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An Experiment in Persona Management: Clearly a Work in Progress (Part 1)

on Thu, 08/11/2011 - 22:53

by Lloyd Baron, Ph.D.

April 2011


Objective: To replicate Bill Wasik’s “Bill Shiller” social media experiment and, in so doing, demonstrate (in a small way) just how difficult it is to design an effective governance model in the social media environment While corporations grapple with a new code of conduct required in the age of web-based social media, consumers are not bound by any equivalent restrictions. I will try to demonstrate that the new era of social media marketing may be much more complicated and the consequences much more impactful than just drafting a few lines of appropriate and most probably unenforceable conduct code.

Strategy:  To create a fictitious ideal consumer who is an avatar behaving exactly as his corporate interlocutors desire. This fabricated profile and disingenuous communications will help create and spread viral campaigns that will expand the branding of particular products and services based on communications generated by a fictitious representative of the consumer community.

Background: Bill Wasik, in his book And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, marvels at corporations that imagine consumers love their brand so much that they are not only willing to buy their products/services (and even on some level identify with their brand), but that they are willing to spend a significant time online working as an evangelist for them. It is as if an elaborate exchange is being negotiated wherein the corporation presents itself as being transparent and open to honest communication with its public and, in return for this frank engagement, the customer agrees to be a volunteer salesman for the corporation.

Within this environment, the corporate homerun is definitively a viral campaign; a thread of bytes connected in some creative way to a brand that spreads throughout the web. Wikipedia defines viral campaigns as:

“Viral marketing and viral advertising are buzzwords referring to marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of virus or computer viruses. It can be delivered by word of mouth or enhanced by the network effects of the Internet.[1]Viral promotions may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, eBooks, brandable software, images, or even messages. The goal of marketers interested in creating successful viral marketing programs is to create viral messages that appeal to individuals with high social networking potential(SNP) and that have a high probability of being presented and spread by these individuals and their competitors in their social networking”

However, what has been spawned within the social media sphere is not just a corporate-driven campaign of “cool” creation, but a collectively piloted environment wherein there is equal opportunity of participation for both consumers and corporations to create “buzz”. The creation of buzz on the web is the quintessential expression of success. Such a result expresses collective feelings that we have lived with mass culture long enough, understand it well enough, to perceive that it is, at its core, formalistic and constructed. On the one hand, we are the directors and, at the same time, the willing actors on a stage strewn with things and events incubating – all waiting to go viral. The key to understanding and manipulation in this environment is not necessarily knowing what is cool, but how cool works. Steven Levitt in Freakonomics said:

“...the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and – if the right question is asked – is even more intriguing than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking.”

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell observed that there is a point in social interaction where the unexpected becomes the expected and where radical change is more than a possibility. At the tipping point, what made change previously impossible becomes, as if by magic, inevitable from that point forward. Finally, in The Black Swan,  Nassim Taleb observes that almost all consequential events in history come from the unexpected; yet humans later convince themselves that these events are explainable once they have occurred. It is as if we are constantly describing viral moments in these terms: 

“I didn’t know it was coming, had no idea how impactful it would be. However now that it has happened, I am convinced, in hindsight, that it was inevitable.”

Our obsession with what goes viral as an indicator of ‘coolness’ has its consequences. This harnessing of consumer consciousness on the web will change us in ways that are both unpredictable and enormously impactful. It is well beyond the setting of simple rules of conduct. Governance is totally out of control because everyone is, in a way, an online marketer. In such an environment, our understanding of ourselves as imbedded in social networks has us making and breaking rules in seamless streams because we cannot stop selling – even though we are not quite certain that what we are selling has value.

Wasik explained that:

“The very notion of a social network makes us think like marketers, stripping down our sense of community, segmenting ourselves self-consciously into niches, reducing the unknowable richness of group relationships down to barren trees of links and nodes. This is not to say that real human relationships don’t flourish on-line; of course they do, just as real ideas can flourish there too. But they flourish despite our consciousness of their networked characteristics, not because of it; we no more find friendship by “friending” people than we find love by attempting, in the second grade, to be the kid who gives out the most valentines. Instead, what we learn in these moments when we amass friends and update profiles, boiling down the interpersonal to numbers and charts, is a sense of ourselves and our social circles as products on display. We hone our sense of what is hot, and among whom: we look for tipping points, with little care as to what is tipping or whether it deserves to do so.”

 In fertilizing this online media mind, we are, in essence, igniting the growth of ubiquitous marketing minds that are selling and being sold 24/7, continually convincing others while never quite convinced themselves. If I am always selling and being sold to, what are the rules of engagement? What is an appropriate model for social media governance where everyone gains from having no rules?

The Experiment:In order to stay as true to the Bill Shiller experiment as possible, I began just as Wasik did in chapter 4 of And then There’s This (beginning on  page 123) and created a false identity:

1.        I created a Gmail account for Urissa Wong. I was able to get the user name of urissaw (I wanted “urwong” for the pun value, but had to settle for what was available – I hope that urwong appreciates the humour). My password is “urwong1234” (my key question was to identify my first teacher. The obvious answer is Lloyd. At least I worked in my joke somehow). I was forced to use my own cell phone number and elected to use my home address.

2.       I went to Facebook and created an account for my avatar. Urissa Wong was born on April 28, 1978. She attended Kitsilano Secondary, graduated in 1996, and then went on to  Langara College where she completed her studies in 1998. She is presently employed by Horizon Pacific International, a consulting and research  company I own that has a fan page on Facebook.

3.       The first corporate page I went to was USAir. I wanted to test if I could function undetected in this environment before I resorted to the sites used in the experiment. A friend told me that they had a great social media awareness campaign. I did not go directly to Wasik’s list because his book was at least 2 years in print. I was not sure of the status of his original corporate targets. I must confess that I was feeling a bit creepy at this stage, but I went on. Once on the USAir fan page, I “liked” them  through Facebook and wrote an effusive note ending with an invitation to call upon me if they wanted me to help in any way to spread the good word.

4.       Staying with the thematic of air carriers,  I decided to join other airline fan pages that service Vancouver International Airport (YVR). Having reviewed, Wasik’s methodology, it was not really targeted. All he accomplished in this phase of his experiment was to sign up for 28 assorted company “friends”  and then send them a bulletin confessing his love for all of them and his willingness to help them in any and all ways possible. He was trying to explore the relationship between consumer and salesperson: “When a consumer becomes a de-facto salesperson, is he or she still a consumer in the same way? How does this relationship with the product change? Is she still being sold on the product or is she now, on some level selling herself on it?”

5.       I contacted the social media pages of several airlines flying into Vancouver. I wrote effusive notes on WestJet, Alaska Air, and Cathay Pacific. I then tried United Air and was immediately blocked off Facebook. Facebook requested a cell number and after I re-submitted my own cell number, they replied that a user (obviously myself) already had that number. I tried again and got the same message. I must now find a cell number that is not registered with Facebook.

6.        I returned on the scene with a new SIM card from Virgin and tried again. Go urwong go.

7.        I was then going to spread my love to other categories; autos, clothing, beverages, etc....

8.        For phase two, I was going to give back by agreeing to be an active promoter. I was going to join Bzzagent, Streetwise, and Tremor and, as a new approved Buzzagent, I would be ready to join their marketing campaigns.


Conclusion: The exercise has so far been suspended, but I will enter the fray again sometime soon to resurrecting the nefarious urwong. For now, I track persona management on my RSS feed and have learned that there are other bloggers following and testing the boundaries of fake identity creation and management. This story is not over; stay tuned.