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Knowing Armano

by Tangerine Toad  |  
January 12, 2009

Last week, David Armano, a well-known blogger, prolific Twitterer, and real-world friend, did a very noble thing: with just one tweet and one blog post, he harnessed the power of his 8,000+ member Twitter network and raised close to $20,000 for Daniella, a woman fleeing an abusive husband. The effort was notable for many things, foremost among them being how quickly the money poured in: I believe the first-night total was somewhere around $15,000. It was a wonderful, feel-good moment and David was justifiably moved by the response.

hatpic.jpg But there was something else that struck me about all this: How many of the people who contributed that first night cited "knowing" David as the reason they felt comfortable donating money. And what struck me was that in reality, few of them actually did know him. At least not in the traditional sense.
They knew him from his blogging and (primarily) from his Twitter stream. But few seemed to have ever had any direct interaction with him beyond reading and perhaps retweeting what he'd written.
So as a marketer, the first question that comes to mind, "Does this represent a significant change in behavior that affects how I should advise my clients?"
And the short answer is "maybe."
Our definition of who we "know" is certainly more fungible these days. But merely having a significant online presence is not enough to get people to feel they "know" someone (or some brand, for that matter.) This is where brand personality comes into play: Armano is far more open about his personal life than most are on Twitter. At the same time, both his blog and his Twitter stream are aimed at educating people who are new to social media. So in a way he serves as the first friend many newcomers have, at times the only friend they have if their real world friends are not making their way online. Sort of like the friendly RA during freshman orientation.
Now what this does is humanize him in a way that works very well for his personal brand, and is likely why so many feel they "know" him. But this strategy works because of who he is and the unique circumstances he deals with: it would seem forced and awkward for many other brands, both personal and (especially) corporate.
Brands, as I've noted ad infinitum are not our friends. Even Prom King brands. We may like certain brands a whole lot, consider ourselves experts on them, but we don't ever feel we "know" them. So while we may consider donating to a charity that Apple sponsors, we'll do it because want some of Apple's "cool." Not because we "know" Apple or feel a connection to Steve Jobs.
Now here's where it gets tricky: did the people who donated think it was "cool" to be a part of Armano's community?
I suspect some did, but for most the primary emotional driver was the chance to be a part of a larger "we", an online community whose leader made them feel welcomed and included upon their entrance into the space, rather than cool. Making people feel welcomed on such a personal level is going to be hard for a major brand to replicate. You need a very active CEO or other spokesman with a personality that can accommodate that kind of effort. As well as a product category where people feel somewhat alone and at sea.
A smaller brand, like a local restaurant or a bed and breakfast with a strong following and a popular owner might have far more success creating that sense of community. (Call it the "Cheers" affect.)
A final question I've been asking is at what point does an online community start to break apart because it's too large? Is the Dunbar Number of 150 a valid gauge?
I'd say the answer is that for a specific cause, these communities can go much larger. The community of Obama supporters– and I'm talking seriously hard core supporters, the type who manned phone lines-- numbered in the millions. And you know they'd have donated money to Obama's favorite charity in a heartbeat.
The danger here, as this piece on Crooked Timber points out, is that the community turns on itself: it's easy to forge a large community when there is one simple common goal. (In this case, defeating the Republicans.) Much tougher when you have to get down to the nitty gritty such as the actual specifics of the economic stimulus plan. (NB: This isn't unique to online communities; far from it. Revolutions typically split into factions once the major battle has been won.)
And brands are not causes. They're corporate entities designed to get us to buy things. So you're going to see different levels of community based on how fanatical someone is about the particular brand and how big a role it plays in their self-identity. (e.g. it's far more socially acceptable for me to self-identify as a runner than it is to self-identify as a Saucony fan.) And while larger brands can expect to exceed 150 fanatical users, their numbers will only hold fast if we're talking about the overall, high-level message of "Brand X is really good."
Once you introduce additional factors like "the new red version is really good" you introduce the possibility of dissension and the brand-love and group-think falls off. Which is not a bad thing. You've just got to be able to manage expectations and be able to walk away from those changes and innovations that prove most upsetting to your core group of customers. What social media does is give you an effective outlet to listen to them and process what you're hearing from the people who really do "know" you.

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Alan Wolk
One of the only new voices to come out of the creative side of the ad business, Alan Wolk has staked out a distinctive space for himself and his Toad Stool consultancy. The wide-ranging appeal of Wolk’s common-sense approach to strategy, combined with his hands-on experience as an advertising creative director, has made him the go-to guy for social media thought leadership, speaking and consulting.

His blog, The Toad Stool, is a popular thought leadership site that’s been described as a “frank but fair” look at the confluence of advertising, marketing and Web 2.0.

Adweek Editor Brian Morrissey has called it “one of the ‘must read’ blogs for our industry.”

