The weird world of people as brands

The new year often brings career considerations. How will we position ourselves to take the next step? These days, this involves the nuanced world of personal branding. And while it makes many of us feel squeamish to think of ourselves as a brand, it’s not a new phenomenon.

Before industrialisation, we were what we did. Just quickly scroll through the contacts list on your phone and there’s a chance you’ll see a few of the OG personal brands. Surnames like Smith, Carpenter, Taylor, Baker…  If you think personal branding has gone too far, then don’t forget our brands used to come with us everywhere, and not just appear on our LinkedIn page. Washing powder and electronics aren’t the only brands, people are too, and have been for a very long time.

But then, once we industrialised much of our branding, as economic participants at least, was derived from where we studied and the corporations we worked for. ‘She went to Harvard.’ ‘He worked directly under Henry Ford.’ We built ourselves around the institutions we spent time in. The evidence of who we were and what we were capable of was a function of where we spent time. It was their brands that we had to leverage as we became cogs in their machines. The era of being known for our output got lost, and this was for one simple reason – most of us became part of something much bigger than ourselves. For most of us, there was no longer a table we could imprint our name on, or suit with our name in the jacket pocket. Our work became shared, we only made a slither of the final output – we got lost in the system. As people, we essentially morphed into sub-brands of large corporations. It was then that the great brand reversal started to happen, as mass media infiltrated our homes.

Once upon a time, things were once just things – bread, washing powder, suits, you name it. But in order to build trust, corporations who now made what we used to make, used the branding process to personify what they were selling. In a way, things replaced people as brands. Companies had to make things seem reliable like people, because, who the hell knew who made what? The bread didn’t come from Billy’s bakery – who we knew and trusted – it came from a big factory somewhere.

The tool used to personify the products and build brands during the 20th century was mass media. The factory and the TV were the perfect partners. Big budgets and big scale were both mandatory. Together they combined to make us believe that very average things were worth more than they actually were. Much of the value, credibility and the premium price we paid was a function of the advertising. What we were consuming was ostensibly a parasocial relationship. It was a closed shop for the big and privileged – until now.

For the first time in history, people can now brand themselves at scale. The emergence of fragmented, low-cost and highly distributed media on the web means anyone can play. Anyone can build their brand, and then charge a premium for their services. Just like brand XYZ became known as a premium brand, so can we. The more well-known someone is in their industry, the more they will earn – it’s just a modern inalienable truth. I know it feels like a very uncomfortable transition, especially when the world of personal brands is filled with hucksters, and camouflaged Amway sales people on Instagram trying to sell you milkshake weight loss powders by showing their photoshopped abs. Yes, there’s lots of dodgy players out there, using the new cheap tools and make a quick buck – but isn’t there always?

What we might consider instead, is to build something respected and sustainable based on real work and insight. How do we display, using the tools available, our capability? How do we become more than our formal qualifications and experience by sharing new ideas, projects, industry transitions and connection? How do we share things of value with others and then let the law of reciprocity set in?

In simple terms, we just need to decide what we want to be known for – and take that to the market. For me it’s being the guy who understand technology’s impact on business and society – and helping people navigate the future. I study this stuff all day long, so my customers don’t have to. They can focus on their industry and plug in my skills when required.

But in a busy world, where everyone is the CEO of their own personal media corporation, it’s hard to be heard, where everyone has something to say. It might even mean we need to invest in ourselves, and actually pay to build our personal brands. Yes, advertise ourselves, just like the hero brands of the TV Industrial Complex did back in the day. It’s never been more affordable to take control of our own futures, perceptions and capabilities. If it’s good enough for corporations products, then why not people?

Thanks for reading this year. Have a great 2019. Steve. 

Content & distribution always beats resolution

This week Australian pay Tv operator Foxtel announced the launch of its IQ4 box. The key selling feature is that it enables 4K resolution of content like sports, documentaries and concerts. An interesting move considering all those around them are growing not based on ‘resolution’, but different business models. The numbers for subscription TV services are already telling this tale with Netflix already well ahead and growing, while Foxtel declines.

Number of Australian subscribers at August 2018 (and % change vs last year):

  • Netflix 9.8m (+30%)
  • Foxtel 5.4m (-3%)
  • Stan 2.0m (+40%)
  • Youtube Premium 1.0m (+40%)
  • Fetch 700k (+40%)
  • Amazon Prime Video 300k (+90%)

When was the last time ‘high resolution’ was the deciding factor to subscribe to any content platform? I can’t remember anyone ever saying;

‘You know, I’d totally sign up to Amazon Prime or Netflix if I could watch it at 4K’.

At best, resolution is a hygiene factor – hardly a reason to buy or switch when it comes to content. Are our eyes really that special?

What is clear though is that there is now a 2 speed economy when it comes to content. It needs to be either all-you-can-eat for one low price (streaming services) or a la carte (such as Apple tv). The mash-up package model is clearly broken.

