Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brands Mate via Social Media

How is a conversation with a brand consummated?

Earlier I had written about influence as it relates to a product recommendation between two people. In short, influence can be thought of as the effects of experience, relevance, and brand charge. A person's recommendation has more influence if it comes from an 'expert' and is made in a straight-forward manner. Repeated or collective recommendations ultimately surpass a threshold and a purchase decision is made.

But what happens when one of the participants is a brand or company? (I continue to think that most products can't talk, but their minders can.)

Clearly experience and relevance play a role, but what about charge? Is it safe to think that a brand will only talk about itself in a positive form? While chest beating may be common in advertising, there are counter-examples.
  • Progressive provides information on the consideration set for those seeking car insurance.
  • Some brands admit their mistakes publicly; product recalls and help lines may fall in this camp.
  • Behavioral targeting, although crude from a conversation point of view, is an attempt to get the timing right.
But there is something missing in this brand-person interchange that is usually present in person-to-person activities. The ability to go back and forth in order to clearly understand the need is missing. For most brands, understanding the specific individual needs to be satisfied is still guess work or the presumptive result of focus groups and research (which may also be a guessing game.)

Helping align solutions to needs may be the right role for social media since it allows for a modicum of two-way conversation. This give and take seems like a mating-ritual: are you right for me and am I right for you?

However, the analogy of mating starts to break down in terms of scale. It seems unrealistic to talk to everyone individually. Maybe the role of all communications - Advertising, PR, Customer Service, Analyst, whatever - should be to foster one side or the other of the alignment by either helping me to articulate my needs better or clearly explaining the advantages of your offer. In the end we both want to be compatible in an eHarmony kind of way.

Before you ask for my hand in marriage let's make sure we're a match.

Monday, March 30, 2009

On Marketing, Customer Service and Public Relations.

Is it time to play musical chairs?

Social media, conversations, communities and the like are wrecking havoc with traditional silos. The reason - people's behavior and hence expectations are changing.

Consider that from a brand's perspective:
  1. There is no sales funnel - people change their state of mind and intention as they see fit.
  2. There is no single way to get or deliver news - people have more, faster options
  3. Opinions are available for the asking - trust of 'people like me' trumps all other options.
As they say: If it weren't for customers, sales would be easy.

Social media is emerging as the preferred route when information is needed now. It may be the last-point of contact before a decision is made: "What do you think?" or the first-point when searching for information as in "Can you help me?" In the past, these questions had either limited reach and/or defined channels. But today they are asked among friends, followers, and fans in an asynchronous world with no limits on reach - with the expectation that anyone can and will respond.

One of the implications of social media is that we're outsourcing or at least sharing decision making with others. The wisdom of the crowd helps us decide on what camera to buy, what blog post to read, or how to fix a broken product. The assumption that the consumer makes the decision based on his/her interaction with a company is really no longer valid. (A point made in "Branding Only Works for Cattle." )

Recently, Todd Defren wrote about PR and Customer service and the fact that PR was well suited for understanding how to manage and route customer inquiries because it dealt with 'people,' getting things done, and the ability to assess events.

But why stop the organization reshuffle there?

If PR is the new customer service, then is customer service the new marketing, and marketing the new PR?

  • Marketing should be focused on aligning solutions with needs to everyone's mutual benefit. What better organization to understand needs, frustrations, and delights than customer service? They're in the business of talking to people - day in and day out. We only need to expand their remit to tell the stories they hear about how they solved customer problems.
  • Public Relations has been about getting stories told through journalistic channels. As those outlets crumble and information consumption spans every conceivable outlet what better organization to develop tactical plans that manage the complexities of delivering targeted content than marketing? We only need to change their remit to distribute content not just advertising.

Looking at how people interact with one another and with companies might give us insights into how to better organize to support them.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Posting of Tweetbites

How can we push a single thought to twitter?

Sometimes when we write stories, articles of blog posts we come up with a simple phrase that captures the essence of our thinking. (it wasn't the previous one.) Maybe it's a headline, a bullet or a summary. It would be nice to tweet that text with a link to the source. So, here's a test of the idea worked up with someone I work with - LJ Jones, @streamingsocial from (no surprise) www.streamingsocial.com.

