A Sea of Shared Knowledge

In 1995, speaking at MIT in honor of the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” an article that largely defined what would later be called the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee offered the following:

    I had (and still have) a dream that the web could be less of a television channel and more of an interactive sea of shared knowledge. I imagine it immersing us as a warm, friendly environment made of the things we and our friends have seen, heard, believe or have figured out. I would like it to bring our friends and colleagues closer, in that by working on this knowledge together we can come to better understandings.

Nearly 15 years on, we are realizing exactly this type of Web, known now as the social Web, or Web 2.0. The extent to which the Web has become a central resource, if not the resource, for consumers when validating purchase options and marketing claims is game-changing for business. This applies not only for business-to-consumer enterprises but also for business-to-business and nonprofit/cause-related organizations. Look no further than how IBM, Premiere Global, and Shell use the social Web, along with the excellent work of the Brooklyn Museum. (Disclosure: I work with both Shell and Premiere Global through my association with Austin’s FG Squared.)

At the core of the social media-based marketing is the value of shared knowledge and experience. This stands in contrast to the traditional advertising practice of interrupting and telling by inserting a commercial message into what is generally a noncommercial content stream.

Long the mainstay of traditional media, the interruption is the basic operative in nearly all dominant advertising forms. Attention is gathered around content, an event, or similar: Injected into that attention stream are commercial messages. On TV and in magazines the ads interrupt the story flow and thereby gain notice. At live events, event sponsors’ banners compete with the main act for our attention. Online, and in most social networks, the primary ad vehicle (and near universal monetization engine) is still the interruptive ad, appearing as a sidebar rectangular unit or across the top as a leaderboard or banner.

Why? Because interruptive ads work. People do notice them, and measurable action results. But at the heart of this model lies an interruption, and interruptions are increasingly unwelcome. Consider a recent “Ad Age” article, “ABC Says Web Viewers Will Tolerate Twice the Ads. The headline pretty well sums up the findings stated in the article. However, that’s not the end of the story.

The comments following the article suggest a different finding. There was 100 percent agreement in the tone of the comments: essentially, ABC would do well to reconsider the continued adoption of a TV-like commercial model in its online programming. Comments like “ABC has to be kidding” and “My wife and I hate the ads” typified the responses. Going further, one comment really stood out: “The absolute *second* that the show fades to commercial I am clicking the mute button. I am not a herd animal and resent being treated like one.” This comment reminded me of Esther Dyson’s take on where we are heading:

    As people take control over their data while spreading their Web presence, they are not looking for privacy, but for recognition as individuals. This will eventually change the whole world of advertising.

Where does this leave advertisers and marketers? With a choice: participate on the social Web, integrating it into your overall marketing program, or face a steady decline in your ability to reach and influence your audience. This is not to say abandon traditional media but rather to again point out that the social Web and social media-based marketing are now essential components in your marketing toolbox. Traditional media, direct mail, and PR remain valuable. What’s changing is how what you do or say through other-than-social channels is impacted by what circulates within the social channels. Not listening and failing to undertake basic social efforts will hand a distinct advantage to your competitors who are engaging your shared audience via the social Web. This isn’t the time to be handing your competitors a loaded gun.

The U.S. auto industry provides a great example of how this is playing out. Detroit, as the U.S. auto sector is collectively known, is currently shopping the idea of a $50 million PR campaign to reorient American consumers and their view of the auto industry. No one doubts that the auto manufacturing is an important part of our economy (particularly for the advertising segment). Beyond the surface distractions over things like corporate jets — and I’ll go on record as saying that no Fortune 500 CEO ought to be wasting his or her time waiting on commercial flights — there is a deeper sense of “If you want me to support you, then show me you truly understand what I want from my car. Show me you understand my current pain as a consumer.” The idea that a PR campaign can accomplish this, much less convince-by-telling consumers to support a particular brand or set of brands, is a stretch.

Much better would be to reorient the product line. More effort spent producing and marketing vehicles like the Chevy Volt and less time spent jiggering with federal regulations in the hopes of undermining fuel efficiency and safety standards. Provide instead continued support for the industry’s individual social evangelists. Ford’s Scott Monty, GM’s Adam Denison, and the GMBlogs team can be far more effective in connecting and sharing the positive experiences of American consumers with the newer and better automobiles being produced than any PR campaign.

Perhaps this is why the industry itself is hesitating to commit substantive support for the PR campaign and is instead investing in its social media efforts. Personally, I love cars. I build them and race them. I’ve studied them and have pictures of them hanging in my office. I don’t need a PR campaign to tell me what to buy or why. I need instead the collective, social excitement that spontaneously forms around exceptional automobiles. I need that magic.

So we’re back to our sea of shared knowledge. The challenge to brands now is to jump in and responsibly figure out how social media can be tapped correctly. Disclosure, transparency, and social conduct all figure into this. Next time I’ll focus on control, probably business’s biggest stumbling block in adopting social-media-based marketing. In the interim, if you haven’t already, sign up for Google Alerts and see what people are saying about you. Listening is a great start as you prepare to head out to into that sea we call the social Web.

Related reading