Archive for the ‘ Theory and Audience Analysis ’ Category

Stand back and watch the iPad war play out

Photo illustration by Brook R. Corwin. Original photo licensed by Creative Commons for commercial use with modification

The iPad hits stores today, and in making the choice to buy one, you’re not just picking out a product.

You’re picking a side.

The $500-$800 tablet computer is perhaps the most polarizing device to hit the communications industry in the past decade. It has spawned both adoration and disgust among veteran tech writers. Journalists are having a field day speculating on how it might redefine the industry, with views highly mixed. Web content developers have either cried fair or foul with the iPad’s inability to run Flash, depending on what they think of the software program that runs the vast majority of animated and multimedia content on the Internet.

(Full disclosure: most of the websites I design, including my portfolio site, have heavy Flash components. So it’s hard for me to get too excited about a product that, if successful, would force me to redesign my work or pay money to another company to convert for an iPad audience)

But these are debates for tech heads and newsies. How will mainstream consumers pick their side? It won’t come down to whether it helps the journalism industry. It certainly won’t come down to love/hate of Flash.

Design and functionality will play a huge role. If society is ready to abandon the click culture that has conditioned our computer use for decades, then the iPad’s slick use of touchscreen will forever change how we access and share information. The iPad will never replace a mobile phone (it’s simply too big to take everywhere) but it could replace a laptop.

That gets us to the big question, a cultural query that ultimately decides whether the iPad redefines all media or fails miserably. How exactly do people want to use the web? Are they looking for an open-ended, creative experience without expectations? Or do they want a simplified, controlled environment streamlined to their established tastes?

Those falling in the first category will be frustrated by the iPad’s limitations. It runs only one application at a time, can’t handle complex software and doesn’t even have a U.S.B port. Applications must be purchased from the Apple app store to make the device useful. In short, it’s pretty lousy for those who want to build their own content, ironic since the initial appeal of Mac computers was all the built-in software that let you start creating right out of the box.

An iPad dominated world also severely restricts the audience for amateur content. Applications must be approved by Apple. The company’s rejection of Flash, one of the world’s most popular software tools, shows just how far it can flex its muscle to restrict what gets seen on its devices. Is this the next generation of the AOL model, which relies on herding consumers to partner websites rather than the web’s wild frontiers?

Then again, maybe this is just what the general public is looking for after a decade of exhaustion trying to navigate the web’s limitless choices. If all you want out of your computer is the ability to send email, share photos and get information online, then the iPad makes life easier. Its company-approved apps will tailor web content to meet your daily needs. Information will be personalized to the extent that you’ll never feel the need to wander. And how many people really need to use a built-in webcam anyway?

I can’t predict which camp attracts the majority of consumers. But the iPad will do a wonderful job of sorting, and from there we can start tailoring our communications strategies to fit the revamped model of Internet consumption. Hedge your bets and stay neutral for now. We’ll know soon enough which side wins out, and how they’ll rule the new era.

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Tweeting against a playoff

Push marketing has survived every new development in media over the past century, the Internet included. Instead of just interrupting your reading, ads started interrupting your listening, then your viewing, and now your web browsing.

But one thing has changed. Now you can push back.

Two-way conversations and relationship-building dialogue were the underlying themes of all three fantastic research presentations I heard recently on web marketing. The details differ, but the overall mantra is the same: talk to your customer base and also also listen to what they have to say.

My fellow classmates sum up this philosophy much better than I can, and I highly recommend the online versions of their presentations. You can find David Hollander’s presentation here, Cathy Freeman’s here and David Parsons’ here.

It all makes the process of talking with consumers seem so engaging, so uplifting, so affirming.

Now try it as the voice behind college football’s loathed Bowl Championship Series, the entity standing in the way of the playoff system so many fans passionately want.

It isn’t pretty, as the BCS’ brand new Twitter account, INSIDEtheBCS, demonstrates. As it touts the benefits of the bowl system and the flaws of a playoff format (they even created a website dedicated to bashing playoffs), the feed is clearly meant to convince some fans that having polls decide who plays for the national championship isn’t such a bad idea.

What’s happening instead is that the BCS’ many enemies have a place online to rally. Try searching insidetheBCS on Twitter and you’ll come across the barrage of negative comments lobbed against an institution most fans feel is standing in the way of fairly crowning a national champion.

But does that make the attempt a failure? Whoever is manning the BCS account has taken the time to respond to many of the negative posts since the feed started a couple of weeks ago. This is exactly what marketers are supposed to do with social media, as criticism comes with the territory.

It’s in addressing the criticism and winning over new converts that social media marketing has its value, and the jury is still out on whether the BCS will win in this regard. Having the BCS actively respond to proponents of a playoff is much more endearing than conference commissioners arrogantly proclaiming on network TV that the current system must stand.

But it’s doubtful the BCS cares at all what its Twitter followers have to say. Despite heavy media and fan pressure to do so, BCS officials have shown zero interest in a new format. Unless they’re taking input into account for possible changes to the bowl system, then this is a social media effort that’s all talk.

