Friday, August 28, 2009

Who Matters Most in Social Media? Not You!

Please don't take this personally, but you are not the most important person in the world. (Nor am I.) If professionals and brands keep just one thing in mind as they develop strategies and engage in Social Media, it is this: "It's not about me."

In Social Media, you can and should have goals. Having goals helps to define how you establish profiles, who you follow, what you share, and how you measure success. Even for those who use Social Media purely for personal reasons, having goals and gauging qualitative success is vital; we live in a stressful world with many demands on our time, so we ought to be able to judge that our hours with Twitter and Facebook are worthwhile. But no matter your goal, it's vital to focus more on your listeners than on what you care to say.

Right now, Social Media seems like a bright, shiny new toy because it is new to a lot of people. Twitter's been around since March 2006, but as of the end of 2008, 70% of Twitter users had joined in just the past year. Facebook took almost all of 2004 to reach its first million users; thus far in 2009, the site has grown from 150 million to 250 million users.

As with any change in communication technology, Twitter is causing an upheaval in the norms and rules in communication and in this time of uncertainty, people and organizations are inserting their own rules of engagement. Businesses that would never dream of sending a spam email are encouraging their followers to blast valueless brand messages to their Twitter networks. Folks who would never send an email to their entire contact list in order to invite one friend to lunch are announcing their plans to every follower they have on Twitter.

How is one to know what is right and wrong when best practices in a new medium are still forming? That question sounds rhetorical, but it's not. The answer is easy--just think "It's not about me!"

This maxim isn't based on cutting-edge Social Media theory but on two truisms as old as mankind: "Technology changes; people don't" and "Communications is about the understanding, not the speaking."

Technology changes; people don't

Every time technology changes the way humans communicate, someone predicts it will alter the very nature of human behavior, and these predictions always prove wrong. In the 1930s, Philo T. Farnsworth thought his invention, the television, would be "a marvelous teaching tool," ending illiteracy and permitting people from different lands to settle differences "around conference tables, without going to war." Close, but no cigar.

The late 90s were full of financial speculation based on the idea the Internet had changed everything. High banner ad click rates convinced many that content would be free; Ecommerce was going to put stale old bricks-and-mortar enterprises out of business; and profits were derided as some sort of quaint concept like the buggy whip or waiting until marriage. Today, digital news is as much at risk as its printed counterpart because online ad revenues cannot cover costs; the list of top online retailers consists mainly of large offline retailers and manufacturers; and the financial markets made clear the importance of profits when the dot-com crash evaporated trillions of dollars of value, 500 dot-com companies, and half a million high-tech jobs.

Social Media will change much--the size of human networks, our ability to maintain soft relationships, the reach of the individual, and the transparency of organizations--but it won't change humans. We cannot argue that the things people are not interested in today--interruption advertising, spam, others' private conversations, narcissistic self interest, irrelevant babble--will suddenly become in vogue simply because Twitter exists. These types of "me"-focused messages create just as much noise in Social Media as in the real world.

Communications is about the understanding, not the speaking

George Bernard Shaw said "The problem with communication ... is the illusion that it has been accomplished." Twitter is filled with illusion--the illusion every tweet is read; the illusion others are interested in my every thought; the illusion that being followed means being heard; and the illusion that the larger the list, the greater the influence.

None of these statements is completely true, and none is completely false; their truthfulness varies from person to person based on the attention earned from the listeners. Communication doesn't occur because words are uttered or a status update is tweeted; it occurs when those messages reach another person who cares enough to pay attention and can translate the meaning.

Thoughts of caring and attention on Twitter came to mind as I read the comments to my last blog post, Eight Twitter Habits That May Get You Unfollowed or Semi-Followed. I was honored (and lucky) to be picked up by the SmartBrief on Social Media, which resulted in 30,000 views, 67 comments, and 1200 tweets on Social Media Today. The volume of dialog about this blog post permitted some interesting insights about following and listening.

The most contentious part of my blog post was my suggestion that people will tend to tune out Twitterers who publicly thank others for retweets (RT) and #followfriday recommendations. Many thought that a public expression of gratitude was more valuable than a Direct Message (DM). What I found interesting was that, out of all the comments, just one person approached the issue in terms of whether Twitterers like or value seeing others thank each other (which is "you"-focused). Everyone else commented how much they liked to publicly thank people or how much they wanted to be publicly thanked (which is "me"-focused).

