Saturday, September 27, 2008

Social Media Demographics to Broaden

If you are a regular reader of Experience: The Blog, you know that I often compare the experience of the Internet era to what we can expect from the upcoming Social Media era. Doing so permits us to foresee what may happen as Social Media becomes more integrated into consumers' lives and into business operations.

One of the most obvious parallels between the introduction of the Internet and the birth of Social Media is the demographic trends. Back in the mid 90s within every company in the country, some version of the following was uttered by a senior executive: "The Internet is for kids and geeks, and our consumers will never be online." The first half of this statement wasn't necessarily wrong at the time, but the second half was quickly disproved as the Internet expanded across all demographic categories.

Today, you can hear much the same dismissal of Social Media. Too many people believe it is primarily for kids. Those people may want to check out a new Entertainment Trends in America study by The NPD Group. They found that 41% of baby boomers have visited social networks, and in the past three months boomers stopped at these sites an average of eight times. This isn't nearly the frequency with which their kids visit Social Media sites, but it is growing.

The problem with falsely stereotyping Social Networkers as kids is that brands can fail to exploit a medium that is growing older and more diverse with each passing month. Doug Akin, evp-brand development at Mr. Youth, notes that "few brands that cater to an older crowd have made a My Space page or a Facebook presence mandatory," which he calls a miscue.

It should be appreciated that, just as people of different ages have come to use the Internet differently, so will tweens' Social Media usage differ from their parents. Jeremiah Owyang, senior analyst at Forrester Research, notes that, "younger consumers want to engage, while older [consumers] are there for information."

Dismissing Social Media as being irrelevant to a brand with an older customer base is dangerous. Social Media is already seeing a broadening of its user demographics, and as occurred with the Internet a decade ago, this trend will continue. Not every demographic will engage Social Media in the same way, but in the years to come every demographic will engage Social Media in some way!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

P&G on Value-Added Marketing

On this blog, most everything we explore is about marketing that creates value for consumers. In a world with increasing consumer control, marketing that interrupts and annoys will continue to lose attention and impact, while marketing that consumers welcome and desire will create lasting brand value.

On Experience: The Blog, we've explored the Experiential Marketing Continuum and how marketing tactics and channels can be unwelcome, welcome, or desired by consumers. Our exploration of this topic is why the following quote, from an interview with Ted McConnell, the interactive innovation director at Procter & Gamble (P&G), caught my eye:
"I'm driven by the idea that, somehow, the $700 billion a year that humans spends on advertising could create a lot of good and achieve its business goals if advertisers focus harder on crafting value rather than messages."


The interview with McConnell on iMedia is interesting and informative. P&G has been exploring innovative strategies in digital and Social Media channels, such as its blog-focused content initiative for Iams. McConnell addresses a digital strategy he thinks may not succeed (unsolicited location-based mobile marketing) and the largest untapped opportunity for interactive marketers (measurement--of course!)

The iMedia interview is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in what market-leader P&G is doing to create more value-added marketing opportunities.

Note: I'm on vacation this week but worked a little ahead to keep the content flowing on this blog. If you comment, I won't be able to read and respond to your message until this weekend.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Social Media and the Job Interview You Don't Know You're Having

When you interview for a job, you leave nothing to chance. You select the right outfit, get it dry cleaned, and show up looking your best. Your resume is printed on the finest of paper stock. You've considered and are prepared for the tough questions you're going to be asked (usually beginning with the phrase, "Tell me about a time when...")

But what about the interview you don't even know you're having? What if right this second, a potential employer is interviewing you and you're not even aware?

If that sounds absurd, then you've not considered what Social Media transparency means to the recruiting and candidate-selection process. We speak a lot about the impact of transparency to brands--that consumers know and share more, creating increased pressure on business to be honest and authentic. But how about when the shoe is on the other foot?

We all tend to be pretty casual in our Social Networks. My profile image on Facebook is of me holding a martini; a quick review of my last 20 Twitter posts show I had two misspellings; and I occasionally mention politics in my Twitter posts--it is election season, after all!

I would never walk into an interview holding a martini glass, share a resume with grammar errors, or talk politics with a hiring manager, so should I do these things in my Social Media interactions? There is no single answer to that; every individual will need to make that decision for themselves. It's easy to overlook, but the fact is our Social Media information isn't just accessible to the people who know us and can put that information into context; it's available to anyone for any purpose, including clients, bosses, coworkers, subordinates, prospects, friends, foes, and potential employers.

Is it "fair" for employers to seek out this information and use it for the purposes of hiring decisions? Before you answer that, ask yourself if it's "fair" that a single Comcast technician falling asleep in a consumer's home has become an embarrassment seen around the world by 1.3 million people on YouTube. As consumers, we are glad for the power and transparency of Social Media, but in the same way Social Media allows consumers to see past the marketing at the real company behind the ads, it also allows potential employers to see past your marketing at the real you behind the resume.

Fair or not, employers are gathering information about candidates from Social Networks. MarketingVox shares the results of a nationwide survey of some 3,100 employers. The study found that 22% of hiring managers say they use social-networking sites to research job candidates, double the amount that said this in 2006.

So, what are they looking for? The number one area of concern, cited by 41 percent of survey participants, were candidates who posted information about their drinking or using drugs. (Perhaps I should replace my martini photo with a more professional image?) A close second concern was candidates posting provocative or inappropriate photographs or information. Other potential employment issues in Social Media include poor communication skills, bad-mouthing a previous company or fellow employees, and discriminatory remarks relating to race, gender, religion, etc. You can even get dinged for the screename you choose!

The information you share on Social Networks can hurt your employability. One-third (34 percent) of hiring managers reported they found content that caused them to dismiss a candidate from consideration. On the other hand, 24 percent of hiring managers who researched job candidates via social-networking sites say they found content that helped to solidify their decision to hire a candidate.

How professional is your Social Media image? Check out the article on MarketingVox and you may soon find yourself polishing your online profile and altering your Social Media behavior.

Note: I'm on vacation this week but worked a little ahead to keep the content flowing on this blog. If you comment, I won't be able to read and respond to your message until this weekend.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Gaming is Increasingly Social

I think it's time we kill that weary stereotype of the "gamer"--a teen boy sitting by himself, interacting with nothing except his joystick and monitor. This may have been true in the early years of computer gaming before improvements in online access and other technology, but the reality of today's games and gamers should encourage us to abandon that mistaken stereotype. It should also grab the attention of all marketers seeking new ways to create engaging, value-added marketing that pulls consumers.

Before exploring the ways in which video gaming has become social, let's first recognize that games have been a social experience for centuries. Take card games as an example; games that can be played by oneself, such as Solitaire, are the exception whereas social games such as Poker, Bridge, Cribbage, Canasta and Pinochle are far more common.

Playing early computer and console games was an isolated experience out of necessity. While some games, such as the classic Pong, were designed for two people to play simultaneously, the limited controller, CPU, and graphics capabilities of early PCs and gaming consoles required that most games be single-player activities or, at best, turn-based games that permit one person at a time to play. In addition, the lack of online access made it impossible for gamers to play one another except in physical proximity.

All of this changed with the Internet. Yahoo Games, which is one of the most popular casual gaming sites on the Internet, has been permitting geographically-dispersed consumers to compete against each other via simple games like poker and backgammon for around ten years.

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) have their roots in pre-Internet mainframes and online services such as Genie, but they exploded to huge audiences in the late 90s with games like Ultima Online and EverQuest. Today, MMOGs such as World of Warcraft can draw subscriber bases of greater than 8 million players.

