Friday, July 31, 2009

Interview with Ryan Holmes on HootSuite 2.0 and Twitter Business Models

I've been a big fan of HootSuite for some time, and today the Twitter management tool made a huge leap forward with great new functionality that makes it worth a look, no matter which Twitter client you currently use. Even before today's improvements, HootSuite was one of the top Twitter clients and one of the two Twitter management tools used by the White House.

I wondered about HootSuite 2.0 and what drives an organization to create and invest in tools that improve upon the Twitter experience, so I reached out to Ryan Holmes, CEO of Invoke Media, the interactive agency behind HootSuite. We had an interesting discussion about HootSuite's new features, its business model, and what happens if Twitter goes the way of Friendster.

Before getting into my Q&A with Ryan, let's briefly explore HootSuite 2.0 and why it is one of the leading Twitter clients available. The new version combines the benefits of a web-based tool with the group-creating and -tracking power of TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop. This means users can sign on to any computer and access groups without any software or synchronization. It works far better than other tools I've tried with similar functionality, and the new HootSuite retains the site's attractive user interface.

In addition to Twitter user groups, offers:
  • Customizable interface with ability to add tabs and columns, which can contain groups, keyword tracking, searches, or Twitter profile feeds such as your home feed, Mentions (@replies), Direct Messages (both in and out), and pending, favorite, or sent tweets
  • Easy maintenance of multiple Twitter accounts
  • Saved searches, permitting you to track Twitter buzz in real time
  • Ability to embed those searches into sites and blogs
  • Scheduled Tweets
  • Functional browser button (called a Hootlet) to easily tweet links as you surf
  • Built-in link shortening using
  • Ability to track and graph the clicks on the links you post to Twitter (via
  • Auto-tweeting of new items in RSS feeds, such as blog posts
  • integration
  • User management, allowing multiple people to maintain Twitter accounts.
You can get a better idea of how all these great new features work in the HootSuite video below. After the video, you'll find my interview with Ryan Holmes, CEO of the company behind HootSuite. We touched on topics ranging from the new HootSuite to the wisdom of creating business models built upon Twitter, which itself has yet to determine its model for profitability. I hope you enjoy the interview and will check out the new and improved HootSuite.

Ryan, let's start with what HootSuite is. In a world of (seemingly) a million Twitter clients, what does the new and improved HootSuite offer that is different or better than any of the competing tools available?

HootSuite 2.0 is a solution for pro/business users and groups to make Twitter easier and better. At a high level, HootSuite is easy to use, customizable and has many rich features including:

  • Team workflow
  • Multiple Twitter accounts
  • Tweet scheduling
  • RSS/Facebook integration (via
  • Rich analytics so users can see # of clicks in URLs by user and geographic region
  • People grouping currently features a "Support HootSuite" button to permit users to donate to HootSuite (which I've done, I might add.) Do you get much financial support from this?

We actually get a surprising amount of donations by our loyal users through our donations. It's in the hundreds (but not thousands) of dollars a day. We really appreciate it.

I'm guessing the PayPal donations are really not your end-game business model. I'm intrigued by the amount of investment we're seeing in Social Media tools and sites with little revenue (much less profits) evident. Can you share your plans for how HootSuite is generating or will generate revenue?

You're right, it's hard to feed a team on donations. We do have a few fantastic monetization concepts that we are looking forward to putting in place, and I am positive that we will be profitable before Twitter is.

Speaking of business models, Twitter is still far from having a reasonable, self-sustaining plan. Are there concerns about building a robust and complex tool on the foundation of a Web 2.0 system that, while popular, isn't yet sustainable? Are there risks to HootSuite that in order to execute a supportable business model, Twitter may need to alter its API or rules in a way that could undermine or invalidate portions of your own system?

If you look at historical trends, massively popular applications like Twitter don't really need to worry about monetization for quite a way out. Facebook, YouTube and others are still even working on their models. The most important thing is that it is where eyeballs are, and eventually that will be monetized. 80%ish of Twitter traffic is via 3rd party applications like HootSuite, and therefore API access is a potentially lucrative revenue stream for Twitter. That being said, however, they will really have to tread lightly if they try to monetize there because they don't want to risk decreasing that 80% of traffic.

Let's talk about HootSuite 2.0, the new version that offers users the ability to set up Twitter groups, save sets of keyword alerts, and monitor other real-time Twitter queries. How did your team go about determining what new features were needed for this major upgrade to HootSuite?

For our 2.0 release, we got feedback from a lot of sources--our users, our advisory businesses, and our team. Our 1.0 release focused on getting our core team/corporate functionality out to users. Our 2.0 release focuses on power users and the sticky features they need. Our team looked at the things that kept them from going off of our dashboard and added them in using the easy simple style our users love.

One thing that drew me to HootSuite was its clean interface and intuitive usability (something that can be sorely lacking in many other Social Media tools and sites I've sampled.) Can you share a bit about your design, usability, and testing process for the new version of HootSuite?

Thank you. We often get positive feedback on the nice usability of HootSuite. I really have to hand this one to our team who painstakingly built this out. Their attention to detail and craftsmanship is fantastic. The parent company of HootSuite is Invoke ( We have been building tools in the Web space since 2000, and I think that the cloud is the BEST platform for this type of application. I think that the length of time our team has been together is another factor in how we can build HootSuite out so well.

What are your goals for this new version of HootSuite? How will you and your team know you've achieved what you set out to achieve with HootSuite 2.0?

Our goal with HootSuite 2.0 is to make the BEST tool for power users and teams. If we make something that is addictively sticky, it will ultimately result in increased user base. Our users have been our best advocates, so I am optimistic that they will help us get the word out.

Let's end with a big, hairy, audacious question: Twitter may not be king of the hill forever. We've seen popular Social Media sites flame out (SixDegrees, Friendster, and now MySpace), so what is your vision for what's next for Social Media and how HootSuite will evolve to reflect and exploit changes in Social Media?

Great question. Twitter was revolutionary because it made everyone realize that realtime is important. It re-invigorated this area of web, and right now there is a Wild West mentality again. At this point there are something like 11 realtime search startups, which is pretty amazing. Twitter has a huge store of realtime data and I am very sure that all of these realtime search properties want access to the firehose (business opportunity). I don't think Twitter is the next Friendster, but if it is, there will be iterations like MySpace and Facebook to polish the concept further. As a dashboard, HootSuite will be there to provide outbound microblogging to whatever platforms arise.

Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed the interview and are curious about HootSuite 2.0. As readers of Experience: The Blog know from past posts, I am not a fan of paid posts. This blog post was not made in exchange for any compensation of any sort. I'm a fan of HootSuite (75% of my Tweets come from this client, according to TwitterAnalyzer), and I wanted to share some enthusiasm and experience with the tool. If I can answer any questions about HootSuite, please let me know.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Can Your Tweet Defame? The Law Behind Horizon and Bonnen

This blog post is provided by Deb Spanic, an Internet and intellectual property attorney with Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C. I asked for her insights about the news regarding Amanda Bonnen, a woman who was sued for criticizing her former landlord, Horizon Group Management, in a tweet to her 20 followers. In Deb's opinion, Horizon's case is not without merit.

What does this mean to you and your tweets? Have you tweeted a concern or gripe that might leave you open to litigation? Deb shares her thoughts on the law of tweets...

The recent lighting up of the blogosphere over the suit filed by Horizon Group Management against former tenant Amanda Bonnen for an allegedly defamatory tweet she posted on Twitter caused me to pause for a moment and think through the potential legal issues that may result from this suit.

Clearly, Horizon found a quick way to make a "mountain of out a mole hill" by converting what was a brief, casual tweet by Ms. Bonnen to her 20 followers into a global media frenzy (including articles across the pond on the BBC). And clearly, they've jumped themselves into a PR disaster.

But the interesting point that I think may get lost in the he-said she-said of a typical defamation case is the question of whether or not you can defame with a tweet. I think the answer to that is yes, you can.

