Chapter 7 - Winners and Losers in a 140-Character World

A defining characteristic of social media is brevity - participants give attention to a great many things, but give only a few seconds attention to each. The result is a shift from long engagements to very short ones - all information is "condensed and hyper-accelerated" and engaging with customers takes a different approach.

(EN: I'm inclined to disagree - a broader look at user behavior shows social media consumption is like newspaper consumption: the reader pages quickly though a paper and scans the articles and adverts on each page, but then slows down and engages more deeply with those that are interesting or relevant. The same is true of social media - so it's a distortion to suggest it's a new world or requires a dramatic shift, as the same principles and practices apply.)


The pastime of "fantasy football" has been around for decades. Participants act as coaches, assembling imaginary teams based on actual players, and using the statistics related to actual games during the season to compare their performance to those of other players. This meant that players paid less attention to actual football games, and needed only the relevant statistics to support their fantasy team.

ESPN picked up on this fairly early, and created programming specifically to suit this interest - but an amount that was insufficient. Staff were given permission to "moonlight" and produce their own podcast, which quickly became a top-20 download on iTunes.

Switch channels to another example, Best Buy sponsored a podcast about consumer technology, but completely bungled the opportunity by poorly conceived advertising: it followed the radio model and interspersed advertisements into the podcast itself - which is disruptive and annoying to listeners. And to make matters worse, it was the same commercial, three times per episode, for seven months straight - and given that podcasts typically have a dedicated audience of subscribers (people don't listen to random podcasts like flipping through radio stations), listeners quickly became annoyed, which created a negative brand association.

Fortunately, the podcast's producers recognized the negative impact on their audience and, after the Best Buy contract was satisfied, stopped accepting radio-type advertising. Instead, they worked with the podcast hosts to more seamlessly work promotions into the show (product placement), which was found to be better for both the listening audience and the advertisers.

Nobody's perfect

Podcasts are generally informal, and irreverence is standard fare. Often the podcast hosts will make irreverent and even disparaging comments about advertisers if only to demonstrate to the audience that they have integrity and the advertisers aren't running the show. In one example, a host remarked that an advertised movie was "terrible" but went on for a bit about the attractiveness of one of the actresses.

In traditional advertising, this would be highly intolerable and most advertisers would be chagrinned, and pull their spots if the host of the sponsored program said negative things about their product. In social media, advertisers have to accept criticism with good-natured humility, and to be honest about their products' shortcomings. In doing so, they are granted greater credibility.

Some advertisers have done this in their own advertising content: Southwest Airlines ran a spot with the tagline of "we only give you peanuts so that our fares cost peanuts" - accepting the notion that people were displeased with airline food service rather than trying, as other airlines did, to pretend their meager offerings are gourmet quality.

Also, consider that customers in social media channels are looking to have relationships with brands - in the sense of having meaningful two-way conversations. A traditional advertisement, which is a canned speech delivered without context, is an impersonal and one-way communication that suggests the brand is arrogant, distant, and egocentric - qualities that are somewhat offensive, and that discourage customers from approaching the brand.

Back to "positioning" or integrating promotions into content, this is increasingly valuable in a medium that is unfriendly to consumers. It is not uncommon for users to skip commercials or find a way to ignore them, nor is it unusual for users to perform a sort of community service by downloading something and removing the advertising content to provide a "clean" version for others. When advertising is woven into the content, it's harder to ignore and virtually impossible to strip out without diminishing the value of the original content.

Free Labor

People who participate in social media, particularly those who write blogs, do so out of "a pressing desire to be heard" and a desire to feel that they are doing something important that is appreciated by others. They advocate for brands on their own initiative, and generally receive no compensation. To the brands, they are essentially free promotion.

ESPN leveraged this with a "super fan" promotion in which it put out a call for people who would report on the current status of their favorite team. There was no prize or incentive, and participants were effectively applying to do a job for which they would not get paid - but being recognized as a super fan by a national sports network appealed to their need for esteem and public recognition.

