A couple of timely announcements made at the end of last week warrant a bit of analysis. The first is the news that AOL has gobbled up a tiny publisher called Weblogs Inc. Network. The second is a survey published by Edelman claiming insight into the minds of bloggers. Both have blogging in common. Moreover, both point toward the value that bloggers add to the media world at large. Let's break it down.
It's a matter of faith that blogging has been mainstream for over a year now. Ever since Google gobbled up blogger.com, mainstream media has had a firm grasp of how blogging should be valued as a medium alongside its old-world, print, and new-world, online magazine, predecessors. This week we no longer have to posit that blogging and the bloggers that blog are worthy of special attention in media.
In case you live under a rock and have not heard of blogging, it is a personal journal, or web log. It publishes easily and reaches out to others with similar interests. If you have a basket-weavers' blog, other basket-weavers will gravitate naturally to you. Blogs also act as a virtual sticky note, to simply record thoughts for posterity. Occasionally the blogger uses a blog to vent, opine or shamelessly promote. All told, bloggers occupy niches and cultivate many small online communities. And like the tiny pads on a gecko's feet, the culmination of these small forces allow for a greater strength and stickiness. Hence AOL's $25M bet in acquiring Weblogs Inc. Network.
The Edeleman study presents an interesting profile of bloggers as it and public relations firms begin to target them. In relating with bloggers, PR people know that they can, in turn, connect by proxy with the blogger's fans, which are also their client's customers.
So we're starting to understand that the notion of "public," when it comes to public relations and public companies, is starting to change. The companies responsible for that change, such as Weblogs Inc. Network, are claiming to have mined some actual value from the blogsphere. What is the best way to reach these individuals?
To best reach the blogger, one must understand that he or she is motivated by something deeper than mere words on a virtual page. The Edelman study points out that over half of bloggers blog as a means to record a thought (31.54 percent) or connect with others (20.34 percent). Furthermore, bloggers tend to blog at a pace greater than once a week -- that is, once a day (25.7 percent) or once every few days (37.88 percent). Last, about half blog for reasons other than talking about what companies are doing, and often -- take it from a self-admitted blogger -- it is for personal reasons. This evidence is supported by a recent eMarketer study which claims that 50 percent of bloggers blog for their own therapy.
Bloggers blog for the same reason guitarists rock: they have an urge to be heard and the medium allows them to express themselves like no other. It's somehow therapeutic to get one's words out in cyberspace. Anyone that has published an article or photo -- online or offline, myself included -- will admit that being heard helps the author find his or her place in the world. Chalk it up to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a means of self-actualization. Or chalk it up to simple art therapy. When writing, the adage goes, all writers think they're Shakespeare. When posting, all bloggers are rock stars. They can't help but express themselves in the great show that is the internet.
Mind the Blogger
As I mentioned, I'm a blogger. I'm not the world's best blogger. I'm not the world's worst. But I do it to record a thought. If I'm working on an article idea, I might post a link to a study and make a brief comment. Sometimes, I blog simply to recognize the good work being done online. That is, I want other bloggers and writers to know that I heard them and agree. It's a virtual nod, as it were.
We bloggers don't stand on soapboxes. We blog for fun. It's nice if someone recognizes, every once in a while, the work we're doing, but we're not panderers for PR. And the majority of us don't bustle for micro-payments or ad word kick-backs. Instead we're motivated by making connections with each other. And if that means making connections with AOL and Edelman, it's only because they've been there listening and responding with little nods once in a while. If nothing else, this simple call-and-response effect is all the proof that we need that our efforts are rewarding. It's proof of self-actualization.
Go With the Blogsphere
Having said all that, I'm wary of the shotgun approach to cultivating a blogsphere. The bloggers at Weblogs Inc. Network are a specialized niche of business bloggers. There are only a few personal bloggers there. The rest are business blogs devoted to reporting industry news such as Endgaget (technology) and Joystiq (gaming). The revenue model is to aggregate these niche markets for marketers to advertise too, providing a new place for a $1M media buy to be distributed amongst many well-targeted audiences.
