advertising and other stuff. no, really.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You can’t count on people.

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”
— Tommy Lee Jones from Men In Black........

A little harsh, but when discussing why something works online and why it doesn’t, don’t discount the role people play, either positively or negatively.

“The consumer is in charge” makes for a nice soundbite, but there’s more to it than that. They may be in charge, but they don’t all act the same way. When you put together a site or other online effort, you try and plan for every contingency: Target a specific demo, focus group it to death, throw in usability standards, A-B test it, Beta it, slap it etc., and yet, people will still do whatever they want because they’re unpredictable.

Consider how many times a brand throws money at something, only to have it get little traffic, or worse, it generates negative PR. Maybe a community site was supposed to be the second coming of Facebook here, yet failed to take off.

See visual above.

I don’t mean you can’t predict behavior in general or that people won’t sniff out the obvious fake blog. You can, and they will. Run an ad during the Super Bowl for a free meal at Denny’s? Expect lines around the store. Likewise, throw out a warning about tainted peanut butter and sales drop.

I’m talking about something more subtle where people use and explore things in ways you don’t expect or asked for.

When that happens then, the question becomes, do you let things take on a life of their own and go with the flow? Or do you fight it and make it conform to what you originally intended?

Below are 10 examples of various things that I’ve come across that touch on this:

1) #Hashtags Aka, #flight1549, #sully, #hero and #usairways. These are labels people use in updates and posts to be more easily picked up in searches, yet nobody uses the same ones. Ever. Discussions for the Super Bowl? At least four. Hudson plane landing? The four you see and then some. The Oscars? I lost count. Anytime a new story goes up, see how many people put in a tag they think is relevant.

Then watch how many people ignore those and add their own in.

2) Twitter
Taken at face value, it’s supposed to be about answering the question “What are you doing?” Instead, maybe half the people answer that at any one time, the remainder use it for chat, a link dump, a shameless self-promotional vehicle, an attempt to be clever or a customer service hotline.

This shows people using it the way they want and altering the original intent of the site, resulting in a different experience for everyone.

Additionally, look at how many third-party apps have sprung up because of Twitter’s open API. Not every site’s meaningful, but it shows a site being open to the possibilities that experimentation brings.

3) Random Logo Project The genesis of this post actually. It’s a thing in the sidebar I made over a year ago where people submit logos they find. That was the intent anyway. Wherever you are, find a real logo, tag it, upload it. Simple, right?

No. I got signs. I got comps from agencies of logos that never made it past the client. I got shots of stuffed animals. *sigh*

Speaking of tags, people were asked to add randomlogoproject so I could find images more easily. Instead, only half the people added it. This meant I had to go in and add it to every one that didn’t have one. Tedious, considering the limits of batch editing in Flickr with someone else’s images. I reminded people from time to time, but at the end of the day?

They just did what they wanted.

4) Facebook TOS After all the discussion over Beacon and ad sales, you would think they would be more clued-in about their users, but they go ahead and change their TOS, not expecting that someone would be watching, let alone care. Above all else, it was definitely a lesson that online, someone is always watching what you do, even if you think they aren’t.

5) Comments — Many people are bloggers, and as such, run vastly different blogs. There are no standards when it comes to comments. Go to 10 different blogs and you get 10 different scenarios: Comments closed after one month. No comments allowed on this one. Registration for comments on that one. Anonymous comments allowed here, but not there. Moderated comments there, but not here. Overly sensitive bloggers editing comments while others allow spam.

Try running blogger outreach without taking that into consideration.

6) Twitter for music. Like any file sharing site, it based its community growth on songs people uploaded. Soon as the labels came sniffing around with lawyers, Blip stopped allowing that unless it was to existing servers somewhere else. Quest Love from The Roots had been a user until that point, but told them that by making that one change, they just chased him away—along with all his followers. While the change may have been important to Blip, it was more important to the people using it.

7) Pepsi Max Suicide ad Ran once in Germany. Bloggers all over jumped on it. I’m fairly sure nobody at BBDO thought it would create headaches for Pepsi, and if they did, they probably thought the brand could weather it. Unfortunately for them, bloggers with a suicide agenda were lying in wait.

8) Reviews —
Reviews in general are a problem for product and service-related sites because here you’re at the mercy of the public. You could get 99 out of 100 people loving you, and yet one guy has this thing where he can’t give five stars. Ever.

9) Mad Men on Twitter Less about Twitter, more about brandjacking. Fans of the show decided to extend the life of some of the characters over to Twitter. Initially, show creator AMC wasn’t happy about it. Only later did they see that maybe people were just into the show so much that they shouldn’t fight it.

10) iPhone in India Apple counted on the love people have here for the iPhone carrying over to India. In a part of the world that has already adopted mobile, seemed like a no-brainer. Wrong: The price was too high. Four times the average monthly salary of their intended target. An example of failing to understand local economies, sure, but also a case of counting on everyone reacting to your brand in the same way they had everywhere else.

Why? Because when it comes to counting on people...


Bob Knorpp, @thebeancast said...

This is a very compelling post. When we build something, no matter how carefully we craft the user experience, people will still use the product however they damn well please. This is true of EVERYTHING. How many cars were created with the intent of being excellent for a drive-by shooting? Or how many computers were designed for an outstanding porn surfing experience?

But I don't think users co-opting the experience is always a bad thing. In fact, think it's when we leave that opening for the user to mod or change or enhance our intentions that brands move from being simple identities to being lsting icons. For isntance, it's illegal street racing that made the GTO such an iconic car. Most of us wouldn't drag race, but because some of us did it became an outlaw muscle car that still resonates in GM power-car design.

None of this needs to be that awful "brand hijacking" that was so much in vogue a few years back. All we need to do is open the door for "some" participation and that's when users adopt and make the brand their own. And it's this co-opting fandom that takes us to that storied next level.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. It’s definitely not a bad thing. Lotta fans do videos of brands that would never be approved otherwise. Brand publicly says we don’t approve, but you know they dig the extra traffic.

Honeygo Beasley said...

In the mommy blogger world, they call it "repurposing."

: )

Honeygo Beasley said...

Off topic, or maybe not - Logo guy, is the trend now for narrower/thinner blog headers? And if so, why? To get more content on the page when it opens?

Anonymous said...

@HB - You mean here? Just wanted to shout a little more. I think the new type takes up more room actually than the old one. Not sure that you gain that much more real estate by narrower masthead, but I see more blogs going to multi-column, multi-topic format for that reason where the viewer gets hit with a bunch of stories to choose from.