Gaming has also grown more social in a face-to-face way. Unlike most PC games, consoles such as Playstation and Xbox were designed to facilitate real world competition between players sitting in the same room. The biggest change in face-to-face gaming came in 2006 with the release of the Nintendo Wii; the Wii created a huge wave of social gaming, drawing a far more diverse group of players than had been typical of video games up to that time. The popularity of Nintendo's gaming platform is such that today there are roughly as many Wiis as Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s combined.

With the current state of console games and online gaming, it should come as no surprise that video games are popular. According to a new national survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 97% of kids play video games. This is not shocking, but this next fact may be, particularly if you subscribe to the stereotype of the lonely gamer: Nearly two-thirds play video games to socialize face-to-face with friends and family, while just over a quarter said they play with Internet friends.

The old gamer stereotype has to change in another way: Not only aren't gamers isolated, they also are not overwhelmingly male. Pew says that
99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls are video game players.

Marketers can draw two insights from this new data: The first is that gaming is widely accepted among both genders (and this is true not only of kids but also of adults, as we've noted in the past.) The second is that creating a truly engaging game that draws and keeps attention will increasingly require social features such as head-to-head play, competitive challenges, and in-game chat and communication.

A recent example of an advergame with social hooks is Spicy Town, a simple game of exploration launched by ConAgra's Slim Jim at Players can create their own demented-looking Slim Jim avatars, explore a side-scrolling 2D environment, collect Slim Jim points, challenge other players to combat, and chat with folks who are strolling through the virtual environment. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for the Slim Jim consumer, it provides an engaging game-like experience.

Let us have a moment of silence for the passing of a stereotype. The world is a better place thanks to all those teen boys who valiantly dedicated their lives to the ideal that anyone, regardless of their age, race, and gender, could enjoy gaming as a part of everyday life. Those early adopting males have delivered to marketers a golden gift--a means to capture and hold the attention of consumers with branded games that offer consumers a fun and memorable experience while imprinting a positive brand impression.

Note: I'm on vacation this week but worked a little ahead to keep the content flowing on this blog. If you comment, I won't be able to read and respond to your message until this weekend.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stereotype Social Media Users at Your Brands' Peril

For brands to properly plan for and use Social Media, marketers must not evaluate their consumers' Social Media habits today but foresee those habits a year or two from now. The demographics of Social Media users are already becoming more diverse, as evidenced by recent studies.

Just last week in Social Media Demographics to Broaden, I posted a link to an Entertainment Trends in America study by The NPD Group that found that 41% of baby boomers have visited social networks. The commentary that accompanied the report warned about the risks of dismissing Social Media for older consumers, noting that while much of social media marketing today, "may be targeted to a younger audience... there are more older people who enjoy these services."

Here's more evidence: iMedia features an interview with Technorati CEO Richard Jalichandra in which he notes, "Multiple studies... tell us that blogging is moving from early adopters into the mainstream."

Technorati recently released its 9th State of the Blogosphere report, and Jalichandra notes that 44 percent of bloggers surveyed are parents and 34 percent are female. He adds, "Right now, only 8 percent of survey respondents are more than 55 years old, (but) as the digital generation ages, we'll see a change there as well."

When evaluating the Technorati report on blogging, it's important to remember that while blogs are an important piece of the Social Media pie, they are just one slice of that pie. Still, as the one of the earliest and most widely recognized portions of the Web 2.0 spectrum, blogs provide an interesting barometer with which to measure the direction of all Social Media. Viewed from this perspective, the report contains some other fascinating information. Here are some examples:
  • Many blogs are started and abandoned--Technorati has indexed 133 million blogs since 2002 but just 1.5 million of these were updated in the last seven days...
  • ...but this doesn't mean that blogs are not a pervasive part of people's Internet experience. "Blogs have representation in top-10 web site lists across all key categories, and have become integral to the media ecosystem."
  • Bloggers are interested in sharing their perceptions of brands and products; Four in five bloggers post brand or product reviews, with 37% posting them frequently.
  • If you think that building relationships with bloggers is a new and unique strategy, you'll be surprised to learn that one-third of bloggers have been approached to be brand advocates. Of those, more than six in ten were offered payments of some kind.
  • U.S. bloggers are more diverse than in other countries. 57% of bloggers in the U.S. are male compared to 73% in Europe and Asia.
  • Bloggers are not impoverished students posting from their dorms. 58% of U.S. bloggers are 35 or older compared to 52% in Europe and just 27% in Asia. In addition, 74% of U.S. bloggers are college grads and 51% earn more than $75,000 per year.
  • Want to reach bloggers? Offer relevant content online and start your own blog! Twice as many bloggers look to other blogs compared to TV, print, or outdoor advertising. And bloggers aren't dedicating a lot of time with traditional media; compared to U.S. adults 18 to 49, bloggers spend two-thirds less time watching television and 70% less time with radio. (They do, however, spend slightly more time with magazines and newspapers--which is interesting considering 20% of bloggers don't think newspapers will survive the next 10 years.)
To envision the demographic penetration of microblogs, crowdsourcing, and other cutting edge Social Media tools in 2011, look at how blogs are being used in 2008. You'll find that more and more, the people who maintain and visit blogs look like the general Internet population, and this trend will continue in other Social Media categories in the future.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

UserVoice: Giving Business a Forum for Customers

Every now and then as I surf the Social Web, I come across a new site with an idea so easy to grasp and an offering so intuitively valuable that I have to share it. The site I found, thanks to a recommendation from Marcus, is UserVoice.

A couple days ago on Experience: The Blog, I recommended brands begin to use Social Media tools to engage customers and to conduct consumer research. I noted, "Some brands will create private networks, but you don't need to launch an expensive customer network (a la My Starbucks Idea) in order to listen to consumers."

Turns out I was more right than I knew--not only isn't it expensive to launch a customer feedback network, it can be free! UserVoice is a tool that gives even small businesses the power and ability to launch a robust customer feedback forum with many of the same tools and features found on big brand customer engagement sites such as My Starbucks Idea.

UserVoice offers customization capabilities such as brand logos, privacy settings, the ability to run the forum from your own domain, and moderation controls. Launching a site took me less than three minutes, and my new customer forum was immediately ready for consumer feedback. (I created the site for my spouse's business, You can check out my new forum at

Without any programming and very little configuration, the service allows consumers to suggest new features and offer suggestions. People who visit the feedback forum can review the previously-submitted ideas, add their own comments, and cast votes for the ones they believe are most important. Over time, companies can observe as consensus emerges. As ideas rise to the top, UserVoice provides the ability to update users on the status of their idea--everything from Declined to Planned to Started.

UserVoice also offers some interesting tools for adding widgets to your home site. I haven't had a chance to try these features, but I hope to test drive them in the future.

I was very impressed with UserVoice's ease and interface. If your brand is seeking a way to gather feedback and consensus in an open forum, I'd suggest you visit UserVoice to review their offerings.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Future View of Social Media and How To Prepare Today

Yesterday we explored how the state of today's Social Media tools may be turning off some Social Networkers. I suggested that the future of Social Media cannot be assessed based on today's immature tools but must be viewed in the context of the concepts and tools that will revolutionize personal communication in the years to come.

So what might the future look like? It certainly won't be the jumble of independent, overlapping, and unreliable tools that we have today. Let's imagine a Social Media future and then consider how we might take actions now that will better prepare us for this future.