The overriding point is simple – all screens are now created equal. People care less about how shiny the content looks and more about availability, simplicity and price. This is why iMax theatres are still niche at best. And sport won’t save Foxtel either, as we can expect these two things to happen:

  1. Tech firms like Amazon and Facebook to start hoovering up rights to major global sporting properties. FB already has rights to Major League baseball, La Liga Football in Spain and the World Surf League, to name a few.
  2. Sporting organizations will very soon realise they don’t even need a media partner – they can sell their own advertising and subscriptions directly for more than their broadcast rights deals generate.

While Foxtel have moved a towards streaming, it seems that they still love their historic infrastructure more than the truth of where the market is headed.

When it comes to business strategy in any realm, it pays to be agnostic about the tools and to remember what our audience are really buying.

Why other industries need to call out Facebook’s advertising policy

Let’s for a minute imagine these as Corporate Policies:

Car Manufacturer: We’ll take a car off the road if an unsafe model gets out of the factory and is sold, but we can’t promise all our cars are safe until you start driving them. If you see an unsafe car out there, please let us know. 

Fast Food Outlet: If our pizza has salmonella or listeria, you can return it, but we can’t promise all our food is safe to eat. If you get sick or know someone who did, please let us know and we’ll take the pizza back. 

Packaged Goods Manufacturer: If our shampoo has chemicals that are unsafe and burn your head, we’ll change the formula, but we’re not sure until we sell it if it’s OK. If you see anyone with a burned head, ask them what shampoo they used, and if it’s our brand, we’ll happily take it off the shelf.

This is essentially what Facebook Inc. have just announced as their Global Policy for Advertising. All I’ve done is paraphrase their policy, and changed the product and industry. Here it is below for your reference:

Joel Kaplan – Global Policy VP

“We try to catch content that shouldn’t be on Facebook before it’s even posted, but because this is not always possible, we also take action when people report ads that violate our policy”

Facebook claim it isn’t possible for 2 simple reasons:

  1. Because it isn’t profitable for them to check every advertisement before it goes out.
  2. Because they haven’t been regulated in the same way other media organisations are.

While I understand 2 billion peoples comments can’t be moderated before they’re published, maybe paid advertising on Facebook should be. Facebook at least ought to be held to account financially when their ‘platform’ creates problems for society. Their current MO when anything outside their policy happens is ‘oops, sorry about that’ . They get away with it because society and regulators let them. A good starting point to fix this is to start calling out Facebook for what it actually is – a media company, not a technology business. There is a certain responsibility that goes with being a media company and its resultant influence, yet Facebook continues to flout the responsibility that is incumbent upon such power.  To call it a technology company is ridiculous. All companies employ technology – Boeing and Ford have a far greater breadth and use of technology than Facebook, but at least they admit they sell airplanes and cars. Facebook sells advertisements to their audience, not technology – seems like a media company to me.

It’s also worth noting that the update from Facebook policy resulting from controversy surrounding fake ads and alleged Russian influence on the US election didn’t address the problems of false information, only ‘transparency’ of what was published, promoted and who did it. The extreme targeting possible on Facebook is itself one of the problems. Those likely to spot a misleading advertisement are unlikely to see it. In this sense the promise of transparency is a moot point. A further quote from the statement in relation to advertising via Russian accounts below is quite telling:

” All of these ads violated our policies because they came from inauthentic accounts” 

Not because the information was misleading? And further on…

“Our ad policies already prohibit shocking content, direct threats and the promotion of the sale or use of weapons.”

Apparently advertising false information is OK? No mention of it anywhere… You can read it for yourself here. 

While Facebook promises to create a more open and connected society, it is in reality creating a more silo-ed and disconnected society. When governments first gave out spectrum at the birth of the TV era, it came with the responsibility of providing unbiased news and balanced data on issues affecting society. We didn’t let the idea of innovation or new technology interfere with creating the kind of society we all want to live in.

I think social media is one of the most amazing things to evolve in my lifetime. The power provided through connection and sharing thought has helped me re-invent my career, find like-minds and gain knowledge that just wasn’t available in the mainstream media era. For that I’m grateful.

But it is time that we took its power more seriously. It’s time to add seat belts and brakes to the data vehicles driving our lives and admit that no technology out of control or without failsafes ever benefits society.

– – –

If you liked this post – you’ll dig my new book – The Lessons School Forgot – a manifesto to survive the tech revolution. 

Forbes ironically forgets Economics 101

A few times I’ve had friends link me to interesting articles from Forbes. The topic looks good, I’m excited, and click in and I get this:

Forbes ad blocker request


What Forbes are really saying is this: “Sorry Steve, even though you have an ad blocker, and you’ve taken definitive action to not see advertising, we want you to turn off your ad blocker, so we can trick our advertisers that your eyeballs are worth paying for.”

