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Is the social web about merit or is it morphing into the same old?

Spinning Web 2.0

As I browse my RSS feeds and listen in on conversations on Twitter I am seeing a theme emerge where what appears to be rewarded is the same old school connections, packaged in a new media ribbon. The social web was supposed to break down the gates and allow new voices (and genders or colours) to emerge based solely on merit, but if you look closely at conference line ups, those participating on certain blogs, and who gets responses to which conversations it is easy to see where this promise is failing. The same voices are dominant no matter what they are discussing and rarely are they seriously challenged by those outside their close knit circle lest one fall out of favour with the “in club”.

People clamor to be invited to the hip new launch and, as evidenced by the recent New York Times piece: Spinning the Web, it’s not necessarily about the value of a product but who your connections are and how big of a party you can throw, what clubs you belong to, how many names you can drop, or how many times you can send someone a gift to remain top-of-mind. Having been around the Web 1.0 bubble where money and good times were thrown around without regard to business model I fear for where this is all heading. Also having worked at an ad agency where it was forbidden to “buy your clients affection” I know business can be done without constantly throwing money around. There is nothing inherently classy about trying to secure business by attempting to purchase it vs. earning it based on your ideas. Of course people like getting the special treatment, it makes them feel good, and important. Although this is human nature, it’s nothing to be proud of in the grand scheme of things.

The beauty of the social sphere for me is precisely to find and cultivate genuine relationships with people who aren’t trying to buy their way in, but are sharing their ideas and their unique perspectives. I want to hear from people who disagree with me, regardless of how many (or who) follow me on Twitter and what my perceived influence is. Of course I like hearing from people who agree with me as well, but no one should feel they *have* to agree with me or host lavish parties to earn my respect. In fact there is no quicker way to lose my respect than to contribute nothing of substance or continuous empty platitudes.

How about you? What is the value of the social web to you? Is it about fame and fortune or bringing new perspectives into your life?

[photo credit: ViaMoi via Flickr]

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What’s so ’social’ about product pitches?

Or when did social media become all about online PR?

As things have evolved these last two+ years in the digital social space one thing is becoming increasingly clear: there is far too much focus on blogger relations (aka product pitches direct to consumer) and focusing on alleged “influencers”. The echo chamber has been filled with arguments about how to best “reach out to bloggers” (which means how to best get them to write about your product at the end of the day) and the alleged “social media” press releases. I’m going to throw my wet blanket onto this because frankly I see it doing a real disservice to the potential of the space and leading companies down a path that skirts the outsides of the promise of what Web 2.0 communication tools can really bring to marketing communications.

Let me say this at the start: Web 2.0 is not about YOU. No really, it’s not.

That may sound dogmatic and counter-intuitive, but allow me to explain… It never was about you to begin with, it’s always been about filling a need for the people buying (or looking to buy) your products or services and providing them with *information* where they are seeking it, listening to their feedback, and interacting when *they* want to… not spin or hype. It’s about facilitating their interactions, not yours. It’s not about shiny new toys, or 80 million different channels to push your message out.

Most average folks really don’t care, or have the time, to have a “relationship” with a brand. The majority don’t have blogs where they want to review products. Most people aren’t paid to do so as the plethora of social media consultants are. If we step outside of the echo chamber of PR bloggers, social media evangelists, and tech start-ups, the majority of people just want the product they bought to work as advertised, to be able to find out real information about it, to be able to provide feedback when they feel the need, and a real person (who is empowered to do more than say “thems the rules”) to interact with them painlessly when they do – online or offline. Oh, and the ability to find out quickly what their peers are saying about it – with biases clearly spelt out.

For a company, web 2.0 tools have the potential to expand the reach of their messaging if approached strategically and with fundamental marketing principles in play. They can be used to facilitate content distribution & development; intelligence gathering to inform your marketing and product development; customer service (online & offline); search engine optimization; internal communications; usability and user experiences; expanding the brand essence, etc.

Where does “please send me links to your press release via email” come into play?

Let’s be realistic and clear — Social Media Press Releases are micro-sites for a product or announcement. This isn’t “game changing”, it’s just borrowing from what interactive advertising was doing 7 years ago and adding RSS and API feeds and using it as a landing page to direct bloggers and journalists to. That’s hardly something that deserves the amount of air-time it’s been getting if we are being honest (and doing more than patting each other on the back within the echo chamber). And it’s something that companies are spending a ton of money on for a highly niche audience, which may or may not be the right strategy for their brand.

Where’s the “pull” in product pitches?

/end rant (for now).

[Photo Credit: FelipeArte via Flickr]

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GMail’s SPAM filters don’t trust Google

In a wonderfully humorous bit of irony, GMail is now sending Google Alerts to the Spam folder! Do their servers not speak the same language? Is there a family spat we should know about? Do they need a hug?

Gmail - Spam (8) - Google Alerts

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Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should…

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The rules haven’t changed THAT much.

