A case for building your own social network

It’s often noted that replicating online tools that are mainstream and already perform the functions you need, just for the sake of having something with your own logo on it, is a mistake. In most cases, I’d agree. With social networks in particular, considering the number of existing tools with scores of users – LinkedIn, Facebook, Orkut, hi5, Bebo and so on – if you are looking to create a community, why would you want to create something new? Most networks fail, ROI is hard to measure (you have a load of members – so what?), and as mentioned, existing tools usually have all the functionalities you could ever want (and can even be used easily and cheaply).

All valid points. However, sometimes there’s a case for an organisation, movement, group, party etc. setting up a tailor-made social network:

  1. If you want your network to perform a specific function.
  2. Most pertinently, when the people who might use it – call it your fan-base or stakeholders or whatever – are numerous, enthusiastic and active, and actually would like a social network that caters for them and them alone.

The success of the US President-elect’s network – my.barackobama.com – confirms both points. The specific functions it performed were a) raising money for the candidate, and b) allowing supporters to mobilise great numbers of people in a very organised manner. And with regards to the second point, I think it goes without saying that Obama supporters were plentiful enough and fired up.

A less conspicuous case-study I’d cite, also from across the pond, is Firefighter Nation, the firefighters’ network, which has 26,000 very active members that are avidly using all the functionalities on the site (e.g. all thirteen forum topics had been active in the last 24 hours when I checked). So why is it working? Primarily because of a very strong dose of point 2 cited above: there are lots of firefighters in the US, they are very passionate about their profession, they have a very strong sense of camaraderie, and they want their own space where they can meet others like them and share their unique experiences. A Facebook group could probably do all the same things, but it just would not feel as special; it would not be a unique platform for them alone.

So the lesson is: if you’re thinking of setting up a network for philatelists or fans of tiddlywinks, use an existing platform (and don’t hold your breath). If you’re interested in something that can really get lots of people fired up (politics, saving wildlife, football) or, say, represent a very active political group or faction, then your own social network could work, if executed and promoted well. And if you really do fancy giving it a go, I’d recommend starting on Ning, which is the platform Firefighter Nation is built on – it’s brilliant, and what’s more, it’s free.

The middleman and the benefit of being small

I was in Italy last weekend and met a chap who is a wine distributor and a middleman par excellance. He purchases wine direct from producers and sells it on to other, bigger distributors, who then sell it to foreign distributors, who then distribute to another distributor (or perhaps directly to retailers). That’s an awful lot of middlemen. Similarly, on a small project we’re currently working on for a client, we’re the middleman, working with two other agencies to produce some relatively simple deliverables. So between the client and a simple deliverable are not one but three agencies.

Is that a problem? No. The term middleman has always had shady connotations, but it shouldn’t anymore. We need middlemen! It’s a global market-place, as well as a complex, ever-changing one at that, and frankly you can’t know it all. Look at agencies. The best agencies nowadays – the ones that are truly cutting-edge and innovative – are often relatively small, because they are more flexible. They can adapt to fundamental changes faster, smart individuals tend to have more leeway, and senior people spend more time on clients than in management meetings. Most of all, smaller agencies have less of a tendency than big agencies to think they can do it all: they can usually mobilise a network of partners, freelancers or other agencies that have the expertise required to handle any given situation, while big agencies try to mould their own resources to match what’s required.

When does it usually go wrong for small agencies? When they get big and stop acting small. When do big agencies produce their best work? When they act small (and luckily, plenty of them do).

Wikipedia? Yes, it's important

wikipediaContaining well over two and a half million articles in English alone, written and updated by anyone with access to the web, Wikipedia is an amazing resource. It’s also the eighth most visited site on the web, and many people’s first port of call when looking for information on something or anything.

For this reason, I often recommend that clients check the Wikipedia entries relevant to them to make sure the content is objective and fact-based, as it should be (note: I’d never recommend amending an entry so that it is overly supportive of a client’s position, brand etc – 1) it goes against the spirit of Wikipedia, which is to be a balanced and fact-based source of information, and as an avid user, I want everyone to abide by that spirit, otherwise it’d stop working; and 2) content which is not objective or well-referenced is simply removed by other users, so there’s no point).

Many times, clients don’t think it’s important. An article in a trade publication read by 10 people is, but a site with tens of millions of visitors every day isn’t. Go figure. However, I recently discovered a site which gives stats for every wikipedia entry, and since clients have started understanding the numbers at stake, they’re seeing Wikipedia in a different light.

