Edelman Brandshare2014: a manifesto for brand survival, but will brands take heed?

Edelman has just released its latest Brandshare report. It has the rather uninspiring title ‘How brands and people create a value exchange’. It is, however, a very important report: one that every single marketing director should not just read – but read and actually think about – because it presents credible evidence that explains how the relationship between brands and their customers or consumers is changing. In effect, it lays out a framework for what it will mean to be a brand in the future – even if the report itself doesn’t quite go so far as making this claim.  Perhaps more starkly, it makes it very clear that what it is that built brands in the past will not be relevant in building brands in the future.

 

The report starts with the assertion that “people’s needs have changed due to an increasingly complex and interconnected world.” Fair enough – but I think a better way of phrasing this is to say that the world has changed and this is creating new opportunities (indeed requirements) for brands to better meet people’s needs: a fact which ‘the people’ are now starting to realise. The reason I think it is better to phrase the issue this way is that believing that ‘the people’ are changing can often result in an attitude which seeks to blame or resent ‘our consumers’ for spoiling the brand party. Not the right mind-set. People have not really changed (they rarely do), what has changed is the world around them – and it is this that brands need to understand and react to. The people are not the problem here. Anyway – a small quibble.

Edelman then introduce the concept of ‘the value exchange’ and demonstrate that consumers now feel they are not getting sufficient value in this exchange, which I took as ‘strategy talk’ for saying that the relationship between brands and consumers is breaking down. The report identifies three reasons for this:

  • Brands are not really giving consumers what they now want (“there is little value for the consumer in the current value exchange.”)
  • Consumers want actions, not words (“emotional and rational needs are merging”)
  • Being seen as a good corporate citizen is becoming more important (“meeting societal needs delivers real business value”)

More specifically, consumers want brands to:

  • Respond quickly to concerns and complaints
  • Provide ways to ask questions and give opinions
  • Communicate openly about how products are sourced and made
  • Invite people to be a part of the development and refinement process
  • Have a clear mission and purpose at the brand core
  • Use its resources to drive change in the world
  • Let people know the company’s mission and value for the future
  • Take a stand on issues consumers care about.

These points clearly fall into two distinct groups – the first four relate to process and delivery and they are very functional. No BS here about wanting to be ‘surprised and delighted’ by brands or wanting ‘rewarding brand experiences’ – just very clear instructions that are essentially all rooted in listening and responding.   The remaining four cover the more emotional territory – but are equally explicit. They are an exhortation for a brand to demonstrate that it stands for something other than simply the creation of profit.

I think these eight points represent a crystal clear manifesto for what a brand needs to deliver against if it still wishes to be a brand in the future. However, the interesting thing is the extent to which conventional marketing activity  delivers against almost none of these points. For example, customer service has been seen as an issue that is peripheral to marketing and indeed peripheral to corporate activity in general: a cost that should be minimised by outsourcing it to India. Likewise what Edelman identifies as ‘societal needs’ have been marginalised in CSR or CRM activities that are similarly peripheral to marketing and corporate activity rather than being something that is seen as being at the core of the brand.

Perhaps it is worth restating this conclusion more bluntly: what it is that built brands in the past will have almost no relevance to what will build brands in the future. Edelman has not been as explicit in stating things this way – but this the inescapable conclusion of what the evidence collected actually demonstrates.

Of course, brands have paid lip service to these issues to date. Customer service has long been talked about as being an important component of social digital strategies, but very few brands have actually done much about it. It is incredibly easy to address all of the four functional needs through the creation and management of online customer communities – but why do so few brands have them? Most brands still make it incredibly difficult for a consumer to do any of the things the report shows that they want to do (ask questions, get responses, provide opinion, access relevant information). Why? Dell showed the way with its Idea Storm site seven or eight years ago. Why have so few followed its lead?

The ‘strategy du jour’ these days is all about content marketing. But rarely is this content actually aligned against responding to complaints, providing answers to questions, or giving transparency about how products are made and sourced. Rather we have organisations like Coca Cola (my current bête noir in the content space), telling people how to make cups out of crayons. Why?

