Sunday, May 1, 2011

Empire Avenue: The Road to Hell

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions." This is a saying that I've found thoughtful as a metaphor, but I've not before seen it realized in such a literal way, because now there is an actual (albeit virtual) road that I believe leads to a social media version of hell.

Empire Avenue is a game that also bills itself as an influence measurement mechanism--sort of a gamified version of Klout or PeerIndex. (By the way, I hope to soon feature an interview with Klout CEO Joe Fernandez on this blog.) The site is Farmville for the social media set, where one can "invest in any social media profile by buying their shares, meet new people, unlock Achievement badges, and earn boatloads of virtual cash."

There's always been an element of the fame game among social media gurus, and I admit I've tracked my blog's place on the Ad Age Power150 (a humble 448 now, but I was approaching the top 100 when Forrester asked me to abandon my personal blog) and my Klout score (a respectable 66). But while these sorts of scores have elements of competition, they are not games (or at least aren't intended to be games). To improve one's place on the Ad Age list or Klout requires hard work to offer valuable insight and build a network of engaged peers in order to earn authentic influence.

Now Empire Avenue furnishes a way to dispense with some portion (but not all, thank God) of that hard work. Since it is a game first and a legitimate measure of influence second, blog posts are popping up advising folks how to increase their value on the virtual social media exchange. For example, Eloqua's blog post on the game starts right with "Create Great Content," but it also includes "Advertise." Call me an old grump, but any social media influence mechanism that makes money off advertising as a way for players--excuse me, I mean social media professionals--to increase their score is on thin ice.

Empire Avenue strikes me as the latest in a trend toward tricks and tools that give the illusion of dispensing with hard work and providing an easy short cut to fame, influence, or business success. For example, when Google announced "Google +1," some SEO bloggers began predicting it would become a way to influence Google's search results. While it is unclear exactly how Google intends to use the data it collects from clicks on "+1" buttons, anything that replaces authentic signals of value (such as clicks to content and links from quality sites) with fake ones (clicks on buttons) will diminish rather than enhance Google's search results.

Another example is the practice of rewarding people for clicking the Facebook "Like" button for your brand. One company is currently offering Facebook users an entry into a sweepstakes to win a new hybrid car for those who will "fan" their page, and Einstein Bros Bagel famously gained 400,000 new fans by compensating these people with free bagels.

Obviously, it's much easier to pay people to friend you than it is to earn friends by authoring interesting content or creating great customer experiences, but are both equal in terms of building influence, advocacy, loyalty and business? Of course not; a fan you earn authentically is worth more than a fan who only says they're a fan because you compensated him or her to do so. The former will engage on your Facebook page, spend money with you and recommend you to others while the latter takes their sweepstakes entry and waits for your next discount or promotion.

Empire Avenue is full of good intentions, but I have the nagging feeling it is a road that leads us in the wrong direction. Should authentic social media professionals earn attention via in-game advertising and by trading shares of each other, or should they offer helpful data, insightful analysis, business-building ideas and a world-class network? To those doubters who already think social media is a self-involved fame game, does Empire Avenue send the message that we're narcissistic or that we're serious professionals focusing on serious business?

Obviously, I won't be joining Empire Avenue. If you think I'm missing out on something necessary or valuable, please comment below or tweet me; however, before doing so, visit Time Magazine's list of the most influential people of the last century. If you can envision Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Teresa signing on to Empire Avenue to test and build their influence, let me know. Otherwise I'm going to take a detour away from shiny, digital Empire Avenue and continue to trudge the timeworn, analog, potholed road to influence.

Both routes are paved with good intentions, but I think one leads to a more pleasant, less infernal place.


-R said...

Like so many other bloggers you have decided to put words in the mouths of the developers at Empire Avenue. Could you please provide a link for me that explains that they are an 'influence measuring tool' like Klout or Peerindex?

Oh right, you can't, because they aren't saying that.

l0ckergn0me said...

You missed the mark on a few levels, but I think it boils down to this: "I've never used an iPad, but it's not awesome."

I'd have appreciated your perspective more if you actually used the gosh dern thing. ;) "Advertising" can be attained with virtual currency, as opposed to, say, advertising on Twitter or Facebook. By that logic, you should oppose Twitter and Facebook, too.

