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Archive for the ‘Corporate Communications’ Category

Note: This is the first in a series of posts intended to help businesses evaluate their social media engagement options. All social media technology is not created equal, and different channels require different approaches. By understanding the benefits and limitations of each, businesses will be in a better position to choose the ones that best fit their budgets and abilities.

Why focus on Facebook?

As my grandpa was fond of saying, the best place to fish is where the fish are. In the case of social media, the most populous pond is clearly Facebook. With more than 400 million active users, a vibrant developer ecosystem, integrations across the social media spectrum, and myriad brand engagement opportunities, businesses would be well-advised to make Facebook a focal point of their social media strategies. If your target customers aren’t on Facebook, the chances are they’re not easily accessible through other social media channels. But sheer numbers aren’t the only reason businesses should make Facebook a cornerstone of their social media efforts.

1. Facebook has a functional, trusted social architecture

In early 2006, I was hired as a consultant on a social networking platform development project. When I first met with the company’s co-founder, he told me “We want to build the next MySpace,” to which I responded, “Why on earth would you want to do that?” I explained that MySpace had a dysfunctional social architecture. Anemic profile data and search functionality made it virtually impossible to find like-minded peers. Communication tools were severely lacking. Visually assaulting page layouts made for a nightmarish user experience. Proprietary applications stifled innovation, created unnecessary competition with other social media technologies, and confined users within MySpace’s “walled garden”. “It’s an anti-social network,” I told him. Given the massive success and popularity of MySpace up to that point, I was going out on a limb by pointing out its many flaws. When Mashable’s Pete Cashmore declared MySpace’s unassailable dominance and Rupert Murdoch shelled out $580 million to acquire the site, I’m sure everyone was second guessing their decision to listen to me.

And then came Facebook. What began as a closed social site for students at Harvard eventually expanded to include other universities, then select businesses before finally opening up to the general public in September of 2006. Over the next 6 months, Facebook’s membership doubled, then doubled again only months later. By December of 2008, Facebook surpassed MySpace in terms of monthly unique visitors from the U.S. There are many reasons for Facebook’s meteoric rise to prominence, but none is more important than the fact that they got social right. Facebook allows users to connect with real people, to rekindle friendships lost to time & distance, and to build meaningful relationships online.  “Friends” on MySpace were little more than numbers, and high friend counts merely status symbols. Whereas MySpace’s version of “community” was monolithic and dedifferentiated, Facebook’s networks – based on regions, workplaces, and schools – make community a pivotal point of social organization on the site. Facebook’s News Feed pulls the UX focus away from our own profile pages and shifts it to the activities and interests of our friends, and Comments and Likes on News Feed content introduce us to their friends. Pages and Groups (don’t get me started on Facebook’s Group problem) allow users to connect with strangers over shared interests and form affinity-based communities. Even the shift from an exclusive club to an open society included measures to preserve the privacy and security of existing users and communities. Privacy controls allow users to determine the extent of their publicity, and to control what they share and with whom (Facebook’s recent privacy row notwithstanding, but that’s beyond the scope of this post, and a subject for another). Authenticity, shared affinity, trust and autonomy are all prerequisites to functional, meaningful communities, whether online or in the real world. And as Facebook’s eclipse of MySpace demonstrates, a functional social architecture is a prerequisite to success for online social networks. As long as users are invested in these meaningful relationships and communities, they’ll remain active on Facebook.

