Do the Green Thing

I've been a bad, bad blogger. Sorry. By way of explanation, I've started a new kind of Small-Big public service called Green Thing ( which has been keeping me busy. Green Thing is trying to mobilise the masses against climate change with creativity by making it easy and enjoyable to lead greener lives...

Continue reading "Do the Green Thing" »

29 July 2009

What advertising should take from TED


I just submitted this for Campaign magazine in the UK (which lives here and here online). Not sure when it's out in print - tomorrow perhaps? Anyway this is what I wrote after going to TED Global in Oxford last week in answer to the question what can advertising take from TED...

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The big problem for the advertising industry is that it wrote the manifesto for the 20th century’s ideology of triumphant consumerism and excessive individualism. Advertising defined what it was that those who had a newfound capacity to consume should buy, and how to spend their money in a way that suited themselves and no-one else.

If I had to pick out one thing that advertising should take from TED Global 2009, it would be how urgently we need to reboot our society and financial systems to address the great challenges of our times: our environment and economy, our health services and education systems, social inequality and a lack of community, and an ageing population with dwindling supplies of water and oil.

A consistent theme throughout the conference was how our values and cultural behaviours are changing to reflect a growing preoccupation with these new social and economic imperatives.

Thus social commentator and Young Foundation director Geoff Mulgan spoke eloquently and convincingly about the need for systemic change and social innovation to tackle the things that free markets don’t do well; like compassion, empathy, social relationships and care. Capitalism is already getting drawn into the world of social networks and will become more social still as it recognises that value comes from relationships not just consumption, and as customers demand that businesses also serve more productive public needs like ecology, family and community.

We need a new set of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations, which recognise that people want to contribute to something greater than themselves and do stuff that matters. This has been the case online for some time, as Harvard law professor and writer Jonathan Zittrain pointed out. Sites from Wikipedia and Craig’s List to, or even the network engineering system of the Internet itself, have always been based on a patchwork system of collaboration and trust. Things get done for love rather than money and individuals regularly work together purely for social or altruistic reasons.

Sure, not everyone is turning away wholesale from old-fashioned consumerism, but the middle class that became the engine of the 20th century consumer movement is changing what it cares about. Perhaps in part because it is better educated. In 1938-39 there were around 50,000 fulltime university students in the whole of Great Britain, now there are 2.5 million and this rate of increase applies pretty much globally.

The rise in middle class education doesn’t eliminate the old ideology of looking out for No. 1 first but it does help to counter it because those who have gone through schooling (and increasingly have access to new, digital media channels through which all kinds of information flows) acquire habits, beliefs and ideas which don’t come to them purely though advertising or other traditional media.

There are signs that social change can help advertising to move from primarily consumerist to new motivations. The mood and situation are different. TED itself, of course, is partly an exercise in very successful marketing. It’s extremely good at finding inspirational ways to package and deliver intellectual discussion in forms that will project, get noticed, and have an effect. And like advertising, which created new units of cultural transmission such as the 30-second TV spot, TED has even invented it’s own memetic media format, the 18 minute talk, which it distributes online to 300,000 people a day.

The times are changing quickly and consumers, to paraphrase David Putnam, are ‘relocating their dreams’ – the challenge for advertising is to move with them. Today, in the words of Nobel Laureate economist Robert Fogel: “People have enough to live, but nothing to live for; they have the means, but no meaning”. People still haven’t found what they’re looking for and hundreds of millions of them, who no longer have to worry only about where their income is coming from, have started searching for happiness in places other than shops - which partly explains the appeal of TED.

07 July 2009

All Together Now - From Social Media To Social Good

RebootBritain_NESTA 1

This is an essay I wrote for NESTA under their "Reboot Britain" theme (which was also a conference) - about how new digital possibilities can help to "tackle the challenges we face as a country".

I didn't particularly talk about Britain but the relationship between social connectivity and global philanthropy in general (in fact, I expanded on an earlier post on this blog ages ago).

You can download the full pamphlet of essays here Download RebootBritain_NESTA - mine is among a load of other excellent pieces from rather clever people in whose company I am extremely happy to be.

It was also published in The Independent online (one of the UK's national daily broadsheet newspapers) and I blogged it on Green Thing too.

06 May 2009

Brand 2.0: brands in a digital age

Here's the chapter I contributed to the 'revised and updated' 2nd edition of the Economist book on Brands and Branding.

Download Brand 2.0


03 May 2009

Social Media Beachcombing - Survival Of The Twittest?

Here's an article I just submitted to Business Week...

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Social Media Beachcombing - Survival Of The Twittest?

Rockefeller famously saw the Wall St. crash coming and got his money out when the shoe shine boy started giving him stock tips; so what does it mean for the Next New Thing in social media when your parents-in-law start telling you about Twitter?

For one thing, any self-respecting digital trendspotter will have started looking elsewhere at least a year ago. But the more important point for brands is how quickly these social media innovations are moving from the margins to the mainstream. As author and teacher Clay Shirky notes, it’s only when technology gets boring – that’s to say, part of the routine for the majority not just the Geekosphere - that it becomes interesting.