I feel I'm actually *rewarding* my community by doing the same things I'm doing elsewhere ANYWAY - and many of 'em feel the same way. Why wouldn't someone who follows me on YouTube WANT to become a as-real-as-it-gets shareholder - since they're already investing time into watching me do my thang?

Yes, I said "thang" and "dern" and still expect you to take what I have to say as serious. :)

Pedro Sttau said...

Augie, I understand where you are coming from but I sincerely think you missed the main point, its a game, and its fun!

Most people who are playing it are doing it because it's entertaining, not because they are trying to gain some sort of social edge or because they have the illusion that it's a short cut to fame, I can't even see how anyone would get to that line of thought.

In fact, if you look at the leader-board, most of the top users and companies were already famous in the first place.

By the way l0ckergn0me, I blame you for this new recent addiction of mine. ;)

Pedro Sttau

Dups said...

Hi, thanks for your blog post, I would really like to point out that we do not say you will gain influence or that we measure influence. We did start off by calling it influence scores, a year ago but we learned and we pivoted and have not said that for 6 months. Our scores are about network value and we want you to create value-based relationships.

It is up to you to decide how to connect with a person, use the share price that we have to "invest" in them, have a bit of fun and connect with them either in Empire Avenue or on Twitter or wherever. Yes, you can also measure your network interaction and engagement through our stats advisors, not so called "influence". And yes we *do* want to help you increase your scores and yes they do take hard work, ask the people who have been on the system for months. If you can increase your scores and share price then you are connecting and creating networks, that's what social media is about! Being Social!

If you want some information on what Empire Avenue is, please check the "About" page

We're happy to answer any questions.

Also I want to correct a small point in your article; you pay with virtual currency that you earn by doing stuff to buy ingame 140 character ads, they are for FUN and internal only. There is no "money" as such exchanged and if you look at the ads they are a little bit of fun.

Duleepa "Dups" Wijayawardhana
Empire Avenue

Domino Oracle said...

Einstein may have said that imagination is more important than knowledge, but somehow I don't think that he was referring to journalism at the time. In other words, before he consigned something to perdition he'd have kicked the tires and taken it out for a spin. But hey, we won't miss you if you choose not to participate in our (not so) little Highway to Hell.

omar.habayeb said...

I really do believe that had the technology been available at the time....a great majority of those on Time Magazine's most influential people of the 20th century would have embraced the used of Social Media and would have also found Empire Avenue fascinating. It is a pity that you won't even explore Empire Avenue and what it has to offer. Your loss!

Mr. Truth said...

You make a fundamental mistake in assuming this is a social media expert's game. I am a social media nobody, but seem to be doing pretty well on Empire Avenue. EAv is so much more than an influence measurement tool - its a social network that encourages you to meet new people and learn about new things. And if measures activity more than influence - so even I, with a few dozen twitter followers (most of which may be spam) and a blog audience of 10, can rub shoulders with greats from the internet world.

Plus, it's fun. 'nuff said.

Ann2012 said...

Can somebody please direct me to that FB site that's giving away the hybrid car?

I'd have to say I'm a casual user of Empire Avenue, but it's far from Farmville in my opinion. I'm seeing real contacts being made, right and left, with interactions at whatever level you seek out. I get a sense that it's evolving rapidly, taking on a life of its own as has happened with some of the social media workhorses. Too bad you haven't given it a try yet.

Augie Ray said...

I appreciate all the comments. First, I apologize for the delay in responding--I'd intended to be more conversational, but between a canceled flight and last night's news, I'm afraid I wasn't able to reply as quickly as desired.

To those who think I cannot evaluate something I didn't experience, I'd point out that you (and I) probably have opinions about jumping out of a plane without a parachute or balancing the Federal budget, even though we've done neither. If I am wrong about Empire Ave, I'm certainly happy to take my knocks and be corrected, but a lack of direct experience hardly voids one from having an opinion.

As for whether or not Empire Avenue is an influence measurement tool, I'd point to the MANY blog posts that are comparing it to Klout and Peerindex. Perhaps it is more correct to say that Empire Ave measures popularity within the game environment rather than true influence, but the two are hardly unrelated. Even the tweet I received from Empire Avenue said it is a place to "get SM metrics and have fun with SM." It's pretty clear the game measures something akin to influence, whether or not you care to call it “influence.”

