Twitter has been alive with outrage over the Amp Up Before You Score iPhone app, released by Pepsi energy drink brand Amp Energy, which is actually part of PepsiCo's Mountain Dew portfolio. I’ll leave the debate over whether this app is offensive to others. What’s interesting is whether Pepsi is to blame.
PepsiCo is a very large company that owns many, many brands, including the iconic Pepsi brand. Amp Energy is just one of many in its portfolio. It also happens to be a brand that relies heavily on young males. Its advertising has been dominated by NASCAR sponsorship. When I wrote about the Amp Up app on Friday, I spoke with R/GA about the app as part of an effort to reach this young male audience. Let’s face it, Axe and even Burger King have shown that it’s not sophistication that tends to get through.
Now, if this is another energy drink brand, say Rockstar Energy, does this “controversy” happen? I’m guessing no. Admittedly, I chose a headline that stressed Amp being a Pepsi brand because I thought it was noteworthy a large CPG like Pepsi took a risqué approach. At the same time, I doubt I’d write the same about Unilever when it comes to Axe because it has pretty much no brand identity. It’s like a holding company. No matter what you think of the Amp Up app, you can’t deny that a pretty persuasive case of hypocrisy can be leveled versus Unilever for simultaneously running mud-wrestling Axe ads and Dove Real Beauty spots. Pepsi doesn’t have that luxury, I guess, of separating out its brands that way. For what it's worth, Pepsi told me it has no plans to pull the app, despite the chorus of outrage.
When the history of current iteration of the Web is written, this will be the Long Tail Era. The Web has been obsessed with the Long Tail, along with its companion business model, Free. Its reign might be coming to an end.
The problem with the Free is you often get what you pay for. Don’t get me wrong, the Long Tail still exists and will continue to fuel countless businesses. But the idea that just because distribution and production is cheap that everything comes without charging has been an impediment to the development of sustainable digital business models. Free is it’s often simply a trendy way of saying Advertising. The problem there is the incredible supply-demand imbalance means there’s simply not enough ad dollars to support the Free economy. Think of all the Facebook app developers trying to rub a few ad network pennies together. This isn’t going to change anytime soon.
There are signs of maturation. Think about the app world. What’s the most successful app company? Zynga. It has built a $100 million business (maybe) off charging for virtual goods, poker chips, etc. Companies like Clickable and Meetup charge for valuable services. There's even hope for the app world. Robert Scoble points to the quick success of Tweetie 2.0, a new iPhone Twitter app that – gasp – costs $2.99. Since its release last week, the app has become the top U.S. seller in the App Store. Naturally this has elicited howls from the Free faithful that Tweetie is violating some deeply held principle by charging. See, the problem is people paid for the original version, so I guess the logic is their $3 investment covered a lifetime of development. How to put this? That’s retarded. It’s so backwards that somehow we’ve fallen into this trap of thinking that products delivered as ones and zeroes aren’t worth money while carbon-based goods are. I enjoy “free” stuff, but I had no problem paying for Tweetie because I heard it works great and (free) Tweetdeck constantly crashes on me and works slowly. It’s time to retire the worship of Free and start treating consumers like grownups.
Everyone wants to debate Free nowadays. In truth, free isn’t the right word because there’s obviously a cost to everything, even if it’s not monetary. Most people, however, just focus on the monetary cost. That’s why Google is “free,” despite the fact that it makes lots and lots of money by collecting everyone’s data. "Free" Web services aren't public utilities. Users invest lots of time and effort in them at their own risk.
Facebook buying Friendfeed reminded me of this. For the most part, this is a complete inside baseball story that shows how insular Silicon Valley is. In the real world, nobody cares about a niche sharing service like Friendfeed. But it built a product the geeks loved. Facebook even copied some of its features. What interesting is now that they’re part of Facebook, there’s little chance Friendfeed itself has a future. (Facebook and Friendfeed are non-committal.) Friendfeed’s small cadre of loyalists aren’t so happy about this.
In essence, Friendfeed’s founders got a few hundred thousand people to serve as a focus group for them to refine a product enough that Facebook was willing to pay them a presumably large amount of money to come work there. Those that invested lots of effort into building up a network on Friendfeed -- I'm looking at you, Scoble -- are left holding the bag. That’s too bad, but inevitable. The interests of the founders at some point diverged from the users. It goes to show, again, nothing is really free.
I feel for Sean Corcoran. The Forrester Research analyst just released his report evaluating the top 11 interactive agencies. He’s going on vacation today. I don’t think the timing is coincidental.