To defame someone, you need to (a) publish to a third party (b) a false statement of fact (c) that is understood to concern the plaintiff and (d) tends to harm the plaintiff's reputation. If the plaintiff is a public figure, that public figure must prove you committed this act with "actual malice."

If you walk through the elements, perhaps the most interesting one related to Twitter is the "publish to a third party" element. It's well-settled law that blogs and web pages are considered "publications." As a microblog service, I think it could be easily argued that a tweet is a publication. And Twitter is really only Twitter if you have followers. If you have followers, you have published to a "third party."

There is no requirement that a defamatory statement be of a certain length. You could certainly defame someone in 140 characters. "Attorney John Smith is a crook" is 30 characters, leaving 110 more characters for further mischief. If that statement is false, it would meet the second element of a defamation claim. Finally, if you mention the plaintiff by name in the statement and the statement could be taken to harm the plaintiff's reputation, then you have completed all the elements of defamation.

Confining yourself to statements of fact and personal observation are two ways to avoid statements being considered defamatory. Saying, "I was unhappy with how Attorney John Smith handled my case" is better than stating he's a crook. Note, however, that it is sometimes not enough just to add "In my opinion," or other qualifying language, to what may otherwise be considered a defamatory statement. Courts have found that saying, "In my opinion, Attorney John Smith is a crook" can be just as defamatory as it is without the qualifier. What the courts do consider is the view of the statement in the broader context of the environment in which it was said or written, the person who was allegedly defamed (whether they are a private individual, public figure or company), and perhaps most importantly, whether or not the statement is true. In fact, truth is the ultimate and best defense against defamation.

What does all this mean for Twitter? Nothing really, because Twitter is likely protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and would not liable for the defamatory comments of its users. But for the users? Well, this case just goes to show that you CAN get sued for libel for a tweet. Whether Horizon will win or not is a different story, but rest assured, it will not be inexpensive for either side in this case.

About the Author: Deborah Spanic is an Internet and intellectual property attorney, specializing in trademarks, copyright, domain name issues, e-commerce and e-business issues and social media law. Ms. Spanic is licensed to practice in the state of Wisconsin.

The content of this blog post is not legal advice. It only constitutes commentary on legal issues, and is for educational and informational purposes only. Reading this blog, replying to its posts, or any other interaction on this site does not create an attorney-client privilege between you and the author. As with any legal issue that may confront you in a particular situation, you should always consult a qualified attorney familiar with the laws in your state.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Social PR Crisis and Response: How Horizon Group Management Might Yet Save the Day

Lots of companies have turned customer complaints into gold. By monitoring Twitter and other Social Media channels, smart organizations seek out legitimate complaints from displeased customers, proactively solve them, and snatch victory from the jaws of consumer disenchantment.

But what happens when an organization isn't smart about customer service, Social Media or PR? Horizon Group Management provides us with a case study to monitor and evaluate. While a great deal of damage has already been done in just the first day of Horizon's PR crisis, there are steps the company could take quickly--as in tomorrow!--to begin to mitigate the injury to their reputation and business.

Smart organizations approach Social Media complaints with an eye toward service and earn terrific PR. Not only will formerly aggrieved consumers often tweet their new-found brand happiness, but customer-focused companies also can earn positive PR of the traditional variety. By providing Social Media customer service, companies like Virgin Atlantic, Best Buy, JetBlue, and Comcast have received brand-building attention from news organizations.

But what happens when a company isn't smart about consumer complaints and the power of Social Media? Just today, a situation developed that will allow students of Social Media to monitor and evaluate the damage that can be caused by substandard customer focus and careless Public Relations. If you aren't doing so already, track the Social Media buzz and news about the situation with Horizon Group Management and Amanda Bonnen. We'll see who wins and loses, but I'm already prepared to make a prediction: This will end badly for Horizon.

Chicago resident Amanda Bonnen tweeted a complaint about her Horizon-managed apartment to her 20 followers. In return, the property management company filed a $50,000 lawsuit claiming she "greatly injured its reputation as a landlord in Chicago."

As reported on arts technica, Horizon made no attempt to resolve their concerns with Bonnen. As if the lawsuit didn't sufficiently demonstrate this organization's lack of understanding of Public Relations, an executive with Horizon made a shockingly stupid remark when contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times; Jeffrey Michael told a reporter, "We're a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization."

An awkward press release subsequently posted by Horizon claims Michael's comments were intended "tongue in cheek," but this will do very little to quell the growing backlash and damage to Mr. Michael's and his company's reputations. In the press release, Horizon also revealed that Bonnen previously filed a lawsuit against the organization, which hints at a far more complex and delicate situation than perhaps was first evident. Problem is, even if Horizon is in the right, the damage is done; their careless actions have caused this situation to go viral.

As Horizon is about to learn the hard way, companies can no longer effectively manage their reputation via legal actions, and consumers are no longer at a disadvantage in the face of bullying lawsuits. Although Bonnen deleted her Twitter account and will have to deal with the lawsuit, Horizon is already emerging as the loser in this David versus Goliath tale.

Bonnen's tweet was made May 12 and was undoubtedly quickly forgotten by her 20 followers. No news organizations picked up the story. Bonnen's complaint against Horizon had--for purposes of Social and Web media--died.

But thanks to Horizon's inelegant handling of the situation, the complaint has been not only reborn but supercharged. What had been a message to 20 people is now being discussed and considered by tens of thousands, perhaps millions. Social Media, blogs, and news organizations broke this story wide just today, and already:

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post that asked, "Which is more important? The law or public opinion?" My answer then is even more appropriate today since the past year has seen Facebook grow 248% and Twitter 1,164%:

Brands must become cognizant that the law provides no refuge from public opinion when graceless legal actions are taken. In situations where anger and disappointment go viral, being legally right will not save brands from shame, damaged brand perception, costly PR crisis response, and reduced sales.

The growth of Social Media will increasingly require organizations to consider legal alternatives not just on their merits in law but also based on the potential reaction of millions of interconnected consumers.

So what lessons have we learned in just the first day of Horizon's Social PR mess?

  • Being right in the court of law (which Horizon has yet to prove) will not protect a brand in the court of public opinion.
  • If a brand's goal is to silence a defamer, a lawsuit will rarely accomplish the trick and will often make it much, much worse.
  • When a reporter calls, defer an answer until the right person can make the right statement.
  • Consider how your story will play in 140 characters: Big company suing a woman for a tweet to 20 people? Bad. Ignorant sound bite easily encapsulated in 140 characters with plenty of room left for derision? Very, very bad! ("We're a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization." is just 63 characters! Has this man never heard of Twitter's 140-character limit?)
  • Listening to customers and dealing with their issues with care and attention is a whole lot easier and cheaper than lawsuits and PR crises.
  • Get to know and understand Social Media NOW! A company cannot hide from its problems or control the spin as they might have in the past.

What should Horizon do now? First, stop communicating through press releases and lawsuits; authenticity matters. Second, Jeffrey Michael must issue an apology immediately; if he is to save face, he must demonstrate remorse for his oafish comments and promise to resolve the issue with Bonnen quickly. Third, Horizon needs to move with alacrity to resolve the competing lawsuits between themselves and Bonnen, and frankly it's going to cost them now that this problem has gone viral.

Lastly--and most importantly--Horizon needs to embrace transparency. If Horizon has a mold problem in any of their apartments, the time has passed for them to deny and ignore it. This very loud situation has focused an electron microscope on Horizon and their properties; if other tenants start posting YouTube videos or Flickr galleries of poorly maintained properties, or if Chicago media finds merit to tenant complaints as they investigate this headline-grabbing story, Horizon will be very, very sorry they fought Bronnen's complaint not with appropriate action but with a lawsuit.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why IZEA is Wrong for Absolutely Everyone: Bloggers and Consumers

Yesterday, I suggested that IZEA and other paid-post and -tweet services are the wrong approach to Social Media and bad for everyone involved. In Part One of this blog post, we explored the reasons why brands must approach "sponsored conversations" with caution, including the poor quality of blog "inventory" and the unreliability of early results from untested digital marketing practices. Most importantly, the idea that buying "conversations" imparts authenticity and trust is pure fantasy, because for Social Media conversations to be truly valuable to brands, they must be earned, not sponsored.

