If you have the opportunity, it’s worth a try. The Circles add a new depth of privacy, the network design is simple and elegant with strong integration into the larger Google universe, and the Android mobile app is stellar. The question becomes which online activities suffer as a result of experimenting with Google+.
Let’s face it. Unless you are an Internet personality, an organization with a full-time community manager or a professional online content publisher, there is not enough time to succeed in the multitude of social networks AND manage your own social content. Let’s consider the list of most used forms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google+ (assuming all continues to go well), LinkedIn, FourSquare, Gowalla, StumbleUpon, Tumblr, and your own site.
This means choices will be made. Some will spread the peanut butter a little thinner, trying to make it stretch further. Others will simply focus on the networks that have the most impact on their community.
The latter method is the smart way for those who are seeking to create and sustain grassroots communities. Technology adoption should be driven by stakeholder usage, needs and wants. Long term players in social media demonstrated this axiom (see Netwits post) in their common best practices researched and discussed in Welcome to the Fifth Estate.
Social media is entering a period where certain communities and demographics will migrate to some networks in favor of others. The social network market place is already competitive on the second tier below Facebook. Google+ will add to that competitiveness. Organizations should choose the ones that make the most sense in relation to their mission.
2011 has already seen LinkedIn’s come uppance in the professional social network marketplace. Similarly, Pew studies continue to show Twitter is a strong social network for mobile and urban use, with a particularly strong hold in the African American and Latino markets.
Personally, it is a struggle to offer a strong presence in many networks at once. That means if Google+ maintains its momentum and continues to be enjoyable, then time spent on other networks will drop. There is really only time to do two or three networks well.
Facebook remains a core community. The rest really depends on clients, readers, and what tools they are using. Last month, that was Google (search & reader referrals), Facebook, Twitter, and StumbleUpon, according to Google Analytics. LinkedIn and Tumblr were in the top twenty.Time will tell the impact Google+ makes.
Facebook has everything from video and pics to groups and questions. From a marketer’s perspective, perhaps the most attractive features are the robust activity stream and inbound Like functionality. But even if Facebook doesn’t have the function you need, a company or nonprofit can build a custom app for the social network. The only area where Facebook seems limited is mobile. In spite of 1/3 of its traffic coming on the mobile platform, Facebook loses a lot of its functionality on smaller screens and apps due to a text heavy interface.
With Facebook’s robust tool set, applying the four social media strategies outlined in Welcome to the Fifth Estate is relatively straight forward. It’s important to note that any Facebook initiative should fit within a larger holistic online effort and your overall business & communications strategy. Here’s a look at each strategic approach.
Strategy 1: Participation
Always the bread and butter strategy, participation can keep an online effort alive and growing for months without any other effort at all. From a community management standpoint, participation is simple: Talk with other people on Facebook. This gets back to the timeless social media lesson that posting messages is not relational, and doesn’t help your nonprofit or company succeed. As Mitch Joel says, when organizations do this, they are trying to force an old marketing method into two-way channels.
Participation involves responding to user comments on a Facebook page, going out and talking to fans on their pages, and gasp, yes, participating in larger industry fora, including Groups and answering Questions. It means asking questions rather than posting statements, and genuinely listening. Encourage people to talk about the issues you share in common. When in doubt use the Pareto principle of 80/20, meaning, don’t talk about yourself or your organization 80% of the time.
Two examples of participation are Audi and LIVESTRONG (ugh, Lance). Audi uses its Facebook page on a level far exceeding its auto competition, even answering questions about common issues with its automobiles. LIVESTRONG’s use of Facebook to connect with cancer survivors and patients is astounding. User-generated conversation far outpaces LIVESTRONG discussion. Both pages have more than a million fans, in large part because user conversation is so highly valued.
Make no bones about it, fostering conversation has real marketing value for an organization. Beyond fostering stronger ties with fans, each interaction — either from you or them — is listed in the Facebook stream, and thus acts like a word of mouth referral to each users’ network. It is through such updates that an organization can be introduced to friends of fans, which have a higher likelihood of converting than an ad or another referral source.
