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


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.