Brands that pay for sponsored posts and tweets risk being seen as annoying, out of touch, and disrespectful; worst of all, paid blog posts are a blinking neon sign that a brand has to pay for friends because they have not earned them. Disney World didn't need to pay for 501 tweets in the past 24 hours; the resort earned this attention (compared to 173 tweets for Busch Gardens and 227 for Sea World) by creating amazing experiences and nurturing fans.

IZEA's Sponsored Conversations present significant risks for brands, but what about bloggers and consumers? Is IZEA a sweet deal for them?

Why IZEA is Wrong for Bloggers

Like a sleazy used car salesman who appeals to the ego of a car shopper by telling him he deserves that shiny new sports car, IZEA seduces bloggers on by casting them as unwitting victims:

You've been writing about Web sites, products, services and companies you love for years and you have yet to benefit from all the sales and traffic you have helped generate. That's about to change. With PayPerPost advertisers are willing to pay you for your opinion on various topics.

Pay for our opinions? Is that what advertisers are doing using IZEA's marketplace? Heck, I'd be more than happy to have advertisers pay for my opinions--I have hundreds of them and I love to share my opinions with anyone who will listen! Of course, the truth is that advertisers care for bloggers' endorsements, not their opinions.

IZEA weaves a pretty seductive tale, but serious bloggers are at a crossroads; they need to decide if their blogs are going to be trusted sources of news and opinion or if their posts are going to be vehicles for advertising. They cannot have it both ways.

Bloggers can't have their cake and eat it, too. They cannot demand to be taken seriously as journalists or ask for the same legal protections afforded journalists while violating long-standing journalism codes of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists demands that they "be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know." This includes "Refusing gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment," "Resisting (advertisers') pressure to influence news coverage" and "Avoiding conflicts of interest, real or perceived" (emphasis mine).

These aren't old-fashioned and stuffy rules of some bygone era; they reflect the way sources of news and opinion always have and always will earn trust. If these were just "rules" and not essential truths, then news organizations struggling to find financial viability could simply sign up with IZEA, improving the bottom line by selling paid advertisements in the lead stories right below their mastheads.

Should the New York Times, which just reported a loss of $74.5 million in the first quarter, sign up for IZEA and increase their revenue? Perhaps they could change their motto to "All The News That's Fit to Print... or Fit an Advertiser's Wallet"? Of course the question is facetious--the Times won't do that in part because it violates their ethics but mostly because readers would reject this approach and abandon the organization's newspapers and Web sites in droves.

Why would bloggers think they face a different reaction when they whore themselves out to "sponsored conversation" networks like IZEA? Blogs may be a relatively new phenomenon, but they haven't changed the way writers earn (or lose) trust.

Will a single paid blog post or paid tweet cause a blogger to lose trust and readership? Perhaps not, but the cash and free gifts from paid posts will be like crack cocaine to bloggers--an addictive habit that is impossible to break. And as the ad-to-content ratio begins to rise on a blog, there is no question of the impact it will have on that blogger's reputation, influence, and readership.

Some people point to the fact IZEA has a Code of Ethics requiring mandatory disclosure as evidence that bloggers' reputations won't be harmed by "sponsored conversations." While I respect IZEA's commitment to full disclosure (they support stricter FTC disclosure requirements), the service seems unable to completely police its own members. IZEA has a history of dubious disclosure, and despite strides toward transparency, one of IZEA's high-profile Featured Bloggers was recently caught blogging and tweeting without disclosure.

But even assuming a blogger embraces full disclosure, does that really protect him or her from a loss of readers' trust? Think of the last time you paged through a newspaper and ran across one of those ads. You know the kind--it sort of looks like an article, but the headline and body font don't quite match the rest of the paper, and there's a thin border surrounding the "article" with the repeated word "Advertisement." Did you read it? Did you trust it? Your reaction to that vaguely misleading article/advertisement is exactly the way consumers will come to feel about blog posts that were bought, paid for, and influenced by advertisers' cash.

Of course, not all blogs need to maintain the same level of perceived objectivity. If you author an "I Love Ford" blog, the fact you were provided a month's free use of Ford's newest vehicle is unlikely to diminish anyone's opinion since your bias is well established and fully disclosed. But if you're the sort of blogger who prizes your objectivity and readers' trust, then history and human nature leave no doubt: Ads that are clearly ads (such as banner ads and Google AdWords) are acceptable on blogs, but advertising purposefully designed to look like content and trade on bloggers' authenticity is spam and harms blogger credibility.

Why IZEA is Wrong for Consumers

If you've read both parts of this blog post, I hope there can be little doubt as to why paid blog posts and tweets are bad for consumers--"sponsored conversations" have questionable accuracy, sketchy disclosure, diminished integrity, and muddle the line between editorial and advertising.

Consumers may be increasingly savvy about advertising in our media-saturated world, but that doesn't mean today's consumers are any less deserving of marketing integrity or consumer protections than in the past. Whether it's product placement, guerrilla marketing, fake blogs, or "sponsored conversations" in Social Media, the FTC, the FCC, and Advertising Industry organizations have always recognized consumers should be protected from advertising that isn't disclosed as such.

In the end, it is possible consumers will be fully able to protect themselves provided bloggers follow industry practices and legal requirements to disclose paid content. It seems easy enough to unsubscribe from a blog feed if that blog's content becomes too commercial, untrustworthy, and spammy. But I wonder about the impact this may have upon consumers and their perception of marketing and media; already, most consumers find advertising bothersome (72 percent said they find advertising "annoying" or "extremely annoying" in a 2008 survey) and untrustworthy (per the latest Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey).

As marketers, are we really demonstrating care for consumers by finding yet another way to interrupt them and encourage even greater suspicion of both media and marketing? Employing "sponsored conversations" may end up being a way to win a battle or two but eventually lose the war for consumers' hearts and minds.

What matters to consumers in Social Media isn't the size of marketers' ad budgets or their need for positive ROI but the authenticity with which brands engage and create social experiences for and with consumers. That is a currency you won't find traded on any IZEA Web site or marketplace.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why IZEA is Wrong for Absolutely Everyone: Brands

IZEA is a leader in the "sponsored conversation" business, which is a euphemism for paid blog posts and tweets. IZEA promises benefits to everyone--hard-working bloggers can earn cash based on the size of their audience; brands can reach consumers via difficult-to-crack Social Media channels; and consumers can learn about new products and services from the bloggers they trust. It all sounds so positive, and it is complete and utter rubbish.

If you believe IZEA has the Midas Touch, it might help to brush up on your mythology; we all know Midas turned everything he touched into gold, but we forget how the story ends. Upon receiving his magical ability, Midas converted a few baubles into gold and at first was pleased, until he tried to eat and drink and found that solid gold food was not going to fill his stomach. His prayers to have the ability reversed were answered, and Midas renounced wealth and lived humbly the rest of his days.

IZEA promises easy gold, but those who engage with IZEA may find themselves wishing--as did Midas--for a quick exit. IZEA and other "sponsored conversation" firms are the wrong model for Social Media. Wrong for whom, you might ask? Absolutely everyone!

Why IZEA is Wrong for Brands

Like Midas, who was pleased with his initial results, IZEA claims their early programs furnished positive ROI. Brands would be wise to proceed with caution before basing expectations upon the outcome of IZEA's first programs; marketers have sometimes been enthused by the early success of new tactics and rushed into investments, only to be disappointed by diminishing results as those tactics became more commonplace.

