Social Objects, GE & Bonnie Raitt

4_3_2014The 12 readers of this blog will recognize some themes in the essay about social objects appearing in the current Hammock Idea-Email.  Also, thanks to my friend Hugh MacLeod for giving us permission to use his illustration to accompany it. More importantly, thanks to Hugh for introducing me to the idea of social objects several years ago.


Social objects come in a wide variety of forms, from cartoons to blog posts to 4-photo tweets. They are the hard currency of the internet, the beginning of a social exchange that creates and fosters conversations that lead to long-term, people-to-people relationships among those who go by such labels as buyers and sellers, shoppers and merchants, creators and collectors.

(Sidenote: Each issue of the Idea-Email contains one 300-400 word essay on an idea we believe will be helpful to a senior marketing executive. You can see an archive of past issues and subscribe to it here.)

Groupon, groupon, groupon

I’ve started a few times to write a blog post that replies line-by-line to John Battelle’s “thinking out loud” post about Groupon. I’ve decided to shelve that effort because, frankly, I agree with him that Groupon is a big deal for lots of reasons. More importantly, I discovered that such an approach required too much context  regarding my journey of the past 20 years on the topic and marketplace of American small businesses and the internet, that my real reason for responding to John would be lost. (However, a fast draft of that response will likely make it into a future post unrelated to Groupon.)

More importantly, my response to John started sounding like an attack on Groupon or, worse, on Battelle. The truth is, I admire what Groupon has done and its potential; and I greatly enjoy Battelle’s writing, even when I disagree with him.

However, I  believe one can admire Groupon’s success and believe in its potential, but still believe the company was mistaken not to sell to Google for $6 billion. One can admire Groupon, but still believe that any growth metrics they display today could falter for a whole list of possible factors.

And, most directly related to where I disagree with John, one can be a fan of Groupon and not compare what they’ve done to some lofty status as creator of  “the third platform” of the past century for small businesses; something that Battelle says is as significant as the Yellow Pages and Google search ads.

One can believe Groupon can be a massive success, but let’s hold on. One is wading over into irrational exuberance when starting to call it “the third platform.” Without any research whatsoever (other than what is stuck in my brain from 20 years of writing about small business and, well, tracking the topic rather closely), I could argue that Ebay, with its $9 billion in net revenues, is a better “second platform” candidate than either Google or Groupon. While Google and Groupon depend on existing small businesses to utilize their services, Ebay has been a platform for the actual creation of tens of thousands of the the types of businesses that are represented in the statistics John uses when he cites the SBA’s approach to counting 23 million small businesses in America. (That number includes anyone claiming self-employed income when filing federal taxes.)

As John writes, Groupon’s rise to prominence may have been unprecedented, but that may also prove how easy it is to scale a 50% off coupon concept during the worst recession since the 1930s, not on how great Groupon is for the long-haul, when their 50% split with merchants comes under attack by competitors. John wants to attribute their success to some special genie in a bottle related to the amount of cash the company has, or its fun approach or the use of improv comedians as sales people, or whatever. That is growing at similar speeds and has just received $175 million from Amazon (who, I’ll remind John and others, has millions of affiliate sellers and marketplace participants, who  also show up among the 23 million small businesses he cites) would seem to suggest that Groupon’s lock on the entire third-platform concept of aggregated buying (or voucher selling) is far from a done-deal.

Or maybe, just maybe, now that Groupon/LivingSocial has provided them a “first-order” view of the concept’s potential, small businesses may be attracted to an independent, self-forming platform that allows them to cut out the whole middle-layer of Groupon/LivingSocial — perhaps at a lower price that can be split between the merchant and consumer. Maybe a Craigslist or Wiki approach or, who knows, or a “whole-new-model” of an approach that allows small businesses to access shoppers and potential shoppers who wish to participate in self-forming purchasing groups — not through some intermediary like Groupon.

Somehow, I thought such disintermediation was part of the promise of both conversational marketing and Web 2.0.

Somehow, I must have misinterpreted what John was talking about all those years.

Remembering Katrina: And thoughts on why Twitter is not a blog shrunk down to “micro-” size

I can’t go through these few days each year without thinking back to 2005 and how I anticipated Katrina approaching the gulf coast leading up to August 29 and then gradually realized the severity of what was taking place. By reviewing my blog posts, I can see that even I did not understand how bad things were until late on the 30th or early on September 1. By September 2, I was doing all I could to point to Nashvillians and web-based efforts responding to the human needs caused by the aftermath of Katrina.

