Friday, May 30, 2008

Online Communities Will Be The Face Of Your Company

In its upcoming issue, BusinessWeek writes it missed the mark three years ago on describing the social media revolution as limited to the surge of blogs. Well, hindsight is 20/20 and I think the main point here is the lag between early adopters, early settlers and the general population in adopting technology -- not smart journalists missing a beat.

I do remember feeling empowered by that issue. Back then, when few had figured out how companies could engage online influencers, it gave me more immunition and proof that social media was a force to be reckoned with and it made business sense. This week's article may be a fast read for those of us immersed in interactive media, but it's great support material to bring those who are on the fence about social media into the fold.

In particular, Jeff Jarvis's quote about the evolution of companies into customer communities is worth noting. Jarvis predicts three years from now, BusinessWeek's cover will be about companies as communities. Not suprising the comment comes from the person who built a community of dissatisfied Dell customers around his blog and applauded Dell, when the computer maker launched IdeaStorm--a terrific online feedback community where customers can tell the company their ideas for new products and services and Dell shares some ideas in its pipeline.

Assuming that word of mouth will continue to be more trusted than other communication channels when consumers make decisions, we'll see more IdeaStorms. Companies such as Passenger, Communispace and BrandNetworks that build private and public communities for companies are headed in the right direction with their clients. Market research, customer relationship management, influencer targeting and brand advocacy will converge on the same platform.

Monday, May 26, 2008

In An Ideal World...Sustainable WOM

A couple weeks ago at the WOMMA conference, I sat in at a very interesting discussion on building sustainable word of mouth campaigns led by Brains on Fire's Geno Church and Intuit's word of mouth marketing manager Michelle Makowsky. The model Geno put on the board made sense: We were to research, uncover consumer sentiment, create the message and the environment for WOM to grow, deliver, engage and keep up the momentum. He was describing a circular motion, which suggested I could and should go back to the drawing board as a marketer during the course of a relationship with a customer. "Good," I thought, "if I can tap into a large enough budget, we can do this. Maybe merge PR and marketing?"

Yet, the a-ha comment came from Michelle. She noted that this long-term approach may not resonate well with those responsible for marketing. "This would generate buzz, no?" "That's exactly the point," she replied, saying that most of us in the marketing world need to show results, to prove a campaign's worth, to show success, to move on to the next project or level. So, most players will focus their energy on any approach that will create a spike on the charts, now.

Indeed, a sustainable, relationship approach is too long of an ordeal, doesn't fit into a box and needs constant dialogue and activities with customers. It is CRM, in its truest sense, with creative ideas sprinkled over it to keep conversations going. If it's not forced, all the better.

Imagine you're trying to drive interest around a video contest. You reach out to the media, buy some ads, send a newsletter to your opt-in list, give a desirable incentive or gift to the winner, make it easy to find and click. This is similar to preparing for a great, big party where your friends invite their friends and those friends invite their friends and so on. But how will you keep in touch with them after the party is finished? Will they remember you?

To build sustainable WOM programs, we need to start thinking about the post-buzz plans. In this example, the video contest can be the start of a conversation or a fun way to keep in touch with the fans. Next generation of WOM campaigns need to incorporate longer-term community building efforts.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Universal McCann Study Brings It Home

I have been pouring over the extensive social media landscape study from our sister agency Universal McCann. The study is in its third wave and has data from 17,000 active Internet users across 29 countries. WOW! The document is like a data geek's candy jar! 

The study shows a ton of interesting developments in social media and raises an equal number of questions as it answers. For instance, 

  • Orkut was created by a Turkish guy in California. How come it's so huge in Brazil? 
  • Do smaller populations have an advantage over larger ones, in terms of adopting new technologies? Is that part of the answer as to why blogging is almost ubiquitous in South Korea and Netherlands takes a leadership role in online video viewing? 
  • What's going on in the Philippines and Hungary? They are ahead of every other country when it comes to creating social network profiles.
  • When is Facebook launching its Turkish version? The country boasts the highest Facebook penetration in Europe and Asia.  
  • We all know great cameras come from Japan and they have a high incidence of smart phones. So, how come the Japanese are the least likely to upload photos to photo sharing sites? Do the Japanese have privacy concerns?
  • And mainly, if the Web is global, how come there are some many country-specific variances among active Internet users?
We need the country experts to interpret some of the data. The Universal McCann study brings forth many connections between culture and technology. The results certainly make one think about how Web trends catch on and skip across borders. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Be Good, Join Social Vibe

Just as I had been thinking about how we can create movements online using social media, I got the daily Online Spin newsletter from MediaPost. Incidentally, Joe Marchese's article was about leveraging utility and reach of social media to do good. The article is a great source of social networks set up by charities and celebrities to raise awareness and funds for worthy causes. 

