The joke, the circus and the soap-opera

14 12 2009

A few people who saw my Enterprise 2.0 Anti-patterns presentation at SlideShare asked what I meant by “the joke, the circus and the soap-opera”. That came from a post I wrote for Biznology a long time ago, on Sep 15, 2008. It’s old news now, but for the sake of completeness I’m republishing it here. I updated some of the broken links and also moved the “I work for” disclaimer from IBM to RBC 🙂

What role do timing and duration play in your Web 2.0 strategy? Marketing experts have long emphasized the importance of media selection and scheduling decisions, but seeing how traditional companies have been exploiting the Internet over the last few years shows that there are still lessons to be learned in that arena.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it doesn’t always pay off when it comes to your online marketing strategy. All the hype around Web 2.0 and User Generated Content a couple of years ago initially led to some embarrassing attempts of letting regular folks to create ads. The Chevy Tahoe Apprentice challenge in 2006 is probably the most prominent example of how to not do it: even after GM wiped out ChevyApprentice.com, a search in YouTube for “Chevy Tahoe Apprentice” brings plenty of ads that should have never been created in the first place, a sobering reminder that having an exit strategy established up front is a must in your Internet experiments. Eventually marketing teams got it right, and the success of the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl competition in early 2007 led to several others companies to jump onto the UGC bandwagon, with varying, but mostly diminishing, levels of returns.

Another case in point was the creation of online places for your customer base to hang around and discuss subjects that take a front seat in their lives. HSBC’s Your Point of View was launched in October 2005 and generated a lot of buzz for quite some time. However, three years later, it has lost its freshness and novelty, giving the casual observer the impression of a failed experiment, when it could have been considered one of the most successful stories of a traditional company building a site based on the architecture of participation. Vancity’s “community powered” Change Everything, launched in September 2006, suffered from a similar problem, but had a longer shelf life, and people still contribute with comments to this day. One of the major differences between the two services that may explain the varying longevity of two similar offerings is that the Vancity experiment established itself as a social networking site, while the HSBC one stayed away from forming an online community and keeping user profiles. Change Everything is currently announcing a complete revamp of the service, so I’m curious to see what’s coming next.

What’s clear in the examples above is that timing and duration play a crucial role in the success of your online initiatives. This might sound obvious, but it’s often ignored in many of the initiatives we see online. Being too early might prevent you from understanding the dynamics of a new approach, but being too late can just position your company as a me-too player. The sweet spot, of course, is hard to determine, but recognizing these patterns can help you to sniff the right moment. Or you might be better prepared to fail gracefully from the get-go, not as an after-thought.

Influenced by a conversation I had with my colleague Bernie Michalik, I started thinking about three metaphors that highlight the importance of duration in your online strategy. Some initiatives work very well when applied exactly once, as it was the case with the Doritos Super Bowl commercial. Like telling a joke, the second time around people get bored and disengaged.

Other initiatives work better when mimicking a circus pattern: you come, raise your tent, run your dog-and-pony show, and then leave after a week or a month. One or two years from now, you can do it again, but staying there on a continuous basis would never work. This is how RBC approached its Next Great Innovator site. In the first edition, back in 2006, they defined up-front that it would be a time-boxed experiment, so that when they were done a few months after, retiring the site was perceived as the conclusion of a successful experiment. Every year since they keep coming back with new features, but still positioning it as a time-limited event (full disclosure: I work for RBC).

The IBM jams are another good example of how the circus pattern can be efficiently used to your advantage. Besides helping clients to deliver jams, we eat our own dog food and use them as one of the tools in our innovation strategy. If you are wondering what the jam looks like, the next round begins on Sunday, October 5th at 6 pm EDT, and participation is open to IBM clients.

Over the last few years, many marketers have started using microsites to drive marketing campaigns, as opposed to relying on the main corporate site. One of the advantages here is that microsites can be changed—and retired, if necessary—more easily than the company’s main Web site.

Finally, some of your initiatives might actually work well as a place that’s always open for business, pretty much like a never ending daytime soap opera. This typically works well for services that drive a steady number of clients, or whose audience is recycled on a yearly basis, like college students or pre-teens. Procter & Gamble’s Connect + Develop site is a good example of that, as the site serves an audience that has a continuous relationship with them. I often see initiatives that would operate better following the joke or circus patterns defaulting to the soap opera mode. Despite their initial huge success, they become victims of not selecting the appropriate duration for their endeavor.

When devising your next online initiative make sure you think about which of those patterns best fits your offering. Timing and duration might end up being the key determinants in how that incredible new site you conceived will be perceived a few years down the road.

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