X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Liz Heller, Buzztone

Sincere apologies to my fellow mentors for not getting some of my notes up sooner, but without WiFi on Friday and the mentoring all weekend, I usually ended up posting late at night. Friday, I stayed up until 130 in the morning. I did as much as I could in between sessions on the weekend, but being a mentor, I wanted to do justice to the groups who came to discuss their projects. As for continuing the late night blogging, exhaustion prevented me from doing more over the weekend.

Liz Heller started out in sociology, and she is fascinated how people travel in ‘groups and loops’. They formed a company called Buzztone, which “creates award-winning lifestyle, pop culture, urban and guerrilla marketing campaigns”. She went on to describe social motivations to keep in mind when thinking about social software and services:

We share a lot in common. We want to be a part of something. We want to share what we love. We all want to be just a little famous. We all want to think that we are the first to find something new. We all want to have friends.

People want to stay in touch with friends they already have. Social networks are seen as ways to deepen existing friendships not supplant them. (Bravo Liz. I couldn’t agree more. Media always cover online social networks as if they supplant not supplement real world social bonds. For most of the people I know, it’s just not so. And Liz added a new word my vocabulary: Frobligations, friends referrals through other friends that you feel obligated to befriend.)

Her work revolves around marketing campaigns that relied on some of these social needs. They used a social club and lots of social outreach to connect women to French wine. They used feedback from the members to feed back into the social club. (Again, I think this is a key thing that most ‘social marketing’ companies forget: Feedback. Most of the time, they focus only on seeding their message in social networks, not using those social networks to make their products better and their companies genuinely more responsive.)

They also developed a student network for Microsoft called Spoke. It was the first social network for tech students. It was global and regionalised. It helped to change student perceptions of Microsoft.

Social networks are a filter. She pointed out MoveOn.org, OurChart (a social network for lesbians from the popular programme The L Word), Block Savvy (a niche urban-focused social network) and a number of others. (When people ask me about how I stay on top of developments in digital media and journalism, and one of the best tools I have is a the dozen or so digital journalism experts who blog in my RSS reader. They are my filter, my radar, my early warning trend watchers. Now, seeing all of these social networks developing, I must say that it reminds me slightly of the late dot.com boom when sites took an e-commerce model and chased increasingly small sales niches. Remember all of those pet e-commerce sites? I think there is value in focused communities online, but that is value to me as an end-user. I’m not so sure about value in terms of a sustainable business model. However, I can see the justification if you’re looking to build a social network around a marketing campaign, even if that isn’t my particular focus.)

Groups and loops for causes. She showed stopglobalwarming.org, a social network following on from Live Earth and Zaadz. Social media encourages face-to-face engagement. Houseparty.com and reunion.com all encourage real world events. (Again, it was really good to hear someone counter the media-driven myth that online social activity creates a world of anti-social people. Whether it’s Twitter, Flickr, Dopplr or my blog, these things reinforce my real world social interaction. They helped jump start my social life when I moved to London a couple of years ago. But as Suw says, Twitter gets her out to the pub to spend time with friends.)

I liked the ideas Liz was presenting. The marketing-sensitive consumer in me was possibly too aware of commercial purpose of some of these projects, but Liz wasn’t just talking about trying to infect social networks with marketing messages, which seems to me the purpose of some viral campaigns. Social marketing campaigns that don’t listen, aren’t social, even if they are targeting social spaces online, and her emphasis on using feedback from the community is often missed by many digital marketing companies.

And I really liked Liz’ emphasis that there is a symbiotic relationship between online and offline community. It’s a myth that online community is a parasitic drain on real world social interaction, and it’s great to hear someone like Liz challenge conventional wisdom.

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