Strategy 2: Serve with Content
Much has been said about content creation. In fact, entire books have been written on the topic (see Beth Kanter’s review of Content Rules). There are so many ways to provide content within a Facebook community, from extremely popular photos (tag away) and videos to notes and applications. It’s almost impossible to exclude any type of content as a possible tactic, even feature rich games or coupons for Places check-ins.
There are a couple of nuances to content provision. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it actually serves stakeholders with either valuable information or entertainment. This means don’t post your press releases, rather post information people will find worthwhile. Listening and participation are precursors to success, generally.
This brings up the second nuance. Facebook automatically licenses your content when you publish it there. Further, when you only publish on Facebook, you are not bringing people back to your site for further engagement. This should lead to an important conclusion: When in doubt publish content off site, and use links, applications or embeds codes in iFrames to share the content. This creates a call to action for further engagement on your site, as well as the ability to develop stronger ties with stakeholders there. It also ensures copyright ownership for your full content.
Strategy 3: Top-Down Influence
For many groups, Facebook success is not as easy as launching a post on their 1,000,000 person community page. They really need strong networks of influential people to carry the word for them, especially if they are at the beginning stages or have a weak participatory effort.
It becomes necessary to build relationships with influencers, people that the larger community trusts and responds to, from bloggers to active social network participants. As noted in participation, when they comment and add discussion to their stream about your topic of interest it becomes a powerful peer referral. Many organizations focus on big names, but these aren’t necessarily the most powerful within your stakeholder community. Research and find the magic middle, influencers who are accessible to the community yet are well referenced and hold weight.
Engage influencers on their terms. For example, if you wanted to engage and cultivate relationships with critical voices in the DC 2.0 community you should participate in the DC Tech group. It is worthwhile participating in conversations on critical voices’ Facebook walls. Finally, it may make sense to set up your own group of influential voices to strengthen relationships. Epic Change’s Stacey Monk did this to organize and activate the To Mama With Love effort.
Strategy 4: Empower Your Community
Empowering people can range from letting folks tell their own stories like American Express did with its Small Business Saturday Facebook application to crowdsourcing charitable contests like Lady Gaga’s recent Robin Hood contest for New York City homeless organizations. These were both high-end examples of empowerment, but it can be done with simple applications like Questions, or asking a question on your Facebook page.
People like contests, especially when they are win-win and don’t have much down side (unlike Pepsi Refresh losers). This is a great way to galvanize a community, too.
But be aware that empowerment and crowdsourcing take significant work. It is a prerequisite that you have a highly engaged community via participation otherwise you will launch an effort to deaf ears. More sophisticated efforts also tend to blend the content and influence strategies.
Further, it takes a lot of management resources to effectively run a crowdsourced effort, much more than you would think, and many of the results are lacking in quality. Do this with open eyes. The scale and results can be magnificent, but so can the pain.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” –Aristotle
Sustaining social media communities over years is one of the primary topics in Welcome to the Fifth Estate. Given how much time and financial investment goes into building a successful community, it only makes sense for enterprises to stay in touch and sustain critical online relationships, social web properties and communities. Ultimately the answer to not only achieve success online, but to remain successful begins with measurement.
Today measurement is not built into strategies from the onset; it’s an afterthought, a late addition at the end of the process (if at all), then forgotten about until it’s time to pay the piper (yay, CFOs). To be fair, there are many great practitioners who do measure effectively from the onset, but the vast majority of social communications occurs without tangible business outcomes.
Further, the measurement presented tends to focus on weak influence barometers that fail to measure how a community actually interacts with an organization, and through which media forms. Failing to understand these data points hurts an organization because they have no idea if their grassroots networks are strong or weak. Unfortunately, they find out when it’s tested several times during campaigns.
More importantly, strength of community measurement — understanding media usage patterns and changes, and what organizational actions inspire a group of people to act — forms the basis of long-term success. Through understanding how a community constantly shifts over time, one can manage effectively and move towards new tools and media forms. The behavior indicators and changes point to which media are growing in strength, which ones are waning, and what information the community prefers.
In essence, a community is like water. Water always takes the path of least resistance towards the sea. Similarly, communities tend to migrate towards the most fun, easy to use community platform. Note: Fun does not include being spammed by marketers. Measurement lets you understand which route is the fastest to the sea, and which ones to avoid. People’s actions will show you.
