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The American Idolization of Events


Posted on July 14, 2006

By Rich Westerfield

American Idol.  Whether you watch the show or not, you can't escape the phenomenon.  I don't mean being exposed to mindnumbing songs from Clay or Kelly or Taylor (actually, Kelly is pretty good these days).  I mean the concept of "American Idolization" - marrying content with audience participation technology.

Yes, American Idolization has roots that go all the way back to the Coliseum and gladiators, with the emperor's thumb up or thumb down usually reflecting the wishes of thousands of spectators.  But the emperor didn't have text messaging technology.

Some 17 months ago I posted about using SMS (text messaging over cell phones) for event promotion and participation.  SMS marketing has been around a few years in Europe and parts of Asia and is fairly well accepted, especially by younger generations.  I used American Idol as an example of a popular application.

But American Idolization means much more than just using SMS for marketing feedback.  The success of the show - and resulting popularity of its winners - has more to do with the needs of under-30s to have the opportunity to offer feedback AND have that feedback acted upon.  Some psychoanalysts have pointed out a generational shift that has gone from, "the Me Generation" of selfishness and gluttony in the 80s to the, "Look at Me, Aren't I Special", generation of self-aggrandizement that exists among much of today's youth - best explained by their worship of celebrity for the sake of celebrity.

This trend isn't just apparent on reality shows.  Some feel the trend is (or should be) already leaching into areas beyond entertainment, like politics*, media*, news, even how the news is reported* (or at least some "news features".  (Being from Pittsburgh, we'll add that getting Jason Bay enough votes to start in Tuesday's All-Star Game is another example.)

Why is this important to know?

Your word for the day:  Unconference.  Learn about it.  And how this concept is being executed for numerous technology and marketing events.

Before anyone gets their panties up in a bunch, I'm not suggesting that the folks who've been contributing to the unconference trend are of the same intelligence level as the autorantic moonbats that vote for American Idol.  I'm simply suggesting that the need for inserting their own input into the final product appears more generational than anything else (then again, it could be argued that unconferences are a direct result of the open source movement, which itself wouldn't exist without technology and the behemoth which is Microsoft which has been open source's primary target - therefore the environment for unconferences didn't exist until just now). 

We're also not suggesting that you turn your entire event into a free-for-all (although it would be incredibly amusing to watch the entire CES conference devolve into a frenzy - it would be like the trading pit for frozen concentrated orange juice).  But, if you're finding your events beginning to skew older than usual, perhaps its something to look into.

Even if you just took a part of your conference - say a couple of hours in the afternoon - to do an "unconference" type format, you might find it worthwhile, both in terms of attendee interaction and buy-in to the concept, as well as being able to learn more about your audience and the key topics and level of detailed discussion that really turn them on.

Of course if you're going to persue this type of format change, you have to let this same audience know in your marketing. 

But more often than not, this same generation is tuning out traditional marketing from traditional marketing delivering systems.  That's why if you want to proceed with an "unconference" strategy you should also be thinking about an honest appraisal of your show's "word of mouth" value. 

Yes, word of mouth.  That's what younger generations heed, not ads, not direct mail. 

But aren't today's youth walking billboards themselves?   Doesn't everything they wear, touch and consume blatantly send a message about who (they think) they are?   Well, yes and no.

(Confession:  Although I actively resist being sucked in by ego purchasing of brands, back in the disco era I used to wear Levis so as to stand apart from our generation's version of metrosexuals who wore Jordache and Calvins.  Levis were more "cool" than Wrangler or Lee, which were viewed more as the 'budget' versions of denim.)

We get confused ourselves - while under-30s generally disregard mass advertising, they do appreciate a broad range of event marketing and are also the most brand-concious generation in history.  We prefer to believe that this generation's apparent schism between self-aggrandizement and self-actualizationit's is explained away as it is simply taking a bit longer for the generation currently entering the workforce to find its true identity. 

And that's probably the same thing what our parents said about those of us now entering our 50s.  Except they didn't use as many big words.

While WOM has always been the most effective marketing medium, technology has made it possible for fewer people to influence how and to whom WOM messages get distributed.  That's why personal publishing (blogs, online forums) and broadcasting (podcasts/vidcasts) have become extremely important to marketers.  Generally speaking, there are hierarchies in every community - some blogs/podcasts are viewed as more important than others.  You could call these the "A-list" of a given community. 

When you can convince the "A-list" of the merits of your event, then you've set into motion a cascade of downward influence on the masses that will exponentially grow as long as your event continues to be well-thought-of by the key opinion leaders in your community.

In other words, you're not going to sucker Simon Cowell with a phony act.  He's got to be able to see your actual talent in order to sell it.  If you suck, he'll call you out. 

Sounds like the same need for authenticity/passion/transparency that has become the blogger/podcaster credo.

So in some ways, being 'American Idolized' is a positive.

*We're not taking sides.  We're just showing examples.

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