Anytime there’s a third-party evaluation of industry participants, the evaluator gets an earful. I know because I’m the one who is stuck with Adweek’s Digital Report Cards every year. Inevitably, the loudest complaints at first come from those not included. This is inevitable in the fractured interactive world, where comparing three firms can be like apples, oranges and pineapples. Adweek has come up with a squishy, imperfect formula. The agencies need to be U.S. based and in the same competitive set. It’s a very imperfect art, one that completely misses the shops that are doing the most interesting things in digital, ie, Big Spaceship, Deep Focus, CP+B, etc. But it’s the best we can come up with. Forrester sets the bar at $100 million in revenue, at least five competitive mentions from others on the list and, critically, providers of five of the seven service areas.
As I said, everyone will quibble with these kinds of lists. Forrester escapes a lot of wrath because it doesn’t actually rank the agencies. (Adweek give grades. Trust me, you give an agency a D in creative, you’ll hear about it forever.) Instead, it just has two broad groups of “leaders” and “strong performers.” Many of the leaders are names I’d expect: R/GA and Razorfish, for example. A few surprised me. Maybe the one thing that most stood out for me was the low grades AKQA got. Together, they were the lowest of any agency evaluated.
I asked my Twitter followers for their takes. Here’s a sample:
“It's very functional. It fails to consider creativity. it fails to take into account collaboration. And it's not global.” Bryan Fuhr, AKQA
“It seems large agencies have a much different definition then smaller interactive studios.” Daniel Schutzsmith, Core Industries
“I think they should have dug a layer or two deeper to get to the real talent turning out the ideas and work.” Tim Nolan, Hush Studios
“Today there is no one shop that can do it all. Any shop that claims they can is lying.” Adam Kmiec, Marc USA
From the comments on my story:
“It's still a shame that reports like this don't do deeper dives - they look at who is the biggest rather than who has the most skill sets.” Michael Hubbard, Media Two
“FarFar is missing.” Claudius
“Does not mention the small shops that a ton of these guys farm out to. The collaboration model will soon get a fair shake when the habitual "white label" firms come clean, not to mention that the US is not the sole option for digital innovation anymore.” Wiltonbound
It’s interesting feedback, not completely unexpected. I’m interested in figuring out a way to do an evaluation that addresses some of those concerns. The problem is with strict criteria, which tends to make the lists simply the big interactive shops. On the other hand, I think some kind of criteria beats just throwing stuff against a wall, like those made-up lists of “the most creative people.”
Invariably, when I speak to someone who doesn't use Twitter, I hear the same thing, "Why do I want to know what someone had for lunch?" It's hard to explain why this might actually be interesting, and how Twitter is for much more than that. But admittedly, the service is immature and still stuck with lots of ephemera of people waiting at airports and "plowing through email." The platform will succeed when it gets more mainstream entities building useful services. BakerTweet is a small example of this, so too is what the food trucks and Naked Pizza are doing. Comcast and others have proven how it can improve customer service. Thanks to a tweet from @bigspaceship, I came across the MTA's feeds for subway lines. Nothing is more frustrating for NYC residents than not knowing what the hell is going on in the subways. I'm already following my main line. Now, hopefully, I'll know when construction means the 2/3 is running local to Chambers, which it does about every other weekend. Twitter is not the Second Coming, but it isn't Second Life either. The trick will be if more companies and organizations use the platform to provide useful services.
My mom loves aphorisms (sometimes cliches). One I remember: You can't please all the people all the time. It's true. This public unfollowing got me thinking about how we use social media and capture lasting attention.
I've gotten a couple complaints about feeding my workout information to Twitter. Not many, but definitely a few. First, an explanation about the origin of this information. It comes from DailyMile , a great social training site that I use to keep track of my running, swimming and biking. One of the options it has is to tie the info into your existing social networks. This is pretty smart, in my opinion.
At times, I feel pretty goofy about this. I don't update Twitter on how much I've run to show off as some super athlete. I'm not. I do it because running (and now training for a triathlon) is an important part of what I do. If you buy into the theory of ambient intimacy, these are precisely the updates that fill in the picture. It's not part of a strategy. I started using Twitter not as a professional tool but a way to keep in touch with a few friends and family members. It became something different, but I'd rather that didn't completely change what I share, even if plenty of people, like former follower David Felfoldi, find it superfluous. Most of my followers are in some way in the marketing industry. I understand that. But several dozen are runners or endurance athletes not very interested in ad stuff. I've thought about and decided against having a separate account for running. Would I then need a separate account for French mimes? As Michael Lebowitz said, "One thing Twitter isn't is one thing." This is why Fred Wilson continues to intersperse his updates related to digital media and innovation with music recommendations. Fred is not just a VC. He's passionate about music.
