First published June/July 2009 | While the ‘now’ has never been more popular, with many consumers still keen on instant gratification, trying to maximize the amount of experiences they can collect in as little time as possible (and with as little budget as possible), there are equally strong forces promoting the ‘forever’:
FOREVERISM | Encompasses the many ways that consumers and businesses are embracing conversations, relationships, and products that are never done. Driving its popularity is technology that allows them to find, follow, interact and collaborate forever with anyone & anything.
As FOREVERISM leans heavily on various societal and technological developments, the topic may lend itself more to a hefty tome than to a monthly trend briefing. Blissfully, we can hide behind our focus on consumer trends and skip some of the heavy lifting ;-).
So let’s start with how countless individuals are building online profiles and relationships that are potentially ‘forever’, and how that is already impacting their interaction with brands in a variety of new ways.
Return to sender no more
While the notion of consumers establishing and (passionately) tending to their online presences is no longer a source of wonder, the sheer scale and scope of the phenomenon is still astounding. Hundreds of millions of personal pages, feeds, status updates, tweets, profiles, blogs—courtesy of the Facebooks, the mySpaces, the Twitters, the LinkedIns—are building up to an eternally up-to-date encyclopedia of individuals that defies even the most futuristic predictions back in the early days of the web.
These profiles (and billions of other digital crumbs scattered across cyberspace), will live on forever. Not just because the web is a massive caching machine, but more importantly, because younger generations will never want to dispose of their groomed online presence to begin with. Some (obligatory) figures:
- Facebook reached 200 million active users on 8 April 2009. More than 100 million users log on to Facebook every day, while more than 20 million users update their status at least once each day.
- MySpace now boasts 130 million members, LinkedIn counts over 40 million members, and Twitter over 30 million members (late May 2009). Oh, and China’s Twitter, TaoTao, now has nearly 50 million users.
- Overall, the share of adult US internet users who have a profile on a social networking site has more than quadrupled in the past four years—from 8% in 2005 to 35% now. For adults aged 18-24, it’s 75%, and for tweens, it’s close to 100%. (Source: Pew Internet, January 2009.)
We could go on and on, but it all boils down to future ubiquity for personal online profiles, representing every individual who is online, which in mature consumer societies will mean 99% of the population.
What’s forever present, is forever findable and trackable, too. Jeff Jarvis, our favorite media guru, describes one consequence of a FOREVER PRESENCE in his book What Would Google Do (WWGD):
“Thanks to our connection machine, they [young people] will stay linked, likely for the rest of their lives. With their blogs, MySpace pages, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, Seesmic conversations, Twitter feeds, and all the means for sharing their lives yet to be invented, they will leave lifelong Google tracks that will make it easier to find them. Alloy, a marketing firm, reported in 2007(!) that 96 percent of U.S. teens and tweens used social networks—they are essentially universal—and so even if one tie is severed, young people will still be linked to friends of friends via another, never more than a degree or two apart.”
So expect, for a long time to come, ever-more sophisticated tracking innovations to pop up daily. Just one example:
- Google’s Latitude lets users see the approximate location of their friends and loved ones. From Google: “So now you can do things like see if your spouse is stuck in traffic on the way home from work, notice that a buddy is in town for the weekend, or take comfort in knowing that a loved one's flight landed safely, despite bad weather. And with Latitude, not only can you see your friends' locations on a map, but you can also be in touch directly via SMS, Google Talk, Gmail, or by updating your status message; you can even upload a new profile photo on the fly. It's a fun way to feel close to the people you care about.”
Now, relentless tracking of friends (or celebs or prices or governments or brands) is just one of the numerous societal and behavioral changes set in motion by FOREVER PRESENCE. So rather than leading you down all of the varied paths this development is taking, we're focusing on just two consequences of FOREVERISM in this briefing*: a conversation revolution, and the related move towards a beta attitude.
* We will highlight additional FOREVER PRESENCE consequences and opportunities in future briefings, including more on tracking, transparency, digital afterlife, and THE BRAND CALLED YOU 2.0.
The cluetrain manifesto meets Twitter.
FOREVER PRESENCE, with its effortless getting and staying in touch, is already facilitating a deafening (well, metaphorically speaking) conversation, that will continue between friends, family, strangers, foes, and yes, brands, in every possible combination until the end of times.
