurance, if not permanence, to it. Given the scaffolding theory, I don’t think anything is really permanent, but I think some things last longer.
There’s going to be live stuff, and there’s going to be stored stuff. There’s going to be stuff you pay for and stuff you don’t. There’s your 4×4, right there, and it’s all going to fall in one of those four quadrants: live, stored, paid, not. And working out where that goes.
CP: What is your take as Obama’s now having post-speech interviews with YouTube celebrities? The rise of the Instagram celebrity, this whole notion of visual influence, is something we’re talking about a lot inside of the shop here. What is your take on that in context of influence through blogging and, again, some of the more early-stage means of expression with the Web?
DS: We have a surfeit of content right now. We’ve got an infinitude of content, and a lot of it’s good. More of it’s good than ever was good before. But it shares some of that same problem, which is, “How do you find the good stuff?”
I think search right now is failing to some degree. [The major search engines] are still starting from the assumption that we are buying something all the time. And they’re going to want to throw ads at us all the time, and that’s their business model. That’s fine, but we’re not buying something all the time.
When we’re looking for something, we’re not necessarily looking for what they think we’re looking for. They’re guessing at us, and they’re guessing at us because they’ve got enormous amounts of data about us that is remarkably specious, and false, and partial, and incomplete, and leading to wrong conclusions.
Some of them are great. I mean, I don’t know how it kind of knew that I was looking for 909 Third Avenue. That was in this application, not in that one, but this one is telling me what I had on my calendar. How did the map app from a different company know that? I get creeped out trying to think about that. I don’t want them knowing that much, but on the other hand, that helped out. But I don’t have a sense of control about that.
That’s what’s missing here. These large companies doing guesswork at us subtracts from us the sense of control that we have, say, when we’re riding a bicycle or driving a car, or putting our clothes on in the morning, or talking on the phone. I’m in charge of all those things. I’m the driver. I’m in the driver’s seat.
We’re not in the driver’s seat when we’re in an app that’s guessing at us all the time at what we want. And a lot of the time we’re trying to defeat it. “No, I didn’t want to go there. No, I don’t want to know that. Help me find what I know I’m looking for. Let me be more in control of this.”
CP: OK, on a related topic, tell me a little bit more about what Project VRM [vendor relationship management] is all about.
DS: When I got a fellowship at the Berkman Center at Harvard in 2006, I was obliged to start a project. I wanted to make good on the promise of “Cluetrain,” basically, and I thought what we needed to do was to meet CRM with something that came from the customer’s side.
When I walk into a store, I don’t want them to go out of business because the store next door is better, or something like that. I want to help them out. But I also want scale. How do we get scale for customers? So those are some of the imperatives behind VRM, the idea being that we’re going to build, from the customers’ side, the tools and services required to match up with CRM and similar systems on the company side. Not as a “versus” thing, but as a complementary thing — a way to shake hands rather than to slap each other around.
CP: So an example would be what? If I’m a CMO, and I hear about this notion of VRM, and I’m trying to figure out new models — where do I start?
DS: Give the data you have on customers back to the customers and see what they do with it.
In 1981, if you said to an MIS director (which is what they were called back then, a Manager of Information Services), “What say you give computing power to everybody in your company? And to all the customers out there?” They would say you’re nuts. “No, we have people in lab coats on raised floors running big machines. They do the computing. Nobody else does the computing. This is a centralized thing.”
Well, it turns out, once PCs invaded companies, they could do much more. Individuals could do much more with computing than the companies could alone.
We’re going to see this with personal data: “Wait a minute. If companies start giving their data back to customers, maybe they could do more with it.” So that’s something that CMOs can do.
Generally, companies regard the data they’ve collected about customers as: “This is our asset, and we’re going to do big data with it.” Big companies are selling them big systems to crunch the big data so they can know the customer better than the customer knows themselves, which is completely wrong. On the face of it, that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the kind of wrongness — I’m trying to stifle an obscenity — that sort of prevails in enterprises today.
And I’m not saying that individuals can always do more with it than the companies can. But if both have it, more can get done in the long run. New systems can arise that allow you to reconcile both of them.
CP: Very disruptive stuff. And a lot is being talked about in terms of disruption, innovation, reinvention, transformation. What’s your take on all this buzzword-y stuff?
DS: To me it’s all fun. Let’s have fun with whatever we think we’re doing right now. But again, I don’t think customers want standing businesses disrupted or destroyed. I don’t want what are now called “ride-sharing services” to destroy the taxi business. I want both. The ride-sharing services aren’t really ride-sharing, they’re just another hack on dispatch, frankly. But they’re disruptive. And I fly into Newark airport, and the taxi companies now have their apps. Is that disruptive, or is that adaptive?
Everybody has to adapt. Again, it’s all scaffolding. Come up with new scaffolding. Have fun with it.
Chris Perry is Chief Digital Officer of Weber Shandwick.
This visual influence shift is not exclusively happening to the benefit of YouTube under a monopoly of new media mega stars. A long tail of niche creators with community followings on networks like Instagram, Snapchat and Vine now hold increasing sway too. Creators interested in virtually any conceivable subject or subcategory — nail art, vintage cars, fusion cuisine — are creative nodes capable of growing highly-engaged followers.
What was a trickle of micro celebrity influence on culture is a potential deluge spreading across social networks and into mainstream media. And it’s still early in the game.
Like him or not, his team’s approach to marketing their ideas is worth examining. I take a look at their strategy and execution for The Drum,noting: “Tune-in power — even for the President of the United States — is diminishing. We need to go to where the audience is. This is increasingly fractured and unfamiliar territory.”
Somewhat of an understatement.
Native advertising versus native content might be up for debate. But native mindset seems downright compulsory at this point. For more on what I mean by that, read the whole thing.