For the past two months I have immersed myself into the Bitcoin world for a graduate school research project with the goal of “de-black boxing” its content (technology) and context (social implications). My primary research method has been a very un-academic source: Twitter – and I highly recommend it. If you ever want to learn about something, set up a Twitter account and go at it – follow, interact and even debate with its core group of people. I read anything and everything the Bitcoiners linked me to – good and bad – and went from knowing next to nothing about Bitcoin, to being consumed by it. I have recognized the decentralization trend that is emerging in a variety of industries. I have been hyper-exposed to the inadequacies in the current monetary and payment systems. And I have been fascinated by the uprooting of the entire concept of currency. Someone, possibly in collaboration with a group of like-minded individuals, decided that he wasn’t satisfied with how the global economy operates, and rather than just complain about it like many government naysayers, he developed an alternative. And his fervor for smart, innovative change, caught on, bringing together a community of people that deservedly act as if they are part of a revolution.
There’s a ‘but’ in here of course. Setting aside the larger criticisms of the Bitcoin system, I want to address one of the more fixable problems that I’ve been keenly aware of as a sales and marketing professional – messaging. According to the latest Reason-Rupe poll, 80% of Americans still know “little to nothing” about this five year old technology. And as Jim Harper, Global Policy Council at The Bitcoin Foundation, states: “There’s a nice, neat correlation between Bitcoin awareness and Bitcoin acceptance.” But Bitcoiners discuss their medium in one of the most prolific ways I’ve ever seen via social media. They unite to celebrate the highs, as well as to endure the dramatic lows: Silk Road, Mt. Gox, the IRS ruling, China’s regulatory threats, and the subsequent extreme volatility. You can sense fear, but it doesn’t win out over the unbridled belief that Bitcoin is the start of something big. However, all of this fervor and passion is going on in a bubble. I flip over to my mainstream Twitter feed and almost feel bad for everyone missing out on this fascinating socio-economic experiment, as Bitcoin pioneer, Charlie Shrem, puts it. How can this momentum all be so isolated? A friend outside the bubble alerts me: “I saw the CEO of Bitcoin committed suicide today!” Well, no, but now that you mention it, it would be beneficial if Bitcoin had a CEO – or better yet, a CMO to implement a centralized PR and marketing campaign.
In addition to the sheer lack of knowing about Bitcoin, there is an anarchist underbelly that needs to be tamed. A local post-tax day Bitcoin happy hour bills itself as an event for Bitcoin fanatics or just “tax-haters in general.” My initial reaction to that is: eek – that’s not good for business. And even a professional article written by a Bitcoin advocate titled “Bitcoin Could Strengthen the Economy if Washington Doesn’t Destroy It,” made me sarcastically sigh: ohh Washington. If Bitcoiners really want to get Bitcoin off the ground and change the world, it starts with branding, messaging and marketing. Is the base willing to give up a bit of the Libertarian motives and get the necessary messaging out there? It seems regulation is inevitable if Bitcoin is to gain mainstream consumer trust. And Bitcoiners should embrace that fact for the greater good.
Messaging needs to emphasize the benefits that make people care, in a manner that is apolitical, and simple and undeniable to any audience:
- It saves money. Bitcoin significantly lowers transaction costs for merchants, which in turn can lower costs for consumers, as well as for peer-to-peer payments, wire-transfers, etc.
- It promotes data privacy. Data breaching is an epidemic in today’s digitally networked world. Bitcoin’s anonymous nature gets us on the right track in combating this issue.
- Security is a priority. Don’t let Mt. Gox fool you. Bitcoin is trending towards one of the most secure, web-based protocols with the advent of multi-signature, aka “multisig,” technology.
- It empowers people. Bitcoin presents an alternative to citizens of countries with oppressive financial systems. Argentina as an example has government and monetary abuses that have led many to turn to Bitcoin.
- It’s inevitably the future. The future of currency and payment networks will look more like Bitcoin than the current system. It’s digital, paperless, mobile, global, etc.
Another recommendation: take a page out of the Airbnb PR handbook and build some goodwill via social responsibility initiatives and positioning. Airbnb has been a blessing for its users but a nightmare for the traditional hospitality industry, and moreover regulators, akin to Bitcoin. The company however benefits from just that – it’s a company with excellent, centralized marketing strategies. The recently launched “Shared City” campaign establishes Airbnb as a socially responsible organization that greatly benefits the communities in which it operates. The company aims to “help civic leaders and [communities] create more shareable, more livable cities through relevant, concrete actions and partnerships.” In other words, build a shared, mutually beneficial economy. Airbnb could still fall victim to regulation but in the meantime, it has become a darling of decentralization.
Even anti-Bitcoiners agree – the basis of the technology has staying power, the world just needs a more reliable, feasible and understandable model. Bitcoin advocates via The Bitcoin Foundation can manage a plan for compromise with regulators. And programmers and venture capitalists can manage the technology improvements to develop Bitcoin 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, etc. But the messaging is more of a collaborative effort that needs to be led centrally. My research group can vouch that effectively communicating Bitcoin to all audiences is easier said than done. But if any group can enact change, I believe the Bitcoiners can.