If you don’t know who Ze Frank is, he’s tough to describe – a combination of an improvisational comedian, writer, uber-talented designer/developer, and participatory web guru. He is one of the most famous web video bloggers and viral stories of this decade. Check out his site at www.zefrank.com to see what I mean.

I met Ze Frank several years ago over drinks at a partner event and a few months later over lunch at the Austin airport, as he was leaving SXSW where he hosted the interactive track. Based on his videos, I was expecting a “zany” conversation. What I got was one of the most articulate and thoughtful perspectives of web participation I’ve heard. He comes at this from someone who has built a brand and a community with his own hands (he designed, programmed and edited everything on his site). He has dabbled at monetization strategies, but most importantly he understands what moves audiences to watch, interact and contribute. Undoubtedly, he is a true visionary when it comes to participatory use of the Internet.  At that airport lunch I asked him to be an advisor. Fortunately he loves what we do and agreed. For the last couple years Ze has been one of our most active advisors, giving feedback on our products and recently gave a memorable presentation/interview with Kelly Mooney at our Social Commerce Summit in May.

Last week we brought Ze to town and I asked him to address the whole company about what participation and community means to the audience as well as brands. After his talk, I got input from some of our employees about what struck them most about what Ze said.

Several of our Community Managers commented about how volume of user-generated video grows more slowly than review volume. Video is the “latest thing” to use in conjunction with customer reviews, and sometimes gaining traction is tough. Ze encourages us to narrow our focus and ask customers to post a video based on a specific idea or concept, rather than under the broad focus of a review. Encouraging them to send a video showing them doing something specific with a product can gain participation.

Focusing consumers also helps their contributions to remain relevant and helpful. If brands provide the tools and guidance around how to participate, and what to contribute, they get more meaningful participation. This struck me as very relevant to what we do. It’s why Ask and Answer is better than a forum, for example.

Ze is fairly tangential in his speaking, which is fun to watch, and he encourages us to remain that way when solving problems, and developing products and features. To Ze, the journey is as important as the destination – there are many ways to solve a problem – and we should continue to be curious and learn all along the way. Tangential possibilities can create alternate paths that should be explored.

A true individual, Ze has used his own site to display his own thoughts, as well as the insights of those who read/interact with it. His idea of the Internet as a community where anyone and everyone can participate leaves the mind open to all the possibilities of this huge resource. One size does not fit all – either for participants or brands.

For me the biggest topic we discussed is with regards to how a brand participates in the conversation. And not only how, but where, what do they say, how do they say it? The message from brands has always been so crafted, communication so guarded, the whole process managed by outside experts. How can a brand start communicating in real voice, through real people without radically changing what that brand means? This is a point of view that we will continue to evolve and develop, along with our clients, along with Ze.

So these are just some of the things we were left thinking about once Ze left. Tell us what he (or his site) makes you think about.

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