  • Maybe this is a profound thought that should be tweeted. Tweet Bite
  • Tweetbite pushes a bullet to your status. Tweet Bite
(The first tweetbite references this blog, the second references streamingsocial.com)

The rest of copy is a long-winded story; or better yet, an in-depth analysis of the point being made. There are lots of ways this could be used and made more useful.

Note: this is in exploratory, test mode, so may break someday or be rewritten. Right now. the tweetbite generator takes as input the text and the source url to create a link in the above icon.

I can think of different things - like right-clicking a highlighted chunk of text and see 'Tweetbite'.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Blog Twitter Interface Revisited

How can we push important points to twitter?

Earlier I wrote a piece on the intersection of blogging and tweets and concluded that there needed to be a better way to go back and forth. For instance some posts contains lines that I just want to tweet. For instance a statement like ...
The weakness of RSS is that you have to know the source first.
Might be an interesting tweet in and off itself. Now wouldn't it be good if we could create a chicklet for the phrase.

As a first step, we can make it a link like so:
The weakness of RSS is that you have to know the source first.

That link pushes the phrase to your twitter status. Next up a widget (or would that be a gadget) to do it more seamlessly and a URL generator.

Thanx to @ljjones for the idea and the HTML.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Destination Free Web

Where are we headed?

For a variety of reasons the web is changing from a set of interconnected sites to one of almost a free flowing of information. Back in 2007 I wrote a piece for Chief Marketer entitled "What's Still Missing from Web 2.0?" A lot has changed since then, so I thought I'd update some thinking.

The basic premise is that the history of any product or technology will give you clues to its future and trajectory. Using the story from Genesis, the article outlines what happened in each of the last six decades and concludes that the sole purpose of the Internet is to connect different bits of information where they are held. The browser and search succeeded because they assisted in moving people from place to place. It ended with the speculation that the model of moving from place to place was not what people really want. We want to have content served the way we like it. There are simply too many destinations to remember, bookmark of otherwise keep track of. It concluded with the following:
The marketer with a lot of content has a choice – entice people to come to their site which is an ever increasing expense, or relax the assumption about destination and focus on the distribution [of content].

So what's changed?

First, social activities on the Internet have gone from niche to mainstream. In the aggregate these tools account for more activity than email and rank only behind search. It is well established that display advertising fails to effectively redirect people away from where they're comfortable.

Second, technologies are advancing quickly to support the transfer of data as opposed to the maintenance of a connection. Broadband and streaming are becoming mainstream as well.

Driven in a large part by the social media sphere there have been numerous examples of the implications of these changes.
  • Contact forms will move from a site to social profiles as noted on Web Strategist. This also suggests that lead form and landing pages will go the way of the carrier pigeon.
  • Twitter is built on a variety of technical backbones making it nearly completely portable with more than 50% of the activity happening on non-Internet sites. The fact that it doesn't require content to work (like Google) makes it extremely flexible.
  • Web 3.0, semantic web, etc. is loosely defined as finding and consuming the content not the container. Like any food we aren't interested in the wrapper, just the content.
  • The source of information may no longer be known as a 'site' as tools like Apture continue to push the edge of content mixing.
  • Company news is being converted to consumable and findable chunks by the social media news rooms like pitchengine or newscactus.
It seems we are on a trajectory for a 'destination free web'.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On the Competition for Social Media Help

How does a community behave commercially?

The "Social Media Club" launched its first question of the week:
How can we best support our social media community and our peers knowing full well we’re often competing for the same clients and client money?
I like to think that co-opetition means that it is in everybody's best interest to move a category forward even if a specific opportunity is competitive. While the term is usually thought of as a means of leveraging cost structures on complex deals, the application to social media at the moment appears to be more of a 'greater good' opportunity.

Three thoughts:
  • Part of the uniqueness of social media by its very nature is it also allows us to build out our network of like minds in order to learn. I can't think of another business-related vehicle that facilitates contact with outsiders as much. In other times and places the only time we could chat with competitors without the risk of being fired was at trade shows. During rapid category growth learning and experiences out-weigh the competitive threat. Only in a fixed or diminishing pie do competitive threats arise.
  • In time we will develop our own competencies, niches and unique solutions as this medium both matures and fragments. For instance I wouldn't attempt to build a private community, a social user group, or counsel CEOs on PR crises. I would (and do) leverage social media as it relates to branding, positioning, and lead generation in specific categories. The challenge will be in recognizing that leaving a nickle on the table is a commercially viable strategy and better for the client in the long run.
  • If we think about a career its really a series of hopefully cool projects; if the paycheck comes from the same source so much the better. So, if we are to pursue our individual passions and interests we need to know who else is doing neat things. The active use of social media in this regard leaves the other options in the dust.
Without interaction we're only as good as our individual thinking.

