The end of social

I dislike predictions. But I’m going to make one… there will be no more big social networks. We’ve reached, and passed, a tipping point.

Why?

Because they’re all being strangled at birth by over-eager PR and marketing people, who – for all their impressive-sounding job titles and amazeballs CVs – seem to have completely forgotten all the basics of social.

Twitter and Facebook dominate the social landscape for most of us*. Similarly, they dominate the marketing spend of those brands that advertise on social media.

There’s a clear cause-and-effect thing going on here … first came the platform, then came millions of regular users, then (and only then) came the marketing and PR people.

That’s the way it works. The logic is pretty robust and if you felt like it, you could template it and see that it applies in many other walks of life.

Something has been lost, or forgotten, though.

Because now, when a new social platform launches, before most people have even created an account or downloaded an app there’s a slew of ill-conceived blog pieces and articles from marcomms people all treading the same tired old ground … ‘what brands should do on X…’

Almost none of them say “what brands should do is back off for a while, see if this thing gathers momentum, whether or not people will naturally gravitate to it, and if so what their behaviour can tell us about how we should use this platform – if at all.”

David Meyer wrote a piece on Gigaom which hits the nail on the head as far as the recent launch of Jelly was concerned… “Goodbye for now, Jelly – it’s not you it’s the marketers.”

And he’s right!

I’ve been an active and enthusiastic user of social media since before that term became common parlance – dig around in the archives of the Scotsman and the FT and you might even find me quoted in articles as far back as 2006 on how businesses could use social media for research and recruitment.

But it pains me when I see people in my sphere of work forever caught up in the Emperor’s new clothes outlook.

It really wouldn’t kill any of you to slow down a little, ask a few questions, be intellectually curious and maybe even a little sceptical.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, if we choose to ignore the old recipe for success, which turned the likes of Facebook and Twitter into the enormous beasts they are, we’re doing ourselves and our clients a disservice and we’ll eventually be over-taken by events – or smarter thinkers.

Your clients are – or should be – paying you for your consultancy. So be a consultant. If they just wanted to spend time in the company of someone to jump up and down on the spot shrieking excitedly, they’d get a job at a soft-play centre.

 

* – Europe, North America, the Antipodes, etc… ‘the West’ as it’s sometimes called.

Don’t get engaged … be engaging

The word engage has been taken hostage by the social media marketing community, and I am probably as guilty as the digital comms person of bandying that word around just a little too much.

I’ve written countless blog pieces, opinion articles and PR plans in which I extol the virtues of a three-step plan to social media nirvana .. listen, analyse and engage.

When you were a child did you ever say a word over and over and over again until it sounded like meaningless nonsense? I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only one to do that. But if you’ve never done it, give it a try.

So it is with words that get hijacked – they can begin to lose their meaning.

I was reflecting on this in the wake of Facebook’s most recent set of changes, which are designed to give users of the service more control over what shows up in their News Feed. At the moment the News Feed is an all-in-one repository, but users will soon be able to filter different types of content into separate feeds. A little like the way you might sort your emails into folders.

There are two points of interest for businesses using Facebook as part of their marketing mix. The first is that from now on they will be able to use bigger images and video in the advertisements they place in the Facebook News Feed.

The second is that their potential audience has now been given the tools to automatically siphon advertising into a separate feed which they can ignore completely for as long as they like.

Which brings us back to the E-word.

Brands have been trying hard to engage with people via social media for years. Facebook just shifted the goalposts.

Want to be seen, listened to, remembered for your Facebook marketing? Well, you’ll have to be that much more interesting, memorable and shareable.

It’s not a revolutionary concept. But if it stems the flow of lazy thinking that lurks behind too many companies’ attitudes toward social media marketing, that’s not a bad thing.

Stop trying to have a conversation with me about the things that matter most to you but least to me. Instead, show me something that holds my attention, that reflects well on you without your products being the hero of the hour, and which makes me want to spend my money with you rather than your competitors.

Be engaging.

Facebook, gay marriage and management incompetence

On Friday 16 November the High Court, in London, found in favour of 55 year old Adrian Smith who had been demoted at work and had his salary reduced by 40% because he had posted a Facebook status update in which he said opening up marriage to gay couples was an equality too far.

The Court ruled Smith’s employer – Trafford Housing Trust – was in breach of contract and shouldn’t have behaved the way it had. I think any right-minded person would agree that whether you share Smith’s opinion or not, he has the right to express his opinions – he wasn’t inciting violence, he wasn’t being abusive, he hadn’t posted while at work and his status update was visible only to his Facebook friends.

