What happens when you extrapolate the notion of human interconnectedness by six degrees to the virtual world? Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image, an award-winning digital marketing and communications agency, explores the impact of viral expansion loops, social media, personal branding, and entrepreneurship in his new book, “Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone Is Connected. Connect Your Business to Everyone.” As a popular contributor to SES Toronto, I interviewed Mitch as part of a continuing series that highlights speakers participating at upcoming SES conferences. (ClickZ and SES are both part of Incisive Interactive Marketing.)
S.Q.: In “Six Pixels of Separation” you state that the new economy is driven by your time vested – and not by your money invested. That’s a clever turn of phrase but is it really that simple?
M.J.: No, it’s not that simple (it never is). It’s true that when you first get started, it’s all about your time vested and not your money invested, but it evolves as you make the channels and platforms work for you and your business. The truth is that you can start a blog, Facebook page, or Twitter feed for free and fast. You can also become relevant, gain credibility, and build community for free (but it takes a ton of time…and time is money). But it doesn’t stop there. Once you have a semblance of community, the free platforms usually can’t provide all of the customization that is required to grow and nurture it, so there does come a time when having the dollars to lay against a serious design and customized platform does come into play. That being said, I still stick by the statement, because everything in the social channels comes from taking the time to build real credibility…you can’t buy community.
S.Q.: I have a tendency to cringe when I hear words like synergy, convergence, and collaboration invoked in the same sentence. Any industry buzzwords that stick in your craw?
M.J.: Phrases like “best of breed,” “world class,” and “optimized” tend to make me throw up a little bit in my own mouth. Although, you did pick some pretty nasty ones too.
S.Q.: Speaking of industry buzzwords, you warn readers rather sternly that “connectedness” and “engagement” should never be confused. Care to elaborate?
M.J.: A lot of people feel they have a right to shill, promote, and push their wares just because they are “connected.” In a day and age where following, friending, or subscribing to anyone about anything is nothing more than a simple click away, there needs to be some time, effort, and thought put against the idea that being connected is basic and primal, but actually creating any level of engagement with an audience, community, or whatever you want to call whomever has agreed to follow or friend you, is a whole other ballgame. People make the assumption that just because they’re following you, they’re engaged with you…and that’s a misnomer. Think about Twitter: you may have 12,000 followers but if you’re posting and the majority of your followers happen to not be connected on Twitter at that specific moment in time, your real engagement level with that community is probably a very small percentage of the actual whole number. People like to say they have X amount of friends and X amount of followers, but how many of those friends and followers are really engaged with them? Those are two totally different worlds as far as I can see.
S.Q.: In “Six Pixels of Separation” you seem to imply that your network is your net worth. If so, how do you actually build that circle of influence and become the “go-to person?”
M.J.: It takes time…and that’s something most marketers don’t ever want to hear. Marketers want everything (more sales, more brand awareness, more recall, and more word of mouth) and they want it fast. I think marketing has it all wrong. Digital marketing is about being slow and that’s how you build your circle of influence. Yes, you can make fast decisions, but optimal results take time. You can’t quickly start a blog and get results. It takes time to build your content, find your voice, develop a community, and earn trust and respect. You can’t just publish a podcast and expect your cash register to start ringing. You can’t join an online social network and derive any value from it unless you take the time to meet the right people, connect, share, build, and grow. Slow does not mean resting on your laurels and not engaging in these new channels. Slow simply means that long-term results take time. There are no shortcuts to success. If you’re starting a blog and you pre-load posts with made-up questions or semi-edited snippets of old press releases, you’re not adding value and you are not speeding up the process. In fact, you are probably slowing it down (in this case, slow is bad) – it will take you even longer to correct course and build the right conversation. You become the go-to-person by adding value and building real relationships…and taking the appropriate amount of time to do so.
S.Q.: I’ve heard you say that we are all a click (or a pixel) away from one another. Is that necessarily a good thing?
M.J.: I think it is a good thing as long as people are knowledgeable about what they’re giving up (namely privacy) for a lot of these free online goodies. It’s also a good thing because marketers spent decades trying to sell/tell you something while doing something completely different to me and my group of peers. The assumption was that these two divergent groups were not connected and could not talk to one another about the brand, product, or service. When everyone is a click away (and can publish their thoughts in text, images, audio, and video), this provides a new level of transparency and – hopefully – it will make brands and corporations that much more accountable. In doing so, it might also keep us individuals in line…we’ll see how that pans out in the coming five years.
S.Q.: Chris Anderson has cautioned that we should never underestimate the power of a million amateurs with keys to the factory. Now that the traditional entry barriers to publishing have been eliminated, what comes next for consumer-generated content versus the mogul-generated content of incumbent media companies?
M.J.: The hope here is that one doesn’t force the other one to have less valuable content. The thought here is that “all ships rise.” If traditional media has to up their game to stay relevant, the consumer wins. If those who create consumer-generated content see traditional media upping their game, hopefully it will push them to be that much more professional (or better, because “professional” might be the wrong word here). So far, it looks like this is the case. We are seeing better and better content rise to the top and it’s forcing both the individual content creators and the big media channels to compete against each other for mindshare. Consumers always win when the competition is fierce.
S.Q.: Given that restricting information on the Web is harder than actually distributing it, what are your thoughts on Google’s recent flap with China over censorship?
M.J.: My comment is less about Google and China and more about the realities of a connected world: geography becomes less relevant. We now have what Clay Shirky has identified in his excellent book, “Here Comes Everybody,” as the rise of the “group expression.” Individuals create these groups – regardless of physical location – to get whatever it is that they want to accomplish done. Information travels and is created in an even less geographic-centric way. Beyond that, the people who want access to information will always find a way. This isn’t just about China, this is about copyright, and all that jazz as well. Our society would be well-advised to start looking at these issues with a much more global perspective instead of navel gazing or trying to protect borders that have no meaning in these digital channels. Ironically, the last mile of these digital channels will be in the mastering of the hyper-local space, so we all need to figure out what a truly connected world looks like…and what it can be.
S.Q.: You’ve predicted that all-encompassing online social networks like Facebook will fade in favor of more specific and focused micro social networks. Any other prognostications for 2010 and beyond?
M.J.: Let’s get rid of the wires already, shall we? Did you see what Mr. Jobs has planned with this iPad, etc…? Mobile is no longer about what you can do on your cell phone. Mobile is all about doing more, all of the time. That’s where we’re going and this is less of a prognostication and more of a hope for it to happen sooner rather than later. Everyday, more and more people are using their mobile devices to find out information about your brands, products, and services. It’s also going beyond the basic who, what, when, where, and why of information. While we may not have full convergence between mobile and Web platforms, we are getting closer by the day. Anyone trying to understand the Web and what it means to their business needs to also understand the implications of a world where we are accessing information, buying stuff, and doing anything and everything we’re doing online on our mobile devices as well. We’re headed towards the great untethering of our society (and business) and it’s going to change everything we know about marketing and communications.