Some tags: #SMCQ1, #Coopetition

Friday, March 13, 2009

Social Media Footprint

What can brands learn from green?

There should be no doubt anymore that social media has a role in people’s lives. Penetration is beyond the tipping point and every news source talks about it, uses it, or tries to ignore it. We're past the tipping point. The question for marketers is not whether, but how this media impacts them. To try to make sense of amorphous thing called 'social media' this post borrows a concept from the environmental movement to help put it into context.

The interplay between people and the environment is extremely intricate and until green and carbon footprint emerged as concepts there was no mental picture of what ‘environmental impact’ meant. It was simply too complex to think about with lots of variables, assumptions and points of view. While green offers a powerful associated idea, footprints are measurable. Wiki defines them as the “measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced.” In particular, the measure is metric tons of CO2.

Why does the concept of a ‘footprint’ work? For the very reasons marketers love: it is simple, memorable, and visual. And in the end, there is one number.

Is there a corollary for social media? It is certainly a complex arena with as many points-of-view as there are writers, bloggers, speakers, and CEOs. It also has as many technologies as there are ways to produce CO2 – from social networks to blogs to forums to bookmarking to video. If social media is about people sharing experiences and discussing interests then one can think of a Social Media Footprint in as the impact these activities have on a business. The remaining step is to think about a way to summarize social media that combines the numerous facets that make up influence.

The success of the carbon footprint is that all sources can be reduced to one variable – tons of CO2. This makes it possible to simply sum up all the parts to get the big picture. Add the impact of your house, your car, and your air travel together and you get your footprint. Now it is true that other factors impact global warming, like methane emissions and solar radiation, but the fact remains people, companies, and countries galvanized around the simplicity of this concept.

In social media, the conversation is the thing. Thus, the Social Media Footprint for a brand should focus on capturing the amount of conversation happening along with the presence of the customer base online. Several people have documented the breadth and diversity of social media, e.g. Scoble/Barefoot’s “Starfish” or Solis/Thomas’ “Prism.” Others still have wrestled with the idea of measuring the influence of individual resources. Marketers are thankful for such categorizations but may still wonder how to make it simple to communicate the overall effect.

While the ultimate objective should be financial, it may be easier to first build a common understanding by using simpler measures to start – things like total reach – before moving on to ‘engagement’, ‘influence’, and ROI. This concept isn’t dissimilar to the evolution of broadcast media which started impressions or rating points and then moved to financial measures. It also provides a framework for both documenting assumptions and testing hypotheses: “If we double our social media footprint, we’ll increase sales by x%.”

Some ideas for creating the footprint include:
  • Social Networks: penetration, share of profiles, and breadth of profiles of the brand’s customers compared to that of a benchmark group.
  • Blogs, Micro-blogging and Forums: brand mentions, blog rolls, link activity and or comments
  • Video and Podcasts: share of product or company activity
  • Bookmarking: share of links and tags
Similar to ‘tons of CO2’ the intent of the above approach is to provide an understanding of a brand’s relative rather than absolute position. The Social Media Footprint is a way to compare across brands. It is not meant to be precise since understanding the concept of influence is still very much a work in progress. And just like environmental impact it is unlikely that there will ever be a single metric for measuring social media or the influence of a given source; that’s not how the world works. But hopefully this idea suggests a way to begin thinking strategically about conversation marketing as people talk amongst themselves.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Twitter Paradox

What has twitter done to me?

The answer is somewhat paradoxical: I read more yet less at the same time.

Through links embedded in tweets I have a chance to see far more articles, posts, comments and thoughts than I could ever find on my own. Yet the breadth of sources forces me to change my consumption patterns. I now treat copy just like search results - I scan. Getting to the gist of a post or article is becoming quite critical. And if it isn't evident - I move on.

