Talking Bitcoin, Blockchain, and Segways

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Lately, the branding of Bitcoin has been on my mind. When I began working in the industry, my choice was met with a lot of confusion and suspicion from people that I knew. Some of them hadn’t ever heard of Bitcoin; others had only heard that it was a method of purchasing illegal goods or a way to hack computers. Even my parents expressed concern over my choice to leave an established industry to participate in a newer (and riskier) one. And interestingly, a lot of the people I talked to had heard that Bitcoin was “over”.

While I’ve made the effort to convince most of those people otherwise, there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding cryptocurrency. Just yesterday, I came across a post on Reddit that asked simply, “What’s going on with Bitcoin?” In the text of the post, the user wrote, “I was under the impression Bitcoin was dead now, but I always see an ad for this subreddit. Is there still money in it?”

So, does Bitcoin have a problem with its current branding? And is there a solution? Today, four experts participated in an online ZapChain panel called Branding Bitcoin In The Media; Paul Vigna (Wall Street Journal), Daniel Cawrey (CoinDesk), Ben Parr (author of Captivology), and Pete Rizzo (CoinDesk) attempted to address those very questions.

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Changing the connotation of “Bitcoin” was definitely a concern of many who posed questions towards the panel. With Bitcoin news stories focused on topics like Silk Road, Mt. Gox, and the CryptoWall virus, much of the general public has developed a less than favorable outlook on cryptocurrency. Questions on the topic ranged from why the media focuses more heavily on the negative news, if we should change the name of Bitcoin itself, and whether or not we should look towards television advertising.

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Rizzo presented the audience with an analogy on the possibility of changing the name of Bitcoin: “It reminds me a lot of calling the internet ‘the web’. Bitcoin is probably blockchain’s version of ‘the web’ or ‘the net’.”

In response to the media’s affinity for pessimistic stories, Cawrey said, “Whether it’s right or wrong, people like train wrecks.” Rizzo agreed that the focus on bad news in the media applies to any subject matter, not just Bitcoin. When discussing television advertising, Cawrey “[struggled] to believe the community as a whole could make an ad” but saw potential for advertising coming from individual Bitcoin companies.

Connie Gallipi, the founder of the BitGive Foundation, asked how the approach of promoting positive stories in the media could compare to a “Got Milk?” type of marketing strategy, and Rizzo expressed interest in that sort of campaign for Bitcoin in his response to the question. Gallipi also voiced her disappointment in not seeing any focus on philanthropic efforts in the promotion of the discussion.

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– Daniel Cawrey, on the lack of focus given to philanthropic efforts in the promotion of the discussion

Cawrey acknowledged that the promotions were lacking in those areas, as Rizzo talked about the potential for charitable use cases to shift the attitudes of the general public. Charities like the BitGive Foundation and Code to Inspire are showing how the technology can be used to help people in need around the world. “We think the philanthropic side speaks volumes and expanding its impact throughout the developing world is our focus,” Gallipi added.

Vigna concurred on the importance of Bitcoin in the developing world. “That’s why I think Elizabeth Rossiello is probably the most important person in Bitcoin right now,” he said. Rossiello is the founder of BitPesa, a platform that provides a way of sending money to and from Africa.

The panelists cited the fact that banks were looking into blockchain technology as something that had the potential to challenge public perceptions. Banks initially viewed cryptocurrency with disdain, but recent news shows that they’re now recognizing the technology as relevant to their interests. To Rizzo, “[the attention of banks] has been one of the more prominent positive news trends for the industry.”

Another question asked how Bitcoin could be made simpler for less tech-savvy people. “I would say Bitcoin has more of a segway problem than a usability problem,” Rizzo responded. “The segway also works great, but why use a segway when you can walk?” To him, the problem isn’t the ease of use of Bitcoin, as he pointed to the ease of using current Bitcoin exchanges. Rather, the problem stems from the general population not being sure why they should use those exchanges to purchase bitcoins – other payment methods are working just fine for them right now.

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– Paul Vigna, on “What will make it easier for people to use Bitcoin?”

Vigna’s answer to the same question touched on the “proverbial killer app”, the much talked-about app that could one day introduce Bitcoin to a more mainstream audience. So far, he believes that ChangeTip has come the closest to developing Bitcoin’s killer app. With ChangeTip, users can tip somebody with bitcoins – maybe because they liked that person’s Tweet, or perhaps because the person made an interesting comment on Reddit. If you tip someone who is unfamiliar with Bitcoin, they might be encouraged to learn about it in order to collect the tip.

Cawrey wrote that he found tipping to be a “valid business model”, but also warned, “Be wary of anyone who ever says they have created Bitcoin’s killer app.” He doesn’t believe that it’s been invented yet.

In terms of what current Bitcoin companies can do to help with the branding issue, Cawrey pointed out that the industry is too fragmented, especially since it’s still relatively small. “More companies need to work together to achieve common goals instead of thinking of everything as competition,” he said.

One commenter disagreed that Bitcoin had a branding problem at all, believing that the success of a technology is due primarily to the merits of the technology itself. This person recalled trying to persuade people that Twitter was useful when it first started and eventually giving up on trying to change doubters’ minds. Essentially, the commenter believed that there was no need to try to convince people that Bitcoin is amazing, because if Bitcoin truly is amazing, the technology will stand on its own – to which Rizzo responded, “Tale as old as time.”

– Emily Braun

To participate in the “Branding Bitcoin in the Media” panel, click here. 

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