Category Archives: 7. Social Media

5 Meta Trends Shaping 2009 Social Media Predictions

GearsI‘ve been reading a bunch of the predictions for Social Media in 2009, including the Top Marketing Geek predictions at ReadWriteWeb. While the predictions are interesting, I find myself asking how we can know where we’re headed if we don’t take adequate stock of where are now? What’s driving social media today, and how does that help us better understand the direction we’re headed? I see five meta trends that are worth noting:

1. The Growth Curve: Size Does Matter

One of the biggest drivers behind behavior on social networks today is the imperative to generate quantity of connections over and above quality of relationships. Many people are focusing on activities that help drive up friends and followers, and while there’s some hand wringing among pundits about this emphasis on size over quality, I think we’re just seeing an important early stage of the social media phenomenon in which growth is critical to unlock the value of the network. There are real social and systemic drivers behind this growth-oriented behavior.

From a social standpoint, perception matters, and size is one of the easiest metrics for judging social standing. How many connections on LinkedIn do you need to be taken seriously as a job candidate? How many followers on Twitter do you need to be considered cool or influential? These are compelling social imperatives, however shallow we may think they are.

Now it’s true that the number of followers or friends is not a direct indication of the quality or influence of your network. But solely emphasizing  quality of relationships ignores a simple systemic truth: there is a critical mass you have to reach before your network provides value, through shared insights, connections and opportunities. It’s some variation on Metcalfe’s Law—which says  the value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users to the system.

In order to build a high quality personal network, you have to have both size and quality. And it turns out it’s more efficient to generate volume, and then prune and tune your friends and followers when you see how individuals add value to your network. And in fact, this strategy is exemplified by gurus who worry more about quality than quantity when they talk about pruning back their friends and followers—they are operating from the luxury of a surplus that most users don’t yet have.

What does this mean for 2009? We’ll continue to see a proliferation of internet and affiliate marketing techniques focused on building social network volume. I’m often critical of these techniques, precisely because they run counter to the social media ideal of building relationships. But I believe these strategies are surging because they fit the evolutionary requirement of growing a network to unleash its value.

2. Data Overload: Managing Fragmentation

I don’t know about you, but I kind of breathed a sigh of relief when Pownce went dark. There are too many places to maintain a profile, and not enough ways to simplify the connections and bridge the gap. Why can’t I easily connect the groups I’m subscribed to on LinkedIn with Twitter so I can follow members of the group? Why can’t I merge my business blog with my Facebook business group? There are hundreds of little stumbling blocks that force us to be endlessly running around making updates and changes everywhere at once. Of the five metatrends I’m following, this easily the most obvious, and I think ReadWriteWeb summed it up better than I can in their own predictions for 2009. So I won’t belabor this one except to say that like others have predicted, I think we’ll see fewer new social networks launch next year, and a lot more tools to help manage the organization, convergence and optimization of data across distributed platforms.

3. Personal Branding: A Collective Identity Crisis

In my scanning of social media and marketing conversations for SocialRep, I’ve been amazed at the number of blog posts dedicated to personal branding. It’s not a new concept. But as emerging technology disrupts and transforms our social constructs, redefining our sense of self takes on new immediacy. We have old friends finding us on Classmates and Facebook. We have colleagues, co-workers, family and friends viewing the same profiles. We have potentially hundreds of new friends and employers who may be attracted or repelled by things we say online, and thanks to Google, it’s now a permanent record. Where we used to be able segment and contain our various selves, our identities are simultaneously converging in scope while expanding in reach, causing a collective sense of identity crisis.

How do we understand and define our role in an entirely new sense of community. Many of us just charge right ahead and go for broke, but look around and you’ll find many, many people avoiding the change social media represents. This is a big deal—far more substantial than the mid-90s Internet-driven turbulence that gave rise to the Change Management movement.

I suspect we’ll see the interest in personal branding grow into something more substantial and focused in 2009, leveraging all the uncertainty and disruption, possibly even the seeds of a new EST, or a new technology like Neuro-Linguistic Programming designed for online communication. Social media is already giving rise to its first, nascent cults of personality, but they’re only prototypes now, figuring out the mechanisms of growth and influence. I think we may see in 2009 a new Erik Erikson, or a new Carl Jung—someone who combines the reach of Scoble with a new and magnetic song of self, born and bred on the social graph.

4.  Self-Help 2.0

This is closely related to personal branding, but sharply distinct. Where personal branding is about understanding our new sense of self in a transformed social world, self-help promises specific techniques and behaviors that maximize our personal potential, and almost always, our wealth. I haven’t yet seen a cohesive program for Self-Help 2.0, but the concepts are everywhere, merging social media how-tos, with tips for building and monetizing networks, and of course, relentless affirmation. It’s the fuel that, perhaps unwittingly, drives many of the most popular social media pundits, even though it isn’t labeled and articulated as such. It’s a unique new generation of self help designed for the socially wired. You can almost see the bridge between the last generation, Getting Things Done concept of behavioral techniques for productivity, and the new, 4-Hour Work Week model, that leverages the social Web to merge personal objectives with internet business strategies. Think Gary Veynerchuk. Or Godin’s Tribes.

Like the emergence of personality gurus, I think we’ll see new programs and techniques that define specific behaviors for online success in an increasingly uncertain world. Self-help is a massive economy in its own right, and I’m betting that somewhere, right now, someone is writing the Self-Help 2.0 best-seller of 2009. Count on it.

5. Hope. The New Online Destination

I’m not going to mince words on this one. Our economy is screwed. You need a PhD in economics to see the tidal wave cresting over our heads, but when you can’t turn on the news without hearing another economist running for cover, you know it’s not good. Amid this biblical meltdown, where it’s increasingly hard to feel optimistic, much less to escape the grind and refresh your perspective, social engagement can easily be the brightest spot in the day. An easy online connection brings never-ending access to new friends,  new ideas and real opportunities. At any moment, you may find a long lost friend, or find the solution to a business problem that accelerates your career. And if you spend any time on social networks today, you know this isn’t hyperbole.

It’s no stretch to predict that social media adoption will accelerate in 2009, but I think the growth will drive new tools and technologies to more easily connect and build networks that deal with the challenges in the real world, from organizing charities to building new business networks and even new businesses. This is, of course, already happening in various places on the web, but the critical mass of people clamoring for new tools to connect and organize is already outstripping what Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can, or are willing to deliver. I’m not savvy enough to see how this will play out, but I suspect we’ll see new initiatives to organize free agents and open source developers, and new interest in leveraging online networks to address offline challenges. I think we’ll see a surge in Web-driven meetups, especially those that address or reflect economic fallout, like career networking, or local seminars and workgroups replacing national conventions. But most of all, I think we’ll start to see the opportunity and optimism that flows from online social connections drive new credence for social media in the mainstream, beginning to displace some of the derision social media has faced in 2008.

