It’s arguable that “social reading” has always been around. People read, and some talk about what they read, but social reading has never been envisioned in as productive, accessible, and pervasive a medium than the digital. Personal devices such as the Kindle and the NOOK exist for the purpose of reading electronic texts and even sharing them, but there is still no strong, digital community that promotes social reading in the most progressive and innovative sense.
According to Bob Stein, founder of The Voyager Company and The Criterion Collection, not even Apple iBooks has really changed the book as we know it. iBooks and its competitors, namely Kindle and NOOK, are designed to facilitate the consumption of books and the sale of books in the quickly-evolving mobile and digitally driven world, but have done little to meaningfully transform the book, or the act of reading. E-books and other digital publications remain the same islands of text that print publications have always been. Where is the Social Media Age bridge between readers, writers, editors, publishers, and scholars? Where is the Facebook of fiction, the Pinterest of poetry?
Stein and his colleagues are attempting to provide an answer in the form of a prototype social reading community by the name of SocialBook. Like Apple iBooks’s author app, or Kindle Direct Publishing, SocialBook allows the editor(s) and/or author(s) of a text to upload the work to a social network of readers, who may engage with the text on a digital platform. However, unlike current trending platforms, SocialBook allows readers to contribute their marginalia to an ever-expanding discussion that encompasses the text, and is accessible by all readers of that text. Users may open tabs, located along the sides of the text, and view reader commentary as well as author, editor and publisher commentary. They can also contribute to an ever-growing, public conversation about the books they read. Stein talks more about social reading here, on the Institute for the Future of the Book’s “If:Book” blog, and in this video from 2011:
The possibilities of such a platform are great, and many have yet to be tested at length in a real market. All of SocialBook’s currently uploaded titles are also public domain, and therefore can be accessed by anyone. However, Stein explained, when he spoke at a digital forum at the University of Florida in 2012, in the future, the community will likely accommodate copyright protected material. Like any DRM-protected e-book, any works not in the public domain will have to be purchased. Upon purchasing access to a copyright protected book, the reader will unlock the socially engaging features SocialBook already offers for works in the public domain.
Going forward, this technology raises many questions and concerns regarding our definitions of “publisher”, “editor”, and “author”. It is unknown for now but reasonable to guess that this process may diminish the need for the traditional publisher as we know it (or perhaps change the role of the publisher) and will allow editors and authors greater publishing freedoms. For the first time as well, it will be feasible for authors and editors to have round-the-clock, open-ended, and public dialogues with readers, critics, and scholars.
With the “Groups” feature, there is incredible potential for SocialBook within classrooms. With a platform like SocialBook, students can not only experience textbook learning as a fully socialized practice, they can also interact with the text by contributing public thoughts and notes to the margins. Their peers–in the classroom, at home, or on the go–can access and respond to those posts, add their own thoughts to the conversation, answer instructor-prompted questions, and pose questions of their own to other readers. Teachers and professors can guide or moderate frequently updated discussions, and even connect to other classroom group discussions anywhere in the world. Ten…one hundred…one thousand or more people–there’s no limit–can read the same copy of the same book at the same time, building an engaging, public, social, shareable, “super conversation” that’s organically curated for readers by readers.
When Bob Stein spoke at a digital forum at UF, he asked the attendees to imagine if Romeo and Juliet, the theory of relativity, or any other great work had originally been published on SocialBook. What if everyone had access to Shakespeare’s or Einstein’s personal annotations? What if great thinkers could speak to us about their ideas across time, and what if we, the readers, could keep the conversation going?
For this week’s blog post, I’ve decided to spotlight a brand that I think has done a keen job of targeting its consumer base not only by integrating the channels through which it communicates with its audience but by integrating its product with the touchpoints consumers use to access it. Sounds strange, right? What kind of product can literally be integrated with the touchpoints its brand uses to market it? The answer is software, and the software I’m specifically referring to is called Steam. For those unfamiliar with the developer Valve and its social gaming platform, here is Wikipedia’s breakdown:
To summarize, Steam is a social platform for gamers, whether it be consumer or developer, and it’s positioned itself as the “everything platform” for gaming. You can buy games, play games, , chat in real-time or in forums; if you’re a developer you can sell your own game(s) through Steam and Steam will facilitate your game’s playability. Those with the know-how can even create “mods” for popular games and share them easily across the Steam Workshop–the capabilities of the software seem to grow more and more limitless each day. The best part, to many, is that new and popular games are much more affordable on Steam, sometimes as low as $20, $10, or even $5 during special holiday or seasonal sales. It’s a great deal, considering physical copies of most new games go for $60, and many take a long time to drop below $30.
