Burton Snowboards: Control Denied
Much of big-business still hasn’t caught up to, or educated themselves in new media, its power, and its differences, and soon it’s going to be too late. As a “magazine guy” I’m a bit sensitive to advertising’s stranglehold on editorial. It has always existed, but as magazines continue to struggle to survive in a world with too many advertising options, it has only gotten worse over the last few years. So much so that advertisers can and do demand editorial control.
I barely snowboard, and I don’t even really like snowboarding. I suppose it’s fun, and I like looking at the photos, but beyond that, whatever. That being said, YoBeat.com, one of the largest independent snowboard sites, shares a studio space with me in Portland, and I work closely with the site. In our office, as media people, the site is a gauge of how people use the internet and experiment in media, as much as it is a content outlet. It’s teaching us a lot about how things have changed and where they are going. In my opinon, you can’t work with clients in a new media capacity unless you truly understand how real people use the internet (not just pretend to be an expert and read studies of current trends).
So, how the media works is of great interest to me. I like it. I also like the fact that new media has changed a lot of things. While admittedly new media is riding a merry-go-round of how to make money, it does benefit from smaller scale, lower overhead operations like YoBeat, who can reach anyone with a computer around the world. Opinions and content are no longer limited to 150 pages once a month, distributed to 40k people. The reach is nearly limitless. And while sites like YoBeat currently depend on advertising revenue as print did, brands also benefit hugely from involvement with them, and by cost comparison standards, very inexpensively. But the catch for advertisers is, that smaller overhead, larger audience, and immediacy give these new media outlets much more control to say “fuck you” to advertising control. They’re gaining crowd control and advertisers are freaking the fuck out.
I would argue that we’re reaching a point where media (media with an established niche audience) will have more control than potential advertisers. With too many doors out there, brands are going to need people backing them. There are countless sites online, but a small percentage with value. These days, essentially anyone can start their own media outlet. And a niche site with a regular audience is a huge value to a brand. These brands can save money over old world advertising, and reach larger audiences on a daily basis. So with this new (I believe soon-to-be) power, brands have less room to make demanding content controlling phone calls.
What is the point of this? Recently Jake Burton (owner of Burton Snowboards) held his annual Fall Bash at his compound in the Northeast. It’s a party, a fucking party. It’s an invite only event (the invite being a glossy postcard hyping it up as if it’s a Hollywood party) but at the same time it’s far from exclusive. I mean, shit, YoBeat got invited. So Brooke from YoBeat flew across the country to attend, and because YoBeat is media, she wrote a story about it. A sarcastic story. That’s what YoBeat does. The site is called YoBeat: Making fun of Snowboarding. But the story in no way slammed Burton, or made them look bad. It would have drifted off the main page in a few days. If you have a party in 2009, a big party, someone is going to write about it on the internet.
That’s where things take a turn for the worse. One of Burton’s subsidiary brands, who advertise on YoBeat, called demanding the story be removed. Allegedly, someone was concerned about losing their job for inviting Brooke. That person did nothing wrong. Nor did Brooke (The story would have faded into obscurity were it not for an anonymous hater from inside Burton’s ranks, which we’ll talk about in a minute). They made demands and pulled the ad contract bullshit that every company has used as their gateway to controlling the print media for years.
In the interest of saving a friends job, Brooke pulled the story down. It had nothing to do with advertising demands, and I even suggested it be put back up right away to alleviate those accusations. In the meantime, hate comments were being left on the story (which we’ve verified to have come from inside Burton’s office). Nothing of a valid business sort, but comments calling Brooke fat. In otherwords, a waste of Burton’s company time. Since anonymous comments are in fact, not anonymous (IP addresses are fingerprints folks), it was very easy to see these attacks were from inside Burton without using their own names. Bold to anonymously hate, right? Fortunately someone else picked up on the original story before it was taken off YoBeat so you can see the whole thing here or even here.
Brooke then went on to write a blog on her personal site about the current state of the media on her own site. It’s by no means a new topic, and doesn’t mention Burton, but again, the Burton anonymous commenter began dragging the brand through the mud. Making Burton look like a bunch of Social-media challenged nitwits, and making it very clear that the original story should have stayed up in the first place. Somehow, not only had Burton made a small-time story that would have gone away a big deal, they had made a blog about the state of the media into a comment battle about Burton. They brand-bashed themselves.
Instead of being a transparent, modern brand, Burton had its insiders posting anonymous hate comments all over YoBeat and Brooke’s blog. A great use of company time, and an obvious tarnish to the brand.
The point of this is that brands need to realize that new media is different, and the nature of it is such that brands can’t control it. Quite frankly they’re scared shitless and the panic this whole thing caused Burton is an obvious sign of that. But when it comes down to it these brands are ultimately (still) going to need the media down the line. So what do they do? They’re losing control.
The fact is that brands and media can work together to benefit each other without one expressing control over the other, and in a sport like snowboarding that’s how it should be. This shit is supposed to be fun, and shouldn’t be governed by demanding phone calls and threats.
I would suggest that brands like Burton get on top of new media sooner than later, as this PR disaster was created completely by the company itself. A little bit of education in evolution of media can go a long way. When it comes down to it, 2009 is a time where people are posting anything and everything on the internet as it happens. They’re Twittering, Facebook updating, blogging on Posterous, and more, many times right from their cell phones at the event. To host an event, invite the media, and expect it not to be mentioned (which by the way seems like a GOOD thing to just about everyone who read that YoBeat post) is a little bit ignorant, and quite frankly counterproductive. And if you absolutely must not have it mentioned by said journalists, perhaps notifying them before they fly cross country is sensible? Make sure the event is embargoed. Come on now, guys. Get on it.
Other blogs are also talking about this, including this one.
Update: Former Olympian and Omatic Snowboard’s owner Todd Richard’s chimes in on this subject in an amazing Q&A over on YoBeat.