Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Strategy for Authenticity

On Monday, I had the opportunity to attend O’Reilly’s Twitter Boot Camp (#otbc if you’d like to check it out on Twitter) in New York City. Program Chair Kat Meyer had assembled a fantastic group of thought leaders, power-users, marketing and publicity experts, and analytical types to explore how this terrific little app can be used for business. Each of them, whether speaking individually or gathered as panels, imparted an enormous amount of information about the business opportunities that exist for smart Twitter users. The crew and cast put on a perfectly good conference. So why did I come away from Twitter Boot Camp feeling depressed?

The program started out harmlessly enough with some warm ups from Tim O’Reilly, Steve Rubel (“Director of Insight” of Edelman Digital) and the ubiquitous Tony Hsieh of Zappo’s. The overall message was one of the power of the medium…one that most of the 200 or so attendees had already embraced.

This was followed by Carri Bugbee (who tweeted for one of the characters in “Mad Men”), Megan Calhoun of TwitterMoms, and Eric Mueller of FlashlightWorthy (who provided the astonishing statistic that nearly 80% of the hits to flashlightworthybooks.com come directly from Twitter). Despite the fact that Ms Bugbee had tweeted as someone else (in this case, a fictional character) the message from this group, reinforcing that delivered by the earlier speakers,was all about delivering value to the community via your tweetstream and maintaining authenticity.

Things began to turn dark somewhere during the panels on “Logistics of Integrating Twitter into Existing PR and Marketing” (the name should have been a clue), Lunch, and “Twitter and the Rules of Engagement” as the theme moved inexorably from authenticity to strategy and monetization. At this point a big portion of the audience (many of whom were taking notes furiously in spiral notebooks...possibly because they were unaware that the stream of tweets from the room was searchable….possibly because there were exactly zero electrical outlets in a room full of laptop users) leaned forward awaiting the secret which, it turns out,is: “You can’t just be authentic….you have to have a strategy for being authentic and you must use all sorts of metrics to assess whether you are a successful Tweep.” As an aside,the purveyors of these metrics openly admit that they are in their infancy and by implication deeply flawed measures.(I should point out that Marla Erwin, who tweets for Whole Foods, was an outstanding exception in these panels. Marla and Whole Foods are as authentic as they come and she rocked the house.)

Suddenly, corporate-speak prevailed and we began leveraging brands, monetizing communication assets, and determining return on investment from twittering in the blink of a tweet. Amy Martin of Digital Royalty (and apparently the personal twitter strategist behind @THE_REAL_SHAQ) spoke of “planning spontaneous twitter events” for Shaquille O’Neal. Ted Murphy of IZEA tried to rationalize the appeal of so-called ‘sponsored tweets’ (Hey…Did you know TNT Knows Drama?) by saying it was fine to take money for tweets as long as you stay authentic to your community of followers, and Mike Volpe of Hubspot who along with Eric Peterson of Twitalyzer shared their algorithm-based analyses of various twitterers’ performance in the twitterverse. (Interestingly, their respective algorithms, in at least a couple of cases mentioned, produced completely opposite ‘grades’ for individuals being scored with both tools. Ah, science) By the time we reached the Afternoon Break, all notions of authenticity were out the door and the speakers and most in the audience were all about monetizing this mutha’.

Now I’m not naïve and I understand that marketing and publicity types at major companies can’t just tweet away all day in their offices without somebody in a suit (a) wondering why the hell they’re on twitter instead of cranking out the next brilliant direct mail piece and (b) wanting to know how this is making the company any money. So I’m not at all opposed to there being some commercial element in the tweet stream. I’ve learned about some nifty (and not-so-nifty) products, discovered terrific books and music, and gotten good advice on solutions to problems from both individual and corporate tweets. And while I tweet as an individual, I’m not above recommending titles from the publisher I work for or aiming my followers in the direction of our company’s website or warehouse sale from time to time. I get it….it’s not strictly for fun and games.

What left me feeling depressed after these panels had finished was the impression that Twitter is about to become a massive marketing land grab just as soon as the attendees at #otbc and sessions like it (along with those paying even bigger dollars to bring “Social Media Experts” in house for custom consulting) figure out how to use Tweetdeck or Seesmic or (insert your favorite client here) and get the Twitter budget approved by Accounting. And then we’ll see the tweetstream clogged with corporate messaging. You can say that you just won’t follow those who play that game, but how many of us are busy retweeting #squarespace every day in June in hopes of winning a $199 iPhone from a company who figured out they could get tons of publicity for about $6000? And would you begrudge a writer friend whose tweets you love the opportunity to pick up a few bucks to tide her over to her next paltry royalty check by tossing out a few sponsored tweets from time to time? I’m not sure.

I’m relatively new to twitter, but what I’ve loved about it since discovering it is its immediacy and its spontaneity. That’s where the joy is and, in my opinion, that’s where the power is (witness #iranelection and related topics). My fear is that the suits will “Clear Channel” (yes, that’s a new verb) this simple little application into nothing but a giant vanilla message board filled with thinly-disguised spam and planned spontaneity. I don’t want, or know how, to develop a strategy for my authenticity. Apparently, I will not be a successful tweeter. So block me.