The year is 2021. You park your flying car and arrive at a street with three unfamiliar restaurants. At which should you dine? Back in 2008, you'd have gambled and selected one based on its name, signage, or appearance; but here in 2012 you've just been fitted with the latest in contact lens displays. Within moments, you are provided with just the information you want because your personal, portable, and essentially invisible computer knows exactly the data to extract and provide for your consideration.

You may care that one restaurant was rated best overall, another was rated most romantic, and the third was rated best for families. Or perhaps you care about service a great deal, so you are provided with past diners' ratings of the waitstaff for the three restaurants. You can even access data from your network of friends to learn which one is rated best by the people you know, and in doing so may discover a couple of friends are presently dining in one of the restaurants. Based on the objective feedback and information culled from others, you can make an informed selection using the criteria you most value.

If this is the prospect we face--Social Media ever present and integrated into consumers' daily lives--how might we prepare today? If it seems too soon to prepare for this Minority Report-like future, consider what you and your organization might have done in 1995 to prepare for the Internet of 2008; what advantages could you have gained and which mistakes might have been avoided?

I believe there are two broad categories of actions that marketers should take now to pave the road to future Social Media success. The first is to execute the traditional best practices that create and strengthen brands. The second is to begin to embrace the new era of Social Media and create relationships by engaging consumers.

Strengthen Your Brand

A strong brand will be perceived better and thus generate more positive Word of Mouth; in addition, stronger brands will be less affected by negative Word of Mouth.

If today your brand is not a strong brand--the kind of brand that people would miss if it were gone tomorrow--you have two choices to prepare for the changes ubiquitous Social Media will bring. You can continue to be one choice among many and constantly struggle to keep up with shifting consumer tastes and competitive offerings. Or you can create a brand to which consumers feel affinity beyond the value of your price, services, and product features.

The following is nothing more than Marketing 101, but it never hurts to consider the power of a strong brand:
  • Build your brand with emotion: Based on the restaurant example, it may be tempting to think that consumer decisions in the future will be based purely on fact and logic, but successful brands have always found a way to appeal to the right brain as much as the left. The growth of Social Media will make it more important than ever to nurture a brand that creates emotional bonds with consumers.

    Last week we revisited the famous story of New Coke. Even though studies conclusively demonstrated consumers preferred the taste of New Coke over the original recipe, people still rebelled against the new product and forced the return of Original Coke. The lesson? Humans are emotional creatures and no matter how much we may wish to believe our decisions are made on fact and logic, the truth is that emotion trumps reason. Social Media will especially threaten those brands that lack an emotional connection and instead compete solely on low price, product features, or execution.

  • Maintain your knowledge of what consumers want: A common problem for brands is marketing myopia; most of us in business consider ourselves experts on our own products and consumers, and we become pretty convinced that we understand what consumers want. Business textbooks are full of examples to the contrary, but the lessons we learned as students are quickly forgotten in a business environment that values decisiveness, fast results, knowledge, and experience.

    Knowing that many organizations do not gather sufficient intelligence from and about consumers, now would be a good time to assess and improve your consumer research. In a hyper-competitive and transparent world, the brand that understands consumer wants and needs will be best suited to meet them.

  • Create a unique position: In our restaurant example, there is room on the street for many restaurants to succeed, provided they serve different needs. One can provide a romantic experience while another may offer the right venue for family dining, but in a future where brands cannot hide from the positive or negative opinions of its customers, there is no room for an establishment that attempts to do both and fails. The key isn't to be the best-rated restaurant on the street (although it doesn't hurt) but to be the best-rated for a certain need state and consumer.

  • Create memorable experiences: For some low-engagement brands, the best experience is simply that the product delivers on its promise every time. For other brands, delivering consistent positive experiences can help create affinity while providing excellent experiences can turn affinity into influence in Social Media.

    Creating a memorable experience can be done in many ways. It might be proactive service offered via Social Networks. Or marketing that doesn't interrupt consumers but instead enhances their lives. Or hiring and training employees who convey the brand and a superior level of service at every touchpoint. Or violating consumer expectations in an unexpected and delightful way. Or, perhaps it is all of the above, because in a transparent world, the experiences you create will either make or break your reputation and your brand.

Engage Consumers in Social Media

Being prepared for the Social future will take more than having a unique position and communicating it in traditional advertising channels. Increasingly, success will also depend upon the engagement you have and create with consumers. We can't know all the ways Social Media will grow and evolve in the coming years, but here are some things you can do today:
  • Monitor Social Media: The importance of maintaining consumer knowledge was noted above, and Social Media provides new ways for brands to gather intelligence. According to, brands such as P&G and Unilever are leveraging the power of Social Media for research purposes.

    Some brands will create private networks, but you don't need to launch an expensive customer network (a la My Starbucks Idea) in order to listen to consumers. Tools such as Twitter search, Technorati Search, and Google Blog Search furnish a means to hear consumer rants and raves right now.

  • Step away from the blog and engage consumers where they are: Blogs are a fine Social Media tactic, but in many ways they aren't that different from typical Web sites--blogs offer content provided by the brand within the brand's own private and branded domain. Consumers will rarely feel able to share their honest feedback within sponsored blogs, and frequently if negative opinions are conveyed these are deleted or omitted by moderators.

    A glance at Brian Solis's brilliant Conversation Prism demonstrates that blogs are just a small portion of the Social Media realm, and as Social Media grows the vast majority of consumer dialog will occur outside of blogs. It isn't too early for brands to be part of social networks (Facebook and MySpace are already popular for marketers) and Microcontent tools (of which Twitter leads the pack) and to begin testing the waters of social documents, pictures, video, service networks, and the like.

  • Communicate the brand internally: Social Media will require more employees to communicate with larger groups of consumers than in the past. Controlling the message and conveying a consistent brand will be very challenging with so many people representing your brand across a variety of channels. Now is the time to make sure those within your organization understand what makes your brand different, the personality it wishes to convey, and the ways its voice can be communicated in Social Media.
Social Media will bring many opportunities and challenges as it evolves in the coming years, but it's never too early to concentrate on marketing fundamentals while testing the ever-changing tactics made possible by Social Media. You could wait to see what happens to Social Media and to your brand, but it might be worthwhile to consider Jeff Bezos. Bezos recognized the changes the Internet was bringing to business and launched his online media store two years before long-established powerhouses Barnes & Noble and Borders. Today, Bezos is worth $4.3 billion while the combined market capitalization of B&N and Borders is less than $2 billion.

Brands don't need to be on the bleeding edge--after all, Bezos wasn't the first to sell books online--but brands that proceed too slowly will be missing opportunities and threats as Social Media becomes more intuitive, more common across consumer groups, and more powerful in shaping consumer perception and actions.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Happy Birthday

It is the first birthday for Social Media Today, one of the most consistently readable and interesting sites about the Social changes that are coming to business. I am honored to be among the bright bloggers who contribute to

If you are unfamiliar with the site, please visit Social Media Today and register. If you enjoy, you'll certainly find the content at Social Media Today relevant and worthwhile.

Is Consumer Interest in Social Media Fading?

eMarketer reports that 36% of social network users say they are losing interest in online social networking. Does this mean Social Media is a fad that will soon fade? To answer that question, we need to explore what it is that is causing those people to lose interest.

Do you believe that consumers are growing tired of having relationships with each other? Are they rejecting their networks of friends and business associates? Are they weary of sharing and hearing opinions on matters such as politics, sports, products and services? Is there no longer interest in competing, collaborating, and sharing with others?