My intent isn't to debate etiquette but to encourage people to think of what motivates followers to truly follow and not merely semi-follow; having people on your Twitter list is one thing, but having active listeners is another. Assuming you want to earn attention from those following you, then regularly tweeting a message pertinent to a tiny fraction of your followers seems likely to reduce your relevance and diminish the attention you earn.

Think of it another way: How often have you heard people complain of not having time to Twitter or of being overwhelmed by the microblogging service? Keep those people in mind when you consider these questions: How many of your status updates are of the type that others must scroll past to get to the interesting and pertinent tweets? And how many are perceived as valuable and worthwhile by almost all of your followers?

"It's not about me" doesn't mean you have to approach Social Media with a sense of altruism. It's okay to have objectives, but it's vital to keep in mind the people who earn influence are the ones who focus most on others.

Two comments I received really stood out as shining examples of the "It's not about me" school of thought. Deb Kolaras shared a rule of thumb that forces one to consider his or her status updates from the perspective of others: "Would I say this to a large room of people?" Think of a room full of people including family, peers, and future employers, and consider that they will only "hear" your tweet and not the entire conversation you're having. Will it make sense? Will it be relevant? Is it appropriate?

The second comment came from Christopher Sherrod who summarized this topic succinctly: "People love tweets that are useful. Be useful in your niche and people will follow you."

Who matters most in Social Media? Everyone else! Strive to live by this, and others will perceive your value, listen to you, and connect in a very real way.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Eight Twitter Habits That May Get You Unfollowed or Semi-Followed

Best practices on Twitter are still developing, and everyone seems to have their own preferences and attitudes about right and wrong on the microblogging service. Standards vary widely depending upon whether one is using Twitter just to keep in touch with friends or is tweeting on behalf of their business or employer. Whatever your purpose, you may have some tweeting habits that encourage others to unfollow or semi-follow you.

Before delving into the list of attention-repelling habits, let's first explore the concept of the semi-follow. On Twitter, there are only two possible states for following--a person either follows another or they don't. But while most people still post updates via the Twitter Web site, many use third-party applications that help group and organize followers. People using software such as TweetDeck or sites like HootSuite can follow others with different levels of rigor--some people are followed closely, others are semi-followed, and still others are almost completely ignored.

For example, I follow over 2,000 people, and as my list grew beyond several hundred, I found I was missing tweets from the people I care most about. I could have opted to axe strangers with interesting things to share, but instead I opted (as do most people with large Twitter follow lists) to use a tool to group my Tweeple. I have HootSuite organized with groups that include friends, peers and clients from Fullhouse, local people of interest, marketing thought leaders, news feeds, and Social Media movers and shakers. This gives me the ability to track about 200 Twitter feeds more closely than the remainder of my follow list.

They key to being followed more closely is to say and share things that others care about. This requires a great deal of focus and an awareness of the subtle tendencies that can cause others to begin to tune out, consciously or not. Here are eight things Twitterers do that tend to diminish the attention they receive from others:

8. Constant Tweeting about your own business: I was just followed by a printing company in Raleigh, NC, and every single tweet was about their business--"lowest prices," "visit our site," "why everyone is switching to us," blah blah blah. According to TweetLater, the tool I use to vet followers, over 50% of those followed by this business chose to ignore this account, and it is a sure bet almost none of the remaining 50% will pay any attention to what this Twitterer has to say. Constant self-promotion isn't a stream of tweets, it's a stream of ads, and no one really wants to subscribe to that.

7. People who mistake public tweets for private messages: When you make lunch plans via email, you send a message only to the people you wish to invite and not to everyone in your contact list. This common sense approach isn't so common on Twitter, where some folks seem to believe every communication to anyone should be broadcast to everyone.

As the number of followers grows, the need to cut down on noise increases, so if you wish to encourage your followers to pay attention, keep private communications private and send a public Tweet only when the message may be of interest to many of your followers. The Direct Message (DM) is a powerful tool--don't fear the DM!

6. People who engage in partial and cryptic @replies: Twitter is intended to be conversational, but remember that people will begin to tune you out if they cannot understand or decode many of your status updates. For this reason, it's important when replying that you give context; for example, what is "@you Word," "@you I'm sorry to hear that," or "@you ROFLOL" supposed to mean to people unless they 1) follow both you and the person to whom you're responding, and 2) care enough and have the time to follow the dialog back and forth?

It's one thing to say "@you That Conan O'Brien video clip of Shatner reading Palin's speech was funny," but it's an altogether different and more annoying thing to tweet, "@You That was hilarious." The former gives context that invites attention and replies from others; the latter is just noise that will only have relevance to one person.

