11: Relationships and Engagement

Success in social media is to turn casual consumers into active enthusiasts and advocates for your brand. The author outlines the topics she intends to discuss, but it seems rather random and disjointed, and only obliquely related to this opening statement.

Twitter For Your Business

A basic description: Twitter is a "micro-blogging" service that allows users to post short messages (140 characters) which are read by their followers in near real-time. Because of the immediacy of interaction, many businesses are using Twitter as a news broadcasting, customer service, and short-term reconnaissance tool.

Because of the extremely short length and frequent posting, there is a lot of chatter: any passing thought, on subjects both grave and trivial, is likely to be tweeted. Most individual users take a casual rather than structured approach, and their twitter feed does not adhere to a specific theme or follow an ongoing thread of logic.

To overcome this, the '@' and '#' tags were adopted to enable users to indicate their comments are in reference to a given user or topic. Notably, this was not created by Twitter, but used by its community, though the service picked up on this and advocated it.

Because of the popularity and lack of focus, Twitter is subject to a great deal of hype. There are many suggestions for tips and tricks, grandiose claims, and get-rich-quick schemes.

However, it's fair to claim that Twitter is genuinely new. Many social media that promise to "change the way we X" merely provide a method to do something that was already being done. The ability to broadcast each passing thought does not fall into that category: it really is a new activity rather than a mere change in tools.

Twitter is also highly open as a platform: the author indicates that over 75% of traffic comes from third-party clients and applications that send or receive data from the service. (EN: no examples are given, and I strongly suspect that any twitter client is considered a "third-party application" such that if you post or read from your cell phone, rather than visiting the twitter.com Web site to read and post, it's counted as a third-party. With that in mind, the percentage actually seems quite small, and it's not at all amazing: it's much like web browsers and mail clients being independent of mail server software.)

Twitter does not have a formal advertising model, and users are hostile to the notion of commercial/automated tweets. The author suggests that there are plans to include "promoted tweets" from advertisers what will give companies an automated method of sending a tweet in response to a user who mentions certain keywords (EN: which has the potential to be devastating if overused) as well as coupling Twitter with geolocation so that companies can annoy people based on where they happen to be at any given moment (EN: It has long been a dream of advertisers and a dread of consumers that, as a person walks along a sidewalk, they get an advertisement from each shop they happen to pass.)

The author suggests that Twitter may have reached "the mature stage" of saturation and stagnation and that it now faces the challenge of remaining valuable and relevant to prevent users from abandoning the service for the next new thing. (EN: Which implies that the service is a novelty that has no real value, and people will move away if it doesn't constantly do something different - but I don't think that's quite right: if a service has value, people keep using it. Nothing "new" has been done with e-mail for decades, yet there is no exodus of users from it, and while it's difficult to pin down the value of Twitter, my sense is it's not a fad that will go away soon if it doesn't bolt on frivolous capabilities to have the appearance of evolution.)

It's also noted that Twitter is much more actively used for outbound messaging. By comparison, it's estimated that only 40% of Internet users have personal blogs, only 5% of them update them on a daily basis (EN: Daily postings to a blog seems an unreasonable standard to use, though I think the number would still be fairly low even if a more reasonable interval, such as once per week, were used). However, a single sentence is easier to compose than a couple of paragraphs and Twitter is seen as less formal, so it is suggested (EN: without any research or proof) that Twitter users post frequently about things that seem too frivolous or undeveloped to make it into a blog post.

But to be realistic: Twitter is not very widely used, and even people who have Twitter accounts are not active users of the service. It goes beyond Pareto: almost 90% of the posts in Twitter are produced by only 10% of users. By contrast, it is estimated that "other social networking sites" have a broader usage, where the top 10$ of users create about 30% of the content.

Another snippet: "On Twitter, the average number of tweets produced per user is 1!" (EN: I isolate this and quote it exactly because it seems incredible. It's not one post per day, but one post ever. This means that a person who joins Twitter and posts once a day for a year is counterbalanced by 364 empty accounts that posted nothing at all, not even a "hello world." I don't doubt there are many passive users on the service, but this statistic seems extreme.)