And while we have no intention of re-hashing the benefits of co-creation, we just want to point out that, ten years after the cluetrain manifesto (‘markets are conversations’) was published, it took a real-time publishing / conversation platform like Twitter to entice (big) brands to finally publicly interact with their customers.
Not that the infrastructure (email! chat! comments!) wasn't already in place, or that consumers had no interest in interacting with companies (there must be a billion ignored consumer suggestions, complaints, comments, questions, and reviews floating around online), but it looks like the real-time, in-your-face, mass public conversation that is Twitter was just the straw that broke the camel's back.
Sure, Twitter is ‘just’ the next evolution in personal communications, and something newer will steal hearts in the future, but unlike other Next Big Things, its low barriers to entry and ease of use are enticing even the most luddite consumers, celebrities and brands to join in. The forced brevity of tweets has helped, too: it's easier to deal with a barrage of interactions if both sides are limited to a maximum of 140 characters.
So while B2C brands that have jumped on the 'twitwagon' already use Twitter for anything from PR, news and marketing campaigns to Twitter-only sales offers to recruiting, the business reality is that conversations with customers are taking over, or will do so soon.
Big brands, real people? Some of the faces behind corporate twittering, from Starbucks to easyJet.
It gets better, though: for years, we only had William Sanders*, better known as the Starwood Lurker, to write about when it came to big brands monitoring and replying to customers' questions and suggestions in person. And we're talking championing them instead of sending them off empty-handed or referring them to yet another powerless customer support rep.
* Sanders spends 8 hours a day engaging in anything Starwood related on FlyerTalk.com, a community for avid business travelers, and has more than 17,000 posts to his name.
Now, all of a sudden, big brands have assigned Chief Bloggers, Directors of Digital Care, Customer Relationships Experts, Social Media Strategists, Heads of Social Media, and yes, ‘Corporate Twitterers’ to personally (wo)man their Twitter conversations. Oh well, better late than never...
Time for some examples, taken from corporate Twitter accounts:
http://twitter.com/ford (6,991 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/mas (4,081 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/wholefoods (696,021 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/easyjetcare (651 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/airasiadotcom (3,670 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/ask_wellsfargo (1,662 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/jetblue (581,232 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/CarnivalCruise (6,397 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/comcastcares (19,944 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/LionelatDell (2,812 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/americanapparel (26,263 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/BofA_help (2,365 followers at last count)
http://twitter.com/starbucks (194,342 followers at last count)
Now, not surprisingly, after years of one-way conversations, brands that finally open up (like the twitter examples above) will first have to deal with a steady flow of pent-up anger, complaints and frustration from customers who previously haven't had anywhere else to go.
But over time, when honest problem-solving (in combination with improved performance, of course) will lead to more balanced relationships, the focus will shift to cooperation if not co-creation. Including brands actively initiating conversations.
Not participating yet? Don’t even think about just dipping your toes in: dive into (and learn from, if not copy) what other brands are already doing on Twitter. Look, this isn't Second Life: starting the conversation on Twitter is easy (five minutes and you're up and running) and it won’t cost you the world.
Check out this best-of-the-best listing of B2C brands on Twitter, courtesy of Tracking Twitter, then peruse these 100 brands that are mentioned most often in the twittersphere, courtesy of BrandRepublic. Or get some help from CoTweet, a platform that helps companies reach and engage customers using Twitter. Clients include WholeFoods, Starbucks and Alaska Airlines.
From chocolates to cardio equipment: any product can benefit from a FOREVER BETA mindset.
Related to mass conversations is the inevitability of companies having to start opening up the way their customers have already opened up online, introducing and revealing themselves, flaws and all, and relying on the crowds for feedback and advice. At that point, the conversation will turn into more of a looping, continuous dialogue than a one-off, casual encounter.
Think operating in a humble, transparent, unpolished, almost human-like FOREVER BETA mode, not just for one product, but for an entire organization. And we're not only talking about the usual suspects like software giants and web 2.0 icons, but traditional B2C brands too, be it in automotive or FMCG.
For further insights on how to go into permanent beta mode, how to humanize brands, how to bring out the best in your customers by giving them access to unfinished, imperfect goods and services, check out these old-yet-current articles by Influx and Jay Cross, and this video by Clay Shirky.
