Grassroots vs. The Volcano

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Ripped from Corante's editorial page:

On Grassroots and cracking the notion that power influencers drive product acceptance in the market:

"Why have Google and Apple done so well in the last three years? Cause the grassroots loves them. That's the powerroot of the industry. Ideas here don't come from the big influencers and move down. No, they start on the street and move up. Anyone miss how Google got big? Not by throwing a press conference." - Robert Scoble, via Johnnie Moore's blog.

Before I side with Robert, let me throw in a little word of caution: I know that the conversation has been geared in this direction for a few years now, but looking at cause:effect / influencer:influencee dynamics as a top-down model only seem fairly limited in scope. "Influencers" (whether they are "key" or "big" or "power" influencers) aren't just at the top of their respective subcultural family trees. Sometimes, the masses themselves can be the power influencer. This is an element of the discussion that has all too often been neglected... so that even Robert Scoble - and most of us - tend to naturally divorce top-down influencers from bottom-up (or lateral) influencers. Big mistake. While there are differences between them, they are very much part of the same very short equation: Influencers are influencers. Period. No category of influencer should ever be cast aside or taken for granted. The moment you do is the moment you drop the ball on reaching (potentially) millions of customers / users. It's easy to favor bottom-up influencers over their top-down cousins (or vice-versa), but it is an terribly myopic way to reach out to your customers.

When it comes to bottom-up and lateral influencers The street has always been a source of influence on culture, fashion, musical tastes, language, and political change. Urban fashions didn't start on a runway in New York or Milan. The "gangsta" look wasn't designed in a Soho creative studio and then packaged and sold to rap superstars. It came from the street and was then commercialized. The same is true about punk rockers, skateboarders, surfers, and just about every "culture" or "subculture" you can throw a cat at, from triathlon, to amateur photography to the country-club lifestyle.

Appealing to a grassroots base - which essentially consists of recruiting your 1-percenters to drive your campaign and influence their own peer networks has always been incredibly efficient. Politicians know this, which is why they are essential to the success of every campaign. Grassroots programs are militant in nature. They're infectious and viral in the true sense of the term. They feed on momentum and quasi-exponential growth. They may very-well be the most virulent form of Word-Of-Mouth movements you'll ever encounter. If you're reading this and aren't so sure you agree, that's okay, but consider this: Every revolution in our history was the result of a grassroots movement. Every single one. Look at the American Revolution. The French Revolution. The fall of the Berlin Wall. More recently, thanks to the availability of cell phones, text messaging, and the organic nature of social networks, the 2001 revolution in the Phillippines and the 2002 presidential elections in South Korea. Grassroots movements hold a power inversely proportional to the attention most marketing campaigns

For many of us, influencers aren't just celebrities or the visible (or outspoken) upper stratum of a subculture. The way we become participants in the growth of a trend or the success of a product isn't necessarily tied to product placement on Lost, CSI, or Superman Returns. We don't necessarily buy Gap clothes or Oakley sunglasses because Jessica Simpson or Tom Cruise are sporting them in an interview. Influencers can also be our neighbors. Our best friends. Our co-workers. Our parents. Our kids. They can also be familiar strangers or a mob of people demanding the same thing you always wish you had the power to ask for yourself.

It s human nature to find (and seek) safety, familiarity and validation in numbers.

From a corporate standpoint, large crowds also tend to hold more power than a handful of insightful thought leaders:

"(Analysts) watch what grass roots are saying. The wisdom of crowds. It drives a lot of buying decisions." - Scoble.

We could go off on a major tangent here, but we'll have to come back to it some other time.

However powerful "grassroots marketing" may be, you cannot, by default, dismiss traditional media and the more widely accepted concept of the key influencer. I get a little nervous when that suggestion is made. Not every product or brand should put all of their eggs into the WOM, viral, or grassroots basket. As a matter of fact, very few companies should focus exclusively on new media to promote themselves or their products. These would be those rare few companies whose products are so revolutionary, so well designed and so culturally vibrant that they almost sell themselves. (How often does this happen? Not very.) Everyone else should instead strive for a balanced approach that takes into account top-down strategies (like advertising, PR, and traditional marketing) AND bottom-up (or rather lateral) strategies like grass-roots initiatives, co-creation, WOMM, viral campaigns and blogging. For some, the mix might be 60/40. For others, it may be 20/80. Every company, product, objective and situation is different, which is... well, part of the fun, and the most exciting thing about the way the field of Marketing in general is changing before our very eyes.

