Saturday, 12 June 2010

Book review: Herd by Mark Earls

I'm going to break my usual habit of doing book reviews in pairs for this one as I think its necessary to do it justice.

When I first picked up Herd by Mark Earls I read the comment on the cover "Surprisingly fascinating: like Malcolm Gladwell on Speed", a comment from The Guardian. My instant assumption was that this would be a long essay of a book. 20 pages of good thought spread over 300 with relentless case studies.

I was very wrong, and I'm more than happy to admit it.

Herd is a book about how humans behave, not individual people, but rather the formless and rather mysterious morass which marketing and campaigning seek to influence.

It builds well, working through psychology, philosophy and other esoteric disciplines to construct a model of human behaviour. Earls posits that people are not truly individuals, but rather members of a community of 'super social apes', who are motivated in large part by the undercurrent of emotions and concepts currently sweeping their part of this community.

He is scathing of the idea that there are super individuals within this community who determine the way it will lean, and that the internet can be used purely as a channel for communicating with groups of people. Instead he claims that we should focus more on creating a genuine buzz around products and ideas, with broad, sweeping engagement.

Personally I find this idea deeply seductive as it appeals to my own beliefs about the ways in which particularly internet communities work. Consider the lolcat internet meme, which many of my readers will, I'm sure, be familiar with. Just in case, I've attached one of the original and most popular examples.

Lolcats have birthed a massive blogging empire, with significant revenues. Yet its origins are shrouded in mystery. It seems likely they were born on 4chan, which means no one will ever really know. There is no individual responsible for lolcats, no man who will go down in history as the first to edit a cat picture with a bizzare caption. Instead there is simply a community, from which they emerged, and a larger community which embraced the concept and took it to new heights.

Earls ideas focus on how we can access the community, without an obsessive focus on individuals, who we credit with too much influence.

I think he is a little too scathing about opinion research, claiming that it is not necessary. Personally, I think polling and focus groups give an opportunity to see minds at work, and to find better ways to frame a discussion. If you want to create buzz around an idea, there is no harm in testing the messages and seeing how they work out. I'll admit that there are plenty of examples of highly successful brands who didnt rely on this approach, but I think there'll always be those who get lucky, or get to take advantage of an existing movement, purposefully or otherwise.

Earls also encourages companies to look inwards, to embrace real beliefs about what they want to achieve and what they hold sacred and I think this is a very sensible piece of advice. Too many companies are wrapped up with vision statements and missions, and forget that at the end of the day what people (customers and employees) actually want is a bit of honesty, some integrity and to be treated like grownups.

Co-collaboration, one of my favourite ideas, is also mentioned for special notice. Co-collaboration is a movement which I have a lot of time for, the idea of creating things which harness the wisdom of large groups is something I think the PR industry and large companies in general are lagging behind on.

Small companies are however embracing this movement, harnessing the collective wisdom of large groups of supporters to improve their products. In software its called open source, its produced Linux and Firefox. Blank Label make shirts using co-collaboration, you can buy custom chocolate and granola if you like too. Getting customers involved excites people, gets them to share ideas with their friends, and actively promote their brand.

I set up this blog with the sincere intention of co-collaborating with the wider blogging community on ideas which were of interest to me, and so far, I've been gratified by the interest I've recieved and the discussions it's spawned.

I'm going to make a prediction, Apple will be brought down by a company which embraces co-collaboration. It'll take a decade or more, but Apple has died on its feet as far as bringing customers on board, relying instead on internal talent.

As you can probably tell from this post, Herd has got my brain running wild, trying to digest the concepts and fit them into some of my own ideas.

I really recommend you give it a shot, see what you think, and consider whether there are assumptions you're too wedded to, and new ideas you can take advantage of to build stronger brands, run more effective campaigns and bring people with you when you do something new.
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