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Monday, 23 February 2009

Brand As Facilitator, Not Institution


I was jamming with Mark Nepstad on Saturday about the role of brands and their agencies in social media - as you tend to do on Shiraz - when he showed me a publication containing this graphic, which came from David Armano's excellent "Logic and Emotion" blog.

What struck me about this graphic was not so much the ripple effect of conversations about a product, but how comparing the data from each social network would give a supplier an 'aerial' view of their consumers' community (specifically in case of Twitter, blogs and other "Level 2 Ripples"). With that data the supplier is better able to organise itself to help improve, or facilitate, its customers' experience.

The challenge, of course, is to resist the temptation to use the data to interfere and manipulate in a top-down, institutional manner, rather than facilitate consumers' bottom-up assertion of control.

The consequences of succumbing to this temptation can't be overstated. A supplier risks tapping the sense of frustration and disillusionment responsible for both the plunge in faith in society's institutions and participation in formal politics during the past 30 years, and the corresponding increase in our political awareness, informal political action and consumer activism, particularly over the past decade. Similarly, that sense of frustration and disillusionment marks the turning point between vicious and virtuous circles of consumer sentiment and related publicity. It was the difference between Barack Obama and that other guy (though interestingly the informal tactics of the new President actually drove a return to formal politics).

As I've suggested before, it is the "architecture of participation" created by various Web 2.0 facilitators that has been a very real catalyst in this rise in personal, informal, direct action. It has enabled millions of us to experience what it's like to personalise the one-size-fits-all consumer experiences offered by the likes of music labels, book publishers, retailers, package holiday operators, banks and political parties. So it can be said that the facilitators of this architecture are making the difference between us 'raging against the machine' in a lone, fragmented way and acting together as individuals in a concerted fashion. And it's a thrilling ride.

Used to this end, the data about a supplier's "Influence Ripples" amounts to yet another tool with which a brand, as facilitator, can strengthen the architecture of participation from which the data is drawn to help consumers personalise their experiences involving the brand's products - a 'virtuous circle'. Conversely, the very nature of the architecture in which the influence is rippling means that any supplier who is perceived to be using, or likely to use the data for Orwellian purposes - to manipulate or interfere for its own institutional ends, rather than its customers' interests - must find itself in a 'vicious circle' of adverse comment. There are several instances of this dynamic at work in the privacy sphere, around Phorm, the Data Retention Regulations and the recent ripples still emanating from Facebook's revision to its privacy and content ownership terms. [PS. And here's another, hot off the press on 25.02.09, as Ryanair trades blows with 'idiot blogger' and, oh look, it's getting worse on reports they're going to charge £1 for answering nature's call].

Reassuringly, I see that Mr Armano came to a similar conclusion in his own post, entitled (coincidentally, I swear) "Brand as Facilitator". With some more very nice graphics ;-)
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