Disclosure: During the Twitter Boot Camp, I was following the speakers and the audience’s tweets in one column on Tweetdeck, while following #iranelection on another. It’s possible, even likely, that the commercialism of the OTBC program in such stark contrast to the moving news and images coming from Iran colored my view.


  1. That's kind of scary. I hope that what happens instead is that the marketers quickly and painfully learn Twitter doesn't work that way. XYZ Corp can tweet all they want, but if I don't follow them, I can't hear them.

    I'm already careful about following companies and rarely do so unless they have something to offer me (that I want) and they're doing more than just shouting at me.

  2. I unfollow everyone who tweets sponsored crap. If it doesn't interest me or help me, buh-bye.

  3. Great post. Though I would point out that authenticity and commerical interests aren't always in conflict with one another.

    Enlightened businesses understand that relationships serve thier commercial interests over time. That's what a brand is, at some level.

    If people that get that are representing brands on Twitter, participating in the dialogue and adding value just like people thier for other reasons, the system will work. If not, the rest of us will just move on to the next thing.

  4. I guess I am not surprised by any of this. I generally don't follow celebraties like THE_REAL_ANYBODY because I realized such feeds were closely ochistated PR streams. Except for editors/publishers/authors I don't follow commercial tweeps either. PR departments can shout as much as they want, but unlike other venues, I don't have to listen.

    Don't get too discouraged. The power of Twitter is in who you follow and how you search, not in what others do.

  5. I love big spiral notebooks! Oh, wait, that wasn't the point. I am a bit bemused by the marketers who see Twitter as a giant captive audience. I (probably) won't begrudge a friend who makes a few bucks from sponsored Tweets, unless it becomes clear they're shilling for the man more than they're offering me something of value. I won't follow people who engage this way. My time is more valuable than that.

    Then there's the question of diluting your own personal (or professional) brand by functioning as a commercial. It's a smart community, and it's easy to discern paid tweets versus genuine interest. If the tone of the message is off, people turn off.

    I admit that I use Twitter to promote my own projects (and the projects of my friends). I like to think it's obvious and transparent.

  6. One of the most intelligent things I've read about Twitter, thanks.

  7. I think that twitter will self-segregate, in fact, I think it already has. Most of us reading this post were directed here through twitter. there may be those "land grabbers" who will try to infiltrate our unlabled community, but I think that they will be largely ignored.

  8. I wasn't there for the afternoon sessions, and I'm disappointed if they came across as suggesting that crass marketing will work on twitter. But I think you do marketers a disservice when you equate good and bad marketing. As Theodore Sturgeon once noted, "90% of everything is crap."

    While Amy Martin (@digitalroyalty) saying that she plans "spontaneous twitter events" for @The_Real_Shaq, it does indeed sound terrible. But consider Shaq's tweet stream as a performance, and ask yourself why you might applaud David Letterman or Jay Leno for hitting the ball out of the park with a scripted joke while condemning Amy and Shaq for doing something similar.

    Yes, people can and will abuse every medium. But some people (Shaq included) do it well. And yes, sometimes doing it well includes planning and practice.

    Imagine if every book I published were published as it comes direct from the keyboard of the author without any editing. More authentic, yes. Better, no.

    Some people have natural talent for a new medium (think @sacca), some people learn to use it effectively, and some never learn. This is not unique to twitter.

  9. The most interesting and useful Twitter streams that I follow tend to be tweets of links to articles or blog posts that are clearly not spontaneous. I care more about good, thought out information than what someone is having for breakfast. As for entertainment, most of what we really enjoy is not spontaneous, but comes about through long, hard work.

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  11. It's the little things, that "MATTER"... myspace.com/odasodahead

    no, I don't spam

  12. Is there really a conflict between planning and authenticity. Does authenticity get confused with spontaneity?

    What happens when you search for the perfect gift? Is this too much planning to be authentic? Or how about trying to figure out what your customers want so that you can give it to them? Is this too much planning?

    Dont get me wrong. I love Twitter because suddenly real people own foreign policy again (WRT Iran) and all manner of new things seem possible. I dont want to see loads of SPAM clogging my shiny new iphone version of TweeDeck.

    But I think, like people finding fakes in the Iran Twitter feed, groups will weed out those who break the rules. If Amy and Shaq miss the mark, they will suffer, perhaps faster than ever, as they will suffer if they abuse any communication tool.

    If you show up at the party and offer something useful or entertaining, peeps might say - hey thats cool. If you show up as "that guy or gal" who is doing things because they are always shilling, well, I think less people will want to talk to you.

    So because people are good at filtering people, all will be good in the Twitterverse.

  13. Wow Don!

    Thanks for your thoughtful, sanguine, yet in my judgment, 'hopeful' recap of the #otbc event.

    I am right there with you; this is a complex question, yet one that challenges both the mind and heart to stay focused on the 'real' value of Twitter to organically connect people to their interests in real time.

