Slow, Fast & Spiky Communications

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A few weeks back Matt Locke wrote a rather excellent post about “The New Patterns of Culture: Slow, Fast & Spiky“. He talks about nostalgia for a bygone broadcast era of limited channels that had defined a culture characterised by a broad spectrum of the niche and the marginal and a tightly defined mainstream.

This was a culture where achieving scale was very hard, but very rewarding for those that managed to ‘break through’ to the mainstream, and that defined a whole media industry that was structured around these patterns, with large amounts of stability, and limited amounts of competition. 

Matt’s point is that whilst these patterns are still familiar to us, they have been joined by a huge number of new patterns, enabled by and existing within digital culture. Some of these are slow, accruing attention over long periods of time (such as social recommendation, or as people come together over time in digitally facilitated environments), some of them fast, rapidly synchronising attention around a piece of content or culture in a short space of time before it quickly moves on. Some are the result of deliberately orchestrating paid and owned media with earned media. Some originate from organic connections of lots of smaller drivers and herd behaviour. But the difference is, says Matt, that they are all Spiky. With limited technical or economic constraints to keep attention focused in one place, the spotlight of attention can easily move on as quickly as it arrived:

“Change no longer happens all at once for everyone, as it did with the rush of Punk puncturing the ennui of 1970s mainstream culture. In digital networks, change is happening everywhere, constantly, and the mainstream is a much more fragile and temporary consensus than it once was. There will still be moments when something breaks through to enough people at the same time to feel like Punk, but it won’t be the same thing. There are a hundred punk moments happening every day, if you look hard enough.”

These ‘slow, fast and spiky’ patterns are increasingly the domain of not just culture, but communications. One of the key tensions that I think exists for modern marketers is the changing relationship between longer-term ‘always-on’ communications, and the kind of short-term speed bumps that has long characterised the traditional campaigning mindset. Always-on is not a uniquely digital idea of-course, just that the campaigning ‘speed-bumps’ approach has developed largely from the cost-prohibitive nature of broadcast media (if a brand could afford to be on TV all the time it probably would), and digital has brought new emphasis to always-on through new and enhanced forms including CRM, search, owned media, social media and so-called brand communities.

One of the best analogies I have seen on this is John Willshire‘s thinking around bonfires and fireworks that compares the former with social media (“slow to start, collaborative to build, then gets bigger and brighter”) and the latter with advertising (attention grabbing, pre-packaged, easy to do, burning brightly but dying quickly). It’s an analogy that I think works in a broader context, whereby fireworks bring new people to the bonfire in the way that short-term bursts of communications activity should contribute to longer-term value by bringing people back to always-on in the form of the brand community or search behaviour or data capture.  

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Gareth Kay wrote a series of smart posts a while back which I think fits nicely with this, around thinking and making small, and the concept of lots of small ideas creating the ‘long idea’“: “ideas as unfolding stories, a stream of iterations and interactions that invite people into the process”. These small ideas might be akin to the fireworks, helping to build value over time. This kind of thinking tangibly describes for me a way in which communications should be structured in order to deal with the very real challenges of ‘spiky’ culture. But I think there’s something else.

I remember at the height of the dotcom boom over a decade ago, the Chief Exec of the media company I was at at the time stand up and announce that we were now going to be a ‘media-neutral’ company. Being ‘media-neutral’ was all the rage at the time. As best I can explain it, the concept was about delivering content in a way that was neutral to channel bias (so if you were a magazine company, for example, that meant also having a website, audio, video and perhaps mobile content).

Of-course, apart from launching some websites, not a lot changed because the day job for most people in the organisation didn’t change. Even now, over a decade later, I’d argue that most media companies (with some notable exceptions) are pretty far from being genuinely channel-neutral since this should involve not just the distribution mechanic for content, but also its origination. Creating content is still routed in legacy processes and working practices and rarely flows seamlessly between channels in the process. In other words, so-called media-neutrality always ends up focusing on the output (the channels onto which the content will be put and through which it will be consumed) and not the input (how ideas originate, content production processes, and the timing for release).

And there’s the rub. Let me give you an example – the origination of a new programming strand for a broadcaster involves a commissioning editor initiating the production of a series based their knowledge of the likely appeal and it’s ability to aggregate an audience in order to deliver advertising at them. This is a classic top-down approach whereby the decision for what to produce and when to produce it lies in the hands of the few. What if that process was more bottom-up? What if, instead of the narrative beginning when the first programme aired on TV, the story began way before then? What if talented storytellers began creating characters that started to live and breathe online (and in other media for that matter), and gather a following before a programme featuring those characters even got to air? What if the decision about when to make and air a series was determined not by the fact that it fitted with the broadcaster’s desire to schedule the programme at a certain time of year, but instead by the fact that the involvement of people had pushed it to the point where the story demanded a wider audience? 

In this case the role of (and the skills required by) the media owner is changed. As well as competence in commissioning, things like curation skills, community facilitation and pattern recognition become hugely important, not just during and after the airing of something on broadcast media but before it.  

For advertising and marketing this probably looks something like what Shiv Singh was describing when he talked about how television will increasingly reflect digital culture and “no television advertisement will be just self-contained narratives designed to entertain, inform, educate or remind consumers about products…they will be trailers into deeper branded digital experiences”. And this is perhaps what Faris would call ‘Reversing the Polarity‘, where media is becoming more platform-agnostic as it becomes ever more digitised and content flows between different parts of the system affecting change in other parts.

A key element of this for me is linked to timing. Shiv mentions that media planning will change as social signals will heavily influence planning decisions, but I think this stretches into creative production as well, as decisions about when to create different elements of a narrative, and when to take them to a wider audience are impacted by the way in which people are involved with different parts of the story. It’s kind of like the ‘user-led advertainment‘ idea (in which ads become stories that unfold at the users pace) that Tom Uglow mentions in this provocative presentation, except writ large.

The advent of the new rarely means the death of the old and inevitably these new ways of working will sit alongside more traditional forms of practice but slow, fast and truly ‘spiky’ communications involves marrying both. That kind of communications thinking requires a huge amount of flexibility, adaptiveness, and responsiveness. Yes, I still bang on about the need for agility in organisations. And that’s at least one reason why.

Image courtesy, and HT to Gauti for the Matt Locke link

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