May 28, 2008

The Cost of Interaction

Posted in Web tagged , , , , at 3:58 pm by Andrew McMillen

I haven’t experienced a more concrete example of the low cost of interaction on the web than two responses I received from people that I recently wrote about. Ryan Holiday and Gary Vaynerchuk both replied soon after I published my posts. I shouldn’t be amazed by this, but I am.

An orthodox branding approach, when considering your name as a brand, is to create a blog and only interact with those who visit. This is the blogging equivalent of spawn camping. This is also a poor marketing tactic if your goal is to create and interact with a readership.

Unorthodox branding is to monitor mentions of your name across the web. It’s to pursue and engage those who have taken the time to share their thoughts about you. It’s recognising that this is word-of-mouth marketing in action.

We all have the opportunity to appear benevolent, and invested in the success of our personal branding. It’s acknowledging that you’re being spoken about online, and maintaining a dialogue with these people. It doesn’t matter whether they’re speaking positively or negatively about you. That you’re willing to take the time to engage, to create a dialogue, signals your investment in personal impression management. Few achieve notoriety for being an asshole – and even he’s embracing openness now.

I experienced some negative personal feedback earlier in the month. I wrote a review about an Alchemist show that I attended. Within a few days, it was picked up by the local metal community. The discussion made a few small waves before I became aware of it. You can read about it here. My response was concise, accurate and timely.

You could argue that it’s only a bunch of metalheads – who cares? That response momentarily crossed my mind as I read through the initial discussion. However – I care. It’s my name. It’s my brand, far beyond my responsibilities as a music critic. I will outgrow that role: my name will endure.

Nobody is more invested in the creation and maintenance of your brand than you are. If you’re not going to market yourself, it’s rare that others will do it for you. You’re your best marketer.

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May 22, 2008

Content Analysis: Winelibrary TV

Posted in Videos tagged , , , , , at 11:19 pm by Andrew McMillen

I was linked to WinelibraryTV through Jeff Jarvis’ blog. He wrote a short article on The Guardian‘s site describing the site and its owner, Gary Vaynerchuk. A few words from Jarvis:

Before you read this, do me a favour and go to WinelibraryTV.com. Be prepared for a jet engine in your face. That blast of personality is Gary Vaynerchuk, a 32-year-old merchant who has made more than 450 daily wine-tasting shows online – just him, his glass and a spit bucket.

The show, with its audience of 80,000 a day, has transformed Vaynerchuk into a cultural phenomenon. He has appeared on two of the biggest TV talk shows in the US and in the Wall Street Journal and Time. His book, Gary Vaynerchuk’s 101 Wines, comes out next week and the day he announced this on his internet show, his fans immediately pushed it to No 36 on Amazon’s bestseller list. He has a Hollywood agent. He makes motivational speeches. And he has only just begun. Gary Vaynerchuk is on his way to becoming the online Oprah.

After reading this intriguing introduction, I immediately load the site. The episode at the top of the page is #467 – Some Wines At The Blue Ribbon. Not exactly the most descriptive of titles. I click play on the FlashBlock logo, and find that the video’s running length is sixteen minutes. This is an immediate turn-off, as I tend to avoid watching any streaming video longer than two minutes unless it’s attached to a convincing recommendation. I sure hope Gary thanked Jeff for his effective word-of-mouth marketing.

Jarvis wasn’t kidding about the jet-engine personality: Vaynerchuk is entertaining from the first second. His enthusiasm and sense of humour is immediately apparent. I’m surprised and impressed that his energy and charisma hasn’t dulled after 467 episodes. I watch with a smile on my face as Vaynerchuk talks rings around himself, but constantly returns to several central themes within the episode. It’s almost as if the actual wine-tasting process is secondary to the cult of personality that surrounds the site’s subject; intentional or not, this is the impression that I get.

Vaynerchuk’s concluding question of the day asks his viewers to respond with their favourite wine bar in the US. He specifically addresses casual viewers who are happy to watch without interacting:

Lurkers! Please answer! You’ve been watching my show and you haven’t left a comment! Can you do that? It’s free! Give it to me! Please! Because you, with a little bit of me, we’re changing the wine world. Whether they like it – or not.

A cute conclusion, and one that’s produced a reasonable return: at the time of writing, the video had 18,000 views and 250 text comments. Further exploration of the site reveals a spreadsheet maintained by a Vayniac that contains exhaustive data summaries on every wine Vaynerchuk has sampled – though it only contained the highest rating wine for this episode, wherein he tasted three.