I guess the answer to this question goes back to the conclusion that what built brands in the past won’t build brands in the future. Perhaps it also helps explain why Edelman stepped back from putting this conclusion centre-stage. What built brands in the past represents a huge set of vested interests that define the world of brands and agencies as we know it. While it may be acceptable to recognise the problem, it is much harder to embrace a solution that addresses this problem. Instead it is far more seductive to believe that the solution is content, or ‘reaching out to consumers’ (rather than responding to them), or creating ‘engagement’ (whatever that means) because this is a solution that doesn’t upset the brand and agency apple cart.

Personally, I take great heart from this report. It gives me the hard evidence to support what I have been saying for a long time: namely that social media strategies need to be based on listening and response, that content strategies should be seen as a process that matches brand answers to consumer question in real time rather than strategies designed to fill-up the channels with brandfill, that the social digital space is a medium of connection not a medium of distribution, that communities will become the new media, that marketing people should forget trying to target consumers and recognise that they need to get consumers to target their brand.

As a brand owner I guess you can take this report in either one of two ways. You could brush it aside as just another one of ‘those’ reports by a consultancy telling me I need to change my business. Or you could see it as a message from your consumers, telling you what you need to do if you still want to be relevant to them in the future.

Advertising is just a big, pink, inflatable, pointy finger

2014-10-10 10.16.29I spent two days last week on the Slovenian ‘Riveriera’ attending the Golden Drums International Advertising Festival (basically Cannes, but for eastern Europe). Slovenia has almost no coastline and therefore appears to have turned all of it into the edge of one gigantic Adriatic swimming pool, complete with chrome steps and handrails, interspersed with a couple of pretty fishing villages. You can almost hear the tourism pitch idea now, “hey, this is not much as a coastline, but as a swimming pool it could be pretty impressive!”

These events are always interesting to see how the practice of creativity and the practice of marketing are currently entwined. Two things stood out for me. First was the familiar problem of category confusion. It was impossible to put most of the best ideas in any one category. For example, there was an idea for the Belgrade State Theatre (I think) which placed actors as drivers in taxis wired up with hidden cameras. In true taxi driver style, the drivers began a tale of lament about their lives, drawing the passengers into the narrative. At the end of the journey they then reveal their true identity and that the story was actually the plot of a Shakespeare play, currently playing at their theatre. Very funny to watch (in the show reel) especially once you were wise to the format and were trying to identify the play.

But the problem was that this ‘event’ was forced into the category of film (because it was filmed) and sat there alongside conventional 30 second ads. However, the event wasn’t in any way a conventional ad. In fact it became compromised by the requirement to render it into the restrictive frame required to create something that can sit in paid-for TV space and that is seen a number of times by a ‘target consumer’. It worked as a show reel (but consumers never get to see the show reel) or it worked if you could get consumers out of expensive advertising space, to a space (i.e. YouTube) where you had sufficient time to tell, or even interact with, the stories properly.

This leads to the second problem – one of scale. Most of the best ideas were small scale ideas, or rather ideas which were not naturally adapted to working at large scale. This was either because, as in the case of the theatre example, it was difficult to fit them into a distribution medium which would give them scale (i.e. a TV ad) or because their strength was in their relevance – often local or cultural relevance – which by definition has limited scale. The most decorated agency on the night was an independent Russian agency called Voskhod. Their stand-out ideas (i.e. the ones I can remember) were all small scale. Actually, they were all PR ideas. For example, they created a poster for a local steak restaurant that featured a picture of a raw steak. One night they ‘grilled’ the steak by actually burning strips into the poster. Result – the restaurant was booked out the following week. And they did a campaign which linked an up-and-coming band with a single fashion shop. Very geographically and culturally specific stuff. And this stuff is the anti-thesis of the generic, international campaign that forms the bread and butter of most big brands and major agency networks. An impending problem there me-thinks.

Of course all of these ideas were surrounded by clouds of ‘social media’ – i.e everything was YouTubed, Facebooked, Tweeted etc. etc. In fact, these ideas lived much more comfortably in social media than in traditional media. But social media isn’t a channel. Just because something is ‘in’ social media, doesn’t mean it actually goes anywhere – unless you then invest significant time and effort driving people to that social space. Which perhaps provides a clue to the future of advertising and creativity. As I have posted previously, one of the principal consequences for brands and creativity of the social media revolution (which is the separation of information from distribution) is the separation of creativity from the means of delivery. Ideas have to sit above any particular delivery channel. Ideas have to define the channels, rather than be defined by the channels.