Like any savvy brand, Steam is integrated with a number of other major social networking platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, where it has a whopping 3.9+ million and 3.2+ million followers respectively. As you’d expect, its social channels are well synchronized, informing followers of the latest daily and weekly deals, flash sales, software developments, and upcoming new releases. If you’re a Steam user with a Steam wishlist, you’ll even receive email notices when items specifically catered to your interest go on sale, when another Steam user wants to trade a community item to you, or when someone sends you a gift.
Though it’s a “bit like the whale of the social networking world”, huge but growing much more slowly than most other networks (Murphy), it has attracted new followings on two other social giants, Tumblr and Pinterest, as recently as 2014. But here’s why Steam’s slow rate of territorial expansion is negligible: it’s already deeply rooted where it needs to be. Steam lives where gamers live. The platform has its own client, the new SteamOS, but has already established itself as the preferred gaming platform on the majority of its competitors’ operating systems, including Windows, OS X, and Linux. In fact, according to a 2013 gaming survey by Big Fish, “53.5% of gamers play games on Windows via Steam.”
But Steam’s presence doesn’t end there. The gaming platform also sells its product in the stores of its brick-and-mortar retail competitors, including GameStop, BestBuy, Walmart, and Target. These stores sell Steam Gift Cards and Wallet Codes which make adding funds to users’ Steam Wallets or giving digital gifts to friends and family through Steam easier. These stores are also a great place for those who aren’t yet digitally inclined to meet and shake hands with Steam for the first time. This is crucial because a massive shift is already underway in favor of digital purchases and downloads, and to say this shift has adversely affected videogame sales in brick-and-mortar stores is an understatement. In fact, the “relative failure of [GameStop’s] push into online PC sales” has left it little choice but to allow Steam, a digital downloads giant, to set up shop within its own walls (Plunkett). Steam may have had little to no presence offline until just a few years ago, but as physical videogame sales plummet, Steam has positioned itself where its competitors used to shop and is actively offering a solution for their current and future consumption needs. A smart move, considering that as of 2014, “52 percent of games are sold via digital format,” according to the Entertainment Software Association (Labbe).
Steam seems to have its communications and marketing all figured out, but, until recently, the social gaming giant hasn’t been without one particular and grievous flaw. Its customer service history is riddled with complaints and, sometimes, even utter failure. Steam users historically love the platform’s features almost as much as they hate its customer service respond time and problem solving rate:
“Not too long ago, I stumbled across a curious fact: Valve, maker of the world’s biggest PC gaming service, was given an F by the Better Business Bureau. Othermajorgamingcompanies largely have A’s. The culprit? Poor customer service[…]According to the BBB’s page on Valve, people have filed 717 complaints about Valve and Valve-related products (Steam, games, etc), 502 of which they’ve failed to respond to. The majority of complaints stem from ‘problems with a product/service.’ More tellingly, the BBB says Valve has ‘has failed to resolve underlying cause(s) of a pattern of complaints.'”
–Nathan Grayson (2015, March 13)
An interesting controversy reared its head recently while Valve publicly mulled over the idea of paid mods on Steam, with a particular emphasis on the wildly popular, TheElder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Basically, a price tag would be placed on users’ homemade mods, regardless of whether they had been free in the past, and the revenue from purchases would then be split between the modder, Valve, and the developer of the game being modded. The response from the Steam community was overwhelmingly negative. Most felt, in the words of Hayden Dingman (PCWorld), that “the 25 percent to modders/30 percent Valve/45 percent Bethesda [revenue] split Skyrim featured was exploitative and gross”, and that paying for mods acted greedily against the spirit of hobbyist modding.
Thankfully, and perhaps to the surprise of many, Valve actually listened, pulling the plug on the idea altogether. Following the uproar, Valve Corporation founder Gabe Newell even participated in a reddit AMA in order to address and quell consumer alarm publicly (LaBella). The controversy came with plenty of flack, and generated talk among users of the merits of Steam’s historically less-popular online competitors such as GOG (formerly Good Old Games), but Valve’s willingness to listen and subsequent efforts to improve customer service appear to mark a change for the better as far as Steam’s customer service goes. Despite some major issues, the platform is clearly doing something very well.
