Sunday, July 31, 2011

Seven Things I Learned Trying to Bait Twitter Spammers

I spent an afternoon this weekend running an experiment to bait Twitter spammers into sending me twam (Twitter spam). I thought it might be interesting to see what sort of tactics they use to evade detection and encourage clicks from unsuspecting victims. Here is what I learned:
  1. It is remarkably difficult to bait spammers: Given the amount of spam that organically arrives in my Twitter stream, I expected it would take very little to turn a trickle of twam into a healthy stream of commercial and dangerous tweets. This was not the case; despite repeatedly posting tweets designed to bait the spammers, I received fewer than a dozen twam replies. To further my research, I ended up searching Twitter for some of the spam links I received, which revealed many more spammers.

  2. It appears spammers are more coordinated than one might expect: I assumed that repeatedly tweeting the keywords spammers use to target their twam would result in a constant flow of spam replies, but my experience was quite different. After my initial posts sparked a handful of spam responses, the twam trailed off and eventually ceased altogether, no matter the frequency of my subsequent tweets. Perhaps this was an aberration from too little data, but the implications are interesting. Are Twitter spammers coordinated, throttling the spam sent from various fake accounts in order to decrease the chance of detection and reports? Do Twitter spammers only target people with influence within specific content categories, which might explain why I received twam responses when tweeting on tech terms but not about other topics? Or does Twitter have filters in place to prevent an account from receiving too many similar (and potentially spammy) tweets from different accounts that are not already followed?

  3. Spammers cover a wide range of topics: At first, I focused my Twitter spam experiment on tech terms that had, in the past, generated spam replies. My initial tweets focused on iPad, iPhone and Xbox. Soon, my experiment became crowdsourced with others suggesting terms I might test. I learned that spammers also love topics such as diets, golf, weddings, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, dating, sex and brand names. Thanks to JohnMichele, Kelly, Rob, Amrita, Paul, and Paul for contributing to my spam experiment and sharing their experiences.

  4. Spammers focus on newbies: Ted Sindzinksi noted he recently launched a new Twitter account for a startup and saw a great deal more spam than on his primary account. Twitter spammers may prey on new Twitter users who aren't as jaded or experienced as those of us who've been on the platform for years.

  5. Twitter Spammer Avatars: Warning:
    PG-13 & possibly NSFW
  6. Spammers aren't difficult to detect: Spammers aren't the most subtle or nuanced bunch of people. Virtually every account I visited--and I checked out close to 150 accounts during my experiment--followed the same modus operandi. Spammers tended to: 
    • Have very unusual names (EbonieLacsamana and SusannaBinderup) or end with one to four numeric characters (DiedraChauca624 and KarryHasencamp8)
    • Feature provocative profile pics of young women (more on this below).
    • Follow people but have few followers. 
    • Tweet a variety of famous and inspirational quotations and proverbs interspersed with spam tweets directed to individuals. Spammers' dictionary of quotations is quite deep, including everyone from Bill Cosby and John Lennon to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Marquis de Sade and Golda Meir. 
    • Use obscured links, but avoid the typical shorteners such as Instead, spam links tended to be from sites like (which clearly is not safe, despite the name) and unfamiliar sites like (which I have not visited and recommend you do not, either.)

  7. Men are stoopid: I'm going to give spammers a little credit; I assume that they are capable of  clickthrough and conversion testing and thus are using the tactics they do because those tactics work. This has certainly been the case with email spammers, so there's no reason to think Twitter spammers aren't as adept at finding the cracks in our defenses. My Twitter experiment suggests men need to stop thinking with their... um... parts south of their waists. Almost every spammer I found featured a PG-13 (but not R-rated) profile pic of a young, scantily-clad woman. (As one of my Twitter followers noted, "Twitter has taught me to mistrust hot women.") Are men really that easy? I hope not, but if Twitter users more frequently clicked on spam links sent by profiles featuring avatars of men, grandmas, or dogs, then the spammers would be using those tactics, instead.

