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It’s rare a day goes by without another example of an employee getting fired or reprimanded for posting something inappropriate on their Twitter account, or a company being forced into damage control due to an off-color comment or tone-deaf message. I read this example of Congressional staffers and their ill-advised Twitter chatter this morning. There are countless other blunders that have generated heated coverage – ranging from political scandals (hello Tony Weiner) to marketing snafus. All this noise usually creates two concerns, or conclusions, with many of my clients:
- Social media is very risky for organizations…probably too risky
- It’s very difficult to regulate and monitor social media interaction
As I’ve written before in this blog over the years, I think the fears of social media are overblown and misdirected. Yes, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow content and commentary to spread globally quickly – whether it’s positive or critical. But a cursory review of the most celebrated social media snafus (including the one referenced above) reveals that in most cases the controversy could easily have been avoided with basic common sense: Don’t lie. Don’t use inappropriate language or content. Be nice. Play fair. I would argue these are the same guidelines employees would use with any other workplace forum or channel (including company email.) In fact, I am often amazed at how ridiculous and ill-advised these controversial posts are…causing me to ask rhetorically what were they thinking?
The issue of monitoring and managing social media outreach is also surrounded by misconceptions. Companies can use a wide range of user-friendly tools to monitor the Web and track posts, triage comments or questions and identify emerging trends. With regard to organization, many of recognized social media leaders use a small, dedicated team and simple planning process to direct their social media efforts. In other words, this doesn’t have to be that overly costly or complicated. The barriers to entry for social media are very low for individual and institutional users alike.
Rather than blaming social media channels – which are inherently neutral and provide incredible platforms for robust, real-time conversation with millions of users – company leaders should spend more time selecting and training their staff, and determining the strategic purpose of their social media activities (even if they are mostly passive and reactive.) These steps don’t have to be onerous. Many of the most successful companies actively using social media – notably Dell, IBM, Best Buy and Starbucks – have clear and simple policies and objectives. And determining if and how you want to get involved can (and should) be shaped by due diligence and strategic planning.
The fact that some have made mistakes using social media platforms is an indictment of the culprits, not the technology.
Universal McCann’s latest “Wave” global report - which they claim is the longest running and largest study dedicated to social media – provides an essential statistical benchmark on the evolution of social media. The key findings this year are no surprise: the survey of thousands of global internet users confirms that social media remains an explosive, dynamic phenomenon that is changing how we interact, think, feel and behave. This particular study focuses on how brands are engaging with consumers in social media.
The big takeaway from this study is that data suggests there is huge demand for a more social, interactive relationship with brands online. Almost half of active internet users – who collectively visit social networks 1.5 billion times every day – are joining brand communities. This is occurring despite a steady decline of users visiting “official” company websites and the prominence of peer-to-peer brand recommendations. In short, consumers increasingly want to engage with brands in social media, but on the right terms. The key, according to the report authors, is to identify the kind of relationship users want with brands, and to create corresponding social media programs. Put another way, companies must understand the needs and motivations of consumers as a critical first step in their social media planning. The catch is that these needs differ widely by country, topic (or category) and audience – so brands should seek granular information on their target consumers to detail their habits and preferences. This approach means selecting the platform or network comes last, not first. And that doesn’t mean returning to the hard sell, which still remains anathema to many internet consumers.
Here are other highlights of the survey:
- Social networks have become more embedded in our everyday lives as the range of online activities and frequency of usage continues to increase;
- Social media use varies widely depending on geography and user demographics;
- Users have a wide range of motives for accessing web platforms, and select different platforms for different purposes. (Again these motives vary widely by geography.)
