The Best Content Myth

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Featured image by yosuke muroye.

I wrote a post a couple months ago called watching the Content Marketing Trend Fade to Black that received a lot of attention, mostly positive. Some of the feedback included rebuttals (like this podcast from the Content Marketing Institute), which have to be anticipated when you write a post like that.

This post addresses the two most popular rebuttals: 1) content is not going away; and, 2) the best content always wins, which I will call “The Best Content Myth.”

Let’s handle the first one as it comes from an incorrect interpretation of the original post. There is a difference between content itself as created by both everyday citizens and marketers, and the content marketing trend. The post clearly deals with dwindling enthusiasm for the marketing industry trend, and states that content itself will only continue to grow albeit under different trend monikers and buzz words. So, I actually agree with rebuttal one, and always did.

Rebuttal number two is a much more dangerous myth. Many marketers believe that if they create great content, then they will succeed. The best content always wins, they say. This is not true, and frankly never has been.

I’ll go a step further: Even if you have socially validated content (i.e. popular online) it still may not succeed in generating marketing outcomes. Attention is not ROI. Attention can help build brand, sometimes. But even Super Bowl ads — arguably the most sure-fire way to garner tons of attention for your content — do not guarantee a successful result.

It’s important to understand why the best content does not win. Otherwise, you will build many beautiful things that will remain unused.

The Blood Meridian Case Study

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Cormac McCarthy is widely recognized as a great American author, and Blood Meridian is considered his masterpiece, a savage novel that spits up the conventional western myth in dystopian fashion. Published in 1985, Blood Meridian is often listed as one of the top 20 novels of the 20th century.

But the book did not sell. At least, not until Cormac McCarthy’s later commercial successes like All the Pretty Horses (1992) and The Road (2006). In fact, at first it only sold 1200 copies in hardback. Instead a more commercial western novel released that year — Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove — won the hearts and minds of American readers.

After the Border Trilogy and the movies that ensured, Blood Meridian enjoyed pull-through sales and wider recognition for its incredible story. But even after the lift brought about by those powerful coattails, the novel is much more of literary success than a commercial one.

Blood Meridian epitomizes best content not winning in business. To be clear, business is about sales. Comparing western to western, Blood Meridian reads like a fricking Ferrari next to the safe yet lovable Lonesome Dove, a Honda Accord of novels. That’s not to belittle a Honda Accord, or McMurtry’s Pulitizer Prize winning best-seller. But time has proven Blood Meridian to be the all-time critical masterpiece of the two novels, while Lonesome Dove is the commercial winner hands-down.

Why did this happen? One word: Distribution.

McMurtry was an established author with a reputation for good works like the Last Picture Show (1966) and Terms of Endearment (1975). As a result, Loneseome Dove was well distributed much like an unproven Stephen King novel would be well distributed and reviewed today.

On the other hand, McCarthy had some literary successes, but was not a proven commercial quantity. In fact, in 1992 — before the publication of his first commercial success All the Pretty Horses — an article in the New York Times noted that none of his novels published to that point had sold more than 5,000 hardcover copies.

Once commercial success arrived, so did distribution and reviews as well his own Pulitzer Prize for The Road. But none of McCarthy’s books have been as highly regarded as Blood Meridian.

The “Yeah, Buts”

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Yeah, but that was in the 80s before the Web, social media, and email. Now with social media good content can rise to the top.

No, it’s not that easy. Anyone who has had any success online knows that it takes distribution. Distribution through your site, through a cultivated community that shares your information, through your own networks, through a sizeable email list(s) that actually opens your emails, through influencers and media that share your story, through native ads, and on and on. Content must be shared and delivered.

Yeah, but when I focus and write great content it always performs better than my mediocre content.

Of course it does. A ripe tomato tastes better than one that is spoiling. I would even agree that if you don’t create at least above average content, your effort will fail before it even starts. There is just too much noise out there!

But does a secondary player or unknown person’s outstanding content perform anywhere near as well as a market leader’s above average content? No, that’s because distribution is as important, if not more important than ever before. The amount of posts and related content is flat-out overwhelming now. It’s almost impossible to rely on the best content to rise to the top. People are increasingly looking for trusted sources — even algorithms in networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter — to tell them what’s important, rather than seeking out the best content possible.