And here is what happened. I clicked out and read something else. I’ll never read a Forbes article online again. I’m not sure if it’s a shame or a sham? Why would any media organisation try and trick it’s advertisers into believing they are getting more value than they really are. If I did do what Forbes suggested, then I’d be getting the advertisements, but ignoring them. Certainly a worse outcome for the advertiser, they’d be paying for attention they’re not getting. It seems most people agree.

Forbes ad block comments

What Forbes and anyone else putting up barriers seem to forget is the first lesson in economics – demand and supply. And content is supply rich for readers. If you lock us out, we’ll get it elsewhere. If anyone in the content game wants their audience to jump over walls they better ensure what they’re offering is not on this side of the barrier as well.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.

Twitter vs Facebook vs Linkedin – is the medium still the message?

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 6.31.30 pm

The medium is the message, first coined by Marshall McLuhan has been a staple belief in the world of advertising and communications for a very long period. During the heady days of Mass Media, being seen on TV itself was beacon of success. Products on the shelf would proudly beam ‘As seen on TV’ on their packaging. For only those who sold a lot of their product could afford it, or was it that if you were on it, you’d sell a lot of product? Regardless, the channel a brand appeared in said a lot about its place in the commercial world.

While, it feels like the now infinite number of media channels might make this maxim less true, I’m certain it still applies to a large extent. Ofttimes the context shapes the content.

As far as this blog goes there are some clear patterns. If you’re a regular reader you’ll notice that I have only 3 social sharing buttons at the bottom of a post. One for Twitter, one for Facebook and one for Linkedin. I ditched Google+ because it was just too embarrassing have a share button with no shares. Here’s what I noticed with the sharing of my posts:

Twitter – always gets more shares if the post is tech, startup heavy, recent news commentary or political in nature.

LinkedIn – always gets more shares if it’s about escaping a corporate position, about becoming an entrepreneur, industry disruption, human motivation, selling and horrible bosses.

Facebook – always gets more shares if it’s about personal finance, goal setting, hope, criticism and social issues. Yet, I’m connected to the same people in all these channels.

My takeout of all this? For startups or any business using social forums trying to reach an audience, it is far less about the demographic and for more about the ideology and topic of the particular post. The interest graph is far stronger than the social graph. Now the only question on my mind is what category does this post fall into?

New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now.

The global content playbook & how the internet actually works

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I’m a big fan of the John Oliver show Last Week Tonight. Which, in an unconnected web world I wouldn’t even know about as it has never been shown in Australia. But through the wonder of sharing great content online I became a big fan. The show airs in the USA on Sunday nights, and in their wisdom, HBO would publish much of the shows content on Youtube a day later. I’d eagerly await to watch it here on Monday night in Australia through the Last Week Tonight Youtube channel. At last, a media company that gets it. A media company that understands the value of building connection and fan bases globally in real time. They even made it available to non subscribers – wow.

That was until this week. For some reason, most likely the HBO launch in Australia or some other licensing arrangement in Australia with Stan, Presto or Netflix, I now get the classic picture above: Sorry, This content is not available in your region.


This content is available in my region, they simply made a decision to give up their direct relationship with me, and forced me to get it elsewhere. Now they won’t share any of the potential advertising revenue or other prizes which come from direct customer relationships. Weirdly, much of it is ‘still’ available on youtube channels where others have uploaded it. The back door has been opened. And it’s licensing deal structures born of the late 1970’s cable TV era that create this back door leakage.

More than 20 years into this thing, here’s a simple lesson every media company should already know: Once it is released anywhere digitally, it is released everywhere digitally. The desires of the content owners to limit distribution are irrelevant. Given this is the new truth, a better strategy might be to just embrace it.

New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now. 

False Positives

The promise of online advertising was the ability to find an audience based on interests more that just demographic profile. An audience based on interests. This advertisement below appeared in my twitter stream which not only gave me a little chuckle, but reminded me that the web is full of false positives.

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As a reminder a false positive is a a test result which wrongly indicates that a particular condition or attribute is present.  No I am not a One Direction fan. I have never mentioned them in a tweet. But I do very often tweet about music and music videos and use such hashtags. Clearly I’ve been incorrectly identified in one of the parameters for the advertising as being a potential teenie bopper.

It reminds us to think through what the web tells as and to use our own internal analytics to tester, our brain, to see if what it is telling us is valid.

A key word is used in social media might actually mean the person doesn’t like it and the keywords were among other derogatory sentiments. The number of followers and readers we have in a social forum doesn’t necessarily mean we have that many followers of readers. It just means people clicked a button once upon a time. I have over 5000 twitter followers, but I’m certain only a small percentage of that ever see my tweets. My weekly twitter report tells me this as do the number of clicks the links I post in my tweets get (which I track). Not to mention that anyones tweets can now be muted with no one knowing.

Numbers do not necessarily equal caring. It’s also true that media organisations through the ages have used these grey areas to create massive profitability. And even though the technology is getting better at giving us a more accurate measure, there is a still a long way to go. It’s worth remembering that the actions and interactions are what matters, not the numbers.