Tag Archives: social media

Consumer Disgust as Social Media Driver

There’s quite a lot of discussion these days about social media, the, um, New Big Revolution in marketing. In reality, it’s more like a stepping stone on the evolutionary path that continues to define and redefine the relationship between businesses and markets. It wasn’t too long ago that we were talking frothily about "Customer Centricity", and before that personalization, one-to-one marketing, and on the trail leads into the misty past. What’s changed today is that technologies have emerged that allow market participants to network–to share ideas and opinions that in ways that blunt the prepackaged and broadcast messages marketers have relied on since the development of mass media to position and sell products.

I’ll be digging into a lot of these issues over the next few weeks, but for the moment, I want to draw attention to the market drivers that are making social media so important. There’s a lot of focus on the mechanics of social media, the fear that companies have of "losing control" of their message, and how businesses and marketers can change strategies to cope. That’s all well and good. But as we so often do, we leave out of the equation the fat elephant sitting in the corner that explains why businesses are being dragged into this transformational step. In a word, the driver of change is Marketing–as in, spin. As in, hype. As in, manipulation of the truth and exploitation of people’s fears and needs to drive short term profits.

The simple truth of the matter is that people are sick and tired of being sold a bill of goods, and marketing as a profession only has itself to blame, because it has consistently failed to stand up and demand ethics, accountability and transparency–all concepts now fundamentally tied to the buzz of Social Media. Instead of flogging this idea ad nauseum, I just want to put in front of you Exhibit A.

This is an outtake of the movie The Corporation, which came out a couple of years ago. You have to watch it to believe it. This is where we’ve arrived at the pinnacle of professional marketing. No sense of what’s right and wrong, no accountability for horrific decisions to exploit the weakest members of society, and precious little discussion about this issue until the government decides to step up and impose regulations, at which point we cry foul.

This second clip is from the DVD extras. More incredible insights into why consumers want to block marketers out of their lives altogether. It’s such a surprise, this social media groundswell.

What’s interesting is that in the later part of this clip, you can see they finally realized the potential backlash of these interviews, and start backpeddling and rationalizing their behavior. And even then, the rationalizations are patently disturbing.

Now, I don’t want to jump all over Lucy Hughes. Okay, strike that, I do. This is a *parent* for cripes sakes. But I do want to point out that this is not at all unusual, though it is particularly graphic. This is a prominant attitude in business and media–mainstream media are, after all, not only totally complicit in this "game", they exploit it by creating specialty programming to suck kids in.

This is what social media is really about. It’s an early sign of consumers shutting out the spin and exploitation. The question every marketer has to ask himself and herself, is whether their response to the trend of social media is to find new ways to escalate the "game", or to recognize that they are members of a community, and that there are markets to build and profits to be made by engaging responsibly with their markets, and ethicly. 

Social Media and the Scheme Meme

I’m ramping up for my gig as a guest blogger for Unica next month, and I’ve settled on the topic "The Power of Social Media". I’m immersing myself in various discussions on the Web, and there are two memes that immediately emerge when you dig into it. The first is that Social Media is the new panacea for marketing, resetting the balance of power between businesses and consumers, and forcing marketers to be more transparent and accountable. The second is that Social Media is just the new Smoke and Mirrors marketing game, that nothing has really changed but the buzz words.

I’ll be digging into these ideas a lot over the next month, but I just wanted to explore the emptiness of this dichotomy. There is no question that we have new communications tools and technologies, and that these tools put more power in the hands of consumers to share information that signficantly impacts brand image and purchasing decisions. From that standpoint, we are in the midst of a major transformation, and no company that wants to remain competitive can ignore this fact. But how companies deploy these tools to attract, influence and even manipulate prospects and customers is a different story, and snake oil strategies as old as trade itself will continue to evolve as well. Just because new tools make it possible for consumers to see increasingly behind the curtain, does not mean that the only plausible strategies for success will be tactics of transparency and integrity. Would that it would be so.