For example, GM O'Connell, founder and chairman of the agency that in 1994 invented the banner ad we know today, noted that the very first banner campaign attracted a 42 percent clickthrough rate (CTR). That first banner ad garnered a CTR 100 to 300 times higher than is common today because it was unique and attracted attention. Paid blog posts and tweets are likely to follow the same path--furnishing some reason for initial optimism but ultimately earning the same consumer indifference and loathing as banner ads. For financial reasons, brands must proceed very cautiously with "sponsored conversation" tactics.

Another reason for brands to reject IZEA and their ilk is the quality of the blogs and Twitter accounts to which they furnish access. The IZEA home page lures marketers with names like Chris Pirillo (Technorati Authority of 537), Janice Croze (Authority of 1388) and Chris Brogan (Number 2 on the Ad Age 150) You don't need to scratch too deeply to see the giant chasm that exists between these people and the typical bloggers and Twitterers offered by IZEA. For example, on IZEA's I quickly found a "verified" blog called "OOooooh what does that do?!" offering sponsored conversations, but it turns out to be not a blog but a spammer's trap. In the IZEA community, this valueless spam site earned three "props!"

IZEA is now plotting to bring pay-per-tweet to Twitter, but this sort of platform already exists. As I noted in a blog post back in May called "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People," has been offering paid Tweet opportunities for some time. As with IZEA, the quality is not what brands expect and demand. In that article I noted, "For just $918, you can sponsor the misspelled, fraudulent 'Official Joe Jonas Brothers' Twitter account, @JoesephJonas. With this sort of quality and authenticity, how could brands possibly lose?"

I am hardly suggesting that brands don't belong on blogs and in tweets, but for conversations to be truly valuable, they must be earned, not sponsored. On Twitter this weekend, I complimented a movie, recommended a brunch, and shared an interesting Social Media friend-tracking tool. I didn't get paid to tweet these things--my comments were earned by businesses that furnished the kind of function or experience I wanted to share.

I'm not even suggesting that brands cannot target bloggers or Twitterers for special attention. Far from it--Social Media PR that focuses on finding the right blogs and crafting the right approach for each blogger is an extremely valuable tool in the social marketing toolkit. But there is a world of difference between a smart, respectful, and customized Social Media PR effort and simply hawking your brand in a marketplace of mercenary bloggers willing to sell their readers' trust to whichever brands pay the price.

Paying for blog mentions is the lazy way for marketers to garner attention in Social Media, and as this approach becomes more common it will be apparent to consumers which brands earn buzz and which need to pay for it. In a medium as transparent as Social Media, brands that get people talking authentically create their own gold, but brands who pay for the attention they cannot earn legitimately will only make their brand's impoverishment of loyalty and influence that much more evident.

Please return tomorrow when we explore "Why IZEA is Wrong for Absolutely Everyone: Bloggers and Consumers".

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What's So Wrong With the Echo Chamber-amber-amber?

A common complaint among Social Media professionals about Social Media is that it has become an "echo chamber." David Armano sneezes, and it seems within minutes a million tweets and retweets cause Kleenex to become a hot trending term on Twitter. While I understand the gripe, I wonder if it misses the point; after all, the so-called "echo chamber" is not without its uses and benefits.

Social Media Explorer featured comments from guest blogger Kevin Palmer that are typical of the growing "echo chamber" backlash:
One thing I have the most trouble getting over is the massive echo chamber that is social media... In the end I guess maybe social media is led by a few people, a few examples, and then everyone else is a self-proclaimed expert even though they are just glomming original ideas from another person twice removed. If that is the case I am going enjoy the seat on the sidelines while you all decide who the pivot man is this week.

Yes, it is annoying to see a bunch of people parroting each other without adding value, but believe it or not, I think that is one of the benefits of the "echo chamber." It is our ability to see and access the tweets and posts of so many different people that permits us to determine which ones add value (and get added to our Tweetdeck lists) and which ones do not (and get ignored or unfollowed). In other words, the "echo chamber" gives the clueless a chance to identify themselves as such. I'm reminded of the Woodrow Wilson quote about Free Speech: "If a man is a fool, the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking."

Another benefit is that, while the "echo chamber" may create a lot of noise, it permits one to discern trends out of that noise. Scanning the tweets from the 2,000 people I follow is a great way to see the forest for the trees--sometimes no single tweet stands out, but it can be the tweets, replies, and retweets on a particular topic that make it apparent something interesting and noteworthy is occurring.

Those who carp about the "echo chamber" also tend to forget that it isn't new, nor is it a phenomenon of Twitter or Facebook. Any community of humans can and will become an echo chamber--Michael Jackson dies, and echoes are heard everywhere from the office water cooler to newspaper headlines to cell phones (AT&T had the largest spike of text messages in its history the day Jackson died). If you drop a kernel of interesting information in the center of any sufficiently networked community, you will create a ripple of discussion; the fact that Twitter allows us to see these ripples across millions of people in real time strikes me less as annoying than fascinating.

My final concern about the grumbling is that one man's "echo chamber" is another man's "Viral Marketing" or "Word of Mouth." As marketers, we cannot complain that posts and comments about the latest Nielsen Media research report are clogging our RSS feeds while at the same time encouraging consumers to tweet, blog, Digg, and post to Facebook the news of our latest product innovation or promotion. You really can't call one thing valueless "noise" and the other valuable "sentiment" just because the latter pertains to your brand.

If the "echo chamber" is getting to you, take a break; log out of Twitter, silence your phone, and turn off the PC. Once refreshed, jump back into the chamber, because that's where news happens, trends develop, opinions form, reputations are managed, influence is created, and--increasingly--where brand value is fostered.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Putting Your Marketing Budget Where the Trust Is

The latest Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey has been released, and it serves as yet another reminder of just how little consumers trust what brands and marketers tell them. The report should provide Social Media practitioners with further support for increased spending on Social Media, since it is clear the way for brands to earn trust is to get consumers talking to each other.

Just 55 percent of consumers have any degree of trust (defined by Nielsen as respondents indicating they "completely" or "somewhat" trust information) in the emails they sign up for, radio ads, and billboards. A slightly higher percentage--around 60 percent--trust the information they receive from advertising in magazines, in newspapers, and on television. Despite Federal law, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, that requires advertising be truthful and fair, barely half of consumers trust what brands say in their marketing communications.

Traditional media fared pretty poorly in the Nielsen report, and some forms of online marketing scored even worse--far less than 50% of consumers expressed any degree of trust in search engine ads, banner ads, and text ads on cell phones. But the news was much better for Public Relations, Digital Marketing, and Social Media Marketing, because those are the areas in which consumers have the greatest level of trust. The four highest media for trust were:
  • Recommendations from people known: 90%
  • Consumers opinions posted online: 70%
  • Brand Web sites: 70%
  • Editorial content (e.g., newspaper article): 69%

It comes as no surprise that consumers would trust the opinions of people they already know, but I think it is a little shocking to consider the trust placed in the opinions of others with whom they are unfamiliar. Think of it this way: Consumers more trust the unsubstantiated, unregulated, anonymous, and grammatically dubious ramblings of complete strangers than they do the expensive, carefully-vetted, beautifully-executed, government-regulated ads placed on TV, radio, and in print.

If you read Experience: The Blog regularly, you'll recognize a recurring theme is that marketers must stop focusing so much effort on broadcasting messages at consumers and put greater effort toward engaging consumers with marketing that is respectful, desired, authentic, personalized, conversational, and valued. The findings of this Nielsen report add to the evidence that the shift toward more social and influence-inducing marketing is vital.

If you are a marketer at an organization, here's a quick exercise: Check your budget for the amount being spent on media buys; now compare this to allocation for PR, your Web site, and Social Media (even assuming there is a Social Media line item). My guess would be few (if any) marketing budgets in 2009 assign greater investments to Social Media, media relations, and digital marketing--channels that earn the greatest level of consumer trust--than to buying media.

