Next Monday marks the six year anniversary of my first blog post. As I’m blogging less these days, I decided my final post of this year with six reflections based on my experiences over these years. Here are my observations about social media, blogging and marketing based on my journey:
1) The Idealism of Better Business Through Social
When I began blogging, I believed in The Cluetrain Manifesto. Its raw message that businesses would be forced to act better thanks to social media spoke to me. Cluetrain inspired hope that conversations could change the very fiber of business in favor of people. I was full of passion for that change, and my first book Now Is Gone reflected this idealism.
The past month had two interesting data points on content: ProPublica noted that public relations professionals now outnumber journalists 3:1, which is changing the face of journalism. Then the FCC noted that the dearth of local journalism is, well, hurting journalism and local communities (a nice overview off the stories and the story is here).
Neither of these stories are surprising: the death of local stories has been happening for the past 10 years; it has less to do with the economy but more to do with the profit margins of the large media conglomerates – who are in business to make their shareholders (and owners) money. Picking up a local paper in the past five years, the steady decline of coverage – both local and of importance – is obvious and quite sad.
With journalism becoming a weakening industry, though, the obvious switch to public relations from journalism makes sense. Public relations has this aura of being a well-paying field, and that people still get to work with journalism and journalists in telling a story, and sometimes you get to change and help the world. While thought of as the dark side, there is value in the public relations world to get a story told.
What both these big stories ignore is the growth of the local website – Patch, et al – and the growth of the bloggers. Are PR professionals just outnumbering traditional journalists, or is that taking into account the growth of local media and blogs? Is the dearth of local journalism affecting the world, or has social media changed journalism so much that people no longer want differing opinions but only want to see similar opinions and viewpoints to show that “yes, I’m right!!” That narcissistic world-view is already amplified (and helped) by Facebook and Twitter streams – note that most people only friend and follow those with similar opinions, so the middle tends to get drowned out and disenfranchised as the right and left noise becomes overbearing.
The fact is that local journalism is hurt by the profit motive in journalism – but oddly enough, it’s not easier for people to hide the crisis because of the growth of the local social media person digging for the stories. Without social media, would the Representative Weiner story broken so quickly and so fast? But on the flip side, without the traditional, local journalists, stories like the Bell, California corruption scandal would likely never come to light.
The question for what is good for the public is becoming amplified with the army of PR people out there to hide the story for clients, and the lack of local journalism to uncover the dirt. Are the next Woodward and Bernstein going to be bloggers, or is there immediately going to be a call of bias because it won’t be the middle, but left attacking right and right attacking left?
That is the future of both public relations and local journalism: content. Both are going to be pushing to produce as much local content as possible to get results and be known as news, but it won’t be real news but product of our cult of personality culture that is ignoring or blind to the real big stories.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.