Always Getting Started with Social Media

Rally d'AlbaniaImage by Funky64 (www.lucarossato.com) via Flickr

When I first began blogging over three years ago, it was completely new to me. There was etiquette to learn, tools to master and people to reach out and connect with.

To be honest, I was sceptical about blogging. I had tracked it as a type of communication for years – reading and being inspired by Seth Godin and the group of expert bloggers at Fast Company – but I could not quite see how it would work, say, at a corporate level.

On a personal level, however, the WordPress and Typepad blogging platforms provided a simple way of publishing regular material on the web – and they were a perfect fit for my objectives – to build a discipline around writing every day.

And so it began.

I started with poetry, but within days, had shifted my focus to websites and storytelling. It was not intentional. My subject matter simply overwhelmed me. I would begin to write creative work and find, instead, that there was something else on my mind. After a month of blogging I asked, Does Anyone Read a Blog. If I remember rightly, I would have had about FIVE readers – and like many bloggers, I became obsessed with web analytics. However, I was already thinking about the nature of blogging and influence, suggesting that not all audiences are created equal:

It reminds me of a quote by Howard Barker (the great British playwright) – "Because you cannot address everybody, you may as well address the impatient" (49 Asides for a Tragic Theatre). This is what sets the web apart from other revolutionary communications platforms – it is both a catalyst for change and the method of transformation.

The idea of transformation is important in social media … and it is something that we easily forget. What I have learned over the last few years is that I must resist the easy options with blogging. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of blogging as publishing … of seeking readers rather than conversation – dreaming of reach over influence. It is important to stimulate, engage and challenge myself and my readers … after all, there is PLENTY of great content available on the web.

So while measurement is great, reader figures are gratifying and even humbling, the real opportunity is impact. How does YOUR blog change or inspire the people who read it? What do they take away into their worlds as a consequence? As Richard Huntington eloquently explained:

So long as the digital community clings to its obsession with accountability over effectiveness it will remain in the unedifying position of creating engaging brand fluff on the one hand and highly measurable but largely pointless direct response advertising on the other.

It’s important to “get started” with social media – but remember, we are always in a process of getting started – there is always something new to learn. And as this great list of social media case studies shows – while there is some fantastic work being done, there are also plenty of social media mistakes. If in doubt, remember, “change” and “transform”.

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Eat.Sleep.Blog Episode 9

This is the next instalment of the intermittent Eat.Sleep.Blog conversation between Paul McEnany, Sean Howard and Gavin Heaton. ESB is an occasionally NSFW discussion on the current state of marketing and branding. (You can even join the ESB Fan Page on Facebook!)


Eat, Sleep, Blog #09 from paulmcenany on Vimeo.

Running at around 45 minutes, the focus of this episode is on the power, potential and challenges presented by new “community services” such as Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect. We discuss:

  • The sudden appearance of Friend Connect on blogs such as Armando Alves’ A Source of Inspiration and Paul’s Hee-Haw Marketing (1:46)
  • Google needing to accelerate their partner network to catch up with Facebook (2:20)
  • Is the future of websites “social” and do these services change what we consider a “destination site”? (4:00)
  • Will the benefits of “group sourcing” rather than “crowdsourcing” transform “influence networks”? (6:00)
  • What is the power of “where our friends are and where they choose to respond”? (7:30)
  • Sean explains the value of services like Gigpark (8:10)
  • Recommendation engines and influence segmentation (10:00)
  • Where is the point of monetisation and how does aggregate data work for marketers? (12:00)
  • Why semantic evaluation will not deliver the answers that marketers want (but think they can extract) (14:00)
  • The need for human interpretation of data to extract insight (20:00)
  • Will social media, influence networks and reputation engines scale in a useful way? (21:00)
  • Can we predict who we trust? (23:30)
  • What happens when the Internet REALLY explodes as a network with the mass adoption of technology across the world – and what does this mean for “scale”? (25:30)
  • Is the semantic web a survival mechanism for the Internet? (28:00)
  • Will the web simply become another form of TV measurement? (30:30)
  • We send a shout out to our #1 fan, Mack Collier (33:00)
  • A new world of privacy (36:00)
  • The uselessness of website T&Cs (40:00)
  • The attractions of the Dallas Waffle House (47:00) – yes, it goes downhill quickly!
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The Filter-Tipped Internet

Almost a generation ago we, the public, started to twig that there could be a downside to smoking. A whole swag of research followed – about the relative merits of additives, flavours (remember menthol?) and so on. In the end, it was settled – the best approach would be to add a tip to cigarettes so that the very worst elements of cigarette smoke would be filtered out for us.