- Though penetration among 16-24 year olds remains highest, the 25-34 age bracket has seen the biggest jump in usage (from 52% to 70% in 3 years);
- Social networks have become the main forum for social interaction, even bypassing face-to-face contact;
- Content sharing continues to be popular, though it’s now occurring on a wider range of platforms;
- Personal blogs and forums are losing some traction, but are also becoming more specialized and targeted. Micro-blogging, on the other hand, has quickly grown into a mass market activity;
- There’s been a significant shift to accessing social media through mobile devices and applications;
- On the brand front, primary reasons for joining brand communities (usually on social networks) include learning about the brand/product, getting advance news on products, and gaining access to free content.
Over the past few years I’ve had numerous discussions with clients and peers about the dramatic disruptions caused by new social media technology. In the early years, in particular, not everybody accepted the premise that these changes were in fact occurring, or driving fundamental shifts in how people gather and share information. Well here we are, several years into the so-called Web 2.0 revolution. If nothing else, what has become widely acknowledged – even among the most recalcitrant naysayers – is that we are truly living in a digital world.
Indeed, a recent article by McKinsey provides another layer of accumulating empirical evidence that global consumers are increasingly communicating and conducting business through digital devices. This study mirrors a recent report by Forrester (presented at SXSW 2011) that suggested employees – most of them wired, social networkers – were increasingly using their technology within the workplace, firewalls and rules be damned. [FYI: both these articles may have restricted access and require registration.]
Here are some highlights of the McKinsey study:
- Nearly 50 percent of US online consumers are now advanced users of smartphones, social networks, and other emerging tools—up from 32 percent in 2008;
- Social networks, particularly Facebook, are emerging as the dominant digital-communications channels. For people aged 34 and under, they already are the preferred channel (by minutes of use per day), displacing e-mail, texting, and phone calls. Social-network use, growing swiftly among all segments of our survey population, has doubled among those over 55;
- As the usage and processing power of smartphones increase in tandem with the rising speed of 3G and 4G data networks, mobile devices are invading the domains of single-purpose gear such as game consoles and portable media players, as well as PCs. Smartphones are also becoming the device of choice for e-mail, Web browsing, and product research;
- As digital platforms multiply, consumer video-viewing habits continue to change. Among our survey respondents, 69 percent now view videos on their PCs and 33 percent on their smartphones;
- Only 24% of respondents are considered “traditionalists”, or consumers who are less interested in internet browsing and social networking and are more likely to read print newspapers.
Given this data, there seems little doubt that discussions on communication or marketing strategy, and more specifically social media planning, can start from the premise that the majority of our audience are digital natives, or largely wired and fluent in social media. And that cuts across geography, job and income level – though there are still important variations based on these demographic variables. In a sense, the conversation should now shift from if to how or what we need to do differently.
Of course, this has important repercussions for communication professionals, whether the focus is PR or internal communications. At minimum, we need to plan based on this new reality, and ideally take advantage of the emerging opportunities to use fresh, original strategies. I like the approach proposed in another recent McKinsey article that argued that in this digital age we are all marketers. As the headline puts it: “engaging customers today requires commitment from an entire organization – and a redefined marketing organization.” Here’s an excerpt:
For the past decade, marketers have been adjusting to a new era of deep customer engagement. They’ve tacked on new functions, such as social-media management; altered processes to better integrate advertising campaigns online, on television, and in print; and added staff with Web expertise to manage the explosion of digital customer data. Yet in our experience, that’s not enough. To truly engage customers for whom “push” advertising is increasingly irrelevant, companies must do more outside the confines of the traditional marketing organization. At the end of the day, customers no longer separate marketing from the product—it is the product. They don’t separate marketing from their in-store or online experience—it is the experience. In the era of engagement, marketing is the company.
This bold, innovative approach is a useful model for communication professionals. We must avoid falling into old patterns and timid ideas and instead develop new programs that are resonant and relevant to this population of digital natives. In short, we need to change. And we need to help our clients change. With the overwhelming evidence of the increasing reach and impact of new technology on consumers (including our employees and peers), there’s really no excuse for inertia.
