Orkut, Hello

Orkut Image, from Google

Social networking platforms rise and fall. I remember thinking Google Wave was going to be the site of the future, only to see it stall and close a year later. In fact, Google is quite good at letting engineers spin up products, test the marketplace and then kill them when conditions change (Wave, Buzz and Google Plus, for example).

Orkut – A name and a platform

This week, I learned about another product Google’s team put out that had a strong userbase and several years under its belt before closing.
Orkut debuted in 2004 and grew to become one of the largest social networking sites in Brazil. Its growth relied on a perfect blend of technology and culture, leveraging a highly connected community interested in the promise of exclusivity and based on Google’s reputation in the internet industry.

Listening to Users

In many ways, Orkut utilized many of the items identified in a sample social media action plan. While we don’t have full access to internal project charters or dashboards on usage, you can tell by the expansion of Orkut’s platform that they were listening to users, paying attention to data and trying to meet users where they were. As a part of a larger organization, it may have been hard to get the resources or even the attention of leadership to advocate for increasing processing speed or image storage, two things that played into the products eventual demise.

Orkut used exclusivity to grow its audience

In the early days of social networking, the community was the primary structure. Moving into a network like Orkut, Facebook or even LinkedIn required growth through selectivity. By inviting what we know no as influencers, Orkut grew its audience through invitations, rather than building it and waiting for people to come. For early users, it was both access to community but also a conferral of status. Diffusion strategies, offering access to everyone, may work well with a product that isn’t trying to differentiate itself, but it isn’t great at helping to create an air of exclusivity.

While we are seeing a flattening of the world with technology, it is fascinating to me how many ways local and regional cultures hold onto or develop their own microcultures. In Brazil, outdoor advertising is forbidden, so social media became a thriving adverting marketplace. Like many countries, Brazil leapfrogged over the era of personal computers driving social networks and jumped straight to cell phones, driving mobile app usage. The risk, as Orkut eventually found, was that they couldn’t keep with the byproduct that came with it, more photos, more usage and, eventually more competition for new players in the market.

Goodbye Orkut, Hello

After Google shut Orkut down, they went private, relaunched and failed to find traction in new markets. While the app is still available, you’ll be unlikely to find friends or colleagues in it today. Until a new social networking site can offer something that Facebook can’t, we’ll likely see more entrants into the field crash and burn.

Can you really know everything? Should you? Musings on Weixen

Know your customer

As marketers, we don’t want to just get in front of our customers; we want to understand what motivates our audience and how we can better serve them.  What motivates users and how to play to those levers can be understood through a handful of academic theories that explain how a user behaves. 

Social Action Theories

People have agency

One thing I know I tend to forget how much agency people have in their choices and behaviors.  We need to remember, these are not passive consumers, accepting every shiny new thing.  They are engaged prosumers, both producing and consuming content with every interaction.  When we look at a social media ecosystem, bundling as many of those interaction spots, or rather, anticipating things like cash transfer among friends, ride-sharing, memory-making activities, makes a lot of sense. To do that, you need to know a lot about your users, not just to be able to respond to their needs, but to anticipate them. 

Its time to play Monopoly

When those service providers remain distinctly owned identities, open to competitive forces, we can give far more weight to marketing strategies that might emphasize user choice and investments in nurturing relationships. From a business growth model, though, there is always the case to be made that you might want to be all things to all people, creating a walled-off environment where all your user’s needs get met.  This week’s case study looked at Weixen, a social media enterprise in China, now known as WeChat, which created a hyperconnected hub built to serve a growing young, urban, mobile population. By framing the problem to be solved as reducing search costs – the cost of lost business by forcing a user to leave your platform for something else – they were able to imagine why users might leave and prioritize and build those services.

WeChat StartUp Icon – From their branding site.

Who can weaponize your data?

Whether in Manchester, New Hampshire, or in Beijing, China, we leave digital footprints with each click and keyboard impression.  We expose our interests, our demographics, our political leanings with levels of both awareness and utter ignorance (see Terms Of Service).  But what happens when there is only one platform hosting all your interactions?  When your bank account is tied to your photo site, and your location tracker says you are at a Ski resort two hours from your home on a morning, you called in sick.  What if not only your boss had that information, but so did the government? 