  8. Reporting spam to Twitter works: During my experiment, I reported to Twitter most of the twam accounts I found, but I chose not to report a handful of spammers, just to test what happens. At first, I was a little disappointed that several hours after alerting Twitter, the accounts I reported were still spewing twam and proverbs. I'm happy to report that when I rechecked 18 hours later, it was a different story: Every single account I reported was suspended. As for those accounts that I chose not to report, every single one was still active 18 hours later. Tip of the hat to Del Harvey and her small Trust and Safety Team for being responsive to spam reports.

What does this mean to you? First, I'm sorry, but hot young women really don't want you to save money. Secondly--and this is pretty obvious--think before clicking unknown links from accounts you don't follow, particularly those offering free or discounted deals. And third, report those spammers! You can do so using spam-reporting features built into tools such as Hootsuite and TweetDeck, or it's easy to report spammers using Twitter's browser interface: Click the profile name within your Twitter feed to view the spammer's profile in the right pane; click the down arrow button; and select "Report XXXXXXXXXX for spam."

Spam is an annoyance on Twitter, though it hasn't risen to the level of pain caused by spam in email (where, according to Symantec, 92 percent of email messages are spam.) With continued diligence on the part of Twitter and your assistance with reporting spam, the problem can be kept in check, but there is no substitute for simple common sense. Beware of who you follow and use caution when clicking links tweeted by unknown parties. The danger isn't merely that you lose a few seconds visiting a useless spam site; clicking the wrong link could result in the download of malware to your computer or lead to a loss of control of your Twitter account.  Tweet wisely!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is Your Company Brave Enough to Own Up to Its Orange Vests?

It can sometimes feel as if I've heard every social media success story there is to tell, but occasionally a great and surprising tale is shared that has an instructive moral. Such was the case last week when I met with Major General Kevin Bergner, USAA's Chief Administrative Officer. Prior to joining USAA, Kevin was the Chief of Public Affairs for the Army, and it is there he gained experience in the value of transparency in social media.

In May 2009 The Daily Beast ran a story, entitled "Suicidal Soldiers." It revealed that some soldiers put on suicide watch were made to wear orange vests. The purpose of the vest, according to the article, was to make it easy for others to keep an eye on a suicidal soldier. But, the vest was said to carry a stigma--"In a sea of green, you can't miss it."

As Kevin recounted this story to a roomful of peers, we thought, no way! The idea that the Army would have such a policy is absurd; clearly the story must have been erroneous.

That's what the Army's leaders thought, as well, but given the seriousness of the issue, they also were not willing to dismiss it and undertook the time to investigate before crafting a response to the Daily Beast. With more than half a million personnel spanning the globe, no serious report--no matter how unbelievable--could be discounted. And, as I'm sure you surmised, the Army found a base where, with the best of intentions, soldiers identified to be at risk of suicide were made to wear bright orange vests.

The Daily Beast was correct, the situation was embarrassing, and the comments being posted to the blog were harsh. Many organizations would have quietly made a change and waited for the attention to die down, as it always does. But it's not the Army's way to shirk responsibility, even in the bright glare of social media.

General Pete Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff, wrote a public reply to the Daily Beast article in which he thanked the author for bringing the situation to the Army's attention. "We are committed to caring for our Soldiers and their Families, and her article has helped us do better." By dealing with the issue head on, the Army earned praise for its openness and willingness to change.

You might be surprised to learn that the US Army has a robust, detailed and open policy on social media (a copy of which is embedded below). In it, the "orange vest" episode is referenced: "By personally commenting on the blog, Gen. Chiarelli changed the narrative."

In recent years, we've seen many wonderful examples of companies that earned praise and trust for admitting mistakes. For example, Domino's Pizza acknowledged their pizza needed improvement and earned back customers, and the Red Cross fessed up when an employee accidentally posted a personal tweet to the organization's account, sparking a wave of new donations.

Those organizations owned up, but many others get caught evading or making half apologies. The power of an honest mea culpa is something we all recognize in our personal relationships, so why does it seem so difficult for organizations to embrace humility? If your company was caught with orange vests, would it be willing to follow the US Army's lead?

