Yesterday, a group of us at Element 79 took part in a conference call as part of an Omnicom initiative via the Harvard Business School called The Digital Transformation. The featured speaker was Diane Hessan, CEO of Communispace: a fast-growing social networking company with an enviable client list (that includes, somehow, both Coke and Pepsi–genius). She took us through her company’s offerings and learnings, which primarily boil down to creating smaller online communities of deeply-engaged opinion leaders selected to provide a sort-of ongoing super focus group that’s allowed insider access to a company with an eye to helping them truly connect with their market. Breezy and incredibly candid, Diane’s stories of how Communispace developed from a software provider to a leader in the social network space made the hour long presentation feel like sixty seconds.
Communispace creates bespoke social networks for each of their clients and while their services are not cheap, they do provide truly insightful perspective that a typical focus group could not. Using social networks to gain deeper understanding of market wants and needs simply makes intuitive sense. It was all very fascinating.
But the anecdote that leapt out to me above all others was a casual aside regarding Motrin’s Twitter debacle (read this for some background). Amazingly, among their highly networked, deeply engaged social networks, barely any Communispace power consumers had even heard of the incident. This big day of reckoning for Johnson and Johnson, the crowning achievement of corporate responsiveness to a Twitter-driven issue proved to be largely a tempest in a very small teapot to the world at large. Practically speaking, outside of a very narrow band, no one cared. And that’s very telling…
For all of our obsession about new media, for all of our hand-wringing about the rise of social networking and the profound ways that Web 2.0 impacts both culture and daily behavior, this reportedly seminal moment in citizen-informed activism created barely a ripple on the surface of public awareness. And yet it fueled countless blogs and online debates about the pervasive influence of Twitter and other new social mediums. To anyone in those networks, it was big news.
And that is the point: the world of forwards and retweets and pingbacks can create an ecosystem of incredible influence through the sheer volume of the message. Spark a debate on Twitter or any other leading social network and you will hear volumes of opinion loudly amplified, albeit in their specific closed systems. This sturm and drang does not necessarily reflect popular offline opinion. The very insider nature of such closed systems exaggerates the impact of any lightning rod issue. Micro-blogging platforms acts like a microphone; creating very loud noise, but often in a closed room. Meanwhile, the larger non-networked, TV-watching crowd continues their obsession over inanities like the travails of Jon and Kate, blissfully unaware of the drama brewing in one isolated social network.
So once again, it is up to an agency to help clients sort out the meaningful from the localized, the truly impactful from the trivial, when it comes to deciphering the impact of various messages among social networks. Should you react? Or should you respond: intelligently, cogently and appropriately?
Responding is always the better path. These days, it takes consideration and prudence; two qualities not particularly emblematic of advertising agencies. And so once again, the market dictates we evolve.