Just read a really interesting article in AdAge that provides a post-mortem autopsy on the Kenneth Cole Twitter scandal…and subsequent redemption. There are two provocative arguments in the article:
- Social media has dramatically accelerated the usual steps and cycle of scandals, including quick resolution and forgiveness for those who take appropriate action;
- The new scandal pattern features a secondary wave or parodies of the original blunder…which sometimes generates more attention that the original event.
Based on some recent miscues propagated on/by Twitter, it would appear that companies can go from goat to reformed sinner much faster than before the advent of social media. And the deluge of content on networks like Twitter and Facebook inevitably helps push old news out of the spotlight. That said, I would argue that the outcome of the crisis – and ultimate impact on the brands involved – depends on the magnitude of the original error, as well as how promptly and cogently the company reacts. Kenneth Cole quickly apologizing for his ill-advised use of #Cairo in his original tweet cannot be compared to the massive BP oil spill crisis, or even the recent Taco Bell “where’s the beef” situation. For one thing, those events quickly spread across social several social networks and traditional media channels and an easy, quick resolution is not likely to occur. (BP, for example, is likely to face years of legal repercussions.) These other crises also raise more fundamental, serious questions about the companies involved. Kenneth Cole may have been insensitive, but he wasn’t accused of endemic incompetence, harm to consumers or corporate corruption.
Despite these caveats, communication professionals should be aware that old models and time-honored principles of crisis management – do you remember the “5 R’s”…responsibility, regret, restitution, resolution and reform – are being influenced by the technology and mores of social media. In nothing else, it appears that some crises will be played out at lightning Web speed. Whether that makes it easier or harder to manage is open to debate, but it’s fascinating to watch.
I am reminded on a regular basis of the gap between organizations leading the adoption of social media – who are embracing and shaping new trends and applications – and others who still seem hesitant to devote any resources or intellectual capital to the discipline. The latest example comes through the concept of listening. While some organizations are (inexplicably) barely paying attention to online dialogue, others are working hard to improve their listening ability and using the information to shape their customer outreach, products and even their business operations. They are listening with a purpose – to use the insights and information they gather to truly engage with their customers, critics and fans online.
A recent blog post by Brian Solis details the progress of companies like Dell and Gatorade, who have expanded the concept of a community manager – the model for many companies engaged in social media – to that of a social media command center. This command center model not only provides a more robust, integrated structure to monitor, analyze and moderate online dialogue – which can be a challenge for organizations with a global profile and thousands of daily mentions – but also helps the team to internalize and respond to the various inputs.
There are numerous benefits to this enlightened approach. Solis writes about the Gatorade team, which is able to adjust online marketing campaigns in real-time based on analytics and user comments. Dell’s command center, meanwhile, provides a centralized platform to coordinate the outreach of its online ambassadors, expert authors and customer service activities. Issues and potential emerging PR problems are quickly identified and assessed. Various social media platforms and programs are integrated and managed without attention to traditional silos and functions. In other words… you listen, you learn, you react and you adapt.
As Solis describes it, Dell has become the model of a truly social and adaptive organization. And it’s important to note this goes beyond a defensive posture to respond and react to individual customer issues; the ultimate benefit from engagement with online communities is being able to harness their opinions, ideas and wisdom on topics well beyond sundry product or service complaints. Perhaps the biggest lesson from the actions or Dell and Gatorade is that existing organization models and concepts are no longer effective in this age of social media – which transcends traditional disciplines like marketing, IT, research and public relations. Even appointing a few individuals as community managers is a stop-gap measure. It will be interesting to see how other companies manage their social media activities in the coming months. My guess is the gap between leaders and laggards will only get wider.
The folks at AdAge posted an article recently on what they (and others) have described as the biggest social media campaign of the year: Coca-Cola’s global Expedition 206 project, where three “happiness ambassadors” travelled the world to document people’s search for happiness. Based on many measures, this campaign was a huge success, with over 650 million media impressions and huge global audiences across the campaign platforms – notably in relatively immature Coke markets like China. (It likely didn’t hurt that Coke’s social media properties are already among the most popular in the world.)
