Spiral Marketing: The More You Know, The More You Can Know

July 3, 2009

Blogging as “Self Portraiture” – Business Takeaways

I went to an interesting panel discussion on Blogging as Self Portraiture, sponsored by the Mizel Museum.  I’d explain this question of blogging as portraiture, spoken of quite eloquently by the curator of the Mizel Museum, but since on the best of days I am lucky I remember to wear pants, and I have no fact checker handy, I’ll leave that to others.  Suffice it to say, however, that this panel was about the blog, and how a blog can be used to “paint a portrait” of the author.  Those who know me know I would love to wax philosophical on such an artsy and ideological topic, but that doesn’t put the Venti Mochas on the table.  I am in the business of businesses . . .

But even in my roll as crass businessman, I think there were several very important take-aways from this discussion – this wasn’t simply about art for art’s sake.  I think the key takeaways were

  • What you choose to portray is how you are perceived;
  • The velocity of the propagation of good or bad information about your company is incredibly rapid;
  • Dialogue, any dialogue, between you and your customers is a good thing;
  • Rules truly are meant to be broken;
  • Authenticity is everything.

Let’s break it down: firstly, what you choose to portray about yourself reflects how you are perceived.  That in fact was the underlying assumption for this panel discussion.  Whether you write deeply from the heart, adopt a calculated persona conforming to the way you wish to be perceived, share others’ content – which by its nature describes something about you – whether you share in bits and pieces or cut whole from broadcloth the image you wish to portray, a vision of you emerges.  Implicit in this point (and the discussion almost got there) is that there are two very different roles in this communication: the one who seeks to portray something about themselves, and those viewing that portrait who run the information through their own set of filters.  Without these two distinct roles, you are left with the age old question that if you paint a self portrait that no one sees, do you still exist? (OK, I lied – that was something about trees, woods, falling, some other such nonsense).

But there is a critical business point in this observation, something I’ve described somewhat cumbersomely as “I know what I think I just said, and you know what you think you heard, but I wonder if you heard what I said?”  We’ve all heard the stories of branding that didn’t translate very well culturally – Coca Cola originally translated into the Chinese market as “Bite the wax tadpole; “Electrolux introducing its product into the U.S. with the catchy slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux;” and one of my favorites – Ford trying to understand why the Pinto didn’t sell in Brazil until they discovered that “Pinto” was Brazilian slang for “tiny penis.”  A very recent example of this idea – that regardless of what you say, people hear something – was this week: @mattsingley was having trouble with his Time Warner account, so he found the @timewarnercares account on Twitter, which had posted exactly zero times.  What does Time Warner have to say about how much it cares? Demonstrably, nothing at all.

Whatever you do, say, don’t do or don’t say, your customers are building a picture of you; “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” comes to mind.  Whether you actively participate in your side of this “grand conversation,” inferences are being made about your company, so you might as well “choose to decide” and take control of how you portray your company – be proactive, because if you are not you will have to be reactive – sooner or later.

The second takeaway is that, in the good old days, even if there was bad news or feedback about your company, things moved at a reasonable enough pace that you had time to properly plan and react to the fallout – crisis management was a much simpler challenge.  Putting a positive spin on the same point, at no other time has it been possible to spread good news as quickly and effectively, or gather as much information.  As John Common, one of the panelists, put it, it is not so much the case that with social media new things are happening, but rather the same old things are happening much more rapidly.  To a great extent this is true, and thus positive and negative messages propagate more rapidly.  You have to, as a business, dedicate yourself to staying on this pulse – benefit or damage accumulates in minute or hour increments, rather than the day, week or month increments of the past.  Prepare your company for this: exploit the upside advantage, and minimize the downside risk.

The third takeaway is that dialogue, positive or negative, can only work to your company’s advantage.  I’ve talked to a lot of executives who would like to ignore negative dialogue – the only affect of this position is that you turn it into a negative monologue, one in which you have no voice; as John Henry Cardinal Newman said, “We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.” The customer will voice their opinion regardless of whether you want to engage in that conversation, and their ability now to spread that opinion is unparalleled.  Social media provides a forum, but also an unprecedented opportunity to gather information on people’s perception of your company’s brand and that of your competitors’.  I tell every customer I talk to the same thing: if you do nothing else, make sure someone is regularly searching for any references to your brand, and your competitors, in the various streams of social media.  Whatever  you do (or do not do) with that information, what argument is there for ignoring such a rich and readily accessible source of information?