Yeah, but I know a company that has great content, and they are getting incredible double digit returns on new leads and revenue.

Show me a good content marketing effort, and I’ll show you an organized distribution strategy. In fact, I’ll also show you a relevant product and service offering, and brand that people are at least moderately interested in. But in the minds of some digital media mavens, the success belongs to the content. In many ways, that’s like giving credit for a great dish prepared at a restaurant to the superior saucier working in the kitchen. Much more goes into the entire dish and restaurant experience.

The Hard Reality of Increasing Content Glut

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This is my real beef with best content myth and the overall great creative meme. You can write the Eiffel Tower of blog posts, but it will fail if no one sees it. Increasingly, less people share content. Half of all posts get shared eight times or less, 75% get shared less than 40 times.

That’s because there’s more and more content. This decline is affecting everybody, even top content creators as evidenced by the above chart from Buzzsumo.

Mary Meeker’s annual Internet trends report shows a 20+% increase in Internet traffic year-over-year. It also shows a 75% year-over-year increase in consumer generated shares. ALl of these increases equal more noise year-over-year.

Yet, while the average amount of content dramatically increases every year, the actual time people spend online is not increasing that much. We are talking about single digit growth. You can only spread the peanut butter so far. This is the very embodiment of content shock.

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The time shortage also provides the raison d’etre for why data and analytics have become necessary. Data drives successes now. Intelligence online shows you who is amplifying content and how to reach them. Of course, with data you can understand whether or not your brand is increasing its positive equity online. It shows you where customers are. Data can help you to identify which prospects best match your customer profile, and how to intentionally focus your efforts on them. You can use it to build the programmatic triggers based on algorithms to serve the right content (inbound or online) at the right time.

I don’t think this is a great secret. Analytics has always been mentioned as the underpinning of great content and distribution.

Yet if you read the case studies of great content these days, data and distribution are usually not mentioned. And these are case studies published by well-established content marketing authorities. This is how myths get perpetuated. I guarantee you that if you pried under the covers, every great content success uses analytics to optimize its content, and has excellent established distribution channels, earned, owned and paid. Most use marketing automation tools, too.

Winning is much more about the mechanics than the great content chefs would lead you to believe.

I remember speaking with my friends at Navy Federal last fall about their content. They saw a 14% jump in inquiries based on a content campaign via social media. Because of the increase in volume, they moved to enterprise grade social media management solutions and analytics tools to monitor conversations, log service interactions, and measure the impact of these conversations. They ended up optimizing their efforts and focusing on the channels and tactics that were driving the most customer interactions. The financial results justified further investment.
 
The content was very good. The optimization and tailoring was even better.

Concluding Remarks

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More and more companies deploy content marketing tactics now. Yes, you can have the Inbound Marketing success that the Neil Patels of the world profess. But it takes a hell of a lot more than just great content.

Make no bones about it, the best content needs amplification. Stakeholders are inundated with messages, updates, ads, and other forms of content, both corporate and peer-to-peer.

From a corporate standpoint, content is a product. It serves a stakeholder. Without the data to become precise not only in distribution, but also in targeting and content creation to actually resonate with the stakeholders that matter, that content will not be found.

To succeed, marketers need to go beyond content marketing. They need to create marketing ecosystems that blend precision targeting, product marketing, engagement, branding, distribution and yes, content.

So, no offense to the best content crowd, but your 10 out of 10 stars quality blog post with little distribution won’t perform anywhere near as well as one might think. Good content will be read and shared as much because of distribution as quality.

Good is good enough, but even the good will dwindle with ever-increasing content volumes. Precision and discipline driven by data are the answers, not just creating “the best content.” On to the next unicorn.

What do you think?

The Delicate Art of Letting Sacred Cows Go

Forced change is one of the hardest aspects of communications today. With consistent technological evolution and its impact on the Internet and media, change we must. Often change requires letting go of sacred cows, meaning those marketing and communications initiatives that are important to us or the company yet we know their not working.

Why would a company continue efforts that produce little or no results? Precious “must have” initiatives can pale in comparison to other efforts when it comes to delivering actual results. Still internal stakeholders feel these programs are the way business should be done.

