Jan 13, 2008

Oh yes, this Web is tangled.

Marketing folks love to make charts. One of my favorite is the "purchasing funnel," a much maligned diagram of a supposedly linear train of thought that leads one of us consumer sheep to do something or change an opinion. It's a part of old-think based on a virulently individualistic view of people's behavior and the efficacy of one-way marketing.

The reality, of course, is quite different, more random, more reliant on the opinion of others and serendipitous collisions of interest and information. (I think the funnel really looks more like a tangled ball of string.)

Since I've just finished reading Herd, I've been thinking a lot about how and if our seemingly innate social urges affect how we make decisions, or not. The Internet, of course, is a giant, steaming cauldron of opinions, and a recent pinball thought process brought the idea to life.

It all started with a mistakenly accepted Twitter feed, moved on to the Amazon Kindle, swung by Jeff Jarvis' Buzz Machine and Andrew Keen's idea that the great "democratization" promised by Web 2.0 will actually reduce the quality of our culture.

I know, it sounds weired, but here I go anyway:

As you might know, I've been messing around with Twitter lately. Due to a strange miscommunication with a friend, I've been following the updates of Evan Williams, one of the people who created Blogger and founded Twitter. In one of his "tweets" (last time I use that phrase), he mentioned that he had purchased a Kindle from Amazon.

So, naturally, I check out the Kindle (which looks pretty cool, I think) and then start searching for other opinions on the thing.

Some folks absolutely hate it for it's clunky design, DRM and paid access for direct delivery certain blogs and magazines (although apparently you can also surf the web and get them for free). BoingBoing, in addition to a "yes but not yet" review, points to Amazon's schizophrenia when it comes to digital content delivery. Others, however, love it for the ease of purchase, portability and relatively low per-book cost. (And maybe just because a bunch of other people hate it.)

For the record, if I were a business traveller who read a lot, I'd buy one, which I guess is saying that if I had to travel for work I'd buy one. I care that much about the DRM on a personal level and figure the market will sort that out in the long run. As for it being ugly and clunky, I don't think it's that bad. It's not sleek and sophisticated like an iPhone, yet somehow it "looks" like it fits with a portable book reader. I can't explain why, but it does. Anyway, that's not my point here.

While pondering the whole Kindle thing (Amazon has evidently been selling quite a few of them), Mr. Williams posted about listening to Mr. Keen at a conference--evidently HIS whole "Web 2.0 = Marxism" thing is a bit muted in public as opposed to in print. I haven't read Keen's The Cult of the Amateur, but I imagine that, like most of those "THE NEXT BIG THING" books, once you get inside the story you find the necessary shades of grey and maybe even some points you hate/like depending on your preconception of the book is (like/hate) in the first place.

With this in the back of my mind, however, I stumbled upon a Jarvis postabout the Kindle. Now, I don't follow Buzz Machine, I don't know Mr. Jarvis personally (I'm sure he's a nice guy) and I respect his campaign to call Dell out for its crappy customer service, but his Kindle thoughts made me think that maybe Keen isn't so crazy after all.

Not that Jarvis is some hack posting garbage from the hinterlands, far from it, but his post read like a shot from the hip, based completely on his conception about how a computer-like device should work. He finds the DRM abhorrent, stupid even, and wonders why anyone would pay for blogs they can get for free. It's a great question, but the Kindle is made primarily for BOOKS, not blogs, and reading books on a laptop or iPhone, as he suggests, would just plain suck.

There's a glimmer of an interesting idea in his post about whether the Kindle is a device that's trying to keep an antiquated form of communication alive, but Jarvis seems to have already decided that books are dead...and I'd say that's premature. In either case, he's not the market for the device, yet he fails to mention this, which I think points to a lack of expertise and perspective as a product reviewer. Yet his blog is very popular--and so maybe Keen is right in a way that the web has or will reduce the quality of the information we choose to read.

To be clear, I've got no beef with Jeff Jarvis. Many, many people read him, and he's incredibly involved in the Blogosphere.

Here's my point: Thanks to all these interconnected, online communication streams, your idea/product/service will eventually be subject to reviews and opinions that fall far short of the forethought and research you'd like to see from a mainstream journalist, to say nothing of the on-the-cuff "you suck" posts or deliberate misinformation. (No breakthrough idea there, but it's a bit more complex when you dig into it.)

So, Keen does have a point. But unlike him, I don't think this is a travesty. Sure, it puts tremendous pressure on your "official" communications to be even more honest and objective. It requires you to employ someone to monitor what folks are saying about you. You may even need to address misinformation. But on the other hand, instead of a slow-moving, traditional marketing campaign, you can count on the web to spread the word for you--quickly and for free. And the honest nature of peer referrals makes them so much more compelling than controlled corporate speak.

So services like Twitter play a new, vital role in the mix. One little post from Evan Williams and I set off to see what all the fuss was about. I imagine many others did the same thing. If I had a new product, I'd be trying to get any existing customers to "tweet" about it, that's for sure. As an article from the Harvard Business Review shows, customers who bring others to your company are actually more valuable than those who spend the most.

But that's the topic of another post. This one is already starting to look like a tangled ball of string.

1 comment:

Chad Lott said...

I'm pretty much in favor of the Kindle provided the screen doesn't cause the ocular torture that reading pages and pages of critical theory on the internet via my Powerbook does.

It would be necessary to have a network of piracy to really reel me in, though.

Anyway, I had no idea you were doing the copywriting thing. I've been considering that as a post-undergrad career venture provided the whole eco-revolutionary thing doesn't work out.

What are your thoughts on the Miami Ad School?