The conversation wars

Modernista did it. Skittles did it. And now the world's hottest advertising firm, Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CPB), has done it, too: the NY outfit has re-launched its corporate web site as a conversational social hub that curates what is being said about C

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
4 min read
Modernista did it. Skittles did it. And now the world’s hottest advertising firm, Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CPB), has done it, too: the NY outfit has re-launched its corporate web site as a conversational social hub that curates what is being said about CPB rather than staging what CPB has to say. Some may scoff at this move and denigrate it as “sooooo six months ago,” but I agree with Paul Isakson when he heralds the influence of the new CPB site on the rest of the industry as potentially paradigm-shifting.

The demarcation line here runs between pioneer and early adopter: CPG is the latter, no doubt, and while there’s nothing really innovative about the new site, it is nonetheless still radical relative to the vast majority of corporate web sites out there. Bringing CPB’s client portfolio to life by marrying the Kantian “You are what you do” with the Twitterian “You are what they say about you,” it certainly sets a new standard for the online presentation of creative industry brands. And – the proof is in the pudding – it accomplishes the ultimate goal of any conversational site: it is the talk of the town (or at least that of Madison Avenue).

However, as I was browsing through the plethora of content on the new (beta) CPB.com, an unsettling feeling came over me. It occurred to me that the trend of conversational corporate web sites going mainstream might trigger an unexpected, inadvertent effect. With brands turning into curators of conversations about them and brand value increasingly determined by the value of aggregated content, third parties might be inspired to hijack these very brands by offering curated conversations on their behalf.

Similar to Google’s profiting from original content on the backs of original publishers, brand-specific aggregators could benefit from being parasites of original brands’ social universe. In other words, what if Skittles faced unexpected competition from a third-party site that provided a much more comprehensive and easier-to-access curation of Skittles conversations than Skittles.com itself? Or if McDonalds suddenly saw itself confronted with a site aggregating blogs, videos, news, and tweets, all about but not by McDonalds? Think of this as the logical extension of the company profiles that already exist on LinkedIn and XING, which aggregate individual member data into a fairly transparent view of companies, including employee information and recent news. Indeed, third-party brand curators might realize that brands live in the ‘social commons,’ and that whoever builds the right aggregation mechanism and establishes the most popular channels to reach a mass audience will “own” the branded conversation on the web.

This scenario will hardly be a conflict that brands can legally solve, and it may therefore present a troubling blind spot in the social media ecosystem. Sure, brands can claim their corporate URLs and even their Facebook profiles (not always their Twitter feeds, as you can see exemplified by http:/twitter.com/ted – “I got it first, I win.”). Aggregators, however, operate in social web’s no man’s land, in indisputable territory.

Brand value, extremely volatile anyway, would then become completely unmanageable for the original brand owner. The very transcendence that is emblematic of powerful brands, may become their curse: brand loyalty is not so much loyalty towards a certain company; rather it is – as the name implies – loyalty towards a brand, wherever it lives and however it appears, both of which not limited to the confines of the official representation on the brand owner’s properties. It is the conundrum of successful brand builders that the bigger their brand becomes, the more likely their risk that they lose it to the social commons. Skittles and CPB have recognized that the main threat for their brands is not coming from competitors at the center of their industry but from outliers at the fringes –and they have preempted it, at least so far. My advice for all the others, the late adopters: Take action quickly and launch your own branded aggregation portals before third parties beat you to the punch!

While third-parties might try to benefit from curating branded conversations, Twitter produces the reverse trend as well: brands acting as parasites of existing third-party conversations. UK furniture retailer Habitat had to apologize for referencing the popular hashtag #iranelection in its Twitter feeds. (Over)-eager to drive eyeballs to its feed, it had committed the ultimate sin of social brands: it had stolen a collective currency that no one brand could possibly own.

Another scenario is brands initiating Twitter conversations that are essentially solipsistic. Web-site building company Moonfruit conducted a campiagn offering10 free MacBook Pros as prizes randomly awarded to Twitterers who would use the hashtag #moonfruit. The result: #moonfruit became a trending topic, attracting 400 tweets a minute, more than 10,000 times per hour, and 200,000 per day. Moonfruit’s Twitter followers rose to 23,000, and according to a Moonfruit spokesperson, visits to its site were up 600% on day two of the campaign. Some bemoan it as a "tragedy of the commons" or caution that "unless the Twitterverse wises up, we'll end up getting deluged with hashtag spam." I'm not so worried. The different responses to Habitat's and Moonfruit's campaign show that the Twitterverse can self-regulate attention-hijacking attempts and tell the cool from the not-so-cool. Let Twitter do what Twitter can do. All is fair in the conversation wars.