In a digital conversation with Oliver Gassner, Dirk Baranek tells us how he feels about data collection on the web, what he likes about Google+, why he would even pay for Twitter, and what many startups do better in terms of PR than established companies.
Dirk Baranek: I’ve been working on the web since 1997 as an online editor for publishing houses, as a concept developer for web agencies, a PR guy, and as a traditional local reporter for the Stuttgarter Zeitung. I’ve been a freelance online journalist (DJV) since 2005. Currently, I mainly help companies realize their communication on the web operationally – for example, as an editor of the LG blog, promoter for restaurant reviews, and online communicator for the Baden-Württemberg Social Democratic Party and EnBW AG.
OG: You write a lot about new apps on iPads and other innovative things. In your opinion, what is the biggest mistake that startups make in their PR?
DB: I think startups do a lot of things right that established companies get wrong. For example, they usually have blogs that report on the development of their products. I don’t know of any established company that really does that. Startups certainly can learn from traditional PR, though – especially with regard to form, and the understanding of what qualifies as a “news item”.
OG: Well, I got an email today from a startup, asking me whether I wouldn’t be interested in writing about their innovative platform on my “webblog” (sic) – only you can’t test it yet.
DB: Yeah, that’s stupid, of course. It sounds more like they’re fishing for links.
Aside from your customers, which major company or startup has the best PR in the social web in your opinion?
DB: If I ask myself who I know – from a private perspective – I think Daimler does a lot of things really well. They are actually always present. Startups – well, Amen is not bad. The hype was huge, even though they didn’t really do anything.
OG: Personally, I don’t use Amen or get invitations to it, and I otherwise hardly ever read anything about it in blogs. With regard to Daimler: I thought the Zetzsche video for the launch of the Daimler G+ page was really cool. It may have been somewhat scripted had a lot of pitching, but it looked like it was shot from the hip, with background noise. But that’s totally wrong for such a quality-oriented company, isn’t it?
DB: On the topic of quality, for videos to work on the web, they need to be authentic. Nobody wants to watch polished agency stuff, unless it’s a really good gag, or elaborate or innovative. Users want to see real people on the web. They sometimes trip over their own tongues or hesitate, or the camera is a bit shaky, etc.
OG: The Daimler thing couldn’t have been realized that quickly through an agency. So, it’s quick and dirty or not at all. I think it’s probably the same for both of us: we come across new things on the web every day and ask ourselves, is that the new Twitter, or even the new Facebook? How can you tell that there’s more to a startup?
DB: In my opinion, you can’t. It has to work and be usable. Ultimately, the users decide whether it’s going to be a big thing. In the end, it’s a matter of mass: if nobody goes there, it fails. That’s why it’s extremely important at the beginning to address the right people personally.
OG: I also think it’s important that founders get to know their audiences. So, you can’t tell that something is going to be a success until it’s a success?
DB: I can’t think of any criteria otherwise. It’s all very random, arbitrary, and unpredictable. Maybe it should be shareable, but then which platform isn’t?
OG: Which new “thing” changed your mobile or web habits the most over the past 12 months?
DB: Well, I’ve added G+. I’m fairly active there, using it as a private blog for lack of another. Otherwise, there wasn’t really anything. Everything else is already older.
OG: And Twitter is what you use most, isn’t it?
DB: Yes, Twitter is still fantastic. I’m also on FB a lot, admittedly mostly for customers.
OG: What’s your take on what Twitter has been doing recently? I have the impression that now that Facebook has stolen all of Twitter’s good ideas, Twitter is “Facebookizing” itself.
DB: What exactly do you mean?
OG: The notifications tab, the fact that retweets are in my stream, the fact that anyone with a credit card can now book sponsored tweets.
DB: I always run the Twitter client and don’t see much of what they’re doing in the web application. Sure, they need to make money too, and I don’t have a problem with that. When such services are free, you can’t expect them to also be free of advertising. I would pay for Twitter, though. €5.00 per month – that would be ok. I also pay for Flickr, after all.
OG: If you were on the jury of a startup contest, what would you look for in a company to put it at the top of your list?
DB: Is it clear what the company is about? Do they avoid collecting data? Are the graphics a thing of beauty? Do they have a clever idea? Does the idea have the potential to earn money? (Anyone can burn through money…)
OG: Can web apps work at all without collecting data?
DB: That’s just what I mean: if a service works only when data is collected and sold – I assume anonymously, of course, but nevertheless – then I consider it flawed. The service should be designed so that users would pay for a perceived added value.
OG: I don’t know about you, but if I chose the paid option for every service I subscribe to, I’d probably be broke. Not everyone can last five years without cash flow, like Twitter. Is there such a thing as the ideal financing model for startups?
DB: I don’t see an ideal model. In my opinion, there are only two feasible ones: advertising and premium services.
OG: And people only click on ads if they’re targeted, and to target them, you have to collect data – it’s a vicious circle.
The prize for winning the CODE_n Global Innovation Contest is the opportunity to exhibit at CeBIT in a special CODE_n hall. If one of the winners were to book you as a PR expert, what would you do to generate buzz and ensure that journalists storm their booth?
DB: Depends on the topic, to be honest. At any rate, it’s essential to get things out of the digital space and into reality. In this era of electronic communication, real paper mail has taken on a completely different impact. Something could be done with that, I think. And the trick would be in getting it to refer back to the digital domain.
OG: How about dressing everyone up as Men in Black, Jedi, or storm troopers? Just a couple of ideas off the top of my head
DB: Depends on how it fits to the product. It would be OK for games, but probably not for business networking
OG: Oh, so like “Use the Force, Luke. Business Network ABC.” Actually, I have the impression that postal marketing would only work on handmade paper. Anything else goes straight into my bin. Do you open advertising mail?
DB: It depends. Personal letters, yes. And wooden crates, definitely! (I recently received one from a major manufacturer of alcoholic beverages.)
OG: And finally, a question about your personal preferences: iOS or Android, Google+ or Facebook? (In other words, not what you need to use because of your customers, but what feels cooler or objectively has a brighter future.)
DB: iOS and G+ for me personally. For customers: both systems and FB. Android is too frayed for my tastes and doesn’t fit to my hardware.
OG: When will G+ match or overtake FB in marketing?
DB: Hm, could be that it will never happen. G+ has an influence on Google Search, however. That will make it interesting for many companies. In doing so, Google has to be careful not to give up its neutrality.
OG: Thanks for the interview
DB: OK, you’re welcome.