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Marketing is a Conversation


Esther Dyson is editor at large of CNET Networks and editor of its monthly IT-industry newsletter, Release 1.0. She recently sold her business, EDventure Holdings (including Release 1.0 and the annual PC Forum), to CNET. She also is an active investor in communications/IT start-ups in the United States and Europe, including not  just CNET Networks but also Dotomi, Meetup.com, Midentity and WPP Group. She sits on the boards of Meetup and WPP, among others. She is active in policy discussions in the U.S. and elsewhere on topics ranging from intellectual property, freedom of speech and privacy to economic development, and was founding chairman of ICANN, the domain-name governance body. Known for her industry insight, she wrote Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, published by Broadway Books in 1998.

In the May iMedia Summit's first keynote session, Dyson spoke with moderator Doug Weaver of the Upstream Group. Here are highlights of their discussion.

Weaver: You always challenge people to make new mistakes. So what are the old mistakes that we shouldn't make again, in terms of our expectations of the market and what we do from here?

Dyson: I think the VCs [venture capitalists] are getting way too excited, way too fast. It's a pity. They're either incredibly depressed or they're elated. Of course, you're actually in the trenches. I don't think you'll make that mistake. You'll probably make others, like getting people to overpay, which believe it or not is a mistake, because then they'll hate you later. So, the most important mistake, or the most important thing to avoid, is thinking other people won't remember when you take advantage of them. People have long memories.

Weaver: You told me a story this morning about a couple of young technology entrepreneurs who came to you and wanted your advice. You want to repeat that? I love that story.

Dyson: Well, these were some guys in Ukraine, and they came to me after a talk and they said, "Miss Dyson, we want your advice on what our company should do." And I sort of figured I should get a little information about what they did already to give them some useful advice. And they told me this, that and the other, and I said, "Do you have any customers already?" And they said, "Yes, we do." And I asked, "What do your customers want you to do?" And they said, "Oh, but what they want us to do is so boring, we want your advice."

Weaver: Food for thought, definitely. You've been pretty interested in the social networking phenomenon. You know, Friendster and Tickle and LinkedIn and so forth. I'd love to hear your thoughts, not about this real relevance in our world but also is there a business there? Is it something that we should all be thinking about as the next generation of online marketing?

Dyson: I'm not [high on it]. I think the price whoever it was paid for Friendster was way too high. I think there's a lot of hype about these things, but at the same time, I think the concept is real.

If you look at what social networking really is, it's two functions. One, it's the double-blind introduction. I know who you are, but I don't know how to reach you. I'd like to reach you. And someone who knows how to reach both of these people gets both of them to consent and introduces them, and that's one really important function. And then the other is the friend-of-a-friend. I know that you know George Bush or John Kerry, to be partisan, could you introduce me? And you can decide whether or not I'm worthy of getting to know your friends. It's those two things.

You can stick those into all kinds of tools. You can do search. I want to see what it is that my friends like. You can use it to find a babysitter. I want to know what dentist is recommended by people who I know, I want to know what girlfriend or boyfriend is recommended.

But most of the time, I think it's going to fit into some other function. And you know, Yahoo!, Hotmail -- these guys, once they get people's permission, they have a gold mine there, because they already have all the links between the people, based on who they mail to.

You don't need to start a platform. Friendster and Orkut at Google are kind of fun and interesting. But it's going to be very hard to maintain something there. People are collecting friends, but I'm not sure how they're actually interacting with them.

Weaver: Is there an advertising and marketing platform there, really? Or is this something that is so organic and so people-driven that marketers are not welcome?

Dyson: I think Friendster should immediately start a gift registry. If you want to date me, there are the vendors and here are the things I'd like you to send me. And second, more realistically, if I'm some guy from San Francisco and I'm looking at people who know people I know down in L.A., people at Orbitz or Expedia, Hotwire should immediately be showing me round-trip airfares to Los Angeles, no hotel required.

Weaver: Our guest for tomorrow is David Weinberger, who was the senior Internet advisor for the [Howard] Dean campaign and a huge proponent of MeetUp, which is a company that you've invested in. What do you think about the lasting impact on politics of the Dean phenomenon and what do you think the role of the Internet is going to play in political marketing, if you will, or political campaigns in the future?

Dyson: [Dave] was one of the co-authors of "The Cluetrain Manifesto," and the notion there is that markets are conversations. They're two-way. It's not simply you sending a message, it's also you listening and clearly that's something politicians should do more of as well. They don't. And in the end, it's unrealistic to think that just because he's got a Web site, John Kerry's going to listen to what all these people have to say. He doesn't have enough time.

So the challenge is how do you aggregate that information and get it back to John Kerry? How do you make people feel that they are being listened to? And what you really do is you take out the hierarchy. And you have people talking to each other, which is the genius of MeetUp. Get people to form groups to talk about Dean, and to do things for Dean if they do that.

