Archive for July, 2009

Selling Out on YouTube: vloggers weigh in on brand integration online

Posted in C3 blog on July 21st, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

[This post will also appear on the C3 blog]

Recently, a string of prominent vloggers on YouTube have been having a conversation about advertising, product promotion, and the notion of ‘selling out’. This was triggered by their experiences with various companies who courted them to help promote their products amongst their viewers and community and generated a lot of great conversation around how to integrate brands into their videos.

The first video was one by UK vlogger Alex Day (nerimon), who called on vloggers to discuss the topic of “selling out” after turning down an offer from Sanyo for a free camera and 1000GBP (~1700 USD) in exchange for sticking a 15-second spot in one of his videos:

In it, Day makes the very compelling point “that advertising agencies think that putting commercial in the middle of stuff is how the world works. But on YouTube, it doesn’t work like that,” pointing out that he would much rather have made a whole video about him using the camera, in his own style, speaking to his viewers the way that he has always spoken to them, rather than inserting something he had nothing to do with in his videos for money.

Day then asked for other vloggers to share their opinions. There have been 29 video responses so far, among which are this video by AlanDistro (fallofautumndistro):

Alandistro elaborates on Day’s point, saying that it’s not that vloggers are or should be against bringing money into the equation altogether, but that they need to be allowed to do so in a way that respects the relationships they’ve built with their community:

“The people receiving these offers spent a lot of time building up their channels and their audiences, and I don’t think they’re going to accept just a couple of dollars to destroy that overnight . . . Until advertisers get their act together and realize this is a conversation, not me talking at you, they’re not going to find very many people to participate.”

Another vlogger, Kristina Horner (italktosnakes) responded explaining why she chose to work with Ford as part of their Fiesta Movement campaign:

In brief, the Fiesta Movement gave cars to a number of prominent vloggers to use as they liked, while occasionally going on themed “missions” and making videos about them. Horner points out that what makes the Fiesta Movement’s tactics different from the experience Day described is fundamentally that Ford is letting the vloggers do what vloggers do best, instead of trying to get them to do what mainstream media does. Rather than asking her to simply product place, they let her choose how to integrate the brand into her daily activities and her vlog in the way that she thought would be best-received by the community she’s a part of. As Horner explains:

“Instead of paying me some crazy lump sum and see how many times I would fit the words ‘Ford’ and ‘Fiesta’ into one of my videos, Ford has kind of adopted the model that our success is their success . . . Basically, the question, is which companies are doing it right, and which companies are doing is wrong, and when is it okay to say yes. And I do feel like it is okay to say yes if you don’t feel like you’re compromising what you’re personally trying to do on youtube with your videos.”

There are, I think, three major lessons to be learned from these insights:

1. You can’t stick an old model atop a new one

This is a point that I feel like I belabor to death, but it’s a mistake people keep making, so it’s a point worth remaking: communities and other groups and affinity spaces online have their own systems of value, with their own criteria for what is worthwhile and what isn’t. And more often than not, money isn’t the big headliner. So if you’re hoping to monetize or extract some form of value from their activities, you can’t just slap your revenue or promotional model atop their social system and hope for the best. It results in people feeling exploited, people feeling like someone has “sold out,” and general resentment because it asks that these communities compromise the things they value for the things advertisers think they should value. And at the end of the day, that isn’t good for anyone, because the relationship with your brand will be stronger if it’s associated with the things these communities already value.

2. Let your participants be intermediaries

One of the most telling statements in these videos is the idea that advertisers don’t seem to “get” how their communities work. This is always, always going to be true. In line with having to understand what these communities value, advertisers have to understand that their insight will never be as rich as the people in those communities. In much of our work over at the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3), we talk about the way fans work as grassroots intermediaries, helping act as translators and promoters of media they love to others, and this is true for other types of communities online too. These vloggers are a great example. They have put in enormous amounts of time and labor building relationships with their viewers and community — give them the tools and let them show you how best to sell your brand to that community.