Another benefit of endorsing a blogger is that some bloggers develop a sizable fan base, and by taking them under your wing you are not merely eliminating a competitor (competing for attention at least) but are gaining their allegiance so that they will bring over the audiences they have amassed.

Back to ESPN, the "super fans" constituted an army of reporters they did not have to pay, enabling the network to report on every sports team without having to pay staff to do so, and could include quotes and content from the fans in their broadcast programming. While the fans were not professional reporters, they were good at communicating and, being fans themselves, were well attuned to the kinds of information other fans would be interested in.

Everybody is Twittering, but is Anyone Listening?

The author is dubious about micro-blogging services such as Twitter: his sense is that many people like to share their thoughts, and imagine that others are paying attention in real time ... but they're not paying attention in real time, and there's little evidence they are paying attention at all. (EN: I don't think there's any way to statistically support that conclusion - or the converse for that matter. The number of outbound tweets can be measured, but I don't believe it's possible to identify when another person looks at one of your tweets.)

He does mention a few "salient uses" for micro-blogging:

Twitter caters to the narcissism, stupidity, and laziness. Writing a blog requires some effort and dedication of time - but blurting out a sentence fragment takes very little time and effort. You don't have to compose your thoughts because 140 characters doesn't provide the ability to express anything of much importance in detail.

He's also a bit dour about the ability to network and socialize on Twitter. One of Dale Carnegie's principles of winning friends and influencing people is actually listening to them - but Twitter is a forum in which people talk without listening and there is little opportunity to connect or converse. It seems that it's an anti-social medium rather than a social one.

He also mentions that Twitter is mostly about promotion - companies promoting products and people promoting themselves. There's little value in reading a constant stream of self-indulgent braggadocio, and it's already become tiresome to comb through a long list of tweets to find anything interesting. He asserts that "a majority of users who sign up for Twitter quickly abandon it" and the service offers nothing that is unique or different to what is available on Facebook.

(EN: One significant difference is reach. Most Facebook posts are available only to people who have been tagged as friends, but twitter posts are fully public. And so if you want to see what people, not just your friends, are saying about something, you can research that on Twitter. If FB users were willing to make more of their posts fully public, and if the FB search engine sucked less, then it could smother Twitter.)

Television - News and Live Events

There's some evidence television executives are clinging to things that are no longer true or applicable. Consider NBC's rather foolish behavior in the Olympics, where rather than broadcasting events live, they staggered coverage for eastern/central/pacific time zones, just like they do for television broadcasts - making people wait for content to be available during the "prime time" window. The Internet is not subject to specific viewing times.

The author suggests that television studios still act as if they have a virtual monopoly on video broadcasting, when many sites offer video - and especially for news and sporting events, it is the exact same content, albeit from a slightly different angle. (EN: This does not apply to their programming, which they still largely do control - but which is often placed on the internet only after it has aired on the medium screen.)

They also tend to see the Internet as a threat that will reduce their television audiences, rather than considering it to be a second delivery channel that will enable them to reach even larger audiences and in a more measurable manner - both in terms of being able to observe what users watch as well as having more data on the audience.

He then complains a bit about the way television teases and misleads viewers - putting the most appealing content at the end of an hour-long program and constantly saying that it is "coming up" so that users stick through the whole show ... and then being vague about the content to make it more appealing. "Our exclusive interview" with a celebrity might be an interview about something dreadfully uninteresting. (EN: This just seems like a complaint, with no evidence they do the same online.)

He mentions some of the goods in placing programming from television online, such as a sporting event in which the user couldn't hear announcers and, instead of cutting to commercial during down-time on the court, just leaving the camera on as a live feed while nothing interesting was happening.

He mentions NBC's bungling of the 2010 winter Olympics, in which it demanded that viewers prove that they were paying subscribers to cable or satellite television in order to watch the live events online. It's not clear what they intended to accomplish by this, but the net effect was to decrease the number of viewers and make their online presence less appealing to advertisers.