5. Just links: Sharing links is a great way to create value for your followers, but please don't share links with no explanation. What is on the other end of a link-shortened URL such as Is this news, a video clip, spam, spyware? I don't know and I don't care--links with no context not only won't get clicked but may encourage others to dump you.

4. Excessive games, sweeps, & viral marketing: I'm a marketer and support the appropriate use of Twitter for participation in marketing promotions. But when a Twitterer becomes obsessed with a game or sweepstakes and litters their Twitter feed with promotional tweets, it isn't any different than spam. Sharing a cool branded video or a relevant sweepstakes is great; tweeting #moonfruit 20 times in 5 minutes because you want to win an Apple computer is just damn annoying.

Of course, smart marketers will find a way to create Twitter promotions that engage others rather than irritate them. For example, Marriott launched an annoying Moonfruit-like promotion at It's causing a minor flood of useless and repetitive tweets like "Trying my luck to win a Hawaiian getaway from @marriotthawaii." As my Twitter friend @RobertKCole pointed out, "This is spam without some form of community benefit, like naming a favorite activity in Hawaii." Marketers need to challenge themselves to get people sharing something of interest and not just spammy and irrelevant tweets, because what worked for Moonfruit once could well become a PR disaster for a brand running a Twitter sweepstakes in the future.

3. Automatic Direct Messages (DMs): Talk about getting a relationship off on the wrong foot--someone trusts a Twitterer enough to follow him or her and then is repaid with an impersonal and spammy Direct Message. Many is the time I've followed someone, received a generic Auto DM, and immediately unfollowed, beginning and ending a Twitter relationship in less than five minutes.

Using an Auto DM may seem like a good way to "welcome" new followers, but most people actually find it very unwelcoming. Also, Auto DMs can fill up peoples' lists of incoming Direct Messages, making it difficult to catch real, valuable, person-to-person DMs.

A move is afoot to shame those who send automatic DMs. The site recently launched, encouraging Twitterers to send an @reply containing the hashtag #stopautodm to those who use Auto DMs; doing so causes the tweet to appear on the site's "Recent Offender Newswire."

2. Publicly thanking others for thinking you're terrific: It's very rewarding when new people follow, when you get cited by others with a #followfriday mention, or when you get retweeted. Each of these occurrences is an appropriate opportunity to thank someone--privately with a DM!

Sending a public tweet that thanks someone for following, for recommending you, or for retweeting your post isn't an expression of gratitude but a boast sent to everyone who follows you. It's a big, needy, self-serving way to make sure a wide group of people are aware that someone thinks you're terrific.

Think of it this way: When you receive a compliment from a boss or peer, do you express genuine gratitude in a private manner, or do you stand on a chair and bellow "Thank you for complimenting my work!" Public tweets that express appreciation for referrals and recommendations are the Twitter equivilent of a vain bellow.

1. Politics, Religion & Sex (unless that is your Twitter profile's purpose): If you create a Twitter profile to support gun rights, gay marriage, your church, or your adult film career, by all means talk politics, religion, or sex; that would be expected by people who follow you. But if your Twitter account is intended to be professional, then tweeting about politics, religion or sex is a good way to offend or annoy some portion of your followers.

Miss Manners' advice is as relevant on Twitter as it is at dinner parties: "Unless you are like-minded old friends, (do not talk to another) about sex, politics or religion. That is not a quaint prohibition. Such subjects as gay marriage, taxes and abortion have been known to explode otherwise pleasant dinner parties." Or Twitter relationships.

Some folks reject the idea of "rules" for Twitter and think anything goes. This attitude may be fine for those who don't really care whether they're followed or what others think, but that's a luxury not afforded most of us with a professional intent on Twitter. The microblogging service hasn't changed the essentials of communications and relationships: People listen to and connect with those who demonstrate concern about their relevance, comprehension, and value to others.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Poll: Social Media Convergence--Are You Using More or Fewer Social Networks?

Today I ran across a couple of interesting studies--Universal McCann's "Power to the People: Social Media Tracker" and ShesConnected's "The Power of Social Networking For Women Research Study."

These two documents are crammed with terrific information, but one thing that caught my eye was some data that indicates a Social Media convergence may be underway. As noted by eMarketer:
Universal McCann also sees a “decline or stasis” in the use of separate sites for activities such as blogging and photo-sharing. Instead, users are looking to social networks that consolidate multiple social media in a single place.