External perception and trends can provide as much if not more peer pressure. You need look no further than the perception that every business and nonprofit should be active on Facebook.

This is where data can offer a great marinade, the evidence that helps spur a conversation about change. But you need to have that conversation, probably many of them to get an organization to let go of its sacred cows. The process of helping people move beyond set beliefs also requires a deft hand that allows them to save face.

Begin with Clarity

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Every organization should have a mission that helps the company or nonprofit determine its communications goals. When you understand where you are going, you can build key performance indicators (KPIs) that clearly show whether or not a particular tactic or initiative is meeting its goals.

KPIs are a black and white type of measurement, specific in their intent. You may even want to break goals into types of actions. Consider some of these possible KPIs:

  • Engagement will be determined by the amount of website traffic referred from each social network (branding). A successful social network post will yield 5% click through.
  • Successful website content will be determined by a) amount of shares, totaling 10% of visitors (branding) and/or b) amount of email sign ups, a goal of 5% (lead gen)
  • Successful social network communities worth investing in will produce lead identification through email sign-ups, online chats and contact forms. Five percent is the target for all social networks (lead gen).
  • Eventually customers should be produced by identified leads. We expect a 10% conversion rate for identified leads (ROI)

It’s fairly easy to set up these types of goals with a combination of web analytics and CRM. Almost every marketing automation system empowers this type of tracking.

However, the real yield in these efforts is gaining clarity about your customers. While your sales people may understand customer profiles in general, data yields exact profiles. For example, they work in mid-cap companies and are either directors or vice presidents. They tend to work in technology or security concerned industries. You may be able to determine gender and age. Sixty eight percent are women aged 30-49.

In addition, you can map customer behavior. They interact with us on Twitter, but share our content on LinkedIn, too. Those that like our page on Facebook never share the content, nor do they click through.

What Your Data Allows You to Do

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Suddenly, you have a clear picture of how your customer interacts with you and who they are. It is important to identify what is working and what may be failing, including your sacred cows.

I think its critical to look at the data with an attitude of discovery. If you go in and say this isn’t working, then people act out of fear. Covering up and saving face becomes more important than changing. This is the conversation to have: Look at what this data is showing. Maybe we can better meet our KPIs if we tweak our current outreach. What do you think? Make it a safe conversation where everyone has a voice.

Don’t push to cut things unless everyone or a majority of your team is in agreement. You may need to go through a cycle or two in your program before prescribed change is agreed upon.

Perform an audit of your communications and content. Experiment to see if you can get more yield on social networks, email, ads, etc. Instead of generic content, you can now drill down and offer specific content that may be more compelling (e.g. contextual). For example, instead of offering photos of men at work, show pictures of women at work. Perhaps offer custom content for your top industries as the reward for signing up for emails.

If getting authorization to experiment is difficult, data should help to justify A/B tests. Try it once and see if the results are different. What CMO won’t give something a one-time try to see if they can get more engagement, leads, and potential customers?

As you experiment, you learn more about the role of each medium in your networks. Poorly performing sacred cows continue to stink. Each time you present the data about which actions are meeting KPIs and which ones aren’t, it becomes clearer that some initiatives must go. The question may be changed to should we cut this? And then when should we cut this?

The process of experimentation helped vested internal stakeholders see the poor performance, try to save it, and realize it was simply no longer a viable communications path or method. You may have known through this whole process that your sacred cow needed to be cut. Going through the process was necessary to create palatable change within your organization.

Usually, we see change as a moment in time. But in reality change is often an evolutionary process. This was the case when Tenacity5 announced its stance towards Facebook marketing last week. We experimented and changed approach a couple of times before letting the overhwelming and consistent data inform our decision.

What do you think?

“So What?” is the Big Trend of 2015

It wouldn’t be early January without a few predictions about what the new year will hold for the industry. In fact, I am preparing a presentation on the Near Future of Media for a DC AdClub event at the Newseum this January. And without further ado, let’s get to the big trend for 2015.

No matter how often I consider Watches, fancy apps, and the Internet of Things, I find myself meandering back to data and how it is forcing marketers to answer the question, “So what?” This is the future of media in 2015: Precision, specifically, the movement towards it.

