Earlier today I moderated a panel at an energetic and well-attended event called the “Newfront,” produced by Digitas, an innovative agency which counts American Express, Kraft, P&G, and GM as clients.
I say energetic because it was highly produced and very considered (and this from a guy who carefully produces live events for a living, among other things). A lot of flash, and deep consideration of lighting, music, and red carpet treatment of star guests (there were many). In short, the place was lovingly festooned with the kind of attention to detail that makes people feel special, just for being there.
Since I was a speaker, I got whisked past the lines and through the photo pit into the backstage lounge, where I commenced to review the work ahead of me: To lead what might have been the most practical discussion of the entire day: a conversation about how real brands leveraged content as marketing. Now, this is a subject with which I have a fair bit of familiarity, and all the panelists were clients of Federated Media (and no, I didn’t pick them). Susan Sobbott, the President of American Express OPEN, for example. Beth Comstock, the CMO of GE. And Susan Kopper, SVP Marketing at SAP. My job was to get them talking for a full hour in front of 500 or so folks who had just heard Ashton Kutcher rant about how he disliked advertising, and who, after we were finished, were eagerly awaiting a discussion with Tori Spelling.
No, I am not making that up.
Thanks in the main to my panelists, the conversation went quite well. I’d write it up, but the whole thing was livestreamed, and honestly, after six hours on the tarmac at JFK (again, not kidding), I want to tell a different story.
And yes, the six hours on the tarmac is part of it.
So during our conversation onstage, I asked my panelists if they considered the back and forth between a brand and its customers on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as “content,” and if the answer was yes, then if they considered themselves publishers of that content. The consensus was that yes, brands in fact are publishers of conversations (finally, my 2007 ideas are happening…). “But,” one of my panelists pointed out, “if you are going to become a publisher, then you have to actually be listening and responding to the conversations out there.” Indeed. I nodded (sagely, of course) from my moderator’s chair. Then without thinking, I quipped that brands, in the main, have not proven to be so hot at listening. (Here’s proof.)
And for reasons I can’t explain, I had to call at least one brand out to prove my point. And who came to mind? Well, honestly, it was United Airlines.
Now, this is the very company that has held my mortal coil in its aluminum wrapper for the past seven and a half hours, and, as far as I can tell, is responsible for either my long delayed reunion with my loved ones in five or so hours, or, should it fail miserably, will be…well, I’d rather not think about what else might happen. I am, as I write this, 35,000 feet in the air, after all.
But thanks to the wifi on the flight, I can tell you about all this. Not that the wifi was free….
But I digress as usual. Back to my story. I looked over the audience and asked “how many of you have lodged a customer complaint over Twitter?” About 15 percent of the hands went up. I then asked how many of them felt like they had been heard. About half the hands went down.
That will and must change.
I then called out the aforementioned @united as a personal example of a company I’ve repeatedly reached out to on Twitter, a company that purports to be active on the service, but so far has failed to really “be” on Twitter, at least the way ATT, Comcast, GE, Amex, or any number of other major brands are.
All well and good. The panel continued, folks seemed to enjoy it, from what I could tell, and after saying hello to far too many old friends, I headed to the airport. I was in a good mood – after four days on the road (including leading a successful CM Summit), it was time to go home.
And while there was traffic on the way to JFK (tweet), I made it in time for my plane. I got through security and settled in, ready for the six-or-so-hour journey home.
As I often do when home is tantalizingly close, my seatbelt is securely fastened, and the plane is about to take off, I dozed off in anticipation of the upward lift which comprises a transcontinental journey’s opening act.
As I nodded off, a daydream of sorts came to me. I imagined a world, not so distant, where our social utterances have impact….
It’s hard to explain without a fair amount of literary license, but if you are this far into my story, what the hell, right?
OK, so I imagined that as I called @united out onstage today, and that call out was amplified (via Twitter) by various folks in the audience, there was, in fact, someone at United listening. Further, I imagined that that person had access to all the touchpoints with United that I have as a customer.
In short, I imagined that United was listening to me, even though I was speaking at what, to United, was a pretty random conference in lower Manhattan. I mean, it’s rather presumptuous of me to assume that a brand might catch wind of my calling them out, right? After all, it happens all the time, all over the world, no?
Or is it?
What if the world were wired in such a way that every utterance that each of made had real meaning, and, further, that we as the creators of that utterance understood that fact?
In other words, what might happen if I knew that United was listening when I spoke those words on stage at the NewFront?
Well, as I dozed, I did imagine it. After all, at the moment I was on United Flight 863, which was slowly pulling out of Terminal 7 at JFK, purportedly on its way to San Francisco.
So here’s what came to mind.
As I entered JFK and checked in at the United counter, the man behind the counter addressed me by name – before I even handed him my ID – and apologized for United’s lack of responsiveness. “We missed your call out at that conference,” he said. “Hate to make excuses, but our Twitter guy was offline with a personal issue. I wish our UA team had texted you with an apology but we only have your email. Did you get our message?”
Well…no, I hadn’t checked my email in the car, because I was on the phone. I looked at my phone and indeed, there was a mail from United, apologizing for its past inattention to such a loyal customer, and promising to do better. Not to mention that the mail promised a free upgrade on my upcoming flight – flight 863, which was on time. Given the time and my current location (gleaned from my phone, which automatically broadcasts my location to every brand with which I’ve indicated I have a trusted relationship), I must be on my way, no? The email continued – click this link to accept the upgrade, choose my seat, order a special meal….you get the picture.
I give the counter attendant my mobile number so United can text me in the future, and after clearing security, I’m on the plane. And… As I often do when home is tantalizingly close, my seatbelt is securely fastened, and the plane is about to take off, I dozed off in anticipation of the upward lift which comprises a transcontinental journey’s opening act.
OK, daydream over. Might this actually happen? And not just for me, the dude with the “Internet influencer” designation, but for everyone?
Damn right it will.
Now, what really happened …. well, I checked in (the gate attendants were very pleasant), and I got on the plane (so were the flight attendants), and I settled in. And yes, I did fall asleep. No one at United knew who I was, or that I had just called the company out in front of 500 people (or tens of thousands repeatedly on Twitter over the past two years)…regardless, what did happen next is that I woke up.
And we were on the tarmac. And it was raining. And as I regained consciousness after my social media daydream, I heard the pilot apologizing – turns out the weather was not cooperating, and we’d have to turn off the engines. And wait.
Not United’s fault. I mean, who controls the weather, after all?
Six hours and one trip back to the gate later (see, I told you I’d get to that), United Flight 863 took off. I expect to land at SFO by 2.15 am, PST, fates willing.
But the whole experience got me thinking about what it might mean if a brand really had a relationship with each of its customers, leveraged over customer data, social nuance, and intelligent platform technology, and what it might mean if we, collectively as a culture, simply assumed this to be true.
And it struck me it’d be a lot like living in a small town – where everyone knows everyone’s business, all the time. And if that were true, well, maybe I wouldn’t have called out United in the first place, because that would have just been unfriendly. Especially if I knew United was listening.
And having never really lived in such a place, I wondered – is that a good thing? Or might we, as a society, be on a path where we learn to integrate the best parts of a small town – intimacy, connection, responsiveness – with the best of big city living – anonymity on demand, control over identity, privacy?
I think we’re about to find out. As I think all of you who made it to the end of this story know, we live in a time of great cultural change. It’s a story that fascinates me, and I hope I can spend a lot more time telling it.