To be fair, trust is just one emotional component of advertising, and there are obviously tasks for which print and TV ads are better suited than Web sites, Social Media, and PR, such as broadcasting a tightly-defined message with a great deal of scale. Still, how valuable is broadcasting a message in a medium in which almost half of consumers feel no degree of trust? (We can now respond to John Wanamaker's famous complaint, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." It's the half of all media lost to a lack of trust on the part of the target audience!)

There are signs that budgets are shifting toward Social Media. In March of this year, eMarketer reported on a study by the Aberdeen Group that found "63% of the companies in their survey (defined as best-in-class) planned to increase their social media marketing budgets this year." One in five companies expected to increase their Social Media spending by more than 25 percent, and another 16 percent were planning for an increase of 11 to 25 percent.

This is good news to be sure, but the big percentages may hide what is still extremely modest investment in Social Media. In the same month the Aberdeen Group report was published, Adweek described a Forrester Research study that found "75 percent of marketers have budgeted less than $100,000 for social media efforts over the next year." That great big 25 percent increase could bring Social Media Spending in many companies from $100,000 all the way up to $125,000 (roughly enough to add a Social Media intern)!

Brands certainly cannot give up mass media, but in an age where consumer perception of advertising messages is being filtered through layers of mistrust and marginalized by cynicism, the time has come to make a serious commitment establishing our brands in the ways consumers trust. Soon, being the loudest and broadest messenger in a medium consumers don't trust simply won't count as much as being the most authentic, available, and accessible brand in the media consumers do.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Two Things Wal-Mart Got Right on Twitter (and Five They Did Not)

Most Social Media practitioners would agree that most brands (depending upon size, customer base, and other factors) should have or be creating a Twitter platform for engaging with consumers. There is little doubt of the positive PR and enhanced brand influence that can come from listening to and engaging with individuals who praise, criticize, or microblog a need for assistance with a product or brand.

But how should brands establish their presence in Twitter, and what can be expected of employees assigned to represent brands on Twitter? Wal-Mart offers some practices that other brands may wish to emulate, and some practices that could be improved upon.

What Wal-Mart got right:

  • Established a Twitter page within their Web site: Like brands such as Dell and Zappos, Wal-Mart has launched a page on their site to promote the company's Twitter accounts. The page ( offers several benefits for the brand: It alerts consumers to Twitterers they may wish to follow, promotes the brand's efforts in Social Media, and gives Wal-Mart a chance to separate the official Twitterers (they currently have seven) from the fake accounts and cybersquatters.

  • Set customer expectations: Wal-Mart did something I haven't seen before, and I believe it makes a lot of sense: their site includes a Discussion Guidelines page to communicate what consumers can expect from Wal-Mart on Twitter. For example, these guidelines state, "While we’ll do our best to reply to your comments, generally, we won’t be able to reply to store or service issues through Twitter." Some in the blogosphere have criticized Wal-Mart for a half-hearted approach to customer support on Twitter (and I tend to agree), but it's difficult to argue with the practice of setting customer expectations.

    Of course, it is unlikely many Twitter users would have happened upon the Discussion Guidelines page on, so Wal-Mart did something else that is pretty smart: most (but not all) of their official Twitter bios include the text, "Official Twitter page and discussion policy:" This provides a means for Twitter users to understand what they can can count on from Wal-Mart.

What Wal-Mart got wrong:

  • No uniform branded presence: For a brand that has a strong sense of its visual identity in everything from signage to ads to stores, the Wal-Mart Twitter accounts seem to reflect little of the company's focus on design. The profile pictures have no uniform branding to help establish the accounts as official Wal-Mart accounts; the backgrounds vary; and there is no Wal-Mart logo apparent on most of their official Twitter profile pages. Twitter may be a place for personal connections and individual personality, but these Twitterers should look and feel like Wal-Mart when speaking on behalf of Wal-Mart.

  • Too promotional: There is probably no single trap in Social Media that trips up brands as often as focusing far more on themselves than on their customers, and Wal-Mart makes this common mistake. Of course, you expect accounts like @SamsClubDeals and @WalmartSpecials to be promotional in nature, but even the individual employee accounts like @Walmartkelly and @Walmartkevin focus far more on what is happening at Walmart than they do what is happening with Wal-Mart customers.

  • Lack of activity: Establishing a Twitter page and Twitter accounts is smart; letting them age with little activity is not. In the last month, @Walmartkelly hasn't tweeted even once, and @Walmartmeeting has tweeted just twice. @Walmartkevin and @walmartcheckout haven't shared anything on Twitter in over two weeks. And even Wal-Mart's three promotional accounts (@SamsClubDeals, @WalmartSpecials, and @WMSoundcheck) have a combined total of just five tweets in the past week.

    People are listening--these seven accounts have amassed over 7,000 followers--but Wal-Mart's official Twitterers don't seem interested in sharing very much. The combined total of Tweets from all seven accounts doesn't even exceed 900 as of yet, which is 85% less than my neighborhood liquor store. (Of course, quantity doesn't equal quality, but I happen know that @blatzliquor is seeing demonstrable success from its activities and connections on Twitter; I doubt Wal-Mart can say the same thus far.)

  • Failure to Follow: The three individuals who represent Wal-Mart on Twitter are being followed by over 1,000 people but apparently find only 21 of them worthy of returning the favor. When employees Twitter on behalf of their employers, it's a good practice to follow back every follower unless there is a reason not to (such as spam, inappropriate language, etc.) After all, if people indicate you and your company are interesting enough to follow, what does it say to those folks when the company doesn't find them interesting enough to do the same in return? As one person recently tweeted to Wal-Mart's Kelly: "why not follow back?"

  • Failing to live up to Wal-Mart's own Twitter promises and neglecting dialog: Having gone out of its way to set expectations for its participation on Twitter, Wal-Mart doesn't seem to be living up to these expectations. According to Wal-Mart's own Twitter Discussion Guidelines, "we encourage dialogue with customers" and "we’ll do our best to reply to your comments," but their official Twitterers are having very few discussions with customers on Twitter.

    There is quite a lot of buzz on Twitter about Wal-Mart and Walmart (the company uses both variations)--the brand is mentioned thousands of times a day by both fans and detractors. Obviously, sifting through the mountains of tweets and responding to even a fraction of them would be a monumental effort, but perhaps making some real and visible effort to do so is what might be expected of one of the world's largest brands and a company that promotes its desire to "encourage dialogue."

    Failing to respond to tweets that aren't directed at you is one thing; ignoring the ones that are is an altogether different and worse practice. No one will blame @Walmartkevin for ignoring a spammy tweet offering "information on acqusititon [sic] to take walmart to the next level in the home theater market," but failing to respond to or retweet a message that compliments Wal-Mart's sustainability efforts seems indifferent and rude. @Walmartmeeting has tweeted often about the company's environmental program, so ignoring a question about whether the company has considered wind power for stores seems impolite.

    Of the seven official Twitter accounts, only one is being maintained in a way that demonstrates an understanding of the power of @replies and retweets--WMSoundcheck; otherwise, there is little reason for consumers to believe Wal-Mart is committed to and acting upon its stated objective of engaging customers in dialog.

Most of Wal-Mart's Twitter problems are solvable by creating and enforcing rules for employee Twitter engagement. Brands participating in Twitter must define expectations for employees assigned to the task, and these rules must be explicit enough to provide guidance for employees and furnish a foundation for evaluating employee performance on Twitter. These rules might consider:

  • How many tweets per day or week are expected

  • Rules for tweeting; what topics or language is acceptable and what is not

  • Follow-back guidelines--when should followers be followed?

  • Expectations for when and how to respond to @replies (or direct messages)

  • Expectations for retweeting

  • Expectations for seeking out new followers--since following people is a successful way to build a list of followers, how many new people should be followed each week and what are the criteria?

  • Expectations for monitoring for and responding to brand mentions on Twitter

  • Expectations for engaging with and showing interest in followers regarding non-brand matters.

