Social media engineering – an emergent craftskill?

Speedbumps Good post from Neil Perkin this morning where he talks about the invasive nature of advertising – which he likens to speed bumps. Advertising is constantly trying to slow down or at best stop the traffic. When you want to build relationships with people you don't burst in – you join the conversation politely and organically using social media channels.

The problem for the commercial communicator is that they are used (in their own way of looking at the world) to grandstanding – getting the undivided and rapt attention of large numbers of people. And even when this is no longer practical or desirable, grandstanding sits there as a malevolent gold standard: if only .. well maybe we could get partway there.

Mixing_desk Looking at Neil's speed bump charts of advertising impacts I was immediately reminded of how similar these are to treated audio samples – reversed drum hits.  A natural sound starts, then dies away and outside of a recording studio – the context shapes and amplifies the sound. In the recording studio this is done using reverb. We can soak a sound till it disappears in a wall of reverberating mush.  To get more cut through a producer will take a drum hit or two – turn up the reverb – record this to another channel then REVERSE the audio recording – which gives a much more attention grabbing whoosh with a concluding thump. That is what an ad campaign looks like  – we are looking at a kind of seismic impact where the goal is to get to a particular level of impact at a particular time.

Now in the artificial conditions of the studio with the ability to create and merge just about any sounds you can imagine within and just outside of conscious human hearing – you can imagine that creating audio mush is very easy to do.  Real world instruments of which the human voice is a good example sit across a range of frequencies. Put a vocalist in front of a couple of guitarists and a keyboard player and have a drummer and bass player slugging it out in the lower frequencies and you have an immediate recipe for… mush. Which is where the sound engineer comes in. His job is to sculpt the sound firstly by carving away overlapping frequencies – if the bass and drums are using the same space then best filter one of them out at particular points.  And to boost particular instruments at different frequencies to enable them to cut through.  Using a range of tools including equalisation, compression, limiters, gates filters and what have you. I don't propose to explain them here – simply that every piece of commercial music you listen to has been processed in this way so the parts are audible and so the experience of listening to the music is potentially enjoyable also.

Zengarden What has all this got to do with commercial communication and social media?  Well advertising because it paid for all the channels is closest to studio created creative material where everything is crafted to the nth degree and there is no room made for whatever noise the audience might be making – it is designed to get noticed and to secure undivided attention.  What we have in social media is much closer to a live gig or a public place full of buskers and background noise.  The performers we are backing may be professionals (but don't have to be). And our job is to secure cut through. Because we can't control the commercial context our mixing is always going to be limited – we can mix the signals we are sending and we can influence the space where we are distributing the signals.

I've written before about the principles of visual design (contrast, direction, emphasis, economy, proportion, balance, rhythm, unity) and how relevant they are for communications planning. Last month in Computer Music magazine there was a great article by RachMiel – an eclectic writer about experimental music who ran a tutorial about wabi-sabi – applying zen principles to musical composition. And to illustrate his point he started with Bach's Jesu joy of man's desiring and mutated the tune using these zen principles. Here they are:

Fukinsei – asymmetry

Kanso – simplicity

Koko – weatheredness

Shizen – naturalness

Yugen – subtle profundity

Datsozoku – unworldliness

Seijaku – tranquillily

And as if these weren't enough RachMiel went on to introduce 2 more: Ma (pauses in space and time) and Naru (causal flow of events)

It seems to me that these concepts along with the design principles – could be profitably used to engineer content  so that it flowed naturally with the topics and themes. I don't have the space or time right now (not very zen of me eh?) to unpack how each principle might be used. Maybe you will have your own suggestions. My basic point is that as soon as you engineer for a shared and uncontrolled environment – a) you need to mix and b) mixing like a studio engineer will do you no good at all – you'll just get mush and your content will be ignored.

To get engagement and cutthrough – concepts like asymmetry and simplicity will be much more effective than impact, frequency, duration which related to solus style communication. Weatheredness is a faschinating one. I once worked on a TV commercial with a product which claimed to rejuvenate cars. Because of the conventions of advertising the client would only allow us to shoot a brand new car. Because of the power of communication even though what we were saying was patently nonsensical: how can you rejuvenate a new car? the audience understood the claim we were making. In social media photoshopped 'newness' – is past its sell by date. 

And social media engineering to be accepted has to work for the benefit of everybody not just the sponsor. Otherwise we are going to be ignored and excluded.  A service we can perform to amplify the key themes, to filter out 'noise' which detracts but without resorting to Disney style control.

Postcript on research. For historic reasons the industrial model of research has required it to be kept separate from the industrial process of selling. Within a social media model my thinking is increasingly moving towards ways in which research becomes modulated as part of the social media mix and is far less separate than it used to be. Largely because to survive in the social media space marketers will have to stop doing blatant interuptive selling which will make it much easier for them to ask questions and listen to what they are being told.

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