Marketers and content creators alike are finding it increasingly difficult to get funded without data accounting for their performance. Those that analyze data and asuccessfully use that analysis to strengthen their communications programs will excel.

Big data is not a new marketing trend. The ability to use it intelligently is. As The Financial Brand so aptly noted, “Data analytics is the new marketing battlefield.”

Most larger media outlets are now harnessing data to create algorithms that determine which stories are bubbling up and should be covered, as well as which topics their readers/viewers/listeners care most about. The better advertising networks have A/B (C/D) versions and source the ads that are performing best. And most company executives have realized that digital media tools have advanced well enough that hypothetically they should be tracking first touch attribution, ROI, loyalty, etc.

The Big Learning Curve Headache

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Hypothetical was said with intention. Most companies don’t have experienced staff, analytical skills, time to learn, and/or the internal discipline to use their data assets well.

The time for excuses about not understanding media ecosystems performance is over. Company executives are now asking, “So what?” more and more frequently.

If a marketer, communicator or media outlet can’t prove that they are generating interest, return customers/readers/viewers/listeners, and yes, deeper engagement, then the inevitable “So what?” will turn into an even nastier conversation. Budgets will get cut. Demands will be made. Content will thin. Frequency will be reduced. All of this in favor of other more trustworthy initiatives that will grow a corporate profitability.

This is true of every digital tactic. If native ads are not yielding return, then customer profiles, content and medium will all be questioned. And if digital content designed to encourage customers still fails to create throughput to the corporate website, the inevitable “So what?” will happen.

When so what gets asked of an individual team player too many times without an evolution in performance and new answers, then the new reply will be “So long.”

At Tenacity5 all of us have completed or are taking Google’s Analytics Academy series of courses on measurement. Too many of our clients want to understand content performance, but don’t know the ins and outs of data analysis. We will help them as part of our services.

We are also publishing a SlideShare/white paper on the tips to hasten analytics adoption as soon as the new year is over. Hopefully, those that are following will find it useful.

Read all five of Geoff’s 2015 predictions on the Cision blog.

Future Media Success Is More than a Path

Immersive technologies offer incredible new media experiences. These paths give us the opportunity to develop new ways of interacting with our communities.

We will create incredible experiences that alter the very fabric of our lives. As the media we use becomes accepted, case studies will emerge showing how brands compelled people with remarkable moments and applications.

Consider the movie Her and the role of personal artificial intelligence avatars in society. You may think it’s far off, but the MIT Media Lab is already working on a similar project involving personal robots. Perhaps social validation via Facebook won’t mean much when we can simply ask our own personal Carla Jung what she thinks about our deepest fears.

Whatever you think of personal AI, we are entering a time when rich media will be served to us in cars. We’ll receive directions, have tweets read to us, view overlay screens, place entertainment consoles in the rear seat and more. Watches empowered with technologies like Google Now already prompt us in our ear buds that the subway stop is just two blocks to the right, and that waiting for the third train will actually save us time.

Those are just two obvious examples of the near future or the not-quite-adopted now. Yet, these portable media offer brands and content creators new paths to explore. It’s always been this way.

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During Halloween 1938, the United States experienced the incredible impact of radio drama via The War of the Worlds. No one expected such a captivating tale. Radio moved from a medium to gather around and became an incredible, dynamic imagination machine. Broadcasters were outraged, and Orson Welles became one of the world’s great dramatists.

Every entertainment podcaster today and every bad alien movie (Cowboys and Aliens comes to mind) can thank Orson Welles and CBS for breaking new ground and creating a compelling experience with an already established medium. Welles and CBS in turn surely thanked H.G. Wells for his brilliance in novel form, all the way back in 1898.

Data and Visual Media Offer Paths

I am struck by two common themes in online marketing today: the overwhelming movement towards analytics and the increasing drumbeat of visual media. Both are necessary movements — ones I have touted, too — offering paths that lead to better relationships with customers.

Paths are important, but you need levers. That is the issue with today’s data and visual media conversations. They fail to blend levers with paths.

Data points the way to better engagement or more conversions, but you need to compel people. Data only gives us the preferences of the moment and an understanding of community needs. If we fail to build strong levers, people look for a different resolution to their needs.

