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.

Marketing overload

Special offers work. I know this from work: when an exclusive or a chance to save some money is offered and promoted well, customers appreciate it and you see a corresponding spike in sales nearly every time. Most companies understand this – but some seem to have taken it a little too far.

I once bought some posters on Allposters – a fantastic site: there’s hardly anything I’ve ever searched for and not found. At the time, I signed up for their newsletter, presumably agreeing to receive news about updates and special offers. I hardly expected this though: a special offer EVERY week: save 50% or free shipping or a £10 gift voucher. Plus every time, it’s being made to seem really special, containing messages like: “Hurry! Get there now before sale ends!”

Who are they kidding? First, it doesn’t work if they do it every week because it’s obviously not special anymore. Second, it’s treating their customers like morons. Result? They put people off their special offers, once they really do want to promote something special, they’ll have burned all their goodwill and no one will care, and most damningly, people like me start thinking of them as that annoying company that tries to trick me into buying every week rather than the company with an amazing selection of posters.

In truth, the fact that they keep on doing it might mean that it really does work (and I guess I haven’t unsubscribed yet). Personally, I much prefer Amazon‘s approach. They used to bombard me with newsletters, but now they send a newsletter once in a while with suggestions for things I might like, which they’ve devised based on my purchase history (and perhaps search behaviour..?) This makes me feel like a valued customer rather than a chump.

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.

The Conversation Prism

Renowned US PR professional and blogger, Brian Solis, has devised the “Conversation Prism”, a chart which marks all types of online interaction as well as many of the tools which perform them. Brian remains true to the essence of the online community by allowing his users to contribute – items he might have missed may be added to the Converasation Prism image on his Flickr account.

Aside from the sheer number of online tools, two things stand out for me when looking at the prism: 1) is the amount of lifestream/micorblogging related tools – these are all the rage in the US, but nowhere near as much so over here in Europe; and 2) the relatively few numbers of wiki tools, although online collaboration using wikis was expected to rival blogging as the new web interaction method of choice a couple of years ago.

The Ryanair effect

I flew Ryanair last week for the first time in a few years and must say I was impressed. Not so much by the quality of the service, but more by the story Ryanair manage to tell, which hand-in-hand with low prices explains the airline’s massive success. Flying Ryanair still involves airports in god-forsaken towns miles outside of town, limited legroom, miserable looking cabin crew, threats that one’s reservation may be cancelled for any number of reasons, the furious chase for a seat once the doors are opened, and so on.

But once on-board, Ryanair start telling their story (but which in hindsight has already begun on their website), and it’s oddly compelling. Every overhead compartment has a short phrase on it punctuated by an exclamation mark, remarking on how Ryanair are always on time, are always the cheapest, are the airline of choice for an increasing number of people. The Ryanair magazine then repeats these messages, and in addition, takes swipes at competitors through numerous comparisons in which Ryanair comes out on top e.g. price, fewer complaints, being on time. Then there’s the rest of the content. It’s all pictures, big headlines, bright colours, competitions, numerous anecdotes that might as well appear in a lad’s mag, the airline CEO, Michael O’Leary pulling a funny face and doing something silly and definitely not wearing a suit.

So what’s the essence of the story? Turning Ryanair into the airline equivalent of a tabloid newspaper. An airline that appears to many to be a little more like you and me, a little less stuffy, or more youthful if you will, and a lot more fun. How? Simple messaging – we’re cheap, we’re on time, and fun to boot. Playful messaging – the bright colours, the exclamation marks, the puns. Then amplifying it with a good dose of anti-elitism, the elites being national carriers who try to out-muscle Ryanair, but to no avail, and charge extortionate prices for poor service!

In truth? I don’t hit 180cm and was really struggling with the legroom, the air hostess was upset with me because my suitcase must have been over 55cm long seeing as it did not fit in the overhead compartment lengthwise, and an hour and a half’s drive before sunrise! And it wasn’t even that cheap. But hats off to Ryanair: their business model does not just work because they are cheaper than average. It also does so because they’ve created brand loyalty through a story despite all the many drawbacks.

Examples of social media in corporate marketing

Although I mainly work on the web in a public affairs/political campaigning context, eMarketing is easily at the forefront when it comes to applying digital in communications, so that’s where I do most of my research. So I’m very grateful to Peter Kim for posting an amazing list of social media marketing examples.

These aren’t all benchmarks. Most Second Life or Facebook applications don’t really take off as marketing or even branding efforts: Second Life simply doesn’t have the right amount or type of traffic; while Facebook applications should serve a really practical purpose, which they often don’t. Companies usually try to create interactive games, but these are often patronising and/or dull. The best applications (and therefore most popular) so far are the simple ones that just report on news and updates e.g. TechCrunch, or the ones that provide a service. For instance, VISA have created a Facebook application targetting small business owners which has 30,000 users per month, and it has worked because they aim to provide a real service – advice and connections to other business owners – rather than entertain users.

I can see why agencies recommend complex applications or Second Life metropoli and so on – 100s of billable hours – but when it comes to Social Media, simple really is better. Out of the examples in Peter’s entry, although I didn’t go through all in great detail, I’d cite the following examples of good benchmarks for four uses of social media which are set up on free platforms and seem very easy to run. For social bookmarking, Adobe’s use of Delicious to collect educational material on their products in one place is dead simple yet provides an extremely useful service to customers. For microblogging, Bristish Airways are using Twitter to announce special offers on fares. As a great example of a widget, stand forth Acura (car manufacturer), who provide users a widget which shows them the state of traffic in their vicinity to check before leaving home/the office. And lastly, Dell’s Ideastorm forum, which has been discussed at great length in the blogosphere, on which users can post and discuss new ideas regarding Dell products. Dell actually uses the best of these ideas to develop their products: imagine that, a company that listens to their customers and builds products accordingly?! And they’re booming.

What’s also impressive is the traditional brands on the list e.g. Ernst and Young (great use of Facebook by creating a group for job seekers – handy for users and potentially an excellent resource for the company), Bank of America (although their guy singing a doctored version of U2’s One is pathetic), and Johnson and Johnson, who like many pharma companies are beginning to see how the web can be used to adopt a more patient-centric approach.

Peter has already updated his list once and I assume he will do so again, so I’d recommend checking it regularly.

%d bloggers like this: