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.

No comments: