Monthly Archives: July 2009

What blood-powered cell phones mean for the future

A year ago we wrote about engineer Jim Mielke’s design for a wireless cell phone that slides under your skin and is powered by blood. Since then social networks have continued to scale — Oprah joined Twitter, Twitter saved Iran, Facebook got the stream — yet as they continue to fail to make money, advertisers are starting to wonder what gives. Facebook, the No. 2 darling child of the media, has projected U.S. ad revenues in 2009 of about $230 million, which works out to less than half a penny per hour per user.

Advertisers can understand the challenge of social media if they play the game all the way forward. In a few years, wireless internet devices will be so small they will plug into your body, like Mielke’s prototype above. This isn’t science fiction. Humans are already cyborgs — you already know people with fake breasts, false teeth, glasses, contacts, laser eye surgery, hip and knee replacements. You drive a car, a mechanical extension of your legs, and you fly like a bird on vacation. Yesterday we had lunch with a fine man who had a valve in his heart mended and was back up walking within a week. There are now 4.1 billion mobile subscribers on the planet and their radio toys are getting smaller. Andersonian free-pricing logic says the cyborg conversion is inevitable.

Telepathy is coming. Really.

When human crutches turn into human connections, people will have incredible control over sharing content. Your eyes might record a scene; you’ll touch your earlobe to send the video to a friend. As data transmission moves back to pure human-to-human contacts, social media will revert to our native, pre-history connections. Advertisers face a barrier because in social media, human bonds do not require third-party sponsorships. There is no external content to sponsor. Data collectors, who now hope to turn Facebook’s social streams into the Experian of the future, also may hit a wall when human connections can no longer be intercepted.

All is not lost, of course. People have always craved outside entertainment. You can’t talk all the time, so we’ll watch TV for a while yet. And gadgets with shiny chrome or glass will be around for a while, meaning marketers can track data being sucked through the devices that fulfill our hunter-gatherer-sexual-status-signaling instincts. But the irony of these inevitable media shifts into human minds is they will take us back to where we were in 10,000 B.C.: outside TV, radio and print washing over us to fulfill the campfire entertainment role, and human-to-human social media in which we control the intercourse ourselves. Marketers, like storytellers from a clan far away, will be welcome in one place and not the other.

The fuzzy finding in the Razorfish Fluent report

Interactive group Razorfish has a new report out saying it is more important than ever before for brands to start engaging consumers inside social media. Trouble is, a lot of the data inside the Razorfish study shows consumers may not care:

– In 5 of 7 industry categories (auto, finance, home and garden, retail and travel), only 10% or less of 1,000 consumers surveyed said they were very likely to interact with a brand on social media.

– Only 33% of consumers said they trust their online friends’ recommendations vs. 73% who trust their offline friends.

– Social network advertising scored half as low in authenticity vs. television advertising and about 40% lower than print advertising.

Add it up and consumers don’t want to interact with many brands, they don’t trust online friends, and they find marketing incursions in social media inauthentic. The idea that building a marketing arm inside Facebook or Twitter is urgent seems a little silly, given those findings.

Consumers don’t care?

The Razorfish study does have good points, such as it is important for brands to “do” things worth consumers talking about and to learn how to measure conversations inside social media. Their discussion of a “Social Influence Marketing” or SIM score is noteworthy. But the real finding is consumers chatting among themselves usually do not want marketers to be part of that conversation at all.

We’ll explore this “consumers don’t care” concept and its implications for all forms of advertising in an upcoming column. Stay tuned. For the Razorfish counterpoint, we recommend this Adweek interview with Shiv Singh, Razorfish’s social media chief, and also his insightful blog.

Ford test drives a Plaid

We’re on a plane today bound for California so will leave you with this roadtrip campaign by our friends at interactive shop Plaid. They’re touring middle America to see what brands and agencies are doing on the cutting edge of social media.

Above, Plaid interviews Scott Monty, head of Ford’s social media program. Scott just passed the Year 1 mark at Ford in the role, and we’re sure it wasn’t always easy — don’t miss his post on the bumps and successes along the way. Critics might see it all as just another PR move, but we think Scott is forging something different — an outreach program that moves beyond the brand. We’ve seen Scott congratulate competitors for winning awards, get back to people on Sundays, and rail on the silliness of stupid marketers. Scott is making Ford seem human.

And that’s just one stop. You can follow Plaid’s two-week journey at

(Full disclosure: Plaid invited us to guest post at their Top 100 blog Brandflakes for Breakfast while they’re out playing. We may not give the keys back.)

Yahoo’s redesign: Will it keep users down on the farm? is perched atop a dangerous peak. Today it is huge, attracting 26% of all global Internet users. But Yahoo traffic is sliding according to Alexa and Quantcast, down 1.6% in the past 3 months and about 10% in the past 2 years — evidence of the movement of consumers away from single site portals to the long tail of web sites, blogs, social media and mobile.