The channels themselves only have relevance in-so-far as they have a specific purpose and quite possibly the purpose of advertising in the future is not to actually carry, or even illustrate, brand ideas, but simply to be the big, pink, inflatable finger which points at brand ideas. Advertising is a distribution medium, so that is what it should focus on – bringing attention (scale) to an idea which lives in a (social) space which doesn’t naturally have scale attached to it. And these ideas will in most instance have a degree of specific geographical or cultural relevance that, even with advertising attached, will limit their ability to achieve international scale. It also points to what I have previously talked about, which is that the challenge for brands is to convene an audience, not to target it.

The overall winning idea came from Romania, and it involved connecting a young, relatively photogenic shepherd to the internet via a smart phone, thus allowing him to share his life with the world (or at least that bit of the world which might be interested). Quite a lot of people (in Romania) were interested as it turned out and said shepherd became an ‘internet celebrity’. I think this says more about Romania than it does for the practice of marketing generally. One thing is for sure, we are not going to be handing out awards for this type of thing in five years’ time (except perhaps in Turkmenistan). The brand was Vodafone. Although it could have been almost any mobile network, technology or sheep-related brand.

images_iman_highres__mg_7473Or it could have been Coca-Cola, since pretty much anything can be a ‘Coca-Cola story’ in these halcyon days where the focus has shifted from creative excellence to content excellence.  This, incidentally is what I was there to talk about – our obsession with content marketing, otherwise known as brandfill.  Here I am, in action.  I think I will use this as my new social profile pic, since it pretty much sums up my professional life – waving my hands around telling people what not to do.

There was also one other stand-out. What is it with creatives, beards and jackets which are at least one size too small?

The non-news that is corporate news

FireShot Screen Capture #184 - 'The invasion of corporate news - FT_com' - www_ft_com_cms_s_2_937b06c2-3ebd-11e4-adef-00144feabdc0_html#axzz3EJLHfkd1Last week, the Financial Times ran a piece written by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson on the rise of corporate news and brand journalism. In fact, there seems to have been a rash of interest in this subject of late – as highlighted here in GigaOm. As one would expect of the FT, it was a very comprehensive and considered piece, but it was a perfect illustration of an inability to produce a truly useful analysis. The article began thus:

A population of 100,000 is no longer a guarantee that a city like Richmond, California can sustain a thriving daily paper. Readers have drifted from the tactile pleasures of print to the digital gratification of their smartphone screens…

Tactile pleasures of print versus the digital gratification of smartphones. Has Andrew ever tried to experience the tactile pleasures of reading the FT on a crowded rush-hour tube train I wonder? It is certainly a different interpretation of tactile – one that is in danger of straying into the pugilistic. Far easier to access the same information on a small device you can hold in one hand. That’s not gratification, it is convenience.

But in starting his article this way, Andrew has already compromised its usefulness by tainting it with prejudice and support of vested interest. Change, in an off itself, is never either good or bad. There will be good bits and bad bits. Our ability to ensure that it becomes change for the better will depend on our ability to recognise this and distinguish between the two. However, it is difficult to do this when the debate becomes a competition between those with a vested interested in clinging onto the ways things used to be, versus those smelling a future opportunity.

Andrew’s article makes some good points, but it employs the familiar tricks of subtle distortion: taking extreme cases and nudging them into the norm, conflating issues that are best understood separately, establishing (tactile) angels and (gratificationary) demons, warning of either insidious creeping dangers, or else creating pivots of crisis. But he is a good journalist and these are just tricks of the trade. It is perhaps more informative to consider why he finds it necessary to deploy these tricks with such abundance. Continue reading

What is local news? Can it exist as a form of media?

Two weeks ago I had just returned home from football training with one of my sons. As I got out of the car I heard some distant thunder-like rumbling. But the rumble kept repeating itself in a very regular way. It was therefore clearly not a natural phenomenon. It was something that was very big or explosive (a bit worrying) but also very distance and not seeming to get closer (more reassuring).