Vaynerchuk’s impact on my life was non-existent until I decided on a whim to give him a chance after an impersonal recommendation from a person I respect. I’ve now become a casual devotee of the man. His blog contains short videos that discuss business development, marketing, and personal ethics. What’s remarkable about the site’s content is that I only have a passing interest in wine, yet I’m now compelled to watch and interact with Vaynerchuk.

This dude is the personification of the “good, open, free” edgeconomy model. His enthusiasm and winning attitude is contagious. I have a feeling that I’ll be following him for a long time.

May 18, 2008

Taxing The Piss

Posted in Life tagged , , , at 5:26 pm by Andrew McMillen

“We don’t think there’ll be a simple change-over, because we know many young people simply don’t like the taste of beer, or straight alcohol,” she said.

“That will be a good thing if it delays some people from having their first introduction to alcohol, or if it puts them off drinking for a number of years. That will have a positive impact.”

This is the dumbest bunch of bullshit I’ve read in a week. Can you say, “prolonging the inevitable”?

The Australian Government intends to increase tax on “alcopops” by 70%, as this will supposedly “help to cut teenage drinking, because the so-called alcopops disguise the taste of alcohol”. Up until this point I’d been rather blasé about the issue, but the truckload of bullshit that Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon wheeled into the discussion has prompted me to respond.

People like to get drunk, regardless of age. It’s been glorified throughout history. It’s glorified everywhere you look in the media. Getting drunk is fun. More importantly, getting drunk teaches individuals to become responsible for their actions.

My introduction to binge drinking occurred at around age 15, three years before our national legal drinking age allows a person to buy, drink or possess alcohol. It took me around a dozen violent vomit explosions and killer hangovers to realise that my actions, however fun they were at the time, had consequences. I learned that drinking a lot is fun, but it fucks you over. I learned personal accountability for my actions.

My experience was not uncommon. Beginning binge drinking at the age of 15 was later than a lot of my peers at the time. It’s what teenagers do – experiment, participate in risk-taking behavior, and learn. There’s a small percentage who don’t learn, and who are thus plagued with problems throughout their lives. That’s another discussion entirely, though.

“Cask wine is the drink of choice for someone who wants to get hammered,” Mr Smeaton told AAP.

He’s not wrong. From experience, goon is the cheapest, most popular decision for the discerning binge drinker.

“We need to increase the tax on things like full-strength beer, on cask wine, and on port.”

Okay, now he’s wrong. Increasing taxes in an attempt to quell an activity that members of society knowingly participate in is an act of social engineering, in its simplest form. And it’s not going to work.

People are going to binge drink, regardless. Alcopop sales will plummet, and both goon and straight alcoholic spirit sales will soar. And then they’ll attempt to implement further tax hikes, and then where does it end?

Look. Taxing the shit out of an activity isn’t going to reduce its prevalence. I doubt that the popularity of binge drinking has increased in any other manner than proportionately. There’s more kids than ever, so there’s more of them that binge drink. This has gone on for generations. Hell, wasn’t rum used as a currency during colonial times?

The act of binge drinking in ingrained into our national culture. Logically, we should teach kids how to handle alcohol from an early age. I don’t mean teaching as in the bullshit hour-a-week program that they probably still receive in early high school, as I did. I mean, really raise, address and discuss the issue with kids from a young age.

Tax ain’t the answer. You can’t throw money at – or in this case, take money from – an issue to make it go away. The problem’s deeper than that, and it deserves a reasonable, rational response.

May 17, 2008

An Autumn Storm

Posted in Life tagged , , at 6:02 pm by Andrew McMillen

I’d spent several hours interacting with media. A casual glance out the window at 3.45pm revealed a dark storm front approaching from the west.

I pulled up the Bureau of Meteorology website. Their rainfall radars confirmed as much as I assumed: wet weather was on its way. I sent the link to my housemate, and went outside to take my dry clothes off the washing line.

It took an hour for the ominous clouds to break. As soon as they did, I shut down my computer and stepped outside to sit and watch the show.

After spending six hours immersed in the realm of technology, it was utterly disarming to witness the storm pass across and dump its contents on the earth. Ignore the manmade caricature of ‘mother nature’: this was the natural environment reacting to impossibly complex calculations and connections occurring in the atmosphere kilometres overhead.

My thoughts turned to the nature of the technology-based world in which we live. Realistically, power surges resulting from electrical storms have the potential to destroy the entire interconnected network.