The interesting part I've found is that when I run into people, what they remember is the running updates. They're only about 10% of what I write, but they're what captures lasting attention. My guess is they're somewhat unique, as opposed to the usual blather about marketing. Just this morning, three people mentioned my running updates (in a positive way, I think) when we spoke at an event. This is always the case. That's nice because running is something I'm quite passionate about. This is the flip side to an experience I had a year ago when I used Twitter to complain about intrusive and brain-dead PR practices. Even though PR also was never more than 10 percent of what I wrote, many people thought it was much more. I soon realized this was a bad thing. The last thing I want to be known as is a PR scold. Mike Arrington can do that. That's why I don't write about PR anymore, for the most part. They're not for everyone. A year ago, my running updates and PR complaints became a key part of a Twitter doppelganger's @fakebmorrissey act.
What it teaches me is something I wrote about earlier: the need for differentiation. There are hundreds of people out there sharing the same links, making the same observations and cracking similar wisecracks. Twitter is wonderful, yet completely ephemeral. It's the things outside the norm that capture people's attention. What's more, it's things you're genuinely passionate about that capture attention. The great promise of social media is there's no faking it. People will find you out, whether it's a company or individual, if you're not what you present. The cost is some people won't like it and will unfollow me. I'm OK with that.
I always think politicians get the scandals they deserve. Typically, the ones that stick are ones that confirm some flaw that everyone expected. For Clinton, it was being slippery. For Bush, it was being clueless. The same seems true for brands. Now that consumers are super-empowered to fight back using social media channels, they can confirm something that's already out there. The Comcast technician falling asleep on the couch fit with many people's experience with the cable company. Jeff Jarvis' Dell Hell dovetailed nicely with a years long decline in service and quality. Even Domino's fiasco, I think, points to lingering suspicions over the quality of fast food places.
The flipside of all these tools and channels allowing for the cheap, easy spread of brand messages is they can just as easily be used against brands. Now it's United's turn to get thrown into the stream. What strikes me when flying legacy airlines is how tired and drab everything, even the people working there. You often don't really feel like a customer handing over hundreds of dollars but at the mercy of an enormous bureaucracy. That's what Dave Carroll has captured with his music video detailing how the airline broke his guitar and then refused to make amends. Since it was posted yesterday, Carroll's video has gone over 120,000 views and attracted 1,000 comments from people echoing his experience. Excuse the pun, but he struck a chord. It's easy to feel some amount of sympathy for brand blindsided by things like this, but they're pretty much reaping what they've sown over many years of failing to live up to their brand promises.
There's no shortage of experts declaring the Website "dead." I've even written articles predicting the demise of the microsite. The idea is the Web is moving to a fluid series of interactions that take place in relevant contexts. Trying to lure people to your Big Corporate Website seems a little old fashioned.
But what will happen to those sites? Agency.com tried something cool interesting with its use of Skittles.com as a way to point to what's already out there on the Web about Skittles, mixing the stuff the brand has produced with consumer stuff on Wikipedia and, most notoriously, Twitter. More often, brands like Axe are turning their sites into a place to point to the distributed experiences they've created elsewhere.
Crispin Porter + Bogusky is preparing a relaunch of Burger King's site that's long overdue. The current site is a monstrosity that would make an ideal example in a Wikipedia entry for "Flashturbation." The new site will remake it into a simple collection of links to the dozens of experiences and pieces of content around the brand. The trick is in the navigation. It uses sliders for users to filter the content based on fun, food and king. Some of the content lives on BK.com; much of it, like Seth McFarland's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy, lives elsewhere. As Ana pointed out to me, the beauty of this is the simplicity. It's a small thing but completely fits with the brand positioning to "have it your way."
Some of the most interesting stuff in digital is where it blends into the physical world. I just got back from Cannes, where there was an intense interest in the blurring between digital and real-life experiences. The top winners in the Cyber category all, to some extent, involved the real world. Digital became the glue that held together the “Best Job in the World” Tourism Queensland campaign, Dark Knight alternate-reality game and Fiat eco:Drive system.
Nike’s new Livestrong campaign for the Tour de France has an interesting element that does this on a small scale. Much of the campaign is your typical fare: inspirational 30s and 60s, along with “Web films.” The idea is the fight against cancer is not about Lance Armstrong but about the millions who fight it everyday. The cool part is a robot. It’s called “Chalkbot” and was built by DeepLocal and StandardRobot. Chalkbot is a machine that can quickly write chalk messages on road surfaces. A tradition of the Tour de France is for spectators to urge riders on with messages written on the road. Nike is giving people the chance to go to WearYellow.com or Tweet or text their 40-character messages to be chalked on the roads in France. You’re asked to complete the sentence “It’s about…” They’ll then get an email with a link to a map showing where their message was chalked. Nike says it’ll chalk over 100,000 messages. I’m waiting to see where in France my message will live: “It’s about never giving up.”