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Published: January 9, 2008 at 10:06 PM GMT
Last Updated: January 9, 2008 at 10:06 PM GMT
21st century technology has hastened the creation of a new mediascape. Intersecting the x-axis of The Long Tail and the y-axis of James Surowiecki's Wisdom of the Crowds are bywords like UGC, viral, buzz, and influencers. But we're still in a nascent stage, one where social networking has been deployed pell-mell in the service of brands with questionable impact and value. So what's a brand to do these days?
It's the credo of Los Angeles-based Passenger that if we truly want to tap into audiences, we have to collaborate with them. The company – which recently raised $8.3M in funding from Steamboat Ventures, Shelter Capital Partners and StarVest Partners – builds private branded communities. But don't confuse it with a technology solution; Passenger is leveraging tools to drive innovation and build advocacy, and next year will launch Conversation Mapping, a new process for tracking information flow. In an exclusive interview with JackMyers Media Business Report, Passenger's co-founder and Chief Innovation + Marketing officer Justin Cooper discussed the paradigm shift in control in the context of Passenger's client success stories.
Beyond Kevin Roberts' Love Marks or Bob Garfield's Listenomics, Passenger has a practice that leverages the stickiness of social networking. Instead of a brand guessing (even educated guesses) what a customer wants, it can instead nurture a product that is authentic and speaks to its community. It's illustrative to describe the challenges Passenger's clients have faced and what methodologies were brought to bear to affect change.
ABC Studios, Passenger's first client, has plugged into a community of thousands of passionate viewers and has opened up the "pilot season" process to them, testing new and existing shows, including rough cuts and even advertising. But Cooper offers a warning to any industry ruled by buzz: "As for buzz having a correlation with success, I would generally answer absolutely not. Buzz is not indicative of success, it is indicative of itself. Buzz can have a negative effect on success, buzz can be misinterpreted and worst of all, buzz can be bought (paid media)." Another shibboleth Cooper is keen to dismantle is that of the "Influencer." "Brands still believe that influence and advocacy are something that can be purchased as a media buy. Advocacy is a byproduct of Customer Collaboration and specifically something that inherently happens as brands involve people in their process. It is a trusted message from a credible source. Any company that is still trying to pay for advocacy is actually doing themselves a great disservice."
Passenger has worked with a major sportswear and athletic footwear company in building its community for player-enthusiasts. Cooper's comments on the effort are universally applicable: "Authenticity and trust is really what drives the relationship between people and brands. In this case, the client is demonstrating that they are willing to listen to people that they ordinarily would not have access to. But because they are listening, these people want to talk. The longer the relationship, the greater the trust, the deeper the roots in authenticity." Likewise, JCPenney asked Passenger to build a community around Ambrielle, its intimate line of apparel for women. Both clients, then, are looking to their customers to shape their brand, their products, and -- yes –- their culture.
This focus on customer collaboration can be more broadly defined to include both shareholders and peers. BP created a platform for the BP Innovation Challenge wherein execs across the globe can exchange ideas on making the energy company "greener" and fostering ingenuity, contributing to BP garnering a rating in the Top five of innovative companies worldwide.
Cooper is convinced that brands will be rewarded by ongoing dialogue with customers. Taking a page from Surowiecki, he wagers "I would challenge any CEO who would suggest that any one company is smarter than the collective intelligence of those people who consume the brands. Isolating your company from the customer is a strategy for becoming part of history." Likewise, Cooper reflects on Facebook's recent Beacon debacle as a "perfect example of how brands need to understand that transparency is key, where the information is coming from and what it's being used for."
One shouldn't be left with the impression that Passenger isn't an analytic powerhouse. It has proprietary (and patent-pending) technology, behaviorally-based tools that, according to Cooper, "distill casual conversations into insight." It might be plausible for a moderator to track discussion boards of a single episode of Heroes, but what's the big picture for the series, not to mention the network? How do you scale? Passenger's Influence Predictability Rating (IPR) is a set of algorithms designed to measure a member's connectivity, influence, reliability, and reach within a platform. While knocking the overhyped status of the Influencer earlier, Cooper is quick to assert that the IPR "allows you to identify the members of the community who have the greatest potential to be influential within the context of the community." One's ability to influence, he qualifies, is rooted in the context of the relationship.
In Q2 2008, Passenger is set to roll out Conversation Mapping, a visual mapping of information for parsing complex data sets. Cooper's pitch: "Imagine being able to visualize the social roles within conversations, in turn using these tools to filter contextual information, predict how information will flow from the introduction of a topic to behavior/interactions over time. Consider: once a member becomes aware of his neighbor's behavior, under what conditions and based on what network relationships will the member adopt the behavior himself?"
What we bemoan as the loss of "watercooler conversation" around network hits and blockbuster films has actually been eclipsed by Word of Mouth. For the brand itself to maintain relevance and authenticity it's essential to tap into the conversation, not only for marketing and distribution but for product development, where consumers have become "co-creators." For brands that fear they are losing control of their brands, Passenger offers a solution and guide for accepting customers as brand navigators.
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