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Microsoft Public Sector: The Bright Side of Government?


My colleague Steve Lunceford from Deloitte called my attention to a new Facebook Fan Page that Microsoft Public Sector (government group) started, called “The Bright Side of Government.” From an initial glance, it looks pretty cool. First, there are a lot of nice features, including YouTube videos from Microsoft principals, and links to local and state governments using emerging technologies in new ways. There’s a theme to the page that’s greater than the Microsoft brand. And there are some links to other sites like Twitter and LinkedIn where people can connect deeper or converse with the people behind the site.

In the recent past, I’ve been somewhat critical of the Federal government’s Facebook Fan Pages; perhaps this “cause branding” tactic is something that Web and Public Affairs folks in the government should look at. For example, rather than have an EPA “Fan Page” (Who’s truly a fan of the Environmental Protection Agency? How many people wake up in the morning excited about new environmental regulations or inland waterway policy?), have a page devoted to news and information, and yes, fandom, over a larger movement: “Green for America, Green for Everyone” (or whatever).

Second, there is a call to action on the Fan Page. At the time I looked at the page, the status update stated: “Is your city/county/state/agency on Facebook? Share it with us so we can add it to the Bright Side Stars tab!” One of the biggest challeges I’ve faced as co-chair of the Government 2.0 Expo is finding local government success stories in the realm of social technology and new media; The bright Side of Government may become a resource people like me who are trying to plan well-balanced and thoughtful events in the Gov 2.0 space. People and groups that develop unique resources and generously give them to the community develop strong brand engagement with their communities.This isn’t a fair post, because I’m not looking at other companies. Who else in Microsoft’s sector (Intel, Apple, Cisco, Google…) has something similar, or worse? What about brands more generally, how does this effort by Microsoft Public Sector stack up?

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Does Government Create Incredible Experiences Or Avoid Bad Outcomes?


This morning, marketing blogger Seth Godin asked the question, “How much of time, staffing and money does your organization spend on creating incredible experiences (vs. avoiding bad outcomes)?” This really hit home to me as someone who spends time thinking about how marketing broadly defined fits into government missions.

Under the framework of what we call Government 2.0, I’ve written a bit lately about how government can use social networking and new marketing to tell citizens and other stakeholders about the great things they’re doing. I think that proactively putting out compelling content is a great tactic, and how small, innovative, engaging events can create very memorable brand experiences. I’ve also been publicly critical of the lame Facebook Fan pages that Federal government agencies have, among other “lame” aspects of Gov 2.0 – From my vantage point, a lot of effort seems to go into avoiding bad outcomes, rather than creating incredible experiences.

There are good reasons for some of the “avoiding downsides” stuff, but where are the limits? No one ever seems to know how to answer that question for me. People tell me to praise them because, well, at least they have a Facebook Fan page – it’s new media! But at what date am I allowed to criticize you because you never took the slightest risk with it? To quote Godin:

“Here’s a rule that’s so inevitable that it’s almost a law: As an organization grows and succeeds, it sows the seeds of its own demise by getting boring. With more to lose and more people to lose it, meetings and policies become more about avoiding risk than providing joy.”

I avoid meetings like the plague (unless they’re at happy hour), but I know a lot of people who have to attend lots of them as part of their jobs in Washington, DC. So I ask, particularly to those who are interested in “change” and Gov 2.0 and participatory government and all these other related topics: How often is the topic of your meetings about creating an incredible citizen experience?

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Putting the Public Back in Public Relations: Crooked Monkey Style


T-shirtI hadn’t heard of the popular t-shirt company Crooked Monkey until I was invited to an exclusive party they recently held. You see, even though they get great press from actors wearing their shirts in movies and magazines talking about their fashion styles, Crooked Monkey is based in Washington, DC not widely known as the fashion capital of the country. And they wanted to do some local brand building.

This wasn’t just any party. Sure, there were attractive guests in a cool setting with great drinks and music all the usual stuff. It was what they did differently that made it the most memorable event Ive been to in a long time.

Lets start with how I even found out about the event a secretive email from someone I didn’t know telling me that my friend recommended me as a guest for the event. This is somewhere in between Facebook and Eyes Wide Shut.  Then, a request for my home address, to which was mailed a package containing an envelope with a paper invitation, and also a sparsely decorated white t-shirt, which I was required to save for the party two months later and bring with me to gain admittance. Finally, a bag of tart banana candies finished the package.

