A Better Social Web Exists

Silhouette of Fire in Khaki Blue

A better social web exists. It exists within each of us.

Today, this social web isn’t popular, instead it has fascinating small pools and eddies of action and meaningful dialogue. But this can be The Social Web, a place better than a popularity driven attention sphere focused on the best looking unicorn (Bieber or Kardashian, take your pick).

Our virtual worlds can become a place of vigorous discourse. Rather than dismissing social media‘s incredibly empowering capability in the hands of the Fifth Estate, the better social web seeks to increase online literacy for Everyone using these tools. The Middle East is just an example of what driven people can do with intelligent networking tools. So much more can be accomplished if we apply ourselves.

Rather than arguing over ideas and dismissing what we don’t like as uncivil (and thus engage in civility debates), politeness and manners will take precedence. Discourse can include disagreement without discoloring it with a personal sense of “respectful” civility. Posturing and maintaining top rankings via attention metrics will mean less in the Real Social Web.

The Real Social Web is a meritocracy where great acts drive the ebb and flow of the tides. This social web of the future works for society instead of trying to fleece it. Accomplishing acts that matter will take precedence: Social change occurs, companies working hand in hand with nonprofits to achieve great acts, and companies serving their customers with better products in services, embracing them as part of an extended social enterprise.

Popcorn dreams? Maybe. But changemakers seize on ideas and make them happen. Dreams can be achieved.

What do we have to do to get there? We can’t turn a blind eye to it. As communicators we are as responsible for the current PR 2.0 driven popularity mess as Silicon Valley is. We have to look at ourselves, and see how we have created this and why? It is incumbent on us to mindfully evolve within to create this new social web of the future.

We must speak up, one by one. And we need to stop rewarding the old PR systems and the people who have lead us into the popularity trap. It’s time to start asking why these people are popular, and what they did “Before Social Media.” What qualifies them to lead the communications industry besides personal attention?

Together we can collectively build a better online community. This means educating ourselves and our customers on what real business outcomes are. It means focusing on the basics, instead of the hyperbole of the latest shiny object (Android Honeycomb app, anyone?). It means much stronger practices of metric based communications across the industry. Instead of focusing on the Klouts of the world we need to develop more myImpacts.

It means talking to our children and reinvesting our values back into great deeds and hard work instead of quick fixes and popularity. Digital literacy and understanding how information is served must become a critical function of our education system. Sustainable happiness will be the outcome as opposed to short term vicarious pleasure (yum, Pop Chips).

The Real Social Web of the future is a place where anyone can use these tools to achieve great things. Imagine writing literature of the digital future, making a child laugh, creating a virtual place where scientists from around the world work to conquer AIDs, building the best company in a sector, or achieving a more peaceful, democratic country.

Yeah, it’s a dream. But inside this heart a better social web exists. Some people live this dream already. It’s worth fighting for.

Strength of Community Supersedes Influence

Chasing Windmills
Image by Annie Siegal

With the current overfocus on influence metrics, companies and nonprofits are left to wonder at the digeratti’s navel gazing via participation scores. While influencers play a role in social media, for a company or nonprofit that role is ultimately very small. After the influencer “graces” everyone with their presence, the organization’s community remains. After a sales or advocacy campaign winds up, the community remains. When those initiatives are needed again, they require a strong community in place, openly receptive of such overtures. That’s why the most important metric should always be Strength of Community.

Direct ROI — i.e. sales, donations, tonality and other key performance indicators (KPIs) — also represents a critical measurement set. It can be easily measured using KPIs and a corresponding strategy (though often overlooked). Businesses want loyal customers who buy their stuff, and refer new clients. Nonprofits want donors. However, to get hard ROI organizations need a vibrant accepting community. The juxtaposition between strength of community and direct ROI cannot be underestimated.