As Katrina is now seared into our consciousness as being one of the worst natural disasters in American history, it is helpful to me to glance through my posts over those few days — as I used this blog more as “a diary” then than perhaps at any other time over the past nine years. I can see how I (and collectively, “we”) went from being concerned to “shocked” at what was taking place.

For example, it was not until September 3, that I wrote a a short post called “Sinking in”:

Perhaps symbolic of the collective delay in responding to Katrina has been how has responded. Universally praised for turning over its front page to tsunami relief almost immediately, did not add a donation link of any size (noted by Jason Kottke) to its front page until three days after the hurricane. Today, six days after, the dominant position of the front page is finally devoted to Katrina relief. This is not a criticism of Amazon’s response, rather a curious observation of how there was an apparent initial disbelief by lots of people that an unprecedented tragedy of historic proportions was unfolding. (I’ll reserve my criticism for Apple, who has hyped the Mighty Mouse in the dominant position all week.)

Having a blog can help me recall how my colleagues and I at Hammock, on September 14, adopted a magazine in New Orleans called Louisiana Cookin’ after learning their staff had been evacuated to places all over the country. Our assistance was more technical and “holding hands” and becoming friends than anything, but it lasted a few issues and I’m happy to see the magazine is still being published today (and I just renewed my subscription).

Because I have a blog, I can review and recall the impact on me and my then 15-year-old son (and photos) of spending a couple of days working in coastal Mississippi with a volunteer group from our church six months after Katrina. And then, almost a year after the storm and aftermath, how he and I travelled to New Orleans to finally meet our new Louisiana Cookin’ friends and join them in celebrating some outstanding young chefs who were (and still are) committed to continue making the region home to some of the most wonderful food in America.

Because I blog, I can look back and read at how that trip both made me realize a part of New Orleans will likely never return, while marveling how another part of it came back to life almost immediately:

While an incomprehensibly broad swath of neighborhoods are still struggling through the very earliest stages of coming back to life, and may never recover fully, — and these range from inner-city to affluent neighborhoods — such a tourist-iconic spot as Jackson Square was stunningly beautiful when I strolled through it Monday. And all those seedy joints on Bourbon Street are still seedy — in a touristy, seedy way.

As I reflect on all of this now, I wonder how much of this blogging would have been relegated to Twitter if Katrina struck today. I guess I would be able to reflect back on what I “tweeted” using FriendFeed*, but having a calendar view or archive of a period of time, or the use of keywords, categories and tags to help me recall and reorganize my impressions — would they be available to me? No.

Using Twitter is something I do with frequency and I believe it and other means of real-time expression can play a vital role during future events like Katrina (or in not-so-important-events as, say, while watching a football game). But tweeting (or what is often called “microblogging”) is not blogging. It’s not even microblogging, now that I think of it. Something called “microblogging” should have archives and tags. It’s something else, completely. And that’s not bad — indeed, it’s good. And as I’ll always admit, I don’t quite get Twitter — but that’s not going to stop me from using it. But the more I use it, but more I realize it’s not just a blog shrunk down to “micro” size.

Sidenote: Here’s a hack to address my concerns with “losing” the chronological context of tweets. As Twitter does have the blog-conventions of RSS and permalinks, you can set up a account and stream all of your tweets into it. You’ll at least have a nice archive of your tweets.

Two ‘social media’ marketing efforts: One wins, the other loses

Despite my efforts to say it’s just the term “social media” that I think has a short shelf-life (and not all of those services, features and approaches that fall under the umbrella term) some people not familiar with me or this blog still didn’t understand my post the other day.

I can understand why those who use the term in book titles or business cards may have a vested interest in promoting a catch-phrase, but I can’t understand why those who believe so deeply in “social media” can actually think what’s going on here can be contained to their world — and to their understanding of what all this is. It’s not just marketing, people.

However, to show that I do appreciate the marketing aspects of “social media,” I’ve decided to critique a couple of “social media marketing efforts” I’ve seen lately. I selected these two because they both use themes related to people expressing themselves — something I believe is a fundamental element of the unique power of “social media.” I also selected them because one is great and the other is a train-wreck in progress.

So, here are two examples of national brand marketers using tools and approaches that collectively have been dubbed “social media.” I believe one of the executions is brilliant. I believe the other is so bad I’m already nominating it for consideration by next year’s Suxorz panel at South by Southwest.


A Winner: The Sharpie Uncapped Gallery.

Concept: Lots of people love to use Sharpie pens to create art work — give them lots of places to share that passion with one-another and the world. And if they choose to create their own places to share it, promote those also.