Meanwhile, the ShesConnected report notes:
As the number of Social Network sites proliferate and people become overwhelmed with the number of choices and time required for upkeep, Social Networks with the greatest number of members will thrive. This consolidation will mean smaller networks will be unable to remain viable unless they offer a unique value proposition.

The term "consolidate" appears in both reports. In some ways, the consolidation noted in these reports parallels my own experience; at one point, I tried to keep up with multiple microblogging platforms, but I've long since abandoned Identica and Plurk to focus on (of course) Twitter.

But in other ways, I'm still expanding my Social Networks based on interest, uniqueness, and need. For example, I recently became a paying member of Flickr because uploading low-res images to Facebook sometimes does not satisfy my needs; sharing pictures in Facebook is easy, but doing so in Flickr is the better option when quality matters.

So, I'm curious about the experience of those that read this blog. Are you using more, fewer, or the same number of Social Networks as three months ago? Please answer below:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Twitter's 40.55% "Pointless Babble": The Insights Mainstream Media Missed

FOX News led their "Click This" segment with a laugh and this assertion: "If you feel like you're missing out on this Twitter thing, don't worry, because 40% of the tweets are just pointless babble." Courtney Friel delivered the line in the sort of disparaging tone FOX usually reserves for Nancy Pelosi.

To that, I respond: If FOX News was only 40% pointless babble, it would be a huge improvement!

My gripe isn't only with FOX News; other news sources were quick to jump on the story. For example, V3 featured an article titled, "Twitter is no business tool, says research," which claimed the findings of a Twitter study, "pour(s) cold water on suggestions that Twitter can be used as an effective business tool and news source." That will come as a surprise to the millions of people effectively using Twitter as a news source or the thousands of businesses of all sizes that are already seeing benefits from using Twitter.

All of this Twitter twattle came as a result of a study conducted by Pear Analytics, which certainly got the PR value it desired from the report. Pear says they studied "2,000 tweets from the public timeline over a 2-week period" and categorized these tweets "into 6 buckets: News, Spam, Self-Promotion, Pointless Babble, Conversational and Pass-Along Value."

The study's results as reported on are:
  • 40.55% "Pointless babble." Pear defined these as the "'I am eating a sandwich' tweets."
  • 37.55% "Conversational." Questions, polls, back and forth dialog in an almost instant message fashion.
  • 8.7% "Pass along value." Re-tweets passed along from other Twitter members.
  • 5.85% "Self promotion." Tweets about members' products, services, shows, or companies.
  • 3.75% Spam.
  • 3.60% News from mainstream media sources like CNN.
Pear concludes with this question, "So there is a lot of 'Babble' – What Can We Do About It?" The firm has a helpful answer, "One of our favorite tools we are currently beta testing is called Philtro ( Philtro will take your unruly Tweets and narrow them down to what you actually care about."

What is most interesting to me is how much of the news coverage missed several key points. News sources were awfully quick to repeat the "pointless babble" statistic, but how many dug deeper and drew out any insight? The way this study's "pointless babble" phrase was repeated time and again in headlines goes to show that, despite the fact some deride Social Media being an "echo chamber," this can occur in traditional media as easily as it can in the Social sphere.

Here are some key points that have been largely missed or at least given short shrift in all the media coverage:

Twitter isn't mostly Self Promotion: Pear Analytics conducted the study intending to prove that "Twitter was being used predominantly for self‐promotion." As it turns out, less than 6% of tweets are self-promotion, which hardly seems like a huge percentage given the nature of Twitter. It goes to show that at least one stereotype of the microblogging tool is incorrect, and it begs the question as to what other commonly-held perceptions may also be wrong.

The study was hardly scientific: Pear's White Paper says little about the methodology, and what it does reveal is awfully subjective. For instance, the "news" category only included tweets about topics "you might find on your national news stations such as CNN, Fox or others" and excluded "tech news or social media news." Considering Twitter's early adopters have tended to be tech and Social Media professionals, this seems an awfully arbitrary distinction on Pear's part.

Another questionable definition is that "Self Promotion" (a term that carries a judgmental hint of narcissism) includes "'Twitter only' promos," which some might consider "opt-in marketing." Also, the "Pass‐Along Value" category only counted "tweets with an 'RT' in it," thus omitting both the original tweet that contained the true "Pass‐Along Value," as well as other tweets that use "via..." as a means of conveying credit.

