Embrace the Swarm

Best presentation I’ve seen on social networking came from Chuck Brymer at the ANA’s annual conference in Phoenix on Friday. Brymer, president and CEO of DDB Worldwide, spoke of online communities as digital swarms, formed through a combination of technological advances and a growing distrust in institutions.

“People used to put a lot of trust in institutions,” he told about 1,200 attendees of the conference, held at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. “We believed what the government said, what the news media said, and even what advertisers said. It’s not like that today. As a society, we are more cynical and less believing. … We no longer just accept what we’re told by people in high places. Instead, we trust those who are close to us. Those with similar experiences. When you put the expanding digital swarm together with the simultaneous rise in trust in friends and family, you have a very powerful combination.”

This power, he added, “irrevocably changes” the roles of marketers. He compared the herd mentality of traditional marketing and advertising programs – communicating to people who passively sit in front of TVs and radios and read newspapers and magazines – to today’s far more active digital swarms: “The herd is passive. It lacks active intelligence. The swarm on the other hand is about actively sharing intelligence, and that is a huge distinction. While you can lead a herd, you cannot lead a swarm. You cannot issue instructions to a swarm. A swarm is not an audience in the traditional sense and it’s not looking to [marketers] for guidance.”

The implications of peer communication and localized information are significant, Brymer said. “Forget the idea that digital is the new media. The real new media is you and me.” As an example, he referenced Allconsuming.net, a site devoted to people “telling each other about the stuff they’re buying, eating, drinking, watching.”

How can marketers enter the swarm? One word: influence. “While you cannot lead a swarm, you can influence it,” Brymer explained. “Influence is one of the most valuable assets a brand can have in a networked world.” Influence, he said, should be measured in the same way we measure share of voice or share of market. “Brands that have influence command attention.”

In a swarm, he explained, success is determined by whether communities are attracted to your brand or run away from it. “Do people see you as a predator or a peer? If you are a peer, you have credibility and influence. As the word spreads throughout the swarm, people begin to flock to you. You gain greater influence and more people seek you out.”

This requires a level of authenticity that many advertisers may not be accustomed to. “Every touch point, every interaction influences whether your brand is accepted or rejected by the swarm,” Brymer said. “Every day, you are being appraised. The swarm is like a modern day Big Brother – it’s watching you, taking your measure, and evaluating your intentions.”

He suggested three ways marketers can influence the swarm:

  • Conviction: Brands that are influential, he explained, all start in the same place: with the personal vision and convictions of the marketers behind them. Brands that stand for something – he offered Harley Davidson, Apple and Volkswagen as prime examples – attract followers. “What makes these brands influential is not their size,” he said. “It’s that each believes in something and has built brand communities of influence among its members, who in turn influence others.”

  • Collaboration: Swarms want a say in how your products and services look, what they do, and what they should do better. Two examples: Lego, which offers downloadable software from its website that lets kids design their own creations>. Another is Philips, which lets consumers track their individual contributions to protecting the environment by switching to energy-saving light bulbs.

  • Creativity: As you would expect from the head of an ad agency, Brymer touted creativity as “the one element that can influence a swarm more than anything.” Creativity is universal, regardless of the media in which it exists, because it allows marketers to connect with people at an emotional level. “Interesting ideas and provocative thinking influences swarms.” The power of the digital swarm is its ability to pass these ideas on virally. One example: an ad from a Dutch insurance company called Centraal Beheer that has close to 1 million views on YouTube:

Brymer closed with a (slightly paraphrased) quote from former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shineski: “You may not like change, but you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

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6 thoughts on “Embrace the Swarm”

  1. Rob,

    Thanks for letting us in on this talk. Conviction, collaboration, and creativity is a really interesting way to think about today’s marketing.

    . . . and great video.

  2. I guess this is close to what we use to call “tribes” the big difference is that we have more of them, and today they have tools to communicate, share and express themself easely. So more than ever creativity with humour and emotion are the main trigger to concern the swam.

  3. Hey Rob,

    Although this post is a little dated, I just wanted to say great review of the conference. If you or your readers are interested in learning more about socialmedia/networking and the marketing thought leadership that’s behind DDB’s world class strategy and creative, you can check out Chuck Brymer’s new book The Nature of Marketing here.

    http://ddb.com/

    We’ve also posted some great case studies on Scribd here.

    http://www.scribd.com/search?query=natureofmarketing&x=0&y=0

    And some videos of Chuck speaking about marketing on YouTube here.

    http://www.youtube.com/natureofmarketing

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