[23 September 2009]
“Marketers need to understand, accept, and participate in this new world,” writes Paul Gillin in The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to New Social Media. “They really have no choice. The tools they’ve been using to reach their customers for the last 50 years are becoming less and less effective. Newspapers are losing readers and having an increasingly hard time justifying their high advertising rates.”
The “new world” to which Gillin refers is Web 2.0. Gillin’s argument is that neither international conglomerates nor small mom-and-pops can afford to ignore it. He then sets out to offer a primer on “conversation marketing” and how the different iterations of Web 2.0—including blogs, podcasts, and viral marketing—can help increase sales and, for marketers and public relations professionals, increase influence.
“Social media offers marketers a chance to break this gridlock and engage with their customers in a whole new way,” says Gillin. “It means creating a dialog with customers in which useful information is exchanged so that both parties benefit from the relationship.”
Furthermore, on those terms, Gillin’s optimism about Web 2.0 is extreme. All by itself, the cacophony of voices in Web 2.0 has developed an etiquette that is positively decorous: “Common sense says that a medium with so little structure should degenerate into chaos,” Gillin writes. “But remarkably, exactly the opposite is happening. Complex patterns of governance are already emerging, driven by a set of shared values that aren’t codified but just understood. The blogosphere rejects structure, yet it’s making up a structure as it goes along.”
As these words suggest, Gillin uses the blogosphere to tell a fairy tale about unregulated capitalism. Out of the chaos of the free market that is the blogosphere (in Gillin’s mind), an invisible hand emerges, creating order and with it both profitability and sociability. Gillin pushes this tendency so far that it becomes one of the major weaknesses of The New Influencers: the rhetorical similarities between Gillin’s portrait of Web 2.0 and free-market utopia of neoliberal economics eventually overpower Gillin’s analyses of individual Web 2.0 phenomena and businesses that have made them work for them. The reader gets the feeling that if she doesn’t share Milton Friedman’s basic world outlook from the jump, then The New Influencers will have nothing worthwhile to say to her.
As much as Gillin’s wild-eyed gushing made me want to tune him out, nevertheless, The New Influencers has its informative moments. Gillin profiles the blogging experiences of a number of companies, both large and small, and his grasp of the details of these companies’ operations is occasionally impressive.
There are some surprising insights. In his chapter on podcasting, Gillin argues that companies benefit most from podcasts whose function as advertising is as indirect as possible. Rather than podcasts that directly promote a business or brand name, Gillin focuses on how businesses use the medium to “own” a particular subject. “You can own a topic,” Gillin exhorts the reader. “If you make bicycles, launch a monthly podcast on America’s greatest bike routes. If you make nails, talk about home improvement.” Gillin argues convincingly that Whirlpool USA was able to improve its image and increase sales of its stock-in-trade, home appliances, by launching a podcast called “Whirpool American Family”. The podcast has next to nothing to do with appliances, and instead devotes itself entirely to discussions of “the American family”, whatever that means. Johnson & Johnson went the same route with “Download with Heather and Jonelle”, in which a pair of Long Island teenage girls help their corporate paymasters sell Acuvue contact lenses by talking about their pet obsessions: boys, clothes, etc.
In a chapter on “Corporate Conversations”, Gillin finds in Microsoft and GM two examples of major companies with generally bad reputations that were able to rehabilitate their images somewhat by entering the blogosphere. And, in Gillin’s compelling argument, both companies achieved this the same way: by using blogs by their own employees to project an image of corporate openness, transparency, and honesty. Whenever visitors to Microsoft or GM corporate blogs commented negatively, the companies left those comments up and, rather than try to suppress criticism, the Microsoft and GM blogs would address it in the most conciliatory manner that they could. Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble even criticized Microsoft himself on more than one occasion.
Because this is a review for PopMatters and not The Economist or the Wall Street Journal, I tried to use my reading of The New Influencers to find ways that the communications techniques and technologies now available to business to achieve politically progressive ends. On that score, Gillin’s chapter on “Corporate Conversations” is revealing: it shows how critical voices in the blogosphere can drown themselves out, bringing the public’s attention to nothing, and at the same time be instrumentalized as exemplars of the culture of “openness” and “transparency” that allegedly reigns supreme at one corporate behemoth or another.
This disturbing piece of news aside, however, The New Influencers has almost nothing to offer anyone who is interested in using Web 2.0 for any but the tightly circumscribed commercial purposes that Gillin discusses in the book.
And even if one looks at Influencers on its own terms, the major problem with Gillin’s book is that its overall point of view is too boosterish to do anyone much good as a primer on Internet marketing. Web 2.0 may be young, but Gillin’s feverish anything-is-possible enthusiasm still feels out of date, and readers who can see that will have trouble taking Gillin’s more reasoned observations seriously.