Crime of Social Passion

Ron Shevlin killed his blog.  It was exactly 2 years old.

I started blogging about a week after Ron did, and somehow we found each other, along with Adelino.  For a time there, it seemed like the 3 of us were the only ones reading each other’s blogs.

Ron’s blog was uncommonly good and very well liked by his followers.  He says he set out to create a “Top 10 Marketing blog”, not really knowing what that meant.  You know, Technorati and all that.  As part of his sign-off, he states:

Needless to say, I failed miserably in achieving my goal. 

And thank God for that. Because if I had really wanted to this to become a top 10 blog I would had to have written about a lot of things that I don’t really care about writing about.

So true.  In fact, those of us who write a lot of material that runs against what is taken for “common knowledge” in Marketing – as Ron did – feel his pain.  I’ve done the same since 2000 in my newsletter

So, what is the point of Social Media?  If people are only going to listen to what their “friends” say, and if people only subscribe to authors they agree with, then you get this massive group think effect that is impossible to penetrate when the quality of the material is ranked by “popularity”.  And on top of that, the absolute crap that is published over and over begins to be taken for the truth.

It’s no wonder onliners are not learning anything.

And keep repeating past mistakes

You can’t disagree with popular bloggers.  

Telling the truth can even get you blacklisted.

This is the Wisdom of Crowds?  Sounds like the Moronics of a Mob to me.  If people choose to keep themselves stupid by immersing themselves in ideas they already agree with, what is “social” about that?  Where is the dialogue?  If what it takes to create a “popular” blog is to engage in groupspeak by parroting consensus, what’s the point of measuring popularity?  To seek lowest common denominator ideas, the ones with no edge?  To follow each other over the cliff?

Making it worse is the obvious effect of Advertising on the opinions of bloggers.  Who is going to come out and tell the truth about certain Marketing approaches or tools when to do so would piss off the advertisers sending checks to the blogger?

Am I just a crackpot on this notion?  For those of you who may be passionate about the Wisdom of Crowds idea, but perhaps have not read the book, I offer you these must read, core bits from the author, sourced here:

Under what circumstances is the crowd smarter?

There are four key qualities that make a crowd smart.  It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table.  It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd’s answer.  It needs a way of summarizing people’s opinions into one collective verdict.  And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.

My take: The blogosphere absolutely fails all four tests above.

And what circumstances can lead the crowd to make less-than-stellar decisions?

Essentially, any time most of the people in a group are biased in the same direction, it’s probably not going to make good decisions.   So when diverse opinions are either frozen out or squelched when they’re voiced, groups tend to be dumb.  And when people start paying too much attention to what others in the group think, that usually spells disaster, too.  For instance, that’s how we get stock-market bubbles, which are a classic example of group stupidity: instead of worrying about how much a company is really worth, investors start worrying about how much other people will think the company is worth.  The paradox of the wisdom of crowds is that the best group decisions come from lots of independent individual decisions.

My take: Ron made the right decision.  He sold at the top.

There are plenty of other ways to market yourself and your ideas where the odds are not stacked against you by Mob groupthink.

Update:  For a more marketing-oriented view of the above, see this comment.  For another (similar) opinion, see Pat and read the comments.  Your thoughts?

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14 thoughts on “Crime of Social Passion

  1. I think the real question is this: what do you get back for the time you invest in any particular media / communication interface?

    For me, the blog has never been functionally different from the web site / newsletter combination I started in 2000 – it’s just an other web site that needs to be maintained. Plus, because of the environment it lives in – the whole “popularity” thing driven by what’s hot and update frequency – blogs are much more like mass media.

    The blogosphere thrives on USA Today-style “Pop Marketing” content that adds very little value to the knowledge base. I’m just not that kind of a person or writer; I like to explore the edges, think new thoughts, pull things apart and put them back together in new ways.

    So, in what blogs have become – not probably what they started out as – you have generally low value content that in turn attracts a low value audience. Meaning, to optimize the return on effort, you have to create low value content and monetize with advertising, like TV and USA Today.

    I’m not sure I can do that, it’s not very interesting to me.

    If you read between the lines in Ron’s farewell, along with some backchannel I’ve had with him, I think he’s come to the conclusion (roughly speaking) that if you’re going to trade in low value content, you might as well do it on Twitter.