Further inspection revealed that the event was on a Sunday night (no night is safe from parties!) at a secret location to be given to us later. Keep in mind that I dont know the person behind the party, nor the other guests, and now also not the location. Still later I discovered by email invitation that the event would be in a warehouse in a not-so-savory part of Washington, DC and that we MUST bring our white t-shirts because wed be doing something with them on the night of the event.

When the day of the event came, I really couldn’t stand not knowing anything! I texted the contacts I had for the event to ask questions, but they revealed little. I emailed some socialite friends to try to figure out who else would be there we knew it would be all tastemakers of different sorts, but no one really knew who was going, which was exciting. I used Google Maps to investigate the location of the warehouse. I stressed about what one wears to such events (I think I chose well!).

Even the party itself was very engaging. An artist created a mural from our white t-shirts that we used for entry right in front of our eyes. An old-fashioned photo booth let us take pictures with each other, and the photo strips had (what else?) a Crooked Monkey logo on them.  Even the name of the event Photoshoot at the Warehouse gave the party an active quality.

Do you detect a pattern here? Crooked Monkey kept busy, elite attendees who get invited to tons of events mentally engaged with their event for weeks. They made us part of telling their story. They got us to talk about their brand before, during, and after the event.  And in the end, the event delivered with a cool venue, outstanding bar, fun atmosphere, and lots of fashion.

Photoshoot at the Warehouse is a great example of putting the public back in public relations and brand engagement. How great? Im writing an entire post about them – and I dont even like wearing t-shirts!

This post originally appeared on Brian Solis’ PR 2.0 site.

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Cheezburger Network as a Model for Citizen Engagement?


I was fortunate enough to attend a talk series at Google DC earlier today featuring Ben Huh, the CEO of Cheezburger Networks. These are the folks responsible for fun, engaging, user-generated content sites like FAILblog, LOLcatz, GraphJam, ThereIFixedIt, and ThisIsPhotoBomb.com – good stuff. They get over 11 million viewers a month, and have more people vote on an average LOLcat than people that vote in a typical Congressional election.

The government and other large organizations, who typically are not great at engaging their citizens and customers, might want to take this stuff more seriously. Their motto, to “make people happy for five minutes a day” isn’t a bad one. Wouldn’t you like to work for an agency that had that motto?

Someone actually asked Ben a question about the topic of Government 2.0, being in DC as we were. What is the role of concepts like these websites contain in a participatory government? Paraphrasing greatly, to build big, fun communities that can accomplish something, the government must make it very simple to get involved. They have to “narrow the number of variables involved in the decision process,” Ben said. Then, people who want to get more involved can take a second and a third step in a process if they want. I think the key takeaway for getting busy people involved in something within five minutes is: “low barrier to entry.”  Does your government website meet that standard?

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Proactive Social Media: Filling the Information Space With Great Content


I recently gave a talk titled Free the People! at the Potomac Forum’s Government 2.0 Leadership, Collaboration, and Public Engagement Symposium in Washington, DC that generated enough interest for me to post my slide deck and write a summary for a wider audience. These thoughts constitute some of my early ideas about “offensive social media” for organizations (this talk was particularly geared towards a government audience, but the fundamentals apply to the private and public sectors more broadly).

Read the rest of this article at the PR 2.0 blog!

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Making Whuffie With Julia Allison


You can’t eat whuffie, but it’s getting harder to eat without it, as Tara Hunt says in The Whuffie Factor.  For the uninitiated, think of whuffie as an alternative to money – a reputation-based currency that started as a concept in a science fiction novel, now being applied to online business. Hunt’s interesting central thesis is that in order to successfully change social capital into market capital, company employees need to be authentic community members engaging in meaningful participation where their contributions often outweigh personal gains.

Typically, someone can raise whuffie by promoting something bigger than one’s own self-interests. This kind of community participation, as Solis and Breakenridge write in Putting the Public Back in Public Relations has become certral to marketing, branding, and influence: “Social media enables one to aggregate and promote your online brand while nurturing and managing important relationships.”

When I think of using online tools for public relations I often think of Julia Allison, who one year ago graced the cover of Wired ostensibly for her mastery of so-called “internet fame” and possibly translating it into real fame, and a profitable business. Since reading her relationships advice column in AM New York when I lived in Manhattan circa 2003, I’ve been familiar with Julia for a long time. More recently, with each of us shifting our interests to social technology, I’ve had the opportunity to hear her speak and meet with her. (Stealing a page from the fameball playbook, I even got the requisite photo with her and her dog during Internet Week 2008 – almost the same week of the Wired cover story.)