Aside from the fact that Facebook’s social architecture means the site is likely to remain vibrant and vital, why should businesses care about the quality of online social experiences? Simply put, relationships are the heart of social media. Technology enables content generation and sharing, but relationships are the reason we adopt and use social technologies. Social media works when it inspires us to connect, create, and share. Participation and investment go hand in hand. For businesses to tap into the enormous potential of social media, they must look first toward the platforms and applications that foster real relationships. Following from this, businesses should make Facebook a primary point of social media engagement because the site engages users as real people. For the most part, Facebook users don’t hide behind aliases and fake personae. They are real people – friends, family, colleagues, citizens, comrades, and importantly, consumers – able to express their real interests and affinities, and encouraged to explore and expand all aspects of their multidimensional identities. For businesses, this means an opportunity to engage with customers in an environment that mirrors their real world experiences, including consumer activities. Facebook users share ratings and reviews, seek out recommendations and advice, and transform themselves into brand advocates – and vocal critics. Keeping with the fishing metaphor, Facebook users are the blue fin tuna of the social media universe. The coveted social graph – the global mapping of all Facebook users and their interrelationships – is especially valuable because the rich profile data Facebook records for each user – not just demographic data, but interests, affiliations, likes and dislikes – provides businesses with an in-depth perspective on consumer behavior they’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Think of it as the largest, most detailed focus group ever assembled. The benefits to be gained from engaging this particular universe of users are incalculably huge.

2. Facebook’s open API’s foster innovation and integration

One of the most significant developments in social media was the introduction of Facebook’s open API’s (Application Programming Interfaces), which allow developers to tap into the social activity of the site to create integrated applications, simplify third-party authentication, and import Facebook data to third-party sites. Unlike MySpace, which adopted a proprietary development philosophy designed to maintain control over applications and features, Facebook’s approach has resulted in a robust developer ecosystem, innovative applications for users, and interconnectivity with other websites. For businesses, this approach allows for innovation and experimentation with novel user engagement strategies. While I’m not the biggest fan of Facebook Pages (no pun intended) as they’re currently constituted and executed – engagement is often thin, the interface is flat, and value to users is rarely added – all of the essential pieces are in place to make them truly engaging interactive brand experiences. Given Facebook’s willingness to allow developer-initiated innovation, there is an opportunity for forward-thinking brands to take the lead and push these novel advertising spaces toward their full potential. Because the developer ecosystem operates in a fairly autonomous fashion, leading edge brands can team up with developers of popular applications to introduce branded versions or components.

Aside from developing interactive applications native to the Facebook platform, businesses can leverage Facebook’s API’s to improve consumer engagement experiences on their own websites, and across the Web. Facebook Connect, which allowed users to use their Facebook username and password to login to sites and applications across the Web, massively improved registration conversions for third-party sites (it’s recently been abandoned in favor of OAuth 2.o, an open source authentication protocol, but the basic idea – simplified authentication – remains unchanged). Facebook’s Graph API allows developers to “read and write data to Facebook…(and) provides a simple and consistent view of the social graph, uniformly representing objects (like people, photos, events, and pages) and the connections between them (like friendships, likes, and photo tags).” When users connect to third-party sites via their Facebook profile, those sites have access to any publicly available user data – from favorite foods to favorite books – and will be able to take that into account to provide tailored offers and unique consumer experiences. Social Plugins, like the recently introduced portable “Like” button, “make it easy for users to see information from or about their Facebook friends, share things with their friends without leaving a site or going through a time-consuming login process.” One of the most important ways that businesses can improve online interactive experiences for users is to simplify and streamline the engagement process, and with Facebook’s open API’s, there is no quicker and easier way to do just that.

3. Facebook provides a variety of consumer engagement opportunities

For those businesses that aren’t quite ready to undertake a full-blown integration strategy, the vast universe of Facebook Applications provide ready-made user engagement tools and toys. Games, quizzes, virtual gifts, and even mobile applications can be dropped into Facebook Pages to provide instant entertainment for visitors. Coupled with videos, blog posts, discussion boards and other brand-centric content, these applications allow even the smallest of businesses to create rich interactive experiences (caveat: unless you’re a top interactive agency of Fortune 500 brand with a sizable social media budget, forget what I said about the problems with Pages – they’re still one of the best social marketing opportunities around). For businesses taking their initial steps into the social media arena, Facebook offers a wide variety of consumer engagement options that can be deployed with minimal effort. Pages, targeted ads, customized social games, and brandable applications allow brands to test engagement tactics before committing significant resources.

To demonstrate the potential of Facebook Pages, consider the example of Starbucks. In their July 2009 report, Engagement db: Ranking the Top 100 Global Brands, the Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li and Wetpaint’s Ben Elowitz gave Starbucks the highest social media engagement score among the top 100 brands. One of the keys to Starbucks’ success is an awareness of the different dimensions of engagement offered by each social media channel. On Facebook, Starbucks has grown their community of fans from about 200,000 when they initiated engagement efforts in October of 2008, to 3.5 million as of the publication of the Engagement db report, to nearly 8.1 million as of today. Chris Bruzzo, Starbucks VP of Brand, Content and Online, attributes this phenomenal growth to user-initiated interactions unique to the Facebook platform: “Recently, we found that for every four people that interacted with a particular news item, another three people added virally as friends of these people.” What Starbucks discovered is that Facebook is not only about messaging to their fans, but also “allowing fans to talk with each other about their love for the product and experience.” To facilitate user-initiated interactions, Starbucks developed branded applications utilizing Facebook’s API’s. The Starbucks Card application allows users to manage their card balance, view their rewards, and will eventually allow users to surprise friends by reloading their Starbucks cards. The Starbucks Around The World application invites users to share their passion for coffee with users from across the globe. The Starbucks Instant Story application lets users create MadLibs-style status updates – and earn a dollar off their next purchase of Starbucks VIA instant coffee. In addition to these customized branded applications, the Starbucks Page includes off-the-shelf applications, including videos, notes (the functional equivalent of a blog), discussions, polls, links, and even product reviews. There’s no shortage of interactive opportunities for users, and 3,950% growth over the past 23 months certainly demonstrates the success of their approach.

Importantly, Starbucks’ Facebook success is also a result of their unique perspective on social media engagement. As Bruzzo explains, “If we had approached it not from ‘what you know and love about Starbucks’ but as a marketing channel, we would have taken this down a path that would have been very different…This was not [built as a] marketing channel, but as a consumer relationship-building environment.” The success of this approach is not only reflected in the tremendous growth of their following on Facebook (and other social media channels), but also in the company’s bottom-line revenue. After suffering through a disastrous first half of 2008, during which sales and traffic slipped for the first time in the company’s history, “Starbucks posted its first U.S. same-store sales gain in two years for the last quarter during a time when the company relied on digital and social-media promotions instead of what had become an annual TV blitz.” The critical lesson here is not that social media engagement can translate into measurable financial success, although the Starbucks experience certainly counters this frequently heard complaint from social media skeptics; rather, it is that Starbucks properly understands the differences between social media engagement and traditional marketing strategies. As Bruzzo continues, “It’s not like we started our Facebook community, got to a million people and started pushing offers at them. We built up a community of people who enjoy engaging with our photo albums from our trip to Rwanda, who loved to have these shared moments around their favorite drinks.” Then, fans started asking the company what was going on, and how they could be included. Although Starbucks results may be difficult for other brands to replicate, their experience provides a solid blueprint for businesses venturing into the Facebook space.

4. Facebook still has room to grow

As I said earlier, the Facebook platform is not without its drawbacks. The recent privacy fiasco illustrates the need for brands to tread lightly when it comes to utilizing user data. Although the user interface is light years ahead of MySpace, it doesn’t exactly push the envelope of UX possibilities. The structure and organization of Groups just plain sucks. As the Starbucks examples demonstrates, Pages can be done extremely well, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and it takes some effort and ingenuity. Still, Facebook is one of the more promising social media channels for businesses. And as businesses deepen their investment in the site, they will have an opportunity to steer future development in directions that enhance consumer engagement even further. As such, a commitment to the Facebook platform is likely to provide both short-term and long-term returns for forward-thinking businesses.

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strategyAs American consumers spend more and more of their online time interacting on social websites, social media initiatives have become a high priority for businesses large and small.  Social media is a booming industry, but it’s also the new Wild West.  The landscape is constantly changing, the technology is continually evolving, and consumer behavior is an endlessly moving target.  Unfortunately for businesses, there isn’t a clear cut path to social media success.  Even more unfortunately, there’s no shortage of self-proclaimed experts claiming to know the way.