    Twitter is a heck of a lot easier way than writing a high quality blog to maintain “presence” in a low value media world, partly (I’d guess) because the expectations @ 140 characters are low.

    This is not to say that Twitter has low value, but that the amount of effort required to participate and maintain presence is more in line with the value of the outcome than participating in the blogosphere – unless you want to sell ads, which he never did and I have never done, even on the web site. And I get probably 2 (real) offers a week from people who want to buy space on the damn thing.

    So what you have, really, is a classic “channel” kind of marketing issue, a mismatch between the value of the media and the cost to take advantage of it.

    For me, the website / newsletter model, that’s PPC – hyper targeted. self-selecting, awesome return for the effort invested. The blog, that’s Display advertising – it works sometimes (for example, in your case?), but mostly really by accident, and the return on effort is quite low because of the “Pop Marketing” issue.

    If I want or need to reach the mass “Pop” audience, I either have to create a product for it, or move this sort of mass media, untargeted activity to a channel that requires lower investment. The above doesn’t answer your question, ’cause I don’t have an answer yet. But that’s how I’m considering the options.

    There are plenty of “Pop Marketing” products out there already, some of them very good (Seth Godin, for example, who is the master translater of Marketing to the masses) so I’d have to come up with an edge or there’s really no point in playing that game.

    On the other hand, the type of content I have presented here on the blog would fit the website / newsletter model perfectly.

    Comments? Any of the above make sense?

  2. I can’t help but wonder if you throw around the terms “low value content” and “low value audience” too cavalierly. Or at least, without clear definitions.

    All the laws of supply and demand and consumer behavior apply to the blogosphere. By and large, an overwhelming % of people who read marketing-related blogs either work in PR, advertising, or social media (in one form or another).

    The majority of the people that I wanted to write to don’t read blogs. What I found after 2 years was that the people I was communicating with most often on the blog, I ended up communicating with thru Twitter. (I would not be surprised in the least if my Twitter buddies felt that I should tweeting and go back to blogging).

    But you’ve got to remember — when I started my blog 2 years, I had a different job. What I do now for a living is, predominantly, write. It’s somewhat of a conflict of interest for me to blog about certain things instead of publishing it under the banner of the firm I work for, but more importantly its a distraction of mental energy.

    In the end, Jim, it comes down to this — if you’re going to blog, do it because you LIKE it. Any other reason is likely to be an insufficient reason.

  3. Ron, I think we’re saying the same thing, from different perspectives. Let me rephrase.

    Once a content source becomes ad supported, the goals tend to shift from creating great content to creating a larger audience. This is generally why I’ve never taken advertising because I don’t like the model and I think it breeds credibility issues. I would rather attract the *right* audience, not the largest audience.

    And the medium is what it eats. As the content strives to attract larger audiences to drive ad sales, it has to become more mainstream, which (in my case) is not what I’m looking for. So like you, I’m saying “the majority of the people that I want to write to don’t read blogs”, or perhaps more accurately, don’t see blogs as “authoritative” content for various reasons, including the average quality of the content in the blogosphere.

    And like you, for me content is time and money, though on my side it’s a bit less formal of a deal than with your job.

    So when I look at “yield”, or revenue per hour spent, the blogosphere audience as a whole represents a lower quality opportunity (though I love my feed subs dearly, and of course they are all very high quality!) than putting the same content into the newsletter / web site. Not to mention the web site deal is a once a month committment, not once or twice a week.

    I could try blogging once a month…

    I wonder, when Twitter goes ad supported, if the usefulness of the content overall will fall, as content generators strive to generate quantity rather than quantity? Seems highly likely to me.

    This is the paradox of Social Media – supposed to be a genuine exchange, but in the end, always goes looking for an ad supported model that compromises the fundamental integrity of the idea. And I’m speculating this is one of the reasons many people, at least in some target markets, don’t take the content seriously.

  4. Hi Jim,

    Me neither, I’ve never wanted to put ads on my modest blogs (was asked a couple of times). And I have never been able to connect that effort to any new engagements either.

    For me, blogging helps me structure my thoughts, even though I usually do it on a jist (I don’t spend much time writing my posts). It’s a way for me to put what’s intrigues me out there, and see if someone could help me think better.

