I was kindly invited to present at the Evolve Programme event today at Blick Studios in Belfast. I promised to share my notes here afterwards, for further detail.
Below is the script I wrote. I could provide simple notes but at least with a script you have the full details, should you wish to bore your children to sleep with them. Links are included in the text.
There’s actually extra content below, as I cut some out to save time (lucky you!).
Being Heard Through The Noise
(5 trends in digital media and their relevance to the creative industries)
SLIDE: Community Management
Social Media has become the big thing in online marketing.
Email was perhaps the first big surprise success – then search – then social media and the rise of Web 2.0.
It soon became clear that at the heart of the social media was the notion of Community. A very old concept. Very powerful and seems to be fundamental to human nature.
Term Community Manager first came onto my radar in about 2007. Shortly afterwards, I got an illegal copy of a Forrester Research report about the new role of the community manager. May still be relevant now. Suggested that companies would increasingly hire people to manage relationships with their online communities. Just as PR agents have managed relationships with media influencers, like journalists.
Since then, the role has become quite common-place with the leading big brands – Coca-Cola, GM – and the rising stars – Twitter, Google, Facebook – hiring Community Managers.
It can be a full-time role. Even for a small organisation it could feasibly require a dedicated person but budgets rarely permit. But before considering the specifics of a community manager as an individual, consider this: I think the entire process of communicating with your audience via social media – all the people, tools and content involved – can be considered as Community Management. It is not so much a role as an organisational capability.
So what is your community, in the context of digital media? I think it covers every person, brand and organisation that influence your future. It’s not just the public, or end user of your product – it’s not just the obvious influencers such as journalists – it is your peers, leading thinkers and managers in your sector, your friends, competitors, financiers, employees, and so on.
They all have different needs and you have to communicate with each of them appropriately. So the challenge of the community manager is to systemise and operate this communication as efficiently and effectively as possible. I typically recommend a trial-and-error approach, whereby many different tools and tactics are employed and you force yourself through a constant process of measurement, assessment and optimisation. Selecting and dropping tools and practices as appropriate.
As I see it, perhaps a holy grail of digital media is waiting for the person who finds a way for us users to manage the two-way flow of information between us and other people at the end of internet terminals.
We have browsers for interacting online. And there are other tools, that can be added to our browsers or operate independently. Some of them are great. No one tool makes it that easy though. We end up creating a suite of tools tailored to our individual selves to make the process easier.
The good news for creative businesses is that creative communities are fervent online. Social Media were made for you. People like to get together, and make. And creative people tend to be early adopters of new channels and tools. Until you have experienced it first hand I doubt any of you realise how much effort creative people are willing to spend making things for each other, for free, just because they’re on the same social network as someone else.
But the bad news is that creative communities are fervent online. There’s a lot of noise out there, and members can be very protective of their communities. Brands and business are typically unwelcome too. Ultimately, the biggest pill to swallow is that the best way to work with online communities is slowly, as a part of them, just like everyone else around you.
SLIDE: Content Curation
As I say, there is a lot of noise out there. Now, I love the internet, it’s a really big passion for me. But it’s like a chain of disparate tropical islands floating in a vast, seething ocean of banality and crap. And in the last couple of years there has been an increasing trend for the concept of Curation. More specifically, Content Curation.
The idea is that, while an ever increasing volume of new content is uploaded every day, there is already a lot of good stuff out there. We have created the greatest knowledge and entertainment resource in history, by a very long way. So there is value in piecing together relevant and interesting chunks of content and presenting them together.
This is perhaps what a news reporter does when putting together a compelling article from the information available. But a traditional Curator does more than that. A Curator of, say, a museum, lays on a show for the audience. And key to this role is an intimate knowledge of both the audience and the subject.
As creatives, you have your own product to deliver. You should consider curating your own content into packages and themes that will be digestible and appetising for your audience. And you should also consider taking content from all over the internet and gluing it together to present with or around your product.
I would say that the biggest thing to remember is this: always add value to the conversation. By all means republish, but don’t just republish – say or do something in addition.
A couple of fundamental parts of the curation process, and part of your wider community management, are:
Aggregation – setting-up feeds of streams of content, such as blogs, specific search results, and newsletters in towards you so you can keep up with the conversation and identify new opportunities.
Syndication – essentially the reverse of aggregation. The process of publishing content and messaging out to multiple channels, to make your communication further-reaching and more efficient.
Also, consider the niches. One of the emergent properties of the sheer vastness and openness of the internet is that specialised communities can be powerful and big. It is easy to dismiss highly relevant groups of people over huge groups of randomly generalist people. You should aim to establish a presence as a valuable member of your niche. Then you may benefit from not just a reputation but a waiting audience of customers and promotional advocates, as well as constructive feedback from people who know and care about what you do.
SLIDE: New Economics
It’s pretty trendy at the moment to feel suicidal about money. Western economies are in some kind of catastrophic nosedive, no doubt ending in some kind of cannibalistic zombie apocalypse. People eating dirt. Badgers rule the Earth.
I like to take the other trendy outlook on the situation. That of the cocky new media types who think they know everything because they know how to type stuff into Google. We say this is not a recession, it is an industrial revolution. It is a transition of evolutionary epochs. The big lumbering dinosaurs can’t handle the unexpected change in weather, and us furry little buck-toothed rodents are about to become the dominant species. Right now, we are still somewhat in the messy boundary zone between one age and another, and typically this is when the most interesting stuff is possible.
With this new, digital age comes a new economy too. At it’s heart is a very important price: zero.