I’ve spent the better part of the last decade researching consumer uses of social technology, collaborating on the development of social software platforms, cultivating and managing a large online community, and developing social media strategies.  I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not even close to having a silver bullet solution, and the more I learn about social media, the more I’m convinced such a thing does not yet exist.  As a community, social media “experts” are working diligently to define best practices, to cultivate effective techniques for engagement, to develop accurate metrics, and to discover comprehensive solutions that will deliver on the elusive promise of success.  It’s an on-going process, and anyone that tells you something different isn’t someone you should be listening to.

Among the social media “experts” that are worthy of the term (and there are many, to be sure), there is currently a good deal of concern about the meaning of social media “strategy.”  As Tom Webster recently pointed out, what usually passes as strategy is actually tactical advice: be human, be authentic, be helpful.  Great advice? Yes.  Strategy?  Not hardly.  In a tweet this morning, Scott Gould wondered “how many ppl talk about social media, and how many have an actual strategy…”?  I think this is one of the most pertinent questions we so-called “experts” should be asking ourselves, and each other.  Here’s a short version of my answer.  Consider it an introduction to what will become a series of posts dedicated to each of the major points.

A Strategic Guide to Social Media Engagement: 10 Steps to Success

1.  Define goals: Before you undertake any social media initiative, take a step back to consider the view from 50,000 feet.  Why social media?  What exactly are you trying to achieve?  What does this new fangled technology offer that traditional media channels don’t? Although many businesses and social media advocates tend to view social media primarily as a marketing tool, the benefits of social media engagement are in fact much more far reaching.  Social media can enhance your public image, augment community outreach, improve customer service and increase customer satisfaction, provide new sources of market intelligence and information about your competition, and help improve products, streamline processes, and boost organizational performance beyond the marketing silo.  Define the goals of your social media initiatives with these broader benefits in mind.

2.  Audit existing efforts: Budgetary constraints may require that social media engagement trade off with other expenditures, but wise investments need not be zero sum.  Social media initiatives should complement rather than supplant existing efforts, whether your goal is to improve marketing, customer service, product development, or organizational efficiency.   Before you implement a social media strategy, take stock of your existing efforts to figure out how to maximize your current resources and expenditures.  This audit will also help you establish baselines for performance against which to measure the results of your social media engagement, and to figure out how best to integrate those results to improve organizational performance.

3.  Establish baselines for performance: You can’t get where you want to go if you don’t know where you’re starting from.  Social media may offer any number of potential benefits, but they’re impossible to quantify if you don’t have a firm grasp on the successes and shortcomings of your current efforts.  Whether your goal is to convert leads into sales, increase customer satisfaction, or reduce product returns, establishing baselines for performance is the first step in demonstrating a quantifiable ROI for your social media initiatives.

4.  Identify your audience’s social profile: All social media is not created equal.  One of the first questions you should ask before undertaking any social media engagement is where in the world of social media is my audience? In other words, who are you trying to reach, and what social media sites, applications, and platforms are they using? Don’t waste your time and money chasing an audience that doesn’t exist.  And notice that I’m using the word “audience” here, rather than “customers.”  Social media allows you to engage customers, talent, industry experts, community leaders, and other individuals who can positively impact your business.  Don’t let the marketing aspects dominate your focus.

5.  Identify applicable social tools: Once you’ve figured out where your audience is you can determine the best social tools with which to engage them.  Should you be building Facebook Pages or Groups, Twittering, blogging, creating mobile apps, sponsoring contests, socializing on MySpace, engaging the LinkedIn community, or joining Orkut, Friendster, Bebo or any of the dozens of other social networks popular outside of the U.S.?  The options are staggering, and figuring out which ones work best will inevitably involve some trial and error, but you needn’t be shooting in the dark.  Thinking strategically about the ways you engage through social media will maximize your returns and minimize your expenditures.