Already, we have some shining examples of how a company can embrace the function of Social Media, while completely negating the form. Edelman, one of the world’s largest and most influential public relations agencies has fully and conspicuously embraced the Social Media concept, remaking the image of the company as an enlightened practitioner. And yet, in just over a year, they have repeatedly demonstrated their reliance on their time-tested stock of manipulative communications strategies. The most famous was last fall’s fake blog "Wal-Marting Across America", a promotional scheme engineered by Edelman, sponsored by "Working Families for Wal-Mart", which is just another old-school PR trick, the supposedly independent organization fronting for the client.

So while Social Media holds tremendous promise for empowering consumers, I wouldn’t swallow the hype that businesses will "lose control" of their marketing. Sure, there’s a lot of disruption as the rules change, but the fundamental game hasn’t changed. The real dichotomy is the difference between those businesses that see customers as a resource to be mercilously mined, and those that see themselves as part of a market community. That dichotomy has always existed, and the new technology doesn’t change it. It just provides new tools and new challenges for both kinds of businesses to pursue their objectives.

Stupid Flock 2.0

I know this will come as a shock, but as we move increasingly toward this brave new world of Social Media, an entire class of marketers clings to the notion that you’re stupid. Not you specifically so much as the abstract concept of you, as demonstrated by your behavior as a consumer. "You" are a tantalizing wallet attached to a vaguely sentient biological mechanism that somehow figured out how to use a Web browser. You travel in flocks that have endless varieties of stupidity: some are young and hip, some are greedy and vain, some are penny pinching luddites. But the unifying characteristics of flock stupidity are laziness and impressionability. And the marketers that seek to target, tag, and monetize you and your flock conceive of Web 2.0 as an evolving set of tools designed to corral you into a warm and soothing place where you can be more efficiently relieved of your cash.

If I sound like I’m exaggerating, read this article on the emerging technology of social search, by iMedia Connection’s Kevin Ryan. From a technical standpoint, the article is interesting and informative. Social Search is a growing phenomenon describing online tools that allow users to shape the results of search queries. But when the author’s guiding perspective bleeds out between the lines, the impression is stark. Take this comment from the introduction:

"…the idea of consumers entering data into search results has far-reaching implications for advertising models and how users perceive — and ultimately use — their information resources."

Notice how the consumer’s actual use of information resources stands in relation to implications for advertising and perception. Rather than being a cause, usage is framed as an effect of perception, which is in turn shaped by advertising. If that seems like a nitpicky analysis, Ryan comes more clearly to the point in his interpretation of search engine evolution:

"Search engines were so inefficient that we needed graphic advertising served
alongside keyword search results to help us find what we needed."

Thank god for advertising.You see, it’s advertisers and marketers that have brought much needed meaning to the murky world of search, while technologists keep screwing around with these crazy ideas that threaten to put consumers in charge of the asylum. But have no fear, consumers are too lazy to actually make any of this Web 2.0 stuff work.

"…history has taught us the more you require a user to do in completing
a simple activity like conducting a search, the less likely they will be to
complete the search."

It’s not a problem of technology, it’s not a problem of our evolving formulations of user interaction and engagement–both of which are in a frenetic state of rapid evolution–it’s a problem of user laziness. If you thought Social Media and Web 2.0 was all about our accelerating transformation toward user engagement, Ryan wants you to think otherwise.

"In short, as marketers and content owners, the only activity we want users
engaging with is the interaction with the search box. And we want them engaging
with search beyond the one or two word phrases they use now. So if tagging and
sharing aren’t the answer, what is?"

In response, Ryan points to the Swicki, a kind of community focused search engine, whose main attraction is apparently that it is "an easy-to-implement search
application that requires no active participation on the part of site visitors," and one of it’s main features, the buzz cloud "requires little or no thought on the part of the searcher." Keeping users minimally engaged is apparently expedient for such marketers, because this Web 2.0 stuff could be dangerous.

"People may have good intentions, and a precious few may exhibit altruistic
actions in other areas of life, but when it comes to search, people are lazy
followed closely by malicious when the opportunity arises." 

So, for those kinds of marketers who want to target, tag and monetize such lazy and malicious consumers, the best approach is to advocate more simplistic tools that keep consumers stupid and happy, while demanding more sophisticated tools to target a constant stream of advertising more efficiently. 