Molson has pulled it’s Facebook advertising campaign after public pressure and denunciations accused the beer company of promoting drinking amongst young adults. There’s always been a fine line alcohol companies have had to navigate in their marketing campaigns, especially considering the target market for mass vs. premium beer brands has always been 19-24 year olds (or 21-25 in the USA) who the beer brands try to make loyal customers for life by targeting them when they can first start drinking legally. That’s the nature of the biz, and one rainy day during patio season can heavily impact sales. When I worked on the LBOC and LUSA (Labatt Breweries of Canada and Labatt USA respectively) interactive brands back in 2002 this was something we had to be acutely aware of, and submitted our campaigns to rigorous scrutiny and approval by the AGCO. Frankly I’m more surprised this got past the AGCO than I am that Molson tried to push the envelope.

According to Molson this campaign is a result of the social media space being relatively new.

‚ÄúThe whole realm of social media ‚Äì there’s lots to learn,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúIt’s really a new area. We’re probably groundbreaking and leading in a lot of things we’ve been doing.‚Äù

Social media tools, the Read/Write Web, and CGC may be relatively new, but the regulations surrounding alcohol marketing and advertising are not, and strategies that involve getting young adults to drink to excess to promote a product are not “groundbreaking”.

Social media does not mean throwing common sense out the window, no matter how much you’d like to get a beer version of Girls Gone Wild going to encourage sales (and believe me, sex sells and there’s nothing wrong with that… when done responsibly). Social media is not “one size fits all”, nor should it be. If you’re tying your brand to a campaign, there still may need to be rules in place (especially if you are a regulated industry), and Molson, and their agency, should have had the sense to have moderators in place before allowing a video picture to be posted or entered into the contest at the very least, and should have nixed the idea of having the contest revolve around students “partying on campus” at the brainstorming level. There are other ways to promote a product and engage in the social media space.

The campaign, pure and simple, involved getting young adults, with whom binge drinking is already a huge concern, to drink beer and post videos about it for a chance to win a trip to Cancun; what other message were they supposed to take away from “partying around campus”? Tupperware? Tea? And anyone who has been to Cancun knows it’s the haven for drinking to excess, so the underlining message is quite clear. If Molson and their agency didn’t think through the ramifications of this, I’m truly surprised. “One upmanship” amongst young adults is well known, and it’s one of the reasons why drinking games like quarters and keg party’s are still around; to think that giving them a chance to do so to win a trip wasn’t going to happen, or indirectly encourage it in order to create the most provocative video pic, was irresponsible. They were right to pull it and they are right to be called out in two subsequent Globe and Mail articles (the power of the print medium is still alive and well).

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Owning up to a mistake is a key part of the transparency and authenticity of social media… that may be the “groundbreaking” part Molson is missing here. There are a ton of ways I can see to have gotten the same message across, had fun, and engaged the demographic they were trying to reach. Hopefully they’ll have learned from it and my guess is the regulatory agency’s won’t be too far behind.

It would have been a different thing had they targeted it generally vs. specifically to colleges in my opinion.

Update – and viewing the creative where “Molson Cold Shot 6.0″ cans are front and centre leaves the premise that the campaign was “misunderstood” sorely lacking.

Update 2 – From one of the comments on the article:

If anyone should be worried about anything, it should be about pictures being on Facebook. Has anyone said anything about the fact that unflattering pictures may end up being within the public domain without someone’s consent? Has anyone mentioned that such pictures bein used by Molson as part of a commercial undertaking without the express consent of those being captured? [i.e. anyone in the photo who didn't enter the contest]

ps – before anyone accuses me of being anti-partying… I’ll see you at the Firkin during a Leafs game ;)

h/t – Traffick

[photo credit: AffiliateBob via Flickr]

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The great viral swindle?

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I was hesitant to weigh in on the latest kerfuffle raised by the recent TechCrunch post, frankly, because I knew all of these black hat tactics were being utilized by those less savory in our field, and the post just confirmed it, but felt I had to do so when I realized that too many people in our industry were surprised (vs. the ‘regular folks’ in the TC comments who were justifiably outraged, if not surprised).

Let’s apply some logic here – the Internet is a huge, unruly place, with millions of people and companies vying for attention. Dollars are shifting online in record fashion and LOTS of service companies want a piece. How do you break through the clutter, prove results and make a buck? By pushing the limits to the edge, as all firms: advertising, marketing, PR, Web 2.0, etc. do? Do we really suppose that we’ve always done things completely ethically? I’d like to say yes, but I’ve worked for too many firms with client expectations and million dollar budgets on the line to ever make that claim with a straight face. I know that I founded my own strategic marketing firm because I grew sick and tired of tactics employed, lack of true innovation, and egos, and I keep a firm grip on how myself and my team execute projects and develop strategies, but that’s just little old Wildfire in a sea of thousands. I also am (speaking of ego) able to better navigate the waters and develop innovative strategies precisely because of my track-record in the interactive space and the focus I’ve always placed on customer relationships vs. pure push advertising. It’s easier to determine how to balance a company’s need for bottom-line ROI while remaining authentic and transparent about the tactics employed: been there done that and seen a lot. For example, I’m particularly proud of the creative concept and integrated strategy I developed while working with TFC for Sharp Canada (Aquos 1080p D82 Challenge) precisely because it was pure branding, social responsibility, and community engagement. It worked on all levels and the bottom line result was good for Sharp and good for the environment.