Just take any current controversial topic and you can see just how many people landed on the relevant page on Wikipedia in any given month. Some sample stats for October to whet the appetite:

  • Sarah Palin: 2,489,570 visits
  • GMOs (article: genetically modified organism): 37,400 visits
  • Pesticides: 24,040 visits
  • Artificial flavouring (article: flavor): 13,100 visits
  • Sub-prime lending: 183,900 visits

Is Twitter creepy?!

Following up on my recent post on Microblogging in Europe, here’s something I hadn’t thought about.

I just read this article on Business Week, which  refers to how one person found it a little creepy when he posted a tweet referring to a company and then received a message from this same company the next day. Europeans tend in general to be more concerned about privacy then Americans, so companies that want to engage on Twitter in Europe should perhaps be a little more careful about interacting than their American counterparts? Sure, if someone is on Twitter, they want to engage you might say. Perhaps with regular members of the community rather than companies though – at least in some cases?

I think the best approach would be for companies in Europe to spend a little more time listening and assessing before jumping straight into the deep-end.

Some thoughts on President Obama

The unprecedented dominance of the airwaves and column inches (what’s the web equivalent?) by the new US President-Elect over the last few months has led some people to complain of Obama-fatigue. Nonetheless, here are some points which I think have stood out.

1. I wrote about the dumbing down of US politics recently, but it’s been great to see that Obama’s cerebral style has been welcomed rather than scorned, especially since September. Once the financial crisis took off and people grew increasingly concerned about jobs, mortgages and pensions, they were far more comfortable with Obama than McCain’s rather more gung-ho and instinctive approach. Plenty of Obama voters obviously preferred Bush in 2004, given the swing, but the Iraq war or the war on terror, the main issues in 2004, were perhaps harder to relate to than voters’ own financial well-being. And when the latter was at stake, clever trumped cowboy. That’s somewhat comforting. A successful Obama presidency would hopefully convince more people that cerebral is best across the board.

UPDATE: Good column on this same issue on the New York Times website.

2. Obama’s ability to learn on the job and skilfully respond to criticism has been impressive. His response to the two prevailing criticisms – that he lacked experience and that he couldn’t back fantastic oratory with real substance – was to: 1) study all major portfolios in such depth that he could rival old hands like McCain and Hillary Clinton on the finer details of policy; and 2) choose in Joe Biden a running mate that could make up for this perceived Achilles heal.

3. At a time when Americans are feeling vulnerable about their economic plight, are more eager to reach out to the world, and are waking up to the threat of climate change (there’s been a shift – thanks Al Gore – drill baby drill was perverse), Obama represents a case of right place and right time. Americans are feeling less confident than they have for decades, and the message of each man to himself espoused by the Republicans can’t work as well at a time when the American Dream seems a little more distant to most and government help suddenly doesn’t look so bad. People want to feel safe and cared for, and Obama is deemed the better man for that role, due in equal measure to his personal biography and platform. We should not forget that McCain’s story is pretty inspirational too, but it represents the brasher, more confident America which many citizens have rejected for now.

4. How must Al-Qaeda be feeling right now? Or Ahmedinijad? I suspect they’re really annoyed. Their number one recruitment officer is coming to the end of his term and Americans have chosen to replace him with someone called Hussein. It’ll be a lot harder to denounce the great Satan now.

5. What was the McCain campaign thinking? Easy to say in hindsight perhaps, but his selling points were experience and being a moderate Republican. He surrendered both by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. And when he ran into trouble, his campaign went dirty, which given that Obama was running on a platform of hope and positive change was always going to backfire. He’s tarnished his legacy. A shame really.

6. Much has been said of how the Obama campaign mastered the web. The fact that three million people donated online, helping to make his campaign the best funded of all time, meant that money was no object. Having an endless supply of cash was obviously pretty handy, but what’s perhaps even more salient is that the Obama campaign was funded by citizens. Parties, corporations and corporate interest groups are usually candidates’ main donors, and these will at some point expect payback in some shape or form. How will citizens expect payback from Obama? By fulfilling his campaign promises. This is of course no guarantee that he can or will, but it’s a good starting point.

