Marketing Throughthe Tsunami Lens

I’m so blogged out these days, sometimes I can’t see straight. Over the past year, I’ve authored or created over a dozen blogs, delivered a dozen or so Webinars on blogging, attended two highly intimidating blog conferences, answered an unstoppable number of blog creation questions from clients, and helped launch a blog portal that analyzes over 4 million blog posts a day.

Sometimes, I find myself stepping back and saying, “Dude, do you really get blogs, or are you just another impostor?” Every time I blink, another blog trick, tool, ad gizmo, or blog “world theory” emerges. How do I make sense of it all?

Enter Sundar Kadayam, my company’s CTO. Sundar is a data-mining guru and one of the core architects of our blog portal. Late one night, an email showed up in my inbox that had absolutely nothing to do with selling product, driving revenue, or hitting the numbers with our board. It had to do with the recent, horrific tsunami.

Say what?

In a powerful burst of passionate reflection, Sundar shared some thoughts on the December 2004 tsunami, specifically, on the important, mission-critical role blogs played. I read his note with almost embarrassed humility. It dawned on me this “tech guy” knew far more about communication and marketing than Mr. Marketing himself.

Blogs played a critical role in communicating about the tsunami, far more significant than Dan Rather’s scrutiny, Wonkette’s gossip, Matt Drudge’s scoops, or the recent blog “toe-dipping” of GM’s CEO. With almost natural instinct and unaided serendipity, bloggers brought voice, texture, passion, relevance, and immediacy to this tragedy. The work continues, albeit far below the radar of those removed from Southern Asia. Sundar and his team transformed that memo into a wonderful showcase of tsunami insights. Today, I’ll highlight a few communication points from his spot-on memo:

  • The rise of citizen’s media. The tsunami crisis illustrates, better than anything else, the power of what Dan Gilmour refers to as “citizens’ media.” This is similar to what I call “consumer-generated media” (CGM), but in this context it’s even more powerful. Before, during, and after the tsunami, an entire surveillance culture of news stringers led, completed, catalyzed, corrected, and gap-filled the news. They also went to work immediately, with powerful, action-oriented blog postings emerging almost instantaneously.

    Key takeaway: Our world is becoming more transparent, and the blog-enabled “Web recorder” is archiving real-time consumer/citizen experiences and narratives. This includes experiences with products and services.

  • Rich media by default. The tsunami spurred a spike in blogs featuring video, especially home videos and on-the-scene videos shot by eyewitnesses, tourists, and residents who experienced the tsunami firsthand. All this increased awareness and word of mouth. Just as camera phones make it possible for photos to be shot and distributed anywhere by nearly anyone, video blogs (or vlogs) do the same for video.

    Key takeaway: We live in a rich-media, consumer-controlled surveillance culture. Rich media is changing the game. The same factors that historically made TV so persuasive and emotionally engaging are the core building blocks of the blogosphere.

  • New players serving unmet needs. Entirely new blogs dedicated solely to tsunami news and unmet needs emerged and took a place among mainstream bloggers. They served as prolific information providers and linked Internet users worldwide with relief efforts and agencies. Some emerged out of nowhere. Many originate from India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia — countries whose foothold in the blogosphere has been minimal or undeveloped.

    Key takeaway: The dynamic, always-on nature of the blogosphere quickly gravitates to unmet needs. That’s at the heart of effective marketing.

  • New global influencers. Interestingly, new global influencers emerged. They were as frequently cited and referred to as some of the usual blog players, such as and Boing Boing. Who had heard of The Diplomad, The Command Post, or Chrenkoff? In the process of establishing voice and authority around this crisis, these new influencers fundamentally reshaped the look and feel of the blogosphere’s global map.

    Key takeaway: The Web accelerates our thinking about global communication. We must think more broadly about the power of global influencers. When we launch new products, for instance, global influencers matter.

  • Blogs as an organizing principle. Less reported in the media, much of the blogging activity around the tsunami was highly collaborative, building on the powerful new organizing principles of wikis (define), file-sharing, and beyond. The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog is a great example of how authors from disparate geographies virtually collaborated and interfaced toward a common goal.

    Key takeaway: Blogs are more than billboards or diaries. They’re a foundation for real-time collaboration — a better, faster, cheaper organizing platform and principle.

  • Blogs as accountability tools.As blogs helped facilitate unprecedented worldwide response and donations to the tsunami, they also emerged and continue to function as an accountability medium. Asha for Education, a notable and reputed nonprofit organization in India, created a blog to provide real-time updates from its various project sites to track how communities are benefiting from donations, volunteer efforts, and outreach.

    Key takeaway: Bloggers hold us accountable. If we make promises or commitments, they’ll monitor our progress. If we fall short of expectations, they’ll out us. Bloggers are de facto copy cops.

I close with personal thanks to many of my office colleagues, some of whom I gloss over in my frenetic day-to-day tasks. I’m a marketer in theory. But in so many respects, the engineers and technologists in our office, many of whom have family and friends in the affected areas, turned out to be the real marketing experts in the context of understanding this horrible crisis.

For that, I’m grateful. I hope the viral effect of my own message enlightens others.

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