I agree with Joe wholeheartedly as he writes, "The greatest potential of social media lies in its ability to enable and encourage people to do good." Who wouldn't want to change the world with a click? Ok, maybe it takes more than a few clicks. But if we want to make a contribution to a charity, we no longer have to take out our checkbooks and empty out our coin jars.  We can sign up for a cause and get a brand to make a donation on our behalf. 

That's the premise of Joe's socially conscientious network, Social Vibe. I recently signed up for it. My initial goal was to check it out for this blog post, but I must admit I really got into it. I just entered a username, created a password and started sifting through the charities that were in Social Vibe's catalogue. I could pick from a broad variety, ranging from education, environment and health to arts and culture -- some categories are thinner than others, but that's understandable since they are in beta.  I was asked to pick a charity and then endorse a brand to help pay for the cause. 

The process made me think of my values, what I wanted to stand for and how I wanted to present myself to the Social Vibe community and beyond. Fist I chose One Laptop Per Child, because I believe in education opening doors for disadvantaged children around the world. Laptops and Internet access can be the cohesive force in this process. Next, I looked through a bunch of brands and worried if they would cramp my style. I chose Powerbar to be the sponsor of my cause, not because I eat it regularly, but because I felt the brand had a clean reputation and offered a helpful product. Have I bought Powerbar in the past several years? No. Will I notice Powerbar in the grocery story and think of my cause? Yes. Will I think highly of the brand and recommend it to a friend looking for a snack before or after a rigorous work out? Yes. Because now, Powerbar and I are involved. 

I couldn't leave the site without picking Disaster Relief cause to help people affected by the recent natural disasters. I chose a brand that offered more dollars to match than others. I clipped it thinking I needed to start spreading word of mouth fast, while making as big of a contribution I could through the site. 

You should give this a try... 

Monday, May 19, 2008

Social Media In Times of Crisis

It is impossible to listen to the news without hearing about the tragedies following the earthquake in China and the cyclone in Myanmar. One feels powerless and helpless, faced with the magnitude of suffering -- but surely not as much as those directly affected by the natural disasters. 

Strange enough, I had just been working on a presentation for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) about the use of social media in times of crisis. For the past four years I have been partnering with the crisis communications expert Jim Lukaszewski to do these Webinars where Jim discusses the importance of first response, crisis messaging and use of dark sites and I give examples of how companies and organizations use the Web to respond to crises. Sadly, this year I am not short of disaster response examples. 

I had come up with the idea of looking at the use of social media in times of crisis, following a Katrina-related research project I had worked on with my colleague Moon Kim.  We were struck by the way NOLA bloggers were able to report from the ground while traditional journalists couldn't gain access to some parts of the affected area. 

I've been clipping examples and related research since then, noticing how bloggers are deftly using their writing pads, twitter accounts, call-to-action buttons and other widgets to raise awareness about crises and issues. In fact, I just added the button that will take you to a list of ways you can help victims in China. It is created by Ryan McLaughlin, a prolific expat blogger based in Suzhou. I reached Ryan in two clicks, after looking up the words "China," "earthquake," "blog" on a search engine. This little search is a testament to the connecting power of the Web. 

For those interested in reading more on the topic and reviewing scientific data on how social media outlets can be effective and accurate in reporting crises and discussing the aftermath, I highly recommend papers written by Assistant Professor Leysia Palen and her colleagues from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Their review of Facebook, Wikipedia and forum activities following the Virginia Tech tragedy and California wildfires are intriguing accounts of how social technology can be used to save lives, appease worries and confirm facts. 

There has been some criticism of social media reporters for propelling rumors by making hearsay statements. However, as Palen's research shows, open-source forums are self-corrective. Even if readers come across a questionable statement or factoid, they are in a position to dig further, post questions and get an answer -- fast. 

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Wiggly Wigglers Win The Mousies

Previously, on the Next Fifty Years blog, I had written about Wiggly Wigglers as a social media success. The formidable small gardening business from the UK uses blogging, podcasting, and Facebook in addition to its catalogue and Web site to reach out to gardening aficionados and engage them in conversation. I just got a message in my Facebook account from them saying they won an award at the Mousies with their podcast series.

Here is the link from garden blogger Colleen Vanderlinden.

Kudos to Heather, farmer Phil and other characters of the Wiggly Wigglers podcast series. They are not just selling products. They are promoting a lifestyle. They make us all wish we were gardening in a quaint farm out there somewhere.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

How Can You Pitch A Social Network?

