Chris Abraham’s a pretty well known guy in DC and blogging circles, and we wanted to get him on the Bin for an interview. Chris not only blogs with a punchy, strong recognized voice (Because the Medium is the Message and Marketing Conversation), but he also gives back to the community by teaching blogging classes. He recently started a new company with Mark Harrison (see this quirky interview in German). The most poignant thing Chris said (paraphrased), “Social media’s hard on big business… Read on for more of Chris’s insights.
BB: Why did you begin the Marketing Conversation blog?
CA: I started the Marketing Conversation blog for two reasons: first, my personal blog, Chris Abraham ? Because the Medium is the Message, http://www.chrisabraham.com, is too general. While it is a rich resource of new media, new marketing, and buzz marketing content, the blog never focused on a single topic.
“Vertical blogs,” blogs that focus on particular topics of expertise, are much better showcases for personal and professional insights and I wanted to use Marketing Conversation as an online resource for new marketing. Second, I wanted to give my staff an open forum for blogging about new marketing, new media, social media, remote working, virtual teams, corporate blogging, web strategy, Internet strategy, and web 2.0.
My only restriction is that staff should avoid discussing our clients or campaigns without their express permission. Otherwise, I am not much of a gatekeeper ? quite the opposite, I tend to shove them through the gate then pay little mind in which direction they wander with their writings. Fortunately, all my people are extraordinarily intelligent, so invariably, great stuff comes out.
Additionally, I have been starting up so many WordPress blogs in the course of my work that I wanted the practice of using an installation of WordPress with all the bells and whistles. So, that’s what I did with Marketing Conversation — turned on all the bells and whistles.
When I finished building the WordPress blog, I shoehorned all of the “old” content from Because the Medium is the Message into Marketing Conversation, then all the content from my company site, Abraham Harrison LLC, http://www.ahllc.eu, and from my personal website, Chris Abraham Online, http://www.cabraham.com, and when I was done, I opened it up to my staff.
BB: How many blogs do you manage?
CA: I only manage two real blogs, Because the Medium is the Message and Marketing Conversation. The Chris Abraham Online and Abraham Harrison LLC websites are more CMS-like, based on Drupal, an Open Source ?LAMP? Content Management System. I love Drupal a lot and think I will be doing a lot more client work with it.
I pretty much exclusively use WordPress and Drupal in my client development. Why? Because they simply work.
BB: Who do you read daily?
CA: Wow. I can?t keep up with my feeds. I try my hardest to keep up with the 1,277 feeds I have on Google Reader, http://reader.google.com. I read them via my Blackberry, my Nokia n800 tablet, and the web. Can?t keep up so what I do now is rely on my social networks, including Twitter, Pownce, Facebook, IM, and email. In many ways, I think these referrals and links are probably more valuable. I also have lots of Google Alerts, http://www.google.com/alerts, set up for me for vanity, staff, relevant topics (new marketing), competitors, and clients. I don?t actually go to any sites. Going to sites, blogs, and newspapers is too inefficient for me; however, I do read the real-live Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the Financial Times off real-live paper every morning.
BB: Why are there so many businesses now running toward social media?
CA: There are indeed many businesses now running towards social media; however, I don?t think many of them are doing it smartly. I give a lot of credit to the firms and companies who are willing to take the plunge. I am lucky because I made all of my mistakes while working for boutique firms and clients ? when you make mistakes they never get close to the front page of the New York Times.
Getting on board with Edelman’s Online Advocacy team made me appreciate what this process must be like for companies that are always under the public scrutiny: Edelman, Microsoft, Nikon, and all the usual suspects. Frankly, it’s tough to be them. Anything they do, they’re in AdAge or the Times or the Journal. As a result, there isn’t a lot of room for innovation – they tend to be fearful and conservative in their campaigns, and that?s understandable.
Lots of people mocked Edelman’s Me2Revolution and Microsoft’s blogger outreach campaign that delivered Acer Ferrari laptops to bloggers to review Vista. I have to hand it to Edelman and its clients for even trying — for having at least some guts, and some willingness to be innovative.
The pity of such spectacular failures by the big boys is that their grand front-page mistakes scare smaller firms and much smaller clients away from gutsy innovation for fear that they too might end up with egg on their face. Frankly, most B-, C-, and D-list would benefit from making some seriously embarrassing, out-there, dumb-ass mistakes. I mean, come on! Social Media requires zits and all – it requires taking off the damn Gucci loafers and Savile Row suit for a while, rolling up your sleeves, and wading into the muck like a real person.
I remember comments made on Twitter asking Steve Rubel, Phil Gomes, and Rick Murray what they were doing wasting all their time on Twitter. Well, to be honest, Steve, Phil, and Rick are the only A-list PR executives who have any cred at all in the Blogosphere; they’re the only A-list bloggers that can pin their success to the real A-list and not the marketing and PR A-list over at the Power 150.
It is essential that businesses stop using Social Media as a toolset or gimmick. Social Media isn’t a panacea. It isn’t autoblogging, it isn’t splogging, and it isn’t astroturfing. Whatever it is, it doesn’t fit very well into the traditional 15-minute billing increments and it shouldn’t be become a bad word, either, like billing to admin is.
So, social media won’t work unless you invest, as I said. But what does it need? Well, it needs a lot of respect and it needs a lot of time and needs lots of gifts. No longer can the customer be raised like chattel.