It’s interesting to note that some observers – including a few commenting on this article – aren’t sold on the success of the campaign. A few critics questioned whether the program had actually translated into a spike in sales, arguing increased awareness or positive buzz was a soft, meaningless measure of ROI. Others claimed they had never heard of the campaign, suggesting the ratings might be hype.
But beyond the debate about evaluating success – which is a big enough topic for another post altogether – I see a few important lessons for all communication/marketing professionals in this campaign:
- Social media is about people and local markets – The Coke folks developed the campaign blueprint at HQ and leveraged a core team to coordinate the massive undertaking, but used a decentralized approach where local teams (and the personable ambassadors) had flexibility to implement and customize the outreach. It’s also worth noting the prevalence of informal video in this program – a popular and compelling format that is too often ignored in many corporate programs;
- Be open to learning and adapting along the way – The Coke team freely admits they were flying blind on many aspects of this program, and leveraged the insights and feedback along the way to adjust the plan;
- Dont’ wait for things to be perfect – It might surprise some that even a social media leader like Coke launched this campaign knowing their teams would have to stretch to implement the campaign (for example, requiring a higher level of coordination across marcom groups and forcing many local teams to become more familiar with social media). Sometimes a campaign is the impetus for organizations to raise their game and overhaul technology and/or process…and that’s not a bad thing;
- Face-to-face still matters – Coke used a wide range of virtual activities in this campaign, but complemented the robust online tactics with critical local meetings and testimony by the ambassadors, which in turn generated much of the digital content. The heart of this campaign – as it were – was the personal friendships and outreach of the 3 ambassadors on the ground;
- Engage partners in relevant communities – The ambassadors reached out to local bloggers, fans and reporters to support their local outreach and extend local word-of-mouth;
- Be creative - This campaign went well beyond the typical, relatively safe Facebook and Twitter outposts favored by more timid organizations. The result was a campaign that was bold in scope and also much more interesting and lasting in terms of content and coverage.
These lessons were similar to what I experienced at Dell as part of the core team that developed and launched the social media programs several years ago. There were many things we didn’t know when we started, but we never would have learned – or made any progress – if we had waited for the perfect situation. Our focus was on getting the basics right – our strategy, objectives and key principles – but positioned our efforts as a constant beta test…constantly assessing, innovating and improving. Like with Coke, our efforts forced the issue on many fronts (for example the introduction of new technology and upgrades in infrastructure.)
The frenetic, unpredictable pace of evolution in social media doesn’t allow for ponderous, diffident planning more common even a few years ago. Yes, planning and strategic rigor still matter, but they shouldn’t get in the way of great ideas.
One of the challenges of communication planning is coming up with relevant, realistic strategies to communicate with/to a specific audience. Whether the strategic purpose is marketing, reputation management or employment branding, the discussion inevitably reaches the question of delivery and media channels. (One example that comes up frequently in my work is if/how blue-collar employees access the internet from their homes or phones.) Often, in the absence of usage audits or anecdotal evidence, we make assumptions about internet access, hardware and popularity of specific media platforms. A new report on global media trends by AdAge provides some useful context for this discussion.
There are several interesting findings in the study:
- Facebook (with a user base of 517 million) dominates all other platforms in terms of time spent on site;
- Media habits in the United States (e.g. the decline popularity of newspapers) are different from other global regions;
- Television has tremendous reach and popularity in many areas of the world – including many poor markets;
- Internet access continues to expand, fueled in emerging markets by cheap cyber cafes;
- Video use is booming in developing markets (like the BRIC countries);
- Mobile phone growth and penetration is driving most internet usage (due to lower cost compared to desktop or laptop access); and,
- Digital data content continues to explode – with the latest boost powered by video and movies.
I saw evidence of many of these trends during a visit to Tanzania – where locals could visit internet cafes and guides on Kilimanjaro used phones (all the way up to the summit) to communicate with each other.