Army Social Media Handbook 2011
View more documents from U.S. Army

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Google+ Effect: Watch for Innovation Acceleration at Facebook and Twitter

For being two of the most innovative businesses of our generation, Facebook and Twitter were beginning to look a little complacent as of late. Watch for that to change now that Google+ has launched.

What new features has Facebook launched lately? After a slew of announcements last year (such as new groups, Facebook Places, improved privacy controls and more), little has happened with Facebook this year. The company recently launched a new chat bar and announced video chat, neither of which was a significant leap forward for the social network. Perhaps my memory (and Google search) is failing me and I am neglecting other exciting enhancements in 2011, but I think it's telling Facebook's own official timeline hasn't been updated for almost a year.

There are some obvious places for Facebook to improve, including one key feature now offered by Google+.  Google+ Circles permit users to direct a post to specific circles of friends--you can post a note to coworkers and omit high school buddies or vice versa. This sort of functionality has been in demand from Facebook for quite some time now. I've spoken to groups of college students who want to post messages to friends and not parents, and groups of adults who would like to filter their kids' posts off their walls. If I (and you) have been hearing about this desired feature, how did Facebook allow itself to be scooped by Google's new social networking tool?

And what about Facebook's search function? A friend recently told me his Facebook rep claimed Facebook is the second most popular search engine. Facebook has a search feature and people may use it frequently, but to call it a search engine and compare it to Bing and Yahoo is a stretch. Searching for fan pages or locations is difficult, and trying to find a particular individual among Facebook's 750 million users is darn near impossible. (My Twitter pal Ted Sindzinski recently pointed out that Facebook has hidden search-filtering capabilities--you can filter a search by location, education or workplace by clicking on the "People" link on the left of the search results page.)

ForeSee Results just announced their latest Customer Satisfaction Index ACSI report, which revealed Facebook has the lowest customer satisfaction among all measured companies. And sitting at the top of the customer satisfaction report was Facebook's new competitor, Google. Between lacking features and lingering doubt about privacy, Facebook has a greater vulnerability to competition than a company with 750 million customers ought.

Things at Twitter haven't been any better.  After launching an exciting new interface in September 2010,  there's been precious little innovation at the microblogging service. New features this year include minor enhancements such as a Follow button and slightly improved linksharing functionality. Founders Biz Stone and Ev Williams have taken their creative vision elsewhere, and Twitter now seems more focused on making money off advertising and commerce.

Twitter has room for improvement. Twitter's people search is no better than Facebook's, but Facebook has one killer feature that Twitter would be wise to duplicate. Facebook allows you to access a record of all the conversations and shares you've had with any of your friends; simply visit their Facebook page and click "See Friendship" on the upper right corner. Wouldn't it be helpful to access a similar record of all of the tweets and DMs you've traded with individuals over time?

I've heard people mention other desired upgrades for Twitter; for example, why can't Twitter provide a view that connects all of the replies made to a tweet into a threaded group conversation (such as is found on Google+) rather than just connecting the tweets exchanged between two individuals? And why must I visit Google to search my own Twitter stream--shouldn't the ability to search one's own tweets be a feature baked into Twitter?

It appears Facebook and Twitter became very comfortable with their place in the competitive landscape. That likely is changing now that some commentators are alternately calling Google+ either a Facebook killer or a Twitter killer.

Google+ won't replace either social networking tool soon, but that doesn't mean Twitter and Facebook have the luxury of time.  With Twitter reportedly being valued at $7 billion and Facebook's value pegged ten times greater, the stakes are high.  MySpace didn't innovate in the face of growing competition, and it went from a $580 million property when News Corporation acquired it in 2005 to a $35 million dollar asset when News Corp sold it last month.