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Today’s marketing experts talk about visual media, but often don’t know how to develop and use illustrations, graphics, photos and videos. So we hear a lot of chatter about visual media but see few levers. If there was ever a medium in which to show and not tell, this would be it. Instead, we have road signs in the form of blog posts that point out paths, but don’t compel people.

Boring “me, too” campaigns ensue. The first ones work. But as the signal gets noisier, common content approaches fade to black. While the path is correct, the levers are weak. They lack creativity.

What’s another store selling its wares on Halloween? How about flipping the paradigm and making fun of your overwhelming box store experience with a Shining tribute, one that speaks to your target customers (30- and 40-something families with kids)? Marketing paths need creative levers.

Compel Us

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Levers compel us. Paths give us a means to create levers, but we need to do more. We have to tell interesting stories and innovate upon the current level of useful content.

Shooting photos in Washington, DC can be tough. Some subjects are so well photographed you really have to look for a different perspective. I often look for a high or low point of view, or shoot at night, or use a long exposure.

A common subject becomes compelling, more interesting. The Washington Monument takes on a different look in the fog with a long exposure. It’s spooky! A fitting shot for a Halloween week.

You’ve got data. You know you need to become more visual. What are you going to do to compel people?

5 Marketing Myths

Myths and misconceptions are abound in the marketing blogosphere. Sometimes I can’t help but think that we have a pseudo religion about the way the industry is.

In actuality, a small group of blogging voices laud these best practices and ideas based on their experiences or beliefs, which for all intents and purposes are valid. From a research perspective this data represents a small sampling, in turn creating myths about marketing that don’t apply to the whole profession. Here are five common marketing myths I hear about frequently.

1) Analytics Make Your Marketing Program Succeed

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We are in the midst of a data revolution with marketers racing to extrapolate reports into meaningful outcomes. Marketers promise that the use of analytics will deliver the ROI they are looking for. Let’s not get too excited here. Analytics will inform marketing toward the best way to encourage desired customer behaviors. They will not make a brand better at marketing (myth revealed).

In the words of Kevin Spacey (hat tip to to Jay Acunzo and his excellent Content Marketing World speech), “It’s the creative, stupid.”

Creative alone is wild and unpredictable. Data alone informs direction, but can’t stop crap communicators from producing, well, more crap. Together, informed creative is flat out dangerous.

2) Visual Media Is a Snack

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Write a great blog post and publish it with no visual media assets at all. Publish a great photo (which takes as much time to shoot and produce, by the way), video or infographic without words. Post both on your social networks and see which does better for engagement, shares and inbound traffic.

Look, you need words with visual assets for keywords and search ranking, but don’t kid yourself. One medium is the meal today, the other is the side dish. Snackable media is not just a marketing myth, it is also a misnomer.

3) Blogs Are the First Tactic of the Content Marketing Future

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Blogs are not the first go tactic in the content marketing future. They are the past and the present, but in reality text based media is not well consumed on small devices. And smartphones and other portable media are becoming the primary Internet access device for most Americans.

I wonder what its going to be like reading this blog post on an Apple Watch. Maybe Siri will read it to me. Or she’ll serve me a “snack” instead.

A study Tenacity5 managed on behalf of Vocus last June with Market Connections revealed as much. Of all the distribution channels noted by marketing survey respondents, blogging was considered the least effective. Only 35 percent rated it as a 4 or 5 (highest). One-quarter of respondents didn’t even use a blog.

It’s almost 2015 folks, this isn’t about a new technology becoming widely adopted anymore. Brands would rather invest elsewhere.

To be clear, blogs in their conventional form have a role on the web site for customers and stakeholders interested in a brand’s topics. This is especially useful if the blog posts help resolve the same problems the brand is addressing with its other offerings (hat tip #2 to Jay Acunzo). Every blog post has an opportunity to delight, brand and empower people to opt into your total customer experience. But you better have a bigger strategy.

4) Video Is Easy and Cheap

No, video is not easy and cheap, and if you shoot it on your iPhone or camera you will produce low-quality crap. Easy video is a huge marketing myth.