That being said, why are we surprised? It takes work and a lot of money to be truly immersed in the Internet and social media space, and with profit margins at agencies and companies being pushed further down, is it realistic to expect that any firm can afford that much R&D and people-hours? Folks expect to get paid and brands expect a return on investment that is tangible. The bottom line for all brands is to sell product and satisfy their shareholders (which is why they are called “for profit”). That will not change, and it’s why 30-second spots still work, even if they’re being moved online in increasing numbers (hello, viral spots). And, as consumers get more sophisticated, more people will recognize not to necessarily trust what you read online unless you know the person, or unless it’s independently verified (ala Consumer Reports) like all of us old skool interactive geeks realized about 7 years ago. Everyone has an agenda, that’s just life. We don’t live in a utopia, we live in a capitalist society. Even the old standard, The Red Cross, was less than pure after 9/11. We can change things, for sure, but change takes time; people aren’t a piece of software that we can just upgrade when we discover a bug or want to add a new feature.

Why are we trying to figure out social media ROI at all if we believe it’s all about the long-term relationship? True relationships take years to develop, just because someone joins your community, for whatever internal and external reasons suit their needs at the moment, it’s just as easy to leave when it doesn’t. That’s what churn is. Consumers own their relationships with a brand and for that reason they also own the conversation – trying to satisfy everyone while continuing to make money is the rub of social media. You can’t have an agency built with everyone’s best friend. The participation economy is a reality, but it’s also a fallacy when you step outside of our bubble. Hip Hop artists don’t do product placement in videos and start their own clothing lines (multi-billion dollar industry) because someone wrote a positive review online or added them as a ‘friend’ in Facebook.

Let’s be realistic. How much time do you spend on YouTube scouring the new submissions, rating them up and sending them along? With over 10k submitted per day, my guess is not enough that you could spot “the next big thing” without having someone point you to it. The recent WOM conference in Toronto in April of this year recognized Chevrolet for their “Let’s Go Chevy” campaign as being a WOM success story when the company was blaring the URL in TV spots, banner ads, newspaper ads, etc. etc. Did we complain then (well, I did, but not too many others)? Why is that okay and not the tactics employed by The Commotion Group except for our own expectations of the purity of the space? It’s not. Neither of them is okay. We need to take off our rose-coloured glasses and think in the big picture. I don’t employ the tactics used in the article, but I get the feeling I’m in the minority (and no, I’m not going to share my secrets), and although a shame, we should look at this as a learning opportunity and be prepared to recognize that if we really want to succeed in this brave new world, we have to be honest with our clients about how much time and effort it will take to build lasting success… and what success truly means. We need to stop speaking to ourselves and start exploring the space.

We bloggers even do similar things – link-bait posts that exist solely to drive traffic/ reputation (Lists upon lists of “the top blogs”, posting on your own blog about a controversy instead of responding in the comments elsewhere: just like this post, etc), “calling outs” to stir controversy, speaking to our own echo chamber and measuring success against that, plagiarism, passing ourselves off as experts in the space when we aren’t, whatever. None of us are true angels. No one is completely pure in reality, and that includes the consumers we are trying to reach.

Perhaps this will be a wake-up call, but I think not. Too much money on the line and the easy way out is usually the one people take (especially for products such as movies that have a short shelf life to make a buzz on opening weekend – the majority of the clients The Commotion Group appears to work for). I know that I’ll continue doing what I do, and one of these days I’ll hang it all up and go be a yoga-instructor and run a golf course up north. Until then, I’m not jumping on any bandwagons and I’ll keep learning, experimenting, educating clients, and being a hurricane when appropriate.

But that’s just my opinion – there are a million of them (manufactured or not) out there to choose from.

Update: Tony Hung has a good post on this as well…. a choice bit:

Mike Arrington himself seems a bit taken aback by how honest the post is, but is anyone *really* shocked?

Are your (or anyone’s) sensibilities *really* that delicate?

….

Bottom line is that this post pulls the curtain back on a phenomenon that any rational thinking individual would already suspect.

That is, when there is financial incentive and opportunity to game a system — even when that system has the appearance of being “open”, “transparent”, and built upon the goodwill and trust of its users (how typically quaint!) — someone will do it.

And the best of them will do it in such a way that no one else will even *know*.

[photo credit: daryldarko via Flickr]

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