Take a look at some examples of Twitter tweets concerning Dish Network and DirecTV – fierce competitors:

“Which is better, DIRECTV or Dish Network?”

“I am mad that Dish Network does not get TV one….ugh”

“Note to dish network: your customer service line is making me unhappy. and your hold music sucks.”

“Dish Network has the worst customer service of all the television providers.”

“@wesbiffar DirecTV, hands down (w/ DVR) here’s why: http://bit.ly/VkVTm”

“I am canceling my Directv.”

“Bout to wage a Jihad on @directv unless they start taking these charges off my credit card”

“@DIRECTV Looking to cut ties with my cable company. Why should I choose DirectTV over Dish?”

Why would I, as a company, ignore this sort of information, all less than 3 hours old at the time of the search (and a small handful of the available information, in a single stream of information), even if I, for whatever reasons, did not choose to integrate this sort of intelligence into my pre- and post-sales customer relationship management  processes?

Number four on my list of take-aways is this idea of  “Rules” for blogging, or social media in general.  I hate to tell those of you that would like the comfort of a hard-and-fast list of rules, but there aren’t any.  There are conventions, emerging best practices, and “terms of service” – it helps to conform to these only to the extent that you aren’t thrown off the playground.  Beyond that, stop looking for rules, and starting making some.  This is a wide open category, that no one has figured out.  It is the convergence of shifts in communications, technology and generational preferences that have no precedent in our lifetimes – all the old rules have been thrown out the window, and a vacuum exists that you can choose to either avoid or exploit.

The wild west nature of social media will not persist forever – @naomimimi’s mavens, experts and gurus will be run out of town for the charlatans that they are, and a more structured environment of best practices will arise, and mainstream companies will conform (to an alarming degree) to these best practices.  And my advice to you? Once there are rules, and you know them, figure out how to break them – that’s what will keep this interesting and relevant for your target audience.  There is only one rule that will always be relevant in social media, and in this case, I guess I went to a school called “Heartbreak Ridge:”  “You can rob me, you can starve me…and you can beat me and you can kill me. Just don’t bore me.

Finally comes the question of authenticity.  Those who know me and my opinions on social media know that I believe that this question of authenticity is absolutely critical.  Some may go so far as to say that it seems I have an axe to grind with someone that I believe to be, in a very calculated way, cultivating a particular image that does not represent them accurately.  The secret is that there is someone I would call out as an inauthentic phoney – it’s me.  If you look for “Kevin Boulas” on Twitter you’ll find two accounts – @kboulas and @irant.  I defy you to engage with, be interested in or even care about what @kboulas says – he’s just another Social Media wonk, regurgitating through retweets the same tired stuff that every other social media “maven” is spouting.  Did I get followers? Sure.  Could I stand the sheer tedium of projecting that persona? Hell, no.  There was so little of me, and what I and my company stand for, reflected in that account, that it would be impossible to view @kboulas as anything but a list of references and platitudes.  If you want to find out who Kevin Boulas is, warts and all, go to @irant – a personality will emerge (that you may or may not like), a sense of humor, a core set of values, a sense of likes and dislikes, and a definite set of opinions on a wide variety of topics.  @irant stands for something, and represents something, and that attracts people and keeps them engaged.  Right or wrong, good or bad, @irant is who he is, and he stands for what he stands for, and that is the key to authenticity.

And if you don’t believe in the value of authenticity, then try following @timewarnercares . . .

Kev

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June 19, 2009

Twitter Vs. Facebook? That Is NOT The Question

It has become popular occasionally to ask whether one would pick Twitter or Facebook if you had to choose.  The question, hypothetical though it may be, makes no sense – the implied choice is based upon a false analogy.  Taken to the extreme, the question is about the same as asking whether you would prefer a black phone or a black photo album.  But in this rush by the social media “gurus” or hobbyists to “pick what’s best,” I think they are missing the forest for a few trees, some of which – like MySpace – may or may not be around in a year.