The most popular series, "Your Brand Is Not My Friend"which deals with the false assumptions marketers make in the 2.0 space (and how to remedy them), has gotten much play in the blogosphere and that has led to columns in Adweek, as well as a national syndication deal via Newstex.

The blog’s popularity has also resulted in numerous requests for speaking engagements. A book is also in the works.

Prior to “seeing the light,” Wolk was a highly successful creative director who spent years at ‘90s hot shop Anderson & Lembke and went on to start up Atmosphere, BBDO’s digital agency, with stints at Ogilvy and JWT along the way. A New York City native and Stuyvesant High School graduate, Wolk currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and 2 kids, where he doubles as a Little League and basketball coach.

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  • by Neil Sequeira - ReadyContacts Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    Very interesting post Alan. Those relationships formed from following people on Twitter and reading their blog really do give the sense of 'knowing' them.

  • by Vickie Tolbert Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    Good analysis, Alan.

  • by Steve Woodruff @swoodruff Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    I think that they dynamics of "cause" vs. "brand" are quite different, as the Daniela incident illustrates nicely. Helping a fellow human being with a face, a family, and a story is far different than feeling smug and cool about a handbag or a drink of choice. Using networks to promote legitimate causes, led by trusted people who have earned credibility, may have nearly unlimited scale.

  • by Lewis Green Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    To Steve's point, businesses have been forming community around cause marketing for decades. It is far more effective than when they try to do the same thing around a product.

  • by Nick Stamoulis Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    This is a clear sign of the power of social engagement online. If you gain the trust of people they will listen to you.

  • by David Armano Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    Alan, a thoughtful post as usual. Do you remember the phrase "Ambient Intimacy" contrary to popular belief, it was not coined by a NYT columnist who made it possible, it was coined by Leisa Reichelt I know this not becuase she shows up first on Google for the term, but because I was following along with her life in the early days of "Twitterville" What you've described in your writeup is yet another example of how digital connections create ambient intimacy, thus further proof that the phenomenon exists. I guess we are now realizing that trust can be a result of this. As the saying goes "it happens" Trust is serious business. It means you have to earn it, protect it and nurture it. If it's broken, it can be restored but with a great deal of effort. What's the application for business and brands. Believe it or not, it's a reality. Trust was broken when Apple didn't give refunds to people who had just bought version of the iPhone that were quickly updated. It was restored when Apple decided to act in a human way and give them a break. Yes it was good for PR, but it was also the right thing to do. And we can't forget that Apple fans also have a sense of "ambient intimacy" build over years of being mostly thrilled by Apple products. One example I guess. Not a perfect one. Then again Steve Jobs is far from perfect as is Apple. Perhaps "knowing" a person or brand means feeling a sense of trust despite their imperfections. You trust them for what they are. Thank you for making us think, as usual. -David

  • by Matt Hames Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    Trust has been part of marketing for years. The trust used to just mean that the product lived up to the marketing. IE, if the marketing said X, then the product better deliver X. That's still a given. But trust is also wrapped up in brands. Because the brand isn't product related. Apple's mistake and correction had nothing to do with the product, or even the service of the product. It had to do with the perception of the brand. And that's where soc media can help with respect to communities. I think it can build on that brand in the same manner Armano did and ask a little of the community. It obviously won't be money, it might simply be to amplify a product. But that has value.

  • by Gavin Heaton Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    As David points out, Leisa Reichelt's take on ambient intimacy is a great example here that works in two ways - it helps those who ARE friends keep up with each other, and it brings our circle of acquaintances into closer proximity. The interesting thing for me, here, is that a *movement* was created. Sure David started it, but as it spread, it became less about Daniela and David, and more about us, and our desire to belong - and take part. This is what it means to "lose control" from a marketing perspective. I talk a little about it here:

  • by Alan Wolk Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    Interesting to think about the intersection of trust and branding. Not sure if we can make a 1:1 correlation between the two. People trusted that David was not going to abscond with their money because they felt they knew him due to the relationship they'd forged with him online. Yet none of their previous interactions with him required them to trust him, well certainly not that explicitly. Brands ask us to trust them based on our past experience. But there, the relationship is very much consistent: you've given me good products in the past, I trust that you will do so in the future. So it would seem that the 1:1 would be for followers to trust that David would give them useful information in the future. The leap to charitable giving, as some (Steve W, Lewis G) have pointed out, comes from a different place-- and it's much easier to build consensus around the need to do good than the need to buy a new MP3 player. The "ambient intimacy" some have mentioned is of a somewhat different ilk that that noted by by Leisa Reichelt and expounded on by Clive Thompson in his landmark NY Times article in that it's completely one-sided. The original ambient intimacy was achieved between two peers who followed each other's days. Here, we have the many following the one. That's an interested mutation of the postulate, but one that' more likely applicable to social dynamics than to brands. Thanks all for the comments. Always appreciated.