The chief executive of Trafford Housing Trust, Matthew Gardiner, made a number of statements, one of which is utterly ludicrous.

“This case has highlighted the challenges that businesses face with the increased use of social media and we have reviewed our documentation and procedures to avoid a similar situation arising in the future.”

No, Mr Gardiner, it has not highlighted the challenges of coping with social media. It has highlighted that somewhere within Trafford Housing Trust an idiot made a bad management decision and broke the law.

This case has nothing to do with Facebook and everything to do with poor management within an organisation. Finding something else to blame, something external, just demonstrates the extent to which poor management decisions are still being made.

What sort of person thinks it can ever be ok to demote someone and cut their pay by almost half? A stupid one..? An arrogant one..? Who knows. But to suggest that when faced with the complexities of how you cope with staff using social media one of the options open to you is to flout their employment rights beggars belief.

It’s a great idea to have a social media in place so that employees know what’s expected of them when posting comments online, you can even use such a document to offer advice and guidance.

It’s an even better idea to remember that when mistakes are made, and everyone makes them occasionally, pointing the finger of blame at some bogeyman or other is a sign of weakness and incompetence.

The Daily Mail wrote the story up big. You can read it here.

The time is running out for vanity metrics

Social media has come a long way. You can tell this by its ubiquity.

Back in the late 1990s when I was a tech journalist, I interviewed the MD of Acer UK, an Australian chap called Dion Weisler. He was a great interview subject, quickly setting the tone for a relaxed and informative conversation, peppered with tales of swimming training (he swam in the Australian Olympic team). These days he’s running HP in Asia Pacific & Japan.

One of the last questions I asked him that day was about the internet. Back then there was a lot of talk about the internet and what it might or might not do. When, I asked, would the internet become something businesses could rely upon and use productively.

“When people stop thinking about it,” came the answer. My blank look must have prompted further explanation – “when it’s a utility, like the phone, you just take it for granted and use it,” he said.

That conversation took place almost 15 years ago; it’s funny how some things stick in your head. Well, in my head.

We’re not quite there with social media, but stone me if it isn’t just about everywhere these days. And almost simultaneously the world has gone stats and data mad.

It strikes me as somewhat ironic that we have the ability to measure so much, yet so many businesses and social media acolytes are failing, day in day out, to actually measure anything of value.

How many likes you have, how many people follow you on Twitter, how many retweets you get… these remain the Dollars and Cents, the Pounds and the Pence of how the bulk of the digital comms world accounts for itself.

And yet these numbers are at best valueless, and at worst completely pointless. The only purpose they serve is to allow you to show off about how seemingly popular you are.

Sooner or later, this has to stop.

So why not make it sooner?

These vanity metrics might make the less enlightened look, and feel, productive, relative and validated. They might even cut it with mid-level marketing managers who are being judged against a fairly unimaginative set of criteria. But they are no indication of anything transactional ever having taken place. Nor whether anything ever will.

Sadly, once those mid-level marketing managers’ quarterly reports go further up the chain of command, any detail there was starts to become diluted. Similarly, the likelihood of finding many people sitting on the board with an instinctive feeling for digital communications becomes a remote one.

Which is great if way back down at the agency coalface you haven’t actually got a clue about how you’re going to help your client sell any more of those things they sell in order to make the money that eventually trickles down and pays your miserable wages.

If no one’s ever really pushed back and challenged you on why they ought to be forking over great wads of cash in order for you to increase the number of likes their Facebook page gets, I’ve got news for you – they will eventually.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon… as the line in the movie Casablanca goes.

A lot of money has been spent on social media marketing. The number of social media marketing case studies with actual demonstrable ROI doesn’t reflect that.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t intend to be one of those who can’t answer the ‘show me the money’ question once the board-level execs finally start to question whether digital communications activities are worth the paper they’re written on.

If the things you measure are lacking in business value, you need to start measuring something else. It could be web traffic or sales leads, who knows… just make it something that your client’s business can relate to.

See also:

Why it’s time to stop counting your retweets

 

Why it’s time to stop counting your retweets

How easy would it be to write a post ridiculing the practice of assessing the success and relevance of your social media activity by counting the number of retweets, likes, followers or fans you have?

I think we all know it would be quite easy.

How much value would there be in my doing that?  Well, about as much value as there is in assessing the success and relevance of your social media activity by counting the number of retweets, likes, followers or fans you have.

Did you see what I did there?