These global trends, of course, lack the detail and depth required to adequately plan and execute communications aimed at specific audiences – or communities. Communication and marketing professionals still need to do their homework to confirm the best media recipe to reach a particular group – whether internal or external. The ultimate lesson might be to avoid making too many assumptions; media habits and technology are both evolving at a rapid pace and stereotypes are often based on dubious or outdated data.
If there’s one phrase that makes me wince when I’m talking to peers or clients, it’s can you help us make a viral video? Believe it or not, I hear it quite frequently. Not surprisingly, many corporate executives are now true believers in the power of social media and want to leverage the tremendous profile and marketing clout of YouTube. Unfortunately, you can’t make a viral video. You can make a video and try to help it become viral – meaning viewers will drive others to see it, share it, comment and eventually make it a media sensation well beyond YouTube. Ultimately, viewers decide what becomes viral through their actions and comments.
Though consumers have the power, there are things you can do to increase your chances of encouraging uploads and buzz. Look at the recent Old Spice YouTube campaign as a good example of a successful viral program. This hilarious campaign – which piggy-backed on a popular television ad – has become a new paradigm of how to drive positive word-of-mouth through a viral video campaign. According to media reports, the campaign has generated hundreds of millions of views and publicity across media channels, and there’s also evidence it has boosted sales. The true genius of this campaign was the timely, interactive nature of the conversation – with the Old Spice shirtless man responding to individual tweets, reaching out to influential celebrities and pundits and even making a marriage proposal on behalf of a Twitter fan.
So why did the Old Spice campaign work so well? Here’s my short-list:
- Though the campaign left plenty of room for spontaneity, there was a marketing plan underneath the whimsy designed to maximize reach and impact across networks and sites;
- The videos were genuinely funny, smart and original – the original ads were a great starting point;
- It was responsive – not only in general terms via comments on YouTube but via individual Tweets responses/posts and video content;
- It was designed as an integrated program that went beyond YouTube;
- It downplayed the Old Spice brand (I didn’t find any mention of the products outside the original TV ads);
- The campaign was human and touching – including one video of the Old Spice actor sending a personal message to his son – reinforcing that social media is about real people;
- The campaign knew enough to end on a high, and called it quits before the joke wore thin.
Another important lesson is that the Old Spice guy generated plenty of spoof videos. Video parodies created by viewers are among the most popular on the internet and often widely surpass the original ads in popularity – so be careful what you wish for. (Two recent examples are the hundreds of video parodies of the Tiger Woods and LeBron James Nike commercials.) Further evidence that what goes viral is not decided by marketers but by consumers. (FYI: check out this article for recent stats on the top viral videos on YouTube.)
In the wake of the latest release of classified documents by WikiLeaks, a number of people have asked me if the leaks are simply a reflection of the growing importance of social media – with its emphasis on citizen journalism, transparency and candid conversation. My answer to them is no. WikiLeaks has little in common with the ethos of Web 2.0, and it certainly doesn’t represent the best of social media. Here are my reasons:
- WikiLeaks doesn’t really qualify as a transparent activity. Though it could be argued there is transparency in making public previously confidential or buried documents (that are confirmed as authentic) the whole process around the leaks has been opaque. In fact, the leaks are closer to a secretive publicity stunt than a public service. As per the modus operandi of the site, the original source of the leaked documents is still uncertain – though an American soldier has been charged.
- The importance of transparency in social media is often discussed in tandem with honesty. On that front WikiLeaks is on equally weak ground. First, the cables and memos were specifically written for select individuals or small groups. Clearly, they were released without the consent of the original authors and recipients. Second, WikiLeaks provides no insight on the value or accuracy of the leaked materials, essentially refusing to take any responsibility for the content. Third, it appears the documents were obtained illegally. WikiLeaks isn’t talking under the guise of protecting its sources.
