Digg, Reddit, and activists

Anyone who seeks to build an online following should pay close attention to the hot steaming mess that Digg stepped in this week.

The social news site announced changes which sounded like a good idea (at least I thought so) a few weeks ago, changes which promised to expand Digg’s following by making it more accessible to outsiders.  The one problem was Digg’s existing audience, which liked the way the site worked just fine.

Over the past 12 hours, Digg’s main news page has been riddled with submissions from competitor site Reddit – and it looks like Diggers offended by the site renovation are more than happy to help the enemy game the system, given the amount of complaints that have been flying about the redesign.

Digg’s mistake lies in not understanding what their community was passionate about.  Diggers liked a community that worked on certain rules and had certain values, and changing those rules and values to let others in diluted what they held dear.  Put another way, you can get more people at the Star Wars club meeting if you let the Star Trek people in; but the people who started coming to the meetings in the first place may not want more people if it means half the room will be wearing Spock ears.

Any membership organization runs a similar risk.  People join groups – whether it’s a social news site, a political party, a club, or a gang – because of some common ground.  When you peck away at that boundary, you risk alienating your members.

The Bengals’ wired receivers

Here’s some NFL history in the making: the Cincinnati Bengals will have two wideouts lining up this year with their own iPhone applications, which may be a first.  Terrell Owens put the finishing touches on his on the eve of training camp. Chad Ochocinco already had his own app, plus has been a fixture in social media spaces like UStream and Twitter.

This could be interesting.  The concept of NFL teams dealing with larger than life personalities trying to exist in the same locker room is nothing new, but having those personalities connected to all the channels of communication available could make for some fireworks. Getcha popcorn ready.

The viral campaign your viral campaign could smell like

So much has been written about the success of  Old Spice’s social media campaign this week, that to say too much about it would be redundant.  But there are a few facets of this campaign which translate well to other attempts to create viral interest online, whether it be for a brand like Old Spice, a cause, or a candidate.

1.  Engagement. The central theme of the campaign was keeping random folks involved, and making an effort to actually answer questions from random internet surfers.  The behind-the-scenes strategy was a little bit more sophisticated than that; the team behind the campaign made sure certain bloggers and social media savvy celebrities – key influencers of the online conversation – were targeted to ensure their exposure spread.

2.  Speed. Creating the videos required rapid-fire recordings and uploads, which was no doubt made for a few intense days for “Old Spice Man” actor Isaiah Mustafa.  This short burst of productivity allowed Old Spice to strike while the iron was hot.  That level of immediate responsiveness is the difference between a campaign getting some attention for launching a website before quickly getting stale and enjoying an extended media cycle where they drive the conversation by constantly giving people something to talk about.  Much like in baseball, speed can slow the game down.

3.  Context. None of this would have been possible without a resonant base concept.  Old Spice had spent months cultivating the image of the unthreateningly arrogant and unfailingly confident Old Spice Man, and even more time building its brand as a tongue-in-cheek advertiser.  This week’s campaign did not happen in a vacuum; the online success was supported by months of support from traditional television advertising.

4.  Content. The fact that Mustafa’s Old Spice Man and the commercials were ridiculous and off beat – in other words, entertaining – helped immensely.  The traditional model of advertising for big brands is sponsoring entertainment such as television shows.  Old Spice essentially created entertainment.  It’s nothing new – Budweiser has been making ads that told stories for decades.  It’s just more important in a media environment where it’s tough to catch eyeballs.

One thing to note is that Old Spice is not a nicle and dime start up.  Before the last year or so of quirky ads, it had a long-standing reputation as a stalwart in the field of optimal men’s odors.  In such a position, many brands would have forged a “Coca Cola campaign” – highlighting their history and strength.  It would have been safe but probably not as successful as their current strategy, which allows them to compete with the more sophomoric positioning of competitors like Axe without sacrificing the their old school street cred.

Coming to a theater near you: Facebook

The first full-length trailer for The Social Network is up, appropriately enough, on YouTube:

There’s no doubt that the inception of Facebook has been a significant development in internet consumption; and it’s one of the most interesting business stories out there.  But after a decade of startups promising to redefine how we use the internet, the “this is going to change everything” rhetoric is a little tired.

So from this trailer, this movie could be any – or all – of the following:

  • Deeply fascinating
  • A trite waste of time
  • Mildly entertaining
  • Creepy (as underscored by the cover of Radiohead’s Creep that the trailer is set to)
  • A way to spend two hours ostensibly with people while paradoxically not interacting with anyone or anything except a glowing screen

Sounds like the perfect movie about Facebook.

Foursquare of July

Like Mindy Finn of Engage and others, I’ve been trying to figure out Foursquare – not necessarily because I like it, but because it’s my job to know how it works, and how it can be applied.