What’s been most revolutionary has been the campaign’s ability to use the web to not just inform people, but to mobilise them. Building up massive followings on various public social networking platforms has kept people informed and excited, and enabled them to easily spread information and urge their friends and acquaintances to join the conversation or register to vote and so on – the viral effect at play. Even more important was my.barackobama.com, which became an offline facilitator for people wanting to help in some way – make calls, arrange meets, knock on doors, put up placards and so on. It’s somewhat ironic, but the ability to mobilise people offline was arguably the most important element of Obama’s online campaign: sort of a return to a bygone age when citizens would congregate to debate, organise, and delegate in support of their preferred candidate. The web has shown itself to be the enabler and integrator that has resurrected this phenomenon. So much for people being politically apathetic – it was a question of time or the means (and let’s not forget: an inspirational candidate).

6. A bit of a tangent, but Obama’s success made me think of Italy’s political plight. After eight years of George Bush, Americans conveyed their disapproval by ditching his party and embracing a candidate whose policies, biography and style could not be more different. Democracy at play. In Italy, five years of ecomomic decline, gaffes, and a whole lot of time spent keeping himself out of legal trouble did not prevent Silvio Berlusconi from being re-elected earlier this year for a third time.

Now that I’ve put my impartial hat back on, another thought is the use of history in creating a political narrative that people can relate to or feel pride in. What really struck me was how Obama’s message of hope and change in his speeches is often relayed in connection with elements of US heritage, from the founding fathers, to the pioneers who ventured west, to Martin Luther King and so on.

Why do Italian politicians never evoke memories of our past and eloquently mould these into soundbites that inspire and encourage? It’s not as if there’s no material. What about evoking the spirit of Renaissance Florence: the small city-state which was a bastion of progressivism while the rest of Europe was just about emerging from the Dark Ages, producing philosophical movements, artists and writers that still define Western civilisation as we know it? Or the heroic tale of a mad adventurer, Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose thousand men beat the odds to conquer the Kingdom of the two Sicilies and help unify Italy? Or of how the country, ravaged by Fascism and the war, impoverished and agrarian, picked itself up by its bootstraps and underwent a true economic miracle in little more than two decades?

Sure, Florence and Garibaldi were a long time ago, and the economic miracle was arguably the result of the Marshall Plan and some very dubious machinations by the Christian-Democrats, but so what? It’s not the details but the notion of legacy that matters, however vague: instilling a sense of belonging and pride; that we should aim high, be brave, work hard, and aspire to be brilliant and humble in equal measure, because we owe it to those who came before us. Who knows. Someone might do it once Berlusconi is out of the picture. Around about 2018 then!

It takes a champion

As my friend Simon writes on his site, BP broke ranks back in the 90s: they stopped trying to pretend global warming wasn’t happening, opting instead to be part of the solution and re-brand themselves as a green(ish) company. Sure, you can say they were responding to societal developments and knew that their approach could be commercially viable, but it wouldn’t have happened without their champion: BP CEO John (now Lord) Browne, who had the foresight, motivation and energy to break with tradition and do something amazing.

In eCommunications we also tend to need champions to make things happen. Senior management at any given company might not think it’s worth the effort to engage online, it might all seem a little too techy to truly be strategic, they worry about giving up control to a community, or think proven ROI is negligible. In these cases (read: almost every time), to get things rolling and take the leap, an individual within a company, who understands the value of digital, has to take responsibility, argue the case (often for months on end), and take on board most if not all of the logistics.

The clients I work for who have truly embraced the web, and have made eCampaigns or other activities really work for them, almost all have an eChampion in their ranks who first made it happen despite plenty of initial doubt and resistance within their organisations.

The million-dollar question: how do you find these champions?! You don’t, they tend to find you, but at this point, what’s even more important than guiding your champion through the online labyrinth, is to regularly encourage and assure him/her that it really will be worth it in the end!

Microblogging in Europe

Microblogging. Think a platform where you can publish a sentence from your PC or mobile phone in a few seconds; or think Facebook with status updates and nothing else. The use of microblogging services like Twitter for professional purposes have not taken off in Europe and yet they’re all the rage across the pond – could it be that we’re just late adopters in Europe, and that this will change once millions of people have signed up to Twitter and the like, or is it that it simply couldn’t work here?

So how is it being used in the US? I’m not going to analyse in depth, but a few of the uses are:

  • As with other forms of social media, simply to listen. Using, say, tweetscan, companies are taking note of what people are saying about them, as are politicians.
  • After having listened, interaction may be next, following the adage of open, honest, one-to-one communications which customers now expect. If people are writing stuff about them, companies are actually writing back. Or they can ask questions, or generally express an interest and be seen to engage.
  • Providing news, like updates on product releases, events, special offers, or just anything people might be interested in. JetBlue do this. As does the Obama campaign, regularly updating people on campaign events via Twitter.
  • Customer service. Some companies are actually keeping track of what’s being said about them, and when someone complains or needs some information about a product or service, the company responds on Twitter. Comcast are at the forefront of using Twitter for customer care.