I think the important question, and perhaps the question that people are trying to answer when they get is this discussion, is how do we understand best how to use social media.  And how we best understand the use of social media is a lot like understanding how to best build a house (to use an old analogy).  I don’t look in my toolbox, see a hammer, nails, saw, level and square, and suddenly understand how to build a house.  Similarly, I cannot look into my “social media toolbox” and understand how to build or influence a group of people.  I need to first build my blueprint – my end-state vision of what I am trying to accomplish – and then, understanding the goal, I look to my toolbox to determine which tools I will need and how I will use them to accomplish that goal.  And in any social media campaign – which may be as mundane as building your own personal influence, or as business critical as creating a social marketing campaign that seeks to reach an audience that is immune to more traditional marketing techniques – these goals, these “blueprints” will be as different as the people or the businesses they are meant to support.

Those who know me know that I believe very strongly that the world is full of answers – ask someone a question, and you are highly likely to get an answer.  And since you’ve gotten an answer, you assume everything is great, and you act upon that answer.  The only problem is that, in over 20 years of consulting experience, I’ve rarely seen efforts go wrong because a company couldn’t get an answer to the question they posed; they have gone wrong because the company asked the wrong question to begin with.  The implications of this point are that objectively, an answer can be right or wrong given the question you ask, but the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the answer you get doesn’t help you if you started with the wrong question to begin with.  And I have, and have very often seen clients, ask bad questions for which they get the “right” answer, which leads to a totally disastrous result.

Getting back to the subject of this post, I am saying that “Twitter vs. Facebook?” is a badly formed question; it has no chance of getting beyond personal preference to a more unified view of the social landscape, and how you become a part of the conversation taking place there.

So what are the right questions? I think the first question any individual or business has to ask is “what are my goals for a social marketing campaign?”  I can’t give you a cookie cutter that fits every industry, although in a later post I’ll consider some “value chains” that you may seek to influence with social media, and how those relate to questions you must answer to develop your goals and strategy.  The blueprint for the house depends on the house you seek to build.

But once you’ve had the architect come round to help understand the house you need, the house you want to build, how then do you apply social media tools to the building of this house?  One option I am tempted to try is to create a dartboard, with slots for various SM tools, and 3 darts – then use any tool you land a dart in.  This appeals to me only to the extent that a) it’s kind of funny; and b) I always drink when I throw darts.

But for the sake of this discussion, I will let that go, and instead assert that there are certain characteristics of social media represented to a greater or lesser degree in each of the social media tools and techniques.  There are also other tools that amplify the effect of these characteristics, but I’ll save that for later as well.  To support a mental model for evaluating these tools, I personally think these 9 characteristics are highly relevant:

  1. Reach – how many in my “social graph” can I reach with a given message.  Note that reach is relative and I believe closely related to specificity – while I may be able to “reach” a whole lot of people on Twitter without any notion of specificity (or targeting) of messages, I may reach far fewer individuals on LinkedIn, but the people I reach are much more valuable because my message is very specific to them.
  2. Interactivity – does the tool of choice allow for near real time interaction, or is it less interactive (Am I talking on the phone or exchanging letters?)
  3. Speed – how quickly could my message propagate to a given number of people?
  4. Repeatability – how efficiently and effectively can I repeat a message I receive to share it with other users?
  5. Specificity – given a social media tool, how specific or diverse can I expect the body of messages to be?
  6. Depth – How “deep” is the information provided in a given message?  Is it a headline, or an in-depth posting on a specific topic?
  7. Persistence – if you view a conversation as evolving over time, then any given topic within that conversation has a “window of time” where it is the focus of discussion.  How long does a given message persist in the conversation – how long is the window open for someone to receive the message?
  8. Searchability – Given that messages persist within the window of the current social conversation for a limited period of time (a “meme”), how easily can I recall information once it has passed out of that window?  In general, the greater the depth of the information, the more searchable it is.
  9. Measurability – to be honest, this is a placeholder right now in my opinion.  I think we are in the mode in the social media space of “inventing” science, without having gone to the trouble of correlating a specific measure to a specific outcome.  I think many are working toward getting us there, but I don’t believe we yet know what measurable outcomes correlate with true business (and / or reputational) value.  Until we do, measurability has to be taken with a grain of salt . . .