Finally, even the most casual of Twitterer will instantly recognize the inherent subjectivity of these categories. One person's news is another's babble; what is conversational to one person may easily be babble to another. This "study" involved a bunch of Pear Analytics employees eyeballing tweets and stamping them with one label or another, which is about as scientific a way to determine the innate quality of tweets as American Idol is a scientific way to ascertain the greatest singer in America.

For example, last night I tweeted, "Using Digsby? Buried in TOS is fine print allowing it to use your CPU, bandwidth, & electrical power when your PC's idle:" How would Pear have categorized this? It's news, but it's Social Media news, so it wouldn't qualify for Pear's "News" category. I was retweeted, but since my post wasn't a retweet, it wouldn't fit Pear's definition of "Pass along value." This tweet isn't spam, self promotion, or conversational, so I guess Pear would label this "pointless babble." I'd disagree, and I hope you would too.

Twitter is a Communications Medium! Twitter isn't merely a business tool, a marketing medium, or a news dissemination engine; it's a Communications Medium!

The fact that 40.55% of tweets are "pointless babble" is hardly newsworthy unless this statistic is put into some context. Given Twitter is a person-to-person communications medium, what percentage might we reasonably expect to be babble? Have you overheard the idle chatter in a food court lately? What percentage of that is babble? 80%? 90%? More?

How about the weather report in your local news program? All I want is to know is the temperature and precipitation forecast for the coming days, but I have to sit through jokes with the anchors, high pressure maps, the low temperature in International Falls, MN, and a photo of a sunset sent in by Edna Theirfelder of Oconomowoc, WI. If the weather portion of my nightly news was just 40.55% "pointless babble," it would make me ecstatically happy.

If Twitter is only 40.55% babble, that might make it the most information-rich medium in human history, a conclusion quite a bit different than the majority of news stories that covered Pear's study.

What's in it for Pear Analytics? As noted, the research firm published the report and recommended a course of action--use to filter your tweets. The report goes on to refer to Philtro as "they," conveying dissociation and increasing the objectivity of the recommendation. But is this as selfless and unbiased a recommendation as it appears?

You'd think news organizations that wanted to broadcast data from Pear's report to millions might have taken the time to ask a few questions about this recommendation. As it turns out, I found only one news source, The Register, that dug deep enough to uncover a potential (and potentially suspicious) motive behind Pear Analytics' recommendation: Philtro's Founder and CEO, Paul Singh, also happens to be Pear's on-staff Business Intelligence Expert.

I'm not suggesting this relationship colors the results (any more than the subjectivity of the study's categorization process), but Pear owed it to readers to disclose the relationship (some might even call it a conflict of interest) for the sake of professionalism and transparency. It seems evident that had the relationship been disclosed, it might have affected readers' perceptions of the recommendation and possibly even the study results.

With so many news outlets eager to promote this research and hardly any discovering the Singh connection, doesn't that make most of the news coverage nothing but "pointless babble"? I may be exaggerating a little, but the Pear Analytics coverage reinforces something I've observed over the past year: You can't really count on mainstream media to give objective and thorough coverage to topics of Social Media.

Social Media will continue to evolve and change the way humans communicate and brands are built, but you won't really find the interesting, perceptive, and important details conveyed by traditional news outlets. For that, digital and Social Media will remain the best source for those who want to see where Social Media is going.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Paid Blog Posts: Ways to Protect and Enhance Brands

This is the second of a two-part post about the law, ethics, and risks of Paid Blog Posts and how marketers can protect their brands while participating in "sponsored conversations." Part One was "Paid Blog Posts: The Need for Total Disclosure But Only Partial Independence".

Tom Gray was right: Money Changes Everything. Start with a group of people with the desire to share experiences, observations, information, and knowledge; add a large number of subscribers; insert cash-rich brands struggling with the slow bleed of ad-supported channels; and what do you get? Bloggers extorting free product from brands; bloggers who rave about tourist destinations while failing to reveal the free trips they receive; brands offering payments for positive reviews; brands spamming blogs' comments to promote themselves; fake brand-sponsored blogs (or flogs) masquerading as legitimate consumer-generated content; and brands so desperate for attention in Social Media that they'll exploit global news and events in order to spam consumers.

How bad has it gotten already in the blogosphere? So bad that you can't even trust mom. (Next we'll be questioning the authenticity of apple pie.) has a front page headline today asking, "Can you trust 'mommy bloggers'?" The answer is apparently not. "There has been a turn of goodwill [against mommy bloggers]," says Liz Gumbinner, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Cool Mom Picks. The influx of advertiser money has "created a new generation of bloggers who blogged to get free stuff."