Gone are the RSS feeds from what had provided value; in its place are the near-time thoughts (recommendations) from people who I am learning to trust. So if @--- says "must read" - I do in a kind of a Pavlovian response. Yet as the number of tweets and retweets of a given item increases I'm wondering why this or that content is important to an individual. What's still missing for me is the answer to that question. It is easy to retweet stuff, I do it. But it needs more context.

Earlier today Brian Solis wrote about blogs potentially losing their influence. I'll skip the definition of what influence might mean in this context. But certainly agree with the implication that behavior is changing. In fact the actual writing of content may change to make it more consumable for micro-blogging. This in turn may reduce the opportunity for deep thinking and digestion.

Is twitter a tapas bar?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Left Brain Marketing and Right Brain Technology

Why did the roles have to switch?

Several years ago I presented to an assembly of marketing services executives on why marketing is difficult to support with the usual set of reporting tools. The title was: "Satisfying Left Brain Marketing with Right Brain Technology." I followed former Forrester analyst Eric Schmitt who had just written about the effect of media fragmentation, consumer trends, and the need for measurement in a paper entitled "Left Brain Marketing." Given the continued focus on accountability, ROI and results I thought I'd dust if off as a post.

First, let's recap how the brain works. This won't be too detailed - but for the curious see Marian Diamond's biology lecture at Berkeley or read the Brain Atlas: How each area of the brain relates to customer loyalty.

Here's a short list of attributes associated with each side of the brain.

Marketing is often associated with the right side and creativity while analysts are coming out of left field, literally. These perceptions have certainly changed, e.g. not every agency is like Mad Men, but it can still lead to some interesting Venus-Mars discussions. For example, consider the extreme conversation around developing a new customer segmentation scheme.

Marketer: "We need to find new customers."
Analyst: "What requirements do you have?"
Marketer: "I don't know, one that gets us into a new market."
Analyst: "What data to we need to use?"
Marketer: "That which tells me the answer I need."

Five years ago when I first presented this it got a lot of laughs as if hitting a nerve. There's been a lot of progress on closing the gap from both sides. Marketers are much more precise in their requests and analysts better understand ambiguous needs. But let's go back to the basics and why the chasm existed.

Marketing is not creative because it produces ads; it is creative because that's its job - find new markets, grow the business, and satisfy unmet needs. None of those tasks can be easily managed by a spreadsheet or a daily report. In fact, back in '98 CIO wrote about marketing's 'creative mandate' and it was that role that made marketing the last hold out for IT. Why?

Most departments manage to a plan that is only an incremental change from the status quo, e.g. production, operations and even sales. On the other hand marketing is told by the CEO "grow this business," "blow the doors off," "beat the competition," etc.

In short, marketing is paid to change history. They are looking for what they didn't know they needed to know.

Now let's look at the corporate or IT analyst responsible for producing information. The vast majority of management reports look at the business through the rear view mirror. Their sole purpose is to answer the question: Are we on plan to hit our numbers? If not, where are we off so we can take corrective action? Nearly everybody is on board with this approach because their job and compensation is aligned with those numbers. Ever try to stop producing those reports? You'll hear all kinds of reasons for keeping them alive. It turns out that report building is like capital investing: a lot of upfront costs that we hope to amortize over the lifespan of the project. This works great for the 'daily sales report' and other questions that stay the same. In fact, these reports are so stable you can draw an organization chart just by looking at them. Products, markets, and financial periods are easily transferred to job titles.

But marketing threw a monkey wrench into the whole notion of management reporting. Why? Because the half-life of a marketer's question is measured in hours if not minutes. The exploration of new ideas generates a lot of of questions. Some produce produce useful answers but most end up with 'oh, well it was an idea.' The traditional method of producing reports actually trained marketers to NOT ask questions because they couldn't get answers in either a timely or cost effective manner. This learned helplessness created the gap between marketing and technology.