I read a blog post today in which someone said they’d tweeted something about the Uberdaddy of record-breaking sky-diving, Felix Baumgartner. That tweet was then retweeted more than 5,000 times, reaching more than 140,000 people’s streams.

Woah..! Big numbers.

Big so what, too.

In an exchange on Twitter with a social marketer at one of the world’s premier sports brands, I recently said something that went a little bit like this:

Measuring your online relevance simply by counting how many retweets you get is a bit like driving all the way to the supermarket at the weekend, not actually going in to buy anything, but still considering it to have been a trip to the supermarket.

Technically, that’s a trip to the supermarket.

You don’t have anything to eat though.

One point I (try) to make to the brands I speak to about how they measure social success – and more importantly how they should measure social success – is that surely it has to be better for their business to find 50 people they know are spending money with them than to have 50,000 Facebook likes from people who probably aren’t.

That’s me all over though… I state the obvious.

Social media. Digital communications. Where did it all go wrong? We let it fall under the spell of people with no real experience of what it takes to create genuine interest and actionable desire.

Affecting a sustainable change in people’s perceptions and behaviour is not as hard as it might seem. As for measuring those changes, well OK that is a little bit hard. But it’s not impossible and it gets a good deal easier when you know what it is you’re trying to measure and why.

A former business contact of mine got a job last year as a “social media coordinator.”  I posited that one day, maybe in three-to-five years, there wouldn’t be anyone with the word social in their job title.  It’s all just media.

We need to stop dressing it all up as something it isn’t and get back to the business of crafting great narrative, building compelling brand stories, and measuring the things that really matter.

 

What the Olympic sponsors could learn from Beckham and Adidas

Adidas pulled off a fantastic PR stunt yesterday at the Westfield Stratford shopping centre (that’s ‘mall’ to my colonial friends).
They installed a photobooth and encouraged people to step inside, whereupon… from the O to the M to golden-balls G – there’s David Beckham waiting for them.
Brilliant work. Inspired. You want warm and fuzzy brand association – there you are. You want to be seen as well connected – help yourself. You want people to think your brand is cool – you got it.
So how come the other big ticket sponsor brands haven’t also done something interesting, different, entertaining..?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not for one minute suggesting that anyone in their right mind would want to see Ronald McDonald emerging from the darkness and coming toward them, least of all while they’re in a confined space.
Yet, unless I’ve missed something, there appears to be a dearth of other Olympi-brands dusting off their creative mojos and winning the hearts and minds of the public.
There’s really no excuse in 2012 – it would be as cheap as chips (which you can only buy from McDonalds, unless they are served with fish as part of an authentic fish ‘n’ chips experience) to knock out a whole rash of Facebook competitions and games, or do some cool London stuff via Foursquare, maybe linked to previous London Olympics.  Plus all the big brands have so much corporate sponsorship going on that they have more than enough potential strings to pull for a spot of A-list celebrity endorsement action.
  
Something. Anything. Anyone..?
It really wouldn’t be hard for these big brands to create campaigns or one-off stunts that demonstrate they’ve actually been listening to their customers through all the Facebook groups etc they have.
It makes me wonder what the point of it all is (having a brand presence on Facebook, I mean) if you can’t then take everything you’ve learned about interacting with your customers via a meaningful two-way dialogue and put it to good use throughout all your PR, advertising, marketing and comms activities.

I think that might be worth setting aside for another post.


Footnote: list of the London 2012 Olympic sponsors, partners and supporters here.

Social media has not evolved

Any discussion of the evolution of social media misses the point. It’s the evolution of the user that has been the biggest change in the last three years.

First it was “what is the point?”

Now it’s “we must find the point!”

That’s not a technology thing. That’s people realising the potential that (some but not all) social media platforms have and trying to be among the first to exploit that potential.

The change was slow at first. As is often the case.

Googleplus was the first major new platform that had brand managers and marketers rushing around frantically. Each time Facebook makes a change you see the same thing.  That’s to say, I don’t remember the same amount of marcoms clamour around Quora.

But it’s happening with new kids on the social block now in a way that didn’t happen before.

Pinterest and Percolate are two such examples.

Yes, there are people asking “what *is* the point?” of these platforms.  But increasingly there are people investigating their potential use in a brand advocacy manner.