Exclusion or Inclusion?

The unspoken reality in this week’s case study, the challenge I kept wrestling with as I read was how much is too much and in whose hands?  Yes, we can do user research and understand mood management theory or selective exposure theory, but if we truly surrender our privacy to live in the modern world, what happens when we begin to use that information to exclude rather than bring along? 

Don’t Be Evil

Wexler knows as much about their users as they can possibly know (and are happy to share that with the Chinese government.)  I completely understand that from a social media marketing perspective, we want to know as much about our users as possible, but reading beyond the case study challenged me to accept how normalized this idea has become.  As marketers, I believe we need to begin with making sure our products and offerings, our data collection and analysis, are aligned with the value we are offering our customers, and that, the words of Google’s old core values statement, don’t be evil.

Social Activism: A Case Study

Collection of images supporting breast cancer awareness
Google Images screenshot of breast cancer awareness memes

“Beige”

Our case study this week looked at the Susan G. Koman Foundation‘s early use of viral memes to raise awareness about breast cancer.

For those of us on Facebook in 2009 and 2010, that meme was probably passed on to us by one of our new Facebook friends through a private message. We were encouraged to post the color of our bra or the where we like to put our pocketbook when we came home at the end of the day, with no context. The idea was to make it provocative and eventually confess that it was part of a Breast Cancer Awareness campaign.

The campaign worked on a couple of principles we’ve studied so far in MKT-555, it was crafted to carefully leverage ” who says what to whom and with what effect” (Lasswell, 1948; Griffin, 2011)

  • The who: it leveraged in-group affiliation, the who being both the communicator and the participant. Before there was a term for social media influencer, there were early and active Facebook promotors. To receive a private message to update your status confirmed your belong in a small, suddenly viral process.
  • The What: the message was intended to be provocative and generated immense curiosity. The Susan G. Kolman foundation followed it up with this post to the Fanpage. “Whether you are a full-fledged Breast Cancer supporter or a shameless, sexually-charged horndog, this page is for you.”
  • The Effect: It raised awareness about breast cancer among a (then small) social media community. Although there was little evidence to prove a correlation with fundraising.

Unintended Consequences

What started as a fun-flirty campaign eventually attracted some criticism. You might expect that from Jezabel, but I was surprised to see the refrain echoed on Forbes. The meme, which is supposed to pro-woman, is actually based on the idea of triggering a male gaze, that if we can just get men talking about it and taking it seriously, then we can make a difference. For a lot of feminists, that became deeply problematic.

One of the frequent complaints about the campaign was that people were fairly familiar with breast cancer, thanks to a decade of pink-infused corporate affiliations. As one Facebook user wrote:

 “When it comes to ‘awareness,’ do you know anyone who is not ‘aware’ of breast cancer? But, are they also aware that it is now one of the most treatable forms of cancer with a high survival rate, that it is not the biggest health threat to women, and that more money is spent on salaried employees creating a marketing campaign than is spent on research and patient support.”

Bras Gone Viral

The other problem is that users were left with little else to do after disclosing their bra color, maybe they mentioned that it was for Breast Cancer Awareness, but there was no encouragement to do anything about it, no link to donate, or share your story of how improvements in breast cancer research made a difference in your life. Compare that to say, the ALS-Ice Bucket Challenge a few years later in 2014, where the campaign was able to raise $115m and awareness about a disease most people had never heard of.

And Yet …

One of my favorite quotes is from a French Philosopher named Michel Foucault. To paraphrase, we are all in a state of becoming. The idea is that we evolve and improve. In 2009 and 2010, in the early days of social media, this was a really interesting experiment, testing the limits of influencer behavior on new platforms. Would I copy the formula today? No, but can I recognize the ingenuity and learn from the missteps? You bet.