Successful bloggers know this. They tend to maniacally review their analytics, at least during the period of time when they are becoming successful. Rare is the successful blogger that does not check their statistics at least once a week. Note once a week, not once a year to pay the piper. Dell, one of the most successful companies in social media over time, also pays close attention to its metrics with a weekly report to the management team (including Michael Dell).
The ability to measure weekly, daily, even hourly is one of the greatest features of Internet media. The actual practice of measuring is the cornerstone of understanding a community of people, and how to successfully serve them over time. In measurement, we find sustainability.
As the echo chamber buzz about Empire Avenue rises, perhaps we should ask questions about what these “influence” tools actually accomplish. From Klout to Empire Avenue, we are literally assigning numbers and now stock values to people’s social network activity, creating a specific metric of influence. Beyond the increasing ethical issues that these games and tools offer, there are many questions they bring to mind. Are the metrics actually useful? Can you quantify what should be qualified? Are we leading ourselves astray? What are the repercussions on individuals’ well-being?
Time and again, it has been proven that social network popularity — follower counts, retweets, etc. — does not necessarily equate to actual influence. In actuality, influence really depends on the strength of community relationships that an individual maintains — strong ties as opposed to weak ties — in online networks. As studies show this influence can be spontaneous on social networks.
One of the best historical examples of real influence was DonorsChoose’s 2008 Blogger Challenge. The blogger challenge pitted some of the world’s most well known bloggers — Tech Crunch, Ars Technica, EnGadget –against each other in an effort to fundraise for students. But despite the big names, the winners were respectable but smaller bloggers like Sarah Bunting’s Tomato Nation blog and Fred Wilson’s AVC blog. All of these blogs arguable could have used their blogs and full Twitter and Facebook networks to their advantage, but the smaller ones with strong community ties won out.
More recent examples of this include the celebrities themselves (forget the digerati in the social media space). Popular celebrities love Twitter, and Twitchange auctions their Twitter accounts as a means to raise money. But of all the big stars that get on Twitchange, its stars like Zachary Levi (who?) and Jeremy Cowart that end up garnering higher bids. A more impassioned, engaged fan base — stronger ties — equals more yield in comparison to the Eva Longoria, LeeAnn Rimes and Tim Robbins of the world.
So right out of gate these online influence metrics (and note that they cannot include real world clout) are bound to fail because they cannot quantify what can only be qualified — passion. Strength of community comes from relational engagement and the bonds people feel with individuals within their networks. Popularity — most liked — does not necessarily equate to passion. That doesn’t mean that popular people can’t cultivate impassioned networks, but the two are not the same. Popularity is attention, strength of community is the passion that creates action.
Klout, Twitalyzer, Empire Avenue, all of these metrics are no more than PR 2.0 metrics. They are at best metrics to see who can get the most attention regularly across single or diverse social networks. To build entire social media marketing programs off of them would be a recipe for failure, as attention alone usually does not yield outcomes such as ROI.
The Ethics of Quantification
This is not to preach, but looking at Empire Avenue caused feelings of discomfort, and after reflection, it became clear why. It seems wrong to affix a price on people’s heads based on their social network interactions. The pricing of people’s worth has a long hard history in human history; markets of people have often had the word slavery affixed to them. Another nasty historical use of affixing market price to people is prostitution. Both of these historical and still present dark human behaviors make Empire Avenue uncomfortable.
Yes, it’s just a game, a stock market, but not everyone has voluntarily opted in. Yet, transactions have occurred. And look how serious the social media marketing industry is already treating it. It just has many implications that lack mindfulness. So for this blogger, there will be no investing in other voices (much less time) on Empire Avenue. Just like personal brands and corporate brands, the concept does not translate well.
Assigning a number regardless of the specific social network measurement still has implications that can hurt people. Consider that Klout is now being indexed by Google, and is coming up on the first page of some searches. Will important decisions like hiring be based on Klout scores? Isn’t this the same as not hiring someone because of a mediocre credit score?