But why are companies (or campaigns, as in the case of Obama) using Twitter? What’s wrong with just using email or other channels? Again, not an in-depth analysis, but the main reasons are:

  • It’s another place where people are having conversations, and knowing what people are saying may be valuable, as a company (or organisation, politician, whatever) may want to take note and even do something about it!
  • The medium as a message matters i.e. the type of conversation one can have. Messages are short and informal, obviously written by a person without scores of senior communications type people wondering whether the message fits the corporate mantra, meaning you’re personalising the way you communicate. Result? If done well, showing people you’re a decent human-being rather than a corporate puppet, that you’ve got soul, and it’ll help to build relationships.
  • It’s just handy: it being quick and easy simply means it’s suited for providing quick updates to people.

For more in-depth analyses of the uses of Twitter, I’d recommend these three posts from Ogilvy’s excellent 360° Digital Influence blog: Twitter for customer relations, Twitter for crisis communications, and Twitter for corporate reputation management.

As to the central question: will microblogging for business or other professional purposes remain limited in Europe because of inherent barriers, or is it just a question of time? Assuming Twitter and the like do take off and there’ll be millions of daily users in a couple of years, some barriers one could think of might be that the language factor makes it difficult to track conversations in multiple countries, so is it really worth it? Or that Europeans are more reserved and don’t regard their roles as consumers as seriously as Americans. Will they really complain about a product, or sing its praises, on Twitter?

I think both points can safely be dismissed. So what if a conversation is not pan-European? The quality or importance of an online conversation is not just defined by how many millions of people are following it, but by the nature of its content and engagement. A company can learn a lot from following online conversations even if there aren’t huge numbers of people involved. And engaging, or providing updates to valued customers or supporters, can be extremely precious in building relationships, even if the numbers are small. Similarly, so what if Europeans tend to be a bit more reserved when it comes to letting off steam in social media? Again, it’s not the number of people, or how vociferous they might be when discussing, say, a brand, but what they’re saying that matters. In addition, I’d say that Europeans’ obsession with mobile phones could play a part here. Being able to update ones own Twitter by mobile phone after having been to an interesting place or seeing something out of the ordinary, or simply to carry on following a conversation when away from the PC, would entice quite a few people.

Plus, moving away from marketing and into a Brussels context, I can see a viable use for a microblogging platform as a near-instant monitoring tool. Dedicated monitoring providers and consultancies are paid a fortune to follow legislative issues that impact their clients, but the monitoring reports are usually sent via email the next day. Basic updates at crucial times, say during a plenary debate at the European Parliament or a key event, can be given via a microblogging platform so that people are updated in near-real time. Via a plug-in, these updates could be made to appear on a website or blog as well as the relevant twitter page, so you would not even need to send people somewhere new, just say: “check out the live updates on our site”. Live-blogging is not far removed from this, but that implies slightly longer entries and requires a laptop, whereas microblogging/monitoring could even be done from a mobile phone.

And will any MEPs or MEP hopefuls take a leaf out of Obama’s book and try to Twitter their way into constituents’ hearts in the upcoming campaigns?! It’d probably be a waste of time to send regular updates given the low profile of European elections (no I’m not contradicting myself: updates don’t mean you’re engaging in a conversation and should only be provided with a significant number of followers). But I would advise them to follow what people are saying in social media in general, including Twitter, and the blogosphere in particular. There won’t be much, but some of it could make interesting reading. And if they really want to start an online conversation, I’d recommend they resort to traditional blogging, but I’ll save that for another post.

Industry still doesn't get it

I recently attended an industry-sponsored debate on a very pertinent issue that broadly sits within “chemicals”, where I watched a mad Green MEP and an awkward young NGO campaigner with a twitch and a penchant for talking to himself walk all over the representatives of the industry in question: a CEO and a prominent stakeholder. Frankly, industry has the edge on this issue. The scientists agree, as do academics, as would the most of the general public if they know the facts. The argumentation used by the Green MEP and the NGO campaigner was aggressive and emotional, lumping all industry together as the devil incarnate, be it tobacco or consumer electronics (over CFC), but it was poor in terms of real substance.