Esther Dyson, right, talks with Doug Weaver.

As everyone knows, if you get involved in giving feedback to a hotel company or anything else, unless you get totally dissed, you're going to actually feel more loyal to this thing because you got involved. You made an investment. And there's no bigger investment for most of us than getting out of our houses going to a meeting, talking to other people, laying ourselves and our time on the line and supporting Dean.

The challenge with Dean, I think, was they got a great deal of visibility for him, people who were involved and energized. But the people outside that group who got the message weren't necessarily all that enthralled. And so as you well know, the best way to kill a bad product is through good advertising. Not that I'm calling Dean a bad product, but he was a product that didn't sell to a much broader audience.

Weaver: Maybe he just had a market of 18 percent. And he got to it rather quickly.

Dyson: And he got there, and then he didn't get on. And the other thing that I was actually disappointed in, what I liked about MeetUp was that people were giving their time, not just money. And there's this cycle of you raise money, you go do a TV ad, you raise more money, you do another TV ad -- and then it all comes together when everyone goes out and votes, because of your ads. This kind of bypassed some of the TV ads.

They did the fundraising directly, person to person, but then they just went and spent it again on TV ads, rather than crafting good programs. I was at BloggerCon, the convention of bloggers, of course, and they had David Weinberger and a bunch of others. This was a few months ago when there were a few candidates. They had all of these candidates' online people. Each one had a different title for each campaign and unfortunately, there was, I think, only one Republican. So I asked, "What do you do with the feedback you get?" And one of these campaign strategists said, "Oh, we do a lot with it. We've already reorganized the Web site." I didn't mean what they did to their Web site. I meant what they did to their policies -- apparently nothing.

Weaver: Again, why do we want to listen to our customers? We want your advice instead?

Dyson: Yes, and certainly at some point you want a candidate who doesn't pander to the polls, who has his or her own program, and tries to get support for it. But you want a little bit of a sense that maybe they're listening to you. There's still not enough of that, I think in most campaigns, whether they're commercial or political.

Weaver: So it doesn't sound like you're hopeful that this year will really be a meaningful change in political advertising involving the Internet?

Dyson: Actually, now that you go back to the Meta question, I think there's a fundamental difference, which is people are getting involved again. It's just that I don't think who the next president is is the level at which this is going to matter. It's getting involved in your school board, getting involved in should there be a traffic light on East 80. Do you want the police to have speed cams and arrest people and raise revenues so that the schools can get better, or do you think that's fundamentally sleazy, and you'd rather have a school bond?

But the mere involvement of people in politics and in government and in collective action I think is really good. I don't know how broad that is, but one thing that's been encouraging is that a lot of the people who came out for Dean are now coming out for Kerry. And again, this isn't a political statement so much as that it wasn't just Dean. It was the experience of being involved that really got to them.

Weaver: So that ability to mobilize people, put them together, get them out in the streets is still there, but it's like the axiom that all politics is local. And you feel that the real impact of this is going to be on a whole host of local kinds of issues and races.

Dyson: It's not just politics. It's civics. It's people feeling that they have a stake in something and they can make a difference. And it applies commercially as well. I feel I have a stake in giving feedback to vendors. The worst thing in the world is to write to a hotel, and say the hot water wasn't working and they write back and say, "Thank you so much for your comment. We're delighted you had a good time." And it happens.

Tomorrow: The next evolution for search, and how broadband changes email.


So what can we learn from all the companies doing content marketing and engagement right?

Lesson 1: Establish an engaging content hub and venue for your thought leaders to publish regular content while maintaining a tone and voice consistent with your brand's personality and your customer's personas.

Lesson 2:  Design matters for today's visual web interface. User experience is a critical component as is presenting content in many forms. The days of long blocks of text are over. Use pictures, video, infographics, and multiple entry points to make your content more shareable and interactive.

Lesson 3: Broadcast your content. It does you no good if no one reads it. Make aggressive use of relevant social networks to engage customers and leverage PR for earned media opportunities and paid media to drive prospects to your content hub.

Lesson 4:  Leverage user-generated content. Consumers want to be part of the conversation and have their voices heard. Give them a forum to make comments or post their own stories. Engage on social media by following those who follow you on Twitter, respond to comments on Facebook, and share pins on Pinterest. Remember: Brands are shared online, so you must ensure you are part of the conversation.

Lesson 5:  Build trust. According to the recently released "Trust in Advertising" study from Nielsen, branded content websites are the second most trusted source of information after recommendations from friends and family -- a 9 percent increase in a year and up from fourth place in 2007. Today's consumers trust quality original content from brands more than almost any source.

There are many different paths to being a thought leader for your industry and your customers. The time is right to make sure you have the right strategy for your brand before your competitors take the mantle as the go-to industry resource.

Gordon Plutsky is the CMO at King Fish Media.

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