A traditional media-buying approach cannot possibly hope to work with the bulk of bloggers, however. PR houses and media buyers instead might do better to turn to networks like Bloglines and Technorati to better find and cultivate actual one-to-one relationships with bloggers and their readers. An exhaustive search of interested readers for any given material -- be it diapers, colas or politics -- one must first find relevant bloggers hidden in the blogsphere. Such a search is a lot more time-consuming, but, like the gecko's many-padded feet, the ability to surmount improbable heights comes from the combination of many small forces.
Bloggers trust bloggers, for one. For two, so do search engines. One way to see your traffic spike is to get blogged about -- not just by the big guys, but all the small guys too. While getting Slash-dotted or BoingBoing'd is an online PR dream, you can't build a good base without the support of the small, non-network blogs nodding along with them. Call it street cred.
Finally, if you want to get blogged, start blogging. Learn the terrain. Know the players. Speak the lingo. Take notes. And nod a lot. Only then, if you call, will they respond in kind.
Kelly Abbott is director of information strategy at Red Door Interactive, helping organizations in diverse industries to implement Internet technology systems tying together disparate networks. He is the co-founder of the San Diego Telecom Council's e-Business and Wi-Fi Special Interest Groups. He divides his volunteer efforts between Mama's Kitchen -- which feeds people living with AIDS -- and Airshare.org -- an education and community building site for Wireless LANs.
The first face should be a woman's face
Both men and women, across all cultures and ethnic groups, respond positively when the first content based image is a woman's face. Content based meaning "the changing portion" -- not the banner, the menu, the ads, or the background, but the area where you place your message.
This was surprising because NextStage performed this study with some strongly patriarchal culture groups and common wisdom would have indicated that a male face would create greater positive affect in such cultures. Never-the-less, a woman's face presented first among many causes the strongest positive response and that positive response haloes the rest of the content. The major caveat here is that the face must be from the audience's peer group. This reinforces studies about the best corporate spokespeople and presenters being mirrors of the audience the company wants to penetrate.
Position is everything in the visual field
You can place a given content element in one position and people will think it's wonderful. Move the same content element to some another position and people will think it's terrible.
This is especially true of facial images. Notice the image above again. The woman's face is towards the camera from the left of the screen. This would normally send a non-conscious signal to the audience that the woman is analyzing or evaluating them, basically scrutinizing them. More often than not, facial images on the left of the screen cause subtle anxiety responses in people.
This was not the case here due to the actual testimonial, "Loved your presentation!" The short, direct statement at the visual level of the woman's mouth and using an emotion verb signaled that this woman could be trusted, could be believed and was "right." When study participants were asked, "Is this woman telling the truth", over 90 percent agreed unconditionally. Participants in the study demonstrated subtle, non-conscious anxiety responses to the image, but immediately relaxed (as gauged by breathing, keyboard/screen attack rate and pressure, flexion in the large muscle groups, etc.) upon reading the comment.
This tension/relaxation response almost always causes favorable reactions to information.
Enthusiasm and emotion beat a straight flush
The top image shows a male with a joyful expression holding a sparkler, and the image below it shows a smiling woman with her head canted towards both the audience and the content. Both images signal a blend of enthusiasm and emotion, and both focused participant attention strongly.
More to the point of marketing, the text next to each image was evaluated for a longer time period -- meaning the participants were self-branding with the image and its matching content -- than with other image-text combinations used in the study.
NextStage often tell clients that emotion is energy in motion. All marketing and all consumer decision processes, in their base form, are emotional appeals and decisions. Logic and higher cognitive resources may be involved and in the end, if the higher and lower brains (cognition and emotion) are in conflict, the sale will go sour or won't happen at all. The consumer will suffer buyer's regret and remorse, they will become a customer service nightmare, and it'll go downhill from there.
Show your audience an enthused peer group member who's showing welcoming emotion about your product or offering and you've branded your audience that product or offering is good, necessary, and will make them happy.