Of course not; Social Media has existed since the beginning of the human experience, and we have constantly adopted and adapted to advancements that permit us to communicate better, build relationships, gather information from others, and extend our influence. Facebook, Twitter, and Scribd are simply the latest in a long line of communication, collaboration, and relationship-building innovations that stretch back millennia, including language itself, the printing press, the telephone, the photocopier, mobile phones, and the Internet.

If consumers are not tiring (nor will they ever tire) of better ways to be social, why are 36% losing interest in Social Media? That's easy, of course: Today's tools are relatively crude, unintuitive, and redundant. Engaging in the Social Media of 2008 requires a commitment--too much monitoring across too many sites for too little benefit.

The problem is evident when you consider that the hottest tools today aren't the Social Media sites themselves but instead are services (such as, Socialthing and hellotxt) that aggregate your content across multiple sites. These tools are necessary because the Social Media environment is too distributed to participate in just one place, and it's difficult to maintain profiles, status, communications, and relationships across multiple sites.

If we agree it is the tools and not the underlying concept of Social Media that is causing consumer fatigue, what does this tell us of the future? The next decade will see an increase in the innovation and investment in Social Media; tools and services will multiply and compete; consumers will gravitate from one tool to the next in search of the Social Media services that best suit their needs and lifestyles; many Social Media startups will fail and merge but some will succeed; as the tools improve, consumer acceptance and adoption will grow, changing Social Media demographics; consumer behavior and expectations will evolve as they embrace this new medium; and all of this will force changes in the way business markets to, sells to, services, and builds relationships with consumers, employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

You don't need to have a crystal ball to see that future; Social Media's prospects are evident by examining the recent past. If you've been involved with the Internet for over a decade, the fact that some people are becoming jaded with Social Media will likely cause a sense of déjà vu. Throughout much of first seven years of the Internet's existence (as a consumer communications medium), there were those who claimed it would soon pass out of vogue; at one point, none other than Bill Gates himself was said to have dismissed the Internet as a passing fad.

By the time the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, consumers were said to be growing "frustrated, cynical and wary." Wired ran a report entitled, "Internet World is Shrinking" (a play on words about the Internet itself and the Internet World conference). In 2001, the growth in Internet usage took a breather, leading to headlines such as "Is The Internet Fad Over?", and the San Jose Mercury News reported, "An assumption once taken for granted -- that an endless number of Americans are going online and getting hooked to the Net -- is faltering these days."

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Internet's demise were greatly exaggerated. While the dot-com crash did cause a temporary pause in the growth of Internet users, ad spending, and investment, it all came roaring back with new innovations including broadband and Internet-enabled mobile phones. Social Media has also been a major part of the Internet's post-bubble growth; sites such as YouTube and Facebook weren't even in the top 10,000 most visited sites in 2005, and today both are in the top ten.

When we see reports such as the one from eMarketer that indicate consumers are growing tired of Social Media, we should take this not so much as a threat but as a challenge to continue to improve the tools. It may help to recall that 13 years ago, when the Internet was first being made available to consumers, it wasn't a very friendly place--text-heavy pages downloading slowly through 56k modems with little interactivity and no rich media. The Internet of 2008 bears little resemblance to the Internet of 1995. Makes you wonder how amazing, engaging, useful, and rich Social Media will be thirteen years from now in 2021, doesn't it?

The future of Social Media cannot be considered from the context of today's immature tools but from the concepts and tools that will revolutionize personal communication in the years to come. Tomorrow on Experience: The Blog we'll consider what Social Media might be like in the year 2021 and consider what this means to us today.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thanks to Buzz Canuck

Word of Mouth Marketing blog Buzz Canuck created a list of the top bloggers from the USA (and a second list of International bloggers) who "speak on the subject of word of mouth, viral, buzz, influence and the engaging brand." I was very honored to be included in the list, which is comprised of many blogs that I read and many bloggers whom I respect a great deal.

Sean Moffitt selected bloggers who have "distinguished themselves by helping visitors understand how ideas spread, online and offline, through a range of different strategies and tactics... Each recognizes the importance of having brands getting noticed, talked about and advocated in a 2.0 world."

The list is a terrific one, comprised of some of the best reading material you can find online on the topic of Social Media. Be sure to visit Buzz Canuck to see his list of top blogs! My thanks to Sean for including!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The RIAA, File Sharing, and Social Media

In the past few weeks, we've explored a number of issues relating to the law and Social Media. In a post entitled "Social Media, the Law, and the Court of Public Opinion," it was noted that "brands must become cognizant that the law provides no refuge from public opinion when graceless legal actions are taken."

Whether the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) actions with respect to file sharers has been graceless or not is perhaps a matter of opinion. One thing seems clear to me, however: The RIAA is attacking the problem as a legal predicament when the root of the issue has everything to do with consumer perception, communication, and marketing.

My viewpoint about music file sharing has tended to be far more sympathetic toward record companies than the vast majority of people. I believe that no amount of hatred of current record distribution systems justifies theft or the reduction of revenue to artists, technicians, producers, recording studios, marketers, and the host of people whose livelihoods rely on music sales.

That said, it is hard not to feel that the RIAA has been clumsy in its use of the law against file sharers. According to Wired, the RIAA's "massive litigation campaign... now includes more than 30,000 lawsuits targeting alleged copyright scofflaws on peer-to-peer networks. The targets include the elderly, students, children and even the dead."

The RIAA has been proven right on this matter in court--in a decision that may yet be reversed--but that hasn't benefited their cause at all. As Wired notes, "Despite the crackdown, billions of copies of copyrighted songs are now changing hands each year on file sharing services. Some are wondering if the campaign has shaped up as an utter failure."

It really should come as no surprise that the RIAA's litigation has had little effect on the problem. Not much has been done by way of communications, and legal approaches aren't likely to be successful in the interconnected and distributed world of Social Media. File sharing is, after all, a form of Social Media--one that can be used for very appropriate or very inappropriate means.

I'm sure the RIAA celebrated after winning their case against Jammie Thomas, but the reaction to this win on blogs and forums and in the media had to have given the organization some pause. Thomas, a Minnesota mother of three, was hit with a $222,000 judgment last year for sharing 24 tracks in her Kazaa folder. The decision in this case was an important legal "win" but probably did more harm than good on the real battleground--the attitudes of consumers. The legal judgment left people feeling sorry for Thomas and perhaps even more frustrated than ever at the music industry. (Despite the ruling, this case is far from concluded--the judge has since admitted a "manifest error" in instructing the jury that merely offering music was infringement.)

There is no question, even among the RIAA's most vocal detractors, that file sharing violates intellectual property protection at some level, so why is this situation so difficult for the music industry? Many argue that the industry must change and that it hasn't adapted to the age of digital music. I can't argue that line of reasoning, but I am not convinced that is ultimately the problem. After all, someone has to be responsible for covering the costs of recording and marketing for upcoming artists. If not record companies, then some other entity will play a similar role, promoting and sponsoring musicians in a way that provides profits to those involved with the creation and distribution of recorded music.

To me the problem is--as it often is--a communications issue. All that money spent on suing college students hasn't convinced people that records companies are important and viable. The RIAA's own actions have, in fact, encouraged the opposite perception: they appear fearful they have no relevance, seem unable to mount a valid case for their own existence, and give the impression they need the law to protect their precarious situation.

More lawsuits won't help the RIAA achieve its goals. Nor will raising the rates for Internet broadcasters: In yet another head-scratching move, the RIAA (through partner SoundExchange) convinced the Copyright Royalty Board to raise rates for broadcasting music over the Internet. This has resulted in more bad PR for the music industry as cherished music sites such as Pandora have announced they cannot make money and will have to shutter. More importantly, it seems to work exactly contrary to the RIAA's goals--should legal music sites disappear, there is no question illegal file sharing will increase.