Further, the ties between social media communicators and their activities as participants on these networks raises additional questions about ethics. Whether it is Klout Perks or simple pitches to boost stock value, can these individuals be considered objective in their praise?
As Trey Pennington, people are more important than Klout. And collective communities of people are more important than the individual. Social networking is about those communities. When we get away from the concept of community, and over-focus on individuals, an imbalance occurs.
Community managers and social media marketers should be careful, and leery of quantifiable influence metrics. They can provide a starting point for influencer relations programs, but they can not reveal what important qualitative community submersion brings. Further, they are not a holistic representation of social media, and how to market within them from a strategic perspective.
Stage actors have an old, if somewhat crude, joke. When they read a script it looks something like this: “BS BS BS BS … I enter … BS BS … My line … BS BS BS … Another line … BS BS … My last line … annnnnnnnnnnnd exit.”
Image purchased from iStockPhoto
As Geoff discussed here three weeks ago, whatever your influencer engagement strategy may be – Direct Community Interaction with Stakeholders, Top Down Influence, Flanking, or Creating a Groundswell – you need to first “read the tea leaves” to be successful. He rightly spoke of the importance of listening prior to engagement in social media.
But, listening is just not enough; it’s too passive. And to a lot of people, engagement sounds too much like “this is when I get to talk.” Let’s rethink engagement as a process that begins long before you post a comment to someone’s blog or show your face on Twitter. It begins even before you start listening. True engagement means committing yourself to a deeper understanding of your communities – discarding outdated assumptions, re-learning basic drivers of perception and behavior (and identifying possible disruptions), knowing who is doing the talking and where their head is at, and finding the right, real voice that adds to the discourse.
Knowledge should come first. In-depth research can lead to true engagement – knowing how to listen and what to listen for. From this comes a greater intimacy with your online communities, better networking and interpersonal communication practices, and the development of social capital and trust that will be the foundation of a rewarding social media presence.
Step 1: Learning to Listen
Before you can figure out who is talking about you or your industry (or who should be talking about you!) it’s important to understand your keywords so you can identify who’s using them. Because your community might not be talking a lot about you yet, find out who’s talking about your competitors and other topics in your space in addition to your brand itself.
Whether you use an advanced social media monitoring solution or free tools to listen to conversations, it’s important to assess the breadth of the communities you’re monitoring. Search across outposts to discover communities, trends and types of interactions in your space in addition to benchmarking your success within your community. Which blogs are receiving comments and tweets? Who is answering Q&As on LinkedIn? Are there any Web 1.0 communities (like Yahoo! Groups) in your space that are particularly active?
As you dig into the content you identify through monitoring, you’ll start to discover the content producers (whether it be through Twitter, a blog, traditional media or another social platform) who are mentioned most frequently, get the most comments and responses, and are producing content that is being shared by others.
Those producers are the building blocks of your stakeholder list. Quite simply, these digital influencers are as unique as snowflakes, and their influence can be felt in very different ways. By measuring across multiple outposts, you can begin to identify patterns of influence.
Step 2: Deep Dive and Discovery
Then, dig a little deeper: go beyond listening to truly understand your influencers, stakeholders and communities. Read all the blog posts, industry news and general community interaction to familiarize yourself with breaking trends, shifting perceptions and tastes, and begin to understand each individual influencer in your community.
Really “knowing your stuff” will put you ahead of the game just by showing that you are aware of what people are interested in – both personally and professionally. Getting to know the stakeholders in your space are simply the fundamentals of solid business networking – with a social media twist.
Analyze what you’ve discovered to develop a solid strategy before diving in. Identify business objectives and establish benchmarks – these will help you in the future when talking to the C-Suite about the benefits and ROI of your program.
Step 3: Authentic Engagement
The cornerstone of engagement is establishing community trust: You can blind copy dozens of journalists on a canned pitch and be dubbed a “spammer” or you can take your initial discoveries and create story ideas, guest posts, tips, breaking news, etc. that intrigue each stakeholder in your community. Guess which one will garner better results?
Ensure that your community interaction is exactly that – interacting as a member of the community and not just pushing your own content. Read blog posts and leave comments, send a related tweet to join the conversation, watch others’ posts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Think of it as digital karma – what you contribute to the community will be returned in kind.