So I wanted to find out what was going on. Did I listen to the local radio station? Did I look at the website of the local newspaper? Of course not. I simply punched #Norfolk #Suffolk #boom into a Twitter search. Hey presto – I found someone else with the same question and shortly we were joined by another with the answer – which was some uncommonly noisy military exercises taking place at the army’s Stanford Training Area (Stanta), some 20 miles way in Thetford Forest.

Now the issue here is not whether the local radio station or newspaper could or should have been giving me this information. Or that their inability to do so therefore represented a unfulfilled need or opportunity for a more (hyper) local variant of their kind to fill this supposed ‘gap in the market’. Radio and newspapers are constrained, and defined by, (and named after) the medium within which they have to operate (radio, newsprint). The expense of using this medium sets a floor, in terms of required audience, below which they cannot go. But this constraint also applies to the type of content these forms of media produce – which is something we tend to forget. We have lived in a world where information is married to distribution (content to media) and where distribution wears the trousers (i.e. defines what content can live within it).

The social digital revolution is all about the separation of information from distribution – the removal of the constraint upon content which expensive distribution channels once imposed. But the removal of this distribution constraint has not, as many assume, made it possible for the content form (as distinct from distribution form) that is local media to break through the glass floor and now operate at the hyper local level. At this level (or within the social digital space) the concept of content ceases to have any meaning – because content is a creation of the world of channel (distribution). It requires containment in order to be content.

What happens at the hyper local level (or in the hyper-relevant social digital space more generally) is that the form of content we call news stops being a finished product (i.e. content) and becomes a raw material. It becomes a component within a process that will allow individuals to define their own news. In the example I have highlighted it has become a conversation – which is a form of process. And when you aggregate conversations, what you end up with is a community.  And the question you also have to ask is that, when you remove the glass floor, do you find you have also removed a glass ceiling – such that process and community based ‘news’ migrates upwards and eats even more of the space currently occupied by traditional news content.  Yes is probably the answer.

The future is therefore pretty bleak for what we currently see understand as local news.  It cannot make itself more local because hyper-local news can never exist, or be aggregated within, the distribution form we associate with media.  And the hyper-local, or hyper-relevant, processes associated with information sharing in the social digital space (the world of the individual, rather than the world of the audience) are likely to migrate upwards and eat even more of its, already relatively impoverished, lunch.

In a datafied world, algorithms become the genes of society

Here is an interesting and slightly scary thought.  What is currently going on (in the world of Big Data) is a process of datafication (as distinct from digitisation).  The secret to using Big Data is first constructing  a datafied map of the world you operate within.  A datafied map is a bit like a geological map, in that it is comprised of many layers, each one of which is a relevant dataset.  Algorithms are what you then use to create the connections between the layers of this map and thus understand, or shape, the topography of your world.  (This is basically Big Data in a nutshell).

In this respect, algorithms are a bit like genes.  They are the little, hidden bits of code  which none-the-less play a fundamental role in shaping the overall organism – be that organism ‘brand world’, ‘consumer world’, ‘citizen world’ or ‘The Actual World’ (i.e. society) – whatever world it is that has been datafied in the first place.  This is slightly scary, given that we are engaged in a sort of reverse human genome project at the moment: instead of trying to discover and expose these algorithmic genes and highlight their effects, the people making them are doing their best to hide them and cover their traces.  I have a theory that none of the people who really understand Big Data are actually talking about it – because if they did they are afraid someone will tell them to stop.  The only people giving the presentations on Big Data at the moment are small data people sensing a Big Business Opportunity.

But what gets more scary is if you marry this analogy (OK, it is only an analogy) to the work of Richard Dawkins.  It would be a secular marriage obviously.  Dawkins’ most important work in the field of evolutionary biology was defining the concept of the selfish gene.  This idea proposed (in fact proved I believe) that Darwin (or Darwinism) was not quite right in focusing on the concept of survival of the fittest, in that the real battle for survival was not really occuring between individual organisms, but between the genes contained within those organisms.  The fate of the organism was largely a secondary consequence of this conflict.

Apply this idea to a datafied society and you end up in a place where everything that happens in our world becomes a secondary consequence of a hidden struggle for survival between algorithms.  Cue Hollywood movie.

