Archives for the month of: September, 2011

Digital media is a dizzying landscape, and one that’s insanely competitive. Even as our collective attention migrates to a few large platforms, attention continues to fragment – yes, we’re all on Facebook and Youtube, but we’re looking at different things, and everybody at this point is screaming for our attention.

That’s why when clients ask for our advice, we start by defining goals. This may seem obvious – but given the complexity of the web economy and eco-system, a product or brand’s goals aren’t always self-evident. Obviously, everybody wants traffic, but what kind? Do you want to monetize it or is the goal promotional, or brand awareness; do you care where your audience engages with you? Is it acceptable for Facebook to own your traffic? We necessarily think about platforms and networks. What already exists that can be leveraged? Product strategies need to be part of distribution and promotional strategies; popularity and engagement impact Google’s rankings, and Google is still king.

If the goal is to build a self-sustaining digital business, supported either by advertising or transactions, then you need a platform you can own. You also need to connect that platform, at the most granular and atomic levels, to highly trafficked networks so that your audience discovers you, and you have to define very specifically who it is you want to engage and what, specifically, you want them to do once you have their attention – because you won’t have it for very long.

The things we think about when we advise our clients are:

1. Goals & Targets – What are we trying to achieve? What’s success look like? Who’s the competition?

2. Brand & Audience – What’s the value proposition to the consumer? Who is your audience? Who is it not?

3. Experience & Product – Form factor, product definition, functionality, habituation, behavior. What’s the aesthetic, behavioral experience you want your consumers to have? What’s the emotional experience you want them to have while they’re engaging with your content and products?

4. Promotion & Distribution – Where does your audience spend time? How can you earn their attention, engage and reward, and do so efficiently? Anybody can buy attention, the challenge is to earn it so that media dollars are efficient and effective. What networks, platforms and partners will be effective and what’s the best way to harness them? What blogs lead your category, who do you want to follow you on Twitter, how should you talk to your segment on Facebook so they actually like you when they Like you?

What works depends on all of the above. More than ever, the mission of a digital agency needs to be to advise clients how to leverage existing platforms and behaviors to build their business or campaign. The tools at our disposal keep proliferating, the technologies and tactics change and multiply, the question now is, “what and why?” Doing it all gets very expensive very quickly; the goal of every engagement, therefore, needs to be targeting the right areas to invest in – pick the battles you can win, and exploit the tactics and practices that will yield specific results with maximum efficiency.

A little bit about our lo-fi website.

We were at lunch with a good friend, client and advisor, talking about how our business was evolving, and how social media had become a core component. Our thinking, our product ideas, the work we launched and the requests we were getting from clients had over the last few years become (not surprisingly) driven by social. Then the friend said, this is all great, you guys do great work and have great ideas about social media, but what’s your digital strategy for your own company? “Walk the walk,” he was saying, and that is where the idea for this website started.

Treating ourselves like a client, we thought critically about what business an agency like ours had marketing itself via social media.  Is social media too mass?  Too consumer focused for a b-to-b marketing play?  Could social really do something for us?  

Or, more to the point, is the idea of the “social web” a useful or relevant distinction? Or has the web, in fact, become social? And what’s this mean about the work we do and the Internet we live in? The reality is that the web has gone through another revolution. With the colossal rise of Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr, and of course, the blogosphere, the web has matured. It’s no longer a homesteading game; it’s a media game. Attention is now aggregated on several large platforms – just like the old days of network TV. But the “shows” on these networks are our identities.

This was what crystallized for us over lunch: what matters now, more than ever, is creating great content – content that articulates your point of view, demonstrates your value, and differentiates you from the competition – and injecting that content effectively into the established, thriving streams of attention.

And that’s the point: the web is established; it’s come of age. Yes, great, creative product matters, especially if you want to grow a real owned and operated digital business, and not just feed Facebook and Twitter with your labor and your customers’ or followers’ time. But, there is also, at long last, a truly interconnected, interoperable, content-driven Internet, in which topics, interest, and identities flow from platform to platform, and in which entities – be they citizens, brands or, say, digital agencies – can, and must, persistently engage in the conversations that matter to earn attention and, ultimately, business.

And, so, back to this very website, built on WordPress, even though we are a company that loves to conceive and develop original products and platforms. Advising ourselves, we realized we had to practice what we preach – don’t over-engineer, don’t over-design, use what works, harness established platforms and behaviors, be everywhere, be relevant, be pragmatic, invest where it matters – tell the world what you do, and take your message to your audience.

So, you can find us here, in our little corner of the interweb, and on Facebook, and Twitter and wherever else you might be, because if you’re interested in digital products and media, we want our content to find you.

We’ve been tinkering with a new product that uses data collection and machine learning to redefine how we read news, and it got me thinking. Can we teach computers not just to find, index and filter stories, but to write them?

Will there come a moment when machines can create what we read? Would financial markets be more rational if computers reported on the data instead of humans? It’s a frequently proven fact that reporters are apt to provide color and skew a story one way or another (intentionally or not); or, as often the case, people simply make errors. Sure, the news might be less entertaining, but could computers make it more reliable? And even harder to imagine, could a computer become the next Dostoevsky or Joyce or Shakespeare?

For news, there are of course a number of challenges to solve, for example:

  • Assignment; how a computer knows what’s a story, what isn’t and where to look
  • Sources; which are reliable or not
  • Fact checking, and of course
  • How to pull facts, and “write” an article in natural language
  • All monumental tasks, and all requiring an artful human touch to get computers thinking straight — which data sets to target, fact checking methodology, algorithms for language disambiguation etc. — but seemingly none insurmountable.

    After a quick Google search (All Hail the Great Googs!) I found a couple of curious and amazing products that begin to suggest feasibility:

  • A gorgeous iPad app created by David Benqué that takes aim at computer generated fiction called The Infinite Adventure Machine, which launches this week during Paris Design Week. David’s app uses the 31 functions of folktales identified by the philosopher Vladimir Propp, to help users imagine their own stories. As David says on his blog “TIAM aims to question the limitations and implications of attempts at programming language and narrative.”

  • A company called Narrative Science that claims to have in fact solved the problem for news, and uses computers to generate long and short from articles from structured data. Started by Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, co-directors of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University, the company has been picking-up steam and ink since landing $6M in investment around June of this year, with articles written about them by the New York Times and PC Magazine.
  • Methinks we are on our way.