Jason Calacanis is the co-founder and former CEO of Weblogs, Inc., which was sold to AOL in November of 2005. Upon joining AOL, Calacanis was named senior vice president where he became general manager for the Netscape brand.
After soaring and then crashing with Silicon Alley Reporter, and then starting Weblogs and selling it to AOL, Jason Calacanis has learned a little bit about what works in media-- and about putting consumers in control. At this week's iMedia Brand Summit in Coconut Point, Florida, he told a packed house that he sees the cycle of new media within interactive as generally characterized by a surge upwards, and then a deleterious downturn.
Using email as an example, he asked the audience how much they trusted that segment, and characterized email as a "just missed" opportunity, since spammers have effectively "screwed it up by pissing in the well. Many of you built this city -- this trusted medium -- with hard work and good intentions. Then, along come the spammers, and they piss in the well, ruining it for all of us."
Calacanis sees blogs in the same light. "We're winning the war now, but we could trash blogs like we did email, and this after spending years and years building their credibility; we're in danger of screwing this one up too." Taking HP, Microsoft, Edelman PR and others to task, Calacanis showed numerous examples of "the bad," focusing on HP's controversial camera-bashing viral video, which, Calacanis argues, hurt their brand.
"When companies use the blogosphere the right way, they're talking like humans to their customers, not paying poor folks like Wal-Mart and Edelman did with their fake blog," Calacanis said. "The whole point of blogs is to be refreshing, transparent and authentic. The opportunity is to engage with candor-- to treat the consumers on the blog as humans. Degrading these bloggers by paying them and diminishing the platform is akin to pissing in that well, too."
Know your own brand
The entire room laughed out loud when Calacanis asked if they knew whether or not their brand was loved while introducing the idea that -- if a brand is interested in leveraging user-generated video -- the answer had better be a firm yes. Cable companies, cell phone service providers and Calacanis' former employer, AOL, would have a hard time driving good results, he said, with user-generated video, since at least some consumers would create brand-damaging content.
Showing examples that famously backfired from Wal-Mart, Chevy and McDonald's, then comparing them to favorable examples from Southwest, Calacanis demonstrated the simplicity of screwing it up. "These are good people. They simply didn't think it through. Edelman's CEO himself blogs, so the fact that they didn't understand this confounds me."
Comparing the way that companies reached their consumers 20 years ago to today, Calacanis offered a simple graph:
Twenty years ago, the dialogue featured PR and advertising emanating boldly and broadly from brands toward their consumers, with only the "crazies" writing letters back to the brands in trickles. Today, the dialogue back and forth is increasingly dominated by bold streams of blogs in both directions:
This is clearly a tremendous opportunity, Calacanis argued, which is why so many companies are finding ways to screw it up, unwittingly choosing the path of evil over the path of good. Companies need to listen first, before they start using blogs to talk.
How to avoid evil?
Calacanis offered some litmus tests that marketers should ask themselves before entering the blogosphere, including the mom test, the leaked memo test, the too easy test and the ask the experts test.
"Ask yourself, would this be okay to show my mom? If this is something that you don't want fingerprints on, ask yourself how it would turn out if everyone found out-- because they will. If it seems like it's too easy, then dammit, it is too easy." Lastly, ask the experts-- there are authorities out there. "There are hundreds of people who blog about a given topic who will provide a reasonable answer to your question," said Calacanis.
"Hey-- this is coming from a guy who worked at AOL, where we made a ton of mistakes. We all make mistakes. Let's try to be classy though, and make this medium as classy as we can."
Mark Naples is the managing partner for WIT Strategy. .