She is nothing if not a fascinating enigma; I believe we talked about the neuroscience of dating. So when pondering what I might write as a PR 2.0 guest column, I thought it would be interesting and instructive to look at the rise of Julia Allison as a “case study” in personal branding, and compare and contrast her career path with the tenets of raising whuffie.

Read the rest of this article at Brian Solis’ PR 2.0 blog.

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Your Digital Audience Listens In Multiple Theatres


Last night, a social media consultant and Massachusetts political candidate whose writing I follow, Ari Herzog, unfollowed everyone he was following on Twitter and started from scratch.  And he’s done this before, all the while engaging in conversation with people about why he’s following who he’s following, and why he’s changing his tactics.  He’s probably the only person I’ve seen wholesale delete all his followers and start over.  Sounds crazy, right?

Wrong.  First, it’s good to do your own thing, and you don’t have to explain yourself to anybody.  Second, it’s good to reassess things you’re doing to see if they still work, if they’re still relevant to meeting your goals.  Third, as Ari says, Twitter is not Facebook, it’s not an email list, it’s not a Rolodex – meaning, the people you interact with on different platforms do not necessarily have to be the same.

In fact, it’s probably better that all the people you know don’t use all platforms equally.  I know people that love Microsoft Outlook for sharing news and information, others that use Facebook a lot but don’t microblog, and still others that worship shiny digital objects like Twitter and Friendfeed.  A tenet of new marketing is to go where the people you want to talk to already are; well, if you mainly interact with someone on one platform and they rarely use another one, why bother trying to interact with them on the second one?  Streamline your operations and do things that work to meet your goals.

Update: Robert Scoble unfollows almost 100k people, and wants to start a new movement – http://friendfeed.com/scobleizer/03d1701f/new-twitter-movement-unfollow-everyone

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Negative Conversations With Your Attackers


I saw an interesting quotation this morning from a Social Media Club event in DC that focused on crisis communications: “Every negative attack is the start of a conversation.“  I’m not sure I agree.

“Conversation” is perhaps the hottest buzzword of Web 2.0 – your customers are having conversations, companies should participate in conversations, new media marketing is a conversation, if you’re not part of the conversation it’s happening without you, and so forth. Entire books have been written on the topic. Even I’m guilty of promoting this idea in the government space.

And conversations are fine. But is every negative attack truly the beginning of a conversation? Does every frown have the potential to be turned upside down? (And how does that scale?)

Having a conversation about some one’s negative reaction to your brand, company, government office, situation etc. is a nice strategy, but the concept of negative attacks leading to positive conversations is based on the assumption that people will always engage in rational discussions with you.

They don’t. Naivety, ideology, and stupidity are all common in society’s discourses. People make emotionally-fueled arguments all the time (this Fox News “discussion” about views on abortion and the President receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame isn’t a bad example). People often cling to strongly-held beliefs, even in the face of contradictory information, or data that oppose their views. Many conversations are irrational, or at best only partly rational. I would go so far as to say that partly rational discussions are the norm.

Economics is perhaps the field of study most heavily influenced by the finding that people behave irrationally. Traditional assumptions about economic behavior included participants in financial markets having perfect information and making rational choices related to adding value (i.e., obtaining money). But more recent research has shown that this is often not the case, and that this irrationality can spawn larger effects through complex systems.

Perhaps also with the field of communications. As hip as the concept of “communications as conversations” is, sometimes it’s best to not touch your detractors with a ten-foot pole. When peoples’ comments are irrational, when their views ignore available facts, when they’re too busy or too dumb or too angry to care what you have to say, a negative attack isn’t the start of a conversation. It’s the end of a relationship.

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Reviving the Reality Television Genre


Last night, the lovely Joan Rivers was awarded the title of “The Apprentice” on Donald Trump’s show, now in it’s…hmm, well, I don’t know what season they’re in anymore. I stopped watching years ago. Frankly, the only people I remember are Bill someone-or-other (because he won the first season and smokes cigars), Omarosa no-last-name-needed (because I met her again recently and she is fierce), and Rebecca Jarvis (who I crush on when I watch her report on CNBC).

Reality television programming is dying a very, very slow death. Who can’t see this coming? Older brands like The Apprentice, Survivor, and American Idol simply have lost their buzz, and many others are completely gone from our minds (remember Paradise Hotel?) Even a relatively good, relatively new show like The Hills is based on an older show, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, practically a distant memory now. (Trust me, I used to live in Orange County, and I loved it, but once you get past talking about blondes, the beach, and beer there’s little more material to build on.)  Sure, some of these shows still make money, but which direction are the trendlines pointing? The reality television bubble is ready to pop.