Vincent Harris of TechRepublican has some good ideas about it, and businesses like Whole Foods have gotten on the bandwagon by asking users to check in.  Some offer discounts for check ins or mayorships.

Yesterday, I was chatting with a small business owner and soon-to-be restaurateur  about ways he could use it for his business.  He wasn’t sold on its utility.  When I checked in at Nationals Park to watch the Washington One-Man Show, a Facebook friend made fun of me for playing “that stalker game.”

It seems like many just aren’t quite sure what to make of Foursquare yet, which is reminiscent of another social media/network craze from a few years ago: Twitter.  When Twitter first hit, it instructed users to tell everyone what they were doing – making it sound like a glorified Facebook status update.  When people started understanding the ability to communicate in public conversations with 140 characters – and the concept of microblogging – Twitter became more than its founders probably imagined it would.

As Foursquare becomes more prevalent, more businesses, organizations, and campaigns will start to take advantage of the ability for people to check in electronically from their phone, and the utility will become more obvious.  Until then, here’s a very telling metric that indicates this isn’t a passing fad: Foursquare’s current value is $95 million, and they’re planning to expand.

Hunting Macaca

Politico’s headline “Democrats seek ‘Macaca moments” aptly describes the DNC’s new Accountability Project, which invites citizens to record and upload videos of Republican politicians saying dumb things.

Because it’s actually a good idea, this has resulted in some hand-wringing on the right amid fears that Democrats are better at grassroots internetting than Republicans.  But that ignores why this is a good idea: the Accountability Project is a national aggregator and message device.  It seeks to crowdsource the Democrats’ messaging to take to most loony Republicans they can find and hold them up as the standard.  It is a pretty clear attempt to re-gain the reins of the national policy debate, which have slipped through the Democrats’ fingers in the past few months.

All that said, by driving messages that show the Republicans are out of touch, Democrats will save their skin and keep control in November.  (They may have done so anyway, but a few macaca moments will help curb GOP momentum.)

So how to combat this?  It’s pretty easy.

Republicans have cameras too, and Democrats are just as prone to saying and doing stupid stuff in front of those cameras.  What if some enterprising conservative with a flip cam catches them in a gaffe, then uploads the video?  It would seem the obvious way to hold the Accountability Project accountable.

Washington, TMZ

The Washington Post’s David Weigel found himself the object of DC gossip columnists for venting on a journalists-only message board – and, before that, for – gasp – dancing at a wedding.

Weigel was a target for this because of his coverage of Congressman Bob Etheridge’s reaction to a couple political paparazzi.  (And incidentally, Weigel was right – Etheridge does look like he’s hugging the camera guy.)  The reaction that he went easy on Etheridge led to his explosion on the list, which snowballed into an even bigger deal, and led to his resignation.  Both his situation and Etheridge’s are part of a bigger trend in DC media.

The last few years have seen the launch of several DC gossip blogs and columns.  Instead of tracking the latest developments on pending legislation (as, say, an MLB gossip blog might cover trade rumors) they cover such matters of national import as the dressing habits and sometime stupidity of summer interns.  It’s not altogether bad, as it’s often entertaining;  But it’s a noticeable trend.

It would be easy to blame this trend on media saturation, but that would be an oversimplification.  This is an environment built on purpose by politicians and their communications professionals.  From state dinners to the White House Correspondents’ dinner, events which were once matters of course are increasingly staged as red carpet galas.  (This year, Politico likened the White House Correspondents’ dinner to the Oscars.)  Celebrities are routinely invited to testify before Congress as experts.

At the same time, much like Hollywood, Washington has created supporting industries around its main business, governing.  Just as movie makers need agents, consultants, special effects companies, costume designers, and other supporting industries, politicians need… well, agents, consultants, special effects companies, and costume designers.  With a community built around a central function, there’s bound to be an esprit de corps that binds people together even more than partisan leanings.

The casualties in this are, of course, old school folks like Etheridge and Weigel.  However, it’s important to note that their failures to adapt are for somewhat different reasons.  Etheridge isn’t used to have to answer questions directly; while Weigel is likely accustomed to the direct, personal questioning that is often a casualty of gossip blog culture.

Being the media

Last night I spoke at the Leadership Institute‘s Public Relations School on writing effective press releases.  It’s a talk I’ve been giving since 2002, but since then it has obviously changed pretty considerably.

The most significant change has been in the forms a press release has taken.  Eight years ago a basic press release was a one-page document written like a news story that was emailed and faxed to a media list, or distributed through a press release service.  Today, through formats like social media releases, plus tools like easy blogging and media hosting platforms (like Flickr and YouTube), organizations and campaigns can augment their news releases with all kinds of extras.

And frankly, if they aren’t doing that, they’re missing out.

The media landscape has changed, too.  Bloggers and power social network users can reach thousands of people.  There’s no reason to wait for traditional media outlets to create content that can be picked up virally.  The Washington Times mentioned how this helped insurgent candidates circumvent the media in upsetting candidates hand-picked by political parties:

Just as important, platforms such as YouTube have given long-shot candidates ways to circumvent political reporters reluctant to cover campaigns they don’t believe have much chance of success…Most prominent is Florida, where former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a darling of the “tea party” movement, had nearly 20 times the video views in late May as Gov. Charlie Crist, whom Republican leaders had recruited into the race. Mr. Crist has since fled the Republican Party to run as an independent.

One key element of public relations hasn’t changed, of course: the importance of having a strong, well-framed message.  If a tree falls in the forest, and no one’s around to tweet about it, it won’t make the front page – but the tree has to fall first.

Romance, sarcasm, math, language, and crowdsourcing controversy

Web comic XKCD – which chronicles stick figures discussing physics, science fiction, and computer programming – has unwittingly (or possibly wittingly) touched off a mini-controversy on  Wikipedia.

The original comic featured a made-up word made up of words that dealt with making up words (with the original words, ostensibly, disproportionately popular on Wikipedia).  Don’t be ashamed if that seems tough to follow – any web comic that has an explanatory blog is pretty high-end stuff to begin with. What isn’t tough to follow is that some enterprising fans created a Wikipedia entry for the made up word.

The ensuing debate among Wikipedia users and site editors took 19,000 words and resulted in searches for the word (“malamanteau”) redirecting to XKCD’s own Wikipedia entry.  But it illustrates a good cautionary tale for user-generated content: it’s best to have good site rules up in advance in case you want to maintain any semblance of message control down the line.

And it’s also good to keep an eye on Wikipedia.  Anyone can edit it, including people who might not have good things to say about you.

5 Truths of the YouTube Age

YouTube is celebrating not only turning five, but reaching 2 billion views per day.  In the decade before YouTube, internet publishing and blogging had become commonplace.  But though the internet had long been a place where anyone could put their work out there (as long as they didn’t mind not getting paid for it), YouTube’s video sharing platform – along with technology that made quality video devices cheaper – turned everyone into a video producer.  Anyone could be Cecil B. DeMille.

That said, not everyone can effectively communicate on YouTube.

1.  Video is now essential to message delivery.

Political communication has always been a matter of telling stories, and no medium can tell a story like video. In 1960, the story of the cool, collected, and telegenic JFK as the harbinger of a new political generation was cemented by his now-famous debate performance; in 2008, the story of Barack Obama as the idealistic, optimistic harbinger of a new political generation was cemented by a music video adapted from one of his speeches that seized upon the phrase, “Yes We Can.”

Politicians can try to position themselves with stump speeches and media appearances, and their surrogates can attempt to provide “objective” support.  People believe what they see.  That makes effective online video a must-have.

The reality of modern politics is that if you can’t make your case in a YouTube video, you have no chance of winning the hearts and minds of the public.

2.  Brevity is art.

Part of the “effectiveness” factor is being able to boil an argument down to the point where it fits in a two-to-five-minute video clip.  Case in point: one citizen activist was able, in 1:38, to sum up just how insignificant a 2009 federal budget cut proposal was:

3.  The best ideas come from others.

The best part about YouTube is the opportunity for participation from the initiated, regardless of their “official” role.  Obama’s nascent 2008 campaign had a lot of energy, yet it was tough for people to discern exactly what kind of change he offered.  All Democrats were, in fact, plugging away at that theme after eight years of a Republican administration.  But one Obama supporter – whose involvement in the campaign was tangential, though his enthusiasm wasn’t – summed it up by repurposing a famous 1984 Macintosh commercial:

The Obama campaign could not have cut this ad – it’s too direct, and it uses images and clips which are most likely protected by copyright.  By supporting user generated content like this, YouTube invited a new level of citizen participation.

4.  Compelling content is the most important factor in attracting an audience.

Never has publishing content been easier.  Yet because of this, never has it been more important to create quality content: media consumers have plenty of choices.

And don’t let the lists of the most-viewed YouTube videos that tend to focus on music videos fool you: quality viewers are more important than total viewers.  If New York voters see George Allen call an opponent’s campaign volunteer a word that sounds like an ethnic slur, they may be offended.  If Virginia voters see it, they can actually take action and vote against him (which they did).

5.  Online video is a social experience

It’s counter-intuitive: We think of the internet as this highly personalized frontier, where each user has the utmost control over the news he or she reads or the entertainment he or she consumes.  Humans are social beings, and the internet augments that.

YouTube’s comments, video responses, subscriptions, and other site tools make it more than a place to post and share media; YouTube is a social network built on user connections.

But more that, YouTube success is based on the ability of an idea to pass from one person to another.  High-ranked YouTube videos don’t amass viewers from independent searches, they come from recommendations.  It’s the most obvious viral medium.

Just make sure you don’t say anything stupid.