Social network innovation is vital, or else we could soon add nouns such as Twittered or Facebooked beside MySpaced in our vocabulary.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Behind the Google+ Hype [Survey Results]

In late 2009, Google released Wave, a real-time collaboration tool. A number of my social media friends rushed to test the platform, and many declared it amazing; one even announced she was leaving Twitter because tweets were dead and waves were the new hotness. I checked out Google Wave, scratched my head, and returned to Twitter, wondering what I missed and if I was being left behind. A year later, Google suspended Wave. Google+, the new social offering from Google, certainly shows a great deal more promise, but the results of a small survey conducted today suggest smart social media professionals will approach Google+ with more patience than the blogosphere might suggest.

The fact Wave failed to live up to the hype was not Google's fault. The company intended Wave as a collaboration tool and released it first only to developers; it was users who rushed in and rapidly declared it the next big social network. It is easy to see why that happened--social early adopters arrived en masse, immediately connected to one another; and found Wave was akin to an exciting party of like-minded individuals. In hyping Google Wave, early users mixed up cause and effect: they weren't social media pros who found a great social conversation tool; they found a great social conversation tool because they were social media pros.

I think Google+ will have a long life and will make a dent (or more) in Facebook and Twitter, but there is evidence social media addicts may be getting ahead of themselves. The Google+ hype is deafening. In recent days, Computerword's Mike Elgan declared many were replacing Facebook and Twitter with Google+ and Chris Brogan announced that Google+ was "the next big thing." (Perhaps we could close the Federal budget deficit by instituting a special tax on the phrase "next big thing"?)

Google itself added to the hype when CEO Larry Page said that Google+'s 10 million users were sharing 1 billion items every day. I'd love to know more about what is behind that number, because that is five times more sharing than occurs on Twitter with 2,000% more users and the same amount of sharing that occurs on Facebook with 7,500% more users.

To try to find out what the "man (and woman) on the street" are thinking about Google+, I today conducted a survey, promoted via my blog, Twitter and Facebook. While a survey of 137 people is somewhat less than scientific, there is reason to believe the folks who answered my one-question poll are very adept at social media. Google+ has less than 20 million registered users--a fraction of the social media population--but 93% of the survey respondents have already given Google+ a test drive. Here are the results:

What is your experience with Google+ thus far?

  • I've not tried it and am not yet interested in doing so.   4%
  • I've not tried it and would like to do so.  3%
  • I've tried it but do not find myself using or checking it regularly.  57%
  • I've tried it and it has become a regular place for me to share and connect.     32%
  • I've tried it and it has replaced other social networking on sites like Facebook or Twitter. 4%

Among those who have tried Google+, well over half say they do not find themselves using or checking it regularly. Conversely, less than 5% of those who have tried Google+ indicate it has replaced other social networking.

I'm not suggesting Google+ is not a major, new development in the social media world, but I do think it behooves social media professionals to bring some sanity and objectivity to the discussion. There is plenty of time for us to anoint a new social networking king or queen should Google+ dethrone either Facebook or Twitter; after all, it took over four years after Facebook launched before it surpassed MySpace based on  monthly unique visitors.  

There are things marketers and communicators will want to do now to prepare for Google+. For instance, if you haven't signed up for Google+, find a friend who is on it and ask for an invitation. Even without snagging an invitation, you can start by burnishing your Google Profile, the essential starting point of Google+.  For now, Google+ is no longer accepting applications from companies--the application page has been closed--but you can check out the few brands that are present on Google+ such as Ford, Mashable, and Gilt City (which, interestingly, hasn't updated its profile in almost two weeks). You can also learn a great deal more about Google+ from Mashable's Guide.  

Don't hide from Google+, but there's no need to go rushing in, either. As a marketer and communicator, it's important that you understand the social sites your audience uses. And with Google+ offering little to nothing for business thus far, there's plenty of time to monitor the situation and make sound decisions later. Listening to the hype, it would be easy to think you're already behind the curve. Rest assured, you're not. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Google+: Betamax to Facebook's VHS?

I love social media, but I am growing weary of the constant search for "the next big thing." In just the last six months or so, Quora, Hashable, Color, Instagram, Groupme, Daily Booth and Beluga have all been declared hot, new, must-have social tools. And now comes Google+, which some say is a Facebook killer and others claim is the end of Twitter. Stop the merry-go-round, I want to get off!