It's been five years since the RIAA shifted their attention from suing file-sharing services to suing individuals, and I can't help but wonder if their world might not be considerably improved today if they'd opted for a strategy of communications rather than litigation. What if they existed in a world of transparency and consumers understood the value they bring to the table? What if instead of trying to frighten consumers the RIAA instead made it clear why consumers would want to support the efforts of record companies?

As will be learned time and time again, in an age of Social Media--with consumers having more power to communicate, collaborate, and share--winning in the courts but losing in the hearts and minds of consumers will create an unsustainable situation. Suing another 30,000 people will not change the minds of 300 million consumers--at least not the way the RIAA desires. It is well past time for the RIAA to engage consumers so that the purpose and place of record companies may be secured by consumer acceptance and not consumer fear.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Successful Social Media is Placeless

Forrester's Jeremiah Owyang writes one of the best and most informative blogs on Social Media: Several months ago he evaluated the Social Media efforts of major brands and was generous enough to share the criteria he used.

His post, What makes a Successful Marketing Campaign on Social Networks?, is a very informative read. Owyang highlights many important attributes for Social Media success, such as the ability to scale quickly, fostering member interactions, offering a satisfying user experience, and company participation. The list is excellent, but I think there is an attribute missing: Successful Social Media is placeless.

Web 1.0 was largely inseparable from the browser and the PC. The era of the Internet was officially launched with the release of Netscape, and for a decade the most notable advancements were almost entirely browser based, such as Web sites, portals, e-commerce, banner advertising, and search engines. Web 2.0 still uses the browser, but the adoption of Web 2.o will be driven as much by what happens outside the browser as inside, including desktop applications, SMS, mobile applications, voice, passive monitoring, and real world experiences.

For a good example of how Social Media is placeless, just look at Twitter, one of the biggest Web 2.0 success stories to date. According to ReadWriteWeb, around half of Twitter users interact with the service on How do the other half access Twitter?
Thanks to the Twitter API and the ingenuity of developers around the globe, Twitter is everywhere and nowhere. Because of this, Twitter integrates with as many aspects of life as users care to utilize. If all you want to do is Twitter while sitting in front of a PC with a browser open, you can do so; but you may also Tweet a map from the middle of Japan, ask for a menu recommendation while out and about, or share a photo from the slope.

Much of the placelessness of Social Media is being driven by new generations of mobile phones with Web access, GPS, cameras, and other features. Mobile Web use in the U.S. is growing by leaps and bounds; Bango reports that the United States will soon surpass the United Kingdom--where people have been surfing the Web on phones for many years--to become the top mobile Web browsing country in the world.

According to eMarketer, several recent studies are forecasting tremendous growth in Mobile Social Networking: ABI expects 140 million mobile subscribers worldwide by 2013; Juniper Research estimates that the number of mobile social networking users will rise to around 600 million worldwide by 2012; and Pyramid Research expects even greater growth, projecting 950 million mobile social networking users by 2012.

The soon-to-be-ironically-named Web 2.0 will become increasingly less Web based, with tools that permit intuitive control of information flow when and where consumers want that information. But until those tools arrive, brands seeking to make the biggest splash should consider ways to move Social Media out of the Web. Here are a couple of examples:
  • Recipe Site: If your CPG brand launches a site where people can share recipes, why not consider a mobile site where consumers can access those recipes while they shop? Or, how about a feature that permits consumers to select their favorite recipes, enter their cell phone number, and receive an SMS message with a link to their personalized shopping list on a mobile WAP site? Or, why not use a shelf card beside the article that offers mobile access to other consumers' recipes via a texted link?

  • Mall: Here's a perfect idea for a tween-seeking mall: Create a Twitter account and promote the account to young shoppers. Ask them to send an "@" reply to the account whenever they find a great deal. This will permit consumers to share and watch for the best deals while they shop.

  • Event Photo Contest: Sponsoring an event? Invite consumers to post photos live from the event. Create a booth or kiosk where event visitors can see and vote on the photos, then announce the winner at the conclusion of the event. Or, use a panel of judges to pick the best photos and display them to all attendees along with SMS codes they can use to vote for their favorite shot. (You can motivate participation by offering a sweepstakes drawing among everyone who votes.)
Social Media that requires a PC and a browser will continue to be the predominant approach for some time, but it's never too soon to think of ways to use Social Media to make connections wherever consumers find themselves. The more brands can create social experiences or provide value away from consumers' computers, the more consumers will integrate the brands into their lives.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Social Media, Rumors, and Defamation

A week ago, I posted an article entitled Social Media and Brand Control: A Historical Perspective. I received some interesting comments from an anonymous reader who asked what ramifications there might be to spreading false rumors and whether Social Media might be used by companies to spread rumors about competitors. He or she asked:
Do you think there are new avenues now for marketers to competitively position their products against another by starting rumors? Given the ability to spread information in a much faster way, this would seem to be a valuable (and possibly very unethical) method of combating a competitor....but if you can't find or prosecute the source, what is to lose? And, what can the competitor do to provide that "ounce of prevention"?
I think these are interesting questions to explore since the instantaneous and distributed nature of Social Media might make it a tempting target for unethical behavior. The first thing to note is that while the commenter suggested that spreading false rumors about competition was "possibly very unethical," there is no "possibly" about it. Spreading misinformation about competitors is not only unethical but also illegal and potentially very dangerous to both financial health and brand. Here are some past cases and what we can learn from them:

Corona and Luce & Sons
Corporate smearing was a reality well before the advent of Social Media. One of the better known examples is a false rumor that spread widely in the 80s about beer brand Corona; gossip was that Mexican workers urinated into the bottles destined for the United States.

While rumors are hard to trace, Corona succeeded in tracking this one back to Luce & Sons, a Reno distributor of competing import, Heineken. Barton Beers, Corona's US partner, sued Luce & Sons and won an out of court settlement requiring Luce to issue a statement promoting that Corona beer was "free of any contamination."

While it would seem Corona "won" this case, the power of Word of Mouth is demonstrated by the impact this rumor had on the brand. Even after the case was settled, the rumor lived on; it reportedly took Corona $500,000 (in 1990 dollars) in advertising and PR to repair the damage.

Lesson: The Corona/Luce case is a lesson in monitoring Word of Mouth in order to evaluate and execute appropriate action. In many cases, rumors may not be worth the effort and risk of responding, but brands must be vigilant, proactive in their assessments, and ready to respond when necessary. As for the question of whether or not legal recourse is always helpful, let's explore a similar case with McDonald's in the UK.

McDonald's and Environmental Activists
In Britain, McDonald's sued two green activists over criticisms made in leaflets handed out on street corners. The leaflets claimed that McDonald's exploited children in its advertising, were cruel to animals, destroyed rain forests and contributed to Third-World starvation. McDonald's won the case but lost the PR battle.

As noted in the Business Times, the case "tied down McDonald's management," cost the company around £10-million in legal fees, and gave a national stage to accusations that previously had been limited to street corner fliers. In the article, McDonald's execs mount an interesting and persuasive case for why the legal effort was necessary, but as one libel expert puts it, "Even if they were completely successful, in these circumstances there will always be residual sympathy for the little guys. It is very unusual for a company to sue individuals. It is a risky strategy."

