Sunday, February 20, 2011

Social Media Influencers are Overrated

Much digital ink and marketer money is dedicated to influencers in social media. Find a few people with the most "influence," get them to talk about your product, and a flood of riches will come your way--or so goes the logic.

But are influencers actually influential? I'm not talking about the influence that exists between people who have close real-world relationships.  People trust the people they know personally; that sort of influence always has been meaningful and is no different in the social media era. A friend's, coworker's or family member's recommendation of a product or service matters, whether the medium is a Facebook status update or a chat over a beer.

But are people with substantial numbers of loose relationships really able to influence the attitudes and behaviors of many others? Many social media professionals take as a matter of faith that so-called "key influencers" are vital, but it isn't the influence amassed by the few but instead the influence of the masses that holds the greatest value.

The idea that leading "key influencers" aren't that influential isn't really a new idea. Two years ago, Hubspot told tech companies to "stop begging TechCrunch to write about you." The blog post noted that TechCrunch was (and still is) the second most popular blog on the web (although it seems odd to call TechCrunch, Huffington Post and Mashable blogs rather than media sites at this point.)  HubSpot provided data that demonstrated having TechCrunch write about them delivered traffic but almost no customers; meanwhile HubSpot's experience with mentions in MarketingProfs was exactly the opposite--less traffic; more customers.

Think about Twitter. @TechCrunch has 1.5 million followers, but a single tweet from TechCrunch is ephemeral, unseen by most followers as it scrolls off users' tweetstreams within seconds. To really make an impact on Twitter, an idea or brand needs thousands or millions of people tweeting; that's what causes an idea or brand to be seen by more people and become a more visible and lasting trending topic. Sure, it helps if someone with a million followers joins and retweets a cause or campaign, but that single tweet isn't the difference between success and failure on Twitter.

Or look at Facebook and the power of the news feed.  Most Facebook users recognize that their home page news feed (or "Top News") doesn't reflect the pure flow of status updates from friends. (For that, you need to click "Most Recent" at the top of the home page.) Facebook determines what does and does not appear in your news feed based on the actions of friends.  It isn't the influence of the friends who comment on a post that causes it to surface in your Facebook news feed, but instead the number of your friends who comment that causes it to appear. In other words, two of your friends commenting on a post is more important on Facebook than TechCrunch doing so.

The influence of key influencers is overstated and the influence of the masses is too easily overlooked. The key to success for brands isn't to get a couple key bloggers and Twitterers talking--if it was, Robert Scoble would already have single-handedly made Quora a mainstream site. Instead, the key to unlocking influence is to get the masses talking, which is a much more difficult challenge.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day, Love and Social Media: Show It, Don't Say It

It's Valentine's Day, and #happyvalentinesday is a trending topic on Twitter. That got me to considering what is the best way to bring love into social media.  Is it really to tweet how much you love someone?  I'm lucky enough to have found a woman who will put up with me through almost 27 years of marriage (and counting!), and I don't really see how our bond would be strengthened if I publicized my love in 140 characters.

I tend to think that people who need to profess their love via social media are not much different than those who make obvious and awkward PDAs (Public Displays of Affection) in the real world.  It's been my observation that the people with the strongest bonds are not those who noisily advertise their infatuation by constantly hanging on each other but the ones who subtly demonstrate their love by holding hands and exchanging glances. This is no different in social channels than in the real world. 

Don't get me wrong, there's definitely a place for love in Twitter, but I don't think it's broadcasting how much you cherish a person.  After all, the key to success in business in social media isn't announcing how great you or your products are but instead demonstrating it.  And in the same way, I think love in social media is best demonstrated rather than proclaimed.

In social media, it is too easy to overlook that the actions that matter should take time, care and attention. Programming an automatic Direct Message to every new Twitter follower thanking them is not a genuine expression of gratitude akin to an individualized, customized and caring note of thanks. And taking a moment to tweet "I love you" to someone is not the same as demonstrating your affection and commitment day in and day out.  

The most romantic couples I know in social media aren't the ones boring everyone else with tweeted expressions of adoration but those who support each other.  For example, two friends of mine, Tom (@triveraguy) and Marjie Snyder (@trivergirl) are both avid tweeters.  They retweet each other, comment on the same news, check in together on Foursquare and do a host of things that demonstrate the solidness of their relationship.  They use social media to be transparent in their affection for each other without resorting to "I love you" tweets back and forth. 

To me, that's the key to love in social media--not stating it but being authentic and transparent in love's expression.  I love my wife and I love social media, and I hope you know this because of the things I post to Twitter and Facebook and not because I said so!