Guess what happened. Well, you know the answer – cigarette smoke still kills us every year by the thousand.

You see, we never went to the “root cause” of the problem. We fluffed around the edges. We talked up the health impacts and bombarded consumers with “the facts” – and while there has been some successes, millions of young people around the world continue to take up smoking every year. Facts don’t change our behaviour – feelings do.

We are now facing similar confusion around Stephen Conroy’s internet filter. There are plenty of facts floating around:

  • That the filter will slow down our broadband by around 80%
  • That it will impact regional community far more than the city
  • That it can be easily by-passed via peer-to-peer file sharing
  • That it will massively increase the size of the internet site blacklist which is ALREADY in place

As Holly Doel-Mackaway, adviser with Save the Children Fund states in the Sydney Morning Herald, the filter scheme is “‘fundamentally flawed’ because it failed to tackle the problem at the source and would inadvertently block legitimate resources”.

But there is a root cause issue here – the facts point out the issues but don’t address our emotional response. It is NOT a filter we need. It’s EDUCATION. It’s empowerment. Why should we allow the federal government to WASTE $40 million of our hard-earned taxes when it could be so easily diverted into education – training for kids AND their parents. And it is important that we let the government know our thoughts.

With this internet filter, we are just papering over the problem. There will always be material available in our communities that we would rather not see. There are problems that we would rather not be exposed to. But our challenge, and our duty, is to stand-up to such issues – not avoid them. What price can we put on the empowering of our communities and our kids? As David Campbell might say, it’s “priceless”.

(BTW you can listen in to David’s podcast feed here).

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The Fail First Strategy

josh seq 3There are many lessons that marketers can “borrow” from the IT industry. “Open source”, for example, has changed the way that many of us conceive of ideas – they are no longer considered the proprietary property of one company/business (or they aren’t in most cases) – after all, ideas are the easy part, execution where it gets difficult. (In fact, we can really wonder whether ideas EVER were owned or whether this was just a convenient illusion.)

Most recently, I have been pondering the concept of “failing fast” –  see the wikipedia entry here. It is a systemic approach to programming that aims to identify and report on failures – or events that are likely to cause failures. The focus of the programmer is on passing the message “FAIL” up to a system that is built to respond. There are two important aspects (that I can see):

  1. The program escalates the issue or failure to another level of responsibility
  2. The program also halts before the failure replicates, spreads or becomes embedded in other systems

From a marketing point of view, there is much to learn from this. And in light of the debacles around Motrim Moms and MyFutureBank more locally, the lessons could and should be absorbed by marketers very quickly:

  1. Listen. As Amber Naslund points out, there are plenty of free tools that can be used to begin monitoring what is being said about your brand, products and services. Start with Google alerts. But please, start.
  2. Step-in. If you are not listening to the online conversations, the echo chamber tends to get louder and louder. As this escalates and draws more voices into the conversation, the absence of an “official voice” means that there is no way to diffuse the conversation. This leads, as Alan Wolk suggests, to overreaction. Once you are at that point, there is no return.
  3. Participate. When you start actually participating you will make mistakes – you may need to slay some sacred cows. But that’s ok … it’s the way we learn. By building relationships you are also creating a community/network. These are the folks who will let you know if someone else it talking about your brand.
  4. Learn. There is much to learn by following the first three steps. Take this information and share it with your product development and customer service teams. Use this to transform what you deliver to your markets and how you treat your customers.

Despite the benefits of the fail-fast approach, however, the brave brand manager may want to take a more tangible, proactive and accelerated path – to FAIL FIRST.

Under a fail first strategy, you already accept that there will be mis-steps. You acknowledge that issues will arise that you won’t be able to control. In fact, the approach means taking a POSITION that people can buy into or work against. It is drawing a line in the sand.