    I am sure guys like Ron and you put way more efforts into it, and I understand your wondering whether it’s all worth it or not. As a reader, though, I can guaranty you it is.

    I also publish occasionally; I got fed up with the stress of the weekly post. Now, I just do it whenever something comes up in that little head of mine. This has destroyed my Technorati rating, but I don’t care anymore. I do care for the 300+ people who bother reading what I write, and I have had great comments that have helped me get further.

    But is it worth doing all that, if it’s for only a handful of people to really care? I guess you’re right to ask yourself that question. Personally, I don’t, because I would stop blogging if I did.

    Ron, thanks again for all those thoughts.

  5. Well, Jacques, thanks for the kind words. Would you still be interested in my blog if it was only posted monthly?

    I was not going to get into the dynamics and metrics of my blog versus my e-mail newsletter in a more comprehensive way, but your reply stimulates a short mention…

    On a per thousand basis, the interactivity I get from the e-mail newsletter is about 10x what I get from the blog.

    When I post the newsletter, people respond by asking specific questions about how the topic relates to their business and I respond to them individually and specifically to the business problem they are facing.

    I’m not sure how you can do that very well (at least in my business) with a blog, because a lot of the issues addressed deal with trade secrets, e.g. “What is the value of our customer?” or “Can you help us figure out how to sell more to current customers?” or for the more advanced people “20% of our best customers have defected, how do we address this problem?”

    This is not the kind of info a company wants spread around, and I promise to keep the questioner anonymous in return for providing real world solutions and examples other folks can follow in the newsletter.

    This is the “trade” or value for the newsletter; participation is not “free”. This is an exchange with real value paid. The company gets tangible advice, the subscribers get compelling and unique content.

    What do I get? Down the road from this initial exchange, I get jobs, because (hopefully) I nailed the initial challenge and they want to move forward.

    This has been my business model since 2000.

    And blogging does not have the same effect as the newsletter. I’m open to any suggestions on how to drive the blogging contribution to the same level as the newsletter, but I think the “exposed” nature of blogging, and the audience for it, quite simply smothers the business potential for me.

    My newsletter is (unlike most others) extremely interactive, and responses to “Comments” are personalized and confidential.

    Can you get that kind of experience from a blog?

  6. I am willing to bet that Jacques’ answer to your question — “Would you still be interested in my blog if it was only posted monthly?” — is the same as mine: YES. And I’m willing to bet that Jacques would say the same thing I would if you only posted monthly: PLEASE POST MORE OFTEN.

    However, given what you’ve said, Jim, about the newsletter, I am left wondering why you continue to keep the blog alive (or why you started the blog in the first place).

    BTW, I just subscribed to the newsletter. For the life of me, I don’t why I didn’t do that 1.9 years ago.

  7. Jim,

    Ron is obvioulsy right: you can be damn sure I would read you on a monthly basis! I’d take whatever you want to dish out!

    As a long-time subscriber to your newsletter, I can appreciate the difference between the two. I have always seen your newsletter as a kind of “how to”; very specific, very much into the nitty gritty of the theoretical framework you present in your book.

    Your blog is where I find bleeding edge thinking (cf. “Web Intelligence”, “Repeating the Past”, “Consensus Learning Model” series, to name a few in the recent past), and your posts have influenced me a lot professionally.

    Now, as a consultant, is blogging worth it? Obviously yes if you’re Avinash Kaushik, but there is room for only one, I guess. I know I have never gotten any business because someone thought my blogs were awsome (OK, they are probably not after all). To be specific, blogging to me is a way to occupy some “space” in the WA public discourse. To be even more specific, blogging has generated enough content so that I score well in organic search. That’s basically it, business wise.

    And honestly, I have always been appalled by the few comments some of your most seminal posts have received, especially compared to some WA bloggers who will get at least 50 for anything they write. I know I am walking on politically incorrect grounds here, but to me, the difference in quality in content, and audience, is obvious, and in line with what happens everywhere else where sophisticated thinking lives, where it’s more difficult to breathe.

    You know what else I would read? A new book, based on all you’ve written here in the last year!

  8. Ron, a lot of people were saying “you should do a blog, you can’t live in the past”, etc. I expressed my concerns about “audience quality” to numerous people who of course, had not really thought about it as an issue.