Tortise Shell Eye Glasses

Warby Parker

“Boys will make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
My mom, 1987

Tortise Shell Eye Glasses
Hugh Eyeglasses

I began wearing glasses at 18 years old, back in 1987.  More specifically, I went into bifocals as a freshman in college.  My options were limited and very, very expensive. Given the cost, I defaulted to the cheapest frame in the store. I struggled to reconcile the reality that my glasses were my most used accessory in my life — they were the first thing I put on in the morning and the last thing I took off at night — and yet they failed to match my style and personality.  I lived in fear of breaking them or losing them, both from the immediate loss of vision and the extraordinary cost of replacing them.

While I didn’t know the phrase then, I longed for the day when someone would disrupt the industry. And then someone did.

Artifacts from the early hipster period

Around 2011, I began hearing about this new company, Warby Parker.  A friend’s husband was one of those early adopters every company wants.  He posted on Facebook about his journey to Warby-Parker, we saw him order, we saw him try on the glasses, we saw them arrive.  He celebrated his new look with links to the Warby Parker website.  Very soon after, his family and friends were all doing the same.  I watched the viral social media marketing in real-time and recognized that this company was doing a few things differently.  They relied on users to amplify their brand and in turn took advantage of and shaped the birth of social media for business.   More specifically, had Warby Parker gone the traditional route, they would never have attracted my friend. He was the type of person who needed to be an early adopter/influencer for everything.  He was both new to social media and new to Warby Parker and he used both to establish his own presence online. Looking through the archive of Warby Parker’s influencers, you can see this attitude reflected in people like Molly Yeh, Franklin Leonard, and Mohamed Fayaz.

I’m not sure their product would have resonated with a traditional market, even with the social good component. My friend would never have taken the risk to promote a product anyone had access to, he wanted to let you know how awesome he was because he had found this amazing company no-one knew about yet via a platform that reflected that same exclusivity.

Know your audience

Warby Parker emerged out of a very specific moment in time, serving a growing Millennial audience.  They clearly understood their audience.  They tapped into a zeitgeist with retro-styled frames, all with very cute and specific frame names.   They were also really clear who they weren’t serving.  Most eyeglass wearers don’t need reading glasses or bifocals until they hit their forties.  Warby Parker waited a few years before including those (at a much higher price) into their collection, waiting for their hipster audience to grow up.   Linear or mass-marketing would not have worked for Warby Parker, they would have wasted their marketing dollars on a huge segment of the population they had no interest in serving.

And yet …

You’d think I would have rushed to order once bifocals were introduced. At the time I was heavy into social media and could have been an early influencer. And yet, I’m still going to my local optometrist, paying obscene amounts for lack-luster eyeglasses, because there remain a few of us who need custom fitting, who can’t take a risk on not being able to see while we send glasses back and forth to a mail-order house somewhere far away. Despite all Warby Parker’s attempts to find a very narrow lane for marketing and promotion, they actually work best for mass-market consumers.

You know you’ve made it when …

While I could go on and on about the benefits of social media marketing and how well Warby Parker used and leveraged that, I actually think it is best illustrated by the geniuses at McSweeney’s, when they lampoon you, you know you’ve made it.

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses. Unless they’re these totally amazing @WarbyParker frames I’m wearing in my pic! Starting at just $145 and tons of cute style options. (My fave is the Laurel in tortoiseshell!) #ad #glasses #eyewear
Parody is the highest form of flattery.

Your own best date: a guide to eating alone

10 Steps To The Best Meal of Your Life
Taking myself out to dinner is now at the top of my “live like I’m on vacation” self-care list. It is a luxury I always enjoy and can do so effortlessly. There really isn’t a place I won’t dine alone, which opens up travel in so many ways. But I wasn’t always like this. Here is how I grew my confidence to be my own best date.
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Moby Dick meets a Lost Nation Gose, @taconichotel.

A post shared by Amy Stevens (@cyborgoddess) on

Step 1 – Know why you want to do this

A younger version of myself had fantasies of traveling the world, eating in exquisite restaurants, seeing art and culture. For a long time, a lack of travel companions kept me home while the need for travel got stronger and louder. Eventually, I realized, if I was going to travel, I might have to do it alone.