So much of the hype about new social tools is fueled by "influencers" who are able to influence others to try new things but not to adopt them. And some of these influencers bounce out of new tools as quickly as they enter; for example, Robert Scoble declared Quora the biggest blogging innovation in ten years, then changed his mind a month later. I give credit to anyone willing to declare, "I was totally wrong," but the constant rush to praise every new device, widget, app or site is getting exhausting.

Scoble is now hot on Google+, sharing his opinion of "how boring Twitter has gotten when compared to Google+." In his latest blog post he challenges readers to compare his Twitter account and Google Plus account and determine which is more engaging. To me the answer is easy: Twitter. Robert's Twitter page displays six discrete thoughts/tweets along with his bio above the fold, while his Google+ page has just two discrete thoughts along with one of his friend's comments. I am much more inclined to tweet a reply because I can quickly see, consume and understand more of Robert's content within Twitter than Google+. In fact, Google+'s interface is very similar to FriendFeed, and that site didn't hold my attention either (or anyone else's, for that matter.)

My point isn't to pick a bone with Robert. I've learned a great deal through the years by following him and appreciate people like Robert who can quickly test and share knowledge about new devices and sites. Still, there is more to a successful social tool or site than just a good idea, a set of appealing features and an attractive interface.

Google+ isn't a bold, innovative evolution in social media--it's Facebook with a dash of Twitter and an extra feature or two (and a couple missing).  Google+'s most appealing feature is Circles, which offers something that people have been asking of Facebook--the ability to direct posts to certain people in your network while omitting others. It is one important benefit Google has over Facebook. (It's puzzling Facebook failed to deliver this feature before Google beat them to the punch, and now that competition is heating up, watch for Facebook to expand upon the control it permits users based on friend lists.)

With Circles, Google+ may be a bit more appealing than Facebook, but don't forget Betamax was a great deal more appealing than VHS.  Beta offered better video resolution and lower noise--and it was crushed in the video format wars by VHS. In 1980, Beta owned 100% of the market, but a year later it was down to just 25% of the market. Its better quality couldn't overcome other problems relating to the length of tapes, the ability to view and edit home videos on video cameras, JVC's willingness to license VHS technology to other consumer electronics companies, and even Sony's refusal to permit pornography on Beta systems.

It will take more than just a somewhat better set of features to knock either Facebook or Twitter off their thrones. As I noted in an earlier blog post, we can expect Google+ to amass huge numbers of users, because those using the Google search engine or Gmail will be encouraged to register. But will people register and then neglect Google+, will they replace Facebook or Twitter with Google+, or will they do something in between?

There is room for multiple social networks, of course, and Google+ is likely to enjoy more success than Google's earlier attempts such as Orkut, Buzz and Wave. Still, with Facebookers spending 700 billion minutes per month on the social network and 2.5 million websites having integrated with Facebook (including 10,000 new websites every day), it's going to take more than Circles (or Hangouts and Sparks) for Google+ to yank a great deal of time, attention and engagement away from Facebook.

Like Robert, I'm willing to admit when I'm wrong, and perhaps I'll need to do so in six months or a year, but I predict many folks will give Google+ a test drive and most will remain with Facebook or Twitter as primary sources of social networking. Influencers will like that Google+ has the openness of Twitter with the threading capability of Facebook, so Google+ may become a key tool in the toolbox for social media and tech professionals. But for many others, Google+ won't be a replacement but yet another place to maintain a profile and check for social communications, and that may be one social network more than most people are willing to integrate into their lives.

What do you think?  Have you tried Google+ yet?  If not, are you interested in doing so?  Whether or not you've had a chance to test Google+, I'd love your opinions on a poll I posted:  What is your experience with Google+ thus far? Please click through and complete the one-question poll!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Steal These Ideas: Wisdom from the ANA Digital & Social Media Conference

I just returned from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) Digital & Social Media Conference. I went with some trepidation, expecting a conference sponsored by a 101-year-old advertising organization to be heavy on paid media with the merest hint of earned media.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was quite the opposite; the event was fun, informative and inspirational for social media professionals.