    I thought perhaps the blog could be a “front end” to the newsletter, that people would come in through the blog and end up in the newsletter. That doesn’t really happen to any great extent, even though I publish most of the newsletters in the blog.

    Jacques, yes, so the idea was Marketing Productivity is a “wide” topic, as opposed to the newsletter, which is very narrow. It would allow me to talk about stuff like Social Media that I really could not do in the newsletter.

    And if you think about what Avinash does and how successful he is at it, you get a notion of the audience issue. People seem to want to be given the “how to” without really learning anything conceptual, or having to think very hard about complex issues. I think that’s just the nature of the blogosphere audience, it’s “quick hits” and content grazing. Nothing wrong with that, but it is what it is, and I’m not sure you can fight it.

    And on the book, sure, I have often thought about that. But books take a lot of time, and this (I think) is one of the central arguments Ron is making when he talks about “distraction of mental energy”. Writing a blog, at least in the style of this one, is every bit as tough as writing a book, it takes the same time and energy, at least for me.

    So perhaps if I stopped doing the blog I’d have the time and mental energy to actually write that book you’re talking about…

    I don’t think I will kill the blog, but do really need to figure out a new format and / or mission for it, because the benefits are out of whack with the effort.

  9. Interesting thread.

    At the root is the question “what’s the reward for blogging”

    If it’s traffic, then you’ll natural trend towards LCD, the Lowest Common Denominator. The TMZ of Web Analytics we already have. We’ve yet to get a Perez Hilton of WA.

    If it’s something distinctly different however, well then, ;) don’t get distracted by the TMZ of WA.

    The problem with LCD is that it’s so vanilla, and it’s such a race to the bottom.

    I will argue, however, if that some readers are dissatisfied with the race to the bottom, in this Internet age, there’s nothing wrong with undertaking one of the greatest social experiments in web analytics.

  10. Personally, I think the WA space is pretty good, you have a wide array of interests / areas of focus and also levels of difficulty. You need the Intro stuff to service new entrants and the more complex stuff to stimulate new thought.

    It’s the MARKETING blogosphere that concerns me, which includes all the Social stuff. Now that is a race to the bottom with LCD-driven ad volume as the fuel! The vast majority of these blogs, perhaps 90%, add no new ideas and do not question “common knowledge”, they just pass it on to be repeated over and over.

    So the real question for me is this: is there really an audience for new ideas and challenging current thought in the blogosphere? Or is groupthink the blogosphere business model?

    If so, there’s no point in investing the time in publishing my material in this format.

  11. “So the real question for me is this: is there really an audience for new ideas and challenging current thought in the blogosphere? Or is groupthink the blogosphere business model?”

    80/20 Law?

    80% of the traffic volume will go to LCD.

    20% of the traffic volume will seek out the new ideas and challenge themselves.

    The genus “marketing blogs” are – well, I’m laughing at the thought right now – but I mean, I guess I just don’t value vagueness.

    It’s a lot like Meme tracking. Sometimes I just don’t know where the real discussions and the real crucible of them are. Other times, I’ve been involved in the very thread where it was born.

    Where are the real, substantive, discussions around marketing really happening? I’d go there if I knew where.

    I believe that most people who are well-rounded and un-threatened by ideas would want to go there too.

    Could it be a case of an unrealized market?

    What’s the overall population that reads ‘marketing blogs’? Would we hazard an estimate of 100,000? Is 20,000 readers enough to keep something substantive going?

  12. I think it might be more complex than that.

    Here’s a ranking of Marketing blogs:

    http://adage.com/power150/

    I used to run #50 – 55. Now I am around #300.

    When I started writing criticism of Display Ads and Social Media, my Technorati ranking plunged, which punishes my ranking in the Ad Age Power 150 ranking.

    Is this is the “Wisdom of Crowds”?

    Further, look at that Top 150 list. Many of the top blogs are really worthless LCD stuff.

    I think the blogosphere is simply rigged, the wrong measures of “authority” are being used, these measures are set up to promote LCD, ad-driven content and that’s just the way it is. That’s the model.

    It’s quantity over quality.

    Is it worth it to fight against this? At least with a web site / newsletter, the content stands on it’s own…

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