Today’s new publics (navigation series, post #1)

Welcome to my Corporate Communications Compass (CCC)!

This first post is not only to inaugurate CCC but also the first article in a little series on how to navigate today’s marketing milieu. The series is mainly based on a presentation I held at Bulldog Reporter’s Media Relations Summit 2008 in San Francisco. Following the presentation I got a lot of great feedback and requests to share more of my approach and continue the discussion. So, here you go!

Today’s marketing and communications environment can look confusing. While the traditional approach with mainstream media is still dominating the daily routines of most marketers and communicators, a myriad of new online media is emerging: blogs, RSS, wikis, social networks, social bookmarking, sharing and rating sites, virtual worlds, you name it! How can we detect and leverage new opportunities for our business, but also avoid wasting resources on dead ends? How can we navigate through this rapidly evolving space?

I tried a couple of navigation systems to see what they can do for our situation.

The first one is a subway map.

It was created by an organization called the Future Exploration Network and is meant to illustrate how trends blend and impact each other. Each subway line represents a major force of change in our lives: yellow is society, purple is politics, pink is demographics, green is economy and red is the technology line. The points where they cross are major interchanges. While I don’t necessarily agree with all the stops they put on these lines, I think they have a strong point here, which is: today’s marketing environment is more connected than ever. Some people think that it is mostly technology that changes communications or even our lives. I disagree. I believe we need to understand all the forces in this milieu, so as to understand the change and make our work successful. Don’t be afraid, I won’t even try to talk through ALL of this now. But what I will do is to address those forces that make the most difference to us. How does this kind of milieu impact what we as communicators should worry about most? How does it affect the people we want to communicate with?

Let’s start with the societal perspective. We are living more individualized lives that are not as regulated by public institutions as they were by previous generations. As a result, people are building trust in new ways. They have less trust in established institutions like governments or brands. Even personal advisers like doctors or lawyers are less trusted. Instead they build increasingly trust with people who share an interest with them: their peers. In summary, we have more confidence in each other than in institutions. Most of us will be able to confirm this anecdotally, but there are also studies from Forrester Research, Yankelovich Partners or Edelman’s annual trust survey that prove this is happening. Let’s look at an example. While our grandparents would have typically followed the advice of their doctor without asking any questions, we not only call for a second opinion, but we also seek someone else who suffers from that same disease before we undergo that surgery.

Aiding this social dynamic are new technologies that actually empower us to connect with our peers in peer-to-peer (p2p) networks. We can use search engines to locate someone else with that same rare disease who lives on the other side of the planet. The same dynamic is true for all aspects of our lives, as well as the products we use. Any group of people who share an interest in what a company does or stands for can easily connect through the internet and share their views by electronic word of mouth. They can do this on a growing number of new media platforms like blogs, wikis, social networks or even in a virtual world like Second Life. These communities of interest can include customers, employees, media, analysts, partners or members of any other traditional audience, each of them a potential source of trust or distrust between the other.

In economic terms, networks of individualized peers create niche markets. However special someone’s interest might be, the probability that this person will find peers who share this interest was never higher than today. And commmunities of interest create demand. Let’s again look at an example. My 11-year-old son is a penguin enthusiast with a lot of specific questions. You wouldn’t believe how quickly he found online buddies who could help with things like: Where is the best zoo for penguins? Where is a toy store carrying cool plush penguins? What are the best penguin movies? Where can you watch, rent or buy them? Where is the best place to meet these guys in their natural environment? Is there a travel agency that will take you there? And, of course, how do you pitch a penguin budget to your dad? (By the way, there is a virtual world called “Club Penguin” where children play games and interact with penguin avatars. Last year, Club Penguin was acquired by Disney for $ 700 m US-Dollars.) In the grand scheme of things, the penguin “industry” might still be a niche market, but you can see how market fragments can shape up today fueled by social networks of peers.

Based on this triple dynamic in society, technology and economy, I believe it’s fair to say that we have to deal with new publics. What makes them new? Since this space is evolving rapidly, any definition claiming to be exhaustive will fail, but here are a couple of characteristics. Firstly, new publics are constituted by people who couldn’t connect as an interest group before, because they were limited by all sorts of borders: geographical, cultural, hierarchical, etc. Think of the examples with the disease and the penguins above. It also makes them new that they are or can be interactive. Rather than one talking to many, as in traditional media, everyone can talk to everyone else. In other words, traditional publics favor large audiences of listeners whereas the new publics facilitate smaller communities of networkers. And it is new that an interest group can shape up ad hoc in response to an event. For instance, an audience that doesn’t like what they see on stage, can get organized and react badly, as we have seen when Business Week’s Sarah Lacy interviewed Mark Zuckerberg. As I am writing this, I realize, that the definition of new publics warrants further exploration. In the meantime, what do you think of the idea and what other characteristics would you add?

Georg Kolb