TV Shows Viewed through the Internet

The author considers it "inevitable" that tablets and smartphones will become the leading channels through which people will consume video entertainment. (EN: Which is not supported by user behavior, nor does it seem a likely trend due to the social nature of consumption. Solitary viewing of video online or on mobile devices is growing, but it's apples-and-oranges to normal consumption.)

Presently, there are three major players in the online programming space: Apple's iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu all offer the ability for users to play television online. (EN: these services are not strictly online, as they are used through set-top boxes and video game consoles, and consumed through a television set rather than a computer or device - so to consider this usage to be "online" is misleading.)

The concern for television executives is in "trading analog dollars for digital pennies" because the advertising models differ: television claims to reach tens of millions of audience members, which is inherently more dubious, and advertisers must pay just to include their advertisement in a program regardless of whether anyone is watching or anyone buys. Online advertising is more stringent in its demands, and advertisers will only pay if there is proof their ad was seen and that the viewer took action. In that sense, online advertising is showing that common beliefs about television advertising are myths.

The author mentions the use of the online media in elections. Candidates don't care about control - they just care about getting the word out and making themselves known to potential voters. Advertisers have the same attitude about making their products known to potential customers. Both are growing tired of television networks interference in the ability to do so.

Advertising: Less is More

There's some background information on Hulu, which grew from a small player to the sixth most popular video site online by offering television series - both past and current seasons (albeit with a week or two of delay).

Of particular interest is that they recognized online viewers had less tolerance for advertising than television viewers, and reduced commercial intrusions to 2 minutes per 30 of programming (with television, it's more like 8 per 30) on the principle that less is more.

Larger advertisers will sponsor an entire Hulu program, placing a "brought to you by" announcement at the beginning, an advertisement at the midway point, and a closing commercial. The benefits of this to advertisers is increased attentiveness: when the audience knows in advance it's just a 30-second break, they are likely to remain and watch through it rather than doing something else while waiting.

Not only is this a better experience for the user, but it's a better impression for the advertiser. When commercial interruptions are limited, there is a 22% increase in recall and a 28% increase in stated intent to purchase. (EN: I've seen these stats before, for television programs, though as I recall the latter statistic was "favorable impression of brand" rather than purchase intent.)

Hulu also gives viewers the ability to rate commercials - to indicate like/dislike, or that they felt the commercial was not relevant to them, or even to choose which advertisement they wanted to see. All of this is valuable marketing intelligence for advertisers and enables Hulu to better target ads to individual users.

The author suggests that Hulu's success "is probably not sustainable" if the idea of reduced and better focused commercial content catches on and television networks and other video entertainment sites adopt these practices.

Digital as the Channel of Second Choice

One problem for most online video content sites is that they are offering existing content - content that was produced for other media (namely, the television screen) - rather than offering original content. As such, they are a secondary market that is useful primarily for people who "missed it" on television. Instances in which content is developed exclusively for the internet, with the capabilities and limitations of the channel in mind, are rare.

The author mentions that the CBS online coverage of the 2010 Masters golf tournament offers a glimmer of hope: the online version was not merely a copy of the television coverage, but shot and edited by a separate crew that was dedicated to producing video for the online channel. This was coupled with various feeds that enabled the viewer to choose his own programming - to watch play at a specific hole, or to follow a specific player around.

He mentions the "trend" in which people are dropping their cable television service and using the Internet only (EN: this does not mean they are switching to computers and mobile devices, as set-top boxes enable them to use the television set, just not a cable or satellite feed). However, he predicts some legal battles to ensue because many people get internet access from a cable television provider, who may panic and use questionable tactics because revenues and margins for cable television are much higher than they are for Internet service (EN: but this is entirely speculative.)

Advertising within Social Networks

A recent survey (Razorfish CX Report 2008) indicated that 76% of respondents indicated they didn't mind seeing ads when they logged into Facebook or other social media sites, and 40% indicated they purchased something after seeing an online ad. The author suggests that advertising in social networks is inoffensive because it is not intrusive (EN: though "sponsored posts" interspersed with other users' posts draws consternation aplenty) and has a higher take-rate because the advertising can be relevant.