Friday, February 11, 2011

USAA: Why I Joined and What I'll Be Doing

As many of you know, I am leaving Forrester in the next week. I'm now happy to share where I'm heading: USAA, a Fortune 150 financial services firm dedicated to securing the financial well-being of the people and families who serve and have served in the US armed forces. My new job is Executive Director of Community and Collaboration, and I'll be working with a team of talented people to lead and coordinate social media throughout the organization.

When the recruiter first called about this opportunity, I turned her down with little thought. I didn't feel anywhere near prepared to leave Forrester and hadn't yet accomplished everything I set out to do as an analyst. Then I got to know USAA and everything changed.

The people I met while interviewing were all incredibly genuine and committed to the company mission. As I spoke with them, I found this is a mission for which I can easily enlist. We ask a lot of the people who volunteer to serve our country, and helping each of them and their families to have a safer, more comfortable future is a great calling.

Also, USAA is a truly innovative company. It has been a progressive leader in social business; for example, USAA offers a "My USAA" tab on Facebook, allowing members to securely access their USAA information without ever leaving the Facebook platform. They've also been a leader in social customer service via their @USAA_help profile on Twitter.

But the thing that really made me pay attention is that USAA gets it--social, word of mouth and advocacy are already ways of life at USAA. As I wrote on the Forrester blog, "Social media success doesn't start with a strategy; it doesn't even start with an understanding of the audience. Social media success starts with company culture."

The tenants of social media are built into USAA's culture. Community is even mentioned in USAA’s strategy statement. This dedication to their community has resulted in 94% of USAA members saying they intend to be lifelong members, and USAA has the highest net promoter score of ANY company in the US, beating out Apple, Trader Joe's and Jet Blue.

What sealed the deal are the stories I heard, not from USAA but from others. A peer of mine whose father was in the military is such an advocate, she told her fiance that qualifying for USAA insurance was one of the benefits of marrying her. Another peer became a lifelong fan of USAA when her father decided he should move away from his insurance company of decades and use USAA; company reps evaluated his needs and advised he was better off maintaining his current coverage. Stories like that are the lifeblood of social media!

I knew it would take a special company to lure me away from Forrester. I found it (or rather, it found me).

Social Media, Thomas Paine, and Egypt: The Role of Social Media

It is interesting today to see people calling the situation in Egypt a "Social Media Revolution" and at the same time see others carp about this label.  I think people on both ends of the spectrum are equally wrong.  The question isn't whether social media caused the uprising but whether it was important to its success.

No one called the American Revolution the “Printing Press Revolution," but it would have been much more difficult to foment spirit in the colonies had it not been for the latest “social” technology of the era. Thomas Paine was able to distribute 500,000 copies of his pamphlet, “Common Sense,” in a single year, and that was at a time when the population of the 13 colonies was just around 2.5 million widely dispersed citizens. Did the printing press cause the American Revolution?  No, but it's hard to imagine the American uprising without it.

In the same way, it seems impossible to ignore the role of social media in the Egypt revolution. Facebook pages informed and raised anger, Twitter was abuzz with coordinating efforts and YouTube got the word out. It goes without saying that the Egyptian government clearly feared how these tools were being used based on its actions to block access. And it’s important to not overlook the role of social media in providing support from around the globe--the people of Egypt were able to receive important international moral and practical support as people across Earth joined the revolution via social networks.

Social media wasn’t the spark that created the Egyptian uprising—that took years of repressive government and economic inequity. But once that spark hit social channels, the ability to communicate in real time and reach large numbers of people at no cost were most certainly a significant contributing factor in how the Egyptian demonstrations spread and were sustained.

Is Egypt in the throes of a Social Media Revolution?  No, the world is.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It's... alive! The Return of Experience: The Blog

For the past 15 months, this blog has been dormant.  Since November 2009, I had the extraordinarily luck to be part of Forrester covering social media for interactive marketing professionals, and you'll find my 89 blog posts from this period on the Forrester blog.

As I move into the next stage of my career, I am playing Dr. Henry Frankenstein (as the character was called in the classic 1931 film version of the famous story) and reanimating the lifeless corpse of my original blog.  It's... alive!

In the past year since I last posted here, social media has gone from nascent to mainstream, from buzzworthy to newsworthy and from experiment to necessity.  And while many companies have launched their Twitter profiles and Facebook fan pages with a self-congratulatory sense of having accomplished the feat of becoming social, this roller coaster is just getting started.

In 2021, the social media of 2011 will look as crude and stiff as the websites of  2001 look to us today.  Check out the comparisons below, consider the pace of change the past two years and then envision the disruptions we'll experience in the coming decade. Those experiences will be the focus of Experience: The Blog.  I look forward to the many interesting and challenging discussions to be had.