One last thing worth mentioning is what I believe is Steam’s most positive touchpoint. Steam is integrated with a number of other digital sellers / distributors such as Green Man Gaming, Uplay, and Origin, but most important (in my own opinion) is its connection with Humble Bundle. Formerly “Humble Indie Bundles”, Humble Bundle is a unique site that bundles digital copies of videogames and sells them at a price determined by the purchaser. The proceeds are then split however the purchaser wishes between Humble Bundle, the game developer(s), and a charity, such as Child’s Play, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Charity: Water, the American Red Cross, and many more (Wikipedia). Vouchers for games playable on Steam are available through Humble Bundle and other such sites. This not only allows Steam to integrate with other digital distributors’ consumer communities, but also provides expanded outlets for Steam to network and communicate with consumers who are interested in charities and other philanthropic causes or organizations.
One of the biggest cultural changes that has come packaged with the Internet Age is the ability to talk to a brand. For a century or more, marketing and ad campaigns had been a process that took place in corporate brainstorming board rooms, behind closed doors, and far, far from the public eye. Brands took their time crafting their image and the message that would compel consumers to buy, and direct that information to the public via television commercial, billboard, magazine ad, or storefront display. The direction of classic marketing is one way–from brand to consumer. Sure, you could write a formal letter to Taco Bell if you wanted to complain badly enough, but it was likely no one else would hear.
Today, however, brands who are connected to social media can escape neither public approval nor scrutiny. Social media marketing opens a door to a dialogue between consumers and brands that is being held 24/7 and is changing the way brands speak to their customers. It is no longer sufficient to create a well-planned ad and trust a television prime-time spot to cast it upon an audience like a magic, money-making spell, and this is because, as Hausman says, “consumers don’t believe brands.” Before it was possible to have an open, public dialogue with a brand, companies could get away with manipulating the truth about a brand or a product, and some, if not many, did just that. Mad Men, anyone?
Not only has social media opened a bidirectional dialogue, it has also made brands available and accessible to consumers around the clock, and prompted them to be ready to address customer concerns readily and publicly. Now, whether you applaud or berate Taco Bell, its Twitter team is ready for you. The fast food giant’s Twitter account has become widely popular in recent years because it meets consumers with “a clever combination of retweets, sassy comebacks, hashtags, and whimsical life advice” (Boboltz). The company has not only taken to social media advertising, it has come to live where its consumers like to hang out, and it speaks to consumers like they speak to one another. This kind of engagement is what earns points and develops consumer trust. It’s real-time and public–sincere in a way that classic marketing doesn’t have to be. It creates opportunity to address praise and complaint alike, and according to Baer, companies need to “look at every individual complaint as an opportunity to create a deeper brand experience than a single purchase or interaction ever could.” Taco Bell has adopted the “hug your haters” philosophy and also combined it with another valuable tactic: entertainment, which is seen as more authentic content (Young, p.27).
Classic marketing isn’t without its strengths. With the advent of social media marketing, multiple platforms, and bidirectional dialogue also comes clutter. Young says that “as we consume more media, the existing media channels are fragmenting and new ones are being added” and that “clutter is one of the biggest problems for marketers” (p.18). If advertisers don’t maintain consistency across multimedia channels, the brand image and message are weakened and less effective. Brand messages are broken up simply because there is no longer just a handful of powerful media outlets i.e. television, radio, and print.
Although social media marketing, in my opinion, is the stronger and more effective approach in the digital era, there is also strength in integrating social media advertising with classic advertising when communicating with consumers around the clock. As Young points out, “the world’s oldest advertising medium, the out-of-home (OOH) industry, is investing heavily in digital OOH networks. Digital OOH inside elevators, shopping malls, airports, and on freeways is transforming static signage into real-time, digital media” (p.20-21). Take, for example, a project by Aerva Inc. Aerva uses digital display billboards to share images of social media conversations that people are having about or with brands. The boards’ contents are managed by software that filters and selects appropriate posts while removing fraudulent and irrelevant posts, and then shows consumers what people are saying about a brand. Check out this link or click the video below to see a brief case study about Taco Bell and Aerva digital billboards.