Branding and Web 2.0

Pete at Mashable.com takes a look into the branding strategy of Ask a Ninja, that set of usually-useful, always funny videos by creators Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine where this amusing character known only as “the Ninja” (because he’s dressed as a ninja?) responds to reader-submitted questions.

It is, first and foremost, truly great content – consistently funny and perfectly timed. What’s more, the interactive nature is a perfect fit for the read-write web. But what’s most is impressive is how the Ask a Ninja team has reached out to viewers by leveraging virtually every social tool out there.

Ask a Ninja has grown quite popular with the geek community–or arguably, at least with some geek communities. Of course, the humour in itself is one marketing advantage, as word-of-mouth (or in this case, word-of-blog) on how cool and funny the Ninja character is has a tendency to quickly spread about.

But aside from “organic” word-of-mouth marketing, what Mashable is taking a look at is how the authors are quite actively using the Web’s existing social networks and social tools to their advantage. They are building global brands with virtually zero marketing costs (well, aside from bandwidth, electricity, and time, perhaps). So whether it’s on video-sharing site YouTube, photo-sharing Flickr, geo-tagging Frappr, or social networks MySpace and Friendster, you are sure to see the Ask a Ninja at some point. And more often than not, if you are an avid user of at least one of these services, then you’d be a fan of Ask a Ninja, or have a friend or contact who is.

Such is brand marketing in this world of collaborative, connected, community-based spaces on the Internet. The general belief is that it is smart for companies and individuals to leverage the use of social-oriented sites to spread the word–and many are effectively doing so. It’s the peer pressure of the 21st century. Just consider the DIGG effect, where, in most cases, DIGGers are likely to DIGG on articles not because they like what they’ve read (which is supposed to be the point), but because the items are on the frontpage, and it’s cool to bookmark what other people think are interesting.

So it’s a chicken-and-egg question (pardon the cliche): you have to wonder whether DIGG items gets frontpaged because of user DIGGs, or if items get DUGG because they’re already on frontpage in the first place (it’s a waterfall effect of some sort–you get frontpaged and the DIGGs come in like crazy)! In the same light, with word-of-mouth and word-of-blog marketing, you really get to wonder. Are these people blogging or writing about these cool, new services or Web offerings because they like them? Or are they spreading the word because it’s simply the in thing to do, and it’s what they’re friends are raving about, and it’s what the A-listers are pushing? It’s a bandwagon effect. You either get on, or you’re an outcast.

The concept of the wisdom of crowds basically revolves around a great mass of people deciding on one thing, usually at a consensus. Take, for example, James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which basically argues that aggregation of individual inputs into a group generally gets you better decisions and outputs than any by a single individual in the group.

The opening anecdote relates Francis Galton’s surprise that the crowd at a county fair accurately guessed the weight of an ox when their individual guesses were averaged (the average was closer to the ox’s true weight than the estimates of most crowd members, and also closer than any of the separate estimates made by cattle experts).

But I’m not convinced, because of what I believe is the influence and power of an elite few in any group-oriented activity. So you can expect any outputs or results to be inevitably controlled (or at least heavily influenced) by those in the know or those in power. Today’s slew of socially-oriented Web services is no different. Frontpaging of DIGG articles can be influenced (or arbitrarily selected by moderators). Bloggable topics can be driven by A-listers. Wikipedia entries can be editorialized by those with internal connections. So even if socially-oriented Web 2.0 services aim to bring out the wisdom from the crowds, there will inevitably be a select group or even a single individual who will serve to shepherd everyone else in shaping what they think should be cool, interesting, exciting, and news-worthy.

So let’s get back to branding and the Web 2.0. You may be able to successfuly market your brand using social networks and tools. But this is still essentially a hit-or-miss proposition. Successful branding via an organic manner (i.e. simple word of mouth) is quite diffcult to achieve unless you have a truly cutting-edge product or service. Otherwise, do keep in mind that you may have to go through the gate-keepers–the influentials, the A-listers, or those in control–to help with what you want to push.

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