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Friday, September 12, 2003

Commercial Weblogging

The Washington Post had an article yesterday - rather contemptuously entitled 'Making Blogs More Than Just What's For Dinner - about corporate weblogs. The justification for the article: the New Media Society's panel on that same topic. Now before I get into the more substantive detail, I would like to cite one curious anomaly in the article. The WP writer Ellen McCarthy informs us that - "One theory tossed around at the New Media Society event Tuesday night was that e-mail marketing is dead and business blogs are rising up as the replacement. While the medium may not be in its grave yet, powerful spam filters that block out corporate e-mails have certainly limited its effectiveness. But some proponents of blogging say the new business-development tool can succeed in ways e-mail never could." - and then goes on directly to quote panellist Bill Kearney to the effect that:

"I don't think e-mail is dead. I don't think it's any more difficult than it was two years ago; I just don't think it was ever that effective.........It's definitely sort of a nontraditional public that has largely wised up to marketing speak -- they can smell it from a hundred yards away."

. This quote is interesting (apart from the fact that they have an old link for Kearney) because it is about blogs and traditional media on the meta-level. It definitely gives one impression. But then go to the blog. In a post today, Bill Kearney says the following:

There's a buzz going on about lately claiming that e-mail is dead and that weblogs and/or RSS are a better alternative. This is bunk. Flat out wrong. Totally incorrect. Absolute nonsense. Claptrap. Or in other words, don't you believe it. There's a part of me that wants to say you can't call e-mail marketing dead if it was never alive. But I'm not quite that cynical. It would appear a great many efforts that have failed in their attempts to use e-mail marketing. This doesn't mean the medium was at fault. A lot of TV, radio and even newspaper campaigns have failed to garner the results expected. Yet nobody's running around chanting of their demise.

Think of it this way, does the existence of television mean radio is dead? Hardly. Likewise can be said for various forms of online activities. I'm reminded of the old saying "if your advertising campaign didn't work you obvious didn't do enough advertising." Weblogs and RSS are just another form of delivery for your message. Just as you wouldn't use only one form of traditional media to spread your message, you shouldn't think there's only 'one true way' to communicate your message electronically.

Suffice to say, take a hard look at who's trying to promote the idea that one form of delivery is somehow better than existing ones.... Yep, it's the people bent on selling you on the new tools and techniques. Do not be deluded into thinking e-mail is dead and that weblogs are it's replacement. They're complementary; something you should be using in parallel. But here's an important concept to think about: authenticity. How authentic is the message you deliver to your audience? How likely, on consuming that message, are they to come away with a feeling that you're the source of on-going value and leadership?

Now this is not the diametrical opposite, but certainly Kearney does seem to be saying something slightly more subtle. The WP gives the impression that weblogs could replace e-mailing, Kearney is actually arguing that the various techniques can run in parrallel. There are two possible reasons for this difference in emphasis: either, Kearney changed his mind between one moment and the next, or, the WP quote is a gross ovesimplification. In either case this is something which is far more likely to slip past in the old media than in the new. One up for weblogs. I'm sure Tacitus would be very happy to be able to get off the hook so easily. (NB this comes from a journalist who in the same article asserts: that blogs have "acted as a sounding board for would-be political pundits and pseudo-experts on any given topic". And what, one may ask, have the old media served as a sounding board for. There's a Spanish expression that comes to mind: poner-se en evidencia!) Incidentally that this is an inherent difficulty in old media can be verified by comparing/contrasting the economics content of Krugman's NYT column and Brad's posts and comments over at semi-daily journal. Apart from the difference in depth, there is the give and take evolution of a point through commenting). I suspect that this is repeated, time after time after time. It is even true when I observe my own behaviour. I would never read a political/ gossip columnist, but when I need some light relief I often check out Calpundit or Tacitus. Especially the 'open tread', yes especially that, this week 250+ comments on no topic whatsoever.)

Now for the meat. The interesting point here is Kearney's last one, that of 'authenticity'. This is what the old school marketing lacks, and what blogging can appear to offer. Blogger Scott Knowles, who is also cited, puts another perspective on the debate:

Last night's Conversations with Your Market blogging panel went well. The audience was surprisingly light on bloggers -- most were just interested in learning more about "what all the hype" has been about. I'd say the break down was about 40% bloggers, 40% blog "voyeurs" (a term used by panelist Mike Hazzard), and 20% just curious.

The panel discussion was engaging and typical at the same time. It was probably the right mix for audience we had. No new ground was broken and Debbie Weil (who I realized I had been mispronouncing her name since subscribing to her newsletter --- its 'wile' not 'weel') said as we were leaving "It went well, but I'm not sure what we accomplished" to which I replied "Isn't that what blogging is all about?"

One of the topics included whether aggregators will replace email newsletters. Not until recently have I thought perhaps. But it makes total sense to me. Why not subscribe to RSS feeds and have them pulled from a website when email is overwhelming in its volume of not only spam but legitimate email. I give it 2 years until most email newsletters are delivered via RSS. Some of the audience members gasped when Bill Kearney, RSS guru, suggested such a thing.

Bottom Line: congratulations to Scott, since he manages to do what I thought was impossible, make a blog about marketing readable. I think the whole key to the situation here can be found in two earlier texts from the dot-com heydey the cluetrain manifesto (mentioned by Kearney in his blog) and the attention economy . Re-reading these today it is possible to see that many of the ideas advanced in the 'heady' days of the late nineties, were not so much wrong as ahead of their time.

Cluetrain's thinking is based on two ideas: that 'markets are conversations', and that - at least starting with the early adopters and moving out - 'coach potatoeing' is a dying art. (Six-pack Joe is getting bored, or as Brad used to say: 'you can get tired eventually of watching something which only marginally better than looking straight up at the ceiling). Both of these ideas come together, in a strange sort of way, in the idea of the attention economy. The conversation - and here authenticity and trust, the medium of the message - has a high value in attracting attention, and the large attention time-spans needed to reach people over the tradtional TV platform are getting more and more difficult to obtain in the era work flexibilisation and 'less for more', at least among the higher income groups who, ironically, probably put a higher value on their time.

In case you haven't read it, Michael Glodharber's piece in First Monday is well worth the effort:

This is a conference on the "Economics of Digital Information." My guess is that most of the speakers, and most of the listeners interpret that title to mean that while "digital information" requires special consideration enough to justify a special conference, the basic meaning of the word "economics" can be taken for granted. What we are to be concerned with is how prices, costs, productivity, and so forth apply to digital information.

My vantage point is quite different. What we mean by economics cannot be taken forgranted if what we are taking about is the economics which applies, say, to the Internet, or more generally to cyberspace, or more generally still, to life in the foreseeable future. We are moving into a period wholly different from the past era of factory-based mass production of material items when talk of money, prices, returns on investment, laws of supply and demand, and so on all made excellent sense. We now have to think in wholly new economic terms, for we are entering an entirely new kind of economy. The old concepts will just not have value in that new context.

Of course, there is nothing so new about the insight that the Internet is part of a revolutionary change in the way we do things and also in why we do them. Many names for the new era have been invoked: the information age, the Third Wave, the move towards cyberspace, all of which point, vaguely at least to the fact that new patterns of activity and of interrelationships among people are now emerging. The trouble with that insight is that it is so vague that you can easily agree with it without feeling the necessity of changing your economic thinking in the least. My effort over the past several years - it's embarrassing to admit how many - has been to overcome that vagueness, to come up with specifics about what this revolution actually implies. My conclusions are that we are headed into what I call the attention economy.

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