Lesson: In cases when false rumors are spread, we can all sympathize with the desire to find who is responsible, prove them wrong, publicly shame them, and make them pay. Unfortunately, this strategy--regardless of the legal merit--isn't always in the best interest of shareholders. What is in the best interest of the brand is to ensure the false rumors don't stick in the minds of consumers.

Almost a century before the Internet, Mark Twain recognized the power of Social Media when he said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." This adage should be framed on the wall of every PR, marketing, and legal resource in corporate America. The problem with pursuing a legal action isn't the cost, or the potential for loss, or the pulpit you might give your detractors; it's that even if you win, your message won't travel as quickly or as widely as the original falsehood.

There is no rule of thumb that can be applied to every case, but as noted in a previous post here on Experience: The Blog, the best defense against false rumors isn't the law; it's communication. If someone says you're destroying the rain forest, tell consumers the many ways you support environmental causes. A battle in court to be proven right may be tempting, but being right doesn't increase sales or stock price; winning the battle for the mind of the consumer is the only battle that matters.

Snapple and the KKK
It is enticing to think that blatantly ridiculous rumors will simply fade away and are best left unanswered. Be aware this approach may be a little too tempting, as Snapple learned.

In the early 90s, rumors began circulating that Snapple was associated with the KKK. Snapple decided not to respond immediately. Leonard Marsh, the company's president, said the rumors were, "so ridiculous we thought they would go away, but they didn't. It reached the point it was getting out of hand and we had to address it." The company eventually launched an ad campaign directly refuting the rumors, and the three co-founders appeared on MTV to get the truth out.

The company took further steps to fight the rumors. The gossip claimed an illustration of a ship on the Snapple label was a slave boat and that a small "K" on the label represented the KKK. Snapple redesigned their bottle to make clear the ship represented the Boston Tea Party and the "K" was enhanced with the words "kosher pareve."

Lesson: Don't be afraid to act, and don't think the only response mechanism is PR and advertising. Remember that the product itself and its packaging might be used to combat misinformation. Snapple came to feel they waited too long to fight the rumors, and their willingness to change the product packaging helped to make the gossipers look ridiculous and erroneous.

Another thing to note about the Snapple incident is that the company's efforts to find the source of the rumors were unsuccessful. This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if locating the source of misinformation might actually encourage the wrong response. Corona found the source, sued, and secured a public statement, but the rumors persisted and forced the company to further action; Snapple couldn't find the source of the rumor and instead took their case directly to consumers through PR and packaging alterations. Perhaps Corona might have been more immediately successful by securing third-party tests of their product and adding an objective seal of purity and quality to their bottles.

American Express and Edmond Safra
Another famous example of corporate smearing dates back to the late 80s. American Express was caught spreading false stories tying rival financier Edmond Safra to money-laundering, organized crime and the Iran-Contra affair. Safra sued, and even though there was a question that some of stories may have been true, American Express felt they were better served avoiding the bad PR and court costs, so they agreed to donate $8-million to charities chosen by Safra.

Lesson: Spreading rumors can easily turn out as bad for the spreader as the target. This is especially important to consider in the age of social media, when employees may independently share rumors or misinformation that reaches a wide audience. With the stakes so high, don't assume your employees know the rules; have a strong ethics policy and make sure it gets communicated.

As noted in Rumors and Rumor Control By Allan J. Kimmel:
Because a company's business partners, such as retail sales personnel, distributors, suppliers, wholesalers, and other organizations must do business with other firms, it is essential to maintain trusting relationships with these intermediaries to establish a positive reputation of the company as fair, ethical, and trustworthy. Attempts to plant rumors about competitors, for example, should be clearly prohibited by corporate ethics code. Not only does a company run the risk that its corporate name will ultimate replace the intended rumor target, but it would service to undermine its relationships with other stakeholders once word gets out about its rumor-planting actions.
There are few best practices for rumor control in Social Media but as past cases demonstrate, there are some tips to keep in mind:
  • A strong brand is the best defense. A brand that consumers trust and in which they feel involved is less likely to face repercussions from misinformation than brands that start in a weaker position in consumer perception.

  • Monitoring your brand in Social Media is vital. Not every rumor demands a response, but every rumor requires your knowledge, assessment, and ongoing observation.

  • Be prepared for response. Don't wait until a crisis has arrived to consider who is responsible or how you'll act. Have a Social Media crisis plan ready that identifies resources and available actions.

  • Fight for the mind of the consumer. Consider that winning in court may provide little or no benefit, so even if your organization will pursue legal options, that should not stop full and immediate attention to communications. Don't rely on the ultimate outcome of a lawsuit for any benefit in your battle against misinformation.

  • Take the fight to the consumer: As discussed on this blog in the past, you cannot fight a wildfire in Social Media by talking to traditional media. PR to big media can be a tactic you pursue, but should only be one tactic among many. Share valid information in the same social media channels that are being used to disseminate the false accusations.

  • Ensure ethical behavior: Remember that Social Media is giving a megaphone to far more people than in the past, including your employees. The next nasty rumor that circulates in your industry may just come from one of your employees, and the ramifications to the organization could be substantial. Have a strong ethics policy and make sure all employees understand it. And involve your stakeholders, including suppliers and customers, in regular and open efforts to evaluate and enforce corporate ethics policies.
As evidenced by the Mark Twain sentiment, rumors and Social Media aren't really new. What is new is the speed and reach of information and interactions. This is why today's Social Media demands attention and care by all organizations.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Zappos and EGM: Employee-Generated Media

One aspect that is too often omitted from Social Media discussions is the increased importance of front-line employees. In the "old days," companies had many employees who spoke one-to-one with customers and very few employees who broadcast information to many customers. The former were folks in expansive Customer Service operations while the latter were in relatively smaller marketing and PR divisions.

But Social Media is changing this dynamic in organizations. If you follow Social Media bloggers, one word you'll see a lot is "transparency." Transparency means many things--such as making business decisions that reflect your brand and behaving ethically in your public dealings--but it also means having employees whose attitudes and communications honestly reflect the organization's brand, personality, and commitment to the customer. I touched on this topic in a past post, Social Media and Your Most Important Customers: Your Employees, in which I stated the following:
With social media demanding more transparency and with the potential for employees to be communicating to larger groups of stakeholders, there has never been a greater need to ensure your employees are your most loyal customers.
These thoughts returned to mind as I was reading a terrific article on, Zappos Shows How Employees Can Be Brand-Builders. Pete Blackshaw explores how Zappos--one of the most visible success stories of the past several years--has used EGM (Employee-Generated Media) to improve consumer perception and loyalty.

Brian Kalma, director of creative services and brand marketing, offers a simple vision that explains both the success of Zappos and the point of differentiation between Zappos and traditional marketing strategy. He describes Zappos' "People Planning" and notes, "We invest the time and money into hiring and nurturing the right people, as many other companies do in their media planning."

Blackshaw asks, "Are employees a de facto ad channel?" and then describes that as a "crude way to frame the question." I don't believe that's crude at all, except perhaps that it is better to think of employees as a marketing or branding channel rather than an ad channel. He goes on to note, "we can't ignore that free, high-impact employee-generated media affects the broader media mix."

The fact that employees are part of the brand experience really shouldn't come as a surprise; after all, how many times have you entered a customer service incident with a high opinion of a brand but left with a considerably lower opinion? How often have you been told via advertising that "we like to see you smile" or "we aren't happy until you are," only to have an employee make it clear that he or she doesn't care whether you smile or are happy?

The difference in the age of Social Media is that we can throw out the old adage that an unhappy customer will tell ten people; today, an unhappy customer can tell 23,000 (as did TechCrunch's Michael Arrington did when his Comcast service was down) or 1.3 million (as a Comcast customer did when a service technician fell asleep in his house).