As a blogger, it can be difficult to constantly find and share new ideas, so tonight I'm taking the lazy route--I'm stealing some great ideas from the presenters at #ANA_Digital (and you can steal them, too).  Some thought starters for your consideration:

  • Don't have a location that consumers can check into?  Make one up!  Marjorie Dufek and Kate Boltin from Brown-Forman shared an idea they executed for the Southern Comfort brand. Prevented by local laws from promoting New Orleans events at specific bars and restaurants, the brand used a French Quarter billboard to create a place where consumers could gather and check in via Foursquare. Those who did could register to win a trip to next year's Mardi Gras.

  • Sweepstakes suffering from old age? Make them faster!  Southern Comfort found their sweepstakes promotions were appealing mostly to consumers over forty. As an old guy, I had no problem with that, but the brand wished to appeal to younger drinking-age adults, age 21 to 24. Research revealed that traditional sweepstakes, with their delayed gratification, were just too slow, so the brand launched instant-win sweepstakes--real-time promotions for a real-time generation.

  • Don't just be social in the digital realm. Get real (life)!  Jim Low from Kraft Foods shared that Wheat Thins sends 100 hand-written thank you letters each month to people who engage with the brand online. They find people who get these are inclined to talk about them, thus creating more engagement. That's the Analog Groundswell in action. (The preceding term was not trademarked by Nate Elliott, so you can feel free to use it, particularly if you've read his excellent Forrester report of the same name.)

  • People criticizing you?  Ambush them!  Wheat Thins strove for authenticity, so the brand launched a series of ads with a brand team ambushing unsuspecting consumers who had tweeted about Wheat Thins, leaving them with gifts such as a palette-load of free product. But, the campaign was at risk when consumers (and even a reporter) started labeling the ads as fake. What to do?  Ambush the unsuspecting critics, of course. Thus was born more entertaining ads where doubters became brand spokespeople.

  • Your product sucks?  Admit it--loudly. Dennis Maloney of Domino's Pizza told the audience that the brand knew it had a problem; among competing brands it ranked first for service and value, but dead last for taste. The brand didn't just improve the product and launch a tired "new and improved" campaign--they created an online video and ads that frankly said what everyone was thinking. Would you have the guts to create public videos about your brand with lines like, "Doesn't feel like there's much love in Domino's Pizza" or "Domino's pizza crust to me is like cardboard?" Those communications announced to the world that Domino's Pizza had changed and was worth trying again, and a year later Domino's was tied for first for taste. The company wanted to be so transparent, it put its Twitter feed on the company's home page--good, bad and ugly.  My favorite quote of the conference was Dennis noting, "You cannot be more transparent than sticking your Twitter feed on the home page." 

There were other great presenters and ideas at the ANA Digital and Social Media Conference. If you attended, please share some of your favorite ideas here.  If not, check out the Twitter stream for more interesting quotes and ideas. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Social Media and Google+: Figures Don’t Lie, but...

As a Forrester analyst, I used to hate the saying, "Figures lie and liars figure." Data accurately gathered does not lie, but data poorly analyzed or intentionally misrepresented can mislead. This thought has come to mind several times over recent weeks as I've read varying reports and interpretations of social media and business data. In the years to come, we will be awash in ever greater quantities of data and analysis, and it will be increasingly vital that we focus on what is truly important or else we'll lose sight of what matters.

Case in point: I recently saw a presentation that boldly stated that Groupon reached $1 billion faster than any other company in history. An eye-popping accomplishment to be sure, except Groupon's recent prospectus revealed it lost $420 million last year and $117 million in the first quarter of this year. Groupon may grow to achieve meaningful business success in the future, but reaching a billion dollars while losing half a billion isn't nearly as impressive as it first sounded, because revenue is important but net income is more important.