It's a sad sign of maturity that the once (relatively) altruistic world of blogging is now struggling with the invasion of commerce. Some bemoan this, but it's always been inevitable that some bloggers with lots of readers would want to monetize and that brands would pay to reach those readers. The problem today is that there are no rules of the road for either bloggers or brands, and as noted in the list above, mistakes are both common and embarrassing.

The next year or two is going to see substantial changes coming to the blogosphere, with firms like Forrester offering guidance that will become de facto standards and the FTC jumping into Social Media with strong new rules. Even then, with the world of Social Media continuing to evolve, brands that aren't careful can stumble, and doing so in our ever more connected world can be costly and damaging.

In my last blog post, we explored how brands can pay for posts in a way that meets important ethical and legal standards for advertising. We focused on the concepts of Disclosure and Independence, but are these enough to protect brands? No, conducting business in a legal and ethical manner are table stakes, but brands will not enhance their reputations or protect themselves from all harm merely by being legal and ethical.

What else should marketers consider when planning and executing "sponsored conversations" in the blogosphere? Before we explore this question, it's important to remind ourselves why marketers are so eager for bloggers' attention in the first place; after all, brands already have access to advertising vehicles on blogs that are far easier and less risky than paid blog posts, such as banner ads and Google's AdSense. The reason that brands want mention and acclaim within the content of blogs is, as noted by Forrester's Josh Bernoff, that "sponsored conversations" done right are genuine because they are in the blogger's voice.

Being "genuine" is important; being perceived by consumers as "genuine" is vital. Marketers must not lose focus on the goal of promoting genuine dialog on blogs or doing anything that would undermine perceived authenticity in the minds of blog readers. With this in mind, we can explore how brands can create or undermine genuine dialog with "sponsored conversations."

Form of Payment to Bloggers

As Jeremiah Owyang points out, the form of compensation matters. He's identified eight types of compensation for bloggers, ranging from blogola to access. It is very important for marketers to understand that these forms of payments are not equivalent options and that the way bloggers are paid may be more important than the amount they're paid.

Cash: If all brands want to do is buy blog awareness and links without regard for the impact on consumer perception, then paying cash to bloggers is fine. Of course, marketers do care about consumer perception, which is why writing a check for a blog post is a weak and risky option. Paying cash for a blogger to post about your product does not buy authenticity for that product; in fact, it does the opposite.

My hope is that, as disclosure and transparency become the law and expectation in the blogosphere, we'll see the disappearance of marketplaces that connect greedy bloggers wanting to sell the trust of their readers and brands looking for the easiest way to be mentioned within blog content. After all, when fully disclosed at the outset of a blog post, what blog subscriber would continue reading past the words, "This blog was paid $500 to write 300 words about Jinkies cereal...?"

Product Demonstrations: While blog readers are apt to find posts less genuine when bought and paid for with cash, they will have a different reaction when bloggers are compensated with free or demonstration products. Readers will be more inclined to engage with and believe posts that begin, "I was given the opportunity to try new and improved Jinkies cereal, and here's what I thought..."

No one objects when a movie reviewer gets to see a preview of a film for free, and we expect car makers to lend new models to "Car and Driver" magazine for the purpose of evaluating and publishing reviews to their readers. Access and product demonstrations are forms of compensation that increase the authenticity and reduce the risk consumers will punish brands or bloggers with diminished trust. (Of course, depending on the product, there is a huge difference between giving a product and loaning it to bloggers--see below for a discussion on the importance of perceived value.)

None: The only form of compensation that can be completely disclosed without any risk whatsoever to brand sentiment is none--nothing of value given to bloggers other than great brand experiences that motivate them to share.

Social Media hasn't changed the basic principles of Word of Mouth. The same is true today as ten, twenty, or fifty years ago--the best form of advertising isn't tell people things but to get people telling each other. Of course, advertising will always be a vital part of the marketing mix; brands like Disney were built and are maintained with large investments in advertising, but the company's ads are not why Disney World was mentioned on 10,000 blogs in the past week while Six Flags' 14 parks were mentioned only 4,300 times. Creating authentic buzz on blogs with no special compensation is the ultimate answer to the challenges and opportunities presented by Social Media.

Of course, getting people talking is still hard work! As noted by the Word of Mouth (WOM) Marketing Association, "Word of mouth can be encouraged and facilitated. Companies can work hard to make people happier, they can listen to consumers, they can make it easier for them to tell their friends, and they can make certain that influential individuals know about the good qualities of a product or service." In short, "sponsored conversations" may have a place in building WOM, but it must be a portion of an overall WOM plan and not a replacement for it.