If you’re going to stick with the traditional push marketing tactics, there’s not much use for new media. That’s a forum best saved for those eager and willing to act on their audience’s input.

National identities on the web

As kids we identified far-off countries by flags. As teens we picked them out based on geographic shape and location.

But as adults, our identifying image for a country overseas could soon become its homepage. We already instinctively seek official websites for companies, organizations and individuals. Nations surely aren’t far behind.

So what are they showing us?

It’s quite a mixed bag, and the results are interesting enough that they were the basis of some really insightful research by one of my best professors this semester.

They’re also fodder for some much-deserved criticism by web designers. This immensely entertaining blog post got me thinking about the topic, as it lines up government websites from around the world and scrutinizes the flaws of each. There are some really puzzling examples. Why is it always fall in Cypress? Must people be blurry in Greece? Do the French really think red and purple make a good color scheme?

But there’s more to analyze here than just aesthetic design. Approach the sites from a public relations standpoint, and you can see how different nations have very different goals for their web portals. Nations like Poland, Denmark, Israel, and Singapore have appealing sites that seem aimed at attracting new visitors and outside investment.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have sites where informing native residents appears the primary goal. This can be done with style like in Belgium and Australia or with visual clutter like in Mexico or Cameroon. You could even be like the United Kingdom and come up with a color scheme and design that has no visual connection to your actual country.

There’s also something to be said for simplicity. It’s easy to criticize nations like Ireland, Thailand and South Africa for their bare-bones design. But keep in mind that these nations have large rural populations. A simple site may be uninteresting, but at least it properly loads on old browsers or dial-up connections. Argentina even found a way to make simple look stylish.

What’s most important is that the site have a public relations purpose, whether that’s attracting outside attention or informing the taxpayers. Effective design only comes about when the nation is clear on this goal.

Otherwise you can turn up some pretty ghastly results even in relatively wealthy countries. For all their oil money, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Russia still can’t seem to buy a website that doesn’t make them look like third-world nations in cyberspace.

Social media offers little if there’s no plan in place

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re an active user of Facebook and Twitter. So quick show of hands, how many Facebook fan pages do you actively check? What about commercial brands you follow on Twitter?

For all the talk about the potential of leveraging these social media spaces for profit, few companies enter with a real strategy on connecting with customers. As a result, you get a glut of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and very few that have active audiences following their content. They’ll sign up. Maybe check in every now and again, but ultimately move along to their friend’s photo album from the weekend.

This is of course a gross generalization. There are some smart and creative users of Facebook and Twitter who build an audience for their company/organization. But it’s highly unlikely anyone who just shows up is going to build a following.

This is where web analytics come in, enabling the companies with a plan to comprehensively track activity on their site and see if it matches up with their predetermined goals.

That’s assuming you have a plan. Many don’t.

Being able to clearly articulate your social media objectives is absolutely essential before making the Web 2.0 plunge. That was the central point my classmates and I heard today from PR and Marketing professional Mark Tosczak, who has worked with many clients in tracking their web presence and expanding into social media.

“Being on Twitter is not a plan,” Tosczak told the class. “It’s not a strategy. It’s not a goal. It’s just being on the web.”

Merely being on the web may have been impressive for a company …. in 1996. Nowadays corporate organizations need to define their goals for cyberspace. Is it just to get a bunch of page views? Is it to sell a product online? Is it to get consumers to sign up for a mailing list? Is it to expand into a new region? Is it to foster customer loyalty?

These are goals that can be measured through analytics by looking at the concrete results of what people are doing once they reach the site. It’s here that an organization can keep tabs on whether their website or their Facebook page is fulfilling it’s intended purpose or just taking up server space.

Once the objective is defined, then comes the challenge of wading through all the data and putting it in proper context. That’s a valuable skill where firms like RLF Communications, where Mark Tosczak works, can provide a great service to corporations.

But nothing happens unless the goals are there first. Nowhere is that more evident than on the social media spaces that are created just to exist. As I’ve blogged about before, these pages need to be offering valuable content, building customer relationships and offering something unique in order to stand out.

Just existing on the web isn’t enough.

Putting an ‘untouchable’ brand up to interactive scrutiny

Mickey-004

The next time some company starts fretting that an interactive approach to communications puts the integrity of their brand at risk, tell them about Mickey Mouse.

It’s hard to find a more carefully managed corporate brand that Disney, and no symbol is more entwined with the company than its most popular cartoon character. Through the decades Mickey has served as both a corporate logo and a company spokesperson, a squeaky clean character whose image and look remained untouched.

That’s about to change. Mickey is about to change. And video game enthusiasts can make the changes.

As part of an ambitious plan to overhaul Mickey’s image and make him more relevent in today’s pop culture, Disney has signed off on the development of a new game for the Nintendo Wii where players have tremendous freedom in the actions and ethics of the protagonist. The game takes place in a word of retired and forgotten Disney cartoon characters, a realm that Mickey inadvertently stumbles upon and damages.

There are some elements of a traditional action game, but the real focus is on interactivity with the surroundings. Using the Wii remote,  players paint and undo the structures and fabric of Mickey’s physical environment. This offers extraordinary control not just over the game’s content and direction, but on the personality of its iconic protagonist.

