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Archive for September, 2009

20 Questions for Social Media UsersThis is a brief quiz I put together to 1) check out Quibblo’s quiz functionality; 2) test the “network effect” of my Facebook and Twitter networks; and 3) get a brief snapshot of the media habits of the folks in my social networks.  You can see the results for yourself byclicking the image to the left or the link  below. 

 

20 Questions for Social Media Users

 

 

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Friends With BenefitsI’ve already placed my pre-order at Amazon for Friends with Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook, from Darren Barefoot and Julie Szabo.  Based on the advance praise, it sounds like this is an essential addition to the social media library.

 

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Facebook has reached a settlement in the class-action lawsuit over it’s ill-fated advertising platform, Beacon.  Launched in 2007, Beacon tracked user activity on third-party affiliate sites and posted the resulting data on the user’s Facebook profile page.  This attempt to generate word-of-mouth buzz by broadcasting the consumer habits of users became an instant controversy, sparking concerns over privacy, transparency, and the inadequacy of user controls.  A Computer Associates report amplified these concerns, alleging that the Beacon program collected data from third-party sites for users who aren’t even Facebook members.   In the wake of the controversy, affiliate partners quickly abandoned the program, and some became ensnared in legal battles of their own.  With yesterday’s proposed settlement, the Beacon program is now officially dead

Although not officially admitting any wrongdoing, Facebook clearly learned a few things about the limits of permissibility when it comes to disclosing user information, particularly information garnered from third-party sites.  Barry Schnitt, Facebook’s Director of Policy Communications, said in a statement regarding the Beacon settlement,

“We learned a great deal from the Beacon experience. For one, it was underscored how critical it is to provide extensive user control over how information is shared. We also learned how to effectively communicate changes that we make to the user experience. The introduction of Facebook Connect – a product that gives users significant control over how they extend their Facebook identity on the Web and share experiences back to friends on Facebook – is an example of this. We look forward to the creation of the foundation and its work to educate Internet users on how best to control their privacy; engage in safe social networking practices; and, generally, enjoy themselves more online by having knowledge that gives them a greater sense of control. We fully expect the foundation to team with other leading online safety and privacy experts and organizations that have been working diligently in these fields.”

These lessons should be taken to heart for any social media-minded business.  While technology may provide the means to delve deeply into the habits of clients and consumers, the wisdom of such endeavors is dubious at best.  Transparency is a double-edged sword, and when it comes to engaging social media users, privacy protection should be a paramount concern.  The goal of social media engagement should be voluntary disclosure, and successful social media campaigns will incentivize user participation, relying on tangible rewards and intangible inducements to coax wary customers into sharing valuable consumer behavior information.

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According to the Center for Media Research’s 2010 Media Planning Intelligence Study, increasing social media presence is a top priority for 56% of respondents.  Sean Carton offers a social media strategy checklist that should be required reading for businesses contemplating a push into social media.  As Carton notes, most businesses lack an actual strategy behind their social media efforts, and this strategic lacuna may ultimately result in a frustration, disappointment, and a large chunk of ad dollars being flushed down the drain. 

While I agree wholeheartedly with the 10 points on Carton’s checklist, I’d add 3 important caveats for businesses to consider.

1.  Social media is not just another advertising channel.  Many businesses view social media as a novel way to deliver marketing messages to consumers – and it is.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Unlike traditional advertising channels, social media is a participatory medium.  Social media users generate and share content, form relationships and communities, engage in conversations and exchange ideas and information, create semantic pathways for navigating the Web, and utilize an array of online tools to augment and enhance their personal and social experiences offline.  Most importantly, social media is a forum for engaged consumers.  Social media users rate and review products, share stories of positive and negative customer service experiences, comparison shop based on word-of-mouth recommendations, evangelize for the brands they love, and skewer the ones they hate.  As tempting as it may be to interject your voice into this consumer conversation, it is even more important that you first learn to listen.  Accurately gauging the pulse of your customers – and potential customers – can reveal hidden markets, pathways to innovation and product enhancements, comparative advantages, customer service deficiencies, and other information critical to refining your products and business.  Social media is a tool for market discovery, product innovation, business improvement, and crisis management.  If your social media push doesn’t capitalize on these opportunities, you’re not taking full advantage of social media. 

