Monthly Archives: February 2011

Agencies making digital products should co-create with customers

20 Jay Street, home to Miami Ad School (photo credit: dumbonyc)

I recently spoke to Miami Ad School students in Brooklyn via Steve Peck, one of the creatives at BBH New York, who teaches a class on Digital Product Development. There’s been a clear shift toward digital product development at agencies in recent years and it seems to be the work we respect most of one another if award shows are any indication (and I’m not sure they are).

However, what I find most intriguing about the future of product development at agencies is the intersection with collaboration. I continue to believe that serving as a scaffolding for customers to engage with brands beyond transactions is a huge opportunity for agencies, and that we’ve only scratched the surface thus far. If agencies want to develop digital products (even when they are simply extensions or features of the analog products created by our clients) and customers want to co-create with brands, the opportunity is compounded. After all, creating digital things is what most collaboration tools at large are built to do. Looking at things from this perspective makes the future of agencies seem bright, especially when one witnesses first hand what students like those at Miami Ad School are capable of.

Below is a copy of my presentation (special thanks to Brian Moore, a Media Designer here at BBH that helped design it, and whose transitions are unfortunately lost via slideshare).

Why Quora’s design tension is the biggest challenge they face

About a month ago, we posted an anti-Quora rant. It triggered quite a bit of discussion in the comments, one of which was even developed into a counter-post that argued Quora’s superiority in identifying intent over search engines. To round off the impromptu series, we’ve asked Shannon Bain to explain why it isn’t about Quora’s value or lack thereof. Below he explains that there’s a design tension at the heart of all this discussion about the Q&A platform we love to love and hate in equal measure.

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Author: Shannon Bain, Principal Designer at XING AG, Hamburg, Germany


Quora is still getting a lot of press, both positive and negative, much of it in the form of a debate about its value. Is Quora a good, valuable information service or is it simply a platform for SV self-aggrandizement? As far as I’m concerned, we’ll never get an answer to this question (mainly because it’s actually both). What we should be looking at instead is what the negative reactions tell us about the dangers of designing for social content creation on a platform that’s primarily positioned as a knowledge resource.

Quora is officially “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it”. So it’s a Q&A platform, but a fundamentally social one. This puts Quora in a tricky position because there’s an underlying tension between the product’s official proposition and the activity it must “afford” through its design to be a successful social product.

Quora’s Q&A focus primes knowledge-sharing expectations in users. But a reality of social functionality design is that you must always “afford” user display: give users the domain-appropriate means to show-off, shine, look good, whatever. Display is a powerful and perfectly valid motivator of social activity, even if we like to pretend it’s not. In this case, it incentivizes good questions and smart answers. And since Quora is effectively a community talking to itself (it’s by us pros, for us pros), there’s no way to avoid display even if you (foolishly) wanted to.

So here’s the tension: when we’re primed with strong knowledge-sharing expectations, but are faced with brazen self-promotion instead, we get annoyed–– even when it results in good content and drives a lot of our own activity. The product’s official, expectation-priming proposition is so clearly about altruistic knowledge-sharing, we can’t help but feel weird about the selfish display activity necessarily afforded by the platform.

To understand why, we need to look at the product’s framing, the norms in play, and users’ perceived motivations. A product’s frame is the big interaction type that structures it, guides design and primes user expectations. For Quora, it’s a Question & Answer frame. One way frames work is by embedding norms, the informal rules and conventions coordinating and smoothing our daily activities and interactions. When you hear about a Q&A platform, it’s partially your grasp of the frame’s norms that give you that immediate, high-level understanding of what’s supposed to happen. There are at least two roles (Questioner and Answerer) whose interactions are temporally structured (Qs before As) and whose performances can be judged as appropriate or inappropriate (e.g. did the Answerer actually address the question).

It’s the last bit that’s interesting here. Norms can provide the means of evaluating performance appropriateness. But they often say more than just what behavior is appropriate or inappropriate. They can also say what motivations are appropriate and, more importantly in this case, inappropriate. They determine the frame’s legitimate behaviors and motivations. For us, the interesting Q&A performance norms are about knowledge sharing, and, specifically, the inappropriateness of knowledge flaunting.