There are three things that disturb me about such an outlook from a marketer. First of all, it completely ignores the primary issue that’s driving search evolution: search, as it currently stands, is not that great for consumers–there’s far too much noise to signal. Second, it puts consumer interests secondary to advertisers, and that’s stating it diplomatically–it’s a view of marketing that looks at consumers like they’re disposable batteries. Third, and most disturbing of all, it’s a viewpoint with a long history in marketing, and a large number of adherents.

To me, the phenomenon of Social Media and Web 2.0 is not only about an exciting new potential for social engagement enabled by technology, it’s a response to this kind of denigrating treatment from companies that employ mercenary marketers to turn customers into a commodity of idiots. But hey, you’re all stupid and lazy. So good luck with that.




Measuring Engagement

There’s a worthwhile discussion on the measurability of engagement at Web Analytics guru Eric Peterson’s blog. Eric sets out to measure the engagement of a few users in his RSS base and, based on the responses of those users, will now have to figure out how to readjust his metrics. Some of the best information is in the comments section, especially where Gartner’s Bill Gassman weighs in on the slipperiness of engagement:

Each organization’s version of engagement will be unique. It will be
derived from a number of root metrics, probably under a dozen. Common
root metrics will be frequency, recency, length of visit, purchases and
lifetime value. Some organizations may include visitor actions, such as
subscribing, providing personal information, writing a comment, or
participating in a blog. Soft metrics, such as attitude, influence and
obsession may be used. Not all root metrics will come from the Web
analytic tool. Many will use metrics from other channels such as call
center actions and physical store visits.

Anyone sitting on the fence waiting for a dashboard of engagement and ROI metrics should check back in a year or so. This isn’t going to be wrapped up in a bow any time soon. Of course, by the time the metrics are solidly drilled, the competitive edge will have long since dissolved into an efficiency game. Hell, when Betty Crocker has an RSS feed–and a nice one at that–this is no longer the territory of early adopters.

Unexpected Social Catalysts

This is odd, but fascinating. I’m camping out at my favorite wifi hotspot, the Coffee Roasters in San Anselmo. Just catching up on blogs and news. There’s a pretty constant background buzz of conversation and music that offers a pleasant flavor of neighborhoody white noise. Suddenly one thread of conversation rises above the rest, and then becomes a shouting match. A woman is standing at the front door shouting F-yous at the cashier. There’s an odd moment when everyone simultaneously realizes what’s going, every conversation ends, and all attention turns to the woman at the door. She’s nicely dressed, attractivce, and angry, continuing to shout F-yous as she exits stage left. Stunned silence. Then laughter as the cashier says, "well, Merry Christmas."

Here’s the interesting thing. As the conversation picks back up, everyone is talking about what just happened–but not to the same people they were talking to before. Everyone is now turned to connect with the person outside their original conversation to try and figure out who knows what caused the uproar. As I look around the coffee shop, I see three or four people now introducing themselves to each other while laughing and shaking their heads. What started out as an uncomfortable scene suddenly turned into a social catalyst that rearranged the operating networks in the coffee shop. A few minutes later, as I’m writing this, two of those new network connections are now heavily engaged in conversation.

It makes me think of social media, and how the online norms of social order and structure may not always be the most effective catalysts of engagement. We all lament the trolls and bashers on bulletin boards; I wonder if that shared lament is a shared experience that reorders and galvanizes new social connections.

Marketing ROI: Return on [Your Concept Here]

I got a trackback this afternoon from Brian Solis, and his post on ROI vs. ROP for social media metrics. ROP? Yet another formulation of RO[blank] intended to sound like a financial metric. Brian’s passion about the need to engage customers and the value of social media is spot on. But I have to groan when I see another new permutation of Return On Anything Short of Actual Revenue.

As I argued passionately during the last frothy marketing trend on "brand", marketers are great at creating, evolving and innovating ideas. But they are also trend-crazy. And when you combine those two predilections with serious business issues, you end up with a profession that continually confuses the hell out of the rest of the business group. Every marketer you talk to defines things a different way. But more important, especially on the topic of ROI, marketing loses all credibility with the board room suite when it twists and bends financial metrics designed to measure value creation into concepts that skirt the issue of accountability for actually creating value. This goes for Pepper’s and Roger’s Return on Customer as well–even though there are many good ideas there about how to value customers. 