The danger here is that the use of enthusiasm and emotion is extremely product and audience specific. A teenager's emotional display regarding a mobile phone won't move a boomer to purchase, and a boomer's emotional display at a sunset won't move a teenager to take a vacation. Too much enthusiasm or emotion caused negative responses across all demographics studied. Today's audiences more often equate high levels of enthusiasm and emotion with a lack of education, experience, or as attention seeking behavior. And each demographic has strict morals regarding what attention seeking behavior is acceptable and what isn't.
Known authorities should be shown being authoritative
Suppose you're going to use a testimonial from someone whom your audience recognizes as a known authority. Good for you!
But now suppose you have them doing something that your audience doesn't recognize them doing. For example, you sell skis, your recognized authority says your skis are the bees knees, but your authority image is him or her reading a book by a fireplace.
Two things happen that hurt you:
- Your audience has to decide if the image is a gag and you never, ever, ever want your audience to make a decision when you haven't tilted the scales in your favor.
- If your audience can't decide, then your recognized authority's reputation goes down a notch in the community. Bad for you, bad for your authority, but great for your competition.
Have your recognized authority doing something that demonstrates their authority. The image below shows a known authority lecturing/teaching. The text is lengthy, something expected from a teacher/lecturer.
Very few participants read the complete text associated with this image, however over 80 percent of them evaluated what they read as true. Note that some positional elements come into play; the image is on the left of the screen and that adds to the "authority" aspect.
Engagement with others is a good thing
The above image is a psychosocial masterpiece in itself for interaction-causing design in and of itself. The image is on the right of the visual field, signaling the brain to use social intelligence to understand its content. The image itself is of a female looking both towards the reader and the text, so whatever is in the text is being said to the reader.
But also at the bottom of the image is someone else's arm, so the woman is interacting with someone who's just out of the frame and who happens to be in the reader's psychospatial location (have you ever seen an image and felt you were part of it, as if you were in the picture? That's psychospatial location kicking in).
This overall non-conscious impact is brilliant. The woman is looking towards the reader and the text, and she's also interacting with someone in the image. Readers will non-consciously identify themselves with the person just out of the frame in the image, hence the woman is talking to the reader person-to-person, and the text is being said directly to them because they identified themselves with the individual just out of the frame.
Leaning into the text indicates a willingness to help, serve, and assist
The image below is also on the right, so again psychosocial aspects come into play. This non-conscious signal for social engagement is heightened by the subject's slight lean towards both the text and the visitor. Note that it is a slight lean, not so much of a lean as to be threatening, more like the subject's ready to lend a hand.
This non-conscious suggestion of help is reinforced by the subject in the picture having a genuine smile. Our brains are masters at recognizing subtleties in facial feature placement and can determine a fake or forced smile from a genuine smile faster than it takes to make one. Non-consciously, the fake or forced smile signals danger, threat, and trouble, that the smiler is not to be trusted. Fake or forced smiling images in marketing are a big reason that well designed content produces minimal results.
However, a genuine smile, especially when the smiler is slightly leaning towards the viewer, non-consciously signals that the smiler is saying something like "Wow, that's neat! Can I play, too?" and is possibly a friend that's genuinely interested in what's going on with the reader and their actions.
Candid wins over posed, professional, and glamour shots
The last item is specific to images used for testimonial purposes an is also audience and product specific; candid, personal images are more believable than posed, professional, and/or glamour shots. For most audiences, the latter are quickly recognized as marketing, therefore any text attributed to the person in the image is also marketing. Another risk is that the posed, professional, and/or glamour shot is so striking that the viewer's attention is locked on the image and the accompanying text is ignored or lost (see above image).
However, a personal and/or candid shot (see image below) allows the viewer's brain mirror cells to engage rapidly, and trust is established between the viewer and the person in the image, meaning whatever they're saying must be true because mirrors don't lie.
Using facial images to influence visitors is incredibly easy to do so long as you remember three simple rules:
- The faces must be of your target audience
- Place the image according to how you want any accompanying text evaluated
- People assign greater validity and truth to what is recognized than what is unrecognized (mirror-selves).
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"Emotional man in a business suit" image via Shutterstock.