On a more immediate / practical level, this is a further reason why the exposure of algorithms and transparency must become a critical component of any regulatory framework for the world of Big Data (the world of the algorithm).

 

Forget Ebola, Twitter has caught Ipola

SickIpola is long-term debilitating disease that frequently is contracted in the financial markets during the process of launching an IPO.

Twitter has it bad, as this recent GigaOm piece highlights, and Facebook is also suffering.

Twitter is basically comprised of an idea, some geeks and some server space.  The last of these are not precious or scarce resources and the idea is basically now a sunk cost.  Not just for Twitter, but for anything that aspires to be Twitter like.

It therefore doesn’t cost much to be Twitter (or Twitterlike).  Logically speaking therefore, the revenue opportunities for Twitter, long-term, are likely to be similarly low.  The problem for Twitter (and Facebook) is not generating sufficient revenue to cover its costs, certainly not the costs of delivering the service its users want.  Its problem is generating sufficient revenue to justify its share price.

In the chase for this revenue, an Ipola sufferer turns away from its users and focuses on marketing directors.  It tries to turn itself into a media platform or a data mine, because that is the only way it can seduce the marketing dollar.  And in the process it basically destroys what it was that made it successful in the first place.  Its vital organs start to fail.

Twitter is basically a conversation.  Take the chronology out of conversation and it stops working.

Twitter is never going to be some sort of content lillypad – which has always been its problem.  It has no real estate on which advertising dollars can settle.

Which would all be fine, if it didn’t have try and keep the boys on Wall Street happy.

Ipola is not going to kill Twitter just yet, although it is going to run a sweat.  What will kill Twitter is when the market gets infected by a competitor – and users realise how easy it is to swap, because the size of your accumulated Twitter following means nothing (because they are not actually an audience), you don’t follow handles anymore, you follow or search hashtags (in real-time), and if you do want to follow someone (or have them follow you) they are still only a click away.  Doing a factory reset on your Twitter following is basically a good thing because it means you only get the ones back which were worth anything in the first place.

The only course of treatment for Twitter (and Facebook and LinkedIn) is to recognise your stock is going to become a devalued currency when Wall Street finally realises you are never going to hit the long-term revenue expectations, so use it while it is trading at such a ridiculous premium to buy other companies that can then become the lifeboats for when the business model sinks.

October engagements: Shel Holtz (#smwisoc) and Golden Drums

FireShot Screen Capture #180 - 'Strategic_digital_engagement_seminar-earlybird_pdf' - www_isoc_com_files_pages_Strategic_digital_engagement_seminar-earlybirdI have a couple of engagements in October I would like to flag.

First, social media guru Shel Holtz (@shelholtz) is going to be in the UK from 27-31 October for the week-long strategic digital engagement seminar organised by ISOC.  Since the poor man can’t be asked to provide an entire week’s worth of seminars, some others (Paul Marsden, Janet Murray and myself), have been hired as support acts.  I am going to be responsible for the future, as in Social Media and the Next Big Things: the Forces that will Shape the Social Digital Space in the Next Few Years.  It will focus on Big Data and the world of the algorithm in the morning and rise of communmity and why community may become the new media in the afternoon.

Should be fun.

Places on this one are pretty limited and also have a £2,200 price tag attached, so if you are interested please sign up here.

Second, although firstly chronologically speaking, I will be speaking on October 10 at the Golden Drums in Slovenia.  The organisers have allowed me to run a session (actually pitched as an EACA masterclass) called “An alternative look at content” which I am going to use as an opportunity to expose those guilty for filling the social digital space with Brandfill and reveal why they are doing it.

I think it unlikely you will travel to Slovenia just to listen to me, but if you do happen to be going anyway, my session is at 14.00 on Friday – and you will have the choice between me and Johan Jervøe, Group Chief Marketing Officer, UBS AG who will be answering the question “Branded content: has social media changed the world of creative excellence?”.  Not that I want to influence anyone, but I will also be answering that question.  In fact I can give you the answer now: yes, branded content and social media has changed the world of creative excellence, but only in-so-far as it is causing us to forget what creative excellence really is.  This is because most branded content is simply tediously long-form advertising, with all of the things that made advertising effective taken out of it.