3. Not all “conversations” are the same (or equally valuable)

It’s become somewhat of a tired truism that brands need to be in “conversation” with their consumers. And while keeping the lines of dialogue open is very important, brands have to consider whether or not their conversation style is to join into a discussion, or try to hijack the discussion, potentially interrupting a more valuable conversation. As several of the vloggers pointed out, they’ve built relationships with their community. That is, they’re already in a conversation and the worst thing a brand can do is try to disrupt that with their own message. If brands want in, they have to be prepared to talk about what these people care about, because no one likes the guy who comes over just to talk about himself.

What this ultimately means for brands is that the best way to integrate your brand into communities online and launch campaigns that depend on social media participation is to offer yourself as a resource and let the participants decide how to make you valuable. It feels risky, but people build a more lasting relationship with your brand if you let them use your brand as a means to build relationships with one another, in their own voices, on their own terms. And at the end of the day, when you’re talking about vloggers or fan producers or other people who are remixing, remaking, and creating in these new media spaces, consider what vlogger Alandistro points out: “You really can’t go wrong asking creative people to be creative.”

economic demands and community management: Emusic and Imeem’s Mistakes

Posted in media on July 9th, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

Recently, three major music download and streaming sites underwent significant changes in their payment model and service offerings in response to revenue demands, causing a stir amongst their respective user-bases.While a simple logic of “give them what they want” when it comes to how to court communities would be nice, it doesn’t always hold in the reality of the marketplace, where these sites have to stay afloat abover operation costs and content-provider fees and so forth. The way they handled the changes they had to carry out, however, gives us insight into how to (and not to) address your customer base when getting ready to take away privileges and features while demanding that they fork over more money.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic[Image licensed under creative commons from dhammza]

What they did

Emusic started out as an indie music subscription site, charing users a monthly fee in exchange for a limited number of MP3 downloads and building a user-base of independent music fans. At the beginning of this month, the site signed its first major label deal with Sony and consequently enacted a series of changes that disrupted the value of the site: they raised subscription prices while getting rid of many features it’s users had become accustomed to, such as the ability to re-download songs they’d already purchased. While such changes might seem a reasonable response to the financial climate and changes in the market, the fact they coincided with the service signing it’s first deal with a major label resulted in what Mike Masnick at Techdirt dubbed a “PR Nightmare,” which the site reportedly tried to address by deleting negative comments.

Imeem pulled a similar stunt, announcing on June 25th that users would have 5 days before all of their uploaded content would be deleted, since Imeem was “simplyfying” the service to no longer include user-uploads. The move felt ironic for a site that claimed to be the world’s largest “social” music site, especially since it disrupted the activities of fanvidding, political remix, and other transformative/remix video communities that had been some of the most active proponents for the site.

What they did wrong

They weren’t transparent
As Masnick points out over at Techdirt, when making changes that take away features and increase cost, it’s probably not a good idea to pretend that you’re doing it for your customer’s benefit. But that’s exactly what both Imeem and Emusic did, sugar-coating the changes under the guise of “simplifying . . . to make it even easier for you” (Imeem) and making deals with major lables and raising prices to give customers “more of the good stuff” (Emusic). The old PR, let’s-spin-this-in-the-best-light tricks don’t work when all your customers have access to information about your practices and polities and, more importantly, are able to publically talk to one another about what you’re doing. PR like that works in an environment of media control, which the internet emphatically isn’t.

They had no idea who their users were and what they wanted
Due to the lack of transparency, many users on Emusic believed that the changes were a direct result of the new partnership with major label Sony. This made Emusic’s claim of “more of the good stuff” an even bigger blunder since most people using Emusic were interested in independent music, not major label material they could get elsewhere. Emusic did damage to its own street cred and brand value by not understanding their user-base’s tastes, while alienating them with their service changes. If you’re going to make a claim of changes that will make your service better for your users, you had better have a good idea of why and how they use your service. Otherwise, you look out of touch or — worse yet — like you don’t care.