What do you think? What drivers do you see shaping social media trends in 2009?
Photo credit: Luckee Dogg

Crisis Management Essentials for Social Media (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this primer we talked about laying the groundwork for a strong social media foundation, and understanding the basic social media tools that can help you manage a crisis effectively. In this second part, we’ll talk about some basic crisis management techniques for social media, some essential standard practices for crisis management, and some dos and don’ts to remember in the heat of a crisis.

These recommendations should dovetail with an established crisis management program. If you don’t have established crisis protocols, there’s a section on planning in Part 2 that will lay out the basics.

Management Techniques

A crisis can unfold in many different ways. Sometimes, you are aware of the crisis internally before anyone in the public knows, and you have the luxury of controlling the initial flow of information. In other cases–the nightmare scenario–you open your email to find your world has gone up in flames and it’s all over the blogosphere. If you’re actively engaged and tracking social media, you may see the seeds of crisis taking root, and have an opportunity to uproot controversy at the start. In any case, being prepared and learning some techniques for identifying and managing crises is essential.

  1. If you’re monitoring social media, and you suspect a crisis is emerging that you don’t already know about, take a deep breath and gather information before launching your rapid response team. Start by gathering information about the source and content of the crisis. Is it a customer complaint on a blog? Is it a post by an influential analyst getting picked up on Twitter? Is it one person shouting out to the universe, a percolating dialog, or a raging fire? Is it an opinion: someone hates your company, or a fact: your product blew up and hurt someone? You don’t want to go into crisis mode on every customer complaint that can be managed by engagement.
  2. If the emerging story is unclear, and you have the authority and opportunity to engage, take an approach of discovery. “Hey, I saw your post and wanted to find out what you can tell me.” Don’t offer any speculation or opinion, just gather information until you can find the original source of the problem.
  3. Customer complaints on blogs can often be defused by engaging early. If it’s a problem you can solve, say, by expediting a connection with customer service, than you can often stop the dialog from spreading. I once had the VP of Web Marketing at Lenovo post his phone number on my blog after I complained about an order problem. If it’s a problem you can’t solve–an opinion, or a bad experience that can’t be resolved–a note of regret can often have a defusing impact. But unless you’re specifically cleared to do so, don’t admit wrong-doing or discuss internal problems on a public forum in the heat of an emerging crisis. You may unleash unintended consequences you’ll regret. “I’m sorry you had that experience, I’ll do what I can to help,” is as far as you should go until the situation is fully vetted, even though an apology may indeed be warranted in the end.
  4. In some cases, telling the company’s side of the story can defuse a crisis, but this needs to be very carefully considered, and shouldn’t be done on the fly. Sprint handled a crisis like this very well, when a classic customer service debacle turned into a social media nightmare. Telling the full story mitigated some of the outrage, and Sprint handled it well. Boil your side of the story down to its essence, and tell it factually. Never cast blame on the customer, express regret for what went wrong, and explain how you’re addressing the situation to prevent it from happening again.
  5. Bashing in a forum is often more touchy, because the interaction of voices often includes people who want to incite conflict. The same approach can be taken as on a blog, but you should carefully craft your response as much possible to be a single post, ideally offering a link to resources of resolution if more than one customer might be affected. Do not get dragged into an argument, or a back-and-forth debate about who is right. In most cases, you won’t win an argument with a customer in terms of public perception.
  6. If the crisis is emerging on a fast moving network like Twitter or Facebook, your best option is to create a fact page that you can post either on your blog, or as a web page. Engage your employees who are on Twitter or Facebook to post a link to your fact page. Make sure the fact page is accurate and transparent, and follow standard crisis management procedures. If the crisis is emerging, don’t speculate on what you don’t know, simply communicate that you are aware of the problem and working to resolve it. If there are relevant resources and information you can provide to customers, list them on your fact page.
  7. If the crisis is spreading across multiple blogs and social media sites, you’ll need to manage your response more carefully. We worked last year with a consumer electronics company that experienced a market revolt over issues related to a new product. There were literally hundreds of blog posts and discussions going on. In this type of situation, social media and PR tactics need to merge, because you can’t put out every fire. Leverage your public relations team to define your position and your message, and carry it through traditional media channels. Then pick up the baton in social media circles by identifying a handful of influential blogs where you can put a human face on your response. Assign one executive who can engage directly with the authors of selected sites and answer questions openly–do not send press releases or canned statements to these blogs.
  8. If you have an internal crisis that has not yet become public, work with your PR team to craft a traditional pre-emptive disclosure. Then consider how social media can best be integrated into the approach. Social media channels may work best by proliferating a link to an announcement and resolution page, and providing a place for direct engagement with your team on a forum or message board.

Basic Crisis Management Planning

You might notice that in both parts of this piece, we put a notice at the top of the page that these recommendations should dovetail with an established crisis management plan. Good public relations firms offer crisis management training, and you should get up to speed on the basics and consider training for your core crisis team if they don’t already have it. Here are some of the very basics of effective crisis management, including some issues specific to social media.

  1. Assign a response team. The most important first step in a crisis is to have a team that can manage response and make decisions. At bare minimum you need a communications expert to gather, frame and distribute information, and a senior executive who is able to make and be accountable for decisions in real-time, but you should also have representatives from legal, HR and marketing on the core team. Don’t overload the team, or decisions will be difficult to make. Five or six people is enough.
  2. Assign a second-string. If a crisis unfolds and your CEO is on a 17-hour flight to Asia, who can stand in with the authority to make decisions? What if your communications expert is on vacation? Assign your second string so they’re ready to step in when needed.
  3. Designate representatives from each major line of business, ready to provide information and sit on the response team if their domain is affected.
  4. Assign a coordinator, responsible for establishing and maintaining response resources and protocols, and calling and managing the response team. It needs to be someone senior, but ideally not the CEO, who will have enough to manage in a crisis, and won’t have the bandwidth to maintain the resources and protocols outside of a crisis.
  5. Establish communications protocols for calling your rapid response team into action. Write a document that everyone on the team can access with permissions, containing every piece of contact information you can gather. It may sound cheesy, but have a code phrase, even it’s just “we have a crisis”. Time is everything in a crisis, and you don’t want to waste time explaining things before you have the team together. A code phrase is a powerful tool to snap your team into response mode.
  6. Create a resources list. Who’s your outside legal counsel, and what’s their number? Who’s your outside communications advisor? Who in your company is best connected with your customer community by Twitter? What Twitter handles does your business have? All of the resources you can imagine that might be useful to manage a crisis should be documented beforehand. You don’t want to waste time tracking down a contact or a resource in the middle of a crisis. If you need to get a video up on YouTube of your CEO making a statement, do you know where a camera is? Who manages your CMS system? Who can set up a Facebook group under fire?
  7. Get crisis communications training for your core team. Good PR firms can provide the essentials, including basic management protocols and media training for effectively controlling the flow of information in a crisis. Dealing with the media can be a minefield in a crisis, so it’s important to know the basics.
  8. War Games! As you’re getting your team geared up and ready to respond, run a few drills, and do so at least quarterly to ensure you still have the right protocols and resources put together. Your coordinator should own this process, and also make sure that response team contact details are all up to date. When you’re doing your war game, try to find a real scenario and run through the process as if it were happening to you. A customer was injured in a major product failure. An employee lost a laptop with all your customer financial data. A major software product has failed and no one yet knows why. A senior executive was caught impersonating someone else to bash your competition and pump your stock price. Use your imagination. Use the scenario to rehearse, as realistically as possible, all the steps you need to go through to get the situation under control.