If you want quality videos, you invariably have to invest in a pro cameraperson/producer or not more. There is a reason why 71 percent of CMO Council survey respondents are predicting video spending will increase by 5 percent or more.

5) CMOs Trust Influencers

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Well, this one kind of hurts. I thought my online profile was everything. That was until I read a recent SiriusDecisions report that showed CMOs trust marketing bloggers and influencers the least of all sources when it comes to making purchase decisions.

Then I kind of thought about most of my conversations about influencers with CMOs and I got it. They just want influencers to feel important so they will say good things about them. Duh. The marketing myth is that CMOs actually believe in what influencers are saying (unless it is conveniently favorable to them). Instead they think bloggers are trying to sell them consulting services or something.

Disappointing. Perhaps I’ll become a reality TV star instead ;) Or a photographer.

What do you think? Have any marketing myths to add to the list?

The Vanity of New Metrics

Digital metrics increasingly define us, creating a new way to value each other and ourselves. Big data, sensors and algorithms will fuel a new wave of vanity metrics that will further refine self-identity.

We got an early taste of this new digital vanity with Klout, Empire Avenue, PeerIndex and other influence metrics. But things are going to get worse (or better, depending on your perspective).

Consider the movement toward the Internet of Things and this week’s mega-acquisition of Nest. We are literally just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personal data. We’ll be able to see how many times a day we open the fridge, and for how long. What are our peak grazing periods, and which products do we reach for the most?

That kind of data creates statistics, lots of them.

Suddenly, every aspect of our lives will become a sabermetric, giving us the chance to optimize our lifestyle. You can see this already with leaderboards and badges for social giving, fitness apps, and more.

Performance will become a mantra for some more competitive and vain people.

It’s not hard to envision endless chatter at the coffee shop, the water cooler and the bar about how life is better thanks to xxx [data-drive] app. Even more amazing, will be the discussions about how xx is in the 95th percentile of powersavers in the neighborhood.

Impact

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Now look, some people will take this more seriously than others, but we all know what a good portion of top performers do…

They put stickers on their car, “My Child is an Honor Roll Student.” Or badges on their blog. Or ribbons on their social network profile. Or include it in their bios. Whatever the statistic may be, we will hear endlessly about it from the more competitive and vain types.

Let’s be clear. The need to measure one’s performance — and in the most shallow and vain examples one’s self worth — existed well before Internet life. Consider school grades, attendance reports, boy and girl scout badges, colored belts for martial arts, etc. But in many of these cases we rewarded achievements.

Now we will reward arcane personal statistics.

In business, this metric based reality is inescable. The bottom line on any outcome measured by data is a merciless judge who has no defining characteristic other than success or fail. The application of metrics is the ultimate judge of any business person.

Marketers who value freedom and qualitative success above metric performance are having a hard time of it in this world where data drives everything. As Avinash Kaushik said this week, no one wants to hire a reporting squirrel. And can you blame companies? We know precision exists, and now brands are demanding it.

Are You a Metric?

The real concern is that we are conditioning ourselves to value statistical vanity and shallow egotism. The attention economy demands it. The proliferation of performance-bragging will become more and more commonplace. Welcome to the new rat race for many insignificant badges.

We see today’s conversations about self esteem and image, from the Dove Real Beauty campaign to online self worth to bullying conversations. Forthcoming vanity metrics will bring many new questions:

  • How are we going to deal with self image when so many people tie it to a metric?
  • How do you grapple with social climbers who will throw you under the bus in favor of appeasing the sensor or algorithm?
  • How will impact be defined in the future? Touching and changing people’s lives or breaking records in arcane communities that relish niche statistics?
  • What will we write on our gravestones in 50 years, a top ranked blogger who achieved a 16.7% lifetime share rate, or writer?

I don’t know about you, but I have many fears about this next wave of technology. Why? Consider how we as a species embrace technologies on a sociological level. Humans tend to adpat technologies blindly on hopes of achieving promised benefits. We rarely consider societal impact.

We’re already grappling with the ugly from social, and now we will see the ugly side of data metrics. While society will reap the economic benefits of data, expect shock from individuals and communities who are dismayed by the coming wave of metric-based vanity.

What do you think?

Featured image by Jo. Boy scout badges image by torbakhopper.