You can't. And you shouldn't. PR professionals are often asked to reach out to online communities and social networks. There is an urge to draft a few paragraphs with all the key messages and call John Smith at the target Web site. But there is no such editorial contact at social networks. The whole point about the social networks is that every site member can be a contact who can hear your story and choose to tell it to their friends and family. The way to engage social network members is through e-CRM (online customer relationship management) and grassroots activism. 

For instance, a company looking to tap into the power of moms' word of mouth can set up shop on a mommy network and begin reaching out to the community by offering them a valuable service. The company can start a branded page or group on the site, but to draw and keep the right audience, they need to offer various activities, compelling content and conversation starters in these areas. Contests with prizes, expert advice, coupons, discussion forums, user-generated video platforms are some of ways to appeal to a social network crowd. 

To sustain momentum around the brand area, companies need to dedicate staff to respond to visitors' queries, lead and participate in conversations. They also need to have a graceful exit strategy, knowing when and how those conversations with the social network audience will reach a meaningful conclusion.

It's not a push strategy. It's not a pitch. It's an ongoing relationship. 

Thursday, May 15, 2008


A couple weekends ago, a friend of mine and I sat at my kitchen table and tried to poke holes in her new business plan. She wanted to start a social network and I offered help since I work in a related field. Her focus were the European professionals living in the US.  She split the site into two on a napkin: "Kindle on this side and mingle on this side, " she said. 

"Take it a notch higher and make it bigger," I replied in a voice that said i-do-many-brainstorms-allow-me. How about a site for expats? Each person becomes an expert for the city they know best or where they live.  A light bulb lit in her head, "You're right, it's so much bigger than just meeting others.  You need to know how to rent a place, where to send children to school before you even move!" she proclaimed. 

I was convinced I had set her on a new course, until I got an invitation to join from another friend who is half Turkish, half Libyan and who has lived in Libya, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Canada, India and the USA. It was the expat idea from the kitchen --though, already established and looking pretty slick with active city ambassadors, a donation line to AFS programs and new profiles being set up from around the world, by the minute. 

Here is InterNations' mission statement:

"InterNations aims to be the leading platform for exchange between internationally-minded and acting individuals. Building upon a strong and open-minded international community, InterNations is  committed to engage charitably and support cross-cultural understanding beyond the scope of its online community. To do so, InterNations and its members take specific actions together with the AFS Intercultural Programs to support less privileged people around the world in gaining access to international education and experience." 

Take a look at the Google Map showing all the InterNations groups around the world. It's quite beautiful. 

I am planning to go to a NY social get-together next week, to meet other members in person. I shall report back.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Online Word of Mouth - Same But Different

I recently read a very interesting report from the reputable word of mouth marketing research firm The Keller Fay Group. The researchers compared online and offline word of mouth on a number of brands from a variety of industries. Keller Fay has long been talking about the sheer difference in the amount of word of mouth activity that takes place offline vs. online. Their consumer surveys indicate that 90 percent of word of mouth takes place offline, leaving 10 percent to the online world. 

I think the world would be a sad place if much of conversation between friends and family took place through computers and few people preferred to meet and talk in person.  But don't think about this statistic to dismiss the value of online word of mouth. According to Keller Fay, what's discussed online vs. offline can be quite dissimilar. Now, that's an a-ha moment. 

In fact, this new report is that it shows there are no consistent similarities between online and offline word of mouth. People sometimes talk about a brand in the same way, whether online or offline. And sometimes the online buzz is quite different than what's shared in person or over the phone. 

Perhaps we should not be so hasty about assuming that what we see online among influencers and outspoken individuals is representative of what everyone else thinks. We are in an information era where we need to interview people offline about what they think, hear and talk about brands. We also need to scour the Web to see if there are any other issues or dominant opinions. 

Which set of consumer attitudes do we believe? Both! While online conversations may be less in volume as compared with in-person conversations, however they stick around longer as search engines catalogue information and make it available through links and cached files. Those who prefer to vent online may have quite different psychographics and demographics than those who would never post their opinions online. Moreover, people can hide behind the anonymity of user names and write in a very direct style online, while they keep their voices low offline--thinking that would be the socially acceptable way. 

I think Keller Fay is onto something, but as often is the case, we need more research based on this research. Is there a significant overlap between online and offline influencers? If you're a leader offline, I would imagine you're likely to lead online but maybe the Web is not the channel of choice for every opinion leader. And those who find their voice online, why wouldn't they speak up offline? What would it take for them to be as vocal in person as in digital space?

What do you think?