While beta-as-a-mindset insights have been around for some years now, FOREVER BETA may soon get its well-deserved moment in the sun. As the current recession is starting to look more like a massive overhaul of institutions (not least the institution known as ‘big business’), fundamentally new relationships between consumers and brands will attract lots of attention. And FOREVER BETA fits the bill. Having gotten that out of the way, here are some examples:
Newspapers may be dying, but news is forever. Image courtesy of ravpigeon
Let’s first look at the news business, which forever finds itself the canary in the digital coalmine. ‘News’ is a telling example of how the new culture of online profiles, of updating, of beta, of following, of turning the process into the product can lead to creative destruction in its purest form.
As Jeff Jarvis (yes, him again) first noted ages ago (i.e. April 2007):
Interviews and articles need never end. And never start. A story can begin with a reader’s blog post: ‘I wish I knew…’ Or it can begin with a reporter’s blog post: ‘I’m looking at doing a story about ____. What do you know? What do you want to know? What should I ask? Whom should I ask?’ Who says the reporters should ask all the questions? Shouldn’t the readers? Then the interviews can appear online to be challenged, amended, and corrected by writers, readers, and subjects alike. Then the reporter writes a story.
But who says the story should be over then — done, fishwrap — just because the reporter’s finished writing it? The story is online and it continues to live and grow as people add their knowledge and perspectives and corrections . So the article isn’t a product. It is a process. It’s alive.”
And last September, on why he thinks the article is no longer the building block of journalism, and has been replaced by the ‘topic’:
“I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. It’s an aggregator that provides annotated links to experts, coverage, opinion, perspective, source material. It’s a discussion that doesn’t just blather but that tries to accomplish something. It’s collaborative and distributed and open but organized.”
Now, how can the above be applied to businesses that are not dealing with purely digital processes and services? Take a cue from our favorite example of FOREVER BETA in the ‘real world’:
Picture courtesy of Niall Kennedy
- TCHO, the San Francisco based chocolatier, produces "beta editions" of its dark chocolate. Continuous flavor development and customer feedback mean that varieties are constantly evolving, with new versions emerging as often as every 36 hours. TCHO’s first version of chocolate recently came out of Beta (after 1,026 iterations) and is called Tcho 1.0. Last October, TCHO also opened its Beta Factory Store on Pier 17 in San Francisco.
From the company itself: “When one of our chocolates graduates from Beta, it means we’ve integrated your feedback, finished our tweaking, and believe it’s ready for general release—which means much bigger batches.”
If you’re digital, then 'beta' in its purest form (including instant updates and upgrades), will be a given. If you’re involved with physical production, beta is a mindset. Meaning you’re not going to hawk inedible chocolates, or, God forbid, sell hospitals your semi-tried and tested cardio monitor equipment. But you are still going to be as obsessed with continuous improvement and innovation, as if you were a pure web 2.0 play, together with your customers.
Next? Expect to hear more about modularity (again), as this not only solves the costly issue of customers having to replace everything (as opposed to just a module or part) whenever an improved version of a physical product is introduced. It's also a more environmentally sustainable approach to beta production. Another solution is to focus on hardware that lasts forever, while the (non-polluting) software perennially is improved and upgraded. For inspiration, check out Modu and Bug Labs, two (older) modular mobile phone examples; it's up to you to come up with a similar take for other industries.
But wait, haven’t we been *forever* gushing over the ever-more transient nature of consumerism? Let’s face it: many things are inherently transient and short-lived, and consumers like it that way. And in the looooong run, nothing lasts forever. But FOREVERISM and NOWISM aren’t mutually exclusive. The opportunity lies in figuring out which processes, services, products currently are ephemeral when consumers would perhaps prefer some sort of FOREVERISM. And vice versa.
Embrace FOREVERISM to find eternal rewards ;-)
Feel FOREVERISM is too broad a topic to dig into? Then focus on a few specific projects.
Like fine-tuning your Twitter strategy to really start the conversation with your customers. Or introducing one ‘beta’ product that you will keep improving with help of the crowds.
From there on, try to make FOREVERISM part of your thinking when it comes to client relationships. Assess which of your current offerings are primarily transient, while customers may prefer them to be more lasting.
Anyway, enough to keep you busy until our next briefing finds its way to you (needless to say we're also working on a 'NOWISM' special). And yes, we intend to keep our briefings coming forever ;-)