In August 2005, I read in real-time what later became the Survival of New Orleans weblog. It consisted of live updates from the Directnic office in central New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and the resultant floods and disorder. It’s been preserved here for posterity, and it has its own Wikipedia article. It’s one of the most memorable blogs I’ve ever read, and it remains a fascinating study concerning human response to disaster.

The storm that I watched in silent awe passed within twenty minutes. As the rain subsided, a rainbow was left in its wake. Lightning and thunder rolled around the suburb while the last remaining sunlight of the day lit the cloud mass. This was a truly exciting experience that I relished. I pity those who chose to remain inside, oblivious.

Contrast the two shots below, which were taken at 4pm and 5pm respectively.

Indooroopilly pre-storm, 17 May 2008 Indooroopilly post-storm, 17 May 2008

A Google Reader Shortcoming

Posted in Web tagged , , , , at 1:34 pm by Andrew McMillen

You click to subscribe to a site.

If Google Reader is selected as your RSS reader by default, as it is on my PC, you’ll encounter the screen where you can choose to add the feed to your iGoogle homepage, or to the Reader itself.

On that screen, there should be an opportunity for the user to rename the feed subscription. Instead, I have to click Manage Subscriptions within the left pane , scroll down to find the feed, and rename it manually.

I just subscribed to a site named Social Marketing Journal. It’s written by a guy named Nick Stamoulis. I found his site linked from a TechCrunch discussion about social network data portability, which morphed into a semantic argument between Robert Scoble and Mike Arrington that I soon lost interest in.

I don’t know Nick Stamoulis. I wasn’t aware that he existed until five minutes ago. But I’ve decided that his writing is worthy of my time and my subscription.

My subscriptions in Google Reader are named by blog author where possible, instead of blog title. It’s frustrating when I have to search within a site’s content to discover the author’s name. “This blog sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics” is a descriptive title, sure, but it’s long-winded and, to me, irrelevant. What’s relevant to me is the name of its author, Grant McCracken.

We live in an age where the production and dissemination of information is more decentralised than ever before. Knowledge distribution is no longer controlled from inside a walled garden, as it was when the words of newspaper journalists, authors and academics were singular voices of expertise. The walls have come down; the system has exploded. An individual has more information available at his fingertips than he could reasonably attempt to engage with in a lifetime, let alone analyse and interpret.

This is the reason why I value a blog author’s name more than their blog title. When you’re falling down a bottomless pit of knowledge, noise creeps. If the audience reading your message hesitates for even a moment, your voice is lost amid the din.

This is why Social Marketing Journal means less to me than Nick Stamoulis does. The medium is the message; without an author, a page has no content.

Names will outlast titles. Your name is your brand. You should wear it with pride.

May 16, 2008

Instant Gratification

Posted in Web tagged , , , at 8:40 pm by Andrew McMillen

There is nothing on the internet more immediately satisfying than a brief, easily digestible slice of content that appeals to your sense of humour. You can sit back and stew on wellwritten Wikipedia articles. You can invest time writing thought-provoking entries on your blog. You can partake in meaningful entrepreneurial discussion.

Or you can create a ridiculous image that results in uncontrollable laughter. This is the latest I’ve seen. Instant gratification.

FailDogs is a recent emergent player in the field of instant gratification internet content. The site consists entirely of dogs photographed in amusing poses, accompanied by the word FAIL inconspicuously plastered onto the image. The site’s run by Ryan Holiday, who I linked above. There’s no advertisements. The only content is photos of dogs failing. It’s hilarious, and instantly gratifying.

There exists a huge market for light entertainment online. Much of it is sporadically distributed across the web, as in the Locke / Slowpoke example above. Repositories containing extensive collections of these small slices of content have become profitable since the idea was first conceived – by whom, I’m not certain. If you know, let me know.

In many situations, there will exist opportunities where instant gratification is a viable outcome. Discretion is key.

May 14, 2008

On Luck

Posted in Life tagged , , at 8:49 pm by Andrew McMillen

A Ben Corman post reminded me of an article I read within the last month – unfortunately, my Googling skills seem to have failed me, so I can’t link it.

The article described a world-renowned musician at a dinner party. A woman introduced herself, and told him that she’d “give anything to play like him”. He immediately responded: “no, you wouldn’t”. She wouldn’t devote the thousands of hours of practice in social isolation to master the craft, as he had.