But on a platform essentially dependent on user effort, display is a powerful incentive you can’t ignore. It’s also unavoidable in the product’s strategic “by us, for us” positioning. So, the product necessarily affords transgression of the official Q&A frame’s “no flaunting” norm.

Elsewhere, I’ve argued that in addition to display there are two other big reasons people use social functionality: knowledge and connection. If you think of these as defining a space within which a piece of social functionality can be plotted according to how it mixes the elements, you can visually represent the mismatch between Quora’s “explicit” position and it’s “afforded” position.

Notice I’ve also included the “enforced” position. This represents the backlash apparently being enacted by some members against transgressions of the no-flaunting norm. My impression is that it’s even stricter and less display-lenient than the official position.

I can think of three approaches to mitigating the mismatch:

  • Shift official positioning… bad idea.
  • Monitor and enforce an officially “elevated” layer of user-admins. This is probably too Wikipedia-like and counter the communitarian, party-line rhetoric of SV and Quora.
  • Structurally and functionally foster the definition and communication of member-negotiated, product-specific norms for appropriate display on Quora.

The last one gets my vote. Display is necessary for Quora to succeed and is going to happen no matter what. Indeed, as the backlash suggests, product-specific norms for legitimate display are already being negotiated. Why not improve the tools for negotiating, communicating, and enforcing legitimate means of display. For example, beyond the current sanctioning (voting) and elevation of “quality” performances, consider a menu of user-applied content tags – e.g. “flaunting”, “advertisement”, etc. Or socially reward users that review and rehabilitate tagged content, possibly even elevating them via a light status system. There are a lot of design possibilities in this direction. And though there’s a real potential for gamesmanship, it’s still  my favorite option. It’s not about iron hand enforcement of official rules. It’s about giving users the tools to define, enforce and communicate what they collectively decide are the normative bounds of performance on the platform.

The Wisdom in Community Management

Source: Scoobay on Flickr

“In recent years organizations have raced to connect with fans and customers in new ways via social media.

Yet, the results have been mixed. Many organizations are struggling to start up communities, while others that have a community aren’t sure what to say or do with them. Meanwhile, a few companies are racing ahead to very productive collaborations yielding new offerings, better service and more sales.


5 Things Agencies Can Learn From Music Labels

Author: Dan Hauck, ex-BBHer, now Planning Director at Sony Music UK

The title might sound a bit presumptuous, but that’s not the intention. Clearly, there are a huge number of things that music labels can learn from agencies, and indeed most labels are only starting to embrace things that have been commonplace in agencies for years.

Why should anyone listen to an industry that is in such obvious structural and financial turmoil? Well, partly because that’s exactly why the music industry is starting to embrace change where it once ignored it, happy to let the CD dollars roll in. Those days have well and truly gone, and that has brought a realization that if they don’t do something new, they might not be doing anything at all.

But mainly because the particular nature of the music industry has led to certain practices that I believe agencies can learn from. I’ve worked at Sony Music for a year now. We’ve tried to establish some of the basic principles of brand planning into the way in which marketing campaigns are created – proper understanding of audiences, an informed neutral approach to channel planning, artist/campaign propositions, creative briefs, full campaign evaluation etc etc.

In truth, some initiatives have worked better than others. There are factors unique to the music industry that can make planning for bands more difficult than for brands (incredibly short lead times, and the difficulty of working with a living and breathing product, to name two).

But there are also factors particular to this industry that lead a planner in music to a certain type of planning, one which I think can offer some interesting learnings for the discipline as a whole. (more…)

Can brands shift from co-presenting to co-viewing?

For those who don’t live in the UK or haven’t heard of it, Skins is a scripted show that promises a real depiction of Teen lives including the drugs, sex and rock-n-roll. This was a very popular show with Millenials 18-24 in the U.K. and appears to be just as popular here in the States. I’ve been fascinated by the advertisers who are scrambling to remove themselves from the MTV version of Skins due to the lack of ‘brand fit’ and backlash from Parent groups.

These Parent groups are calling the advertisers who are running ads in Skins sponsors, or co-presenters of ‘filth’. Let’s be honest, very few brands have values that would align with the values of the show. It’s easy for marketers to make a case not to place an ad in programming like this, even when the eyeballs are there.