Selling social media

I just came across a good post from a few months back by Chris Brogan on selling social media internally. It’s marketing-focused but very relevant to all comms crowds – and I assume some people will find it interesting as I see from my site stats that my posts on selling digital to clients in PA are quite popular.

Two points stand out for me as particularly relevant as selling points to a PA crowd that is uncomfortable with social media:

  1. Internally, social media tools can be used to help with status information, training, project collaboration.
  2. Building an online social media component to most marketing and PR efforts ensures a better reach for the media created.

The point about using social media tools as an internal tool can, as Chris states, be helpful for a variety of processes. Even more importantly, it’s a lot less daunting and thus an easier sell when you say: “let’s try out this really basic tool internally (a blog perhaps?) and if we’re all comfortable with it after a few months, we can try it out on a relevant client project.” The second point is a great sell as well because it allows you to focus on regular media relations, which traditionalists of course value and feel comfortable with. So what you’re doing is not selling social media as something new and different, but as a set of tools that can add value to your traditional media relations by improving reach and quality e.g. a good 30 second YouTube interview with the person quoted in your press release .

Free social media monitoring tools

When it comes to social media, everyone rightly talks about the importance of listening. The web is teeming with conversations about everything you can think of – and quite probably even your company, organisation, candidate, issue or brand –  and being fully aware and up to speed will help you shape your communications so that it responds to the trends, interests and concerns topping people’s agendas at any given moment. Luckily, you can now monitor most of what’s going on in social media with a vast array of free tools. Here’s a sample.

Blogs and microblogs

Google Blog Search and Technorati are the standard dedicated blog search engines. I prefer Google because  it tends to find more items, especially when searching for more obscure things. For more detail and graphs, I’d recommend Blogpulse and Trendpedia. Graphs don’t just look nice: having an illustrated timeline is useful to see if buzz has grown regularly since the launch of a campaign or if there’s a spike in activity around a launch or event etc. Serph should in theory be really useful because it takes into account social networking and social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, Stumbleupon and Digg, but I’ve not found it to be great. Premise is good though so maybe it’s just a question of time.

Microblogging is on the increase and Twitter is the platform of choice for most. Search tweets using Twitter Search, Tweet Scan, and Tweetag (had not heard of this one until this morning when James pointed it out – thanks). The advanced search on Twitter Search is especially useful as it allows you to search for people as well as search items and to narrow down location and time.

Forums, comments and groups

Search engines struggle with forums, so these dedicated forum search tools are very useful: Boardreader and Forum Discussion. Search engines struggle even more with comments than they do with forums, so Backtype, which scours comments, can be a very handy tool indeed. They’re a bit out of fashion now, but Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups still have an enormous number of daily users, so a search on both is always worthwhile, although most search findings are useless to be honest.

Search items

Google Trends shows how popular any given search term is. The measurement is not that precise, as it’s a percentage of total search traffic on Google, but nonetheless useful to see if more or fewer people have been searching for the term in question over a given period of time.

Not strictly social media monitoring

Digg, which allows users to rate webpages, is still going strong. It’s handy way of finding top stories, although less useful when looking for detail about more obscure items. Yahoo have launched Yahoo Buzz, which is a lot like Digg but not as good, so not an alternative yet, but it’s still in beta, so worth checking out at a later date. Both tools can be used for any webpage, not just social media.

It’s often quite useful to find out what sort of traffic is going to your site (or any other site of interest for that matter). QuantcastCompete, and Alexa help to give you some idea of what amount and type of traffic is going to any given site (although in-depth and additional services are not free, except for some on Quantcast).

Any others?

If anyone can think of a tool I’ve missed, please do let me know. Thanks.

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.

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.

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.