And it isn't only consumers who have more reach as a result of Social Media; employees do to. Folks like Frank Eliason at Comcast and RichardAtDell are being followed by more than 3,000 people, and this is at a point when the the number of Twitter users numbers less than 3 million (according to TwitDir). How many people will these customer service reps touch when Twitter (or Plurk,, or Pownce) reach 30 million or more?

In the AdAge article, Blackshaw notes there is a significant organizational roadblock to turning employees into brand builders: "
Employee training isn't necessarily within the scope of the CMO, and the HR department isn't necessarily incentivized to think about employees as brand-building billboards." But, as the AdAge article points out, "if conversation is the new gold standard, and employees are consistently at the heart of the conversation, we have a big compelling reason -- and tons of upside -- in rethinking the importance of employee advocacy."

I'd highly recommend a read of Blackshaw's article, and if you'd like some tips from Fullhouse, read the earlier article on employee branding from this blog.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Social Media and Brand Control: A Historical Perspective

Are those of us in Social Media talking too much about a "loss of control" in the Social Media world? And is there an unintended side effect of doing so? Andrew Frank, vice president of research at Gartner, thinks so. In an interview on eMarketer, he notes:
Marketers also need to lose the idea that they have to give up control of brands on the Internet because social media users will do whatever they want with it. It's true that you have less control. But this mantra about giving up control is highly misleading and can actually result in something unintentional... They can end up doing nothing and assuming that it's all good.
Frank may be right, but rather than denying or minimizing the power of the consumer in the era of Social Media, why not recognize that consumers have had this power all along? Smart marketers have always known they share control of the brand with consumers.

Brands do not exist except in the minds of consumers, so in many respects it may be consumers that have more claim to the brand than do the legal brand owners. For example, several years ago, Wal-Mart announced its "boldest effort yet to target upscale shoppers," but a year later a report from their ad agency was leaked criticizing "Wal-Mart's so-far unsuccessful attempt to climb out of the bargain basement;" among the reasons cited for the failure of the upscale strategy was "customers not thinking of (Wal-Mart) for things like fashion." Today, partially in response to their failure to change consumer perception and partly because of the economy, "Wal-Mart has abandoned its 2002-04 strategy of moving upscale and committed to every day prices for bargain conscious consumers."

So, who owned the Wal-Mart brand? The $230 billion company that employs a million people and spends half a billion dollars annually on marketing? Or the tens of millions of consumers who comprise Wal-Mart's customer base? Even before the advent of Social Media, marketers had to work within limits to their brand authority; they couldn't simply make change but instead strove to influence change in consumer perception.

Ten years before the Internet went public and two decades before the term "Social Media" became common, one of the world's largest corporations was brought to its knees by the voice of the consumer. In 1985, Coca-Cola was losing market share to Pepsi and was alarmed by taste tests that revealed consumers preferred Pepsi, so the company went in search of a better product. They believed they found their answer in New Coke.

What follows is one of the great stories of consumer rebellion in marketing history. After some initial acceptance, consumers mutinied. Many in the south--Coca-Cola's historic stronghold--felt that abandoning the traditional recipe was another step toward losing their culture. The company received 400,000 calls and letters; ads for New Coke were booed in sports venues; talk show hosts mocked the new product; a black market in in overseas "old" Coke thrived; public demonstrations featured bottles being emptied into the streets; sales flattened; and bottlers eventually demanded Coca-Cola reverse its decision and reintroduce the traditional Coke recipe.

Coca-Cola didn't stumble blindly into introducing the new product to the marketplace; they actually conducted extensive consumer testing in a secret effort named "Project Kansas." Their tests were conclusive: consumers preferred the taste of New Coke to both Pepsi and Coke. What Coca-Cola--and the rest of the marketing world--learned is that product features are important, but consumers' brand perceptions are even more important. They also learned that it was consumers who really owned brands while marketers are merely trustees responsible for brands' care and management.

The point of revisiting the Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola stories is two-fold: First, brands aren't losing control in new ways. The idea that consumers own a share of the brand isn't unprecedented; nor is the fact that consumers can band together and exert influence on companies. What is new in 2008 is the scale of consumer interaction. Social Media is putting the tools and reach of mass media into the hands of individuals.

Secondly, both stories demonstrate the need for brands to be responsive to consumer wants and wishes. Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola didn't dig in their heels and assume that their legal title to the brand gave them carte blanche to change it any way they wished. Instead, these two companies retained their market positions by recognizing consumer preferences, admitting failure, and responding in a way that acquiesced to their customers' claims on brand ownership.

Brands that fail to respond to shifts in consumer wants and habits will find themselves falling behind brands that listen to and meet those demands. This obvious and unassailable fact is what makes Frank's comment about Social Media inaction so funny and worrisome. He believes the "loss of control" mantra could become so frightening to marketers that they "end up doing nothing and assuming that it's all good."

Neither fear nor ignorance will stop Social Media from impacting consumers and brands. Attempting to deny these changes or grasping at justifications for inaction is like closing your eyes and plugging your ears while standing on a railroad track with a train bearing down. Those actions might briefly give one comfort, but they only make the situation worse.

In the end, if executives find all the talk of "sharing control in Social Media" frightening, they may wish to consider the alternative: "losing control in Social Media." If you care to see what can happen when a company denies and delays the need to change, look at the classic example of book sellers at the birth of the commercial Internet. In July 1995, an upstart company started selling books online, but giant Barnes and Noble didn't see the same value in the Internet, so it took almost two years to follow suit. In May 1997 launched and since that date, B&N's stock price is up 24% while Amazon's is up 4573%.

The cure for Social Media anxiety isn't to have early adopters and consultants tone down the importance, threats, or opportunities. The best cure is to embrace the coming changes and make them work for you rather than against you, because delays and inaction can be very costly.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Combating Rumors in Social Media: Sarah Palin and Babygate

Update: Well, that was quick. By the time I posted this article about rumor control in Social Media, the McCain/Palin campaign had already acted to control the rumor in question. I had hoped we might learn a bit more about rumor response and management in Social Media by monitoring how this high-profile situation developed, but it seems today's announcement that Bristol Palin is pregnant puts an end to the rumors launched by Daily Kos.

As noted in my post, fighting rumors with facts is an obvious way to overcome erroneous gossip, and this is exactly what the Alaskan governor did. In fact, the goal of the announcement was specifically to combat the misinformation; according to the International Herald Tribune, "McCain aides said the announcement about the pregnancy of Palin's daughter, Bristol, was aimed at rebutting Internet rumors that Palin's own youngest son, born in April, was actually the daughter's."

While an hour or two made parts of my original post dated, I hope you'll find the rest of it informative. What follows is my original post about the actions a brand or company may take when lies or errors start spreading in Social Networks.

Original Post: I've often written on this blog about how Social Media imparts consumers with a bit more control and can permit them to shame companies for actions that may fail to live up to their service promises or brand. My examples to date (such as Wal-Mart's Debbie Shank lawsuit and the Comcast sleeping technician) may have been of arguable importance or relevance but were at least factual: Wal-Mart did sue a badly injured employee to recover medical costs and a Comcast technician did fall asleep in a consumer's home.

But what about false rumors? What can a brand do when incorrect news is disseminated through social networks? We'll get some insight into this by observing the Republican response to rumors about VP candidate Sarah Palin and a situation some are calling "Babygate."