2. Social media is a different kind of advertising channel.  To the extent that social media is an advertising channel, it’s one that requires an approach to marketing that differs markedly from ads delivered on traditional media channels.  If your social media marketing doesn’t engage users and provide an opportunity for genuine interaction, it’s not really social media marketing.  The form and content of your social marketing efforts should reflect your ultimate goal, whether it’s to interject your brand message into the social conversation, to capture the “viral” effect of social media, or to provide opportunities for brand engagement.    

3. Social media users aren’t passive message recipients.  When you interject a marketing message into an online social environment, it becomes part of the social conversation.  Social media users talk back.  They comment, rate, share, and otherwise extend the reach and meaning of your message beyond what you might have strictly intended.  Successful advertising – that which engages users and elicits a positive reaction – is amplified immeasurably by “viral” effect of social media.  Unfortunately, the same is true for unsuccessful efforts.  As Carton suggests, you have to be prepared to give up control of the conversation when you engage in social media marketing, and you’ll need new metrics with which to gauge the effectiveness of your efforts.  More than this, social media marketing requires a sustained presence, a willingness to follow the paths your message takes once it’s in the hands of social media users, and an ability to react and respond to the unexpected and unintended results of social interaction.

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When influential mommyblogger and power Twitterer @dooce  (Heather B. Armstrong) tweeted about her ongoing service problems with a recently purchased Maytag washing machine, she ignited a firestorm of controversy that raised important questions about the power of celebrity, the state of customer relations, the vulnerability of brand reputation, and the influence of social media. 

 If you don’t know about the @dooce vs. #Maytag twitterstorm by now, your social media radar is broken.  I’m not going to rehash the whole controversy (you can read @dooce’s side of the story here), but here’s the Reader’s Digest version:  Mom with prolifically pooping newborn buys a $1,300 Maytag washing machine (a Maytag Performance Series 4.4 Cu. Ft. IEC Capacity Front Load Steam Washer, to be precise) AND the 10-year extended warranty.  Within a week, the washer is broken.  23 days and 3 visits from the repairman later, and the washer is still broken.  Repeated phone calls to the retailer, the repair shop, and the Maytag customer service center, and the washer is still broken.  No replacement, no loaner, only a surly customer service rep, an indifferent customer service manager, and a promise that another repairman can be dispatched in another 3-5 days.  Frustrated and fed up, mom decides to tweet about her experience thusly:

So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE.2:19 PM Aug 26th from Tweetie

Have I mentioned what a nightmare our experience was with Maytag? No? A TOTAL NIGHTMARE.2:22 PM Aug 26th from Tweetie

That brand new washing machine from MAYTAG? That someone has been out to fix three times? STILL BROKEN. DO NOT BUY MAYTAG.2:29 PM Aug 26th from Tweetie

Oh, also. I have a newborn. So we do, what, three loads of laundry a day? Except, our brand new washing machine IS BROKEN. DO NOT BUY MAYTAG2:32 PM Aug 26th from Tweetie

RIP: OUR BRAND NEW MAYTAG WASHING MACHINE.2:35 PM Aug 26th from Tweetie

Calm blue ocean. Calm blue ocean. Calm blue—DAMMIT, MAYTAG!4:53 PM Aug 26th from Tweetie

Now, if this were any other mom, or just about any other Twitterer, that little tirade would’ve had about as much oomph as a butterfly fart in a hurricane.  But this is @dooce we’re talking about – New York Times bestselling author, Technorati Top 100 blogger, #26 on Forbes’ list of the most influential women in media.  Oh yeah, and at the time she posted her Twitter rant, she had a smidge over 1.1 million followers.  Clearly, Maytag stepped on the wrong mommy’s toes. 

What followed is a critical lesson for businesses about the reach and impact of social media, and the importance of customer service in an age of engaged and empowered consumers.  As you might imagine, the complaints of a well-connected member of the Twitterati and self-made Web celeb can’t go unnoticed, and in this case didn’t.  Within hours, @dooce was contacted (via Twitter) by @HomeDepot, @WhirlpoolCorp (owner of the Maytag brand), and even Maytag competitor @boschappliances, which offered to provide a free Bosch washing machine to replace the Maytag lemon.  After a call with Jeff Piraino, manager of the executive offices of Whirlpool in Michigan, a new repairman was dispatched and the washer was fixed within 24 hours.  Problem solved, right?  Not quite.  Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to figure out who the winners and losers are, and to reflect on the consequences of social media for consumers and businesses.