They blatantly showed that they cared more about ROI than building solid customer relationships
That “worse yet” was what Imeem stumbled into, by justifying their changes saying, “simply put, there’s no ROI in UGV,” which showed quite unambiguously that they cared more about the bottom line than their actual users and customers. This lead the Elisa at Political Remix Video to respond: “We feel this is an insult to the vidding and other photo/video communities that helped build imeem as a service. We think that to simply jettison user generated creative works in this way due to profit margins is shameful and abhorrent.” Imeem blatantly ignored a significant (if not in numbers, then in visibility and activity) portion of their community, essentially calling their work worthless. Video remix communities may have not generated as much advertising revenue directly, but they certainly raised awareness and promoted the site, helping build the site’s user-base, the impressions that advertisers are paying for.

The bottom line is pretty simple, I think. Every company has to face the reality of generating sufficient revenue to move forward, and most users and customers understand that. Be transparent about your needs, but be respectful of theirs, paying close attention to which services they value. These socially-driven sites are not build just on content, they’re built on the users who provide labor, attention, reputation, and their own networks that make these sites viable. If you let your monetization model alienate your user-base, pretty soon, you won’t have all that much left to monetize.

Globalization and . . . no, wait, what?

Posted in media on July 3rd, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

I was all set to run a Globalization/Delight post to ease into the holiday weekend, but was instead blind-sided by this promotion for the latest LG Cyon phone — Black & White — in Korean markets:

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In case you missed it: yes, that is two white people, one of whom is in full-body black paint. The print images accompany a video, which features the two models in various sensual poses and that strapline “a new skin.”

I want to keep my comments on this brief because it would otherwise turn into a very involved discussion of global media and constructions of difference. I would also preface my following remarks by saying that though this campaign is highly problematic on several levels, I would also not say that it’s unproblematically racist in that I think there are a lot of very complex and entangled issues surrounding race, nationality, multinational capitalism, sexuality and desire, and so on that would require unpacking. But for the moment I’m only going to talk about the part where it’s racist.

The blackface alone is racially problematic enough, but paired with the strapline of “a new skin,” it does a nice double whammy of both naturalizing whiteness (as what which is “underneath”) and suggesting that embodied difference (and the attendant structures of power involved) are a mere matter of “skin”. It is, if nothing else, rather efficient.

I came across this ad via this post, which makes very good points about LG’s multinational status, as well as the specious and patronizing nature of cultural-relativism arguments (ie — but it’s Korea, they don’t have a lot of black people/history of encounters with other races/etc). I do, however, disagree strongly on one point, wherein Turnbull suggests that we should give more weight to the fact that racism was not the central intent of the promotion:

“I’ve possibly lost sight of what was my intended main point, which is that while intent is not the only consideration in judging such an advertisement it is still probably the most important, and accordingly I’m at a loss as to how the Cyon advertisements could be construed as a deliberate attempt to demean Black people somehow, regardless of how much offense it may or may not generate: indeed, if that was the intention, then it could certainly have been done much more directly!”

I would argue that, quite on the contrary, intent is far from the most important consideration. Without delving into that whole world of death-of-the-author-reader-response, we should remember first that creations are not the same things as texts. Texts are what creations become when released out into the world, when meaning is made from them, in relation to historical condition, sociocultural contexts, and other texts. The creation — the ad — may not have been racist in intent, but the text it produced does not get off so easy.

But that aside, intent, in fact, is one of the great defenses of racist discourse. Intent is individual, racism is structural, and the ability to overlook the structural inequalities that are represented and evoked in favor of individual intentions is a form of racial privilege. In other words, racism isn’t a result of people trying to be racist, it is a result of people not understanding that they are being racist. The ability to dismiss racist symbolism because it was in some way “accidental” — which is to say a byproduct of structural power within a given historical context — is exactly how structural power works, by naturalizing its mechanisms and disavowing responsibility.

The “free” fracas: a quick round-up

Posted in media, research on July 1st, 2009 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment
Image and video hosting by TinyPic[image from nicely85, licensed under creative commons]

Back in March, I wrote a piece critiquing Anderson’s model of the “Freeconomy,” calling it a fallacy. My critique was not necessarily of the models he was proposing, but the way he was conflating things that had no cost with things that were “free.” I argued that rather than being “free,” no-cost goods and services (such as YouTube, facebook, etc) in fact were not giving anything away, but rather exchanging services with its users for things such as data, labor, attention, and social capital.

The debate around “free” as ramped up since then, with Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Anderson’s book in the New Yorker, where Gladwell takes Anderson to task through a series of examples of services and information that are emphatically not free:

The biotechnology company Genzyme spent five hundred million dollars developing the drug Myozyme, which is intended for a condition, Pompe disease, that afflicts fewer than ten thousand people worldwide . . . in this case, information does not want to be free. It wants to be really, really expensive.

And there’s plenty of other information out there that has chosen to run in the opposite direction from Free. The Times gives away its content on its Web site. But the Wall Street Journal has found that more than a million subscribers are quite happy to pay for the privilege of reading online. Broadcast television—the original practitioner of Free—is struggling. But premium cable, with its stiff monthly charges for specialty content, is doing just fine. Apple may soon make more money selling iPhone downloads (ideas) than it does from the iPhone itself (stuff). The company could one day give away the iPhone to boost downloads; it could give away the downloads to boost iPhone sales; or it could continue to do what it does now, and charge for both. Who knows? The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws. (Gladwell 2009)

Anderson then responded by explaining that “free” also encompasses other forms of non-monetary payment that may in the long run lead to monetary payment:

* makes good money selling ads on GeekDad (it’s very popular with advertisers)
* Ken gets a nominal retainer, but has also managed to parlay GeekDad into a book deal and a lifelong dream of being a writer
* The other contributors largely write for free, although if one of their posts becomes insanely popular they’ll get a few bucks. None of them are doing it for the money, but instead for the fun, audience and satisfaction of writing about something they love and getting read by a lot of people.

So that’s the difference between “paying people to write” and “paying people to get other people to write”. Somewhere down the chain, the incentives go from monetary to nonmonetary (attention, reputation, expression, etc). (Anderson 2009)

Many others have since jumped in the fray, including Valleywag’s slightly meta take on the accuracy of some of the numbers cited by Gladwell as well as the perhaps ideological frame of the debate itself. Perhaps more interesting is the piece at continuations that attempts to disaggregate some of the fuzzy economics behind “free.”

I will probably have more in-depth and articulate thoughts in the near future, once I polish off a draft of some of the transnational television research I’m currently mired in. But for now, I’d simply like to suggest that part of the problem and part of why we can’t seem to come to an agreement about the complex economic models being build online is that “free” is simply the wrong way to talk about it.

This is similar to the way “viral” media masked the agency of the users, thus preventing us from thinking clearly beyond whether or not something “goes viral” to how and why and for what social and cultural reasons. “Free” masks the systems of value-exchange that are in place in all of these models. Moreover, as Gladwell points out, it is not a matter of information simply “wanting” to be free:

And then there is his insistence that the relentless downward pressure on prices represents an iron law of the digital economy. Why is it a law? Free is just another price, and prices are set by individual actors, in accordance with the aggregated particulars of marketplace power. “Information wants to be free,” Anderson tells us, “in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.” But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle? But we are getting ahead of ourselves. (Gladwell 2009)

These so-called “free” services are entangled with a number of players: content creators, users, platforms, advertisers, etc. All of whom have different investment, different needs, and different desired outcomes. Rather than paying attention only to one criteria of value — monetary cost — by calling it free, and ignoring all the other criteria and social contracts that are in play, we have to start looking at what different systems of value exchange are being enacted every time something is offered for “free.”

In just looking at Youtube, you not only have the exchange between the service and the content, data, and attention provided by the users. You also have an exchange of those things with advertisers. You also have a number of social exchanges between the users themselves, as they build communities and social capital through uploading content, commenting, responding, and sharing. And these are just some of the most immediately visible forms of exhange, each of which follow their own criteria of value and parameters and regulations. And more importantly, the are all interconnected and dependent upon one another. To gloss over it all as “free” ignores the complexity and the deeply entangled nature of both monetary and non-monetary exchanges. The iron law of the digital world isn’t that everything is free, it is that everything is connected, including different forms and systems of exchange.