6.  Develop an action plan for implementation: To achieve the full benefits of social media, you have to develop a plan for implementation.  This plan includes tactical considerations, such as the timing and targeting of initiatives, defining roles and responsibilities, training personnel, developing monitoring and accounting procedures, and most importantly, determining how to integrate the fruits of your labor into your organization.  As the goals of social media engagement differ, so will organizational responsibilities.  Within larger organizations, social media engagement will involve marketing departments, customer service teams, HR, product design and manufacturing, and product delivery systems, just to name a few.  Even if these departments aren’t directly involved in social media efforts, the information gleaned from these initiatives is only useful if it’s integrated into the appropriate operational context.

7.  Establish engagement metrics and deploy tracking tools: Measurement is the key to success in any corporate communication effort, and social media is no exception.  Developing accurate engagement metrics will allow you to discover which of your efforts are most effective and which are falling flat.  One of the primary advantages of social media engagement is that it offers opportunities for measurement that aren’t as easily accessed through traditional media channels.  Thanks to a variety of tracking software, the digital footprint of social media users is highly visible, and the mountains of data they churn up allow you to revise and retarget your efforts to maximize effectiveness.

8.  Develop social media content and engagement tactics: Social media isn’t just another channel through which to push a corporate message, and companies that treat it as such are going to be sorely disappointed.  The conversation about your brand and market is already happening, and if you jump into it without considering the value of your contribution, you’ll either be tuned out or you’ll take a beating.  Giving the people what they want means developing content that informs, entertains, and engages your audience.  And content is only the beginning.  To capture the value of social media, you have to be social.  That means listening, understanding, responding, and incorporating the conversational feedback into your products and processes.  This is where that tactical advice comes into play: be human, be authentic, be helpful.  Successful social media initiatives require a commitment to engagement over the long-term, and an effective strategy will include a sustainable plan for monitoring, responding, and reacting to conversational feedback.

9.  Incorporate feedback: This part of the equation is probably the most difficult for organizations to put into practice.  What you learn from social media engagement can help you improve your products and processes, discover hidden markets, and get a leg up on the competition, but only if you’re prepared to change the way you do business.  Being a good conversational partner requires a willingness to change your beliefs based upon your interactions with others.  The same is true for businesses engaging customers through social media.  Only those organizations that internalize feedback and adapt accordingly will reap the benefits of engagement.

10.  Measure ROI and revise engagement tactics: A common misconception about social media is the difficulty of measuring effectiveness.  If you’ve established pre-engagement baselines, identified appropriate metrics, and deployed tracking tools, accurate measurement is far from impossible.  Crunch the numbers to determine the real, bottom-line value of your social media investment, and revise your engagement tactics accordingly.

I’m sure there are things I’ve left off this list, and I know some of this requires elaboration.  As I said at the outset, this is my contribution to a much broader conversation, and a brief introduction to a more in-depth discussion of each point.  I hope you’ll share your thoughts, point out my glaring lapses, and point me in the direction of any resources you think might be useful.  And please pass this along to anyone you think may benefit from or contribute to the conversation.  Thanks!

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As organizations and businesses move into the social media space, a new position has emerged: Director of Social Media.  While the specific title goes by various names (Director of Social Media Outreach, Director of Social Media Marketing, Social Media Manager, etc.), the skill sets and experiences qualified applicants bring to the table are probably fairly similar.  So, what, or who, should these organizations and businesses be looking for?  What questions would you ask of – or have you been asked as – a prospective Director of Social Media?  Do these questions differ by organizational type or business sector?  What are the skill sets that make one qualified for such a position?  Please leave a comment. I think this can be a very productive conversation.

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Olivier Blanchard (@thebrandbuilder) explains Social Media ROI Measurement in one of the funniest AND most informative slide shows I’ve ever seen.

[UPDATE: Check out Olivier’s presentation w/ these slides at #LikeMinds here.]

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Shel HoltzShel Holtz has forgotten more about communication technology than I and other mortals will ever know.  Founder and prinicipal of Holtz Communication + Technology, Shel is one of the leading voices guiding the integration of business practices with social media technology.  His books, journal articles, blog and podcasts have been required reading & viewing for me since I first had the good fortune to stumble across them as a graduate student, more than a decade ago.  I’ve always been inspired by his ability to accurately place new technologies into an appropriate corporate communications context, so that new innovations appear less like a revolutionary break and more an evolutionary step along a continuum of best practices.