Nonetheless, it appears they’re going to win this battle, and it makes you wonder why some elements of industry in times of crises still spend fortunes on aggressive advocacy and financing events and impact studies full of facts and figures that supposedly support their case, rather than communicating in ways that resonate with people in a more gradual manner before the proverbial s*** hits the fan. By appearing aggressive, industry shoots itself in the foot. Furthermore, the “science” is no longer that important! People are put off by it, and yet industry remains prone to state that science is in its corner and somehow expect the whole thing to go away.

So what should they do about it? Go down the road many players in the energy and automotive industries are taking, from Exxon to Shell to Toyota. They are some of the biggest polluters in the world, but by turning the corner and communicating more proactively, appearing more honest and compassionate, trying to be part of the solution, talking to pressure groups, and coming to the table offering something, they’ve greatly enhanced their appeal – and as a result have far more leeway with legislators.

Plus I think they should be focusing a lot of their attention on communicating on the web, for the reasons described in my previous post, and for the following two in particular. First, the nature of the medium suits the honest and compassionate angle because it’s so easy to give a face to a supposedly faceless industry, and personalise communications, via say a blog or video interviews. Second, it’s the easiest place to give up or at least share control of the message with those who might disagree with you – which is imperative seeing as industry is chastised for not listening to concerned citizens. What better way of countering this than providing a platform for airing concerns that gives equal access to all?

Blogger outreach: it's about engagement

I met with a client’s marketing team team last week to give them a presentation on why they should do a blogger outreach campaign to help launch a new product, and how I would recommend they do it. To my surprise, they seemed to buy it. By stating my surprise, I don’t mean that I don’t fully endorse blogger engagement as a marketing tactic. I do, with the right brand and with the right product or service to promote. No, it’s surprising because the company in question is huge and probably amongst the top 10 most recognisable brands in the world. And it’s the big cheeses that have usually proven most difficult to get onboard before: they tend to be fairly conservative; have complex, multi-tiered decision-making processes; and are very protective of their brands. So something that’s both new and gives away control tends to be rejected from the off.

The main reason for this shift lies with the growing prominence of bloggers. Blogging is hitting the mainstream: bloggers are reaching huge audiences, and are increasingly being viewed in the same vein as journalists, namely people that can help spread your story. However I think the clincher in the approach I recommend lies in how bloggers are different from journalists, and how their stories can actually be made more interesting by asking them to engage rather than just write.

Bloggers don’t have editors, they’ll usually only write about what they really want to write about, and they don’t have deadlines, which means you don’t need to approach them in the same way in which you’d approach journalists. Sure, the old PR approach is required: providing high-quality and high-relevance material; but bloggers have more time and more space to write on a single topic or theme if it’s caught their fancy, while journalists follow editorial plans and deadlines set by editors. So rather than sell a great story for a single article you can actually say to a blogger: try my product and write about it if you fancy it, and assuming you’ve got faith in it and it really is a good product, you’ve got impartial users testing it and spreading a positive message, which in an age in where consumers are trusting “people like me” far more than traditional media or PR, can prove invaluable.

There should also be a hook, however. It’s not as simple as “try it and write, please”. The hook can either be an incentive e.g. one winner gets to keep the product or get a discount on the service? I don’t really like this approach to be honest. Although I think it can be done with total honesty and transparency, I prefer an approach where you make the blogger’s engagement with the product/service so interesting, funny or challenging, that they really want to do it. To pull this off, you need to do plenty of research to: 1) define the right type of engagement e.g. set a challenge, compare service A to mainstream services B and C, find the whackiest use for Product A; and 2) find bloggers that are really interested in your area and are capable of the right sort of engagement.

What’s more, the engagement approach does not just make for a better story: it also minimises risk. Bloggers get in a huff when they receive material from PR professionals that they really do not want. But whereas with a journalist, a PR professional only risks his/her pitch being binned and in the worst case being placed on a block-sender list, bloggers control their own space and can publish whatever they want. Including the atrocious pitch they really did not want. Every few months the blogosphere is buzzing with conversations on how PR is dead and PR professionals are worthless, sometimes starting off from a post where a PR pitch has been cut and pasted, sender and all. This then does the rounds and is seen by up to millions of people within days. Humiliating to say the least, for agency as well as consultant in question.

Instead, by focusing on engagement, you ensure that you’re actually seeking bloggers’ expertise rather than just their fanbase, which makes for a better story AND helps to ensure that you do not incur their wrath in case that they’re not interested, because you’ve shown them the respect they deserve.

UPDATE: came across this entry from B.L. Ochman’s what’s next blog – a couple of examples highlighting that dumb PR pitches are both a waste of time and a liability.

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