Twitter is already becoming one of the first places people look for breaking news, often by eye-witnesses, on everything from plane crashes to earthquakes or, sadly, school shootings. It’s also the place brands look to monitor not just run of the mill customer opinions (“wow walmart super center employees are rude!”) but real-time feedback on their own breaking news stories.

For instance, Dominos Pizza recently used Twitter to engage directly with people spreading the news about a You Tube video showing employees adding, shall we say, non-standard ingredients to the food. The company was seen to be tuning into the scale and intensity of customer mood and averting what could have been a major PR disaster.

Twitter is also becoming an alternative starting point for real-time, social web searches. Would you rather find a good Indian restaurant trawling Google results based on years worth of reviews and links (probably polluted by commercial firms using SEO tactics to game the system), or via a recommendation from someone you know who ate there last night, or possibly even a few minutes ago?

Interestingly, Google has just added user-generated voting, like social news site Digg, where individuals can promote or remove link results depending on how useful they are.

What’s next? Imagine a combination of Digg, Twitter, Wikipedia and consumer review sites like Trip Advisor mashed together into a user-generated decision-making tool which helps you answer any question from “Which laptop should I buy?” to “What colour should I paint my nails?”

Where Twitter prompts users with the question “What are you doing?”, start-up Hunch, from Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, filters out miscellaneous conversational buzz to focus on useful information to discover and share and asks: “What are you making a decision about?

In theory, the more people who use social answer services like Hunch or Aardvark, the better the recommendations get and the more valuable they become. That said, ‘crowd-sourcing’ a quick view on which film to see or tourist attraction to visit is one thing, but to what extent we might want to outsource our decisions on religion or serious health issues to people we don’t know remains to be seen.

Needless to say, any new tool that helps people decide what to buy could become as important for brands as price comparison sites like, say, Money Supermarket for financial services.

It’s important for brands to really understand all aspects of social media, both positive and negative, to successfully innovate in this space. For instance, social media risks becoming an end in itself when people are constantly broadcasting themselves online in search of affirmation and spending more time announcing what they’re doing than actually doing it (unless you tweet it, is it really happening?). In other words, social media can make us less sociable.

The addictiveness of social networking is partly based on game mechanics where collecting friends and followers or racking up the number of tweets and status updates is like accumulating points. But a recent study showed that whether a Facebook user had 50 or 500 friends they still end up interacting meaningfully with the same small group of about 12. Advertising your life to an audience of casual acquaintances and sharing opinions with people you vaguely know or trust, it turns out, isn’t the same as real friendship.

That’s what made the recent Burger King campaign which rewarded people with a free Whopper for sacrificing 10 Facebook friends so brilliantly mischievous. Based on this insight about the devalued nature of relationships in a virtual world of ‘never-ending friending’, the brand played with social media conventions while driving the redemption of coupons to influence sales. In this case, online friendship in a large social network was worth about the same as 1/10th of a cheeseburger, $0.37 cents.

As brands and businesses see the potential to make digital media more truly social by combining it with objects in the physical world, I think we’ll see a swing away from purely screen-based networking towards a new world of shared digital experiences based on socially connected stuff.

For example, MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group has already prototyped a tiny digital projector connected to your mobile phone that beams Amazon reviews or recommendations and ratings from your social network onto products as you pick them up in a shop. You access this information like a “sixth sense”, as naturally as using sight, sound, smell, taste or touch in other everyday experiences.

We’re also starting to see real-time data streamed from tiny sensors in objects and environments shared through social media. A real-time graph on someone’s blog monitoring the electricity they’re using in their home, for instance, or the Botanicalls experiment where plants Tweet whenever they need watering.

BakerTweet from Digital agency Poke is an interesting e-commerce example - local bakers tell Twitter followers when freshly baked goods have popped out of their ovens. Companies like Dell have already sold a million dollars worth of discounted products through alerts on Twitter, but BakerTweet is a clever semi-automated system combining virtual community with real-time inventory information about perishable products like doughnuts.

In truth, we won’t be able to point to the Next New Thing in social media for a while yet. It always takes time to separate temporary fashions from long-term trends – remember how long it took for Web 2.0 to emerge after the dot-com crash. It will be 3 – 4 years before the current waves of social media innovation recede and we can comb the beach to see what fascinating new digital life forms are left behind

28 May 2007

The wisdom of clouds

Leading blog search-engine Technorati has just re-designed its home page. Founder and CEO Dave Sifry explains that the new layout is based on “using the wisdom of crowds as a mirror on ourselves”.


Continue reading "The wisdom of clouds" »

16 May 2007

The geography of passion

The internet is a different kind of social space in which our common interests are the things that connect us rather than physical proximity. Online it’s less important where we are or where we come from but what we care about. We might call this the ‘geography of passion’.

Continue reading "The geography of passion" »

04 May 2007

links for 2007-05-04

  • An interesting example of the internet’s geography of passion. A hybrid physical/virtual community where people track down likeminded individuals across the world, creating greater common understanding through cultural exchange in the process.

Continue reading "links for 2007-05-04" »

30 April 2007

Built to shrink

Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and a number of other firms are currently fighting it out to buy Dutch banking group ABN Amro for around £45 billion.

Continue reading "Built to shrink" »

22 April 2007

A virtual world

Long-held precepts of Big and Small have been at the heart of conventional business wisdom since the industrial revolution.

Continue reading "A virtual world" »