I will also be giving away T-shirts.

 

 

 

Convening an audience: the new challenge for marketing

sermon_mount2I believe there are now two consumer worlds: the world of the audience (the world of ‘traditional’ media and marketing) and the world of the individual (the world of social media). These worlds are very different, not least because in the world of social media consumers will expect to be treated as an individual and will tend to resent or ignore attempts to treat them as just another member of an audience. This doesn’t mean that consumers don’t ever want to be treated as a member of an audience, just not when they are in the social digital space.

This presents two problems for brands. First, almost everything we know about marketing (including digital marketing / media) comes out of the world of the audience. Marketing, to date, has essentially been audience-based marketing. But putting audience-based approaches into the social space just doesn’t work, because it can’t support the potential for creating high-value relationships with individuals. Traditional marketing is a high reach but low engagement business and there is no point in putting the low engagement techniques of traditional marketing into the low reach environment of social media.

Audiences are very hard to find or create in the world of social media. This is because when people are in this space they are looking to create connections and you can’t create connections with an audience, only with individuals or within groups. The social media space is a medium of connection, not a medium of distribution. When a brand operates within the social space it has to accept that it can realistically only talk to very few people at any one time so it therefore has to (and can) create relationships of far higher value than anything that is associated with traditional marketing. But you only do this by recognising what it is that people want from you in this space, which is real-time individualised response and recognition, answers to questions and information.

However, this fact is not stopping many brands from trying dump audience-based, low engagement approaches in the social digital space. Content marketing is the latest iteration of such an attempt. Continue reading

Will Big Data kill Vendor Relationship Management?

Modernization of Al-Khalid Main Battle Tank (MBT) PAKISTAN ARMY I III have just finished reading Doc Searls’ Intention Economy. And about time too. The book has been out about two years and it is widely recognised as being a Very Important Book. In my defence, I have been following the Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) thing anyway and have even had some marginal contact with the good Doc himself on the issue. So it was more a case of filling-in the gaps. For those not already in the know, VRM is positioned as the counterpoint to CRM (Customer Relationship Management). CRM is how brands use data about their customers in order to define the relationship the brand decides it wants to have with the customer: VRM proposes that customers should own and control the data about themselves so that they can define the relationship they want to have with brands.

I can validate that it is indeed a Very Important Book because it not only defines this new and potentially interesting area (VRM) but also because it strays into a wider analysis of the history and operation (and philosophy) of the internet. The issues that it raises here are becoming increasingly important as pressures build to manage, regulate and appropriate the internet in order to make it conform to political or commercial vested interest. In fact, this wider analysis could turn out to be the most important aspect in the book, or perhaps a valid subject for a new book.

The Intention Economy and VRM is something I would very much like to believe in. Trouble is, form me VRM is a bit like God: something I would like to believe in if only I could get the evidence and reality to stack up. There seem to be just too many reasons why VRM (like God) doesn’t or won’t exist.   At one level, VRM appears to be overly reliant on a code-based answer. This is probably because Doc Searls himself and many of the current VRM gang come out of this place. But the concept that I found most interesting in the book was the idea of the things Doc calls ‘fourth parties’. Fourth parties are organisations that can aggregate customer intentions and thus create leverage and scale efficiencies. This takes us into the realm of community, which rings bells with me since I believe that within a few years almost all relationships between individuals and brands will be mediated by some form of community. In fact, this would be my own take on how the Intention Economy might actually come into being. I think it is the ability to connect individual customers, rather than empower them as individuals, that is likely to present the greatest opportunity to change the rules of the game – as things like TripAdvisor or even Airbnb are starting to demonstrate. However, fourth parties get relatively short shrift in the book, perhaps because they are not a code-based answer.

But my greatest area of scepticism, or perhaps fear, for the future of the customer and citizen, stems from the emerging world of Big Data and algorithms. As outlined in my previous post, algorithms suck the power out of the idea of having a personal data repository and make the ownership of this, from a government, brand, customer or citizen perspective largely irrelevant. In the world of the algorithm, your personal data file (i.e. your life) becomes little more than personal opinion. To all intents and purposes your ‘real’ identity is defined by the algorithm and the algorithm’s decision about who you are and how you shall be treated will pay scant attention to any information that is personal to you, other than to use it as a faint, initial signal to acquire ’lock-on’.