Basic Dos and Donts

  • Do get engaged in social media early, and encourage engagement across all areas of your business. Having a strong social media presence will give you more resources and channels of communication in a crisis.
  • Do stick to the facts in a crisis. Always. Never speculate on the causes or resolution of a crisis when you don’t have the facts. Stick to what is known, and assure the public that you’re doing everything you can to understand the scope of the crisis and resolve it.
  • Do create a central news and resources page if the crisis is serious. Direct all traffic through various social networks, blogs and news sites back to your resource page, instead of trying to provide detailed information in many different places.
  • Do not get into an argument or a debate on a forum or a blog. Try to keep your response to an issue limited to a single post when you can, fully stating your position and providing a link to resources.
  • Do not get engaged in social media conversations if the crisis is unfolding on a public forum where investment and legal issues are discussed. Make sure any employees engaged in social media are aware of financial disclosure regulations.
  • Do express regret authentically when a crisis is unfolding, but do not admit wrong-doing before the full facts of a crisis are known. Sometimes employees will try to build rapport with angry customers by admitting fault, which can cause substantial unwarranted liabilities.
  • Do offer an apology if it’s warranted after the full facts of a crisis are known, and the immediate crisis is resolved.

There are obviously many, many more dos and don’ts, tips and techniques. This is just a start. But it should give you a sense of serious and complex crisis management can be. You don’t want to be thumbing through a manual when everything is melting down. It’s far more effective and expedient to be as prepared as you can be.

If you have additional ideas or criticisms, if you think there’s something I’ve missed, please don’t hesitate to comment.

Crisis Management Essentials for Social Media (Part 1)

PANIC!If you ask marketing executives what keeps them up at night in the age of social media, one of the most common responses is fear of a PR debacle lighting a brush fire on the web. Every marketer knows there are a hundred things that could go wrong on any given day–from product failures to employee indiscretions–and the fear of being caught flat-footed while the news lights up the social universe is a very real fear. In fact, one of the biggest market drivers for my company SocialRep is the need for businesses to have an ear to the ground and a way to effectively manage engagement.

Surprisingly few companies, however, have protocols in place to manage social media disasters as they unfold–even those that have sophisticated crisis management protocols in place for non-social media issues.The good news is, it’s not that hard to create a plan. In fact, the most important things you need to know were modeled for you in kindergarten. Remember those fire drills? The simple but critical idea was that everyone should know exactly what to do and where to go when a crisis happens, and to practice it even when the possibility of an actual crisis seems remote. Same idea applies to social media.

Why is this important? Think of social media as a massive global amplifier. Events that you used to be able to ignore until they went away can now become an overblown incident with a permanent record on Google. A trivial customer complaint magnified through social media can become an international embarrassment overnight. If you need graphic examples of disaster, Jeremiah Owyang offers a chronicle on his blog.

So here’s a primer on how to build your own crisis plan for social media, whether the crisis is an overblown customer complaint, or a true business disaster affecting many customers.

These recommendations should dovetail with an established crisis management program. If you don’t have established crisis protocols, there’s a section at the end of Part 2 that will lay out the basics.

Be Prepared

We put a lot of resources into maintaining resources like flood control systems and fire roads. Why? Because the cost of eventual disaster vastly outweighs the cost of being ready to respond. Social media is the same way. Facing down a crisis is not the time to wish you’d developed the resources to respond.

  1. Start getting engaged now. If you don’t already have people in your company building social relationships with your business communities, you won’t have the channels to deal with a crisis when it hits. When a crisis happens, you need to be able to communicate directly with your business communities through channels you’ve already established; you can’t borrow or buy them from your PR firm.
  2. Build your team. If you don’t already have a social media A-Team, you should. Social media should not be relegated to the PR team or the young people in your organization. It should be a distributed practice that helps your company develop relationships on every operational front. Your engineers should be engaged with the engineering community. Your customer service reps should be engaged with customers. Your legal team should be engaged and up to speed with the legal community. You get the idea. Fortunately, building an A-team isn’t hard, and I’ve written a primer for that too.
  3. Get your ears on. One of the big advantages of being socially connected is real-time intelligence. If you’re tracking social media–even using basic tools like Google alerts–you’re likely to get wind of a problem before it becomes a brush fire. The more sophisticated your tracking experience, the more you’ll be able to discern real threats from fire drills. This is something that should be distributed across your team, as explained in the A-team primer.
  4. If you don’t already have a news section for your website with a feed for the latest news on your homepage, you should think about establishing one. When a crisis hits, traffic to your site will spike with people looking for information. Provide updates people can find quickly. If the crisis is a fast-moving or emerging problem, use your CMS system or a blog to give updates with an RSS feed your market can subscribe to.
  5. If the crisis is substantial, create a dedicated response page, and do so quickly. This goes beyond providing information, and impacts search engine results. In time of a crisis, search engine requests for information about the crisis will grow, and you want to have a point of presence in the top organic results. If you have a blog, write posts that point to your news item and your dedicated page. If you have a Facebook group, and Twitter handles, do the same.
  6. Some SEO experts recommend buying search terms, and even domains, with generic crisis terms to ensure search engine positioning when something goes down. Like [your company] and “failure”. Or “breach”. Choose words that relate to the kinds of crises you would plan for in your line of business. Create landing pages with neutral and generic language to optimize search traffic. When a crisis hits and someone Googles it, you’ll already be ready with a page in the top results.

Know the Tools

While standard crisis communication tools like press releases, press conferences, and video press releases are still important, social media has its own resources that can help you get the word out in a crisis. In most cases, you’ll use social media channels to point people back to your response page on your own web site or blog, where information about the crisis is provided.