Another example was shared by a peer who saw a presentation by a social media consultant who claimed that "celebrities still dominate social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, while for the most part businesses haven’t been able to drum up much interest."  His evidence? Lady Gaga has 40 million "likes" on Facebook while MetLife only has 7,500. Are "likes" what is truly important, and do Gaga and Metlife have the same goals and audience? From Blendtec ("Will it Blend?") to Dave Carroll ("United Breaks Guitars") to Greenpeace ("Barbie, It's Over"), we've seen enough social media success from smaller players to recognize that there's a big difference between popularity and influence, "friends" and customers, followers and advocates and big fan pages and success. As for Gaga and MetLife, last year Gaga made $62 million while MetLife earned $2.7 billion, so while MetLife has room for improvement in social media, they really don't need to compare themselves to Gaga to evaluate their success.

And then there's Google+, Google's new social media offering. Some of the figures being bounced around are amazing--just weeks after its launch, Google+ is already poised to hit 10 million users and some are predicting it could hit 100 million users faster than any service in history. Google+ is clearly Google's most interesting social offering since it purchased YouTube, but are users the relevant metric for evaluating its success? For example, Google has long claimed its Latitude geolocation tool has more users than Foursquare, but you don't need to be a social media guru to know Foursquare has active and engaged users while Latitude users tend to "set it and forget it."

We can expect Google+ to sign up huge numbers of people; Google will be able to do so because of the incredible user base it has for Gmail, its search engine and other products. But the number of users won't determine Google+'s success; engagement will (because consumer engagement is what will draw marketing dollars). If and when Google+ makes a serious dent in the 1.3 million years consumers spend on Facebook each month, then it can claim success.

Steven Covey said "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." This adage could be applied to the business of social media where the wrong data and analysis can easily distract us from the main thing. Friends, followers, users and revenue are important, but they are not more important than meaningful engagement, customers, advocates and net income.

Note: The saying "Figures lie and liars figure" is a cynical twist on an older saying that has been misattributed to Mark Twain: "Figures don’t lie, but liars figure." You will find a wonderful exploration of the history of this phrase on the Quote Investigator blog.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Absolutely Meaningless Facebook Like

I have long felt Facebook made a huge error with their "Like" button; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Facebook's mistake was in failing to provide other options for following brands and pages other than the "Like" button. In furnishing no other ways for users to follow or subscribe to brand fan pages, Facebook has taken something that could have been truly valuable and made it insignificant or, worse yet, disingenuous.

Take, for example, my recent "Like" of the Gerber brand. If you know me, you know that I do not have children, so why am I fan of Gerber? Well, I'm not; or rather, I am a "fan" on Facebook but not a fan in any other sense of the word. A friend's child is in The Gerber Generation Photo Search and I wanted to vote for her, but in order for my vote to count, I was required to "friend" the brand.

Had Facebook provided a means for people to follow a brand without clicking the "like" button, the meaning of a "like" would be indisputable--a true signal of a person's affinity for the brand.  But there are no other ways to follow a brand on Facebook, so users click the "like" button for all sorts of reasons. According to an excellent ExactTarget study from last year, the top reason people "like" a brand is to receive discounts or promotions.  While the number two reason was to show support of the company to others, this was closely followed by getting a freebie, staying informed about company activities, getting updates on future products and sales and for entertainment. There can be no doubt that a Facebook "like" is not a true "like" by any non-Facebook definition of the word.

What's the harm if someone doesn't really like a brand when they click the "like" button?  The problem is that Facebook attempts to define users' "Likes" as something more than they really are. Facebook promotes a "like" as a relevant signal of affinity; their Sponsored Stories ad product turns users' "Likes" into ad impressions. When I see these ads, I am supposed to believe that my friends possess deep, warm feelings for the brands they like and, as a result, I should consider the brands for myself. But should I really care that my friend clicked "like" on a brand page simply because they wanted some Farmville trinket or a discount?