Step 2- Decide you are going to do it

If this is really far outside your comfort zone, pick a date in the future and make an appointment for yourself. You don’t have to pick a place or even time, (that will come next). But commit to it. If you are reading this today, great! You’ll be ready in no time.

Step 3 – Pick a spot

Do you have a spot in mind? In my early 20s, I lived as a poor bohemian graduate student but dreamt of eating a meal at a fancy restaurant I drove past daily. Three months out from my birthday I started saving my pennies, made a reservation and took myself out for one of the best meals of my life. Written on the wall, above the entrance was a quote I’ve come to paraphrase often.
When you meet your maker, you will be called to account for the experiences you didn’t enjoy, not the ones you did.
Don’t live with regrets! Maybe it isn’t a fancy place, but a breakfast or brunch spot you read about online, maybe a co-worker mentioned a lunch place a few towns over and you’d love to try it. Or maybe you don’t know what you want. Thrillest and Eater have great food sections you can filter and search by neighborhood or by food type. Yelp will help you see what others recommend.

Step 4 – Review the website, including the menu

There is nothing worse than getting to a place, sitting down and realizing you don’t like anything on the menu or that your budget doesn’t align to theirs. Review the menu in advance and pick at least one meal you can fall back on if you get overwhelmed easily.

Step 5 – Arrive as your most confident self

Prepare for this event as you’d prepare for a real date! Take time to primp and prep, use one of those fancy bath bombs you’ve been saving for a special occasion or break out the Sephora samples you’ve hoarded in the back of your drawer. Wear something that makes you feel great about yourself and you feel comfortable in.

Step 6 – Pick Your Seat

You have a few options when it comes to seating and all have advantages:
  • Sit at the bar – This is casual and can be social. If there is an open kitchen you can keep an eye on the most popular items while you review the menu.
  • Table for one – If there is a host, ask for a table for one, and smile at the end while looking them in the eye. You just told them you are confident and want a better table than they were going to take you to. You’re welcome!
  • Communal Table – This can be a great way to eat in a new city while traveling. Ask your tablemates where else you should try, see or do. If they share your taste in the food they will most likely share your other interests too.

Step 7 – Occupy yourself

I believe it is acceptable to have a phone, book, journal, even a computer with you, depending on the environment. Save something good you’ve been meaning to read, or a journal prompt you’ve been meaning to get to. This is your quality time, how do you want to spend it?

Step 8 – Enjoy the meal

Sit, linger, savor each bite and have a second drink or a cup of coffee. Unless you are someplace where the turn-over is expected to be quick — say The Café DuMonde in New Orleans with long wait lines, two things on the menu and fast-pace wait staff – you are in no obligation to eat fast and leave.

Step 9 – Tip your wait staff.

You know this right? 20%

Step 10 – Reflect

You did it! How did it go, would you do it again, where are you going next? My birthday dinner out all those years ago started a passion for culinary adventures. I’m already planning my next trip, how about you?

Patiance and Optimism

Ever since I hate read Harriet the Spy in fourth grade, I’ve been perfectly ok with walking away from books that don’t bring me joy.  I’ll give a book a paragraph, a page or even a chapter, but I strongly believe that when you read for pleasure, that time should be pleasurable.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that while I will walk away from one-offs, I am much more willing to work through a first book if there is an already established series.   In many ways, the first book in a series is like a pilot television show, an early promise to introduce the cast and set, leave you with a taste of the world you will enter with them, there are no expectations that characters are fully fleshed out, that dialog is always on point, or that that the seemingly random interactions make sense to a larger narrative arc.  

This was a lesson I learned with Lorelai James, a best selling romance writer.  I started Rough Riders with the first book, Long Hard Ride.  The concept was forced, the heroine the literary equivalent of a paper-cutout, the intimate relationships were hot but odd.  It is likely that James, who had been writing mysteries under another pen name, began Rough Riders as a test to see if she could switch genres.  Whatever challenges plagued the narrative arc were more than made up for by James’s tone and writing style.  Cowboy romance novels were not a sub-genre I’d dipped into before, but James was able to pull me in and surround me with rodeo culture without ever making me feel like the newcomer helped pave the way for my continued investment.