People always want the quick fix; they don’t want to put in the required effort to be truly knowledgeable, or talented, or athletic, or popular, or rich, or all of those things. Logically, that’s why people are so enamoured with the notion of celebrity: so that they can live vicariously through the lives of the rich, the athletic, the talented – without having to change a damn thing about themselves.

I hear that L word thrown around a lot, too. Sometimes at me, for the small achievements I’ve made and opportunities I’ve undertaken. But it’s not luck. Luck is very rarely the reason why intelligent people end up in enviable – ‘lucky’ – positions. It seems that “you’re lucky” is the automatic response to news of any significantly positive personal development.

A fork in the road. You can spend the rest of your life wallowing in “could have”, “should have” and “would have”, wishing that you were someone else. Or you can take action, and work toward becoming the person you wish you could become.

In life, there’s very rarely a quick fix. If you want to achieve something significant – something that’ll be perceived as ‘lucky’ by less motivated people – you have to work hard for it.

So, which road will it be?

Customer, Serviced #2

Posted in Life tagged , , , , at 3:08 pm by Andrew McMillen

Where?: Michelli’s Cafe, 448 Boundary Street, Spring Hill QLD 4004

When?: May 12 2008, 2pm

Who?: Male salesclerk/food handler

What?: I made the snap decision to buy lunch from this store, which is on the corner of a busy street. Though I’d passed it a few times without much interest, I decided that today was the day. I noticed that there was a pre-made egg and lettuce sandwich sitting in the window. I approached the cashier – a young girl – and made my request. She started toward the pre-packaged sandwich, before I told her that I wanted it fresh. She gave me an inkling of a disgusted expression, before ringing it up and charging me $4.50. I paid her, then stood back while she served the next person in line.

Throughout this interaction, a talkative Greek man behind the counter had been chatting to a customer as he made a kebab. Upon wishing him a great day, his attention turned to me.

“What can I get for you mate?”
“I just paid for an egg and lettuce sandwich.”
(he gives a brief glance to the inept register girl)
“An egg and lettuce sandwich, certainly mate.”

He immediately removed any negative thoughts I might have been having about the cafe’s so-far poor service by engaging me in conversation. While he expertly and swiftly prepared my sandwich, we talked about Brisbane, and I mentioned that I’d moved down from Bundaberg a few years ago. He listened, before telling me that when he was my age – I told him that I’m 20 – he moved from his small Greek town to Athens. “The big smoke!”

While spreading mayonnaise onto my wholegrain bread, he remarked that this was the “best mayonnaise in Australia mate!”. By this stage I’d assumed him to be the owner of the cafe. His humour and genuine enthusiasm resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable customer service experience. I got the impression that he treated every customer with the same respect.

As he wrapped my sandwich in paper, he told me to enjoy my day, and to try his grilled chicken burgers the next time I came back. “We’ve got Portuguese seasoning, mate, it’s to die for!”

Result: A relaxed customer who’ll happily return to try the grilled chicken burger. And aside from my poor choice of curried instead of normal mashed egg, the sandwich was great. Especially the mayonnaise.

May 12, 2008

Customer, Serviced #1

Posted in Life tagged , , , , , at 9:57 pm by Andrew McMillen

Where?: Australia Post Office, 448 Boundary Street, Spring Hill QLD 4004, Australia.

When?: May 6 2008, 12pm

Who?: Female salesclerk (name to be confirmed)

What?: I made the mistake of visiting the store during the lunchtime rush. The line was fifteen people-deep; the automatic door stayed open due to people standing under the sensor. I’d been uncharacteristically caught without phone credit, and as I was attending a show with a friend that night, I had to recharge to reply to his logistical query.

Cue fifteen solid minutes of queuing. I silently lamented my lack of foresight to bring reading material, though I hadn’t anticipated the store to be this busy. I passed my eyes across crappy pink stationary a dozen times, and attempted – along with everyone else in the store – to block out the moronic blonde yapping on her phone. “Anyway, I’ve gotta go, everyone in the store can hear me, haha.” No shit.

By the time I’m served, I’m understandably a little annoyed. I’m a patient dude, but I’d found Australia Post’s customer service to be rather lacking up until this point. It was as if they’d scheduled their employees’ lunch breaks at the same time every other worker in the suburb was on their half-hour, and attempting to post mail – or buy credit.

I gave a cursory “g’day” to the female salesclerk and requested my service. She complied silently for a moment, before asking – apropos of nothing – how my weekend was. I was taken aback, as the tone in which she asked the question conveyed that she would actually give a shit about my response.