  • by mack collier Mon Jan 12, 2009 via blog

    I'm one of the people that's been lucky enough to talk to David for a few years now, and spend all too brief of a Blogger Social 08 with him. So the trust issue wasn't there for me. But what struck me was that David seemed to be a bit uncomfortable asking for the money, but that his desire to help Daniela and her family gave him the strength to do something that made him a bit uneasy. No one likes asking for help, and especially not when you're asking a lot of people that barely know you to trust you enough to help another person that they don't know at all. And in a way, I think that's probably why David's effort got the support that it did. It was a selfless act, and I think that people saw that, and wanted to help as a result.

  • by simon Tue Jan 13, 2009 via blog

    In a sense Armano is a brand. So that when people say they "know" him, they know him like a NYT reader knows a Nicholas Kristoff or a Frank Rich. The attributes of brand Armano (respected, intellectual) augmented with personal characteristics via Twitter created the credibility for the "ask".

  • by Alan Wolk Tue Jan 13, 2009 via blog

    @simon: Is it a similar situation? Or would someone say they "knew" Frank Rich's columns or "knew" Kristof's efforts on behalf of Cambodian sex trade workers. Not sure they would claim to "know" either one personally though. What do you think?

  • by Elaine Fogel Tue Jan 13, 2009 via blog

    Hi, Alan. This is a perfect example of what nonprofit marketers attempt to do on a daily basis - create an emotional connection with prospective donors so they'll take out their credit cards and check books. Unfortunately, there are gazillions of Daniellas in our communities, as well as many others affected by poverty, homelessness, illness, joblessness, and so on. What David did was very commendable. It's interesting that Mack says he seemed to be uncomfortable about asking for money. That's a common dilemma faced by professional fundraisers when trying to engage their boards and volunteers in fundraising.

  • by simon Tue Jan 13, 2009 via blog

    I think it's a similar situation in terms of establishing credibility among a particular community of interest (obviously NYT = larger community). In the social media context does "know" start to mean "familiar"/"respect"/"like" in the context of that community and its interests? Philanthropy of course transcends the core community interests and the "respect" or "familiarity" allows community members to place a degree of trust his (brand Armano's) judgment.

  • by Mary Mcknight Tue Jan 13, 2009 via blog

    Alright, speaking from the perspective of having been a battered woman that fled an abusive husband I found David's tactics concerning and the people who donated money enablers. There are services available and when you consider that 78% of all battered women go back to their abuser within 90 days, you now have basically bilked people into believing their un-researched charity/enabling is altruistic when in fact it is only to stroke their own ego. This isn't philanthropy it is stupidity on the part of David and his followers. I am appalled that such blind trust resulted in such a grave disservice to this woman. She needed services not money.

  • by ana andjelic Tue Jan 13, 2009 via blog

    Alan, there's also something else here. whenever a brand makes a charitable effort, the question is always if they do it for promotion, for their business, or for something else. people are reluctant to easily contribute to someone else's business/promotion if there's not something for them. Armano here was just a facilitator that removed himself from the equation. in a way, he himself became a network. it was from people straight to the woman in need. brands rarely become networks, it is always about them as "persons". no one wants to give to a person who is going to personally benefit from it, no matter where the donation goes further.

  • by Tony Eyles Tue Jan 13, 2009 via blog

    Those who donated were obviously touched by the story Armano told and his plea - the fact they were mobilized does show trust in his judgment (not surprising given his brand does represent thought leadership for his audience) as well his credibility. I think the interesting difference is how quickly and strongly brand credibility like this can be established with social media. It promotes validation through the assumption that if its wrong, someone will call it out.

  • by David Armano Wed Jan 14, 2009 via blog

    Mary, There are two things about your post that genuinely sap my spirit. The first is that you were in a similar situation. I can't tell you how angry I was after meeting Daniela for the first time and hearing about what she went through. The other is the comment itself. Unfortunately it makes me not want to stick my neck out the next time. Now I understand why someone might not help that person who fell on the sidewalk. They fear getting sued.

  • by Mary Mcknight Wed Jan 14, 2009 via blog

    David, I am very public about my experience and I am also a huge supporter of battered women's shelters and services and have worked with the Nicole Brown Foundation directly as it was Denise herself who helped me find the appropriate services when I needed help. I know the psychology of a battered woman up close and am just telling you what any real counselor would say. You never give them money- you give them services. That is what women in those situations need. I'm just saying it was a dangerous use of your brand and popularity and in my opinion not a wise one. i would have rather you have taken those funds and given them to a shelter and asked them to directly assist your friend. In that case you could have helped 10 or 20 women rather than just one - who now has a higher likelihood of returning to her batterer (based on the numbers). This story is one of the cautionary tales of social media for me rather than an uplifting one. Don't take offense to it, it wasn't personal. This is just what anyone that has been through this and works with battered women would say. Also from a business perspective I feel that emotion needs to be used carefully.

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