Monday, November 17, 2008

Nodding heads

I follow a number of marketing blogs (currently The Ad Contrarian is one of my favourites, but that's a different story). On Jonathan Trenn's Digital Street Journal he makes a point I think we all too often overlook when complaining that this or that person or group "just doesn't get it."

He writes of attending a conference in San Francisco during which he realized that the crowd of 400 "energetic people who are on the forefront of marketing communications and the technology that will make it possible" were all remarkably the same. In other words, "overly diverse" is not a phrase likely to be found in any news report of the event.

With that realization he goes on to say:

It’s imperative that we in social media seek to understand the diverse world that we’ll be looking to engage. It’s imperative that we realize that many of those that we see as “not getting it” will end up “getting it” on their own terms and in ways that will reflect their own cultural experiences. And it’s all the more important if we’re correct in our assertions that this is how we’ll be receiving our marketing messages, our news…the information that we need to live by. ("My Age of Conversation Post," Digital Street Journal, November 15, 2008.)

While Trenn is essentially speaking about two cultures (the targeted marketing audience, and the promoters/designers of the new media), there are actually three cultures involved with the whole marketing activity.

1. The targeted marketing audience: These, of course, are the people already using the media whom the marketers are hoping to engage in their marketing strategy. And woe unto the new media marketer who enters the fray without knowing the shibboleths and secret handshakes of the in crowd. To make matters worse, the culture of one in crowd can be radically different from the culture of another.

2. The promoters and designers of the new media: These are the people who are probably most represented at a site like ThinkBalm. They are definitely "plugged-in," "with it," and "on the cutting edge." They are smart, inventive, and most of all enthused. They are also, however, the people who come up with the names and terms used in these applications.

3. The targeted financing audience: These are the people category two people, are trying to convince to put money into the new media. They are, by and large, not part of the in crowd. They may not be technophobes, but they probably don't spend much time Twittering, keeping up a page on Facebook or MySpace, and have likely not even heard of Second Life, unless there's been a particularly juicy scandal about it in the news recently.

When category two people try talking to category three, the results often make about as much sense as a Dane speaking Swahili with a heavy Martian accent.

"You see sir, after you join up you can myrl an entry and..."


"Yes sir, it's kind of like spriging something in Sprigit, but it's called a myrl here."


"Um, no. Myrl. Or Sprig. It depends on what you mean."

"Problem is, I don't know what I mean. Let's just put the money in a damned television spot like always!"

The point I'm trying to make, of course, is that all too often when we complain some old fogey "just doesn't get it," the reason is that we haven't really tried to give it to him. And the applications themselves don't help. It was something I noticed years ago when I had one foot in the world of the programmers, and the other foot in the world of the users. While programmers were happily coming up with their own terms, many of which came from the heavily technical end while others consisted of in-jokes, the users were unhappily trying to figure out how to put a "string" in a computer and why there was a button called "query" when they weren't asking a question.

Second Life is a good case study, as I pointed out in a previous article (“When Boojums attack,” Metaverse Messenger, September 23). The “Debug Settings” have to be among the most offensively cryptic settings in Second Life. Not only does the term “debug” send most non-geek users running in the opposite direction, but their names seem to consist of ultra-technical terms combined with some kind of running in-jokes. As for their descriptions, they do little more than reiterate the names. CheesyBeacon, for instance, enables “cheesy beacon effects,” while the FlycamAxisDeadZone1 is described simply as “Flycam axis 1 dead zone.”

The support features are of limited help. To start with there are several, and most seem to wallow in a labyrinth of jargon. When faced with enough of this incomprehensibility, most users simply decide to go somewhere else. (15,000,000 registered users versus a few hundred thousand active residents — that’s a lot of dissatisfaction).

Now imagine trying to explain any of that to a client who is looking into the use of the immersive Internet for his company. "The challenge before us," says Trenn at the end of his blog post, "is not only to overcome the barriers of those who seek to resist the changes we are embracing; it is also to develop a deeper understanding of the diverse peoples that are becoming users of social media."

This also includes the users on both ends — not just those already in Facebook, MySpace, Second Life and the rest, but those trying to use these platforms as business tools.

"If we fail to do that," Trenn concludes, "we’ll simply be a bunch of nodding heads mistakenly thinking that we are the future of communication."

And most nodding heads happily sit looking out the back window of cars with no clue what's coming up.


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