Then, once the controversy starts or the conversation begins, you work them both equally using the same four steps above. Those who like what you are doing will converse. Those who don’t will cause chaos. Engage with both and use them to cross-pollinate ideas. Learn from the nay-sayers how and where you can improve your products. Activate and empower your evangelists to tell their stories.

Now, I don’t advocate such a strategy for all brands. But there are some who could do it. And for those who can stand the heat, there are great benefits to flow from failing first and learning. But remember, you need to PLAN a fail first strategy. You need the systems and fall-back strategies in place that can help you overcome the failure. You need the management support to hold course.

The Motrim debacle could have been turned around. Many similar “crises” could. What would you do differently? Would you dare to fail first? What do you think it takes to create the most successful failure in marketing history?

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Mapping Your Digital Influence

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has recently released the Influencer Handbook (hat tip to Stein Communications). It has sections covering:   

  • Definition of an influencer and influencer marketing
  • Types of influencers
  • Methods to engage and thank influencers
  • Guidelines for influencer self-regulation
  • Bibliography of influencer communication research and practice

The guide is well timed as it provides me with a framework for thinking about influence. Over the last week I have done quite a bit of reading around this topic, absorbing the smart thinking of Mike Arauz, Dina Mehta, Allan Young and Julian Cole and even revisiting my bookshelves.

Why Nothing Ever Gets DoneYears ago, I read Bob Cialdini’s, The Psychology of Influence. I remember being impressed from the very first lines where he states “I can admit it freely now. All my life I’ve been a patsy”. Ever since that first reading, I have been interested in the way in which influence can be created, managed and employed. It might even be argued that marketing is all about using the “weapons of influence” to achieve business outcomes.

However, in the Age of Conversation, such naked techniques are easily spotted and counteracted. As consumers it is easy to research and receive unmediated commentary from a business’ other customers, suppliers and even employees. We can ask questions, find answers and make decisions independently of a brand’s best marketing efforts. Interestingly, it is Cialdini’s concept of “social proof” – a technique used so effectively AS a marketing tool that is the undoing of this “old style” influence.

Social proof is where an expected behaviour is prompted and reinforced in the moment in which we experience it. An example is “canned laughter” in a sitcom – we hear the pre-recorded laugh track, realise it is fake, but engage in laughing anyway (and research shows that we laugh longer and more often with canned laughter). But in a networked world, we are connected to, and in some instances by, mob behaviour. The difference is, that in a social network, we actually CHOOSE to participate – to use what Mark Earls and and Alex Bentley call “directed copying” – enacting social proof while simultaneously demonstrating another person’s influence:

If we view the influentials phenomenon as a special case of directed copying, then usually it is we who decide to copy an individual, creating their perceived influence in the process.

Mark and Alex suggest that rather than focusing on HOW ideas spread, we should look at WHY (check out their excellent paper entitled “Forget influentials, herd-like copying is how brands spread”). By understanding the two types of copying (directed and random) we can produce content and strategies that are designed to facilitate the type of behaviour we want to see.

Furthermore, by understanding the dynamics of various social networks, it is possible to not only map the behaviours that you want to establish, you can also shape and amplify them – which is where marketing really becomes interesting.

All this, of course, leads back to the need for good planning, for focused insight, and strategy that takes into account the nuances of digital and social behaviour. Perhaps all this talk of influence really is overrated – and we should look at what I called the Promiscuous Idea and leave the tribes to sort it out amongst themselves!

Influence and Popularity in Social Media

When I started writing this blog I sought out the experts. I looked for various posts on how to write a blog, how to make my posts interesting to my readers (all three of them) and how to increase traffic. I searched Technorati for marketing related blogs and topics, wrote comments across the web and tweaked my blog design. At some point I happened across Mack Collier’s list of the Top 25 Marketing Blogs and my jaw dropped. I could not understand how someone could possibly build such high Technorati authority rankings – it seemed a world away from where I was in my thinking.

This list became my essential reading list. I used each of those blogs to learn, and their authors generously engaged me in their discussion of topics. But as the number of blogs within the marketing or social media category has exploded, these lists have begun to be used as an indicator of not just popularity but influence. But measuring influence is quite difficult … after all, not all of our interactions are online. How do we measure the off-web commentaries and discussions that occur in agencies around the world? Or worse, how do we determine how far and wide our thinking (words and images) reaches beyond the ever expanding edges of the web? (For example, I am sure I have seen David Armano’s influence ripples in presentations given by people who have never even visited a blog!)