ROI means something important that too many marketers seem completely unable to get their arms around. It means demonstrating in clear terms that the programs you’re pumping money into are returning real cash value to the company. Is that hard in marketing? Absolutely. Often it’s next to impossible, or at least the cost of measurement is greater than the cost of the program in the first place. But marketers need to be straight up with those challenges, and not dismiss or dilute the value of ROI by introducing ROFOTM (Return On Flavor of the Month).

Businesses are right to ask about the ROI of social media. If I put a dollar in the stockmarket, I get a ton of data that helps me peg the risk of getting my dollar back with interest. Sooner or later, marketers are going to have to learn how to explain why a shareholder’s dollar is better invested in the company’s marketing programs and not the stockmarket. Marketing will not win any points by responding with a feint and a dodge, and saying "these other metrics are more important", or my personal favorite, "they don’t get it."

Social media is early in it’s evolution, even if it is building on older concepts (remember The Well?). The value creating potential varies tremendously from industry to industry, and from company to company, and it also comes with some significant risks for companies used to commanding and controlling their messages and markets. Those challenges should not be swept under the rug, with social media packaged up, wrapped in a bow, and sold as the new Web 2.0 elixer of life. Those challenges–like how best to measure the potential ROI of social media–should be mapped, debated and addressed openly.

There are a lot of good arguments to proselytize social media today. It’s relatively cheap, it can generate market insights often more expensive to gain in other ways, it can improve customer intimacy, it can dramatically improve visibility on the Web–there’s a lot more, but good measurement is not on the list, yet. Let’s please spend a little time and energy figuring that one out before we package it up and sell the hell out of it.

The Value and Challenge of Engagement

I had a long and interesting conversation with Gil Roberts from PodTech yesterday. I was down in Palo Alto to talk with PodTech about working together on a couple of podcasting projects. He asked an interesting question during our conversation that I thought was worth repeating and discussing here.

Do you see companies investing in social media platforms, and would those platforms really establish working communities within an enterprise?

There are a lot of important threads knotted up in that question. But the two that popped out for me were the problem enterprises would want to solve with social media platforms, and how they would operate them.

The value proposition for enteprise social media platforms seems to be about knowledge exchange and collaboration. Businesses have been addressing these issues for a long, long time. Lotus Notes. Document management. Knowledge bases. Intranets. Wikis. How many relevant product categories and platforms can you name? The question any procurement team would ask when assessing a new platform is what it would bring to the table that these other systems don’t address. Not just how is it different, but how does the difference deliver value?

The second question is how a social system would be managed and developed inside a business. The holy grail is a self-organizing network that delivers value by distilling and disseminating knowledge. But self-organizing networks tend to develop around passionate and exciting topics. Politics, sports, dating… When you put a social platform inside the four walls of a business, that doesn’t seem to change much. Most people don’t get passionately engaged and self-organizing about business processes, or innovation. Especially when there’s significant potential for political fallout.

At some point the current drive to develop enterprise platforms for social media tools is going to run into the lack of organizational knowledge of how to successfully cultivate engagement. Let’s be honest. How many companies can you name that have a culture of engagement offline? Will a social media platform fill in for a cultural deficiency? Not impossible. But not likely.

Not that this lesson is new for anyone, but technology is never a self-contained solution. There are real cultural and organizational challenges for bringing the kind of social platform that works on the wild Web successfully into the enterprise. Someone’s going to have to start dissecting and analyzing the techniques for developing engagement in the enterprise, beyond just the flipping of a product switch.

Measuring Social Media

I want to go a step further in breaking down the dialog over social media metrics, in the wake of the Factiva roundtable. The questions I asked yesterday were what should be measured, why should it be measured, and what will the impact of those measurements be. Let’s start by looking at who wants to measure social media in the first place.

When a social media channel first takes off, the measurements that are important first are those that are relevant to the Content Provider. Take Marketonomy. I want to know what kind of people are reading my blog. I want to know what they find interesting. I want to know how to better target my content to build a better relationship with readers. Currently, those metrics are not very robust. I know how many people subscribe to my RSS feed, but I know next to nothing about them. I know which of my posts get read the most, but with the small ratio of comments to readership, I’m not always certain what drives those posts to the top. The metrics I wish I could get today are demographic. I don’t need to know *who* my readers are personally, but I would like to know have a general profile of their professional background and areas of interest.

