Authenticity: The Force Behind the Local Snowball Effect

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Snowball EffectAlong with speed and transparency, one of the new values that the Web demands is authenticity. For news sites, that means a commitment to truthfulness by bringing readers or viewers as close as possible to the source of information. In business, it also means being truthful in our behavior, attributions, and even our intentions. It’s an underappreciated and underutilized value, and it strikes at the very heart of marketing — especially at the hyperlocal level — via the World Wide Web. You can bend the truth about products and services in the world of mass marketing, but that will backfire, sooner or later, online. Here’s why.

When those experts who serve Madison Avenue make projections on how much money is going to be spent locally in the coming years, they do so with assumptions that that which has been will always be. Like most assumptions, however, these are fraught with risks that are hidden from those who choose to believe their lure. Marketing assumptions are just that, although they’ve been presented as “laws” by such industry icons as Ries and Trout since their 1994 book “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!.” The book dares to ask a question: “There are laws of nature, so why shouldn’t there be laws of marketing?” Here’s the blurb:

As Al Ries and Jack Trout — the world-renowned marketing consultants and bestselling authors of “Positioning” — note, you can build an impressive airplane, but it will never leave the ground if you ignore the laws of physics, especially gravity. Why then, they ask, shouldn’t there also be laws of marketing that must be followed to launch and maintain winning brands? In The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Ries and Trout offer a compendium of twenty-two innovative rules for understanding and succeeding in the international marketplace. From the Law of Leadership, to The Law of the Category, to The Law of the Mind, these valuable insights stand the test of time and present a clear path to successful products. Violate them at your own risk.

These “laws” still govern what everybody does, even though there’s been a significant change in the playing fields on which they are practiced. I can perhaps buy that there are laws that cover mass marketing, but in the hyperconnected world of digital media, these no more exist than Bigfoot, Santa Claus, or the sea monster of Loch Ness. Moreover, practicing such “laws” online is an open invitation to accomplish just the opposite of what these laws promise, and that’s a danger I’m not wont to chance.

Umair Haque
Umair Haque

Before his assignment to Harvard, the brilliant young economist Umair Haque ran a website called “Bubblegeneration” in which he shared his theories and beliefs. Perhaps his most brilliant and influential work back then was a presentation entitled: “The New Economics of Media. Micromedia, Connected Consumption, and the Snowball Effect.” It would be foolish of me to attempt a review of such a magnificent and complex piece of work here, but two of his axioms are important for this discussion. One, that in the network, money spent on telling people about your product is better spent on the product itself, for the key transaction in Media 2.0 is people passing useful information along to each other. Two, that the process of this creates a snowball, the pinnacle effect of activity in the net.

So while in mass marketing, we have the blockbuster. On the net, it’s the snowball. The trick is to start the snowball rolling down the hill, which goes back to the first concept.

The idea of telling the truth oftentimes seems anathema to the marketing industry. It simply cannot police itself, because those laws also “work” for the quick buck artists and worse. Email and other forms of spam online have been largely overcome through technology, but it’s still widely practiced in snail mail. I got an official-looking letter this week labeled “2013 Medicare Update.” No update; just a pitch by an insurance provider that’s counting on elderly people to confuse the letter as something from the government. Marketing’s lack of self-policing infects everybody.

As big a fan as I am of personal branding, we now have websites pitching ideas like “developing a powerful personal presence.” In other words, despite all your losing characteristics, you can turn your persona into somebody else. This is actually bad advice, for it assumes that you can trick people via the Web, and while that might work for a short season, it won’t be long before you’re outed by the horizontal communications mechanics of the net. The Web has a VERY long memory, too. Better to always be yourself. Work on you, not your image.

Umair Haque’s snowball effect requires a certain faith in your products but also a belief that your customers are your most important voices. One of the early discoveries of the Web had to do with links and went something like this: “send people away and they will come back.” They will also bring other people with them, if the quality of the product is deemed worthy of it. To paraphrase Steven Covey, “You can’t buy your way out of something you behaved your way into.” Best to focus on the behavior in the first place, because the people can now communicate with each other in real time. This is the great human accomplishment of the Web, and it matters not who’s listening in.

Speed, transparency and authenticity are the new values of media, and since we’re all media companies today, these are our new values in communicating with each other and with people we don’t know and who don’t know us. These are our potential customers in a world of ascending honesty in our dealings with each other.

It’s a lot easier — and in many ways more necessary — to practice this at the local level, where new and returning customers are also neighbors. We are more connected and more dependent on our neighbors than ever, and they deserve our personal and honest attention.

The men and women of Silicon Valley, however, care only about the money they can extract from those same neighbors. Will they bend the truth in so doing? Good question, but the answer should, in no way, determine our own course.

TerryNaplesTerry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.