Sunday, July 17, 2011

Follow Us Online, Whoever We Are

This weekend saw the annual arrival of the Italian Festival on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo. I strolled among the crowd on Saturday, exploring the three blocks or so that were closed to traffic and filled with vendors. Not having any money to spend on carnival food or games or anything else that such an event has to offer, I attended for the sake of enjoying exposure to the crowd and whatever other free entertainment there was to offer, such as a stage set up for music at the far end of the festival. In that respect, I actually came away feeling relatively satisfied.

After I took one pass of the event, I stopped to sit on the concrete windowsill of a building just beside the music tent. A band was playing when I arrived in their vicinity, and my ears gradually perked up to the sound. I listened passively to the end of one song, heard the singer talk to the crowd for a moment and realized I was enjoying the music, so much so that when the last song of the set began after that, I drifted closer, leaning on the railings separating the venue from the sidewalk, so that I could look keenly on the performance, tap my foot, and generally show some appreciation for the enjoyment they were offering me.

The singer took a long time talking to the crowd afterward, and I was interested to know who on Earth I had been listening to, so I could keep watch for them in other contexts. The companion I had been walking with, who has a little money, even expressed interest in purchasing a CD. Festival audio has a tendency to be imperfect and temperamental, so admittedly I couldn’t keep up with every word. In spite of that, I did hear the suggestions from the singer than the crowd like them on Facebook, the invitations to follow them on Twitter, the statement that they could be found on YouTube, where they upload a new video most every week. I heard a lot of earnest requests for online attention from their fans and would-be fans. What I didn’t hear was the band’s name. I’m sure they said it, but not all that clearly, and seemingly not more than once. The opportunities to repeat it were never exploited during the long listing of media in which we could follow the band.

This got to me to thinking about how social networking technology is impeding our concepts of good advertising and effective self-promotion. It strikes me as ironic that Facebook and the like has made most users obsessively interested in self-promotion, but only in the basest sense of the word, and the sense in which it takes remarkably little effort. For people like the singer for this band, the idea of promotion has been transferred almost entirely to the consumer. It’s rarely thought to be the job of the person seeking promotion to provide incentives for attention or to actively court a following. It is thought to be enough to simply invite that attention and that participation, and then to wait for it to serve the ends of promotion on its own.

The goal is to make things go viral, and to do that, all you have to do is pass the contagion on to one person who’s going to communicate it to a highly public environment. The job of the promoter, the agent, and the public relations man is increasingly being passed along to just a bunch of nameless observers. That can be enormously effective. You don’t have to pay anyone, and sometimes you get lucky. But that’s really all it is: luck. You’re much better off reaching for exposure through hard work. It seemed clear to me that the band I stumbled upon was working hard at their music. That will definitely get them some attention, but in this situation, they lost the opportunity to secure two long-term fans because they took it for granted that promotion occurs passively, and that once they’ve put out their product, it should sell itself, with the audience doing the legwork of promotion. But it’s not enough to show us that you’re good, you have to tell us where you come from, where you’re going, why you care, and above all else, who the hell you are.

I get the impression from the observation of this anonymous band and other relevant situations that an awful lot of people are coming to think of traditional advertising as being dead, of professional public relations people as being redundant. But that’s not so, and if it is, it shouldn’t be. Sure, the members of the audience who like you may carry you on to their friends, but skillful self-promotion can obtain the same from those who haven’t yet decided that they like you.

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