So Yahoo is trying to get stickier. It’s about to relaunch with pop-up-style windows allowing you to update social networks such as Facebook or MySpace while still within Yahoo. Analyst Jeremiah Owyang and WSJ reporter Kara Swisher agree the inclusion of social media is a needed improvement.

Please kids, keep the party at home?

So why should a site with 120 million monthly visitors worry? Yahoo itself notes in its most recent annual report that mobile and social media fragmentation threaten any portal:

“The number of individuals who access the Internet through devices other than a PC, such as mobile telephones, personal digital assistants, smart phones, hand held computers, televisions, and set-top box devices, has increased dramatically, and the trend is likely to continue. Our services were originally designed for rich, graphical environments such as those available on the desktop and PC. The lower resolution, functionality, and memory associated with alternative devices currently available may make the use of our services through such devices difficult, and the versions of our services developed for these devices may not be compelling to users, manufacturers, or distributors of alternative devices…”

The Yahoo redesign could work. The fastest growing segments in social media are now adults 35+, a more conservative group that might be happy playing inside a Yahoo’d-everything portal. Since wealth is accumulated with age, this is not unattractive for advertisers. The relaunch will certainly boost ad revenue in the near term via banners next to the new pop-ups for Facebook and MySpace (social media users tend to refresh often; think of all those CPMs sucking in advertising cash).

Still, the portal strategy is growing outdated. There are nearly 4 billion people with cell phones now, and as those phones get smarter with hundreds of apps, new doorways online will continue to open. The Yahoo response feels a bit like inviting your teenage children to hold a party in your basement; they may spend more time at home now, but eventually the kids will move out.

(All Things D shares the history of Yahoo design evolution here.)

Why every business should give away free food

Hurry. You have five minutes left before Starbucks closes its free pastry offer in the U.S. at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. But don’t worry, the strategy of sampling is here to stay.

McDonald’s is running a Free Mocha Monday promotion through Aug. 3. Kraft is engaging consumers with a First Taste community to share news of emerging products. Former McDonald’s CMO Larry Light told Ad Age a year ago that studies show 80% of consumers prefer a free sample to a coupon — and about a third said they would come back to buy again. Sampling works because customers who take the trouble to visit a store usually buy something else, the samples are typically inexpensive items, and a lift in future sales more than justifies the expense.

Sampling is worth trying in more complex business models, such as business-to-business sales. Whitepapers, free consultations, assessments, workshops and speeches are all freebies that give a little in exchange for getting a lot. In recessionary times, improving your offer could help attract clients. Make a list: What could you give away to lure future customers to your service?

Photo: He@rt

Despite the hookers, Ford gets paid posts right

The Ford Fiesta is the American auto success you’ve never heard of. This tiny car is built abroad in places such as Brazil and India, has sold more than 12 million units worldwide since 1976, and its diesel version gets a whopping 65 miles to the gallon. But demand for so-called “supermini” cars has been lackluster in the U.S., up until now.

So Ford is launching the car in the States with a social-media buzz campaign. Ford has enlisted 100 “agents” for an extended six-month test drive, who can tweet, blog, or post photos about their rides. As we’ve noted in the past, marketers are recruiting consumers to promote products by buying their reviews in social media, and this often creates conflicts of interest … in which readers are uncertain how sincere, or what the source of, a communication is. The issue is controversial in ad circles, and even Google has weighed in, demanding that paid posts include no-follow tags to keep the quasi-ad-material off search engines.

Ford avoids the greasy, buying-your-mind feel of many paid campaigns by doing several things right. Users can write what they want (Diablito Damian jokes he’s using the car to pick up prostitutes). The car rentals are tied to several “mission” competitions unrelated to payment — have a graffiti artist paint a wall in your house — that resonate in the young target demo, and are staged to help continue the buzz about the campaign. And test drives are aggregated in almost a Consumer Reports-vibe portal.

On the spectrum of paid posts, between cash-for-shilling and access-for-reviews, Ford strikes a balance that’s more informational than promotional. The debate on paying for opinions isn’t going away, and the approach may become less useful as the social media streams become crowded with promotions. For now, driving to find hookers feels right.

Hat tip to Todd Sanders.

Turn off, tune in: In praise of tangential engagement

Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd has an elegant riff about the culture clash of young people who use the internet as a backchannel (say, clicking on laptops or cell phones during meetings) and older people who get annoyed by it. At a recent lecture on sociocybernetics in Italy, Danah ticked off an elderly speaker with her multitasking on a gadget.