Once a social media channel has some traffic, new measurements come into play. If you want to bring on advertisers or sponsors, you need to demonstrate the value of your channel over others. In print, you point to subscription demographics and circulation numbers to justify ad pricing. On the Web, you’ve got traffic. Of course, these metrics are open to gaming. Publications find creative new ways to inflate their circ numbers, just like Web sites find creative ways to inflate traffic. Content providers package pretty numbers to push up ad prices, and ad buyers poke holes in those numbers to push the price down, and the same game will certainly develop with social media.

Just like the current dialog in Social Media circles, traditional media has mounted periodic campaigns to introduce new metrics that justify more ad spending. I once worked for a magazine that tried to measure pass-along rates, and I’ve put the same concept into play with email campaigns using source codes. But these metrics are usually a sign that the provider doesn’t have leverage with buyers, which means they probably don’t have high demand. Just as traffic/circulation has been the bottom-line metric for traditional channels, I would argue that it’s going to remain the primary metric for most social media channels too–the more traffic you have, the more demand there will be to reach your audience, the less granular your metrics will need to be, simply because you’ve got waiting buyers.

But the complicating factor in all this is how a channel grows and maintains a robust audience, because once it reaches critical mass, it has a hungry mouth to feed. You’ve got to find worthwhile topics to cover, people to interview, or at least engaging people that will drive dialog and audience participation–and if they’re really that interesting, other people will want them too. That’s where other players in the value chain for delivering content often come into play, and other metrics matter to them. Whether you’re dealing with an interview prospect’s secretary, or an executive’s PR rep, or even if you’re relying on users creating content, the question is: Why should anyone bother driving content into your channel? The answer is that there must be some value they can derive from it, and one of two metrics will demonstrate that value.

For anyone actually engaging in social media, the important metric is likely Participation. The more people are engaged, the more people I have to talk with, or at least listen to. For anyone interested in getting content in front of your audience, like a company or PR group, the important metric beyond raw traffic is likely Influence–which is the power to impact the opinions, attitudes and behaviors of a target audience. In Social Media, traffic, participation and influence are certainly related, although the relationship doesn’t seem all that clear yet. You can have high traffic and low participation, and still have signficant influence–just as the Wall Street Journal has for generations. You can generate influence with low traffic and high participation–just as my former job at the CMO Council did with programs engaging a small group of leading marketing executives.

I’ll dig into the dynamics of influence more next time. For now, I’ll just repeat the argument that if you have significant traffic, you’re going to have high demand to reach your audience. More granular metrics will help you raise the value of reaching your audience, or compensate for a lower traffic numbers than competitors.

Social Media Metrics

I participated in a great dialog in Palo Alto last night about social media and metrics, hosted by Factiva. It’s one of the more focused gatherings I’ve been to recently on social media—which typically refers to the kind of content that connects people, as exemplified by blogs, forums, wikis, peer networks and other similar channels. It was more like a working session among practitioners to try and define some of the parameters for how social media should be measured–should we be looking at influence, engagement, audience reach, demographics? Jeremiah Owyang has a full write up of the event, including the outcome of our prioritization of metrics.

What was striking to me was that even in a room full of social media-savvy people from all sides of the industry, the discussion was still somewhat chaotic, with a lot of semantic negotiations over the meaning of words like "relevance" and "engagement". This reflects a similar level of disarray in the community at large over how to tackle measurement now that demand for it rising. So I want to step back for a minute and think about the context for social media metrics. Why is there a growing demand for measurement? Who wants to measure what? Why does it matter? And what is the likely impact of measurement on the evolution of social media?

One of the most incisive comments of the evening came from Linda Kozlowski from Flieshman Hillard, who said "suddenly everyone wants to make a pie chart out of social media," and that’s exactly the mile marker we’ve reached in the evolution of the medium. Social media has moved out of the realm of early adopters, where people engaged and propelled the medium from a sense of passion and vision, and has moved toward the mainstream, where audiences are growing and businesses are trying to adapt the medium to promote business objectives. Podcasts, for example, are no longer the exclusive domain of true-believers broadcasting on their favorite passion from their basement, they’re being developed more and more by marketing departments and even networks who see an audience rapidly reaching critical mass. As more money flirts with social media, the tone of development quickly moves from passion and vision to effectiveness and ROI.