Strength of community measures the health of an organization’s core social network. Core aspects of community strength cannot be measured in a quantifiable manner by an algorithm, for example members’ interest in taking responsibility for aspects of the community such as moderating a group. But there are plenty of activity metrics that can be quantified with a well integrated social graph; return visits, pull through visits to the main web site, repeated comments, performance and volume by demographic, recency and frequency of posts (hat tip: Paul Fabretti), repeated actions, advocacy outside of the community (Facebook, Twitter and individual blog posts), etc., etc.

Yet, there’s no real focus on developing social media based strength of community metrics. There’s a series of tools that can help like Facebook Insights, Google Analytics loyalty measures, AddThis Analytics, and a small group of emerging hybrid solutions like Badgeville. But without a robust enterprise tracking solution like Eloquoa, one is lost.

Instead the market is left with an increasing dearth of influencer metric solutions, catering to the PR 2.0 community and its need to qualify influencers. To be fair, some of the influencer metrics have community details to them such as total number of community members who like or retweet a post. At the same time they are woefully inadequate in providing a composite community picture.

Influence is being touted as the measurement set to understand social media, but of all the metrics, it’s the one that is least needed. In fact, the influencer conversation (read Shonali Burke’s discussion) is like watching Don Quixote chase windmills. That’s why Twitalyzer CEO Eric Peterson’s post discounting the use of influence metrics in personnel decisions was so refreshing.

(Image from AllFacebook)

Instead of getting distracted by influence, focus on strength of community metrics. They mean more to an organization than any other social measurement solution out there. Strength of community is the fly wheel that drives desired business outcomes as defined by KPIs. An organization would much rather have a vibrant community of 150,000 members than a sexy influencer program that garners 50 unique blog mentions. This is the next frontier of social metrics.

The opportunity has not escaped some minds. Badgeville, a community rewards and analytics company, is building a new set of analytics to provide organizations a deeper view of how their community’s engagement behaviors. Communities can usually integrate Badgeville’s solution via an API within a week. In a conversation with Badgeville’s Adena DeMonte, she discussed how critical it was for an organization to measure individual community member actions, including a visit(s) a store, and whether or not purchases were made.

As organizations become more savvy about social properties and their corresponding role within the larger mission and strategy, it is only natural that they will want to focus on strength of community. Measurement solutions that provide diverse analyses of community actions across networks have their role in determining the health of an organization’s effort.

How PR 2.0 Created the Social Media Bubble

Bubble Bokeh
Image by John Petrick

The social media influence bubble finds its basis in measurement of inaccurate barometers. While one can use glittering generalities in defining influence — such as the ability “to cause desirable and measurable actions and outcomes” — in reality, those desirable actions are vapid benchmarks. Specifically, PR 2.0 measurements are participation oriented: retweets, impressions, follower counts, blog rankings, and other public measures of “conversation.”

Responsibility for the resulting social media bubble and the increasing demand for impact belongs to the PR industry in its 2.0 incarnation. It’s the same industry that during the 1.0 era relied on similar metrics, such as number of press clippings, impressions (sound familiar?), and the winner of all metrics, ad equivalency. Current PR definitions of success online will always be suspect, just as the industry’s prior metrics always led CEOs to question the value of public relations.

As the Harvard Business Review so adequately stated it, “‘social’ media is trading in low-quality connections — linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships.” PR 2.0’s popularity based metrics gauge attention, but not business actions. Common business actions include sales and brand reputation for companies, and donations and advocacy for causes. For that matter, current social media metrics fail to measure attitude (reputation), the hallmark of PR.

Three As of Measurement_thumb[2].png
See Kami Huyse’s post on the the three As of measurement.

Measuring attention has created the very strange ongoing conversation about influencers, and their thoughts. Influential talking heads — as determined by attention metrics — dominate today’s social web conversation. Influence also allows PR pros to build lists of “important people” to target for pitching in the hopes of achieving earned social media impressions. Sound a little like the old media relations game?

Like PR 1.0’s impressions, attention in social media has its value. There’s a reason why attention represents one of the three As. But it only represents a piece of the puzzle. Because inexperienced businesses and nonprofits were desperate to adapt they accepted the PR industry’s social media metrics as the answer. And as such, over-reliance on PR 2.0 metrics have created the increasingly discussed bubble.