“But during the talk, I had looked up six different concepts he had introduced (thank you Wikipedia), scanned two of the speakers’ papers to try to grok what on earth he was talking about, and used Babelfish to translate the Italian conversations taking place on Twitter and FriendFeed in attempt to understand what was being said. Of course, I had also looked up half the people in the room (including the condescending man next to me) and posted a tweet of my own…

Danah concludes this is a problem for every business, in which older professionals see web use as productivity leaks instead of enhancements.

The question is thornier for advertisers, who must wonder, for instance, if television impressions are really that if younger demos are multitasking on laptops or mobile. Perhaps the answer to the current debate over how advertisers can climb aboard social media is not to push in at all, but to welcome social backchannels as a companion forum. Let them talk among themselves. It may help them listen.

Image: Alex // Berlin

The future of the web is TV?

Dirk Singer, head of the London PR shop Cow, believes attention to advertising across the board — not just newspaper readership — is what is declining, and as consumers shift media habits online ironically television networks may come out the winner. Dirk writes:

So the elephant in the room is that if we are talking about the age of news brands, we are not just talking about newspapers. It’s easy enough for the rest of us to migrate to the online services of TV news networks (and A List blogs which are no longer blogs in the 2004 sense) – TV news channels (mostly) not being in the business of charging to watch content anyway. Indeed, they’d probably welcome the opportunity to get a bigger slice of the online pie.

Good point. Newspapers and blogs and television newscasts are all starting to look the same. Blogger Robert Scoble’s posts are filled with video. The New York Times’ site has a news video section. is filled with articles and columns. If it’s all the same, what matters next is who can fund the content.

When your product is free, you need money from somewhere else

TV remains the cash king. The average U.S. consumer watches 5 hours and 9 minutes of live TV a day, taking in just over 1 hour of paid sponsorships. This in turn gives broadcast and cable TV about $75 billion in advertising in the U.S. — a lot of money to cross subsidize online free content. The irony of our intellectual user-generated-content age is that passive couch potatoes may fund the revolution.

Photo: Rock Creek

American Well: Finally, the online doctor will see you now

Today hospitals face enormous financial pressure. Much like the U.S. Postal Service, which lost profitable shipping business to FedEx and got stuck with costly letter delivery, hospitals’ best customers are being cherry-picked away by specialist cardiologists or orthopedists with niche practices, leaving them with unprofitable, uninsured consumers in emergency rooms. Meanwhile the aging boomer population is a wealth of potential patients — but they avoid the inner-city hospital locations and go get their knee surgery at a boutique in the suburbs.

This is all a bit comical, since the solution is so easy. U.S. hospitals still have the best doctors in the world, but patients simply can’t find them. Studies such as Pew show with hard data that 113 million Americans search online for health information each year, and most (66%) begin at a search engine. Hospitals not advertising online and paying for Google keywords are missing more than two-thirds of their potential audience. Smart specialists, meanwhile, are piling on: Google “bariatrics” and you’ll see vast competition among niche surgeons who are now wise to the internet game.

The online doctor will see you now

One company stepping into the void is American Well, a service that gives consumers remote access to healthcare over the internet. Consumers visit a web site, punch in their condition, and can pick from a list of doctors to have an immediate web video conference on their home computer. The service has numerous benefits: no appointments are needed; the system will forward the recommendation to your regular primary care physician via fax, email or mail; American Well even records each session, so you can go back through your health records to recall what the doctor recommended.

Virtual home visits may be more attractive to patients than seeing an actual doctor. If a man wants to discuss erectile dysfunction, or a woman a urinary tract infection, a little squirming is involved confessing the issue to a doctor. But a face in a moving web pane, why, that feels a bit detached — creating a comforting illusion of privacy.

More hospitals could do this. The cost to e-serve all patients might be abnormally high, but highest-contribution service lines such as bariatrics, cardio, or ortho could fit nicely. In the perfect marketing world hospitals would use a broad presence on Google with thousands of paid keywords to pull potential patients toward online video chats, where prospects could be quickly screened and scheduled for appointments.

In an age where half the planet has cell phones and every senior citizen is familiar with a PC, hospitals that don’t allow patients to find them online do more than a disservice to the public. They’re also hurting their bottom line.

iPhone subways: Augmented reality gets real

Augmented reality is one of the themes of William Gibson’s recent book Spook Country, in which high-tech renegades overlay ghostly images on real-world locations to create “locative art,” visible via special glasses. You know, like the dead body of a famous writer floating in the street, showing the scene from the moment he died.

The idea of the internet overlaying reality is becoming concrete. Now an iPhone 3GS app by Acrossair, above, points you to the nearest subway station, with ghostly arrows telling you which way and how far to walk. The technology that makes this work is all logical — a combination of the phone’s video screen, GPS locator, and accelerometer — but the result seems magic.

Coolhunter Tom Ajello has a detailed profile of other augmented-reality mobile applications here.

Via Brandflakes.