The Winners

@dooce:  Her complaints were finally heard and acknowledged, her washer got fixed, and she picked up another 100,000 followers in the weeks following her initial posts.  Sure, a few of her fellow mommybloggers and some corporate PR hacks called her out for leveraging her following and influence to bully Maytag, but the fact of the matter is that Maytag dropped the customer service ball and they got called out – and rightly so.  The fact that @dooce’s celebrity made her complaint more audible is really beside the point (this point, anyway).  Social media amplifies the power of consumers to talk back to brands – whether that talk is positive or negative – and the best brands are going to listen, react, respond and improve.  For those that choose to ignore this new consumer reality, well, your days are numbered.

Consumers:  Like I said, social media empowers consumers, and that’s a good thing for all of us.  The best brands – those intent on creating and selling quality products, behaving in a socially responsible way, and committed to providing exemplary customer service – have nothing to fear, and in fact are more likely to succeed as their reputations are bolstered by the social conversations of satisfied customers.  It’s the other brands that need to be afraid, and I have a hard time working up tears over their self-made misfortune.

@HomeDepot: It’s unclear whether the Maytag machine in question was purchased at Home Depot, but the retail giant was among the first to respond to @dooce’s complaint, offering to remedy the situation even if it wasn’t purchased at one of their stores.  More than just a good PR move, the timely offer indicates that Home Depot is effectively monitoring and appropriately using social media.  They’re not just monitoring Twitter conversations for mentions of their brand, but of the brands they carry.  Kudos, Home Depot. 

@boschappliances:  Maytag’s failure was a golden opportunity for its competitors, and Bosch Appliances wasted no time in pouncing.  By my count, Bosch wins three ways.  First, they one-up Home Depot in the social media diligence department by listening to feedback not just about their own products, but their competitors’ as well.  Social media provides a whole new way to keep an eye on the competition, and Bosch is doing it right.  Second, Bosch scores PR points while rubbing Maytag’s nose in it by offering to replace the defective washer with one of their own – free of charge.  Now that’s customer service.  Finally, after @dooce declines their generous offer but suggests (at the advice of a follower) Bosch donate the new machine to a Salt Lake City shelter, Bosch quickly agrees, scoring a PR home run. 

The Losers

@WhirlpoolCorp and Maytag: Sure, they eventually made good by fixing the defective washer at the center of this controversy, but the brand image took a serious hit in the process.  Thanks to an unresponsive retailer, an ineffective repairman, a surly customer service rep, an indifferent customer service manager, and – let’s face it – a lemon of a product, this single experience has become a powerful counter-narrative that makes a mockery of those bored Maytag Repairman commercials.  A brand whose reputation was built on the idea of reliability has suddenly become the poster child for corporate indifference and shoddy customer service.  And let’s not forget, it took an audience of millions to goad Whirlpool/Maytag into responding.  You can bet your major appliance that you and I wouldn’t be getting a call from Mr. Piraino if we went through a similar ordeal, and this fact isn’t lost on consumers.  As Michelle McGinty wrote in her BeliefNet article on the subject, “I could care less that they fixed her machine since I know it’s only because it made a big enough noise.” 

Customer Service:  Rightly or wrongly, this whole incident was a black eye for the customer service industry.  Everyone has a nightmare story about their efforts to hold a company accountable for their defective products, but in the age of social media, those stories are amplified immeasurably.  As Pete Blackshaw has noted, the current customer satisfaction model is obsolete in the age of virality and word-of-mouth exposure.  Consumers armed with the tools of social media may not be able to turn a single bad experience into a national controversy, but when enough of them begin to pile up, a brand’s reputation can be sunk.  Social media isn’t just a marketing opportunity for brands – it’s a new communication medium that reveals the pulse of consumer sentiment.  Accurately gauging that sentiment is half the battle, but reforming customer service practices to head off controversy is even more important.  Unless businesses accept and respond to this new reality of the marketplace, their fates will be sealed by the dissatisfaction of their customers.

 

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When it comes to laying out your company’s social media strategy, start with this fundamental question: which social media tools are your customers using?  While many social media evangelists are quick to adopt and tout the advantages of the latest social media gadget, these “power users” are often too far ahead of the curve to serve as guideposts for businesses anxious to enter the social media fray.  Knowing which social media tools  your customers use – and how they use them –  is a critical first step in forming your social media strategy. 

