May 2006

Why Your Big Agency Won’t Get Social Media

Allow me to play Umair Haque for a moment and extend some of the thoughts jumpstarted by Mike Manuel’s excellent discussion of what he termed the ‘social media services gap‘ and the ‘social media services billing gap‘. I am in complete agreement with Mike, John Wagner, Jeremy Pepper and David Parmet when they note that it’s not about technology displacing solid approaches to PR.

I have decided this morning that I’m not going along with the idea that this is simply an evolutionary movement. I think there is a radical shift coming in outsourced communications services brought on by

  • new tools and dispersed, on-the-fly team building processes
  • new consumer expectations about attention and how companies should talk with them
  • decreasing influence and strategy decay of the mass media that power the traditional agency model
  • disappearance of the ‘gatekeeper’ value traditionally merchandised by PR shops
  • the incongruence of the agency model with the need to meld strategy with tactics in the form of nimble teams that quickly work across a host of edges
  • the inertia that must be overcome to retool large organizations to meet these new environmental challenges, and finally
  • the increasing ease-of-use of media creation tools for video, audio, playlist creation, tagging, etc.

Umair, Jeff Jarvis, Scott Karp, Chris Anderson, Om Malik, Rafat Ali and many others are charting the strategy decay and subsequent contortions of tradtional media. What has not been as effectively mapped is the impact that decay has on other industries that are attached, remora-like, to newspapers, broadcast tv, publishing, and so on. Whenever we see a ‘new’ media approach from an advertising, media buying or PR shop, it typically involves shoe-horning some sort of branded message into a novel, tech-enabled channel.

“Let’s repurpose our ads for mobile phones.”

“Why don’t we make extreme ads to play inside video games?”

“Let’s make it easy to tag our press releases with delicious.”

“Let’s put out our releases via RSS.”

“How can we get our stuff into wikipedia?”
“Let’s do that wild posting thing with these mass produced flyers and our ’street teams’.”

“Let’s get all the bloggers to talk about our new product launch.”

“Let’s do a blog for our [consumer product] using [some brand mascot].”

Not all bad ideas, but all misdirected and a bit ham-fisted because these organizations are built to be in the content business. They exist to develop and distribute messages. In the world of social media, content isn’t king. Connection is king. We are all bringing our own share of content to the party now, and companies have to play a much different role in the coming conversations about their products and services.

Note specifically that I’m mentioning the outsourcing of the services as undergoing this sea change. PR will be more important than ever. How you interact with the multiple conversational edges that impact your business will be huge. I think PR has the odd mix of analysis, synthesis and quick response skills to thrive in this new environment. But not agencies as they are currently constructed.

Here are my observations from being around all sizes of ad & PR shops for the past nine years:

  • Agencies are economically rewarding for those who own them; most use their agency experience for training until they can’t ignore the opportunity cost to go client side or start their own consulting practice.
  • However large the agency, there is almost always a small bomb-squad of talent that creates value across the agency accounts. Yes, you need resources for large production, etc, but when it comes to the core, creative things agencies do, it’s pretty much my ten against your ten.
  • The profitibility of PR shops is built on charging you three times the amount they pay staffers; If I run an agency, I’m incented to sell off-the-shelf media relations programs that I can largely staff with junior workers, paying them roughly $30/hour and billing you from $100/hr and up. I also make money on the senior staffers I charge you a crazy amount for ($175 to $300/hour for), but it’s harder for me to keep those folks around, given their opportunity cost. Plus, the margins aren’t as great for me.
  • Lots of shops also make money on upcharging you for services they sub out that you can much more easily source and manage yourself now.
  • Agencies have always been self-conscious about how to demonstrate value for their outsized fees, which will only get more difficult as the business becomes less about creating content. They have less of a black box from which to pull ‘proprietary’ stuff.
  • The beasts need feeding. This could be a whole post, but at some point, the boutique firm you loved as nimble and innovative gets a certain mass and has to start acting just like all the other large shops — taking on shlocky work, underpaying staffers, mailing it in on certain accounts, etc. It’s not the people, it’s the model. (No, I don’t ultimately think Crispin will be different. God love em.)

“No, way,” you are saying. “Edelman has a blog. They hired Phil Gomes and Steve Rubel. Weber hired Jeremy. MMW has Tom Biro. Constantin Basturea went to a big shop, too.”

Great. I think the world of all these folks and their chops, but they are still isolated specialists within much larger organizations. People don’t scale, and, as I’ve said, the economic model of these agencies precludes them from searching out and hiring 20 Phil Gomes. Much more likely that a Phil Gomes will go off and find five folks like himself and trade on his big brand knowledge to help a smaller client roster find its footing when it comes to social media. (I’m just speaking hypothetically here. As far I know, Phil loves his new digs.) He can also do that faster and more effectively outside the firm, even than if he operated as a startup within the agency structure. As Edelman left Syndicate the other day, he noted that he was on his way to a meeting to stir things up. Only about 15% of his staffers were into social media, he said, and that was just too few. I liked what he had to say. I just think he has an uphill battle to remake his company.
It will become increasingly difficult to sell ‘access’ services. Access to media buyers & publishers, access to journalists and analysts, access to company spokespeople. (You know how agencies tremble when the clients ask for their media lists?) In our new world, people are increasingly accessible. Already, savvy startups are doing DIY PR via blogs and direct communications that is effective for their early stage needs. There is a whole other post to do on community marketing, and I’m not trying to touch that here.

Instead, communication people will come to be valued by how they improve conversations. Not start or manage them. Improve them. Plus them up. That will take a more seasoned practitioner working in closer concert with internal folks. Thus, I think the tendency will be towards smarter communication directors and managers rolling their own teams to form ad hoc social media bomb squads, and outsourcing very specific ad creation skills (and not strategy & messaging) to ad shops. (This is the Sergio Zyman approach.) Already the market for making elaborate :30 films and holding on to the expensive talent this archaic activity requires must be seeing strains. If not, it will.

In a YouTube world, speed, savvy and responsiveness of our communications (video included) will trump high-production values and the fantasy of a tightly integrated campaign.

Even scarier, imagine trying to salvage a business based on delivering content and allocating attention through a proprietary channel:

  • Bacon’s
  • PR Newswire
  • BusinessWire
  • Satellite Media Tour Companies

These guys are doomed in a hyperconnected, niched world, the same way that trade media are unless they remake themselves. That world isn’t here today, but it will be. What are you doing to get ready?

Brian Oberkirch | 12:55 pm | [14] Comments Tags: Corporate Blogging , Blogs , pr2.0 , socialmedia , cluetrain , publicrelations , agencies , advertising , umairhaque , edelman , philgomes , steverubel , jeremypepper , davidparmet , mikemanuel | Bookmark on | Digg It

SocialMail: Feed Me Email

Picture 11.png

Alexander & I have been working a lot lately on all the Big in Japan tools. Lots of changes to PodServe, revamping FrankenFeed in Rails and with the new user experience tweaks we’ve been doing to all the tools, and launching the remaining tools. (Note to self: doing ten apps at once is not a good idea.) We posted up SocialMail for a bit of feedback, and we’re getting it.

What’s SocialMail? It’s a tool that lets you get any email as an RSS feed. Now, for non-geeks, that means you don’t have to keep piling on your Inbox just to stay connected with people. For me, and perhaps for many of you, email is just not as effective anymore. If I’m out for half a day, my email piles up so much that I’m not as effective in paying attention to things. I’m managing most of my projects through various Basecamps, and getting feed updates on new actions and such.

You can use SocialMail to:

  • Forward any email to an RSS feed, tracking it in your newsreader or republishing to a blog. For instance, it might be handy to have all support@ emails republished to an internal blog where your team has better access to them.
  • Create non-managed email discussion lists. Want to have a quick talk about Bay Area Hiking? Create and let everyone interested subscribe to that feed. They don’t have to give you an email address, nor do they have to unsub and manage their participation when they tire of the conversation. They simply unsub from the feed. Then, again, you can republish the information to a blog, etc., making it more searchable, indexable, easier to interact with than typical email.
  • Share common addresses. Instead of having one person responsible for sales@ or support@, create a SocialMail feed and let everyone in the company have access to these public emails.

I’m sure our users will come up with many more things, but we’ve started the ball rolling. Read Alexander’s write-up or check out what TechMeme is tracking on this new tool.

Brian Oberkirch | 7:48 am | No Comments Tags: Blogs , Feeds , rss , socialmail , biginjapan , alexmuse , webfeed , syndication , email | Bookmark on | Digg It

A Finger Pointing at the Moon Is Not the Moon

Naturally, Tim O’Reilly’s post on all the hubub over the service mark for that phrase is thorough, nuanced, human, etc. Sure, his company has a right to staking out the term relative to the successful conferences that have helped carry the meme forward. The gap is between what they can do and what they should do. If legal action contravenes the vibe & ethos of the thing described, then it’s a hollow victory, no?

No matter. As we said the other day, this is all a distraction from making great stuff & using our powers to help people make better connections. The Web community is large and does contain multitudes. Do we contradict ourselves sometimes? Very well then. The very nature of things shifting to the edge means that it will be harder to name the thing, to describe it simply. To contain it. Do your homework. Live in the communities. Soak it in & listen. What is happening will not be something you can subscribe to in one feed, read one overview, watch one channel.

The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. And if you are paying attention, you’ll see people all over the world pointing at the new stuff on the Web. Each his own Adam naming the animals.

Brian Oberkirch | 7:09 am | 1 Comment Tags: Web 2.0 , Blogs , timoreilly | Bookmark on | Digg It


We are huge fans of Valleyschwag. (In fact, I have just checked my mailbox three times this afternoon hoping that they made a rare double trip to my house just to drop off my new t shirts.) This edition of the the schwag-by-mail club includes a Big in Japan shirt we did: summer versions of the Mashup t-shirts we did around the Web 2.0 show last year.  As seen on actual rockstars like Nivi.

Brian Oberkirch | 5:09 pm | 1 Comment Tags: Blogs , biginjapan , biggu , valleyschwag , tshirt , mashup , nivi | Bookmark on | Digg It

Biggu tool update: SocialMail

Brian is going to do a full post on SocialMail, but I thought I would mention that it was turned on last week. For those of you who use various Big in Japan tools, you will note that SocialMail is the first example of our new login and footer design (no more sidebar). All of the tools will adopt these two SocialMail features. Otherwise check it out…


Frederic Tubale | 5:54 pm | No Comments Tags: Blogs , rss , socialmail , podcast , feed , biginjapan , biggu | Bookmark on | Digg It

Hurricane Season Starts Next Week

I did a post on the pending hurricane season on the Gulf Coast over at the Earthling blog. My pal Dave Coustan passed the mic, kindly. Thanks, Dave.

Brian Oberkirch | 7:32 pm | No Comments Tags: Blogs , recovery2 , slidell , earthling , davecoustan | Bookmark on | Digg It

Web 2.Oh, Yeaahh!!!

Mule has the definitive response.

Brian Oberkirch | 5:21 pm | No Comments Tags: Web 2.0 , muledesign | Bookmark on | Digg It

Weblogs Worknotes: Union Square Ventures

Brad Burnham

Fred Wilson

Charlie O'Donnell

(Brad Burnham, Fred Wilson, Charlie O’Donnell) 

After wrapping up the social media sessions at Ketchum and grabbing a burger with Amit Gupta at the Shake Shack, I walked over to the offices of Union Square Ventures and talked with Fred Wilson, Brad Burnham and Charlie O’Donnell. We talked about what blogging and social media have done for their deal flow and visibility, about some of their portfolio companies like Feedburner and delicious, and about what the new investment environment is like for the types of companies they are interested in: technology-enabled services firms.

Listen to the podcast:

Brian Oberkirch | 5:14 pm | No Comments Tags: Web 2.0 , Weblogs Work , Blogs , brianoberkirch , weblogsworknotes , unionsquareventures , charlieodonnell , fredwilson , avc , venturecapital , bradburnham , feedburner , delicious , siteadvisor | Bookmark on | Digg It

Holiday to-do: the Nick Carr bot

Maybe someone will have some free time over the weekend and bang out a Nick Carr bot that will automagically scan TechMeme and gin up a post that says “Nuh Uh,” and then goes on to use blog technology to make an outrageous, attention-getting statement about how the blogmobs make outrageous, attention-getting statements. Or you could just grill something & sit outside with your pals sharing a Pimm’s, Mojito or Tom Collins or five. We all have our own private Idaho.

Brian Oberkirch | 11:50 am | [5] Comments Tags: lazyweb , nickcarr | Bookmark on | Digg It

Web 2.0 Is Dead to Me

I was already tired of the phrase and we had been phasing out references in all the Big in Japan tools. With all the lawyer tomfoolery yesterday, though, I’ve come to the Roberto Duran point: no mas.

It’s outlived its usefulness, and, as these things tend to go, with money involved people start acting crazy. So, we’re not using that phrase anymore. We’re totally stoked about what’s going on in the Web & in social media. All our friends are still making great stuff. We just won’t let this phrase be the signpost for the conversation.

Brian Oberkirch | 7:31 am | 1 Comment Tags: Blogs | Bookmark on | Digg It

Weblogs Worknotes: David Weinberger

Dr. Weinberger

Surely the Syndicate NYC highlight for me was getting to meet & talk with David Weinberger, our foremost philosopher of connection. David is the sharp, funny blogger at the Journal of Hyperlinked Organization (JOHO to you & me), author of Small Pieces, Loosely Joined, and, oh yeah, he helped write this little thing called the Cluetrain Manifesto. We talked about his new project, Everything Is Miscellaneous, and a bit about how Cluetrain has fared over the years.

Listen to the podcast:

Brian Oberkirch | 11:09 am | No Comments Tags: Weblogs Work , Blogs , syndicate , syndicatenyc , brianoberkirch , davidweinberger , cluetrainmanifesto , weblogsworknotes | Bookmark on | Digg It

WebVisions in Portland

Super stoked to be speaking at WebVisions  2006 in Portland this July.  Not only are there going to be rockstar speakers I’m looking forward to talking with (like our pal Dan Cederholm, MeFi man Matt Haughey, Matt Mullenweg, Derek Powazek, Andy Baio, Tom Vander Wal and, many, many more), but it’s in Portland, a place I love.  (Early bird admission is super cheap — only $125 through June 30.)
Kit Seeborg has put together a great panel:  Let Go, Jump In:  Community Marketing Strategies for Empowered Customers. The lineup:  me, Kit, Dan Saffer of Adaptive Path, and Jeremiah Owyang, social media evangelist from Hitachi.  Awesome.

Learn more about WebVisions 2006.  Check out the show blog.

Brian Oberkirch | 8:59 am | 1 Comment Tags: Weblogs Work , Blogs , adaptivepath , webvisions2006 , dansaffer , jeremiahowyang , kitseeborg , communitymarketing , brianoberkirch | Bookmark on | Digg It

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