I don’t want you but I need you

Smokey Robinson said it best when he sang I don’t want you but I need you.
As one of the most gifted song-writers in the popular music genre, this observation of what it’s like to be in love with someone you know is bad for you is beautifully crafted.
It also kinda sums up most people’s relationship status with Facebook.
I can’t think of an example of another organisation with such a vast following of people who are so quick to voice their dislike of the service.
And therein lies Facebook’s problem. Timelines and profile tweaks aside, it needs to do something about the toxic relationship it has with its users, many of whom are only sticking around because their friends are too.
It’s like a massive Mexican stand-offIf the day ever comes when enough people finally walk away from Facebook it could start a craze.
So far there hasn’t been a viable alternative to lure people away. For all the fuss, hype and expectation, GooglePlus won’t do it.  And there simply isn’t anyone else with the size and reach to be a realistic threat to Facebook.
That’s not much of a business model though, is it? Our customers are stuck with us and we are stuck with the fact they don’t like us.
If I was gambling man, I’d be looking at Renren as a possible longer-term Facebook rival. But that’s probably a topic for another day.
In the meantime, Facebook has to do something to stem the tide of discontent and griping.
Will Timeline be enough to do this?
No, of course not. But if it forms part of a coherent strategy to start putting people at the heart of the Facebook experience, giving them something to like – in the real sense of the word, not a silly fake Facebook like – then maybe it could be on to something.
Now, why not treat yourself to Smokey Robinson & The Miracles singing You Really Got a Hold on Me – the video and audio quality isn’t the best, but it’s worth it. Your soul will thank you.

Democracy, disintermediation & dining out at the all-day information buffet

Remember when you watched the TV news in the evening to hear about important stuff for the first time?

Remember when you read a newspaper in the morning so that you would feel informed of the weighty matters of the day?

I’ll bet neither of those things has happened to you for a while.

In pretty much every aspect of modern life, not just when it comes to the news, relationships between the public and the various providers of services and information have changed irrevocably.

You can call it disintermediation.

You can call it the democratisation of the means of publishing.

You can talk about citizen journalists if you really feel you need to.

But those of us who have regular contact with the internet no longer get our news in the old-school manner. Instead we use our RSS subscriptions, lists on twitter, messages via Facebook and other social media platforms and news websites to get our daily feed of news.

And we graze. A lot.

We take a mouthful of twitter-gossip, a bite of bloggetry, and chew on the wares of our favourite news sites. From this we get our fill of news.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a very important role for broadcast news and newspapers. But they’re rarely the first place you get to hear about something.

A growing number of people create content as well as consume it – blogs and tweets are some of the most obvious mechanisms for so doing, but there are others.

Ordinary people, for want of a less pejorative way of putting it, are now right in the centre of the flow of news and information, and are no longer reliant upon the traditional methods of staying informed. This is a trend (dare I even say phenomenon) that can be witnessed elsewhere.

How often does seeing one advertisement inspire you to go out and buy the product concerned?

Not often I imagine.

Would you buy something because a brand you like (or even “like”) is on Facebook? Again, probably not just off the back of that one thing, I expect.

Tweets, likes, reviews on blogs as well as in magazines (and their online variants), personal recommendations and so on, all go toward helping us make what we feel are informed choices about the goods and services we buy, and the ones we avoid. A lot of that information doesn’t come from what might be considered traditional sources, but is user-generated in the main.

Mobile phone companies are experiencing something similar. Do you feel much allegiance to your network provider? Despite statistics I’ve seen from research done by one of my clients (which indicates that two-thirds of us have been on the same network for at least three years) the likes of O2 and Vodafone can only dream of enjoying the kind of brand-kudos many of the handset makers revel in – Apple, BlackBerry, SonyEricsson for example.

It doesn’t stop there. The growing use of data-based services on smartphones, some of which will let you make VoIP calls (via 3G or wi-fi) effectively bypassing the carrier’s voice network completely, is another headache. People don’t get excited about the network they’re on – unless it stops working. The network has been usurped in people’s hearts by the app makers and handset manufacturers.

The common thread in all of this is that the old order is no more.

If your job involves managing customer relationships, or sales, or marketing, you ignore this at your peril.

If customers don’t see any perceived value in dealing with you they will simply ignore you and direct their attention to those people and organisations they feel an affinity for.

The challenge then is how to be valued in what is an undeniably information-rich world where there is no shortage of voices clamouring to be listened to.

You need to be present wherever your customers may be – and in every format they will be coming into contact with. You need to present a human face and treat people with the same respect that you would like to be treated with yourself.

Ultimately you want to be trusted and believable.

And it’s not rocket science, which makes it all the more noticeable when brands get it wrong.