Monday, February 18, 2008

Join the Conversation: Speaking as I find

I'm one of a number of bloggers Joseph Jaffe has sent his latest book, Join The Conversation, for review purposes. I've posted about the wisdom of this strategy previously, here. And I enjoy Jaffe's blog enormously.

I've just got back from hols - and I've read no-one else's review so far (which I feared could cloud or sway my own judgement) so this is entirely and deliberately my own response.

Let's start with the basics. Jaffe obviously thinks deeply about the notion of human voice and its multiplied effect when the power of the network is applied. And on the vast majority of themes, on the whole big picture thing, Jaffe and I will agree whole-heartedly (after all the tagline 'Join the Conversation' has always been applied to my blog from the off!). He is one of us, he is riding the Cluetrain, he understands the power of the network etc etc.

So, all that said, it's the details that I might get picky about. And as a former sub-editor, even poor use of metaphor or lazy english ("pretty unique", for example) can set my pen a-twitching.
As a European reader, the many illustrative examples of good and bad practice from US mainstream media are often lost on me. That can grate a little. I read my copy on a beach in St Lucia - so checking the references on the web as I went along was out of the question.

But these are just details.

Provocative or patronising?
Jaffe seems deliberately provocative at times - and this can result in a patronising tone... (depending, naturally, on your point of view). It was a tone that often got me riled.
For example on page 172 he refers to the Worst Chase Scenario in which a union advertised in a New York paper asking for consumers' worst experiences at a particular bank. Jaffe writes that he was disappointed that it wasn't the bank itself asking the question (me too!). And he says:
"I don't expect you to understand this idea - nor do I expect any company to implement this form of corporate nakedness anytime soon."
My response is that the argument that finding out the worst people think of you, engaging in conversation about it and trying to fix it is the bleeding obvious to anyone who has read the Cluetrain Manifesto, Communities Dominate Brands, Wikinomics et al.
On page 216 he writes "I introduced the concept that you are the community you keep." I'm sure many of us have toyed with similar notions ( I know I have - I am part of a community therefore I am). Jaffe does a lot of this "I did this", "I introduced that". And that's bound to grate with less-than-pushy Brits.

I'll be honest. I haven't read a book that wound me up more regularly in a long time.

But perhaps this was the intention? Perhaps the tone will aid the conversation - a strong point of view will always inspire a hotter conversation, and isn't that Jaffe's whole point? So I'll grant him that. As a strategy for inspiring conversation, it is brilliant.

And when I analyse the regularity with which I get snarky about his writing there's more criticism scrawled over the pages in the first half of the book and more whoops of praise and shared view towards the end. He's building a case, winding you up and drawing you in, ready to end up on a high of mutual agreement and goading to action.

But I do have some substantive criticisms.

Conversation as science: The risk of codifying art.
Jaffe refers, quite correctly in my view, to conversation being an art (as in not a science). Yet he deploys elaborate and complex codifications of 'how to do' conversation in a measurable, transferrable way. I was reading The Origin of Wealth alongside Join The Conversation which served as an interesting mash-up in its own right. TOoW refers to art as knowledge which cannot be captured (in a schema) in any way.
Jaffe is trying to create some rules which anyone can apply - a schema if you like - and he's trying to find new measures of success. And our traditional company structures and budgets require these so I'll say a big thank you for trying but reserve judgement on their usefulness. Applying the wrong scientific thinking to a complex adaptive system can often lead us to incorrect and damaging conclusions (and I will recommend The Origin of Wealth to anyone who wants to explore that argument a little more thoroughly, where it is applied to classical economics).

On the money... almost
Some of Jaffe's examples are just shy of the mark. He wonders why MasterCard doesn't create a 'museum' (his word) for all the MasterCard "Priceless" spoof ads which circulate free and unbounded around the web. I fear a corporation doing that would be in danger of mummifying the idea. There's something of taxidermy about it. I guess my objection is summed up in this post which suggests brands should sit down around other people's campfires, rather than march in and light one in your backyard.

Another belittles Pontiac's suggestion that consumers "Don't take our word for it. Google "Pontiac" and discover for yourself."

Jaffe points out that those consumers who followed the instruction were confronted with ads for unrelated restaurants and rivals, rather than the positive PR the brand may have anticipated. He suggests that with a little more precision (read control) Pontiac could have been so much smarter.

Patronising? Perhaps Pontiac trusted consumers to be wise enough to know how google works and perhaps Pontiac also feared trying to control the search terms used would be against the spirit of the idea.

Isn't Pontiac saying, 'look we know loads of stuff is written about us. We figure we're good enough for there to be more positives than negatives - go take a look for yourself and use whatever terms you like.' ?

Am I crediting Pontiac with too much wisdom - or is Jaffe being too hard on them? Maybe we're both half right?

It's not just about selling stuff
My final critique is that despite an uplifting and over-arching final message "everything is at stake and everything is on the table" Jaffe consistently fixates on selling stuff to people.
This is quite a personal criticism. Jaffe's remit is of course to serve the world of marketing and to persuade traditional marketers of the error of their ways. And part of that is persuading them that life will be better for them should they see the light. And he achieves this in spades.
There is much value in this in the world as it is and as it may be for a couple of years more.
But for me the impact of the network, its power to disrupt what ever it touches, suggests that the message of engagement goes beyond joining 'consumers' (Jaffe's very deliberate term) in the co-creation of content/advertising, or even brand equity. It means that a new community-powered ecology emerges in which converged individuals are doing the co-creation of the very products and services. This very act is all the marketing a product ever needs. That which we create, we embrace... (Alan Moore, et al). I make this argument in rather more detail here.

In summary? (whaddya mean you stopped reading ages ago...)
Join The Conversation
is a deliberately provocative, example-rich examination of the changing landscape of marketing being wrought by the high richter earthquakes of community dominance. It serves as a fine primer for marketing and media professionals and makes a good fist of offering some 'How To' advice on actually joining the conversation.
Those who've read The Cluetrain Manifesto and/or Communities Dominate Brands won't find too many new truths. But Jaffe's central themes are clearly presented and make a compelling case for change.

The blog of the book is available here.

I'm speaking at The Digital Marketing Briefing in London on March 18. Joseph is doing the keynote so I'm hoping he and I can continue the conversation his book has started and this review has contributed to, there.

You are very welcome to join in right now.

UPDATE; I note some bloggers are offering up their copy to the next blogger to share in the new marketing experiment. I've passed mine on to a colleague who writes a blog - but I haven't applied the Jaffe 'Thou Shalt Review' rule. I'll let you know should it inspire her enough to comment on it...

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?