(Note: I don't know whether the Palin rumors are true or false, but they strike me as highly improbable. Rather than get into politics, I'd prefer to approach this case-study-in-the-making from the standpoint of a marketer monitoring unique situations in the early days of Social Media and learning from others' experiences. My goal isn't to promote either the rumors or the response but to suggest that this high-profile situation provides an opportunity for knowledge and insight.)

Since I am largely uninterested in the rumors themselves, I won't delve into them other than to say a liberal blogger, DailyKos, has compiled hints and gossip that he believes suggests Sarah Palin's youngest child is really her daughter's child. The litany of innuendo includes photos of Sarah Palin during the pregnancy, photos of her daughter Bristol (who the blogger claims is the real mother), and details about Sarah's flight from Dallas to Alaska after her water broke.

In our highly charged political environment, it is probably no surprise that this rumor started spreading. First shared on DailyKos on August 30th, the tale traveled quickly. Two days later (during a long holiday weekend and with news media focused on a major storm bearing down on the Gulf coast), Google reported almost 12,000 hits for the search term "Palin Babygate." As of Monday morning, roughly one-quarter of the Tweets and three of the top four Digged links containing "Sarah Palin" were focused on the baby rumors. Over on YouTube, videos are starting to appear, including one that has been viewed over 22,000 times in the first 24 hours following its upload. No mainstream media has yet reported on the gossip, but you'd expect there's a rush to either confirm or deny the stories at this time.

So, what should the Republican party do? "Lawyering up" is not out of the question, but intimidation is rarely a very good idea nor is it typically successful within Social Media. A cease and desist letter may put the fear of financial repercussions into the hearts of some bloggers, but in the widely distributed world of Social Media, once a rumor is released into the wild, it is impossible to contain. Plus, unleashing the lawyers will upset and anger friends and invigorate most foes.

The best defense against false rumors isn't the law; it's communication. Getting the word out--and getting it out fast--is key. While best practices aren't yet established in the Social Media world, here are some tips for rumor control online:
  • Wait until you're sure the rumors will be spread widely and are important: Don't wait until the falsehood is well known; take action it when it becomes evident the gossip will travel widely. Knowing when to wait versus when you've waited too long to respond is more art than science. If you act too soon, you can help spread the rumor and inadvertently give it credence. Act too slow, and you can lose the chance to get the truth to people. (Remember that bad news and innuendo will travel quicker than good news and truth.)

  • Don't respond (directly) when rumors are unimportant: For rumors that won't have a significant impact on brand perception but are still bothersome, it may be best to do nothing other than to seek positive associations. Rather than roll out the big guns to combat the negative gossip, you can overcome negative Word of Mouth with a strategy to inundate the bad news with good. Carefully selecting the right message--one that reflects the spreading gossip--and broadcasting that message can permit you to fight the rumors without directly addressing them. This is a tempting approach because it allows the brand to stay above the fray, but it cannot be successful in the face of consequential bad publicity spreading like wildfire through Social Networks.

  • Use the same channels: You should certainly work traditional PR channels to prevent lies from spreading, but don't be lured into thinking rumors can be suppressed merely because you prevent established news media from reporting. The interconnectivity of consumers is too great to rely on traditional PR crisis management; instead, use the same channels in which the rumors are being communicated. If YouTube videos are spreading deceptions, then get a video response on YouTube as quickly as possible. If a Facebook group is being used to disseminate misinformation, get the facts posted in the group (and then contact Facebook to remove the group.)

  • Solicit support from your network: Fighting rumors should not be a solo effort. Don't be afraid to recruit people in your network to assist. Arm them with the talking points and facts, let them know about your shared interests, and request their assistance to get the word out. Don't tell them what to do, but be sure they are made aware of the importance of broadcasting the truth and responding to misinformation.

  • Tailor your attitude for the channel: When faced with dishonesty or mistakes, it is hard to contain righteousness and indignation, but this is probably not the best attitude. In press releases, you should leave no question as to your commitment to fight the rumors, but anger and frustration have no place. When reaching out to friendly bloggers, treat them as independent allies and not as cogs in your PR machine. And when reaching out to combative bloggers, a mild approach is recommended: inform them they are wrong, offer the facts, state the actions you'd like them to take, and--without threatening--end by expressing the hope you can secure their commitment without additional recourse.

  • Use facts to fight falsehood: It goes without saying the best defense is a good offense. If you possess facts that prove the gossip is objectively incorrect, get that information out in every channel. Since rumors tend to get stripped of detail when passed from one person to the next, using facts allows you to fill the gaps in people's understanding. Links to objective third-party sources will be worth more than links to your own Web site.

  • Advertise: Advertising has traditionally been thought of as a means to fight only the most threatening of rumors, but online this tactic makes sense in just about every case. For example, search engine advertising provides an excellent and instantaneous channel to reach people as they are searching for information about a scandal. Your contextual ads can appear above and beside any search engine results containing lies and mistakes.

  • Launch a site: For very damaging rumors, launch a Web site with content singularly focused on changing the minds of visitors. With a careful link-building strategy that includes links from official brand and company sites and from friendly blogs and social networks, your site can attain great organic search engine relevance which can help increase traffic and disseminate appropriate information.

  • Watch for errors and lies on objective sites: Monitor your Wikipedia entry and other publicly-maintained sites to make sure information remains accurate. Remember that your actions may speak louder than your information; deleting an uncomplimentary reference on Wikipedia may appear overly defensive and could be viewed as censorship. In some cases, it may be best to edit such entries to tell your story rather than delete it and turn your actions into additional grist for the rumor mill.

  • But if there is any truth to the rumors... It is very important that if there is so much as a shred of truth to the rumors, this can and should have a profound impact on your response. Admitting which portion of the rumors are accurate is vitally important, since consumers who learn this themselves at a later date will be left with a lot less trust in you and your brand. If significant portions of the rumor are both truthful and not, lead with an apology, briefly explain but not excuse the situation, then move on to addressing the incorrect portions of the rumors.

So, how is the GOP doing in fighting the Palin rumors? As of now, they seem to be pursuing the "ignore it and it will go away" strategy. Perhaps they believe the Palin gossip will die by itself or that it is unimportant. The GOP may hope news from their convention will simply swamp the "Babygate" rumors. (This would be an example of allowing positive associations to combat the negative rumors, as noted above.)

In an election year and with the broad reach of negative gossip on blogs, I'd suggest a more proactive course of action. The McCain campaign could end up playing defense later because they didn't get assertive quickly, but time will tell. As of now, Palin's page on the McCain site contains only her official comments after being selected for the VP slot, and the McCain news page has not been updated in three days.

Interestingly, it appears the McCain campaign is using Google Adwords to try to fight the gossip. The following ad appears when one searches for "Sarah Palin" on Google:

Sarah Palin Rumors?

Get The Facts on Governor Sarah
Palin. John McCain's VP Choice!
The fact the link takes Web surfers to a page with no rumor control or information may be a mistake, since those who click on such an ad are obviously seeking something the McCain site is not providing. They could end up with the worst of all worlds: They'll pay for clicks that won't provide benefits while giving some credibility to the rumors; after all, the campaign is sufficiently aware of the rumors to buy an ad that references them, but the site gives the impression McCain and Palin are unable to fight the rumors with facts. Of course, with all this occurring over a holiday weekend and on the eve of the GOP convention, it could be that more substantial PR management is planned for early in the week.

Observing how this situation shapes up in the coming weeks will provide some key lessons for those of us tracking the changing Social Media landscape. This could become an excellent case study for how to combat lies and misinformation in Social Media--one way or the other.