The problem with algorithms is that (like tanks) they favour governments and corporations. It is hard for a citizen to get a hold of, or be able to use, an algorithmic tank. And if you are standing in front of an algorithmic tank, giving you the rifle and flak-jacket of your own data isn’t much protection. It is why Wall Street is the first place that the world of the algorithm has really taken hold – it could afford the best geeks. And as Wall Street is showing, the world of the algorithm tends towards a very dark and opaque sort of place – about as far removed from the sun-lit commons of open-source code sharing as it is possible to be.

However, create the opportunity to connect a million people with rifles and flak-jackets to confront one algorithmic tank, and the odds get better. You may even be able to form a fourth party which can create its own tank, or at least some effective anti-tank weapons.

So, I guess my message to Doc Searls and the VRM gang would be: don’t loose faith in the idea of VRM and the Intention Economy as a destination, but think again about the route.  Build on the idea of fourth parties and focus on community and connection, rather than tools and code, and recognise that CRM is about to be swept away as brands and governments learn how to roll-out the algorithmic tanks.

Privacy: let’s have the right conversation

The whole social media, Big Data, privacy thing is getting an increasing amount of air time. This is good, because this is very important thing to start getting our heads around. However, I don’t think we are really yet having the right conversation.

The pre-dominant conversation out there seems to be focused on the issues concerned with the potential (and reality) of organisations (businesses or governments) ‘spying’ on citizens or consumers by collecting data on them, often without their knowledge or permission.

Our privacy is therefore being ‘invaded’.

But this is an old-fashioned, small data, definition of privacy. It assumes that the way to gain an understanding of an individual, which can then be used in a way which has consequences for that individual, is by collecting the maximum amount of information possible about them: it is about creating an accurate and comprehensive personalised data file. The more comprehensive and accurate the file is, the more useful it is. From a marketing perspective, it is the CRM way of looking at things (it is also the VRM way of looking at things, where the individual has responsibility for managing this data file).  It is also a view that then gives permission to the idea that if you detach the person from the data (i.e. make it anonymous) it stops it being used in a way which will have consequences for the individual concerned and is therefore ‘cleared’ for alternative usage.

But this is not the way that Big Data works. The ‘great’ thing about Big Data (or more specifically algorithms) is that they require almost no information about an individual in order to arrive at potentially very consequential decisions about that individual’s identity.   Instead they use ‘anonymised’ information gathered from everyone else. And increasingly this information is not just coming from other people, it is coming from things (see Internet of Things). The great thing about things is that they have no rights to privacy (yet) and they can produce more data than people.

The name of the game in the world of the algorithm is to create datafied (not digitised) maps of the world. I don’t mean literally geographical maps (although they can often have a geographical / locational component): from a marketing perspective it can be a datafied map of a product sector, or form of consumer behaviour. These maps are three dimensional in that they comprise a potentially limitless numbers of data layers. These layers can be seemingly irrelevant, inconsequential or in no way related to the sector of behaviour that is being mapped. The role of the algorithm is the stitch these layers together, so that a small piece of information in one layer can be related to all the other layers and thus find its position upon the datafied map.

In practical terms, this can mean that you can be refused a loan based on information concerning your usage of electrical appliances, as collected by your ‘smart’ electricity meter. This isn’t a scary, down-the-road sort of thing. Algorithmic lending is already here and the interesting thing about the layers in the datafied maps of algorithmic lenders is the extent to which they don’t rely on traditional ‘consequential’ information such as credit scores and credit histories. As I have said many times before, there is no such thing as inconsequential data anymore: all data has consequences.

Or to put it another way, your identity is defined by other peoples’ (or things’) data: your personal data file (i.e. your life) is simply a matter of personal opinion. It has little relevance to how the world will perceive you, no matter how factually correct or accurate it is. You are who the algorithm says you are, even if the algorithm itself has no idea why you are this (and cannot explain it if anyone comes asking) and has come to this conclusion based in no small part, by the number of times you use your kettle every day.

The world of the algorithm is a deeply scary place. That is why we need the conversation. But it needs to be the right conversation.