Why I like it: Most brand marketers would say, “Gee we love this user-generated content idea so let’s create a website so people can upload drawings they make with Sharpie products.” Most likely, the idea would have been to create a cool Web 2.0 site on a specific URL and hope that all the Sharpie fans out there will flock to it. But as I’ve said many times, any real passion (let’s say, drawing with Sharpies), can never be limited to one URL.

The smart folks who created this campaign — and those who bought the idea — didn’t get hung-up on the one-URL issue, however.

Along with its own Sharpie Uncapped Gallery and blog, the Sharpie folks are embracing individuals who love Sharpies wherever they may be. For example, they link out to a search of all Sharpie Flickr Groups (there are 274 of them) — not just their own Flickr gallery. And while they have created a unique Sharpie YouTube channel, more interesting than their own uploaded video are the videos they are “favoriting” — videos others have created with Sharpies. Whoever is maintaining the gallery is also actively linking — and promoting — the websites of artists, illustrators, cartoonists and doodlers who use Sharpies in their work — like this artist who paints on guitars.

I was so impressed and inspired, I purchased a pack of Sharpies and am going to start posting my own doodles a lot more.



A Loser: Miracle Whip’s Zingr

What it is: A Firefox and Internet Explorer plug-in that allows you to see and post notes on websites that others using the plug in can see.

Why I hate it: As my Uncle Rexyana used to say, “Those who forget the gimmicks of the past are doomed to repeat them.” I know that 1999 is ancient history to most people developing things they believe have never been done before, but a re-reading of this 1999 article about “Third Voice” may jog your memory of the Web 1.0 version of this web graffiti idea. This article in The Register provides a taste of what the reaction to Third Voice was:

“Third Voice has provoked the ire of Internet users and Webmasters by releasing software that allows Web surfers to share comments about Web sites. The problem is not necessarily that the Third Voice system is invasive, but that it allows anyone to add comments — such as spam — to a Web site without the permission of the site’s owner.”

Don’t get me wrong: I believe there are acceptable ways to use plug-ins to facilitate and encourage communities that are engaged in conversation adjacent to websites and pages (For example, I like the friend-bar approach you can find with the plug-in found at However, when those plug-ins invade the editorial and aesthetic integrity of the site (meaning things like Zingr) I believe they become little more than canned spray paint for graffiti. For that reason, Zingr is about as appealing as mayonnaise opened and left out of the refrigerator for several days.

Is the word ‘magazine’ taboo?


Samir Husni (Mr. Magazine) posts a rant about the publishers of Ladies Home Journal’s apparent attempt to rebrand Ladies Home Journal into LHJ. In marketing material to advertisers, the word “magazine” is mentioned only once but the magazine is referred to as a “national media brand” several times.


Now, the folks working at Ladies’ Home Journal may fondly refer to the magazine as LHJ, but do they really think the readers outside the magazine’s offices refer to the magazine as LHJ? If we are truly in the process of reinventing ourselves and reintroducing ourselves, should we make it easier for the readers to find our brand or should we make it harder? I hope that this test is not a sign of what “reintroducing Meredith” is going to be. Ladies’ Home Journal is a much bigger brand in the women’s magazine field to be reintroduced as LHJ… and so are the remaining magazines published by Meredith. I hope that the word “magazine” is not going to be a “taboo” in the vocabulary of the “Reintroduced Meredith” and the same is true for Ladies’ Home Journal. There is a big difference between a “brand experience” and a “magazine experience.” Please do keep the “magazine experience” well and alive and the “brand experience” will follow.

As our company has been in a two-year process of conveying the message that our services extend beyond magazine publishing (they always have), I nonetheless feel that my job also involves explaining, whenever possible, why magazines are a powerful facet of a multi-channelled conversational marketing approach. (#1 Lesson to learn from great brands like Nike and Apple: More media channels are better than fewer media channels.)

While I champion digital media and all forms of community-building online, I’m not running away from magazines.

Bonus: Not that you asked, but on another front, I think a two-inch video embedded on the page of a magazine is right up (down?) there with scratch and sniff: a clever gimmick in unique circumstances but not the future of magazines.

Bonus (addendum): When I saw the news that Entertainment Weekly was embedding 2 inch video screens in an upcoming issue of the magazine, it made me wonder (once again) why magazine publishers would rather resort to gimmicks than exploit the power of the medium they have. Let me stress this point: Video is not what’s missing from print magazines: great editing and design and passion and smart business people are what’s missing from magazines.

However, that’s not to say that there are not lots of ways one can use technology, innovation and fun to create experiences unique to print and the technology sitting on people’s desks: