Kevin Desouza teaches electrical engineering at the University of Washington in the American northwest. Earlier this year he spent a couple of months as a visiting professor at Wits. He stayed in Melville. On the flight home, he wrote about it on his blog, Desouza’s Thinking. If you need cheering up about South Africa, go Google him.
Like so many visitors to this country, he fell in love with the place and not just with its physical beauty or its food and wine. He found South Africans to be “great hosts”. They were “motivated to work together (and) help each other out”. “Hungry for knowledge”, his students worked “extremely diligently”. Executives were “warm and welcoming”. While most South Africans did not lead easy lives, “I was simply taken aback by the optimism here that things will get better”.
Also, he felt safe. “Before I got here, everyone told me how dangerous…places were. I have not encountered a single difficult situation or felt threatened. If you come here with an open mind, possess street smarts and commonsense, you will enjoy this place.”
Desouza’s Thinking does not feature in technorati.com’s rankings of most visited blogs. This particular post drew 8 comments, all positive, mostly (including mine) thanking the author. Some said they intended to visit as a result. A rule of thumb is that around one out of a hundred visitors to any website will interact with it in some way if interaction is possible. So perhaps 800 people have so far read what Desouza had to say about us.
That’s a lot for his blog, I’d wager. One reason for the spike was that other bloggers, including me, had linked to the post on our own sites. But it has yet to go viral, which is a pity. I found it because I am on the look-out for such things. I have programmed my Google account to send me any blog entry the search engine comes across containing the phrase South Africa. The results are not always as pretty.
What Desouza wrote on his way home for the benefit of friends, colleagues and family is potentially far more valuable for this country than any multi-million rand ad campaign. It’s not a piece of marketing. It’s not a message artfully crafted by people who call themselves communicators. It doesn’t carry any branding. In a word, it’s authentic, and nothing sells like an authentic third party endorsement.
By the same token, traditional marketing and branding carry less and less weight when you can go online to see what others like you are saying about their personal experience with the product or service or holiday package you’re looking to buy. You ached to own the Sony until you read the observations of Joe from Amarillo.
South Africa has many things going for it. One of them is that people like Desouza react as he did when they come here. Even better, they commit their impressions to the web on their blogs and Facebooks and upload their videos to YouTube and their photo collections to sites like Flickr. They create content. But so, of course, do the netizens, mostly South African, who use the same tools to run the place down.
The answer to the trolls is better, more interesting, content, but without loss of authenticity. The more interesting the content, the more others will link to it, quote it and embed it in their own blogs and Facebooks, and subscribe to the feeds that spread it further.
With that in mind, the International Marketing Council is bringing a group of professional, much-linked-to bloggers, mostly American, to SA at the end of next week. We are taking them on an adventure with their laptops and cameras, and 3G wireless modems courtesy of Vodacom. The hope is that as they record their experience in more or less real time, posting words, pictures and video, they will create some memorable and highly infectious content.
Will it be a seamless paean of praise? I certainly hope not and am confident that hope will be fulfilled. Otherwise the object would be defeated. Authenticity.