Sunday, May 1, 2011
Empire Avenue: The Road to 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.