Spreading the Good Word

Until Sunday afternoon, I had never heard of Fred Roed. Then another complete stranger re-tweeted a link to something Roed had written on his blog, Ideate, along with the item’s title: Eight Reasons Why It’s Great to Be South African.  The re-tweet showed up in the stream of tweets containing the phrase “South Africa” I have running as a ticker in my Firefox browser. Clear?
It sounded interesting, so I clicked on the link and read what Roed had to say. He was funny and engaging, so I too re-tweeted him, then added Ideate’s RSS feed to my Google Reader and Roed to the list of people I follow on Twitter. For good measure, I bookmarked Roed’s post on my del.ici.ous account, which automatically sent it to my Friendfeed, my Facebook page and, potentially (I haven’t made installed the necessary plug-ins yet) members of my Ning and Linked-In networks. Still with me?

If none of that makes sense to you and you are in the marketing or PR business, you may be in danger of going the way of the buggy whip maker. This process is at the very heart of how memes – and you had better get used to that word, too — are made in the age of social media.

Because of how I and others bumped into Roed’s blog post and blasted it on to our circles, where still others will do the same to theirs and so on, what he wrote will likely reach an audience rather larger than the print circulation of this newspaper, and the readership will be global. His eight points stand to have the impact of a traditional ad costing hundreds of thousands of rand.  It cost him nothing more than the time it took him to write it and the price of a tiny quantum of bandwidth – next to nothing even in SA. It didn’t cost any of us strangers who helped propagate his message more than a couple of mouse clicks, either.

The organization I work for, the International Marketing Council, and others like it, could not buy at any price advertising as valuable as Roed’s post, as amplified by social media, at least not without subterfuge whose disclosure would turn it from gold into the deadliest of PR poison. The fact that we didn’t pay for it accounts for much of its power.  A lot of complete strangers, and not just avowedly biased ones like myself, will instinctively trust what Roed has to say, even when he includes in his list of reasons why it’s great to be South African the fact that Jacob Zuma is president.  Here’s why.

First, and this is important, Ideate looks like (and is) a site by and for cool, smart, independent-minded people, not apparatchiks, propagandists, sycophants, axe-grinders, haters or zealots of any kind.  Second, to netizens, the very fact that Roed’s post is being propagated the way it is lends validation. On the web, as in life, human beings tend to form communities. If someone you regard as “one of us” thinks something worthwhile enough to share with you, you are much more likely to trust it than if it came from “one of them”, from outside your community. So, if a member of what you perceive to be your online community says take a look at this post by someone called Roed, chances are you’ll approach it favourably. Third, Roed understands the art of creating a viral blog post. Lists and rankings are irresistible. Add humour, surprise and good writing and you’re in with a chance to become seriously infectious.

The first of Roed’s reasons why it’s great to be South African is “We are resourceful…We make it happen, despite the odds”. He illustrates this with a photo of a bakkie with a load so towering it would have awed even the Joads in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  So much better than just bragging “we’re number one”. Roed’s wit makes you want to believe. He puts you in a mood to feel a little bit proud of President Zuma when you watch, embedded as a You Tube in the post, his recent interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN.  Critics have not been kind to Zuma’s performance, but seen through Roed’s lens, he’s one of us being putting upon by the insufferably self-pleased and not very professional  (in this instance) Amanpour.

Could Roed’s post have been as effective had he been in government’s employ. It’s a good question that goes to the heart of official marketing efforts in an era when the antidotes to spin and manipulation are a mouse-click away. My answer, not self-uninterested, is to say look at Robert Scoble, now one of the masters of the social media universe.

Scoble made a name for himself as Microsoft’s in house blogger. A Microsoft employee, he was nonetheless given the freedom to talk about the weaknesses of Microsoft products as he saw them. Famously, he declared the Firefox browser was better that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. His employers recognized the credibility that gave him when he blogged about the company’s other products. He did much do the render the Borg, as Microsoft had come to be called in Star War parlance, human.

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