Yeah, yeah, you say, not more of that — but sorry, as much as you might wish you could stay in the customers-on-a-leash modus of the 1980’s, things are no longer that way. Just like late-90s Silicon Valley, where you never knew who the millionaires were, you never know who the influencers are when you’re online. You have to be inside and active to figure that out. I can’t swing a cat (I swing as many cats as possible — I hate cats) without hitting a high-influencer in my social network on LinkedIn, Plaxo, FaceBook, Tumblr, Pownce, Jott, MySpace & Friendster (just joking), VOX, Jaiku, and Twitter.
The only reason anyone knows who I am is not because I have been online since 1983 or because I am able to hack code or maintain a Linux server or even because I am a geek. The reason why Doc Searls, Dave Winer, Chris Pirillo, and Robert Scoble know me from Adam is because I put myself out there. Because I have maintained a controversial blog since 1999, because I put myself out there and am willing to make an ass out myself, because I engage in the conversational spew, and because I am more than happy to call in to flash Tweet-up and invest in this crazy community of people, all of whom I know and love, most of whom I have never met. Social media isn’t simply a strategy, it is a culture, it has a protocol, it has its own language.
I am a native speaker of this language. Even if you can’t become a native speaker, you can become a naturalized citizen. In order to convert from old media to new media, you’re going to have to commit, you’re going to have to expatriate. You can practice all you want, but what is the point of learning the culture, the language, and the people if you’re not willing to settle in and join in?
And if you’re unwilling to take the leap, you had better hire a guide, hire a native speaker, or employ a native. That’s what Edelman does. It helps and it works. Of course, you can always hire me.
BB: How do you see it affecting marketing/public relations industry as a whole?
CA: It won’t affect the marketing and public relations industry at all. There will always need to be someone who has a mighty impressive Rolodex, someone who knows the Board of APCO. The world will always need a Leslie Dach. Some women will always be more attracted to men in thousand dollar suits and that will fuel men to wear such suits. The corner office will always be the most attractive and not everyone squats on the Internet like it were some Holy ground.
BB: What does it mean for people who don’t embrace it?
CA: Business as usual, for the time being. Marketing and PR have always adjusted. Modern marketing and PR are the children of TV and radio, which are not archaic mediums. Marketing and PR are still not only relevant but also essential when it comes to making a bridge between corporations and just about everything outside of the Internet. The transition will be tough, anyway, because there are no gatekeepers, there are no power structures, and the People can easily out-influence and out PageRank the professionals.
The world is again flat. The old masters are writing lame books like The Cult of the Amateur because they’re afraid. In the meantime, the new masters are writing books like How, that recognize that the power structure has changed. The power structure may have changed but intelligence, relationships, connections, experience, training, and reputation have never been more valuable. Want to know the secret to new media? Balls. Well, actually fearlessness and shamelessness.
Frank Luntz has fearlessness and shamelessness but he’s a rare bird. I am shameless and my business partner, Mark Harrison, is fearless. Together, we have the right stuff.
There are too many people in the professional services industry who are too comfortable covering their respective asses. Not protecting their companies but protecting themselves. What about the clients’ needs? What about their best interest? New media and web 2.0 is all about disruption.
The new media elite don’t really have a heck of a lot of lot to lose. This isn’t their business; this is their metier, their passion. Coders are modern poets. They’re not jealously guarding their immortality or protecting their careers. They’re doing cool shit with the same sort of determination that drives rock musicians: yes, they want to become rock stars and they want to make lots of money, and they want to do amazing well with the partner of their choice. On the way, they’re willing to sleep on a futon and eat more than a couple bowls of ramen noodles.
BB: What’s next? Where is new media taking us?
CA: The world is flat. The world is flat. The world is flat. The “worst” thing about the new media is that it is going to make everything way more populist: entertaining, provocative, tawdry, controversial, and titillating. Sounds good to me. Caveat Lector is what I have to say: reader beware. The unwashed masses are now publishing like mad, it is up to you to control how down and dirty you get.
Pop culture has never been reflected in the peach pages of the Financial Times or the sticky pages of the New Yorker. All the content on the Internet, the Blogosphere, and inert Web 2.0 platforms have been around since the 50s; however, until recently, the mediasphere wasn’t flat, wasn’t horizontal. The media wasn’t a free market, it was a global, intentional, civics lesson from the elite for the benefit of the common man, whatever that is. I think it may be a secret code for “masses of morons with sixth grade education who chew tobacco” but I am not certain.
Until the Internet, the media elite took it upon themselves to be stewards of us, the “normal folks.” It was their holy responsibility to train us up, to deliver us our culture the way many take the Host on Sunday. It didn’t need to be attractive, it didn’t need to be delicious, and it didn’t need to include a relationship, but it was fortifying. It was the responsibility of High Culture to help us pick ourselves up. Noblesse oblige.
Web 2.0 is America. Talk Radio is America. Reality TV is America. MySpace is America. Born Again is America. Creationism is America. Wal-Mart is America. NASCAR is America. Pornography and gambling is America. Vegas and Texas and Florida is America; we self-righteous high-culturists in NYC, DC and SFO, attending our foreign films and book clubs, whinging about the decline of good breeding are the school-marmish Women’s Temperance Unionist of today. In the end, whisky-swilling and terbacky-spittin’ will prevail. That’s America, and that’s Web 2.0.