I responded that I’d had a great weekend; I spent Saturday with my parents and brother, and we all went to a concert together. Though, I neglected to mention a largely unfavourable event I attended on Sunday.

She enquired about which band we saw – she didn’t know them – then told me that she was glad that I’d enjoyed my weekend. I politely enquired about hers, and she related some brief details about spending time with her kids.

This exchange took place while she scanned the bPay barcode and waited for the system to produce a serial number for me to enter into Optus’ prepaid system. The line was still fifteen-deep behind me as we shared a friendly moment together within earshot of every other customer.

What’s remarkable about this customer service experience is that the salesclerk turned an unhappy, impatient person into a happy, smiling customer purely by ignoring the outside noise – fifteen equally unhappy, impatient customers – and listening. In an edgeconomy, listen + respect x trust = loyalty and partnership.

Yes, this was just one salesclerk putting themselves second and the customer first. I’ll admit, it’s a step to extrapolate one man purchasing phone credit at a corner post office to an entire economic model.

But – imagine if every customer was treated with equal respect. Imagine if every customer was listened to. Imagine if every solution was customised to fit each individual need. That’s the future we’re aiming for. If we’re not, we should be.

“The goal of every single interaction should be to upgrade the brand’s value in the eye of the caller and to learn something about how to do better, not to get the caller to just go away.” – Seth Godin discussing telephone customer service, but his message is equally applicable in any related situation.

Result?: I left the store with a smile on my face. Genuinely nice people are difficult to find – I don’t claim to be one, either – which is why it’s disarming and refreshing to encounter them.

May 8, 2008

Happiness In Slavery

Posted in Music tagged , at 12:12 am by Andrew McMillen

My eyebrows shot up in surprise and a huge grin spread across my face when I read this news today. Nine Inch Nails released a new album digitally for free overnight.

“Thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years — this one’s on me.” – Trent Reznor

Best of all, this is a NIN album featuring performances by Josh Freese, Alessandro Cortini and Robin Finck. Instumental album Ghosts I-IV was enjoyable and all – I find it to be a great soundtrack for study and writing – but this is the band in their industrial-rock element. Sure, Mr Cynic, they may effectively be Year Zero b-sides, and I guess time will tell on that one as fans and journalists scramble for information, but it’s still a fucking cool thing to do.

There’s several aspects of this release to discuss, probably ground that’s already been trod when Reznor dropped Ghosts in March. I wouldn’t know, because I didn’t follow the release beyond the download link on nin.com.

Obviously not just any artist could do this; it’s a big deal because NIN are popular, and Reznor is vocally opposed to conventional music distribution models (for good reason). I’m more drawn to the element of surprise that surrounded The Slip‘s release. Shit like this only makes me appreciate an artist’s music more, since I know that they care about their fans. I’m more inclined than ever to attend their shows and buy physical copies of their music.

Reznor is a fucking visionary. His actions, and the actions of Radiohead, have set the tone for music distribution models to follow in the future. There’s the hurdle as to how unknown artists can benefit from the freely distributing their work without restrictions, but once that’s figured out, the whole game changes. I actively dislike Radiohead, but l still downloaded and listened to In Rainbows a couple of times last year purely because I could.

I suppose that, if anything, the barrier to entry – or more aptly, the barrier to success – for musicians will raise a little as a result of these tactics. Yeah, the barriers went down once people could record and upload their music onto MySpace, but for new artists now, it’ll be a matter of saving enough cash to stay afloat while their work slowly spreads throughout the interwebs. From there, they’ll require a manager to book tours so that they can start making money via ticket and merch sales – which have always been the primary moneymakers for everyone less than your U2s and Eagles.

Clearly I haven’t fully developed these thoughts. I enjoy musing on developments within the industry that I gain so much satisfaction from. But even that statement is flawed; it’s not the industry that satisfies me, but the artists within who produce the music that I consume.

In a strange coincidence, I decided to listen to Nine Inch Nails on a whim yesterday evening, while walking through Brisbane City to attend a show. First Discipline, and then Broken, their first EP. Little did I know that Trent Reznor was merely hours away from delivering another significant shock to the musical landscape.

Slave screams / he spends his life learning conformity
Slave screams / he claims he has his own identity
Slave screams / he’s going to cause the system to fall
Slave screams / but he’s glad to be chained to that wall

Happiness In Slavery, 1992.

Discounting the last line, it’d be poetic if Reznor was referring to himself, and the impact he’d have, in that sixteen-year old song.

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