The fact a Facebook "Like" is meaningless at best (or misleading at worst) upsets me for several reasons:

  • As a consumer, it could be truly helpful to know what products and services my friends like sufficiently to recommend, but that isn't at all what Facebook "likes" offer.
  • As an employee responsible for a brand's Facebook page, I'd like for my company to collect true recommendations from customers and then use those to raise awareness of the brand; however, since a Facebook "like" has been rendered useless, I must find other, more meaningful ways to identify brand advocates and reflect true brand affinity.
  • And as a marketing and communications professional, it upsets me that brands would encourage people to share "likes" with friends when those "likes" are not authentic brand recommendations. A very exacting read of the FTC Guidelines on Endorsements might suggest that my "like" of the Gerber brand be accompanied by a clear and conspicuous disclosure that I received something of value--a vote in a contest--in return for my endorsement of the brand. 

It is probably too late for Facebook to solve this problem, but adding a "subscribe" feature for fan pages would be a great step towards differentiating those who want to follow a brand from the real brand advocates. Facebook may believe it is redefining what it means to "like" a brand in the social era, but all they've really done is devalue the term "like."

You can see this for yourself--visit your Facebook profile and under "Activities and Interests," click the "Show Other Pages" link (and then, if present, click the last link in the series, which says something like, "And XXX more.")  Do you really like all of these brands?  Would you recommend them all to your friends?  No, but Facebook and many advertisers assume you would, and therein lies the true lost opportunity of the Facebook "like."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Building a Successful Brand Accidentally on Purpose

What is the role of leadership? Is it to create wealth for shareholders? To manage human resources to peak efficiency? To minimize risk and maximize profitability? I've long believed that leadership has only one true purpose: To foster a corporate culture that delivers on the mission. Do that, and everything else leaders do is gravy; fail at creating a culture of excellence and customer focus, and nothing else a leader does will compensate for that failure.

This thought came to mind as I chatted with USAA's CMO, Roger Adams. We were trading stories of brands that seemingly stumbled their way into success. These stories reminded me of the absolutely vital role of corporate culture, because none of the companies we discussed truly "stumbled" into success; instead, these organizations took actions that, at the time, seemed insignificant. But the trivial can become the indispensable when decisions are planted upon a firm foundation of corporate culture.

Roger shared with me the tale of how Starbucks, facing problems associated with rapid growth of both their stores and product line, decided to retrench. CEO Howard Schultz axed the chain's new breakfast sandwiches because their aroma overpowered the scent of coffee within Starbucks' stores. And he decided that the chain's 100,000 employees needed a refresher course on the joy of coffee, so he famously closed over 7,000 stores simultaneously for a single nationwide training session. Intended as an opportunity to re-enlist employees in the brand, the action made headlines nationwide and announced the rebirth of Starbucks as the "third place."

I shared with Roger a case study I'd read fifteen years ago about Harley-Davidson. In the early 80s new leadership took over after years of brand and product mismanagement. They made changes to the bikes and engines, and then headed down to a make-or-break appearance at Daytona Bike Week. While the leaders of other bike brands flew in and arrived to the event in their limos, the Harley contingent did what they love--they rode down from Milwaukee to Daytona on their Hogs. The fact the Harley crew showed up with their leathers dirty and dusty was not lost on cycle fans in Daytona, and thus started a buzz that carried the brand to great heights in the decades that followed.

The intent of Starbucks' and Harley's leaders in these situations was not to make major brand statements; however, because these decisions were so closely aligned with the brands and so suited the unique corporate cultures of the organizations, the outcomes from these actions were greater and more positive than intended. Of course, Starbucks and Harley-Davidson are not alone in "accidentally" creating important brand statements; from Walt Disney's obsessive focus on storytelling flourishing into a true brand differentiator to Zappos' trust in their employees being realized through unfettered social media activity that builds the brand's reputation, great brands are created through a million tiny decisions that add up to success because they're guided by a culture dedicated to a mission.

Does your organization have a culture that not only permits but demands employees love the product and the customer? Enough to ride 1,220 miles on a cycle or turn away customers from 7,100 stores because employees need training? I once 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." I misstated--it isn't social media success but all success that derives from your organization's culture.