Branding on a Broken Web – The APG @ The Economist
Exciting. Inspirational. Thought-provoking. And that was just the view from the room we were in. Last month, the Account Planners Group hosted an event called Ideas Exchange, in association with The Economist. Unlike New York, it is always remarkable just how far you can see being only fourteen floors in the air. The London Eye, Big Ben, the Shard and Canary Wharf reached into the sky, with rolling Surrey hills in the background. Many a visiting planner was captivated, before being regrettably distracted by some sort of talk going on elsewhere in the room.
Opening the exchange of ideas was Aleks Krotoski, author of ‘Untangling the Web’ and visiting fellow of the London School of Economics. Aleks’ polemic rests on the idea that the Internet is not quite the idyll we initially imagined it would be. The Internet, according to Aleks, gave society a tabula rasa, a chance to create and nurture a platform that was unblemished with influence, or history, or imperfection. Instead we just went about transposing all the biases, prejudices and ways of working from the offline world onto the online one, creating the same communities and social hierarchies. The Internet was supposed to help us reach beyond our closeted knowledge and beliefs, to interact with those we had not met before, the types of people we would have not otherwise interacted with. Instead the opposite has become the case. There has been no utopian transcendence; none of us is virtually swanning round something akin to the pleasure gardens in Metropolis.
Moreover, the serendipity of the Internet that was, among other things, supposed to bring about such felicitous interactions, has been trampled on and abused (think Chatroulette). Aleks declared the web “broken”, breaking a little more every time a user has pushed to them what they want– or what they think they want – instead of having to proactively go looking for something. What we want is supposedly served up on a platter for us now, whether it be Amazon recommendations, or advertisements for sites / products we looked at quickly but have long since lost interest in. This collation and analysis of user behaviour has led to a backlash of sorts, evident in Microsoft’s recent announcement that it will have ‘Do Not Track’ set as a default option on its new browser.
The power of social influence and the declinism of serendipity
In discussing messaging and influence online, Aleks contended that attitudes and behaviour were shaped and formed in exactly the same way online as they are offline. She called the notion of influence “messy” and “unpredictable”. But on the question of how users decide which stuff to pay attention to online, the answer was clear; social influence. The way people become aware of content (and, by extension, opinion) is increasingly through social media, particularly on Twitter. Because we tend to seek out people similar to us online as in real life, this does not bode well for the objectivity of, for example, Fox News fans, as online their beliefs will be reinforced by the echo chamber they have created for themselves. Worse, this echo chamber is created more or less unbeknownst to the user, imperceptible as it is. Not entirely encouraging…
Alan Dunachie, director of operations at The Economist Group, focussed more explicitly on the business challenge of how brand owners can communicate in a world of, to paraphrase Aleks, tangled webs, and the role that ideas play in the network.
Alan noted that for ideas to be powerful, they need to be shared and discussed. This sharing encourages something to spread far more quickly than it would have done in the past. The downside of such a system of distribution, as Alan admitted, was that, for anything a brand owner says, consumers can get instant feedback from friends, family and others. This goes for everything from chocolate bars to hotels and wine. Brands must express a view rather than tout a product.
Using stories to influence
The Economist Intelligence Unit, part of the Group, has helped brands solve problem with, what he calls, “editorially-oriented ideas”. Philips wanted to be seen by consumers as a ‘wellbeing’, rather than an electronics company. The Unit developed the idea of Liveanomics with the aim of making cities more productive, and thus enhance wellbeing. They collated urban experts, government policymakers and other from disparate associations, whose conversations then sparked engagement over social networks and traditional media with opinion leaders around the world, enhancing and reshaping Philips’ reputation.
The group also turned their attention inwards, developing the recent advertising campaign for The Economist with their “Where Do You Stand?” campaign, looking at the feeling a reader gets when engaging with the magazine, rather than just selling on its own reputation. As a result, the magazine saw an 11% increase in circulation, a 15% readership increase and 16,000 SMS responses, half of whom ended up subscribing.
All in all it was a fascinating debate on the Internet; how we shape it as users and how we can hope to influence it acting as intermediaries between the brand and the consumer.
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