So now a lot of businesses want to get into social media, and their reasons are all over the map. Some truly want to engage their audience and see how it impacts their business, ostensibly by improving customer responsiveness and product development. Others want a new channel to connect with their target audience. Others just want to be part of something cool. But in the current business environment of intense focus on business process and metrics, almost everyone is asking how they can measure success with the new medium. The promise of cash flowing into social media development, but gated by pointed questions over metrics of success, has a lot of people scrambling to come up with incisive measurements to populate the CMO’s dashboard–like measuring the degree of influence certain bloggers have with an audience, or measuring the degree of engagement over a key issue. New metrics are a great idea, but I think there’s a deeper discussion that has to happen before this issue really shakes out.

First of all, why is measurement really needed? The most poignant answer is that anyone in the social media business is not going to get any money if they can’t put a value on what’s being purchased. The companies with money to invest want to buy insight, access and influence with a targeted audience. Ironically these same companies accept very tenuous metrics in mediums where they allocate huge budgets. Look at advertising. Across every traditional medium, from television to print, metrics are notoriously tenuous in linking investments to bottom-line returns, and businesses have learned how to negotiate pricing and enhance measurement of impact in creative ways. On the Web, where tighter measurement of traffic is possible, measurements of behavior and action are available–like click throughs and purchases–instead of just impressions. But if you really look at the dynamics of advertising on the web, it seems that tighter metrics are more a feature of less powerful channels, which need to provide more justification to potential buyers to stimulate demand. The heavy hitters–the large networks with massive audiences–don’t need to price their space on delivery of measurable actions, because the demand for impressions is high enough that they don’t have to.

I would argue that the same dynamic is shaping the development of metrics in social media today. Interest in moving into social media is high, but companies don’t have a context yet in which to place social media alongside other costs they already understand, like PR and advertising–even if the effective measurement of those other costs remains somewhat tenuous. So they’re going to ask a lot of questions about how to measure the value of what they’re buying, and they’re not going to be satisfied with the answer that measurements in social media are really no better than measurements in traditional media. Social media companies will race to provide metrics that show impressive results, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, especially given the ways measurement may shape investment and in turn shape the evolution of social mediums.

Last night, the metric that popped out as being the highest priority was “engagement”. If you’re going to have a social medium, it’s useful to know just how social it is. Are people actively commenting, debating, sharing ideas? If this becomes the metric of a successful channel, what does that really mean, and how will that narrow the perception of, and investment in, different types of social media channels? Some topics, and some communities, drive tremendous levels of dialog and engagement. The audience is comfortable engaging online, and passionate about their views. But some topics and communities attract a lot of “lurkers”, people who will hang out and listen, but not step out on a limb and comment, for any number of reasons ranging from fear of a slap-down, to concern over having their comments Googled when they apply for a job. One of the interesting things about SecondLife is that unlike a forum or blog, you can physically see all the lurkers watching from the sidelines. If your goal is to drive brand awareness, these lurkers are tremendously valuable, and just because they’re not engaged in the verbal discussion, doesn’t mean their presence isn’t valuable to a marketer. How should a metric of “engagement” be valued alongside “presence”?

This is already a long post, so I’ll pick up the thread again tomorrow on some other issues. But to wrap this up, I think it’s important for social media gurus to take a breath before racing down the track to deliver new metrics, and start asking some critical questions about why these measurements matter, who they matter to, and what the implications are of adoption. Are the measurements designed to aid in gaining insight into market issues and trends? Or to refine and direct influence over market dialogs and impressions? Are the proposed metrics really an accurate measurement of value, or just a reflection of a particular bias toward one form of social dynamic? And perhaps most importantly, what are the potential unintended consequences of leading investors to value particular measurements of social media interactions? (Think of Nielsen ratings for pricing television advertising, and the stupid spectacle of sweeps week.)

Kudos to Factiva and Jeremiah Owyang for putting together a great dialog, with a great meal in the bargain. This is only the first round of an important conversation.