In the end, smart marketers will challenge themselves to avoid the easy path of pulling out the checkbook to pay off bloggers and instead seek ways to create genuine buzz in genuine ways. A fan who raves (without compensation) about a positive brand experience is extremely authentic; a blogger given a product to review is mostly authentic; a person given cash to say something on their blog does not convey genuine sentiment and (when properly disclosed) will tend to reduce rather than enhance the brand's authenticity.

Perception of Financial Value of Offers to Bloggers

Whether or not compensation is monetary, the cash value of the offer must be carefully considered by marketers. This is because the value given to a blogger in return for a paid post will be subconsciously assessed by consumers as they weigh the credibility of the sponsored conversation, the blog, and the brand.

To illustrate this point, let's return to the example previously introduced of new car reviews in auto enthusiast magazines. Subscribers of car magazines understand the quid pro quo between automakers and the publication: Car makers lend cars to the magazine for the purpose of evaluation and review; they don't transfer ownership of the cars to the writers. If readers learned that "Car and Driver" reporters were making tens of thousands of dollars a year by reselling the "gifts" they received from car makers, this knowledge would substantially affect the perception of trust for both the magazine and the brands. (Even under the system of loaned cars, it still caught some bloggers' attention when Motor Trend editor Arthur St. Antoine admitted he didn't even own a car because he had access to "too many test cars.")

How should appropriate cost or value be determined for a paid blog post? Relying on the traditional impressions/readers/eyeballs method of pricing paid media is extremely dangerous for "sponsored conversations." Marketers need to recognize the distinction between paid advertising on blogs (which can vary by the number of impressions) and paid editorial on blogs (which should not). While this may sound counterintuitive, marketers must never lose sight that their actions in Social Media must be seen as genuine by consumers.

Blog readers will likely accept the authenticity of a blog post from a mommy blogger who received a case of free diapers for the purpose of sharing relevant perceptions with her readers. But will readers' perception of authenticity scale with the size of the blogger's audience? If a blogger with a thousand readers receives one case, should a blogger with 10,000 readers receive 10 cases and another with 100,000 readers get 100 cases?

No, consumers' perception of authenticity is based on factors other than the size of the blog's audience. While marketers will and should consider the size and composition of a blog's audience when identifying potential blogging partners, the only factor that matters when determining the value of the offer is how it will be perceived by consumers. Paying more to a blogger with a large audience is risky because it not only raises the question of the authenticity of the blogger's sentiment but does so across a wide audience.

The question of how consumers will perceive value is a tricky one, because it is subjective and not objective. The perception of value will vary based on a variety of factors such as:
  • Actual dollar value of compensation

  • Form of compensation

  • Type of product or service

  • Type of blog

  • Contractual obligation of the blogger
Consider your own reaction to the following similar situation:
  • A blogger is paid $1,500 for a blog post of 500 words.

  • A blogger's trip to a brand tradeshow (worth $1,500) is paid by the brand with the expectation of a three blog posts about the brand.

  • A blogger's trip to a blog conference (worth $1,500) is paid by a brand with no expectation of coverage for the brand.

  • Ninety-five boxes of disposable pull-up training pants (3800 diapers worth $1,500) are sent to a mommy blogger, enough diapers for 12 to 18 months for one child.

  • A car maker loans a car to an auto blogger for a month, and since it can no longer be sold new, the loss of value of that car is in excess of $1,500.

  • A blogger is given the opportunity to give away a $1,500 prize as part of a brand-sponsored contest on the blog. No direct compensation is paid to the blogger, but this promotion allows him or her to increase the blog's readership and earn more money from the paid advertising on the site.

  • A blogger is paid $1,500 cash for 15 hours of consulting and research conducted by the brand into the needs and wants of consumers (with no anticipation of coverage on the blog).

  • A blogger is given the opportunity to interview the CEO of the company in order to furnish content for the blog. The executive's time plus the time required to arrange the interview costs the organization $1,500.

Each of these situations has an actual, objective value of $1,500, but the perception of consumers will vary widely. Brands should proceed with caution, deal only with reputable bloggers, generally avoid cash compensation, and above all research and test the way different forms and amounts of compensation will be perceived by consumers. Compensating bloggers for posts may be a form of paid media, but treating it as if it's just another option in your media mix--a simple question of reach and impressions--can be very harmful to brands in Social Media.