  1. Tracking. Staying on top of the daily stream of dialog is the best way to identify a crisis before it blows up. For basic tracking, set up Google alerts to track your corporate and product brands. You can use Twitter search to find discussions about your brand, and set up an RSS feed for monitoring. If you have more complex tracking needs, this is precisely what SocialRep does, but I don’t recommend jumping into technology adoption before you start with the basics laid out in the A-team primer. Your proven business processes should drive technology, not the other way around.
  2. Twitter has emerged as probably the fastest conduit of news in the world today. It’s ubiquitous and immediate. People were tweeting news of the Mumbai attacks in real time, and even news networks were following the threads. If you have a crisis, getting the word out with a link to your own response page is critical, and Twitter is one of the best ways to do it. Having an active Twitter presence is a good idea aside from crisis management, but having an existing network in the event of a crisis will ensure you’re able to get the word out far more quickly.
  3. FriendFeed is rapidly emerging as a channel for real-time threaded dialog, kind of like Twitter, but with more emphasis on dialog, as opposed to broadcast micro-posts. Like Twitter, there’s good reason to be engaged on FriendFeed aside from crisis preparedness, but having an active network will be invaluable when a crisis happens. In a crisis, post a one-sentence announcement with a link to your response page.
  4. Facebook is a great tool for managing the ongoing dialog with your community after the crisis initially unfolds. An existing corporate Facebook group may be fine for managing minor crises, but if there’s a major crisis that gains substantial attention, you’ll want to establish a dedicated group, with a reference to the crisis in the title. Others will create groups to talk about it, so you want a presence in Facebook’s Group search results, not buried in your corporate group among discussions about your Christmas party. You can post links to your response page, video, and discussions group threads. Ideally, you’ll want to point any traffic for dealing directly with the crisis back to your own Web site rather than have crisis response distributed over the Web. But you can use discussion threads on Facebook to talk about the broader issues that impact your brand, such as how you’ve dealt with the crisis and the aftermath.
  5. LinkedIn has far less utility for crisis management than the tools previously mentioned, but if you maintain links to professional or corporate groups relevant to your business, this could be a good channel of communication in a crisis. Especially to the extent that communications in this channel are managed primarily by email, so you may reach professionals who are not yet wired in to the other social networks.
  6. YouTube and Seesmic are potentially good channels for posting a video message from your CEO in response to a social media crisis. In most cases, this will be most effective for wrap-up information and framing of the whole event, rather than real-time management of the crisis. Though I’m sure someone will do a YouTube press conference one of these days.

In Part 2, we’ll look at crisis management techniques for social media, basic crisis management planning, and do’s and don’t’s of dealing with a social media crisis.

If you have your own ideas, tips or criticisms, feel free to comment.

Go on to Part 2

Photo credit: kryst£n

Social Media: You are the New Advertising Network

Heute schwarzer KanalAfter following the whole Kmart paid-blogging firestorm, a tweet from Guy Kawasaki last night stopped me in my tracks.

“Twitter spam is an oxymoron. Following is opting in.”

I had to stop and try to digest that, especially as I was one of the people who called the Kmart posts on twitter spam. The short story is that Kmart and Sears gave a bunch of bloggers $500 gift cards to shop at their stores and write about it. They provided an extra $500 gift card to be given away in a contest, which readers could enter by writing a comment about what they’d buy, and promoting the contest by tweeting it. What ensued was a flood of Kmart promotional tweets, which I, among others, referred to as spam.

Well, here was Guy Kawasaki saying that it wasn’t spam. And when I thought about it, I realized he was right. I choose to follow Chris Brogan’s updates. Chris decided to promote the contest. I can choose to either continue following him or not, but technically, his promotional tweet isn’t spam.

But that got me thinking about what this really means about networks like twitter, monetizing content, and the nature of social media.

In one incisive post, Kawasaki stripped the Utopian veil off social media and its commercial uses. If promotional posts from people in my network aren’t spam, because I choose to follow them or not, then guess what? Social media will just become the latest media vehicle to drive advertising. Instead of television networks, radio stations, or print publications, all of which cultivate followers to whom they can deliver ads, the new networks are you and me. Our readers, the followers and friends we cultivate, are just target audiences for which we are an efficient advertising conduit. That’s what Kawasaki’s simple and undeniable statement envisions.

Think about it. All of this talk about companies needing to listen to consumers, about consumers owning the brand, about building networks of trust, is really just a happy facade for consumers. Because according to Kawasaki,  your opinion about what a company is saying via social media is best expressed through the binary choice of choosing to follow or not follow. If you don’t like it, change the channel. Which is the same old paradigm it’s always been: the company crafts its message, blasts it through whatever medium is available, and measures success by the numbers of people that follow, or don’t follow. Listening and engaging in dialog is optional, and in fact, probably inefficient.

And Kawasaki certainly lives this. He is open about his strategy of aggressively building a large network of followers and broadcasting to them prolifically. While I may have viewed Kmart’s paying of bloggers to essentially bribe their readers via contests to promote Kmart to their own networks as spam, Kawasaki frames it as a simple advertising transaction. So much for the quaint notion among social media evangelists that the days of broadcast media were over. As Kawasaki demonstrates, we’ve just moved the network. And the trust you and I cultivate to build a network of friends is a far more elegant machine of transmission than television ever was. To you and me, it may be a communication platform of trust, but for business, it’s nothing more than the new channel. How else could networks like Twitter and Facebook remain free?

Meet the new boss.

Photo credit: Flicker (unknown)

10 Steps to Build Your Own Social Media A-Team

Over the past few years I’ve been working with a lot of enterprise companies, engaging with marketing teams that want to understand and integrate social media into their marketing programs. One of the first recommendations I make is to develop a social media A-team–a cross-functional team that distributes social media responsibility throughout the organization.

Typically, social media marketing is not “owned” by anyone. In some companies, it’s loosely managed under corporate communications or PR, in others, it’s driven by product managers, research, or customer support. But in most companies, social media initiatives are ad hoc programs operated by whomever happens to have an interest in social media–sometimes it’s just the guy who happens to have a Twitter account.

The challenge, of course, is that social media far transcends one marketing group, or even one business group. Social media issues cut across many areas of operation and management, and the lack of a coordinated team prevents companies from effectively leveraging opportunities, and often paralyzes them in a crisis. When an irate customer is starting a flame-war over the failure of your latest product, it’s not just a PR issue–it’s an engineering issue, a legal issue, a customer service issue too.