In this interview with Shel Israel, Holtz discusses the future of corporate blogging, the advent of Twitter, lifestreaming, and other new social media technologies, and the importance of social media for corporate crisis management, among other things.  An informative and entertaining read, to say the least.

UPDATE: Here’s part 2 of the conversation with Shel Holtz.

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Sarah Evans, PR maven and director of communications at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Illinois, posted an excellent article on The Dos and Don’ts of Sharing for businesses on Social Media.  A few highlights that deserve echoing:

  • Be transparent and authentic.  Be human.

“Social media for business is about return on engagement. Connect with people, build opportunities through dialogue which would  not have otherwise occurred, then connect them with your business.

Think in terms of ‘bad driver just cut me off’ instead of ‘just got served papers for a lawsuit.’ The first example connects people and encourages dialogue. Who hasn’t been cut off by a bad driver? The second example has the potential to make people uncomfortable or turn them ‘off’ to your brand.”

  • Leaving a Legacy

“Your social media personality becomes part of your brand’s legacy. Don’t brand your personality for the day, the month or the year. This is serious stuff. What you post stays around for a pretty long time and the information (good and bad) isn’t too hard to find. Your social media posts offer vast archives of information about you.

This means, what you share, post or tweet today should reinforce your brand tomorrow. Think about each message you share via social media as an email which has gone public to your entire organization and all of your stakeholders. Now, imagine if they are reading this email and RESPONDING to it. That’s part of the power of your social media brand.”

  • Don’t be a social schizo.

“Multiple personality disorders do not work well in social media. If you confuse, you lose. If you are a business expert one day, a media maven the next and live news feed after that, people will ultimately stop connecting.

A very simple approach is to make a short list of what you WILL talk about via social media. Stick with it. The pay off? When someone thinks about an expert in interior design, they will think of you because you will have BRANDED yourself as one. (DISCLAIMER: This is not an opportunity to ‘play a doctor on T.V.’ You should actually be an expert in the areas you claim to be.)”

  • Social climbing is not the best approach.

“Social climbers beware. As you build your social media personality, don’t only connect with people who have a lot of “followers,” “friends,” “connections,” etc. It makes sense to engage the “big dogs” of social media, but it’s even better to connect with other quality audiences. Spending too much time looking for the big fish may take away from an entire school passing you by. Go grassroots and begin to build your personality one social media platform at a time.”

  • It’s not a one-stop shop.

“There is no one-size fits all personality for your brand. In fact, think you know your brand? Explore social media and see how people really experience what it is you’re selling. You may need to adjust or reflect on your brand.

What is your brand offline? Social media isn’t an opportunity to reinvent a new brand, but to widen your brand’s reach. It’s all about the experience, right? People should get the same (or similar) experience with you online that they get offline.”

  • Return on Engagement (ROE).

“It’s all about ROE – return on engagement. Is your social media personality working? You’ll know when opportunities arise that never would have been possible otherwise. A few ways to ‘quantify’ engagement:

• Track incoming traffic from links

• Number of people subscribed to RSS feeds

• Number of people in social media groups, fan pages, etc

• Trackbacks or linkbacks to posts

• Conversation tracking tools like Twitter Search

• Comments on blog posts

• Increased sales and general inquiries”

 

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DENNYS FAILB.L. Ochman, founder of the popular What’s Next Blog, debunks 6 social media myths for businesses.  This should be required reading for CMO’s before they dip their toes into the social media pool. I frequently encounter potential clients that balk at the costs and commitment required to effectively implement a social media strategy.  Her first point – that social media isn’t really free when it comes to business participation – may be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s absolutely true.  The social media landscape is littered with examples of misguided, ill-timed, poorly planned and miserably executed social media “campaigns,” some of them conceived by PR  and marketing firms with an impeccable track record of old media success.  The fact is, social media fundamentally transforms the rules of marketing – from messaging to metrics – and unless you’re prepared to shift your perspective and expectations accordingly, your social media experience could get pretty ugly.

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