Monday, December 08, 2008

Why cut brands out of the conversation?

Cutting brands out of the conversation is not a wise business strategy. It is is limiting and potentially damaging for all concerned.

I’ve used Flickr for many years – as have many of my colleagues.

I’ve even used Flickr for ‘Branded’ functions – setting up accounts in the name of brands, using its functionality to upload and display to those brands' own websites etc.

And I know I’m not alone in this.

So when we thought of running a competition using the group functionality of Flickr no one thought – STOP surely this is all nasty commercial stuff Flickr won’t accept.

So it came as something of a surprise when we discovered that a competition group associated with a brand runs the risk of being closed down because it contravenes Flickr’s commercial use terms and conditions.

Let’s consider the landscape here for a moment. We’re told by Flickr that groups don’t support competitions. We found 3600+ running when we last looked. Image courtesy

A vast proportion of the users of Flickr are promoting their photographic wares, from just displaying the quality of their work right up to (and including) people selling T-shirts and mugs with their images on them.

Huge numbers of groups are brand-related. From the obvious (Canon and Nikon users) to the might-as-well-be-an-advert of group’s extolling the virtues of one of Ford’s trucks.

None of these have links to buy stuff (though, hang on a minute, many of the groups do, it turns out).

Seems even if your group has zero links to external sites, no calls to action to buy – in other words is less commercial than most, you’re still not welcome if you come attached to a brand.

It seems a little unfair that because you organise a group FOR a brand Flickr will take exception but if users of brands (and how can you tell the difference in most cases) create a group, all is well.

Not exactly encouraging transparency now, is it?

Is this a case of ‘if it’s from the edge its ok, if it’s from the centre, it isn’t’. A big principled philosophical stand?

Nah. It’s all about the money. Any brand can PAY for a sponsored group, which Flickr will then happily spam its users with by pasting it all over the homepage with no regard for that user’s interests. There is no moral high-ground in that.

Good brands don’t use social media, they participate in it. At least, their representatives do.

They go to the trouble of reaching out to people who care about a particular competition, theme or idea - to join in. And they ask them to bring others – more people to Flickr in this case – more of the people who make Flickr.

Flickr is the provider of tools and a platform. The community that emerges is not Flickr's, it's simply enabled by those tools.

Good examples make Flickr more useful for all those concerned. Users end up uploading and sharing more images, and forging more connections. And each new node on the network doubles its value.

We didn’t intend to give Flickr money. We did intend to give it more people and something useful those people could do together.

We usually charge for this service…

I suspect those at the top in Flickr get all this. But those charged with hitting short-term commercial targets don’t.

So, a little advice for the commercial strategists at Flickr. Nose off grind-stone a minute. Look around you.

Facebook. More images than you. More people than you. Treats brands just the same as it treats users. There I can set up a fan page, share functionality etc, as a brand or as a user. Perhaps they’ve noticed brands are made up of people (you can but hope…)
Whatever the case, Facebook’s treatment of brands is welcoming. Come and play. Join in. Learn from the networked world.

Consider Youtube. Brands can create channels, profiles, upload content. They are treated like users. Join in: Brand or user.

Consider Blogger. Brands can create blogs and have them hosted by google. All at no cost. Join in: Brand or user.

Consider Twitter. Brands can create a profile and interact just as much as any individual user. Join in: Brand or user.

These, and the vast majority of communities, see the bigger picture. They are not the owners of a community. They are the owners of a set of tools for the community to do with as they will. And the communities include people who happen to work for brands.

Flickr, and communities like it, are made up of people who have to create part to take part. Brands are one of the things they want to create around and interact around – just try some searches to see. Creation and interaction is what makes community valuable.

My best advice: Don’t stand in the way of this.

Youtube, Facebook, Blogger, twitter are all applying the principles of the because effect – when something that was once scarce becomes abundant you can no longer make money with it, you have to try to make money because of it.

The classic model is music. Now that digital music is everywhere and all-but free you can’t make money charging for it (selling cds) but you can make money because of your music (ie concert tickets –things that are scarce).

Youtube made uploading, sharing and broadcasting video abundant. They realized therefore they couldn’t make money from that. They have focused on making money from what has resulted from that (because of that) – their place as one of the biggest sites on the planet with huge, huge audiences and increasingly clever in context ads.

We appreciate these are difficult times for commercial considerations. We appreciate the lines are blurring.

But Flickr and other social networks have lessons to learn if they want to connect properly with brands as they adapt to the networked world.

  • Social Glue has a plan to open debate around this and get the social networks (yes Flickr dudes, you included), users and brand-promoting folks to join in and establish some new ways of doing business in this networked world - ways which will be to all parties' advantage - particularly for the communities we're all trying to serve.

Hope you'll join in.
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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?