So the best way to lay a foundation for managing social media–before you start a needs assessment, or an RFP, or a procurement order for some kind of community platform–is to start a social media A-Team. It’s simple and painless, and costs only the time of the players involved. Here it is in ____ easy steps:

  1. Invite members. Ideally you should have a representative from each major department, in marketing and beyond: PR, marketing, sales, customer service, product development, channel marketing, legal, etc.
  2. Assign a relevant topical domain to each member that they can track in social media. If you’re in sales, you should be tracking competitive dialog, or dialog about your customers. If you’re in legal, track the dialog about legal issues regarding corporate involvement in social media.
  3. Assign a basic list of tasks for each member. Where are people talking about your topic online? What blogs? What communities? What groups on Facebook? What are people saying? What are the issues and trends? What are the opportunities to get involved?
  4. Leverage solutions for tracking social media discussions in each domain online. You can start with Google Alerts and Twitter Search–which allows RSS subscriptions. Your Marketing Engineer will keep track of these tools and provide training on how to set them up during your A-Team meetings. (This, by the way, is exactly the kind of scenario for which we developed SocialRep, so if it’s a big team and a big challenge, ask about our beta. But don’t buy into technology until you’ve started a process.)
  5. Create a space where this information can be easily collected online and shared with your group. Like a Facebook group page, or a space on your Intranet. Make sure it’s secure.
  6. Establish a regular meeting time to gather and discuss what’s been collected. When you start out, weekly face-to-face meetings are ideal. Make it a lunch group. When you’ve established a groove, and everyone knows what they’re up to–maybe after one quarter–move it to monthly.
  7. Use the regular meetings to listen what your team is discovering in the dialog. Start out just by listening and cataloging trends. What’s changing week-to-week? What dialogs are not changing? Where do the memes seem to be starting, and how do they spread?
  8. As you gain a better sense for the dialog driving your market, start to discuss with your team the kinds of opportunities and business objectives that might drive engagement. What kinds of market dialog should you be engaged with? What’s a waste of time, or even a danger to engage with? What kinds of brand attributes do you want to amplify online? How do this relate to the development of specific initiatives or social media policies.
  9. As your A-Team matures, you should assign at least one “SocialRep” for each customer community in your market. The SocialRep’s role is to aggregate and track the issues and dialogs driving conversation in the market, and to manage and coordinate engagement. Who’s responsible for responding to issues in this community? What’s the status of any issue that’s come up? What should the company’s approach to engagement for that community include?
  10. Bring on a “Marketing Engineer” responsible for provisioning the tools that will help your team stay agile. You want someone attached to the marketing department with a strong background in technology. For example, when Google unveils Friend Connect, this is the person who can get it up and running in an hour on your product evangelist’s blog. This is your dedicated engineering voice on your A-team.

I’m sure there are some great, easy ideas I’ve missed. If you have other ways you’re creating a group effort for managing social media across departmental silos, let me know.

Kmart Sponsored Post: Petty Politics Buries Debate

Pelea..fightThis whole debacle doesn’t need another opinion, but just when the fire seemed to be dying down, someone tossed in another bucket of gasoline. And now I want to go meta. If you’ve already been following the whole drama, drop down to the next drop cap.

In case you’re not a Twitter junkie or social media hound, there was a big dustup over the weekend over a sponsored blog post social media guru Chris Brogan wrote for Kmart. Basically, Kmart engaged a company called Izea to contract a group of influential bloggers to create a $500 shopping spree contest for their readers. Chris was given a $500 gift card to shop at Kmart and blog about it, and then invite his readers into a contest for their own $500 gift card.

I saw the original post Brogan wrote for Kmart when he tweeted it, and I was a little bit surprised. It was clearly labeled as a “sponsored post”, and the content of the post also made it clear he was carefully avoiding writing an advertorial. What surprised me was simply that it wasn’t what I expected after reading Chris’ social media blog for so long. A sponsored post for Kmart just didn’t seem to fit with my sense of Chris Brogan’s brand. Oh well. I don’t think anything Brogan did was unethical–he clearly disclosed that the post was sponsored, and he donated his own $500 shopping spree to Toys for Tots.

But over the weekend, I saw some tweets with links to Izea, the company that had facilitated the whole sponsored post campaign. There was a big link on their site touting the Kmart campaign, and its coverage in the media. Shortly after, Jeremiah Owyang from Forrester tweeted a string about the campaign, and the volcano erupted.

Kmart paid Shoemoney $500 resulting in buzz from paid blog post 300+ comments “Buying” social media is effective 4:37 AM Dec 13th from web

This may not be a scalable model however, as buying placements could reduce credibility of bloggers, reducing marketing inventory. 4:38 AM Dec 13th from web

Bottom Line: Expect more brands to ‘buy’ bloggers and tweeters as the economy dips, this truly is cost effective marketing 4:39 AM Dec 13th from web

What ensued was a rapid-fire string of tweets, followed by blog posts, followed by tweets referencing blog posts, with lots of incindiary charges and defenses. One commentator charged that Chris had sold his integrity for $500, while others questioned Kmart’s savviness in trying to buy content. And on and on it went. Chris explained his position at length, as did Jeremiah.

What bothers me about this whole drama is not about Chris writing a paid post for Kmart–he was totally transparent about it, which is a lot more than we can say for a lot of other bloggers, and even mainstream media. What bothers me is the way the debate is being carried out. There is an important question at the heart of this debate that professional bloggers need to address.

  • How do we get paid for the value we deliver?
  • How do we maintain the value we’re delivering in ways that don’t compromise our brand?
  • How do maintain our relationship and credibility with our readers?

Unfortunately, Chris was the current case study for this question being asked. Believe me, I know how much that sucks. But as much as the whole debacle may seem personal, we can’t afford to let it stay mired there. A depressing amount of the commentary was focused on decrying critics as “jealous”, or “uninformed”, or even “morons”. Others claimed that the criticism was a thinly veiled attack against Izea and its owner, who launched the controversial a few years ago. And one blogger claimed that Jeremiah doesn’t even have the right to bring up the questions he posed, because as an industry analyst, he’s only supposed to comment on industry trends, not venture into editorial.

When I see people questioning the validity of debate and shooting down critics in personal attacks, I worry about the health of our profession. Sure, it’s all human, and all to be expected. But damn. The whole point about social media is the opportunity for many voices to be heard, for larger dialogs that catalyze the synthesis of ideas. And right here, in our own back yard, we the brave pioneers couldn’t even manage to get to the deeper, substantive questions–questions over the relationship of trust between companies and consumers, between influencers and their communities, between consumers and their peers–questions that mainstream media have been hammering on for generations. We short-circuited the whole debate and chose sides. What a shame.

Image Credit: Paulo Brandão

The “No Shit” List: Resolutions for the Rest of Us

Stating the ObviousHere we are, just a couple of weeks from New Years. Millions of people are diligently working on their resolutions for 2009, millions more will come up with something a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve. As someone who has taken resolutions seriously, and also given up for years on the frustrations of constant goal setting, disappointment and readjustment, I’ve whittled my resolutions down to what I call the No Shit Principle.