There is a very real difference between blogs that I would consider popular and those that I would consider influential. As Shel Israel points out, there is a significant difference:

Suppose I were a political blogger and I had an audience of just three followers. Those followers were very engaged because they read everything I posted. They commented often. They took what I said and quoted me to other people in other conversations. But there were only three of them. Therefore I would be ranked lower than chopped liver in all the ranking systems. The catch is that those three readers were the President of the US, and the heads of China and Russia.

Influence, in this example, requires an intimate understanding of your readership – after all, we don’t know WHO reads unless they admit it by commenting or sending an email. In thinking through the concept of influence, and what I have been calling the Democracy of Action, it seems to me that influence is built on twin axes of popularity and reputation (I am borrowing from Gartner’s magic quadrants slightly here). Where your blog’s popularity and reputation are both high, you have “social influence” – and the capacity to create contagion and instigate action on a large scale. However, where you have a popular blog but lower levels of reputation, your blog is likely to fall into the “hype” category. 

Perhaps controversially, I am thinking that these distinctions refer directly to Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties”. Social influence and its impact on action is determined by a large number of “weak ties”. So those blogs which are built around an identity which is well-known to its audience (strong ties) is less likely to carry social influence. These quadrants would appear as shown below.

InfluenceQuadrants

The “niche influence” and “awareness” categories I fairly self-explanatory. Lower levels of popularity but high levels of reputation indicate influence within niche audiences; while lower levels of both reputation and popularity indicate awareness is low and interaction is emergent. 

How does this thinking play with your own understanding? Am I missing something? Is this too simple? Would love to know your thoughts!

UPDATE: Mike Arauz expands on his comments with a whole post, adding a z-axis to the diagram. And Dina Mehta weighs in, transforming the discussion to encompass the changing behaviours of both consumers and brands.

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Just Because I Read Your Blog Doesn’t Mean I’m Under Your Influence

The idea of "influence" fascinates me. I have written about Granovetter’s strength of weak ties, the importance of curiosity over influence and the democracy of action — and each time I wonder how influence does, or should relate to social media. As I explained previously:

The findings of Mark Granovetter’s research into social networks demonstrated that it is the WEAK ties that lead to action. If this is the case, then influence may only play an important role in the very early stages of branding efforts — to facilitate AWARENESS. But as consumers begin to engage with the brand messaging and various forms of communication, it appears that the power of the social network lies not in the level of influence of any select group but in the susceptibility of the audience to contagion.

I think this is where social media, and blogging in particular are interesting. While we spend quite some time and effort talking about the way in which social media is "changing the game", we also tend to rely on the measurements on which "traditional" advertising has been built. And the influencer as a new media "celebrity" is a case in point. Where the actual change in game has occurred is in the balance of power — marketing is no longer about B2C or B2B but about Brands-to-Community.

As Leigh Himel says (in this comment):

… we cannot solely BUY people’s attention anymore. We have to earn it. That’s the shift. And the problem is we keep applying a linear thought process that is based in mass advertising instead of looking at a networked marketing model that is both embracive of mass as well as interactive media (and pays homage to those differences rather than attempting to utilize the same strategies and tools for each).

To survive and prosper in this new environment, brands have to begin to employ their ENTIRE ecosystems — the networks of supply, demand (consumers), partnership and collaborators — in such a way as they fulfil the need of a single person. This still can be done on a mass scale, but the nuance is different. The marketing is transformative. The delivery is personal. And the experience is unique. And while this may take brands some time to rethink the business processes which deliver this experience, it is not impossible nor unattainable. Review, for example, this great explanation from RichardatDell on the way in which Dell are seriously rethinking and re-engaging with their communities.

Another way to consider this, is in terms of blogging. Think about the blogs that you read, comment on or subscribe to. Think about whether you would personally consider them to be influential. I may be wrong, but my sense of "influence" is that it belongs "out there" — where there is no relationship; where the connection is faceless, impersonal, removed.

As our personal and professional networks become increasingly more visible the concept of influence will fade. And in our socially networked world, reputation rather than influence will become a far more important measure of value.