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For Non-Brand “Brands” Building Their Brands… Much Work to Be Done

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

If you’re in marketing, especially of the digital variety, chances are you won’t have much trouble figuring out something new to do this week.

With the explosion of the interactive world into all of its social and mobile splinters, there is always another tool, another tactic, and another way to keep busy. So much so that it might seem to the cynical to be a bit of a competition to see who can look busiest, who can learn the most tools, and who can chase the latest fad.

But if you look at the “to do list” from a coherent standpoint — understanding that there is an overarching, transformative task that is x% on the way to being achieved at your company — the bits and pieces don’t seem endless anymore. It can become more obvious that your company is roughly 10%, or 75%, along the road to reaching a state of (if you will) “full online personhood”. So for some time, that’s a big part of what you’ll be going to work every day trying to fill out. You might as well gamify it.

Your online (social, reputational) “presence” — and the task of completing it — isn’t so much more complicated than filling out a LinkedIn profile, at least in the sense that you can get roughly x% through the task if you keep at it.

That has become increasingly obvious to some kinds of companies — especially larger ones. Some analysts of online competence — when they write and speak — direct their exhortations to “brands,” as if brands are people with souls. “Brands should… ”

It sounds funny, but understanding the context, it’s not far off. At one point in time, going online might have meant building a website, or several. Today — and the proliferation of social media presence & monitoring dashboards/tools like Radian6 is a testament to that — one’s online presence as a company forms a sort of multidimensional profile with all sorts of offshoots and strange surfaces and textures. If a company speaks in a disjointed voice, can be found in one place and not another, leaves little breadcrumbs of its humanity over here, but not over there… it all culminates in the overall impression left with the customer, or potential customer.

If all of that “looks funny,” or barely exists at all, then it really doesn’t matter what the reality of the good people and their good products is, for the hypothetical researcher who might somehow be able to visit the company’s executives in person or magically source perfect word-of-mouth through old-fashioned means. If a tree falls in the forest, and all.

So that’s why brands should.

Of course, we were warned. Long before there was a Facebook, a Twitter, or a Yelp, the Cluetrain Manifesto authors did alert us to the fact that “markets are conversations.” This isn’t something the folks over at Hootsuite just discovered.

If you went out and took a hard look of the (gamified) state of many brands’ building from the one-dimensional (“website and search engine”) visibility paradigm (circa 1998) up to a state of contemporary, full online “personhood,” you’d see many of them at 50%, or maybe just a bit better. More than enough, in most jurisdictions outside of Palo Alto, to be lauded as maintaining a transparent, full-featured, bona fide online presence. Maybe even a likeable one.

But not every company is a “brand.” Why analysts and gurus speak directly to brands (Kleenex? The Keebler Elves? Adidas? Boeing?) probably has something to do with a belief that brands have budgets for agency and guru services. Big ones.

But the non-brands still need to build their “brands” in their own fashion. They’re sorely lacking in encouragement. Their industry peers and boards of directors might not see a need. It can quickly move past the point of being a need to a crisis. Catch-up is hard if you fall too far behind. Try starting up a Twitter account today and see how many real, engaged followers you have next year.

The non-brand brands out there — medium-sized companies — are probably 25% of the economy, as against the larger companies that make up 40% of it (and putting aside for the moment the 35% of the economy that are small to very small businesses). They have a lot of customers. For what a lot of customers want and need, they are better than so-called brands. They should be proud of that! They should own it. They are better than “brands” at connecting with the Seth Godin proposition that today, We Are All Weird. And small (or at least, medium) really is the new big.

All have a built a reputation they want to keep. But standing still instead of building it out further means you lose ground, since the playing field has shifted so dramatically. And yet that guru speaking at TED is not going to have his sales team call, asking when you plan to come up to speed. After all, the sales team is busy making presentations to “brands.”

And… in the gamified state of their buildout of this generation of their online marketing, these great non-brand-brands are stuck at “10% done” — sometimes less. They won’t be great for long if they don’t update their toolkits. “Quiet confidence” and “quiet competence” is are things you only get credit for when someone, um, hears about them.

The to-do list for these non-brands is now extensive and urgent. They need to get on it. For the exact same reasons “brands” did. And it needn’t seem like a random array of tactics and means of gaining cool points. I like to think of it as a coherent mission to adapt to the new requirements of building a full, deeply textured, and coherent presence. The technology, and customers’ expectations, have made this both possible and necessary.

Did Facebook Win in a Lame Category?

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Reports of Facebook’s surprising revenues have added momentum to the prevailing viewpoint that the popular social networking platform is a looming financial juggernaut, possibly on a par with Google.

On further reflection, though, the two companies couldn’t be more different. Google burst on the scene because it solved a really hard problem — web search — and kept solving it. The company continued to innovate on a variety of fronts. Once it gained a critical mass of engineering talent, it became a magnet for even more talent — both mature and shiny new. Today, the company innovates not only in straightforward product categories like email, but it’s a leader in video, mobile, browsing, and yes, operating systems.

Facebook’s developers may be smart, but they’re not working on even a tiny proportion of the hard problems Google faces down. In that regard, Facebook reminds you of a company like Yahoo (but admirably, less diversified). Few barriers to entry, nothing really proprietary. It’s just the place people go. Yahoo — in yet another lame tagline that seems to be popping up of late — states that you should consider it “your home for everything.” Facebook wants you to think that, too. But why? Why should you? Yahoo fought a losing battle over the years against the “why should I?” erosion of its user base. To maintain loyalty and eyeballs, it was forced to acquire companies like Geocities, eGroups, and dozens of others. That diluted its share price, and confused users.

Turning to the financials, Facebook appears to be really rolling. Still, if you project a couple more years of 100% growth in revenues, that only gets the company to $3.2 billion, and projecting a more modest growth rate from there, it’s close to a decade before they get to the $21 billion level where everyone was suddenly saying “WOW. Google is REALLY a force to be reckoned with.” Where do you think we’ll all be in a decade? Where will Google be?

Other recent talk has noted that Facebook ascended because management at MySpace and Friendster bungled badly. There’s little question about that, but it’s also worth pondering whether most of the companies in this space are just in a doomed category that eventually burns through user goodwill and attention spans.  Ning, Bebo, and orkut have also had incredible promise that seems to have fizzled. Company after company in the social networking vertical have hit a wall where users get bored, momentum fades, and usage drops.

The jury really is still out, in my mind. Facebook is champion in its category. But is it really building a platform, and defensible assets? Or just a familiar sort of environment, and a brand?

In other words, is Facebook more like AOL or Yahoo than Google?

Being compared with other billion-dollar companies is not such a terrible thing, of course, for any young upstart founded in a college dorm room. Being number one in any lucrative category isn’t such a terrible thing. But down the road,  maybe the failures of Friendster, Bebo, and MySpace mean more than just that they lost to the opportunistic, well-managed leader: it could mean that users will eventually have trouble figuring out what your “category” is or means, and what you actually do… as happened in the long declines of AOL and Yahoo.

For these reasons, I think it’s worth asking whether there is something inherent in Facebook that limits its potential… and makes it night-and-day different from a serious engineering-driven company like Google.


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