Lorelai James (author) Long Hard Ride (book) handsome white cowboy on cover, shirt open.
First in the Rough Rider Series

Book two took an unlikely turn with two main love stories,  one featuring a mature heroine and hero, and the other the young brother of our hero from Long Hard Ride.  In Rode Hard James begins to find her balance between storytelling and sex scenes while writing stronger, more complicated and complex leading ladies.   Book three, Cowgirl Up and Ride, brings us to Sundance, Wyoming where the remainder of the 17 novels are set and James picks up her pace in terms of building out a universe with complicated family lines, land disputes and plenty of single people looking for love.

The formula of the cowboy hero can withstand only so much variation.  Characters have to be young, handsome, strong from spending the day lifting bales of hay or hours in the saddle and James doesn’t stray far from the mold.  James uses her heroines to bring diversity to the universe.  We don’t see the same type of mold for the women of Rough Riders. Each woman is unique and her struggles for independence and autonomy provide the consistent narrative arch against which she must find a love worthy of her.   Our hero must then find a way to let down the tough guise exterior and make himself vulnerable enough to be loved. 

Good Read reviewers would have you believe that the series really pivots on book three, but of the series, that turned out to be my least favorite couple.  Again, knowing there was more to the series allowed me to push on and stick with James and I was rewarded with Tied Up, Tide Down and what remains my favorite of the series, Rough, Raw and Ready – one of a handful of MMF romances that are worthy of being novels and not half-baked erotic stories.  

From there on in, James continues to use a consistent voice, variations on a character theme, and distinctly relevant conflicts to create a world of characters that will remain among my favorite in the literary world.  But I wouldn’t have gotten there without a bit of patience and optimism, fuelled by James’s wonderful writing style and a deep back catalog for me to work my way through.

Writing across the rabbit holes

As I am sure is true in sci-fi and horror, the romance genre’s ability to subdivide at times feels like one of those bio films of watching bacteria grow.  Fast and oddly connected.  Successful authors can cross imaginary lines and take their audience with them into new and fascinating corners of the card catalog.  Successful authors know their craft.  They understand how to use character’s voices to drive clear motivation away from instant resolutions.  As craftspeople, they know how to craft worlds that somehow seem familiar but all-together new, with enough subject matter expertise to always be authentic.         

Sarina Bowen broke out into the Romance genre with a series called the Ivy Years, set on and off the ice for a college hockey dynasty.  She followed that up with the Him –her first mm romance, the setting is still hockey, but it is a new team and a new cast of characters to fall for through the next several books.  In her next series, she sprinkled in players from the Ivy Years as we watch the Brooklyn Bruisers on their path to the Stanley Cup. 

For many of Bowen’s loyal and new readers, Him was their first MM romance.  This was a leap of faith for them into a wholly unknown territory.  Bowen had an established history of having smart characters fall in love by talking to each other.  For Him Bowen maintained a consistency of voice to craft rich dialog and familiar enough characters, but broke from the expected and explored the idea of what it means to be a hero when there is no heroine. 

Her more recent series shift away from sports entirely and into apple cider and beer making.  (There is a narrow Venn diagram of readable works about romance and alcohol.)  Bowen needed to move readers with her.  One way she did that was to use her world to create emotion — the moment before the buzzer blows, feeling the stick pulling back, making impact and watching the puck miss the net is not that different from the perfect clarity of a fall evening on a hill in Vermont, overlooking the sun setting into the mountains to the west, eyes drawn to the back of a pickup as a lover driving away.

As I think about my own writing, I will need to keep developing a consistency of voice that can hold my universe together while still allowing me to branch out.  I long for the finesse of world building in service to the central conflict.  I’ll be paying attention to these elements as I continue to revise and write.