Wal-Mart has demonstrated foresight in establishing their Twitter page and discussion guidelines, but it seems their employees are being left to their own devices with little guidance for their very public, very visible participation on Twitter. The notoriously strict brand marketer wouldn't leave their advertising to this sort of chance. Creating and communicating a clear set of rules for Twittering employees would help Wal-Mart better establish its brand on Twitter and diminish the chance of Social Media missteps.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Marketers: Consumers Just Aren't That Into You

If marketing were dating, we marketers would be the loneliest guys and gals at the dance. Our shortcoming certainly isn't our level of desire nor the amount of effort we dedicate trying to connect with those in the dating pool--we are lavish with our cash, we obsess about how we look and what we say, and we study our potential partners so thoroughly that we often know more about them than they know about themselves.

So, why does it go so wrong so often? Why don't the objects of our affection return our calls? It doesn't take Abigail Van Buren to diagnose that marketers suffer from the same problem so common to jilted suitors: You cannot build a relationship with someone else by only caring and talking about yourself.

It's not hard to see how toxic the relationship has grown between consumers and we marketers. For example, we fill their evenings with quality televised entertainment for free! And what do we get in return? Consumers are rushing in droves to use DVRs and zap the ads that make "Lost" and "Dancing with the Stars" available at no cost. According to Nielsen, as of March 2009, 30.6 percent of households have a DVR, up significantly from just 12.3 percent in January 2007. And because of ad skipping by DVR viewers, the DVR Research Institute predicts that 16 to 18 percent of all ads may be skipped within two years.

The situation is no different online as in traditional media. Sites like CNN and provide the whole world of news absolutely free; all it costs the consumers is a little time and attention to the blinking ads that accompany that valuable and desired content. But what do those ungrateful consumers do in return? Make Adblock Plus the most popular Firefox plugin, downloaded almost three-quarters of a million times each week!

At least you'd think opt-in email would provide some refuge for beleaguered marketers seeking true love from consumers; after all, email subscribers are people who've told us they want to hear from us. Alas, the story is no different with permission email. According to eMarketer, the open rates for marketing emails dropped to a mere 12.5 percent in the second half of 2008, down from 14 percent a year earlier. Just one in eight marketing messages are opened, and that is by people who want to hear from us!

It's time for marketers to do some soul searching and evaluate why consumers just aren't that into us. Like a date that won't stop looking at himself or herself in the mirror and can't stop talking about themselves, marketers are too often making brands annoyances rather than increasing their appeal to consumers. If we want to earn consumer's love and long-term commitment, we're just going to have to start focusing on their needs and wants.

Last year, Experience: The Blog introduced the Experiential Marketing Continuum, a model for considering (in admittedly broad terms) the way consumers perceive different media as desirable, merely welcome, or very unwelcome.

Some marketing media are considered so heinous and aggravating that consumers seek legal remedies, such as the CAN-SPAM act to combat spam and the "Do Not Call" registry to prevent telemarketing. Other forms of marketing are welcome--they don't foster either a great deal of consumer engagement or spite.

On the far right of the continuum are marketing tactics and media that--when done right--consumers not only welcome but want. They seek out, return to, willingly give up their time to engage with, and even talk about and distribute these forms of marketing. Desired tactics aren't subject to software filters or skipping because consumers are left in control and view these forms of marketing as entertaining, helpful, or beneficial. These tactics build not just loyalty, awareness and purchase intent, but also foster influence--the holy grail of marketing in a highly-connected and social world.

Marketers cannot give up every form of marketing that cause consumer gripes any more than people in long-term relationships can alter themselves to resolve every one of their spouse's quibbles. But the key to a successful marriage--for brands and consumers just like for life partners--is to listen, understand, and build trust and affection by emphasizing the desired over the unwelcome.

Or, if you don't like the dating metaphor, think of it this way: In a world where 18% of your television ads are skipped, 89% of your emails aren't opened, and 5 to 15% of your banner ads aren't downloaded, do you want to invest more in those marketing channels or would you prefer to be engaging in one-to-one and value-added strategies that earn 100% of consumer respect, trust, and attention?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Brands in Social Media? Consumers are Dumb (About What Influences Them)

Pull the plug on those brand programs in Social Media. They have no effect on consumer perception!

That is the conclusion of an article entitled "Social media’s overrated brand game," which sounds this cautionary note about the impact of brand efforts in Social Media: "Social networks are still not the best place to goose up brand perception." This assertion is based on overwhelmingly definitive consumer survey results, so I guess that's that--close the Twitter account, abandon your Facebook fans, and divert your budget away from Social Media!

Except for one thing: People--including you and me--are dumb when it comes to recognizing what influences their own beliefs and actions. The survey referenced in the Adotas article asked consumers to evaluate whether brands' presence in Social Media affected their perception of those brands, which plays directly into a psychological blind spot in human self awareness that is well known to researchers. It's called "third-person perception," and it is defined as the tendency for people to think others are more influenced by mass media than they are themselves.

Put less scientifically: The Workplace Media study is rubbish. They asked 753 office Internet users about Social Media, and "96 percent say that their opinion of a product or brand does not change if it does not have a presence on these sites." Asking people to assess the impact of a medium upon their beliefs and actions has been and always will be a bogus and useless way to evaluate a marketing medium.

Third Party Perception has been documented in several studies. In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver cite several such studies:
"The Third-Person Effect is a relatively new concept, as social science constructs go. It was invented in 1983 by sociologist W. Phillips Davison in a clever article that drew on intuition and public opinion theory...

"(Since then), the Third-Person Effect has been studied by asking participants to estimate communication effects on others and themselves. (For example), U.S. respondents estimated that the news media had a greater impact on others' opinions of the 1996 presidential candidates than on their own views (Salwen, 1998). More recently, research has found that individuals perceived others to be more influenced than themselves by the news of the "millennium bug" in Y2K and environmental problems (Jensen & Hurley, 2005; Tewksbury, Moy, & Weis, 2004)...

"Third person perceptions also emerge in judgements about advertising. Individuals perceived that other people were more influenced than themselves by commercials for household products, liquor and beer, and cigarettes (Gunther & Thorson, 1992; Shah, Faber, & Youn, 1999). Even young schoolchildren exhibit third-person perceptions. Elementary and middle school students perceived that cigarette ads have significantly greater impact on others than themselves (Henriksen & Flora, 1999)."

Of course, if you ask consumers if they want or are impacted by brands requesting they be "friends", we shouldn't be surprised by the answer. As noted on the Fresh Networks blog, research found that almost two in every three respondents to a survey were "fed up with the constant requests to join groups and try new applications."

Why shouldn't consumers be tired of and reject the obsessively self-centered, be-my-fan, let's-talk-about-me attitude of so much Social Marketing nowadays? A couple days ago I wrote about the Kohl's Facebook page where the company's Vice President of Digital Marketing attempted to pass himself off as a Kohl's fan eager to share deals. He hasn't posted since, but the Kohl's Facebook Wall has devolved into a platform for employee bragging. Eight of the last 10 posts are from employees giving shout outs to their stores ("1201 is number 1" and "1308 has the bestest employees"), while the only contribution by Kohl's official Facebook account is a brag about Britney Spears appearing on the Kohl's Web site. Where's the value for consumers? Where's the promise of one-to-one relationships with the brand?

Marketers need to be cautious about evaluating the value of Social Media based on consumers' self perception or consumer opinion of dubious Social Media strategies. Instead, look to the successes enjoyed by Social Media strategies that focus not on the brand but the consumer--Zappos on Twitter; Dell's reversal of brand perception fortunes; Ford's Social Media platform; Adobe's successful Facebook campaign; or ABSOLUT LOMO's UGC and blogger outreach success.