    I suspect the answer will be found somewhere between monetization and meaning; though I can not co-locate those 'coordinates' at the moment. Shall we say they are 'mercurial' by nature? Perhaps a quantum physics analogy applies here, i.e., the 'sweet spot' is a soup of potential vs. a predictable form. The dynamic assures the mystery stays alive.

    Then again, Twitter leverages the organic side which by definition is neither planned nor orchestrated per se (aka strategy mode). It just happens, or not.

    Take the interest in hashtag ownership or semantic single monitoring for brand listening/engagement purposes. No one can 'own' as hashtag but many are doing their best to grab Twit mind-share by cybersquatting the virtual real estate.

    Do keep up the reflections! I post under @2healthguru on Twitter; mostly on healthcare related topics. That ROI and monetization debate is top of mind for many.

  14. Is the stuff coming out of Iran authentic, spontaneous, planned?

    We are now so conditioned to be suspisious of anything that is 'created' or deliberate that the only things we trust are those that are blurted out or rushed out with the least editing possible.

    Clay Shirky talks about "publish then edit" and we increasingly accept that as the genuine rough draft of history, anything that doesn't have that air is not 'authentic' in internet terms.

    A major selling point of the net is disintermediation and when we find anything on it that smells of the intermediation of thought and composition between the impulse and the communication, we are inclined not to trust it.

  15. This is a great post with a lot to think about. I think the 'disclosure' postscript is an important one. Twitter is this kind of infinite cocktail party with different conversations going on everywhere. At any particular moment I might be interested in business, art, parenting or entertainment chatter--and easily able to flit between categories. But the info coming out of Iran is so weird and powerful and curious and important that tweets that before seemed reasonably or unreasonably self-promoting before can feel trivial and even offensive. I do think that the power remains in the individual's hands with follow/unfollow. I have trouble seeing how a corporate branding expert could keep me from unfollowing.

  16. Don, I believe all is not lost and yet I share your concerns that Twitter is in danger of being consumed by marketers. My hope lies in the fact that marketers tend to focus on 'social media' as a channel; they view it as a medium like TV and that fails as we are all now participating in the Social Web.

    Twitter is not a channel nor is it a social network, it's a platform akin to IM or texting and requires a reasonable amount of followers for it to work. If you are on Twitter without followers it's rather like having a mobile phone where no one knows your number. So, as some have mentioned here it is easy to filter out the white noise of marketers and unfollow them.

    Marketers miss the point when they use Twitter as just a channel - we are all participating in the social web and as I wrote in a post just yesterday, "we are all celebrities now and authenticity and authority will be determined by our followers' perception of our own Reputation Management and Experiential Awareness. Marketers will now, more than ever, have to Own the Message or the Message will Own Them."

    In other words how you act online is how others perceive you and on Twitter you are at the mercy of being one click away from the unfollow button.

    Here's the rest of my post - http://www.social-cache.com/2009/06/authenticity-and-authority-on-the-social-web

  17. Thanks for your kind words Don. Whole Foods is a company of idealists, no matter how "corporate" we might seem from the outside, and I think Twitter has been a good way for us to let people see that side of ourselves.

    While I worry about the changes that will come to Twitter (and social media in general) with the increased participation of brands and celebrities, I think the standards have already been set by the pioneers. The hares who jump in with ROI and revenue as their top priorities will be surprised to see themselves surpassed by the tortoises who have taken the time to build real communities on Twitter, and who will ultimately benefit most from those relationships.

    Finally: In keeping with the theme of authenticity and transparency, I'd like to point out (and I hope I made this clear at the conference as well) that I am not the *primary* tweeter for @wholefoods. That honor goes to our very capable Winnie Hsia. We also have local tweeters in over 60 of our stores, as well as our specialty tweeters Cathy, Geof and Doug at @WFMCheese and WFMWineGuys.

    Thanks again, Don, for your insightful post.

  18. you went to a $400 conference on twitter, and
    honestly didn't expect it to dwell on marketing?

    are you living in a cave?

    did you even read the blurb for the darn thing?
    > http://training.oreilly.com/twitterbootcamp/

    it told you exactly what it gave you.

    i mean, i understand your queasy feelings, i do...
    the darn marketers are gumming up the works in
    all of the so-called "social networking" spheres...
    (and i suspect that you're probably of their ilk too.)

    twitter, especially, was corrupted almost instantly.
    when the mainstream media is instructing people
    to follow their twitterstream, the jig is done, kids.

    and it's interesting to see marketeers come here
    and defend all of their practices in the comments.

    so anyway, they will ruin twitter, and facebook,
    just like the self-interested look-at-me kids
    ruined myspace, and some other tool will come
    into being and be useful until they ruin _that_,
    and eventually the whole marketing methodology
    crushes under its small-brain dinosaur weight,
    aided by a mammal called collaborative filtering.

    in the meantime, just pull up a lawn-chair and
    get yourself a 6-pack of beer and laugh at it all.


    p.s. and why does your site constantly reload?
    it certainly makes me wonder what it's doing...

  19. Amen, brother. That said, how can I make me some money??!!