That said, many of you shared some thoughtful comments, and I appreciate it. Yes, I'm clearly taking a game too seriously, but as noted in my blog post, I have a very finely-tuned radar to anything that smells of "gaming" a result that should be earned through hard work. Whether it's a short-cut to earning search engine relevance or a game that allows one to become popular (or influential) through game mechanics rather than insight, talent, brains and commitment, I'll admit I approach the topic with a healthy concern and caution.

Also, I am concerned it is a sign of the coming social media bubble burst that bloggers and others in social media seem to be on a hunt for "the next big thing." In the past several months we've seen a rush to anoint Hashable, Quora and now Empire Aveue as hot must-do social media tools. Just like at the end of the Web bubble in the late 90s, too many people are looking for a next hot property to catapult them or their brands to notoriety rather than dedicating themselves to the hard work required to build success in the sites, tools and properties we already have.

But, I'll admit I am being a cantankerous old coot. If Empire Avenue is fun and people enjoy it, more power to them! I had no intention of raining on anyone’s parade, and I wish Empire Ave and its players the best of luck. I won’t be joining, because I don’t care to dedicate a minute of my valuable time to building my virtual equity within a game—I’m too busy trying to build my actual equity in the real world.

Perhaps three months from now I’ll regret that decision and enter the game with my tail between my legs. At that time, you can all feel free to say “I told you so” and sell my stock short! That’ll teach me!

Thanks, all, for the input, feedback and comments!

Jer979 said...

I think what Augie points out is that anything that is a "game" has the risked of being "gamed" and ultimately not serving its original purpose. What we don't need is another popularity contest that doesn't give us true insight and, from first impression, it appears that Empire Avenue might be just that.

Of course, he could be wrong, but there's little doubt that he's got credentials in this space so it's worth listening to his opinion.

And, doing so, may help EmpAve figure out how to stay true to their mission.

Neil Glassman said...

Solid ideas, Augie.

This cantankerous New Yorker would no more have his "real world" reputation judged by Empire Avenue than would he expect to be fed from his Farmville crops. I've come away from my conversations with the guys behind Empire Avenue with the impression that the "influence peddling" nature of the game is more than a bit tongue-in-cheek.

On the other hand, I think high influence scores are valued by many (most) who are in the social media "industry", as well as those who want to be an those for whom social media has been appended to their job descriptions. As artificial as it is, Empire Avenue may be the most transparent of the influence scoring schemes.

Not saying Klout, PeerIndex and others need to reveal their secret sauces — but they do need to better explain the obvious score dissonances, such as when someone of real influence has a lower score than an RSS robot.

I'm looking forward to measures of influence that are much more granular and, hence, more useful for brand marketing, political campaigns and more.

Thanks for letting me on the soapbox.

Teegan said...


I'm currently doing a public relations assignment on social media when launching a new brand.

I was wondering if you could answer this question for me:

What do you think would be the most successful social media platform to use when launching a new brand and why?

Thankyou for your time.

crapmonkeyinfo said...

I agree with other perspectives posted here. I could care less about the social ranking outside of what it does to share value in the "game". While they may have bigger intensions for what they plan to accomplish - I'm in it for the fun of trading without the pain of going broke in a down economy. If you agree with this comment, please consider buying shares in CrapMonkey ;)

Augie Ray said...

crapmonkeyinfo, Props for furnishing your point of view AND promoting your Empire Ave stock! I appreciate the dialog.

Augie Ray said...


Your question, What do you think would be the most successful social media platform to use when launching a new brand and why, is impossible to answer. I think it depends entirely on the brand itself, the category and the audience. If you want to launch a digital tool aimed at early adopters, tech blogger outreach and Twitter might be best. If you want to launch a product for seniors, then I might go with blogger outreach and participation in forums. A new household product designed to appeal to moms (and I know that sounds sexist, but that's the reality of the category) might best be launched on Facebook and/or with a social game.

Of course, in most cases you'd also want to consider offline marketing and PR, as well. Some folks think it is damn near impossible to launch a new brand without traditional media. I'm not one of those people, but I do think a big media buy makes the launch easier!

Hope that helps.

Jim Green said...

I think you're correct in your assessment, given that your participation would be out of self interest. You probably shouldn't jump into it with that mindset.

In reality, the participants mostly exhibit a "pay it forward" mentality, which is a useful thing to practice on, even if it's only a game. And as someone has already said, it's a fun and quite a bit more constructive than playing Farmville or Candy Crush would be.