July 4th, 2010

Vuvuzelas, Youtube, and the new PR

in: Communicate, Standing out

Public relations is a tricky game. For a long time, PR has been about shaping a message — getting the words just so, tugging on an audience’s heartstrings. But shaping a message is changing dramatically in today’s more connected, more transparent world, and I can think of no better demonstration of this than the Vuvuzela button in Youtube.

In the unlikely event that you haven’t yet heard of this nefarious noisemaker, here are the facts: it’s loud; it’s indigenous to African sporting events; and it’s droned so loudly at every World Cup match this year that programmers have built custom filters that remove its sound from games, and many fans have called for its abolishment.

So Google put a Vuvuzela button in Youtube.

Not, as you might expect, to filter it out. Instead, the button adds the unmistakeable droning to any video clip for which it’s enabled.

Changing Youtube isn’t something that’s done lightly. For one thing, every time Google changes the Youtube interface, millions of visitors’ browsers need to re-download its components, generating a flood of new traffic that would otherwise be cached in browsers if the interface hadn’t changed. That Flash plug-in is 132.61 KBytes, and Quantcast estimates Youtube receives around 100M unique visitors a month.

Bandwidth consumption aside, as every good web operator knows, changes are bad simply because they break things. There’s also testing to consider. Google probably has clever ways to minimize the impact of new components, but however you slice it, changes to a popular part of the UI cost the company money.

What’s more, this is a feature with no real utility. It’s an annoyance, a trick, a novelty. It doesn’t add anything to the viewing experience — in fact, it outright ruins it.

As a marketer, would you have allowed this?

Imagine that you’re an executive in a multi-billion-dollar public company. One of your employees suggests that she modify the user interface of your site with a feature that makes things worse. What do you say?

If you’re a traditional marketer, you say no. And maybe put a disparaging remark in her employment file, or place a concerned call to HR. There’s no ROI, no business justification. It’s a risk that can easily be avoided.

But if you’re a modern marketer, you might just do it.

Consider: Google is facing criminal charges in three countries for violation of privacy, as part of its misguided attempts to map the world’s information as it drives past unsecured wifi networks. The case is prompting some countries to make unencrypted wifi illegal. At the same time, they’re rumoured to be building a direct competitor to Facebook, armed with far more information about each of us than Zuckerberg’s mad dream ever had.

And yet Google’s fanbase largely overlooks such gaffes because, well, Google comes across as a harmless college roommate, playing the occasional prank.

The importance of rhetoric

Let’s talk for a minute about rhetoric. As an excellent article on teaching kids to argue effectively reminded me, appeals within rhetorical debate come in three forms:

  • Logos, or logic. This is the appeal to rationality, using arguments that are consistent and based on facts and reason: “You should drive to the restaurant because it is far, and travelling far by foot is likely to cause blisters.”
  • Pathos, or empathy. This is the appeal to the audience, tugging at their heartstrings: “Cool people drive cars; you want to be cool, don’t you?”
  • Ethos, or reputation. An authority on the subject, or someone respected, can appeal to that reputation to convince others: “I’m your father and I said so,” is a (possibly ineffective) argument based on reputation.

All rhetorical appeals are based on one or more of these strategies. You employ them in order to convince someone else of your point of view.

Social networks and the “flatness” of the Web have changed two things for public relations. First, PR is increasingly about reputation (ethos) of the organization — BP versus Google, for example — than the logos and pathos. And second, the message isn’t what you put in a press release; it’s what the mob infers from your actions.

Playfulness puts deposits in the Ethos bank

I can’t say whether Google understands this explicitly. It may be that they have the best parts of Rove, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu trapped in a giant computer, some Illuminati Frankenstein plotting dystopian machinations from the shadows. More likely, the company has grasped the humanizing aspects of mischief through its culture, and knows intuitively that a spoonful of hijinks helps the medicine go down.

Others are grasping this, too. The Superbowl ad is fast becoming the Youtube ad (Old Spice, I’m looking at you.)

Some ads don’t even make it to the Superbowl, and still get widespread attention while adjusting your perception of a brand (the Sienna Swagger Wagon is a good example.)

And some aren’t even ads. Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Collegehumor’s Dumbdumb is a great example of this. Just watch their first project.

Go on, watch it. Trust me.

But those are just advertising. What Google, and others like it, are demonstrating is cultural. When Zappos got the price wrong on some products, it lost $1.5M. By honoring that price, despite the loss, the company earned goodwill, free press — and the benefit of the doubt in future; despite this, cynics speculated that it was just a PR stunt.

Traditional marketers want to control the content of the message, and the means of distribution. They like their story told in predictable, contrived soundbites, saltered with hyperbole and peppered with meaningless adjectives, blanded by committee. They love their press releases, their positioning statements, their careful constraint of who talks to whom. But a press release is the worst way to start a conversation. In addition to bringing nothing to the conversation, it distances the author from the audience, rather than building rapport through humor and dialogue.

Fortunately for the rest of us, traditional marketers and the fluff they produce are fast becoming irrelevant.

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