- It’s difficult to argue the leaked information hasn’t fueled active conversation – the foundation of social media – but it’s less certain the discourse has been positive or beneficial to anyone involved. Much like dialogue preaching hate or racism is discouraged, one could argue the nasty brush fires sparked by the leaks has done little but raise tension between countries. On the other hand, the ethical debate around the leaks themselves has been constructive.
- Even in the fluid and informal world of social media, there are norms of conduct and rules of engagement. Most participants follow these informal guidelines and/or corporate policies and there’s often a visceral reaction in online communities against those that refuse to follow rules – which are typically designed to ensure the quality of the content and conversation. It’s not clear what rules or guidelines WikiLeaks subscribes to beyond acting as a clearing-house for documents that can bring to light – and help redress – human right abuses and criminal activity.
- Social media puts a big emphasis on valuable, relevant content. What I’ve seen from the recent WikiLeaks exercise is a massive, haphazard package of confidential diplomatic memos that may have more value to conspiracy theorists and spies than ordinary readers. The value of the materials is left for the reader to decide, and the benefits to any community (if any) are unclear.
- Most fans of social media would agree that sharing information comes with responsibility. There’s a glaring absence of common sense and judgement around the leaks. Many observers are concerned the leaks could result in serious diplomatic problems, and even compromise the safety of officials listed in the documents. Whether that’s true or not is apparently of no concern to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has claimed that releasing the material is in the public interest…but has not explained why or how that is the case.
I’ve heard some pundits arguing this leak follows in the grand tradition of rule-breaking muckracking, like the celebrated events surrounding the Watergate scandal. And if I take Assange at his word, I applaud his commitment to release any information that brings to light abuses and other criminal behaviour. But again, the context here is totally different than Watergate or even the Iraq war. There is no obvious scandal or political crime to uncover here, merely thousands of sensitive diplomatic discussions (containing predictable off-color candor) that serve no obvious public purpose and clearly put negotiations at risk. The leaks are closer to political gossip than investigative journalism.
There has been robust discussion about whether the leaks should be protected under the First Amendment – more specifically freedom of the press. (Conservative pundits, in particular, are happy to see an independent watchdog tweak the nose of the U.S. Government.) I’m not a legal scholar so I can’t answer the constitutional question, but the real issue isn’t whether WikiLeaks can make this information public, but whether it should.
Most communication and marketing plans are based on the premise that internet access has become almost ubiquitous. There’s new data out of the U.S. that suggests this is an accurate premise…with important caveats. A new report by the U.S. Department of Commerce confirms that broadband internet access in America is becoming widespread and there’s been dramatic growth in adoption, but also that a digital divide still exists. Here’s a news feature on the report here. Among the key findings:
- Between 2001 and 2009, broadband Internet use among American households increased from 9% to 64%;
- 7 of 10 American households used the internet in 2009, with the majority of those using broadband access at home;
- Education and income are still the determining factors in the digital divide, but race and location also seems to play a strong role;
- 68% of white homes and 77% of Asian-American homes have access to high-speed internet; while only 48% of Hispanic homes and 49% of African-American homes have broadband access;
- By far the main reason for non-adoption of broadband at home is lack of interest or need (rather than high cost, lack of access or equipment) which suggests prevalence among peer networks is an important factor;
- Only 5 percent of households still use dial-up (modem) internet access.
The missing piece in this study is the rapid growth of mobile technology, and the increasing number of people who access the internet through mobile devices. (The DOC report found 8 percent of households say they access the internet outside the home.) As it happens, there is plenty of evidence that suggests mobile access is also booming. This report from July 2010 by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60 percent of American adults access the internet through wireless laptops or mobile phones. The statistics I’ve seen of trends outside the United States are – in many cases – even higher.
So what are the implications for communication professionals? On a basic level, marketing and communication plans built on the premise that a majority of the population can be reached through the internet - whether the target is employees, customers or the broader public – are realistic and relevant. But it’s important to look beyond the general statistics and focus on specific audiences and communities, since there is great variation across different income and ethnic groups. The adage still holds true: know your customer.