No Shit is a double entendre. No shit as in “No Duh”, and No Shit as in “no BS”, or, no excuses. And that’s pretty much the long and the short of it. I whittle my resolutions down by two criteria, tasks so blindingly obvious and simple that any idiot could do them, and tasks so important that I can’t allow myself any excuses for not getting them done. Why those criteria? Because life is constantly dominated by Really Important Stuff—tasks that suck down all our energy every day before we crap out and go to bed. But guess what. Half the time the Really Important Stuff isn’t nearly as important as you think it is—it’s really just the stuff you’re comfortable doing because it’s a well-worn path, and it makes you feel productive. So steal a little time back to explore a new path with your own list. No shit. It’s easy.

The “No Duh” List
This list is for simple things that don’t need a lot of thought, either to figure out what needs to be done, or how to do it. This is the kind of stuff that stays on the bottom half of your to-do list forever because you’re always too busy taking care of Really Important Stuff. But everyone needs small victories, because successfully achieving small goals is a huge success factor in tackling and achieving big ones.

Samples from a “No Duh” Social Media List for Marketers

  1. Print out your Google Analytics report weekly and post it above your desk
  2. Set up a Google Alert on your name and your company
  3. Spend 10 minutes using Twitter search to find new people to follow
  4. Use Tweetdeck or PeopleBrowsr to organize your Tweeps
  5. Find an active Facebook Group you’re interested in and start a discussion thread
  6. Find an active forum focused on a hobby you love and post a thread
  7. Answer a question on LinkedIn
  8. Update your profile photo
  9. Find a local Tweetup and go meet real people
  10. Import your feeds into FriendFeed and start a thread

The “No Excuses” List
This is the opposite end of the spectrum, the complex things that take energy to figure out and execute, which is why they never get done. They’re ideals—things you know would make life better, but you never have the time to make them real. So you stay on the treadmill of Really Important Stuff. Now’s the time to figure out what game changers you shouldn’t let linger at any cost.

Samples from a “No Excuses” Social Media List for Marketers

  1. Write an Editorial Calendar for your blog
  2. Search Engine Optimize Your Website, even if you’re on a shoestring.
  3. Deploy a social media monitoring application (Hey, that’s SocialRep.)
  4. Map the social landscape for your business—top blogs, influencers, etc.
  5. Create a social media A-team at your company
  6. Develop a social media marketing plan for your company
  7. Write a strategic social media communications plan and policy
  8. Develop a customer advisory board
  9. Design a video marketing campaign, influencer interviews, or video how-to’s for your product
  10. Start a Tweetup or professional peer meetup

Look at that. A list of 10 blindingly simple things you can do and feel empowered on your way to tackling one or more of the hard things. Now here’s the trick. You’ve got the pump primed with easy things to do right out of the gate, and a daunting list of bigger, but critical challenges. When you’re halfway through the first list, pick an item from the “No BS” list and break it down into “No Duh” tasks that will start you toward the goal. Turns out, there’s a sure-fire “No Duh” routine to do that:

Step 1: Choose the daunting goal.
Step 2: Search the topic on Google
Step 3: Collect 5-10 articles and white papers on the topic
Step 4: Read them. Yeah. Really.
Step 5: Write a list of desired outcomes related to achieving the goal
Step 6: Write a basic plan and task list for getting started.
Step 7: Get started.

Yeah, I know. Rocket science. No shit. So, there’s pretty much no excuse for not tackling the new year with some new energy and interest. What’s your list?

Photo credit: Hryckowian

The Secret to Engineering Better Customers

2022 Magno MagnaDome I‘ve been spending the last week digging through data from our social media scans at SocialRep, paying a lot more attention to what content shows up when someone searches on the web, and why. And I have to say, as a marketer, I’m pretty dismayed. For the 15 years I’ve been involved in marketing, one of the most persistent refrains we hear in business is the need to improve Customer Intimacy. And in the span of that 15 years, I’ve seen technology leveraged in countless ways to improve customer pipeline metrics, visibility, and efficiency, but rarely to build meaningful relationships with customers. My newest case-in-point is search marketing and SEO.

One of the things we do at SocialRep is collect all the user generated content about a customer’s particular industry–collecting and analyzing every conversation on blogs, forums, social networks, wikis, video boards. It doesn’t take long to develop a clear picture of how content is generated to influence consumer traffic, especially the persistent problem of splogs–content posted for no other purpose than to game search traffic.

In the SocialRep system, I’ve discovered that about 70% of the splogs we’re filtering out are posted at Blogspot, a free blog service owned by Google. That’s right. Google. The company whose mission it is to help you cut through the noise and clutter on the Internet also happens to be one the biggest enablers of noise and clutter on the Internet–at least the clutter we’re finding in industries such as automotive, consumer electronics, pharma and consumer and enterprise software.

When you first come across a splog, it looks like a regular blog. But the more splogs you see, the more you start noticing something a little bit “off”. Sometimes you’ll be reading a post and it will suddenly veer into gibberish. Sometimes you’ll notice that every post on the blog is an article written by a different author, with little continuity of topic. Sometimes you’ll notice that the content is blatantly ripped off from BusinessWeek or Wired with no attribution. 

If you look at this garbage as much as you must if you’re really trying to understand the media landscape influencing your market, you start to realize how much time, money and ingenuity marketers are pouring down a dark hole trying to game search algorithms instead of building customer intimacy:

  • There are article syndication services that will take one article you write, and subtly rewrite it dozens of times to post on countless splogs in order to look like original content pointing back to your web site.
  • There are content automation tools that will search the web for content according to keywords you designate, and scrape bits and pieces together from all over the web to generate new “content” for posting on splogs to drive search traffic. Some of these tools are sophisticated enough to preserve certain rules of grammar so that search bots recognize the content as valid.
  • There are systems that automate not only splog posting, but splog generation–creating new splogs on the fly to maximize keywords and link juice.
  • And of course, there are dozens of search marketing gurus who will sell you their secrets to search traffic success using these and countless other technologies and techniques.

Ah ain't long for this whorl I don’t want to sound like some naive idealist, and I don’t want to impugn the entire search marketing industry. I understand how search drives traffic, and I understand the challenges of cutting through the clutter to reach consumers on the internet. In this day and age, it’s imperative that companies understand how to develop effective content for SEO, and that means writing content that’s optimized for search algorithms

But when we reach the point where we’re writing massive amounts of content that’s designed only for computers to read, we’ve reached a tipping point where marketing becomes a parody of itself. In the name of cutting through the clutter, we create more clutter. In the name of building customer relationships, we develop content that customers would never want to read. Instead of putting our resources and creativity into actually connecting with customers, we focus instead on trying to engineer some immaculately efficient engine to boil the ocean and spit out customers ready to buy our product with the least amount of input or effort.

It’s a brilliant pursuit. One that marketers have been striving toward for decades. We’ve done it with advertising. We’ve done it with DM. We’ve done with email marketing, and viral, and search. We’re on a quest for clinical efficiency, but all the while we keep talking about customer intimacy. And then we wonder why consumers themselves are so drawn to social media, drawn inexplicably to connect with other consumers to share experiences that belie all the marketing bullshit their lives are flooded with every moment.

