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.

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.

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.

Explaining digital to clients in public affairs

While their efforts to remain in the communications stone age and withstand the onslaught of digital have been valiant – MEPs don’t use the web, they’ve often claimed –  Public Affairs professionals in Brussels are slowly coming around to the fact that digital can work for their clients too. Next up is the clients themselves and convincing them to invest in online activities, which is no mean task. First, although their ability to radiate expertise on topics they’ve first heard about over lunch an hour before a meeting should never be underestimated, with limited experience of digital themselves, PA professionals might struggle to explain its full scope. Second, old-school clients who barely use the web and think no one other than their teenage grandchild does either will really take some convincing.

Here’s a few things that might, combined, win them over.

1. The Internet is a mainstream medium

Old fogies might initially appear hostile to the web because of reasons bordering on: “our target demographics/stakeholders are not male and prepubescent” usually followed by something like “we’d like a website because it seems we have to have one, but that’s all for now thanks very much.” This outlook was pretty prevalent a few years ago, but admittedly much less so today. In any case, to anyone who does need convincing, it’s fair to say that the web is now a mainstream medium. 60% of Europeans are daily users with an even male/female split, broadband adoption is growing by over 10% annually in Europe, and 70% of journalists claim to use online sources to research stories. In short, the vast majority of relevant stakeholders are active online, and if they really are not, the influencers who reach them are.

2. Campaigning is increasingly important

From what I can gather, advocacy at a European level is not what it used to be. Sure,  a combination of expertise on the subject matter and direct contact with relevant legislators is extremely important. However, what influences these legislators has arguably changed following enlargement and societal developments that have altered citizens’ demands of their elected officials. In short, public opinion matters more than it did a few years ago – and what’s more, public opinion has shifted.

On enlargement, it seems (although I might very well be wrong) that having 700+ MEPs from 27 member states has led to fewer concentrated group allegiances within the European Parliament i.e. MEPs are now less likely to follow the group line than do what their constituents demand than they were before. Certainly, on an issue I’ve been working on for a client, there were significant divergences within the major parliamentary groups, which experienced lobbyists claim would not have been the case a few years back.

With regards to public opinion or citizens’ demands, very briefly, I’d say that in general these have changed dramatically because Europeans behave like consumers even when choosing who to vote for and essentially “shop” for their favourite politician based on issues, rather than broadly accepting what the party/politician their family or community traditionally votes for tells them. What’s more, the nature of the “issues” that drive their demands has shifted as well, as people’s concepts of well-being are different. Sophisticated personal quality of life factors such as concerns for the environment, healthy living, a solid work-life balance etc. are these days far more prominent than simply being happy if basic necessities are met and the Soviets don’t invade. This is a gross simplification of pretty complex developments, but what I’m essentially getting at is that citizens are more selfish, demanding and fickle; their notion of well-being has evolved to matters which affect them personally; and legislators are having to take notice.

Does this matter to communicators? Yes, because campaigning directed at citizens is now as important as advocacy if not more! Not convinced? Think of the success NGOs have had on a range of issues and ask yourself once again.

3. Online communications is different

What’s even more important to stress is how eCommunications is different: a) the tools allow for far more intricate means of communicating; b) they allow you to listen and engage; and c) they allow you to measure activity more precisely.

a) The scope of the tools

The mere scope of eCampaigning in terms of what a campaigner can do, or mechanisms to engage a user and spread the message further, are immense. Take for instance as a benchmark an exceptional eCampaign such as The Girl Effect, my current favourite, which incorporates the best of TV advertising in terms of high quality video, audio and copy in its introduction video, but in addition, runs a lot longer than a TV ad can, then immediately allows users to send to a friend, donate, find out more, and engage, all at the click of a button. I myself watched the video on The Girl Effect from start to finish, sent it to a fair few people I know, and nearly donated (which is closer than I usually get). I’m trying to imagine seeing the message in another medium and wonder whether it would grip me in the same way and then make me help it go viral by sending it on to friends. Probably not. A TV or print ad would be too short, and even if it did grip me, I would not immediately be able to act on my interest by sending it on, and knowing me, would forget by the evening.

b) Listening and engaging

I’d say the ability to listen is actually one of the most important changes the web has brought about. It might seem pretty basic, but I do honestly believe that it’s transforming communications no end. Focus groups, polling, surveys etc. existed before but these methods either did not account for many people or were very expensive. Now, companies or organisations can actually sit back and listen to what scores of stakeholders of any sort are thinking and communicating about you or your field, and can react accordingly rather than by second-guessing and hoping for the best.

