Monday, November 16, 2009

Q&A: Steve Rubel

I recently caught up with Steve Rubel, Ad Week contributor and Edelman’s Director of Insights, for a quick chat.

According to the AP: How would you tweet your role at Edelman?

Steve Rubel: I am charged with identifying emerging digital trends, channels and technologies and helping our teams and clients fuse them into programs.

ATTAP: You've developed a very specific niche for yourself at Edelman and within the communications industry. Could you briefly describe how you got here?

SR: I have long been fascinated by technology. I got my first computer back in 1982 and was online in 1988. It's been a central part of my life since I was a boy. I have also been in public relations more than 15 years and have long been a fan of the industry and its prospects.

Until about 2004 these were separate. I ran technology PR accounts in the 1990s and early 00s. But other than that I really didn't connect the two.

That changed, however, as publishing technology became easier to use and approachable. I started dabbling with blog software in 2003. I then launched my own blog in 2004 and began to work with my current employer at the time to integrate blogs into client programs. We received a fair amount of media attention at the time because the programs were innovative.

After that I decided I need to go somewhere where I could effect broader change and that landed me in my current role with Edelman. It's my hope that I one day will end my career here and retire as an Edelman employee.

ATTAP: Nearly 70 percent of Americans object being tracked online by advertisers, according to a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkley and a according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 60 percent of Americans restrict access to their online information.

Overall, it looks like people are becoming more savvy and more cautious with how they engage online, while at the same time jumping more enthusiastically into social networking with various Google products, Facebook and the like.

How do you see this impacting the communications industry? If information tracking is so important to the marketing function, should the real questions be around how we can better establish and maintain trust?

SR: Overall I think the data masks a lot. For example, there was a recent study that people don't want to store their data in the cloud. However, the reality is that most of us use web-based email services whether we know it or not.

The younger generations - having grown up in an American Idol culture - seem to be more predisposed to sharing their lives online. There will always be introverts. And more might become cautious as they see the potential risks involved with living a public life.

The upshot for communicators is that there will always be more data and information to contend with from more sources of authority. It might be a small subset of the audience (under 50%) but there will always be people who covet attention that we need to make sure we engage around shared mutual outcomes. That is the key to building trust - working win-win and out in the open.

ATTAP: Assuming trust is really the key to effective communication both online and off, could you briefly describe the rules of the road you live by and counsel to clients?

SR: The rules of the road vary by client but I generally advise, and myself focus, on 10 "c's": curiosity, creativity, content, consistency, confidence, connection, collaboration, commitment, communication and class.

ATTAP: Many of us are highly Google-dependent (at least I am) - from search to email to blogging and everything in between. What do you see as the biggest pros and cons to hosting so much of our personal business and online identity on a single system like this?

SR: There's more upside than downside here. The more they know about us, the more value the system becomes in helping us surface critical information in real-time. The downside is that there's a single point of failure but Google seems to manage this quite well.

ATTAP: Again, while nearly three quarters of people object to being tracked online, people seem more willing to give up their data if they see a reward of some sort. We've seen grocery stores doing this for a while - swiping your discount card for 5 cents off soup. Online privacy is a value proposition; the more information you give up, the greater (or at least more tailored) the user experience.

What have you seen is the threshold for consumers willingly and happily giving up their data for the sake of experience? Are there certain triggers sites like Facebook or Google use more effectively than others to persuade an increased level of sharing?

SR: It really varies by user and by demographic, geographic. Over time there's more value if the system learns from you as Facebook and Google both do. However, the minute they violate that trust they can lose everything they've gained so they need to walk this carefully - and they both do (Facebook is getting better at this every month). The way they can persuade is by keeping the data safe, private and secure while letting you remove it you want to. Google does this quite well. (

ATTAP: In your recent AdAge column, you talk about the two faces of Facebook, predicting a more Google-like approach to development down the road. But recently, we've seen the company stumble. For instance, the failure of its Beacon advertising product, which broadcast members purchases online.

What would you say is the Facebook's biggest vulnerability as it grows? Should it be more concerned over how to effectively and responsibly leverage user data, developing trust and loyalty - or about competitor platforms like Google Wave?

SR: Facebook's greatest liability is in developing advertising solutions that are too aggressive. Ultimately, I think we'll see them get more into the data services business as their customers begin to realize that engagement buttressed by ads as "air cover" offers the best approach.

The jury is stil out on Google Wave. It's interesting but also incredibly complex. If developers improve on it then it holds potential.

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