But is reality entertainment played out, as well? Not hardly. Most everyone loves people watching. Freelancers sitting in Starbucks looking at each other pretending to work on laptops practically passes for a reasonable business model. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers mine Twitter for gossip and news and jobs and the newest battle-of-the-geeks-they-don’t-know. Facebook is making it easier and easier to stalk your best friends, your worst enemies, and people you’d like to know in cities you don’t live in. Television channels like E! remain popular, Ryan Seacrest has four jobs, and magazines like People still fly off the shelves as they report on every triviality of celebrity life. No extra pound is too small, no frenemy too obscure, no vacation too remote to report on.

Let’s face it. We love reality, and the masters of the genre know it. Ashton Kutcher has a million Twitter followers, yes, but others are quickly catching on to the new interface between emerging personal media technologies and personalized public relations. None other than Paris Hilton has recently been Twittering her way through a weeklong beach paradise vacation with her boyfriend. Reporting that the paparazzi hadn’t found her yet, she herself was photographing and publishing their experience for thousands of her fans. How long before she is using a Flip cam or live streaming on Qik? (How long until her publicist has to take a pay cut?)

Less popular but still interesting people are doing the same things. Blogger and Air America Radio personality Ana Marie Cox spent her weekend reporting live from the events surrounding the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner – just using her phone. Her photos and witty comments are sent to nearly 500,000 followers – more than the average cable television news program has tuning in. Even a relatively less famous blogger like me has an amusing, snarky impersonator, who in a bizzaro fashion is really just publicizing my brand of writing to an audience of non-traditional fans.

One can only conclude from this that reality entertainment is raging, but not in the usual places. It’s hard to imagine a reality television show in its current form based around me, or Ana Marie Cox – yet we’re popular, at least in microniches. Television doesn’t yet exploit that fact.

It’s time for an infusion of new media technology into the medium formerly known as television. Here’s the current strategy: TV networks record attractive people facing hard challenges under interesting circumstances 24 hours a day for months and then air less than one hour of that a week. Whose bright idea was this for 2009?

It’s hard to believe that nothing interesting happens during the other 167.4 hours. The viewers don’t care about TV producers, directors, and editors. They don’t care about production costs and marketing deals and advertising tie-ins and intellectual property. They watch shows because they want to know what people are doing, and traditional networks are withholding that information. Viewers now want to decide what’s interesting and useful in those “extra” hours. They want that power, as unreasonable as it may seem.

Reality television shows are carefully crafted into storylines and so arguably they are not showing “true reality,” which the raw footage would then reveal. But does anyone care? Would this spoil some grand surprise? Maybe from time to time, but surely at this point most people have pulled the wool back from their eyes. Viewers know it’s altered reality – but they are willing to suspend logic in the interest of being entertained and distracted from their own reality.

Moreover, the all-important Gen Y viewership wants to reinterpret everything, mash it up with other video clips, add soundtracks of hip hop music, share their creations with friends, mine it for ideas and innuendo, and use it in amateur films. Viewers want to “democratize” the footage. Fair or not – that’s what increasingly tech-savvy audiences want – they want to participate in reality.  Although this cult of the amateur produces a lot of garbage, it’s also true that there are diamonds in the rough – and struggling entertainment companies always on the lookout for the next thing should be keen to polish those rare gems.

What’s my advice? Free the footage, I say to television networks and production companies and movie studios. Break down the barriers to participation and collaboration. Create repositories where hours of raw footage can live and be reused ad infinitum under a Creative Commons license. Even better, provide a platform like YouTube where these amateur film directors can upload the creations they’ve made with your footage. Better still, have them create user profiles and recruit the cream of the crop for an internship program within the company. Create the next generation of employees and let them have fun during an informal application process that gets their creative juices flowing. Because my wager is that they’ve got your next great idea.

This article originally appeared in my column at True/Slant.

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The Boy Who Cheered Wolf


Everyone has bad days, right?

Well, not everyone. There’s always that person who says every day should be the BEST EVER. They think that you’re a WINNER. They want you to SUCCEED. And all of their friends are AWESOME.

When you shower too much unconditional praise, it ceases to be meaningful. Not every party was the best ever, not every day is terrific, and not everyone you meet is interchangably awesome.

Use praise sparingly. Then, when you give someone a shoutout, they feel more special and your audience is more likely to pay attention to them. When you announce a great event, people are more likely to believe you, and register for it. And when you say that you’re having the BEST day of your life, everyone will help you to celebrate it.

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