Monday, December 29, 2008

There Must Be a Pony

I don't think there's much argument that 2008 was an annus horribilis of the first degree. Apart from the truly historic election of Barak Obama as the first black president of the United States, I'd be happy to have everything else wiped from my hard drive.

One might think that there's little room for joyful thought in wrapping up such a relentlessly miserable year. But there are some who can find a silver lining in even the gloomiest scenario. There's an often repeated story about a young boy who was such an audacious optimist that, when presented with roomful of horse dung, he grew ecstatic. When he was asked the reason for his seemingly inappropriate joy, he exclaimed, "With all this horse shit, there must be a pony."

That kid is clearly not related to me. But, as part of my 2009 resolution to be more of a glass-half-full sort of person, I will say that even though the vast expanse of horse poop covering most of 2008 doesn't excite me, it turns out some of that manure really did signify a pony. Or three.

So, in no particular order, here are three things from 2008 that make me want to say, giddy-up:

1. The iPhone App Store.
Oh. My. God. I get dizzy from the sheer number of possibilities. Solutions for problems you haven't even thought of yet. Utilities to accomplish everything you've ever wanted to do, except, perhaps, one to help you tell the 12 year old HR assistant who just pink-slipped you what circle of hell to go inhabit.

There are over 10,000 apps available, and users have downloaded over 300 million of them, which would indicate I'm not the only one gone ga-ga for them. But with that sort of tsunami of interest and usage, it sort of begs the question, why aren't brands making better marketing use of them? Like desktop widgets, iPhone apps can be an extremely effective and inexpensive way to reach users, provide them with branded utility, and interact with them. Yet, only a few brands have jumped into the iPhone pool and many of them still seem to be tone-deaf to the interactive music of applications.

Michael Arrington's Sept. post about the app, Sonic Lighter, in TechCrunch, illustrates this perfectly. It seems Zippo is offering an iPhone app of a virtual lighter. You can choose from limited lighter designs, flip the lighter open, blow on the flame and see it flicker, and make the flame tilt. Even though the app is free, one use and you've exhausted its fun potential. In contrast, Sonic Lighter by Smule selling at .99 is a bargain at twice the price. Smule has cleverly recognized and tapped into our innate desire to connect which is driving the explosion and popularity of social networking sites. Sonic lighter users can opt to share their location information and have their "Kilojoules" (time spent burning your lighter flame) illustrated on an map of the earth. The map also lists rankings by geography, creating the potential for competitions. Oh, and you can also use your lighter to ignite another iPhone lighter. As Arrington points out: "Unlike its competitors, it’s effectively leveraging location awareness and social networking/human team building instincts to create a bit of a phenomenon. The result is a viral spread."

2. Twitter
Yes, I know Twitter debuted in 2006. When I signed on in late 2007, it had already had it's big coming-of-age at SXSW. But it was really this past year that the tool finally became an important two-way communication channel for brands and people. In April, Michael Arrington (What's with all this Arrington love? Must broaden sources.) wrote the now-famous blog post about his experience with Comcast on Twitter. With the ability to monitor the conversation about their business, companies are turning customer service into customer first response. The typical scenario of public whining about a company's missteps can now have a different ending.

In an article this past September, Business Week noted that Dell, GM, Kodak, Whole Foods, and H&R Block have also established Twitter accounts to communicate with consumers. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos uses his Zappos Twitter account to communicate directly with consumers, letting them know what city he's in, where he's speaking, and posting occasional contests, turning the position of CEO into the company's envoy to the people.

For me, personally, the tool has been invaluable. I have found a wide range of articulate and insightful people to follow and interact with. I've met and become friends with people whose live intersect with mine, but whom I never might have met in the real world. Like life, Twitter is sometimes brilliant, often surprising, sometimes mundane, but never, ever boring.

3. Crowdsourcing & Geospatial Web
In a June 2006 article in Wired, Jeff Howe wrote about "distributed labor networks using the Internet to exploit the spare processing power of millions of human brains". He called it crowdsourcing.

"The open source software movement proved that a network of passionate, geeky volunteers could write code just as well as the highly paid developers at Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. Wikipedia showed that the model could be used to create a sprawling and surprisingly comprehensive online encyclopedia. And companies like eBay and MySpace have built profitable businesses that couldn’t exist without the contributions of users."

Online ventures built around the concept of crowdsourcing have only gotten stronger, from YouTube and iStockphoto, to the online film production social networking site Massify, which, in a project that used the collaborative efforts of film fans and filmmakers, is creating the first crowdsourced film.

All well and good, you say, but old news. Well, it turns out, there's not only wisdom in crowds, there's buried treasure. The most recent issue of Release 2.0 considers the impact of adding of location-based information - the GeoWeb to the already valuable and potentially lucrative predictive abilities of collective information. The most recent example of the resulting functionality of this is Google Flu Trends. It seems that people suffering the first symptoms of flu use search as a first pass at self-diagnosis, typing in terms like "flu symptoms" before they finally shlep themselves to a doctor. The smart folks over at Google noticed clusters of the search terms appearing and researched five years worth of flu symptom keyword search data, which they then mapped against Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports. The resulting findings showed a strong correlation between increased geographic based searches and actual outbreaks of influenza and other similar illnesses. What makes this application all the more important is that Flu Trends beats the CDC reports by about 2 weeks. As the New York Times reported:
"In early February, for example, the C.D.C. reported that the flu cases had recently spiked in the mid-Atlantic states. But Google says its search data show a spike in queries about flu symptoms two weeks before that report was released. Its new service at analyzes those searches as they come in, creating graphs and maps of the country that, ideally, will show where the flu is spreading.

The C.D.C. reports are slower because they rely on data collected and compiled from thousands of health care providers, labs and other sources. Some public health experts say the Google data could help accelerate the response of doctors, hospitals and public health officials to a nasty flu season, reducing the spread of the disease and, potentially, saving lives."
Cool, huh?
So I'm thinking that 2009 has the potential to be great. Granted, we've been pounded into such a deep hole that any glimmer of light would be a huge improvement. But I'm thinking that we're going to go way beyond that. It was the power of social networking and collective influence that brought Obama into office - our collective influence. Hmmm, just imagine what we can all do if we put our minds to it.

marketing, brands ,app store, twitter,collective widsom, crowdsourcing, geoweb

1 comment:

Marion said...

Wow. This is perhaps the most intelligent positive outlook I've read about where we can go from the uber-bad of 2008. Wonderfully put. Thank you. I feel much better.