Comms pros navigate the complex world of blockchain

While bitcoin's profile has skyrocketed alongside its exponential price, a group of devotees have gone about promoting the underpinning technology - the blockchain.

To most, the concept of a blockchain remains a cypher. To a few ardent enthusiasts, it’s the technology that will change the world.

This knowledge gap, as well as its potential disruption, presents a crucial task for the entrepreneurs, evangelists, and fans invested in blockchain technology: decoding its cryptic nature and telling its story.

A blockchain is a decentralized ledger made up of transactions using cryptocurrencies, or digital money. Its best known system is bitcoin, which continually generates massive press with each milestone it passes. Last week, the bitcoin price it trades at peaked at $4,500.

"Bitcoin and cryptocurrency is just the beginning of the rabbit hole," says Ken Brook, CEO of MetaX, a company that services the digital advertising industry with blockchain-based products.

While the bitcoin price may fluctuate, the underpinning technology only gains. Jeremy Epstein is CEO of Never Stop Marketing, an agency devoted to supporting startups built on blockchains.

One of Epstein’s clients, OpenBazaar, a bitcoin-powered ecommerce platform, is working on a pilot project with SystemaD.org to help women in Buenos Aires, Argentina, access the global market. These women face every conceivable barrier excluding them from the traditional financial system - they may not even own a bank account. But if they have a smartphone, they can sell their goods and get paid in cryptocurrency.

Blockchain, Epstein concludes, could allow them to access the global market.

"You have to create a story that wows people and show how it will help people have a better life," Epstein says. "I’m passionate about this, because I have three kids and I think this will make the world a better place for them."

The rising profile of bitcoin illustrates real public interest in it, but experts say that only presents a single application of blockchain.

Ethereum, a rival to bitcoin, demonstrated the multifunctionality of cryptocurrency, showing it "can create representations of any asset," Fortune reported this week. Blockchains could be developed, for example, to give healthcare professionals access to historic and real-time patient data.

Still, Epstein warns against the knee-jerk reaction to declare "Blockchain has officially arrived," or some variant. The dam hasn’t burst; the flow is just increasing, he says.

"It’s not like a solar eclipse," he says. "We’re not standing in the path of totality."

Crackpots and crypto-heads
Despite increasing research and development efforts being led at corporations around blockchain, the space remains small.

The landscape is sparsely populated by emerging verticals from traditional publications such as Fortune’s The Ledger; newly minted trade websites such as Coindesk.com, which has an entire feature dedicated to Blockchain 101; and subreddits such as /r/Bitcoin/.

The glue cementing this tight-knit world together is a cadre of technologists fiercely dedicated to what they believe will change the world.

Phil Gomes, SVP of U.S. b2b digital at Edelman, is a key figure within that group.

At his day job, Gomes notes client interest in blockchain has grown, and his efforts evangelizing on behalf of the technology involve educating his colleagues and the organizations they service.

Gomes also volunteers as the director of comms for the Chicago Blockchain Center. The group helps "incubate local blockchain startups, mentor entrepreneurs and students, conduct original research, and host a variety of events." Launched only two months ago, the group’s event strategy has been key to growing blockchain awareness.

"We want to establish ourselves as a significant player in that space, but we’re not about preaching to the choir," Gomes says. "Some of the stuff we’ve done is inside baseball. It’s not an organization by blockchain experts, for blockchain experts. We [want] to bring a lot of people together under that tent."

Gomes adds that keeping an open and welcoming atmosphere is key to growing that tent, which may one day include retailers using blockchain to chronicle their supply chain, or diamond companies that want to verify the authenticity of their wares, or banks that want to accelerate their transactions.

"Really, it’s [about] the excitement of something new and fundamentally different that unlocks a global economy," Brook says. "Everyone should care about it because it will impact them in one way or another."

Engaging a still maturing community
Nicole Jordan, CEO of PR shop Radix Collective, also cautions against a "gold rush" mentality.

"There’s high awareness among the press, but the deficit of understanding of blockchain is disproportionate to the coverage it’s getting," she says.

There are only a small number of comms professionals working in the blockchain space, Jordan says. But PR plays a key role in strategy, helping companies bring their product to market through either an initial coin offering or token launch.

An ICO is an event companies hold to sell a percentage of cryptocurrency "to early backers of a project in exchange for legal tender or other cryptocurrencies, but usually for bitcoin," according to Investopedia. A token launch is where tokens, produced through Ethereum, are generated.

Comms strategies for blockchain companies are built on its products, influencing what audiences they target and how. But they all can roughly be divided into two parallel operations, Jordan explains.

The first involves engaging the market and explaining how the technology works and benefits them. For MetaX, a client of Jordan’s PR agency, this meant interacting with advertising agencies, vendors, brands, and other stakeholders through workshops and boot camps, as well as producing owned content, such as blogs and videos.

Interacting with the cryptocurrency community, on the other hand, could be likened to investor relations in that token-holders have a stake in the company, says Jordan. She suspects the average token-holder would be far more engaged than the traditional investor class.

"There is a strong feeling of ownership," she says. "They’re passionate online, they love using Twitter, and they write blogs about what they think of the token. For example, Middle America may buy Pepsi stock, but they won’t rabidly dissect the stock price."

This means blockchain companies and their PR partners have to constantly engage with the community before, during, and after the token launch. When MetaX planned a token launch for one of its projects, for example, it released the whitepaper for its product four-to-six weeks ahead of time on Reddit in addition to having a dedicated launching page that pointed people to it.

This allows the community to "poke holes in it," Jordan says, and the company produced content in response, answering concerns and questions. It’s technical by nature and sometimes requires engagement from the developers themselves.

After the token launch, MetaX gave token-holders regular updates on the goals they reached, the changes in design, and helped "keep them believing in the product," Jordan adds.

"It’s a purposeful discussion, because they have a personal interest in it," she says.

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