Lastly, remember to maintain relationships that you’ve built. Engagement is not an in-and-out concept – even after you develop a great relationship or contribute great content, you must nurture the relationship to maintain the trust you’ve developed.
And as for that theatre joke, only the “hams” believe things like that. Great actors through the years, from Spencer Tracy to Meryl Streep, have said the same thing: “Acting is listening, truly listening.”
Heidi Sullivan (@hksully) is Vice President of Media Research for Cision North America and a self-proclaimed social media metrics nerd. Heidi was formerly an editorial manager for a firm that produced regional business magazines, an account executive at a PR agency and an editor and media researcher for a major newswire service. She is a host of the popular Cision Social Media Webinar Series, a blogger for Cision Blog and frequently speaks at industry conferences and events on best practices in social media, public relations and the changing media landscape.
It’s important to understand what influencers achieve in the larger social context. For the most part that consists of bursts of attention, and a perception of validity. In essence, this is the online version of media relations: Earned social mentions creating an aura of credibility.
Just like the traditional PR world, this tactical choice has its limitations. Mostly, it simply creates a word of mouth opportunity that needs to be backed by an actual product and service that a real pre-existing community likes. In addition, if deployed in an advisory role, influencers (the trusted servant kind, not the personal brands) can serve as a barometer for how a community will respond to an initiative.
Conversely, influencers don’t create the day-to-day participation and conversation necessary over long periods of time to develop and sustain a community. They can’t create valuable content for your stakeholders — unless you’re willing to sponsor full time bloggers. Influencers don’t manage communities and distributed networks of loyalists in such activities as crowdsourcing. Finally, influencers don’t produce the business outcomes that a loyal community delivers when it has embraced a symbiotic two way relationship.
A tow boat can only take a freighter out to sea, but if the actual ship is not sea-worthy it will sink with or without the tow. Similarly, influencers can only draw attention to something, but they can’t make a business, cause or idea succeed over the long term. Far from it. Let’s take a look using a familiar and recent case study.
Quora’s Mountain of Hype
As you can see by the above chart, the excitement over Quora has slowed down after the Silicon Valley influencer-driven bubble that started during the holiday season. It’s also interesting to note the drop in traffic preceded recent criticism and squabbles about Quora from that same Silicon Valley influencer community. Arguably the debates have given the site small, barely noticeable spikes. However, Quora’s overall traffic has increased since November, indicating the social network has successfully retained a minority of its new users.
The post-influence bubble decrease in traffic occurred because many found Quora’s product to be less interesting than advertised (and somewhat misrepresented as a blogging service). The spike featured industry specific conversations, and did not offer a broader consumer or cross-sector appeal. In essence, the influencers served as trade press, creating an echo chamber, but one that failed to compel non-insiders.
The higher plateau post influencer attention shows that Quora was able to retain some people who like question-based and information wiki-like products online. This can be credited to the preexisting community that had already seeded many questions and served as moderators. In actuality, the site was already growing in traffic naturally without the influencer bubble. The newly retained traffic after the influencer spike may have hastened Quora’s growth, but not by anything more than a few months.
Similar to an advisory board’s role, the usage created public feedback about problems with Quora, from its wonky interface and geekiness to popularity based answers as well as questionable moderation and editing. In some cases, influencers complained about censorship and their posts disappearing. Quora will need to respond and address these serious flaws if it hopes to become anything more than a niche community.
All in all, using the tow boat analogy, Quora has been brought to sea, but there are serious questions about its sea worthiness. The ship labors off the coast.
The influence bubble brought great attention, but Quora did not fully capitalize on the opportunity. It also needs to get beyond the confines of the Silicon Valley influencer circle and generate a much broader series of topical questions and answers if it intends to become a mass market success. It should be noted that there’s no business model in place to monetize, and given the large influx of traffic, this too can be considered a lost opportunity.
While Quora was “discovered,” its experience serves as the perfect example of the positives and limitations of influencers. As such, it should serve as an example of what to use influencers for… And what they cannot offer in the context of larger marketing programs that include product marketing, broader public relations efforts, advertising, as well as additional Internet marketing and tactics.