Attitudes and Actions

Social media communications represents a confluence of disciplines, from the already discussed PR to advertising and relationship development (called business development, sales or development depending on the type of organization). Social can also include HR, customer service, etc., but from a pure marketing standpoint, these are the three primary internal disciplines. Traditionally, while all three intersect at times within social, advertising’s call to action and networking yield sales and long-term relationships.

Three Primary Skill Sets Used in Social Communications

That doesn’t mean that advertising would have done a better job defining metrics. Pay per click, and more specifically the click through rate, still hang over the industry as debatable cost metrics for online properties. But advertising’s legacy is that a campaign works if sales increase. In the case of branding campaigns, advertising works if reputation and awareness increase. Advertising skills have their role in the art of getting people to the site, then getting them to commit to an action.

Yet advertising’s downfall has always been its inability to develop one-on-one relationships, which for many organizations falls to the development team. In business-to-business organizations and nonprofits this role and title should be familiar. Even large consumer product organizations have relationship developers that vie for channels and distribution. In consumer product and service companies after the sale, the customer relations department often takes over.

These people create, build and sustain critical relationships for years, even decades. Applied, development skills bring that irreplaceable relationship element to social media marketing and communications. Relationship development builds a sense of loyalty within a community. This extends beyond the momentary casual interaction to continued participation and actions over time.

To become more effective, social media metrics need to take into account the other marketing disciplines at play. That means measuring real actions such as sales/donations as well as reputation, advocacy and strength of community. A retweet algorithm won’t cut it, nor should a business or cause blindly accept attention metrics as the sole determination of program success.

What Will Happen When the Bubble Bursts

Bubble Burst

Businesses and causes are already questioning the value of social media programs. Their highly touted Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts aren’t answering the right kinds of questions about impact. Navigating truths and myths about disruptive communication technologies will force a much deeper level of accountability for communicators and other professionals using social tools.

This change in tone and accountability is already being felt. The recession is forcing organizations and companies to make their communications programs work correctly, or drop them altogether.

Unfortunately, the backlash towards attention based metrics could be severe. More and more voices are quick to cry smokescreen, and communicators who can’t navigate delivering hard business results will likely struggle. Claims of social media expertise may become a great big red flag, while understanding how to integrate and measure online communications within a larger marketing program will be a sought after skill set.

What would be unfortunate is if the backlash is too severe and swings completely towards sales goals without respect for relationships, or the necessary step of garnering community attention. As with most things in life, the middle road is the best course. Only time can tell what will actually happen.

What do you think of the social media bubble? Are PR 2.0 metrics and the organizations that accepted them to blame?

Course Correction!

Rt. 211 Offers Danger

The following is draft material for my next book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate (the follow up to Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print). Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of an outreach effort and results are lagging. Those measurable outcomes – the ones based on your original objectives before your strategy was created – seem unattainable. The desert of organic community development turns into the Sahara, and fear begins to develop.

That’s when you consider a course correction. Does a course correction represent a failure?

Maybe, and maybe not yet. Almost every online effort experiences some tweaks and optimization. For organizations that are newer to online communities, this may be a result of not fully understanding how the Fifth Estate views the issue, or perhaps simply a question of fine-tuning an application so it’s easier to use. In the worst cases, a strategic choice is off base such as a misunderstandings about the value an organization offers its stakeholders.

I look at the issues that arose over KFC’s recent offering of pink fried chicken buckets to benefit Komen’s fight against breast cancer as a classic example of this kind of disconnect. Obesity is often a pre-condition of breast cancer amongst older women, according to research linked to on the Komen web site. The end result was a bit of a disconnect with the nonprofit blogging community who saw the partnership as hypocritical.

What is clear is that monitoring measurement (discussed in depth in the next chapter) during outreach should tune you in to possible failures and opportunities for optimization before they happen. When these issues are identified, not making a course correction would be the worst failure of all.