In an interesting post titled, ‘The broadcast-ification of social media‘, Jake Levine, General Manager of Digg writes that social media platforms are all evolving towards a more traditional broadcast media model. He writes about the relationship between content discovery and the quality of conversation: ‘group conversations get worse as groups grow, and groups grow as group discovery improves’. And such easy-to-discover large groups grow, it becomes less of a conversation and more of broadcast. And such a situation suits large brands, who are masters of such broadcast.
Brands (you know, the $$$) don’t know how to join small group conversations. They do, however, know how to shout at large groups of passive media consumers.
GigaOm followed up on this and called it the Bieber-effect, referring to the massive following he has on Twitter which ‘allows users to believe that they have some connection to Bieber’.
A related aspect to such broadcast-ification of the social web, is ‘mob-ification’. Most of the popular websites which cater to large interest groups – news, politics, tech, movies, sport offer commenting as an option, even on what is supposedly a factual recount of event – news (as opposed to an opinion in a blog). The commenting is made easy (through Facebook or other social media profiles) or ‘rewarding’ in some manner. One can ‘up vote’ a comment or get badges for your comment profile as an expert, top commenter and so on. The sites too play to the gallery by writing articles with page views in mind, typically with link-bait or sensational headlines. In personal tech, Apple is the favourite whipping boy or darling – depending upon your personal preference in tech brands. Writing anything about Apple – be it grossly negative, one sided, glowing, fulsome in praise or belittling – its guaranteed to get read and commented upon. It’s not just tech blogs that indulge in such practices, well-known newspaper groups do too. Our very own Times of India is a master in such practices – a leaf picked from their print business book.
During print-only days, loyalty towards a daily was pretty common. You subscribed to a daily and that pretty much was your source of news. Today, access to several newspaper titles, magazines and views are freely accessible on the net. So the news titles have to strive extra hard to acquire, retain and grow eye balls & page views. Aside from the content, ‘community building’ through comment participation is another tool to build loyalty.
In this context, comment is free for all without any meaningful moderation. Nothing is spared – film news, sad & unfortunate events, celebrities brands -all get a similar treatment. Just read through the comments section on this article to see what I mean (if you know Tamil you will be even more shocked). Unlike blogs, where the administrator can choose to block an inappropriate comment, most large social web properties do not have a strict control. When articles get comments by the thousands (which is an indication of how popular it is and thus encouraging someone to read it) the ‘moderation’ if you can call it that, is left to the readers themselves – who can reply, down vote, dislike, agree, disagree or report abuse. Going by popular content across YouTube, news sites, social media comment-enables tech blogs one can comment pretty much anything on these platforms. You just have to see some of the vile stuff that gets passed off as comment on any mildly provocative article about Apple, Android or Samsung in tech blogs. Aside from the blogs themselves who write content geared to generate flame wars, brands provide the fuel too, as is the case with Samsung in its fight against Apple.
What does it all mean for brands? Be prepared for surprises, especially the nasty ones. Some of the comments about the content you put up (it could be an innocuous ad) could be downright unpleasant. When Airtel shared their ‘Har friend zaroori’ ad on YouTube I remember seeing many comments about the poor network & service of the brand and very little about the ad itself. When British Airways aired their Olympics commercial, many questioned their marketing strategy. Apollo Hospitals ran a Twitter campaign recently promoting the hashtag #ApolloHospitalsQuiz. But the responses were far from favourable and many even poked fun of the brand.
Mob culture, especially in countries like India, will thrive on the social web because for many its their first opportunity to speak up and be heard. For many Facebook is the first exposure to the online world. And being able to comment upon a film star’s image is a big high for them – maybe they think they are conversing with the film star directly. And when brands ‘talk’ to them, it must make them feel good. It is also giving them the power to hit back at the brands. And strength being in numbers, popular the group, higher the decibel levels of the mob.
The implication for brands is to engage with a specialist set of consumers around a specific interest and not try to be everything to everybody. Being present across all platforms for the sake of it, is also unwise. While mobs will continue to exist, you find very little evidence of such behaviour in high quality content driven sites. Horace Dediu’s Asymco blog or Monday Note from ex-Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée are good examples. They provide great, thought-provoking around around a specialist subject and the conversation around these posts are a pleasure to read. There’s a pointer to brands right there.