As well as the ability to listen is the ability to interact. Old-schoolers adopting the web have often made the mistake of treating it like another medium to harness in addition to radio, print, direct mail etc. i.e. where you simply post your message and hope someone picks it up. Yet this is wasting an opportunity because the web allows for two-way engagement. Whether it’s via a comments feature, email, discussing something on a forum, reference in the blogosphere, the fact of the matter is that you’re now able to engage in a conversation.

So what’s different, or why does it matter? Well it’s a great opportunity for one. Honest and transparent engagement, done well, will make a company/organisation/person appear more credible, and frankly, more genuine than if all their outgoing communications simply consists of highly vetted messaging.

More importantly, and we’re seeing this phenomenon really striking gold in the Obama campaign in the US, engagement can result in mobilisation. The web is a phenomenal mobilisation tool – in fact, it’s far better at mobilising existing supporters than reaching or persuading new ones, because it’s easier for people to pick and choose online than it is in other media. I’ve often called this the “town hall effect” based on the age old tradition of town hall meetings where candidates and voters would discuss issues face to face. This had died out but is being revitalised in a different, and possibly more effective format, on the web. In practice, online mobilisation largely involves putting supporters in touch with a candidate/organisation/association/company etc. and with each other, then facilitating their ability to spread the word, on or offline, via their own networks and in their own communities, through events, calls, letters, emails, fliers etc.

In addition, not engaging can be a lot worse. I’ve done work for companies operating in highly unpopular industries, and for decades they’ve tried to limit communications or at least rigidly control it. They can not do that anymore, because the growth of the web means that, more than ever: 1) secrecy is frowned upon; and 2) you’ll be slated without actually being out there defending yourself. And this matters more when it’s happening in a place that’s accessible by anyone and can at worst go viral, than from atop a soapbox – “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (Mark Twain).

c) Measuring

While you can listen to people, you can also track their activity. Everything online can be measured, from the number of people visiting a webpage; how they get to the webpage (directly, via an ad, via another site); to the number of times they return to the same page, time spent on it, what they click through to; to where they are located geographically; and in some cases, who they work for. This allows you to grasp whether your campaigns or other web activities are reaching your target audience and whether they are responding as you’d hope they would (by visiting numerous pages, staying online for a long time, downloading material, donating, forwarding to friends etc.), and to constantly improve according to what you can tell users want. Again, this could be done before via, say, a phone survey, but it’s far easier now and the level of detail you can acquire is quite astonishing.

4. Using the web to improve working practices

The web does not just have to be sold as a campaign tool or a way to interact with stakeholders. There are countless ways to use online tools to improve and streamline internal working practices e.g. an internal team blog by the engineers explaining what they do (which, say, the marketers had no idea about); collaborative authoring in a wiki rather than umpteen emails and version numbers; a podcast by the CEO rather than a conf call no one listens to; eLearning or conferences via webinars instead of flying people places; or social bookmarking to collect useful learnings available online in one place.

Sure, this does not fall into the realm of public affairs, but frankly, so what. One, it’s an easy way of winning people over. If they’re not convinced that they need an eCampaign or need to be engaging in social media, tell them to try some simple tools internally before moving onto the bigger projects, and you might win them over. Second, it really serves a purpose, namely of connecting various elements of a company or organisation, or “breaking down silos”, and making it more efficient.

5. It’s (potentially) a lot cheaper

I don’t like this rationale, but if all fails, expense is always a winner. Web projects can potentially be enormous and very costly. On the other hand, communicating online can also be done well at a very low cost, as it’s largely about communicating in the right channels and in the right way, rather than buying media that might reach the correct demographic.

6. The web as a direct (nearly) advocacy tool

If people still need convincing, the web can also be sold as a tool to be used in direct support of advocacy. If key target MPs or MEPs have been identified in an advocacy campaign, as any good lobbyist would do – say all M(E)Ps in the most relevant parliamentary committee – web tools can be used to directly target that M(E)P’s constituency and exert pressure on his/her constituents. How? It would involve targeting online advertising within the correct geographic location e.g. a Google AdWords advertising in the region of the target’s constituency only, with keywords carefully devised to suit its constituents’ prime concerns, or advertising being placed on media that is especially popular in that region, or as a last resort, purchasing an email list for that given region and linking through to dedicated areas on an M(E)P’s website which deals with issues pertinent to the constituents’ needs and fears.

And if your client still needs convincing, I’d say you have yourself a lost cause.

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.