Is Social Media killing PR?

ShatterproofIf you want find the front line on the debate over social media and its impact on marketing and public relations, two posts from late last week are worth reading. The first is a post on Chris Brogan’s blog about “Bob”, an enthusiastic employee at a Fortune 500 who ran afoul of his superiors by engaging customers online in the wake of a direct mail campaign. The post is interesting, but the ensuing debate in the comment thread provides a fascinating look at a number of fault lines companies face over social media–management vs. staff, innovation vs. resistance to change, control vs. collaboration–it’s a veritable cornucopia of management challenges.

I don’t want to rehash the whole discussion here, but I would suggest reading the thread if you’re a marketing manager. It’s a perfect case study on why every company needs an explicit social media policy. Without one, critical decisions over customer engagement that may impact everything from brand equity to employee moral will be left to the kind of petty internal politics that stifle innovation. Whether your policy is a lock-down on social media–which I certainly wouldn’t advocate–or a liberal policy that encourages employees to get involved, there’s really no excuse for allowing a void over social media policy to persist.

The second post worth reading is one by Charles Cooper at CNET, which is a rather dismissive post of a panel held by Horn Group asking whether Social Media is killing PR. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the event, so I can’t give a first hand account of the debate, but Cooper’s derision is a good view onto another of the social media fault lines, dividing the true believers from the status quo.

As a tool for communications, social media obviously is of keen interest to public relations types. But let’s dispense with the nonsense about it being a paradigm changer. Maybe that day will arrive, but to date, the cheerleaders have overstated the results.

I had to laugh out loud when I read that. As someone who has worked in corporate marketing for 15 years, as someone who has run agencies serving some of the world’s biggest brands, I’ve worked with many Fortune 500 and Global 2000 marketing executives who have felt the impact of social media first hand, and are struggling mightily to adapt. I’ve seen a major telecom provider lose the loyalty of its developer network to a competitor’s wildly successful forum. I’ve seen one of the world’s biggest consumer electronics manufacturers blow their biggest product launch in years because they ignored consumer dialog that clearly pointed in a different direction. I’ve seen one of the world’s biggest software makers struggle to manage a marketing operation fragmented by aggressive consumer engagement. And I’ve watched one of the world’s biggest automakers leverage consumer engagement to drive product development decisions that delighted their customers.

This is nonsense? Was the wildfire of social media backlash against the pricing of the iPhone, and Apple’s initial lame response, nonsense? How about the social media initiatives leveraged by Barack Obama and netroots progressives to defeat Hillary Clinton’s vaunted PR machinery–led by none other than the head of one of the world’s biggest PR agencies? All nonsense, I’m sure.

Cooper’s dismissive denial of the significance of social media, and of those who have “drunk the Kool-Aid”, is based on a tellingly narrow view of social media’s domain–as if social media represents an upstart movement of arrogant whippersnappers wanting to seize the throne of Media Influence. He derides the bleating PR masses who have bought into this illusion.

What’s more, they are scared stiff of antagonizing the “influencers.” Especially when one or another bloviator from the blogosphere wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and issues a fatwa. But does a relatively small circle of (mostly California-based) bloggers still command the same influence it did a year ago?

The answer is “No”, but not because the A-Listers are losing influence as social media broadens, though that’s probably true. The answer is “No” because the influence of A-Listers was only a phenomenon within the echo chamber of early adopters and media personalities afraid they might lose their status and influence to mere “bloggers”. The real story is the day-to-day dialog among millions of ordinary people in little corners of the internet where they influence the brand impressions and purchase behavior of their peers. Like the 65,000 cyclists that frequent a mountain biker’s forum to share experiences with equipment, warranties and customer service. Or the 91,000 members of a hair dresser’s forum that share information about products and brands, as well as tips and techniques.

These are the real influencers, and the real driving force behind social media, and why it matters significantly to marketers as well as PR folks. Instead of putting the Horn Group’s panel into this broader context, Cooper dismisses the influence of A-Listers and then lauds the influence of one of his mainstream media peers:

Then the predictably prescient Kara Swisher from The Wall Street Journal‘s All Things Digital cut to the core question which–I believe–outweighs all others: If the message is empty, why bother? There is little point in trying to push a lame product or marketing idea. That’s a message some sales and marketing departments don’t want to hear. But in the end, doesn’t everything come back to value?

Again, the answer is “No”, not because value isn’t important, but because there is a long and messy process of discovering and defining value–a process in which good PR plays a role by interacting with, and understanding, the market. Social media is a game changer in this respect, because today, marketers have the opportunity to listen to customers like never before–not through focus groups or surveys, but through real engagement and active listening. Whether PR folks take that opportunity to broaden their focus and listen to consumers, instead of focusing solely on “influencing the influencers”, is a fault line that Cooper nicely illuminates.

One last nit. Cooper is dismissive of Jeremiah Owyang in a way I want to call out.

As I listened to the panelists debate the question, I began to fidget as Forrester Research’s Jeremiah Oywang offered a marketing-heavy spiel on the central role social media should occupy in any effective PR strategy. Oywang is earnest about this stuff so I can’t come down too hard, and yes, social media has its place. Still, it sounded like so much gobbledygook to me.

If saying “Owyang is earnest about gobbledygook” is not coming down too hard, I’d hate to see what Cooper really thinks. The reason not to come down too hard on Owyang is not because he’s “earnest”, but because he’s a professional. Owyang spends more time every day with a larger group of marketing executives and marketing practitioners than anyone I know; he’s one of the hardest working analysts in social or mainstream media. Maybe he didn’t lay things out in a way that Cooper understood, or maybe Cooper isn’t a position to want to understand what Owyang has to say. Owyang wrote his own post about the event. You be the judge.

The Bursting Media Bubble: Is this the death of Public Relations?

I wrote in my last post about an emerging trend we’re seeing at SocialRep: prospects are telling us they’re adjusting their marketing budgets by shifting money from Public Relations to Social Media Marketing. This is a touchy subject to discuss in public; the tension between PR and Social Media professionals has been percolating for a long time. Many of the same PR pros who dismissed the significance of social media now claim to be the natural heirs to corporate social media communications, while many social media pundits see PR as entirely antithetical to authentic market dialog. Unfortunately, client-side marketers are now getting caught in the cross-fire, not sure who to trust or what programs to explore.

Having been a PR executive before leaving the industry in 2005 to launch a social media venture, I see both sides of the argument. The PR industry bears enormous responsibility for the kind of mercenary marketing and message manipulation that consumers have embraced social media to defeat. Those PR practitioners who see social media as just another new vehicle to cynically drive market influence—even while embracing a veneer of authenticity—should be continually and publicly exposed. But PR practitioners who built their agencies on the belief that effective communications and advocacy are built on a foundation of meaningful relationships and market knowledge have a lot of expertise and value to offer. The trouble is, even for good PR agencies, their DNA is fundamentally mismatched to the reality of Social Media, and even the purest intentions can’t overcome that fact if the challenge isn’t understood.

The argument about why PR is so mismatched for social media is not a discussion about the ethics of PR or its practices, which I touched on in my last post, but a discussion about the nature of media and how it’s changed. To tell that story, I’ll poach a few slides from one of my SocialRep presentations.

The most important thing to understand about social media is that it isn’t new. The technology that enables it in our wired world is certainly new, but the dynamics of social media are as old as trade itself. If you look at the history of business over thousands of years, word-of-mouth has always been the dominant form of commercial influence. It’s Darwinian. If you’re about to spend your hard-earned money on a product and you don’t want to get cheated, who will you trust to tell you the true value of the product you want to buy: the person selling it, or someone else who’s already bought one? You gain a huge survival advantage as a consumer any time you can find a third party without a vested interest to validate the value of things you want to buy.

But as populations grew, as manufacturing and transportation capabilities exploded, businesses began to reach far beyond the host communities where they were known by their neighbors, and reputations were abstracted into brands. New technologies for communicating to ever larger audiences enabled businesses to tell their brand stories in print, in packaging, on radio and eventually television. But the mode of communication was overwhelmingly asymmetrical. Since the technology for communication was enormously expensive, control was highly centralized in the hands of a few power brokers—the owners of printing presses, publishing houses, radio stations and television networks. These technologies had the power to flood a market with highly choreographed messages, while word-of-mouth only traveled point-to-point within localized community networks of families and friends. This gave rise to what I call the Media Bubble—a temporary imbalance in the flow of communication arising from the early expense of emerging technology, placing control in the hands of those who could afford it.

The Media Bubble arose because the expense of early mass communications technology ensured that it was controlled by the few that could afford it.

The Media Bubble arose because the expense of early mass communications technology ensured it was controlled by the few that could afford it.

This media bubble has been our reality for generations. All of the institutions that govern our lives, particularly business institutions, have evolved to make optimal use of this bubble—to leverage the asymmetrical control of a message that can be directed to flood a market. Think about it. Advertising is not organized as a function for connecting with customers. Advertising is organized to maintain relationships with media owners to purchase space within the stream of media that has the subscribing audience we want to reach. Public relations is not organized as a function for connecting with customers either. Public relations is organized to maintain relationships with the reporters and analysts who develop the content that goes into the stream of media that has the subscribing audience we want to reach. In both cases, our business functions are not about connecting with customers directly, but about connecting with the power brokers that control the stream of media that reaches the customers. It’s efficient, as long as that paradigm holds.

But now the media bubble is bursting. And it’s not a mystery why.

Within the media bubble, the media message is a one-way broadcast of information that floods a market of media subscribers. Corporate functions like PR and Advertising evolved to insert their message into the stream of media, or to influence its content.

As we all know from experience, as technology evolves it tends to get cheaper. Companies find ways to innovate production in order to compete for customers on price. Companies also strive to grow markets for their products to expand volume and profits. In that way, industry has inevitably worked to make the expensive communications technologies available to a wider audience at ever decreasing prices—telephones in every home, then televisions, then computers, and internet access, and mobile phones. In what some may find a poetic irony, the very institutions that enjoyed the power of controlling media couldn’t help themselves but to follow the profit motive and sell the components of power to an ever larger market of consumers. The Internet was the tipping point, when consumers and a new wave of businesses that served them assembled the pieces of a massive platform that enabled the rebirth of word-of-mouth communications on a scale that could directly challenge the primacy of corporate-controlled media.

As mass communications technology has evolved, industry developed cheaper components that could be sold profitably to the masses, which eventually made possible the massive social communications platform that allows word-of-mouth media to challenge the primacy of corporate-controlled media.

This is the world we are seeing emerge. It’s not that social media is new, even though the technology that enables it is indeed new. It’s that a media bubble that arose from the expense of communications technology is finally being challenged by an equal and opposite force of democratized communication. Social media represents a return to a broader balance of media control, a world in which consumers challenge the neatly packaged messages of marketers by validating the professed value of products with other consumers before they buy. In this environment, consumers create content that challenges the supremacy of mainstream media—in the early stages by simply writing their own reviews of products on blogs or forums, but then organizing to create their own media properties to gain subscribers based on content more tightly tuned to special interests. As these new media properties emerge, they compete for audience and revenue, undermining the business models and revenue streams of established media companies, and the media market begins to fragment.

Of course, we’re already watching this play out. The effect is what I think of as a fundamental shift from what we used to think of as market segments, often defined by the media through which members of the segment self-reference, to networked customer communities, defined by their interests through which media emerges.

In a world of social media, corporate and media interests are no longer able to asymmetrically control the media and messages. Instead, media is more fragmented and specialized, forcing corporate interests to find a way to play a meaningful role within the customer communities they serve in order to be successful.

So what does this all have to do with PR? Remember how I said the problem for PR is that their DNA is fundamentally mismatched to social media? PR is organized for the old paradigm—to influence the power brokers that control media. Their fundamental DNA is about influencing the influencers, about cultivating relationships with power brokers, not about developing dialog with consumers. Even as many PR companies try to embrace social media, they still see it through the prism of influencing the influencers rather than connecting with consumers. The challenge is not that this is inherently wrong—if as a business you can influence the influencers, that’s an efficient way to advocate on your own behalf. The challenge is that consumers, even while socially wired to follow influencers, are drawn to social media precisely because of its power to defuse the influence of influencers—to continually look behind the veil of influence and expose any inconvenient truths. Influencers will still emerge, but counterveiling truths will also emerge, and rapidly, which means businesses that only focus on trying to develop and influence the influencers will miss the more sustainable advantage of connecting authentically with consumers and playing a valued role in customer communities.

What PR is missing in its DNA is a fundamental drive to connect with customers. To listen, to learn, to play a meaningful role within a customer community. And that’s the litmus test for client-side marketers looking for someone to help them understand social media. The question isn’t how is this partner going to help me drive my message into the market to attract customers, but how is this partner going to help me develop meaningful relationships, and a meaningful role, within the customer communities that define my market. That’s not impossible for a PR company to do, but for most that I see pushing themselves forward as social media experts today, it’s still a big stretch because they don’t see the fundamental shift in the media paradigm.

At this point, I’ll say quite clearly that I think there is tremendous value PR and corporate communications can offer to the emerging practice of social media marketing. But delivering that value will require a substantial shift in philosophy that defines most PR firms. I’ll save that for my next post.