If you're Gucci, Coca Cola, Macintosh, Oakley or Vespa, you still need to rely on product placement and endorsements to stay relevant and drive your brand forward. If you're Google, Microsoft or Squidoo, however, your strategy will have to be completely different. Forget about product placement and Superowl ads. You need to live, breathe and bleed blogs, WOM, co-creation and online forums. Your product has to be easily accessible and fun to use. It has to engage and create value for its user as soon as he/she starts interacting with it. It has to work better than every product in its category. This is what will generate the kind of discussion and buzz that will attract more users. Customers. Friends. Evangelists. Whatever you choose to call them. Be that as it may, without a focused PR program, without some kind of engaging identity for your product, and without well-articulated product release, customer conversation and crisis response strategies, you'll be like a sailboat without a rudder.

Just as most successful companies have accepted that a certain level of customization is necessary to attract and retain customers, marketing has also become much more customizable and user-friendly. Look at it this way: Each company requires its own specific recipe. What works for Dell won't necessarily work for Sony. What works for Oakley won't necessarily work for Rudy project. In light of this, PSF's (Professional Services Firms) like ad agencies, PR firms, and design studios need to realize that a) the menu of options when it comes to marketing tools keeps growing, b) that it's a good thing, and c) that in order to create the best recipe for their clients, they need to not only know their way around the marketing kitchen, but know how to formulate the perfect mix of ingredients in order to create consistently delicious and buzz-worthy recipes. PSF's that do this (and their clients) will reap the rewards of their wise ways. Those that don't will spend a whole lot of time arguing about the notion of old marketing vs. new marketing, and defending what side they unwisely decided to adhere to.

My advice: Don't fall into the New Marketing vs. Old Marketing trap. You can't afford to limit yourself to being a supporter of either one camp or the other. If you do, you'll always be missing a big (and crucial) piece of the puzzle for yourself, and for your clients. Grass Roots, key influencers, advertising, blogs, product placement, PR, it all works... and works best when used in concert. Robert Scoble is right: Microsoft missed the boat when it failed to gain (and perhaps even seek) grassroots support. That being said, his dismissal of press conferences might be a little short-sighted. The combination of the two would most likely produce a much better result than either one on its own.

In the specific case of Microsoft, (since it is the subject of Robert Scoble's post,) while the success (and traction) of its CRM and People-Ready programs is obvious, Vista still hasn't yet found its voice... or its audience. This may be because the public still hasn't been given a clear answer when questions like "what will Vista do for me again?" "What's the point?" "Is this all it does?" are asked.

Exciting products are always great at generating grass-roots support. Products, on the other hand, whose value can't clearly be articulated or understood, tend to rely more on loads of advertising and messaging to reach their intended audiences. On the street, nobody is talking about Vista. Nobody is excited about it or disappointed in it. Most people I run into haven't even heard of it yet, which may be symptomatic of bigger problems... but that will have to be a topic for another day. The point is that Microsoft hasn't done a very good job of building value for its new platform yet... which may be why it hasn't enjoyed much ground-level buy-in.

This is a perfect example of how using traditional and new marketing tools in concert would probably yield some pretty impressive results: Old - Hold press conferences. Present the product at high-visibility venues. Create great ads for it. Put it in people's faces and make it impossible for us to go a week, a day, even, without at least thinking about it once. Make us want to try it. New - put it in the hands of users (influential or otherwise) and help them become power users / evangelists. Gain widespread support from users. Drive the discussion on blogs and forum sites. Make users want to recommend it to their friends, and non-users recommend it based on "what they've heard".

... Assuming, of course, that Vista will be able to wow its users, which remains to be seen. (That may have to be the topic of yet another discussion sometime in the next year.) Lucky for you, Corante's Nevlille Hobson already got a head-start on the subject a few months ago with this post, so definitely check it out.

Okay, I've rambled long enough for one afternoon. Have a great Thursday, everyone. :)

(And feel free to tell me if you disagree.)

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