Digital Branding: Entities Become Ecosystems

The explosion in online people-powered media serves as a daily reminder of just how odd an entity a corporation really is. It is a lifeform that aggregates other lifeforms in a giant ecosystem of employees, resources, laws, and customers and, in so doing, somehow earns a legal status that grants it independence from all other lifeforms. If you think that’s confusing, read one of the earliest historical descriptions of it you’ll find on Wikipedia:

“a collection of many individuals united into one body, under a special denomination, having perpetual succession under an artificial form, and vested, by policy of the law, with the capacity of acting, in several respects, as an individual, particularly of taking and granting property, of contracting obligations, and of suing and being sued, of enjoying privileges and immunities in common, and of exercising a variety of political rights, more or less extensive, according to the design of its institution, or the powers conferred upon it, either at the time of its creation, or at any subsequent period of its existence.”

To paraphrase, it’s all about benefit without risk. It’s about creating an invisible force field of sorts. But the Internet appears to be eroding that shield more every day, or at least making it more transparent.

Given the structured, long lead forms of communication popularized during the age of mass media, corporations were able to create the illusion of having one cohesive face and voice – the sort of physical manifestations of the idea that a corporation is a real entity. The name for that face was “brand”, and it came to ignore the fact that a brand actually formed and evolved as much in the heads of its employees and consumers, and the interactions between the two, as in anything hatched by branding and advertising firms.

In their early forms, websites were simply an extension of this – there was no expectation of much interaction, not many people had bandwidth for rich media, there were few mechanisms for interaction with other users on a grand scale. The web was a bunch of URLs where you could look at brochures online, and companies needed only to control the content at those locations.

Cut to today. Let’s watch as corporations try and apply the “we’re an entity with a name and a face” paradigm to social media like Facebook that’s built to enable person to person communication, where an institution is exposed for what it is – not a person. The results are often absurd attempts at personifying entities that aren’t, well, persons.

It also exposes the question of who controls the unified face and voice of any corporate entity in a place like Facebook, let alone throughout the Internet. Who would you expect to? PR departments, product groups, marketing organizations, and the web/IT departments that maintain the corporate site are as fragmented as they’ve ever been. Meantime, employees and users have more mechanisms than ever to aggregate their voices. The upshot is that this faceless organization has almost no central control over even the messages they INTEND to send, let alone all the communication that takes places as a byproduct of their employee’s personal forays into social media, the traditional news media, user and consumer forums and blogs that form an insanely amplified word of mouth network.

In short, the new proliferation of communication mechanisms is proving that a corporation has always been more of an ecosystem than a single lifeform.

What that means is that it’s time for companies to retire their own monolithic image and replace their canned laughter sitcom approach to media with some reality TV. The legal model that the corporation provides may still be useful, but it’s not relevant anymore as a model when brands are made online.

Here are a few guiding principles for companies to stop acting like corporations and create a web presence that mirrors how organizations and customers interact.

  1. Systems, Not Sites. Companies don’t manage a website, they have online ecosystems. Whether they like it or not. Having a well designed “website” hub is not dead, but the idea that it isn’t connected in 1,000 ways is silly.
  2. Be Real. People have little patience for institutional blather, buzzwords and hyperbole. Tout your strengths, but don’t try and overcome a fault with disingenuous copy because a “real” user comment is a mouseclick away.
  3. Be Real-Time. Ecosystems adapt quickly. User forums, Twitter feeds, or even a proprietary CMS staffed by someone empowered to make changes is how sites get managed dynamically, not by IT queues.
  4. Fuse Skills. Design, technology, marketing now completely overlap. Everyone communicates. You cannot NOT communicate. It’s an assembly, not an assembly line.
  5. Maintain The Ecosystem. Companies plant seeds with communication tools, principals and information and try and apply and measure them wherever they’re appropriate to influence the overall result. But the essential skill of the ecosystem is planting, monitoring and adapting, not trying to landscape the entire planet

Will this new world of digital branding have any impact on the corporation’s status as a legal entity? Perhaps somewhere down the road, their pants pulled squarely down around their ankles, corporations will sheepishly admit under oath they are contrivances. But for now, the tools of online communication are forcing companies to break down the barrier and re-connect in real-time, to real people or risk looking silly, or worse, irrelevant.

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~ by joshuakelly on August 20, 2009.

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