Or, on a small scale, check out the experience of Jessica Gottlieb, as reported on Jessica saw her children off on a trip and waited in the terminal to watch their plane take off; an hour later their plane was still stuck on the tarmac. What's a concerned parent to do? Twitter, of course! Jessica tweeted, “Dear Virgin Air, My children have been on the tarmac for one hour with 90 more minutes to wait. I am at JFK gate b25. Pls RT.” Her followers retweeted, and "within minutes, Virgin had phoned Gottlieb to reassure her that her kids would be fine."

We can debate whether or not brands can afford to respond to every aggrieved consumer tweeting a complaint, but this much is certain: Jessica Gottlieb had her opinion of Virgin America change because the brand was present, listening, and wanted to connect in Social Media. ("The guy who I spoke to at Virgin out of San Francisco was amazing. I think they're going in the right direction.") Perhaps if the survey participants in the Workplace Media study had all enjoyed an experience like this, they might recognize that brands' presence in Social Media does impact brand perception--but only if it's done right and with a focus on consumer needs and not just brand goals.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Caveat Emptor: Do You Know Enough to Buy or Hire Social Media Expertise?

Caveat Emptor is Latin for "Let the buyer beware." It is a call for purchasers to become informed and use due diligence before completing a transaction. If you're a marketer, this is a call you should take very seriously before contracting with a Social Media agency or hiring a Social Media specialist. Care is required if you don't want your brand to end up in the headlines for the wrong reason, as has European furniture maker Habitat.

We've been through this before. A decade ago, with the power of search engines surging, the importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) became evident to marketers everywhere--and they had no idea what to do about it. The Internet was still new and some were yet debating its importance, so the ways of managing a brand's searchability and findability were unfamiliar and strange to marketers accustomed to print ads and FSIs. They, of course, turned to "experts" (either external agencies or new hires), but many had no basis upon which to evaluate that expertise. Disasters ensued.

This brings me to one of my favorite stories of my Internet career. Many years ago, a client asked my agency for an SEO proposal. Their goals were lofty--they wanted the top spot for several very common search terms. We responded with an appropriate proposal based on the best practices of the day; it was not inexpensive, nor did we promise the top spot on Google.

We lost the contract to an "SEO agency" we'd never heard of that was cheaper and made promises to match the aggressive (and unrealistic) goals set by the client. You can probably guess the rest of the story--within months, the black hat tactics used by the other firm (such as hidden text and link farms) resulted in our client's site disappearing from top search engine databases.

This story returned to mind as I read about the trouble in which Habitat has found itself with Social Media spamming. As described on Mashable, the furniture maker was caught seeding Twitter's top trending terms as hashtags into tweets promoting a sweepstakes for those who would join Habitat's email list. If you are reading this post and didn't understand that last sentence, then this should be a very clear warning sign to proceed with caution when contracting for Social Media services or hiring a social media expert, because this action proved to be a PR disaster for Habitat.

With dozens of blogs with tens of thousands of readers complaining about Habitat's spamming of Twitter, Habitat was forced to apologize. The company's note to bloggers said, in part:

The top ten trending topics were pasted into hashtags without checking with us and apparently without verifying what all of the tags referred to. This was absolutely not authorised by Habitat. We were shocked when we discovered what happened and are very sorry for the offence that was caused. This is totally against our communications strategy. We never sought to abuse Twitter, have removed the content and will ensure this does not happen again.

In this case, the error in judgment was not made by a johnny-come-lately fly-by-night Social Media agency (although it could've been) but by an intern.

One of my biggest gripes nowadays is the mistaken belief that I have heard repeated time and again in a form similar to this: "Young adults are so clued into Social Media, so we're going to hire an intern to handle Social Media for our brand." Again, if you are reading this blog and have found yourself thinking an intern is the solution to close the Social Media gap in your organization, this is another warning sign to proceed with caution and seek expertise where you need expertise. Social Media is the most important change in human and marketing communications in a decade, and trusting your brand's presence and reputation to the maturity, expertise, knowledge, and judgment of a 22 year old is as dangerous as it sounds.

Habitat found this out the hard way. Not only did they leave an important marketing channel to an intern, they also completely failed to monitor this channel or their employee. It is evident no one was subscribed to and keeping tabs on the company's own Twitter feed, or if they were, they lacked the Social Media wisdom to recognize a truly horrible and painfully apparent Social Media mistake.

Habitat's reputation has been stung. There have been thousands of tweets and blog posts accusing them of being spammers and exploiting some of the most sensitive and timely situations in the world--including the Iranian elections--for their own gain. Tweets in just the last five minutes as I type this include, "We've seen your apology, but telling us who didn't post them doesn't tell us who did post them. Why did Habitat let this happen?" and "Are u kidding me? @HabitatUK gets an intern to work on the Twitter acc. with no clue and then get rid of him?"

Much like brands stung by improper SEO tactics in years past, the use and abuse of Social Media can result in the kind of disasters that cost money and harm brands. How can a marketing organization with little or no Social Media expertise prevent this from happening? The solution is actually very simple; it's just not necessarily cheap:

  • Get smart now: Social Media isn't hype and it's not going away. Social Media isn't just important to your business, it is your business. Just like today, when every employee and leader is expected to be conversant in the Internet, it will soon become required that every employee understand the best (and worst) practices of Social Media. The quicker you and your organization can get there, the better. This will require both a personal and professional commitment to learn for many marketing professionals.

  • Recognize what you do not know: Knowing what you and your organization do not know is the first, important step in determining how to address Social Media challenges and opportunities. Many organizations have embraced Social Media and are prepared to do it themselves or to apply their knowledge and experience to buy or hire the skills they need, but other organizations are still in the shallow end of the Social Media pool. If you find yourself thinking that the biggest need your organization has is to launch and participate in Twitter and Facebook, then you should take a step back and take time (or find assistance) to define your organization's need before jumping to vendor or candidate evaluation.

  • Recognize the importance of Social Media: A company that recognizes how important Social Media is today and will be in the future does not leave it to an intern or an agency that was founded six months ago and consists of three people. The significance of Social Media to your brand's future and the caliber of the strategy and support needed by your enterprise may become evident when the organization's leaders understand Social Media's growth and future potential.

  • Finally, hire what you really need: I mean no disrespect to the many young people who are active in Social Media both personally and professionally, but most brands wouldn't hire a young adult fresh out of school to manage their media strategy, their brand strategy, or digital strategy. The same should be no less true of Social Media strategy. Mistakes can be costly, and the way to avoid mistakes is to find professionals who not only understand Social Media but also have the appropriate seasoning to know the marketing, legal, PR, brand, internal, and competitive implications of their decisions and actions.
Mistakes are costly and unnecessary, so it is vital that marketers make smart decisions. Finding someone with the ability to tweet is easy; finding the right agency or employee to furnish insight, judgment, and experience in Social Media is not. Securing the maturity and experience your enterprise needs might be the difference between a Social Media presence that builds your brand's influence or destroys it.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Twitter's Big Heart: #thankyouaaron

The next time someone says to you, "Twitter is for narcissists," feel free to tell them to shove it. Last night, the people who make Twitter the phenomenon that it is again confirmed the way they can open their hearts, demonstrate their concern for others, and spread the word about things that matter. The Social Media site, which often can be set abuzz by trifling topics, became a place to pay respects and consider those who gave their lives so that we can celebrate our independence.

On the Fourth of July at around 3 pm PST, David M. Masters, a weight loss guru who uses twitter to promote his business (@davidmmasters), sent a gut-wrenching message to his 2,000 or so followers: "They killed my son, Aaron!"

He soon followed that up with tweets that explained his son was killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber. And then he sent two more tweets that became a call to action for those on Twitter:
On Independence Day, a few hours ago, they killed my son, Aaron in Afghanistan.

I'd like to see "Thank you, Aaron," show up on the Trending Topics for giving his life on Independence Day in Afghanistan.
The news of Aaron Fairbairn's death in Afghanistan spread very quickly as Twitterers shared the story and offered condolences to David. Within a couple hours, the terms "On Independence Day" and the hashtag #thankyouaaron became trending topics on Twitter, and as I write this on the morning of the 5th, over 2,000 people have responded with the hashtag #thankyouaaron. Perhaps 2,000 people doesn't sound like a lot, but keep in mind this happened the evening of a holiday and many people aren't tracking Twitter like they do during the workweek; I believe we will continue to see the number of people who learn and care about Aaron's death grow in the next couple of days.