What was needed was a way to drive the marginal cost of a new question to zero. If this could be achieved then marketing could ask all the questions it wanted and not have to wait 6 weeks and spend $1,500 to get a report that would only be used once. Technology and management reporting needed to change and figure a way to make marketers self-reliant. To do this some right-brain thinking had to be applied. The approach was to provide marketers with the ability to ....
  • Follow a train of thought and change their mind without having to go back to the well every time they thought of something different
  • Create new information (data) since we have no idea what interim metrics might prove useful
  • Visualize patterns and relationships since we don't yet understand how to organize any better
So rather than define reports in terms of rows and columns our focus was on understanding what behaviors and transactions mattered to marketing and what attributes might be useful to better understand what people do.

Today, the fire hose that is social media data poses some of the same challenges. How do we harness the vast quantities of raw data to help marketing achieve its objective: align solutions with needs to everyone's benefit?

(Disclosure: at the time this talk was given I worked for a software company focused on solving this problem. Today I work on the agency side trying to understand it all over again.)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Social Media ROI

What is the value of engagement?

While this is the beginning of the season for Bridal Shows, we're talking about the use of social media and its impact on a business. The Social Media Academy published a piece on defining ROI.

The group defines it as follows using their emphasis:
Contribution Margin in currency generated from externally referred customers
over Interaction Cost in currency for human interaction and other cost to manage and engage in the ecosystem
I'm left with a couple of questions. First, what is 'externally referred customers'? Second, what 'ecosystem' is being considered, and possibly more importantly what isn't considered? The report says both are easily defined; I'm not so sure. We know people will use the channels they want, when they want making attribution an extremely difficult challenge. (See the "TV impacts search" reports.) Without definitions for these concepts the fact that it is based on margin and cost (a very good thing) it falls short.

There are only a few finite outcomes that result in contribution margin.
  1. A non-customer becomes a customer (trial or penetration)
  2. A customer doesn't become a non-customer as soon as we'd expect (repeat rate.)
  3. A customer buys more frequently (purchase cycle).
  4. A customer spends more per transaction (units per).
If social media does a good job of reinforcing #2, #3, & #4 how is that accounted for? Collectively these elements contribute heavily to life time value and that should be as much a focus as acquisition. Brand evangelists reinforce one another, e.g. Fiskateers, so to appear to focus on acquisition only is potentially misleading the impact of conversations.

Update: Just read a good article on measurement that offers a holistic view.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Nature of Influence

How and why does influence work?

There have been numerous discussions on the use of social media to find and leverage the recommendations of consumers. While the idea has face validity and support ranging from "The Tipping Point" to the "New Influentials" there is still the need to understand how it works. Micah Baldwin had a post today on measuring online influence that talks about influence as being driven by trust. This post offers a potential definition of 'influence.'

To understand influence let's look at a typical conversation pattern. Here's a conversation network map or diagram of the conversations involved in the decision of attending an online high school. As with many decisions there are numerous players and connections.

The parent, the central figure of the decision, has numerous sources of information ranging from:
  • Other parents
  • School district officials, Administrators
  • Students and Teachers
  • Online high school providers
Which ones have influence?

The answer to that question requires establishing the elements of influence, i.e. what factors contribute to a source having a greater contribution than another? The general consensus is that trust and brand recommendation make up influence. In short hand, that would look like:

Influence = f(Trust, Brand Charge)

Now these terms need to be defined in measurable elements. Borrowing from Social Network Analysis and marketing, we can propose the following.

Influence consists of Trust and Brand Charge. A positive recommendation from a trusted resource has substantially more influence than a so-so comment from a casual source.

Trust is built upon Strength and Relevance:
  • Strength of a relationship is based on experience and the willingness to help in the past. Experience in turn can be defined in terms of frequency and longevity of the relationship.
  • Relevance is based on expertise, usability, and bias. Clear, direct, unbiased statements have more relevance.
Given a relationship, the message can be charged: Single, unambiguous and timely recommendations - 'see this movie tonight' - have substantially more influence than vague statements delivered out of the decision making time frame.
  • The number of alternatives affects the intensity of the recommendation.
  • Clearly sentiment plays a role: Positive vs. Negative
  • Timing, or distance from decision, also affects charge.
In sum, Influence can be broken down into a set of nine components that can be the focus of specific activities. If a brand wants to exhibit influence it has to provide useful information over a longer period of time than the typical campaign. Furthermore, the information has to be delivered in a way that improves one or more component of influence as perceived by the recipient. This last point suggests why two-way conversation is much more effective.