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November 13, 2009, 1:43 pm

State of the Cyberhood

As I was pulling together a white paper about social media I came across an article that Adweek published about me in 1996, when my role as head of TBWA’s Department of the Future took me to Amsterdam. Having already been central in setting up the agency’s efforts to use new media tools for market research, I moved to the Netherlands to develop interactive research capabilities for the agency’s European offices.

Around the same time, I worked on a campaign strategy for AOL that launched my move toward PR. We set up a blimp on behalf of AOL to welcome Microsoft (Windows 95) to the neighborhood. Those brands sound like relics now, but the reasoning behind the campaign remains sound.

In the article about my move, Jonathan Hoare, managing director of TBWA, London, told Adweek, “There is no doubt that the types of insight and issues [available on the Internet and through other computer networks] are particularly important in markets where the cultural divide is still a huge issue.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the nearly two decades that I’ve made cyberhoods my stomping ground, I’ve watched as insights and issues—everything—on the Internet has become increasingly vital. As for the cultural divide, all of today’s social media channels and the rapid ascent of hyperlocalization mean there are more divides to be bridged than ever before. New media must be central to all of our strategies.

I’d like to share some highlights from the white paper, which was based on insights from Euro RSCG Worldwide’s October 2009 survey of 1,228 Americans about their social media usage, as well as our ongoing cyber-research into prosumers, trialogues and hyperlocalization. Here are excerpts:

In May 2009, The New York Times named Jennifer Preston its first social media editor. An internal memo raised ideas that apply to many organizations:

“…an awful lot of people are finding our work not by coming to our homepage or looking at our newspaper but through alerts and recommendations from their friends and colleagues. So we ought to learn how to reach those people effectively and serve them well.”

At the time this was written, more than 5 billion tweets had been posted on Twitter with around 20 million being added daily. Facebook has 300 million active users, half of whom log in on any given day. Wikipedia had 67 million unique visitors in September and counts around 85,000 active contributors. YouTube now scores one billion views a day.

Probably the most convincing endorsement of social media has come from the experts in epidemics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its website lets people share info by Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, DailyStrength, YouTube, Flickr, iTunes and Second Life. The CDC might well be the most viral of all organizations.

If social media is a familiar concept, hyperlocalism is more of an “insider” notion. It’s about new ways of creating the local awareness and connectedness that virtually disappeared when consumers stopped walking down Main Street and started relying on mass media for their news.

Social media make it easy to connect with people and businesses in the immediate vicinity. Apps for Twitter and Flickr enable users to find fellow users near them. Community websites are launching that enable consumers to bookmark special interests and write about local initiatives. Technologies are popping up to aggregate local information. Services such as EveryBlock, VillageSoup and Topix track and map discussions on the Web. In October, the Omaha World-Herald Co. announced it had acquired WikiCity, a community-based site that provides user-generated information on places, events and people in 22,000 U.S. towns.

IMPLICATIONS

Embrace the trend, ride the fads. Although it’s important for brands and marketers to get on top of social media platforms, it’s also important not to get hung up on them. Consumers can be fickle. The crucial factor is not the specific technologies, which might be fads, but the functional benefits of social media: sociability, mobility, bandwidth, location relevance and low cost. These should be on the checklist of all brands looking to join in.

Stop thinking online/offline; start thinking interaction. It’s tempting for old-school marketers to think in terms of online and offline, traditional media and social media. In a world where hundreds of millions of people switch between online and offline interactions many times a day, this division makes no sense. The watchwords must be “social interaction” by whatever means do the job. People throughout corporations have to use social media often enough to understand them.

Pay attention to location-specific initiatives. The bigger the brand, the greater the tendency for big, remote thinking. This doesn’t play well with social media because the most powerful interactions are those with “local,” face-to-face qualities. Typically, the challenge for a growing business is how to scale up. With social media the challenge is being able to stay big but scale down and deliver hands-on and local.

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