For me, this was a reminder of Twitter's power, not to the world but to me personally. I had just come home from a Fourth of July picnic. My mood was happy and carefree--I'd enjoyed the company of friends, ate well, and lit the fuses on more than my share of fireworks. Then I saw a tweet from someone I follow and it changed my mood instantaneously. Aaron's sacrifice, his father's anguished tweets, and the concern of those who are complete strangers to Aaron and David put the day and its meaning into perspective.

Of course, this is far from the first time Twitter has shown it is a tool for more than spam and self promotion. When, in the aftermath of Iran's contested election, Iranian twitterers became the primary source of information for news outlets like CNN, thousands of Twitterers changed their location to Tehran and colored their avatars green to support and help obscure the identities of Iranian twitters from that country's officials.

And a lighthearted approach to a serious subject was taken with #blamedrewscancer, which asked people to support Drew Olanoff by tweeting that Drew's cancer was to blame for everything from the war in Iraq to bad hair days. Thousands of people have voiced their support in humorous fashion, and the result was that Drew raised close to $3,000 for the American Cancer Society and $500 for Make-A-Wish.

Yes, Twitter is plagued with spam, prone to manipulation by marketers who tread a fine line between viral marketing and spam, occasionally threatened by malware, and sometimes full of inane chatter, but so is the Internet and the world at large. Twitter reflects the world, and increasingly the world reflects Twitter. This doesn't make Twitter shallow and narcissistic; it makes it human.

That human side is again being shown this morning, with hundreds of people thanking Aaron for his sacrifice every hour. For those who may think that a proper condolence cannot be offered in 140 characters, consider what Aaron's father might be thinking this morning if and when he checks Twitter. He asked for people to thank his son who sacrificed so much for our country, and thousands have done so.

Aaron has caused so many of us to stop and think this weekend about the significance of the holiday, and that more than anything shows the power of 140 characters.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Social CRM & Creating Demand in a Hyper-Connected World

How do you create demand in a hyper-connected world? How is Social Media changing the discipline of sales? And what is "Social CRM"?

Brent Leary, a partner at CRM Essentials and author of Brent's Social CRM Blog, will be discussing these topics in an upcoming Webinar--Driving Demand in a Demanding Market--sponsored by Oracle and hosted by the Details about the Webinar can be found at the end of this blog post, but Brent also took some time to share his thoughts on these topics with Experience: The Blog readers.

Brent sees firsthand the way Social Media is changing Client Relationship Management (CRM). Of course, we all know that Social Media offers new and better ways to create and foster relationships, but it also presents some new challenges. As Brent notes, "'Selling 1.0' doesn't work well at all with social media."

Here is my online interview between Experience: The Blog (ETB) and Brent Leary (BT) on the topics of Social CRM, metrics, and how to drive demand in a hyper-connected business environment:

ETB: Brent, your blog focuses on Social CRM. You also wrote an article for Inc. entitled "Traditional CRM vs. Social CRM." (Note: Because the Inc. Technology page is broken, I have linked to Google's cache of the article.) Can you perhaps start by briefly defining "Social CRM"?

BL: Social CRM is the integration of social media tools and strategies into a company's traditional CRM processes of marketing automation, salesforce automation and customer service. It's about creating content that turns Google information searches into conversations, which eventually transitions into long-lasting business relationships.

ETB: When many people hear "CRM," they tend to think of Client Relationship Management software, but of course the concept is far more holistic than that. How is Social Media changing the understanding and execution of CRM programs?

BL: Increasingly, business relationships are beginning online with a search for information or a query to friends and colleagues on social networks. Blogs, podcasts, video and other forms or social media are being used to create opportunities to engage customers and prospects in conversations that can lead to more formal business relationships.

ETB: How is your organization, CRM Essentials, utilizing Social CRM to drive prospecting and sales?

BL: I've been blogging for over four years and podcasting for almost three. Social media has allowed me to share my thoughts and opinions on the CRM industry, which opened me up to a totally different audience of people. So I can honestly say social media allowed me to build relationships with people I would have never had access to any other way. It allowed me to move from an implementation-focused business to a thought-leadership-driven practice.

ETB: Do you see significant differences in Social CRM for B2C versus B2B organizations?

BL: I think it really breaks down more to the cost of the product and service and the complexity of the sale. The more expensive the sale is, the longer it may take to build the relationship needed for a prospect to feel comfortable enough to enter the formal sales cycle. Likewise, the greater the number of people involved in the process, the more complex it becomes, which means more "know-like-trust" building via social media/social networks may be necessary.

ETB: On your blog, you shared a link to an article that reported on a survey indicating that "companies are struggling to locate enough social-media-generated revenue to justify the time and resources expended on them." I'm curious if you believe the survey results to be accurate--meaning that Social Media is not yet proving an effective tool for B2B sales--or if you felt the survey was affected by perception issues, lack of definable metrics for Social Media, or poor utilization of Social Media by sales personnel.

BL: I think it's hard to measure social media success on traditional ROI measures. Additionally, social media should be viewed as a relationship-creation and -extension tool, not as a traditional sales tool or to deliver traditional sales messaging. In fact, "Selling 1.0" doesn't work well at all with social media. People want good information and an opportunity to dialogue, not to be sold to in the traditional sense. So if you measure social media with traditional methods, and you use social media to deliver traditional messaging, chances for success are minimized dramatically.

ETB: So, how should those interested in sales create demand in a hyper-connected world?

BL: Listen to others via blogs and social networks that your customers and prospects listen to. Share valuable information that will help those customers and prospects succeed - and don't lead with sales information. Participate in the ongoing conversation that are already taking place. Be viewed as a valued member of the online communities in your industry, which will make people much more likely to listen to you when you do speak.

ETB: There has been plenty of attention give to the benefits of Social Media to the sales function within enterprises. What about the risks? What risks do you see in our hyper-connected world and how can sales leaders mitigate these?

BL: Once again, leading with sales-speak will turn people off. People are more interested in having the problems solved and not why your product is great. Using social media to share information and be viewed as a valuable resource can spread like wildfire and create business opportunities more naturally. But building the wrong kind of online reputation can spread even faster.

ETB: On July 15th at 1 pm PST / 4 pm EST, you will be a speaker for a Webinar entitled, "Driving Demand in a Demanding Market." Aside from you, speakers include Dave Brock, President and CEO of Partners In EXCELLENCE, and David Bonnette, Group Vice President of Oracle's North American CRM sales organization. Who should attend this Webinar and what do you hope they'll take away from the experience?

BL: I hope people who attend will walk away feeling a little more comfortable about finding opportunities to engage customers and prospects with social media. The past week has seen people send 65,000 text message a second to share the news Michael Jackson's death. And we're still learning from the Obama campaign's use of social media on his way to the presidency. It's pretty apparent that social media is having a tremendous impact on all aspects of our lives, including business.

If you find this blog post of interest, be sure to check out the Webinar, Driving Demand in a Demanding Market. You can register on for the event, scheduled for Wednesday, July 15th at 1 pm PST / 4 pm EST. Information to be shared includes:
  • Tips to get your sales team smarter and more productive
  • How to identify the right deals and avoid wasting time on dead ends
  • Tools that help manage and measure critical sales performance metrics
  • The role Technology can play in making an impact on your bottom line

Blogger's Note: I was asked to help promote this seminar. I agreed to do so only if I could generate some interesting and unique content for my blog. No money changed hands; this is not a "sponsored conversation" or other euphemism for advertising in Social Media. I believe the seminar and the information furnished by Brent are worthwhile and pertinent to those who read Experience: The Blog. Please let me know if you agree or not!