I recommend a book by Chris Anderson, all about the new economy of free. The book is called Free, by Chris Anderson. You’ll be pleased to hear that the audio version is available at the very affordable price of free. Chris Anderson helped to formalise for me an economic concept that I think is important: That in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost.
In the digital environment, this marginal cost will always be near-zero and typically getting smaller. So, theoretically someday, any digital product will inevitably become free in some form. Now, you may not create digital products, maybe you make real things, but at the least, the digital world probably slashes the complexity and cost of more traditional sales channels open to you, and drives down the prices you can ask for.
And what’s more, you’re facing a culture that has become used to getting lots of things for free. I for one have become a terrible miser online.
To manage your creative career online, I think it is worth looking at a concept that is well illustrated by quite an old article now, by Kevin Kelly, called 1,000 True Fans. He describes a true fan as someone who buys the T-shirt, comes to the gigs, and actually pays for the album, and proposes that an average artist might need about 1,000 true fans to make a comfortable living. Of course this varies and multiplies according to the size of operation.
In a similar vein, you should consider what you can live with giving away for free, or for crazy cheap, and then keep giving it and similar things away, perhaps for a long time. Then, when your audience has developed around your lovely output of content, you can ask them to pay you to make more, or move onto the more advanced version, and so on.
There are many models but the principle is the same. Call it freeconomics, if you like – and keep your chin up, you have more opportunity now than ever before to make a living from doing what you love, and manage your own success while you’re doing it.
SLIDE: Crowdsourcing and Collaborative Creativity
I have to tread on some unsteady ground here. I am extremely lucky to be friends with some very creative people and I cringe at how insular some of them can be. I understand. To be good at what you do you have to take your craft seriously and personally, and everything you make becomes a very personal possession, like a child. So many creative people don’t like to work or share with others, especially not their consumers.
Well lighten up. I think most people benefit from sharing and discussing ideas with others, both from their specific communities and from other areas of interest.
What’s more, that amazing idea you have… you didn’t think of it first.
Collaboration is a massive word in this new digital world. It just makes so much sense now. You can do whatever it is you’re good at, and hopefully people will appreciate you. And you can get together with other people who are good at other stuff and make even better things. This is especially exciting when you find people who need what you have and have what you need. To take an example from science, there are experimental labs on one side of the world teaming up with theoretical institutions on the other side, to support each other’s work.
To take this a step further, there is the concept of Co-opetition. It’s an ugly word, a contraction of Co-operation and Competition, and it only works as a noun. Nobody wants to say “Let’s co-opete” – or “Comperate”. But the principle is appealing. Instead of fearing your competition, and keeping all your assets tucked away from their view, approach them for opportunities to benefit mutually. Share knowledge and tools. Then you can raise the standards of your whole industry, and collectively have more power and reach. Such practice may have been around forever but the scalable and connective nature of digital media make them highly conducive to such social behaviour. (Good Mashable article on this).
With crowdsourcing, we see many industries turning to large audiences to perform tasks that they may not achieve individually. This has been very influential in the creative world. Crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter, and now FundIt and others over here, have funded creative products without sacrificing a single penny of equity and with many of the funders being ordinary, skint people like you or I. Or me at least.
Creativity is crowdsourced too. Take the remarkable example of Threadless, the T-shirt guys. People submit designs for T-shirts to the site, and the community, which consists of people who are into that kind of thing, mostly designers I suppose, vote on which ones they like best. The most popular designs get printed on T-shirts and sold, with proceeds going partly to the designer.
Likewise, the crowd can be asked to write scripts, design logos, edit content, find information, not to mention constructively criticise what you do. The most successful project yet on Kickstarter, for instance, the Tik-Tok and Luna-Tik watches, deserve a mention. A designer from Nike posted images of these watches that were also iPod nanos and asked for $15,000 to make them. People didn’t realise the watches weren’t real, they were just an idea. A hunch of something people might like.
In the few weeks the bid was live on Kickstarter, 14,000 people invested just under $950,000 in the project.
SLIDE: The Game Layer
Gaming is an often misappropriated word. Game Theory is an important academic subject crossing over economics, sociology, politics and maths, and it doesn’t just mean games in the sense of board games, video games, sports and suchlike.
Gaming looks at structures for the way people interact with each other, whether for fun or not. And it offers us a series of, often simple, processes for inciting desired responses from people. These are game mechanics.
Game mechanics are everywhere, whether you like it or not. When you fill out a questionnaire and a little line along the top progresses to the next step, stating that you are 75% complete, you are being influenced by game mechanics. When a website tells you you can get a hefty discount if you get five of your mates to sign up too, game mechanics.
Gaming in the more recognisable sense is of course big too. And it’s changing. The likes of Zynga, who created Farmville and Cityville on Facebook make essentially simple video games that look like they’re from the early nineties, but they engineer extremely addictive game mechanics into them, and release them for free. It’s also worth noting that they employ a rapid R&D feedback process too, whereby they release unfinished games into the public and then respond swiftly to community feedback with game developments, sometimes in a matter of hours. Now Zynga has a captive audience in the hundreds of millions, and that gives it a potential market value in the many billions.
Every industry and category is being enhanced by gaming, as game mechanics are being spread like a layer over everything, affecting the way we experience and interact with things and people. The important question being asked by experts in this area seems not to be, “is the game layer going to be a big thing”, but “how can we take ownership of the game layer before brands and governments do”. (Here’s a good TED Video on this).
As you make and do whatever lovely things it is you make and do, consider how to gamify your creations so that they enhance the experience of the user. But be careful of people like me using words they don’t understand, like gamify, they could be talking nonsense.