Friday, August 12, 2005

The "Long Tail" & The Rise of the Conversationistas!

Ideas are just starting to coalesce about the potential impact of "social" Internet technologies (e.g., blogs, vlogs, wikis, search engines and recommendation engines, etc.) on the craft of PR.

In a prior post, almost a year ago now, I commented on "Blogging as Social Cartography." Here's a relevant, paraphrased passage from that Sept. 2004 entry:

"...Tomorrow's marketers need to start thinking about how to influence the blogosphere.

For example...a newly-published author might gain as much promotional heft from 'guest blogging' in influential forums as they would by touring your local BORDERS store.

Further - and intriguingly - the blogs need not be 'the biggies': the blogosphere is so self-referential that the splash made at a relatively inconsequential blog might create worthwhile ripples throughout the wider Web world."

In retrospect, these types of ideas seem to presage the growing interest in the "Long Tail.”

In a nutshell (and I hope I do it justice), the Long Tail premise suggests that there is as-much or more $$$ to be made in a digital economy by the sale of "misses" as "hits." With no inventory costs or geographic limitations, a digital retailer can make plenty of money by selling the umpteen #s of obscure CDs, DVDs and books that would otherwise fade away to umpteen cult/niche consumers. In fact these retailers might make more money on the “Long Tail” titles than they could make subsisting on the sales of popular blockbusters.

Importantly, these "offbeat" audiences can be created on the fly via recommendation engines and/or niche-oriented search engines: the example given by Wired's Chris Anderson shows how a typical teenager interested in downloading a Britney Spears song can be led via recommendation engines (like Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought X Also Bought Y”) to try out more obscure but like-minded artists.

This part is intriguing to me. There are those of us who pride ourselves on being offbeat; who disdain the "keeping up with the iPods" mentality of popular culture. But the emerging social-orientation of Internet applications can reveal to each one of us how "niche" we can be, once we are exposed to what's available all along the Long Tail. And this applies not only to entertainment products but to other aspects of culture.

Since the Blogging Boom began, how many hours have you "wasted" reading the blogs of lonely housewives, American soliders posted in Iraq, Brazilian teenagers...? (If you answered "none" then I suggest you click the "Next Blog" button at the top-right of your screen and see how long you can stay disinterested.)

If you've aimlessly blog-surfed like this, you've stroked the Long Tail. And if you've checked out other PR-related blogs, you've similarly proven the premise: each of us is a micro-audience.

How will this affect PR?

A taste of what's to come can be found in places ranging from PR WEEK to Mediapost.

Still, there are more questions than answers: what's to be done about the Big Bang-sized fragmentation of our audiences? The PR industry is notoriously bad at “scaling;” it seems each new account creates the need for a new Account Exec. How the heck can we afford to keep tabs (much less influence) a 24x7 conversation with multiple millions of individual consumers?

My guess is that we’ll adopt a hybrid approach, in which account teams continue to try to influence “old world” media and “strategic” blogs, as well as those growing numbers of niche-oriented blog aggregator sites. Meanwhile, we’ll develop “contextual strike teams” … The members of this class of “conversationistas” will be culled from across the agency, tasked with participating in ongoing dialogues in blogs, wikis, vlogs, et cetera, ad infinitum, not as PR people so much as “genuinely interested consumers.”

In this brave new world, though, folks, there’s no faking it. You can’t ask a 40-something, outdoorsy VP to participate in an ongoing rant session on a discussion board devoted to massively-multiplayer online role-playing games. You’ll hire a whipsmart college intern for that.

The VP in this case will be deployed to discuss the pros-and-cons of camping gear and local campsites, across a dozen different Outdoor Enthusiast blogs, for the hiking-boot division of the agency’s footwear client. Meanwhile, the 30-something AE who runs marathons in her spare time will perform similar tasks for the footwear client’s running shoe group; she’ll discuss her training regimen and share tales of her past races in forums devoted to fitness, running, etc.

Yes, as an agency owner this gives rise to questions about efficiency and scalability: which blogs are important? How many hours can be devoted to such activities? How can we measure success?

But this is the lesson of the Long Tail: they are ALL important! Every single itty-bitty one of ‘em. You can influence a hundred “Influencers” who can in turn influence millions of consumers. So, BusinessWeek, etc., will still be important. BUT, you can simultaneously influence a few hundred more “non-influencers” (a.k.a. Joe Average) – maybe thousands! – who will in turn influence a few more Joe Averages, and so on…

And as for “scalability” – there’s a hidden beauty here.

Maybe that 40-something outdoorsman in the corner office isn’t specifically assigned to the Hiking Boots Division of the footwear client…but there’s some likelihood that he is participating in those outdoorsman forums ANYWAY. Probably feeling a li’l guilty about it.

But, if we encourage each of our employees to be conversationistas-with-a-purpose, we can LEVERAGE their EXISTING interests to influence their TRUE peers: they’ll engage as welcome participants in communities based on the context of their genuine interests! Part of their jobs will be to participate in their hobbies – they’ll love it, they'll work hard at it. And yes, mistakes will be made, but ultimately the clients will love the results.

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