“The core of this game is the idea of choice and consequence, and how that
defines both the character and the player,” designer Warren Spector said during the game’s roll-out last month. “By putting the mischievous Mickey in an unfamiliar place and asking him to make choices — to help other cartoon characters or choose his own path — the game forces players to deal with the consequences of their actions. Ultimately, players must ask themselves, `What kind of hero am I?` Each player will come up with a different answer.”

Sounds like Mickey will be getting a makeover.

It really shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Disney is embracing user choice and control that are the hallmarks of interactive media. For over a decade they’ve had an interactive theme park. They’ve even embraced the idea of streaming their movies and television programs online.

But what’s really notable here is the trust Disney has placed in opening up a once untouchable icon to reinterpretation by users. That kind of trust is mandatory for companies utilizing the new media landscape. But the payoff of having consumers actively shape and engage with your logo holds enormous potential for future profits.
If Mickey Mouse can shoulder that risk, then no brand is off-limits.

The many different shades of interactivity

DDD_Chart

Too often companies see interactive media in starkly black and white terms. They equate having a Facebook page, Twitter stream and animated website with automatic interactivity.

But there are more colorful shades at work here. The things listed above can exist in a form absent of interactivity; merely one-way communications vehicles that deliver a steady flow of information with little if any user input. They then become no more than digitized versions of print brochures.

But as we all know, such tools can also lead to robust levels of two-way communication. Sometimes they even facilitate a dialogue between producer and consumer, where the audience not only views but actively shapes the product.

How to tell the difference? The diagram posted above is designed with that in mind. It’s the creation of myself and four fellow classmates for an assignment on audience analysis. The five of us identified some key questions in determining whether a site was static, interactive or dialogic.

The latter of these three categories represents the most robust form of communications, where the user not only has navigational choice but also a creative voice in shaping the content. Their feedback isn’t just posted and heard but acted upon. They share ideas with other users and form communities that come to define the site itself.

The concept of the Digital Dialogue Diagram is simple. Answer each question about your own site and put a dot in the corresponding section on the wheel. At the end you have a path from the center to the edge that visibly represents the kind of interactivity on your site. It’s easy to see how the path would change with different answers, since the first choice always represents “static,” the second “interactive” and the third “dialogic.”

This is meant as an evaluation tool for companies and organizations wanting closer analysis on their site. There are different pros and cons for all three types depending on your communication strategy. What’s important is recognizing the differences and where you fall along the spectrum and its many shades of interactivity.

Great talent doesn’t require a big budget

NOV. 11 UPDATE: The commercial is now completed and uploaded to Doritos’ website. You can check it out here (just wait for Doritos to load all their promo animation). Let me know what you think or comment directly on the site.

For the past week, several of my most talented friends have spent more than 12 hours each doing corporate advertising work … for free.

It’s a pretty good deal if you’re the company we’re working for.

That company is Doritos, arguably the first major brand to fully grasp and trust in the power of user-generated content. This is the fourth-consecutive year the chip maker has entrusted the mighty responsibility of creating Super Bowl ads to everyday consumers. With a Monday deadline looming, there are already more than 600 entries uploaded to Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl site.

We’ll soon be joining that group, once my 8-person team completes some final edits on our 30-second spot. Putting together a quality submission required hours of brainstorming ideas, an evening of auditions for actors, a full day of set-up and filming, a couple of late nights in the editing suite, and a two-hour reshoot this evening.

Unless our ad is picked as one of the top six, we won’t be paid a dime for that work.

But there’s still ample self-incentive. The top six each get a $25,000 prize. The best of that bunch get the fame of airing during this season’s Super Bowl, with the possibility of millions more in prizes depending on how the ad is rated by viewers.

To poor grad students, this is a substantial amount, certainly enough to justify hours upon hours worth of labor. To Doritos, it represents just a pittance of what it would cost to hire a professional advertising agency, with no guarantees the company would even like the final product.

By going the user-generated route, Doritos’ marketing executives are only paying for the content they like. What’s more, they’re tapping into a groundswell of underground talent and creativity that’s eager and willing to take a shot at fame. The high price of technology was once a barrier of entry for amateur filmmakers like the ones making spots for Doritos. Now all the basic software and equipment is affordable without having to own an entire production studio.

It’s not like the winning entries have suffered in comparison to their big-budget counterparts. Take the 2007 winner, the first year of the contest. It’s by no means as polished as most network TV ads, but it’s a funny concept that executed with a lo-fi charm.

The following year, the winning entry (the one posted above) featured an absurdist form of comedy that for my money was among the very best of all Super Bowl ads, easily topping many that cost $1 million or more to produce. The slapstick comedy of the 2009 winner wasn’t as much to my tastes, but it proved immensely popular with viewers.

These ads prove that it doesn’t take millions in expensive equipment to produce an effective ad. The companies willing to trust consumers to produce content — not just in advertising but in news and entertainment — have opportunities to save millions of dollars through tapping talent that for years was stuck in a dormant state.

Now this talent is active and thriving thanks to technology. High-dollar professional agencies, take note. And be warned.