Twitter: By the Numbers

Unfortunately, demographic data and other user information can be hard to come by.  As Nick Burcher has noted, official usage data for the popular microblogging site Twitter is generally unavailable, and unofficial numbers from 3rd party sources such as Comscore, Hitwise, Compete, Quantcast, Nielsen and Twitterholic are often contradictory.  For example, while Hitwise and Nielsen report that Twitter users are primarily middle-aged men, Compete and Quantcast indicate that younger users are dominant.   Sysomos’ June 2009 report, Inside Twitter: An In-depth Look Inside the Twitter World, which analyzed data disclosed on 11.5 million Twitter accounts, found that 65% of Twitter users are under the age of 25, but noted that only 0.7% of users disclosed their age, with younger users showing a higher probability of doing so.  As far as the gender breakdown is concerned, different sources produce widely varying results.  According to Burcher’s data (from Quantcast), female users outnumber male users 53% to 47%.  Box UK puts that ratio at a slightly higher 59% to 41%.  However, according to a recent study from Harvard Business Publishing of 300,000 Twitter users , male users have 15% more followers than women, and the average male users is nearly twice as likely to follow another man than a woman.  Broken down by geography, Twitter use is still dominated by the U.S. at 62.24%, with the UK following in a distant second at 7.87%, according to the Sysomos study.  The biggest Twitter populations are concentrated in North American urban centers, with New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, San Francisco and Boston leading the way (again, according to Sysomos).  According to HubSpot’s State of the Twittersphere report, U.S. cities dominate the list of Top 20 Twitter locations.  One demographic factor on which virtually all sources agree is the racial composition of the service.  According to Quantcast numbers, 82% of users are Caucasian (while a Pear Analytics study puts that number at 78%).

As confusing as the demographic user data is, the picture is complicated by the question of usage.  According to a recent Harris Interactive poll, only 5% of Americans say they are currently using Twitter.  Although Twitter is a media darling and continues to enjoy phenomenal traffic growth, including among young users,two important indexes of usage – activity and reach – suggest that business enthusiasm for the services should be restrained.  The Harvard Business Publishing study found that

“Twitter’s usage patterns are also very different from a typical on-line social network. A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.”

The study found that the top 10% of Twitter users account for 90% of tweets, compared to usage statistics for other social networks, where the top 10% account for roughly 30% of contributed content.  As the study concludes, Twitter “resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.”  Similarly, the Sysmos report found that 85.3% of Twitter users update less than once a day, while only 1.13% of users update more than 10 times  a day.  More than half of Twitter users hadn’t posted a status update in the past week.  According to a study by Box UK which drew from a random sampling of 83,628 Twitter users, 22% had never tweeted, and 58% had tweeted fewer than 10 times.  HubSpot’s report reveals a few other interesting facts about user activity (or inactivity, as the case seems to be):

  • 54.8% have never tweeted
  • 55.5% of users are not following anyone
  • 52.71 % have no followers

To put this activity data into perspective, consider comparable numbers from Facebook.  According to self-reported statistics, nearly half of all Facebook’s 250 million active users log on daily (48%) and 20% of users update their statuses at least once a day.

As sobering as the activity data is, the limited reach of the average Twitter user is an even more important indicator of the utility of the service for businesses.  While HubSpot reports that more than half of Twitter users aren’t following anyone and have no followers, Syomos reports that 92.4% of users follow fewer than 100 people, and 97.8% follow fewer than 400.  Likewise, Sysomos reports that 93.6% of users have fewer than 100 followers, and 98% have fewer than 400.  The Box UK survey reports that 53% of Twitter users have 10 followers or fewer.  Again, a comparison to Facebook puts these numbers into perspective.  The average Facebook user has 120 friends on the site, which approaches the theoretical limit of the Dunbar number, the cognitive limit to the number of people with which one can maintain stable social relationships.        

Implications for Business

The demographic data for Twitter is admittedly ambiguous, but a few basic conclusions may be drawn.  First, female users have a slight numerical advantage over male users, but as the Harvard Business Publishing study suggests, male users have more influence (as measured by followers) than females.  Although the technology is dominated by 18-34 year olds, the upper half of this group is dominant, although the younger half are starting to adopt the technology with increasing frequency.  However, younger users have not broken into the ranks of the most popular or most frequent users.  Whether and to what extent young users begin to embrace Twitter in the same way they’ve adopted Facebook and other social networking tools remains to be seen.  As with many other social media services, the Twitter audience is urban, English-speaking, and primarily Caucasian.

