They’re all selling it but I’m not buying it

Here’s something I just wrote for Retail Banking Review.
Have you heard of Second Life? Of course you have. Have you been there more than once? Of course you haven’t. In case you haven’t noticed there is a gold-rush going on right now whereby old-fashioned standoffish brands are charging into social networking spaces dressed in their best casual clothes because it’s the place to be seen right now isn’t it? Well no, not necessarily. There are undoubtedly a lot of over-caffeinated young marketers and media types that believe that online communities will change everything but I’m not one of them (decaf with a strong shot of the old). In my view the world is undoubtedly changing but not quite as fast or as dramatically as some people would like to make us believe.
From my perspective Second Life is about as tedious as reading a blog*or downloading a Podcast, although I can see why people would flock to all of these things. They are novel and occasionally even interesting. However, these are things that people should be getting involved with not brands and certainly not banks.

I read recently that an American bank had produced a series of Podcasts about its range of loan products. Well gosh why didn’t I think of that. Well I’ll tell you why. Because it’s a stupid idea. About as stupid in fact as opening a virtual bank inside Second Life or setting up a social network for your small business customers. Podcasts are a red herring for the same reason that the VCR didn’t turn TV viewing upside down or that the Internet won’t kill Hollywood or broadcast television. People are busy and want things that make life easier not more complicated. Digital radio will be huge in the future but I’m not convinced about the convenience of plugging an iPod into a computer, finding something, downloading it and then listening to it later. And certainly not when the Podcast is about a bank loan.

It’s the same with social networks. They are a great invention but I don’t want my bank to be running one thank you very much (and believe me they are). Of course the bank will say that it’s all a big success and thousands of small businesses are using the network to do business with each other but I don’t believe a word of it. Sure everyman and his dog with be on the network trying to sell something but is anyone really at the other end trying to buy?

It’s the same with blogs. There are millions of them out there (sixty million the last time I looked) but 99% are written but never read. But wait. My bank is also introducing an instant messaging service whereby I can chat with my business-banking manager. Holly smoke, my life is finally complete. That’s exactly what I want. I thought computerised call answering and Indian call centres were great but this is even better. Where do I sign?

It’s a similar story with the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ notion. Again, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Wisdom of Crowds is a bad thing. Just that it has its place and that place is probably media where collectively written and filtrated information can have great value. Just ask Wikipedia. But no, I don’t want 20,000 bank customers designing my mortgage brochure thank you. That’s called design by a very large committee and whilst the end result will of course by acceptable to a lot of people it won’t be very good.

If crowd sourcing or the wisdom of crowds is just a clever way to run a customer or employee suggestion scheme then that’s well and good. But please don’t tell me that five thousand people that have nothing better to do with their time and computing power can design a retailing banking branch. They can’t.

One fairly new website that caught my eye last month is something called Crowd Spirit – crowdspirit.org. This is a site that is intending to use crowd-sourcing principles to develop new products, which could presumably include new banking products. The concept is that inventors post their idea and the ‘crowd’ or community comments thereby improving on it. So we solve the inherent problems of focus groups by making the group much larger? That’s the most stupid idea I’ve heard of since someone came up with a business plan for an online donut delivery service – sweet on the surface but full of nothing in the middle. For one thing who exactly owns the co-created ideas? At the moment the website allegedly has no plans to pay anyone for their ideas. Maybe we should ask 10,000 people whether this is a good idea.

* Except this one, of course.

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