So I think these are important characteristics to assess with any given social media tool, just as I can (and at times have tried) to measurethe “Hammerability” of a hammer, a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, and a random piece of metal.  You may have a different model for how you think of these tools – if so, great, write your own blog post and send it to me.  But using my characteristics, I’m going to apply them to several types of social media tools:

  • Twitter – the fastest growing social network on the interweb (it’s the internet, or the world wide web, folks!), and a micro-blogging platform.  Say anything you want, as long as it is 140 characters or less.
  • General Social Networks – a social network based on interpersonal social relationships; in all likelihood, I could have named this Facebook and no one would have disagreed.
  • Business Networks – a list of contacts and discussions related to business topics, such as LinkedIn, Plaxo, etc.
  • Special Purpose Social Networks – social networks related to a specific group or topic, business or social.  This may be a local area mother’s group, or a collaboration community for a given business, etc.
  • Blogs – dissertations and commentaries on a specific topic (don’t look now, but you’re reading one, by the way).

This is by no means meant to cover every social media tool and variation thereof, and as I said earlier, it specifically excludes tools, such as StumbleUpon, that I would argue are used to amplify one or more of the characteristics above.

What I have done, based on the characteristics and types of social media I’ve outlined above, is assigned (somewhat) subjective values to each characteristic for each social media type and created a Radar map.  All other things being equal (many times they are not, but let’s skip that question for this post), then the goal of a social marketing strategy should be to cover as much area of this graph as possible:

Social Media Radar Map

Social Media Radar Map

Now, it may not be obvious from the above, but if your goal (in general) is to cover as much area of this graph as possible, you have to use multiple social media tools to do so.  To illustrate, I can see from the radar graph below that while Twitter gives me great immediacy and interactivity, it does not give me a great deal of depth of content or persistence; blogs, on the other hand, do provide the depth and persistence, but without the interactivity.  By combining the two, however, I can cover a large area of the graph:

Twitter / Blog Radar Map

Twitter / Blog Radar Map

As you can see, by combining Twitter with Blogging, in a coordinated marketing campaign, I can cover a lot of important social media “territory.”  The other interesting thing to note is that Facebook and Twitter do not cover the same area, but if I combine Facebook and blogging or Twitter and blogging, I cover a great deal more area.  In fact, by combining Twitter and Blogging, I cover virtually ALL of the area that Facebook is covering: should we then be surprised that two top priorities of Facebook are to make it more interactive (like Twitter), and to begin to incorporate blogging elements?

Twitter / Facebook / Blog Radar Map

Twitter / Facebook / Blog Radar Map

A couple of points, for the sake of completeness: in a very specific context, specialized social networks and business networks deliver a great deal of benefit (within that context).  My discussion above is meant to serve to illustrate the general principles of a broad-based social marketing strategy, and therefore I have disregarded to a large extent the advantages of a very targeted campaign using these niche social media tools within a very narrow context.  That doesn’t mean they are more or less important than other social media uses; it only means that the hypothetical “house” I was building did not conform to the constraints within which these more specialized tools may be much more effective than broader based social media.

I also intentionally disregarded Authority & Credibility as characteristics of the social media platforms.  I don’t think it is possible to say that, because you have a friend that you think knows everything there is to know about subject XYZ, that this person can objectively be thought of as authoritative and credible.  Questions of authority and credibility aren’t characteristics of the social media tools and platforms I spoke of here, but result from the response to the content appearing on these platforms.  In this case, all of the members of the conversation will judge the authority and credibility of the information, rather than the medium itself.  @naomimimi and I were speaking yesterday of a “clique-ishness” that still persists on Twitter – the “Twitterati” tend to feed each other’s sense of authority and credibility.  As these platforms become more widely established and egalitarian, I believe that the merit of the ideas and thought leadership will supplant the “reputation” of the individual posting the content, leading to a much richer and more informative landscape of ideas and opinions – a much more highly functioning “hive mind.”

So ultimately, I think there are those that can and will answer the question of Twitter vs. Facebook, or any one social media tool or technique vs. the other – for themselves, given their personal preference.  I believe that a much more interesting question, however, is how do we evaluate and employ a suite of social media techniques to conduct a robust, wide-ranging, energetic, and informative social marketing campaign.  What house do you want to build, and how do you best employ the social media tools available to build that house?

Kev

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