Outside of social media, advertising is poorly focused: a local wedding photographer would waste a great deal on advertising to people outside his area and even those in his area may not need his services. On Facebook, he can target his ad to the local market, but also only to be seen by those who change their relationship status to "engaged" or who mention their engagement in a status update - thereby eliminating wasted exposure to unlikely prospects.

Companies would do well to use this "outside-in" approach to marketing online. Rather than considering how to drum up demand for their products, instead consider what users are expressing needs that their products can fulfill.

It's also suggested that users want to be communicated with through the medium in which they originally met you. If the user engages with a service via Facebook, then they expect the vendor to use their Facebook inbox and wall rater than switching to traditional email. (EN: The author provides no support for this assertion, and it seems doubtful. Certainly if a question is asked on FB, the user expects an answer on FB- but if they click an ad, visit a web site, and purchase something, they likely expect the invoice, order confirmation, and future correspondence to be handled by typical email.)

Advertising can also be refined based on its performance in social media - rather than postulating about what might be effective and arguing for hours, which is typical in other media because a message costs a lot to produce and cannot be altered once it is released, companies can rather inexpensively try out a few different ideas and see which is most successful with users - then use real data to inform future decisions.

Being Too Proactive

At one time, "Second Life" was touted to be the next big thing in online communities, and many companies scrambled to be there. A number of major brands, including American Apparel, Reebok, Scion, and even Coca-Cola spent considerable sums to establish presences. And, of course, Second Life never got traction.

The creators spun out some impressive-sounding stats, and the technology enthusiasts broadcast them widely: 7 million avatars were created in a single month - which was misleading, as a single user might create dozens of avatars. Moreover, only about 25% of people who used the Web site to create an avatar ever entered the Second Life universe, and many who did were one-time visitors. In all, the site had about a million users - and most of them were Asian and European. Only about 100,000 Americans had active accounts (had logged in within thirty days), which is a paltry audience for advertising.

The author serves up the platitude that it's better to make a mistake than do nothing (EN: which is easy to say when you're a freeloading user encouraging someone else to pay millions build a cool toy for you to play with) and that fiascos like this have made major brands slow to embrace new technologies, including social media. But at the same time, to charge headlong into every new technology without doing adequate research to confirm the hype is very costly and very foolish. Sometimes it's prudent to watch and learn.

The Importance of Being There

Just because you have not launched a social media presence for your firm doesn't mean you don't already have one. The author gives the example of John Deere, who chose to ignore social media. By the time they got around to it in 2008, a search of "John Deere" on Facebook would find ...

If you have a well-known brand, people are going to talk about it in social media, and some will invest the effort in creating groups and pages for it (both positive and negative).

You can attempt to show up late and take back ownership, but that takes time and effort. You may have to wrestle screen and page names away from those who registered them because you hadn't done so - which means taking something away from an enthusiast who was trying to help, paying off a squatter who registered it with the intent to sell it back to you, fight with a competitor who's redirecting prospects to themselves, or rousting a miscreant who took over your brand with the intent to do you harm.

(EN: this is nothing new, and was quite common with domain names for the first several years of the web. And while I don't go so far as to suggest that a company should establish a presence in every new social community that comes online, it should at least create a user account - which takes minutes - to reserve the namespace that they might later use.)

Sheep without a Shepherd

The author plays a bit much with this clever metaphor, but the core message is fairly basic: if a company does not control its own presence online, the herd is dispersed and vulnerable to the wolves - be they competitors who are prospecting in groups devoted to your brand, or disgruntled customers and former employees who mean to do you harm.

There may still be those who attempt to usurp your brand - but your customers will connect and refer others to the official profile, where you have greater ability to be aware of the conversation, react to incidents, and shut out those whose are up to no good.