The Twitter usage statistics – in terms of both activity and reach – reveal important insights for business.  One of the primary advantages of social media participation for business is the ability to tap into user-driven social activity.  However, as the Harvard Business Publishing study concludes, Twitter currently functions more like a traditional media outlet than a genuine social media tool.  The most influential users (again, those with the largest following and the most significant user activity) tend to be technology leaders and celebrities.  Peer-to-peer social activity is limited, and the reach of typical users is extremely limited.

This is not to suggest that Twitter isn’t a useful tool for businesses.  Conversations about brands and products occur everyday on Twitter (see, for example, @dooce vs. #Maytag), and Twitter Search offers a simple way to track customer sentiment.  Learning to listen to customer feedback and effectively respond to complaints should be one of the highest priorities for brands, and Twitter can facilitate this process.  Moreover, brands with sufficient cache and a loyal following can utilize the service as way to keep in contact with customers.  However, attracting a following may be difficult, and users are unlikely to engage brands that fail to provide added value beyond typical mass communication messages.  Treating Twitter as another broadcasting channel is unlikely to reap the positive benefits businesses are looking for from social media.

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rubelstreamWhen Steve Rubel closed the doors on the popular blog Micro Persuasion and set up shop on Posterous.com, the move was hailed by many as a landmark moment for lifestreaming, which Word Spy succinctly defines as the recording “of a person’s daily activities, either via direct video feed or via aggregating the person’s online content such as blog posts, social network updates, and online photos.”  Rubel explained the motives for his move this way:

“Blogging feels old. Publishing today is all about The Flow. Posterous, my new home, feels more like flow and where the web is going so it’s time for me to do the same with my publishing, which will become daily once again!

This concept of “the Flow” is taken from an article on Stowe Boyd’s /message blog  (irony not lost here), in which Boyd argues that blogs and associated comments are an outmoded form of online communication.  According to Boyd, “conversation is moving from a very static and slow form of conversation — the comments thread on blog posts — to a more dynamic and fast form of conversation: into the flow in Twitter, Friendfeed, and others. I think this directionality may be like a law of the universe: conversation moves to where is is most social.”  Boyd suggests two competing metaphors for thinking about how we converse online:  the Web of Pages, according to which users stumble around in search of information; and the Web of Flow, according to which information comes to users via social applications.  Although Stowe concedes that blogs will still serve an important function as “the place where we archive our posts, so that people can find them when they need to search, which still is a necessity,” they will never be the central hub of our online lives – the locus of the lifestream. 

So, Rubel opts to go with the Flow, so to speak, and moves his publishing enterprise to Posterous.  That’s all well and good, but is Posterous really a Lifestreaming technology?  Well, sort of.  Mark Krynsky offer his thoughts on Posterous as a Lifestreaming platform, arguing that it’s not a “true Lifestreaming service,” and I tend to agree.  Krynsky makes an important methodological distinction between “true” Lifestreaming technologies and Posterous:

“Using the Lifestreaming method you post to various web services and then aggregate the content generated at each of them on your Lifestream. Your Lifestream can be located at a service like FriendFeed, Storytlr or many others, or it can be self hosted using WordPress, SweetCron or many other options as well.

Posterous uses a different methodology in which you post all your content to their service first via email, bookmarklet, or a custom form and then optionally autopost that content to external services such as Twitter, Flickr, Delicious, and Youtube. The options for posting by email are flexible and powerful. You can specify which of the external services you want to autopost to on a per email basis by using  specific settings.”

Essentially, while Lifestreaming theoretically allows users to publish from any external source with an RSS feed or API access, Posterous limits users to publishing with the tools native to the site.  Because Posterous doesn’t allow importing from external sources, Krynsky doesn’t consider it a true Lifestreaming tool.   That’s not to say that he doesn’t find Posterous useful, nor does he deny that it can’t serve a limited Lifestreaming purpose.  However, the distinction he draws is an important one.  As long as Lifestreaming platforms rely on native tools, they will be limited utility hubs.  And this goes back to Boyd’s post.  The only difference between traditional blogs and Posterous is the ability to publish to external sources.  As WordPress and other blog services begin to incorporate these external publishing applications, the differences between blogs and Posterous will dwindle.

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