However, given the volume of traffic to the Twitter service, it's also reasonable to conclude that the vast majority of users are consumers of content: while they don't post their own content or updates they pay considerable attention to what others are saying and seek information on a range of topics.

This is where marketers should pay attention: the value in twitter is not merely in subscribers who follow a feed, but by a far larger number of users who search feeds for given topics. Then, the author seems to reverse this, suggesting that "buzz generator" accounts that pump out marketing and ignore the audience have little value to the consumer because the lack of interaction on the feed saps its credibility.

(EN: I think this is confusing two different things. Subscribers seek interactivity and consider the credibility of a source before subscribing to it, but searchers generally see posts out of context and do not care about interactivity or assess the sum total of posts from a given source. This points me toward the conclusion that it's OK to have a marketing account that pumps out content to searchers but a separate account that is meant for subscribers - just don't use a single account for both activities.)

The low writer-to-reader ratio also suggests that Twitter propagates information from a very small number of influential people to whom "the rest of us" give attention. (EN: No elaboration on that, and I do think there's some danger in assuming this to be a general trait of the active twitter user. Pull up some random twitter feeds, and what you see is more along the lines of babbling half-wits than thoughtful and influential people who have the respect of others. That's not saying they don't exist, but they tend to be few and far between.)

Wrapping back around to a point: Twitter, of all social media, requires a change in the way that brands interact with their customer from merely pumping out boilerplate messages to interacting, listening to the specific needs of the market or an individual, and responding in a relevant and appropriate manner.

Cultivating Your Advocates

If people have heard of your product, they're going to talk about it. If they use it, they'll talk about it more. The more customers you have, the greater frequency with which they use your product, the more conversation will occur.

Your decision as a brand is not whether to allow this conversation to happen, as it inevitably will. And it's not to control the conversation, as people will have the impression and opinion that arises from their experience of interacting with your brand. Your choice in the matter is limited to whether you will participate in the conversation.

If you choose to join the conversation, you have the ability to provide input, the potential to influence perception, and the opportunity to make a meaningful connection with your advocates.

Some random tips:

A word on consistency: in traditional media, the outbound communications are rigidly controlled and there is generally one person who has the ability to review and authorize anything before it is said. In social media, anyone can speak about your brand, and there is the danger that the extemporaneous comments from rank-and-file employees will be perceived as "the official word" of the firm.

Companies fear this terribly, and the knee-jerk reaction is to prohibit employees from even mentioning the brand in social media and harshly punishing any that violate the gag order. This earns negative publicity for the firm, both in the consumer market and with employment candidates. A better approach is internal marketing, so that employees communicate accurate information and are aware of the expectations of conduct when they (inevitably) mention the brand publicly.

The author speaks of "company celebrities" - people who become known in social media as employees of your firm and advocates of their brand. In traditional media, company celebrities are made by the company - in social media, they "bubble up" on their own, and are selected not by the firm, but by the audience.

The benefit of crowd-appointed celebrities is that they have much stronger credibility than company-appointed ones, which means they have greater influence and have greater empathy for them as "real" people rather than a groomed mouthpiece.

Next, random tips on driving engagement:

Be open and accepting of criticism. Not everyone who speaks negatively means you harm, and many mean to point you in a positive direction. The author suggests Dell as a case study, whose "Idea storm" community encourages positive and negative comments from customers. The negative comments are instructive, and give Dell a feel for the issues that might otherwise blind-side the firm. It also enables them to contain detractors to their own site, as negative remarks are harder to suppress when they are on independent channels.

Social Marketing

Calculating return on investment for social media is different. The case-studies are fraught with assumptions and specious calculations. Models adopted from traditional marketing are ill-suited to the task as they are intended to measure a short-term effect from overt selling behavior, and if social media is (mis)used as a sales channel, it fails miserably and the audience quickly disperses.

The value of social marketing is word-of-mouth. While you can measure the number of people who respond to a television commercial as a function of the number of people who saw it, you have no idea who ultimately received information on a social network.

You can track clicks and re-posts with limited accuracy, but much of the benefit of social media is viral: people recommend your product, say positive things about it to others. You are not the sole fountainhead of the river of information, and anything that comes from you may have been paraphrased, rephrased, or delayed.

As a result, ROI in social media is squishy and intangible.

A case study: Old Spice's "man your man could smell like" campaign was tracked. It was considered to be successful, and the company chalked up a 27% increase in sales, but it had only a vague idea of how that happened. The company figures that it captured 75% of conversations that mentioned this phrase, including parodies (do they really know?) and counted impressions on its official videos on YouTube (one site, and not counting the other sources that captured a video). The firm's Web site had a 300% increase in visitors and became the most popular channel on YouTube. There's no denying that there was some sort of connection between the popularity of the campaign in social media and a positive effect on sales, but it's not possible to track with precision.

In that way, there have been sufficient cases in which social media support is believed to have improved the efficacy of traditional-media campaigns, sufficient that brands should recognize the value of engaging with the consumer and supporting the online influencers as they act as champions for the brand.

However, it's not enough to "toy with the idea of social media." To be effective, a firm must seek to gain a deeper understanding of their audience and their perceptions, so that their interactions are soundly planned and in line with an overall strategy to mine the channel. Moreover, this takes considerable work: social media is too new for there to be an established game plan, and what works for one brand may not work for another.

For social marketing, the author suggests three basic rules:

  1. Influence is everything. The size of your audience is not as important as your credibility with them and their credibility with others.
  2. Engage the audience. Social media is about interaction, not broadcasting - if you're merely running commercials in social media, chances are you're getting it wrong.
  3. Develop Relationships. Your actions in social media are not one-off exchanges, but ongoing conversations that build over time.

The specific objectives for your brand need to be clearly defined at the outset, and every conversation you have in social media should be in line with them. If you haven't clearly defined your goals and objectives, your efforts will be disjointed, and the inconsistency will harm your credibility.

There's also a note about costs: because the benefit of social media defies tracking on a granular level, many firms become discouraged and terminate or neglect social media because they do not see the ROI of any specific activity. This requires big-picture thinking, in dedicating a budget to social media that looks to the overall effect rather than the line-item return.

Dealing With the Flood of Information

While many firms remain pessimistic about social media, there is also the problem of runaway success. If the audience happens to take a liking to you, or if a campaign catches on as a meme in the social networks, it can be overwhelming to cope with the volume of conversation you will create. If you identify your key influencers before this occurs, you can better focus your efforts when success happens so that they are not neglected or lost in the crowd.

There's a brief mention of the scatter-gun approach to marketing, blasting out a spray across multiple sites makes it impossible to determine which was actually effective. There's also the problem of failing to consider which social media sites are appropriate for certain messages. Blasting out ads for mortgages on a site with a teenaged audience, and you harm your reputation. Likewise, spamming Facebook with advertising for industrial equipment will earn you a bad reputation. You need to choose your tools carefully.

While firms are encouraged to dive in and completely immerse themselves in social media, there's some danger in doing so: each of the dozen or so individual outlets gets little attention, and turns into "just another sanitized news feed" that spouts the same information in every channel and is not effective in making interactive connections with the audience. This damages your credibility and future potential for connecting with people who come to perceive your presence as useless and uninteresting.

As a first step, determine your capacity for giving attention to the user base of any given service - the amount of time you can reasonable expect to devote, not only to posting content but also to reading the content of others and responding to inbound comments. It is better to have a good presence in a few venues than a bad one in many.

One bit of advice is to aggregate all activity into a few sources: instead of operating half a dozen blogs, allow the same number of people to contribute to a single blog or feed. (EN: This seems like a good idea for the firm's convenience, but it fixes the problem of insufficient updates by jamming a feed with information that is not appropriate to each specific user, which could be worse.)

If you choose to have a master feed, there should be central management, but no central authorship: someone must serve as an editor to ensure all contributions are appropriate, and serve as a single point-of-contact between internal and external, but the content itself must come from across the whole company.

Sifting through the posts by other people could be more of a chore and, if your brand is well-known, it may require a sizable team of people. One suggestion is to use filters to manage the flow: if it is overwhelming to sift through any post that mentions your brand name, then use additional keywords to help weed out those that are less likely to be of interest.

The last (and likely best) suggestion is to start small, and consider expanding your use of channels only when you have a handle of the ones you choose to utilize.