Blog POV

The final dimension that should concern marketers as they evaluate options for sponsored conversations is the Point of View (POV) of the blog. This includes several factors such as:
  • What is the blog's POV with respect to Paid Blog Posts? How often does the blog participate in sponsored conversations? What brands has it promoted in the past? Under what circumstances has it taken paid blog posts? Has it furnished readers with appropriate disclosures? These are questions that should influence a brand's willingness to work with one blog or another.

  • What is the blog's POV with respect to the brand? A blog may have never mentioned the brand in the past, may have criticized it, or may have praised it. If the blog has been critical of the brand in past, that doesn't necessarily mean it should be avoided; in this case, marketers should consider if the criticism was reasonably fair, dispassionate, and professional. A toilet paper company would be well advised to avoid attempting a "sponsored conversation" with a blogger who rails against the destruction of forests, but finding someone who has complained about the texture of the toilet paper may make sense when rolling out a new, softer version of the product.

    Of course, sometimes a brand may find bloggers that have praised the brand or perhaps even find blogs dedicated to promoting the brand. It is not uncommon to find blogs such as Only WDWorld and Harley Davidson Sportster--blogs dedicated to a brand. The rules of the road in terms of maintaining credibility are different on these sorts of blogs since there is no allusion to objectivity. If your brand has fan blogs, this opens up additional opportunities for "sponsored conversations" or other forms of relationships with reduced risk.

  • What is the blog's POV on brands, marketing, the category, or the world at large? Making sure a blog is aligned with and appropriate for a brand is vital when marketers create partnerships with bloggers. There are many ways a brand could be embarrassed by an association with a blogger, and since the rules for bloggers are far less defined and rigid than for traditional media, brands must proceed with caution. Thorough vetting is necessary to make sure the blog and blogger demonstrate the sort of professionalism, consistency, attitude, and beliefs that enhance and support the brand.
Clearly, blogs are here to stay and will only grow in importance to readers and marketers. And there is no stopping the flow of money to bloggers from brands eager for more Social PR. This is recipe both for success and mistakes. Some marketers will succeed in building their brands authentically using Social Media and blogs, but others will get caught in embarrassing situations involving inappropriate disclosure, unethical influence, excessive payments, or improper control of bloggers' content.

Social Media may provide an opportunity for your brand to go viral, but it does the same for your mistakes. A single embarrassment can undo a great deal of brand building in Social Media, so the burden is on marketers to proceed cautiously and with a full understanding of the risks.

If you have additional thoughts on the factors that enhance the opportunities and minimize the risks, please comment!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Paid Blog Posts: The Need for Total Disclosure But Only Partial Independence

Calling the world of blogs the "blogosphere" makes it sound futuristic, but the truth is that it's more like the Wild West. There are few best practices; no recognized industry organization has the power to set or enforce standards; rules are in flux (with the FTC currently reevaluating their guides); and modern-day brothel owners are eager to tell you how easy it is to buy blog love. ("Hey big boy, hot Playboy bunnies crave to tweet you!")

There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the best way to gain attention in Social Media is to earn it honestly with great brands that resonate with an audience, terrific consumer experiences, and customer service that delights. But for marketers who wish to pay for blogger attention, there are controllable factors that can help to protect the brand and diminish the risks.

I decided to revisit the topic of "sponsored conversations" after an interesting week of discussion. Four days ago, I posted a purposely provocative article to my blog entitled, My Paid Blog Post on the Forrester Blog. In it, I pointed out an apparent contradiction between Forrester's guidance on paid blog posts and their own site's rules against paid blog posts. Forrester's Josh Bernoff responded with a fair clarification of their stance in a blog post entitled "To Augie Ray: Thanks for the offer, but we don't take sponsorships." I very much appreciate the insightful, serious, and interesting dialog that has occurred within the comments of my blog and elsewhere, particularly from Josh and his Forrester peers, Jeremiah Owyang and Sean Corcoran.

The experience has caused me to reconsider my opinions of "sponsored conversations." I still believe very strongly that paid blog posts carry enormous risks for brands--legal, ethical, and, most of all, consumer perception--but there also is a place for brands to compensate bloggers for attention in the blogosphere. The problem is that, in lieu of established standards and governing bodies, there is no alternative for marketers except to proceed with care, knowledge, and a great deal of preparation to build meaningful relationships with relevant bloggers. "Sponsored conversations" may be paid media, but smart marketers will treat them more like strategic partnerships than advertising.

To properly explore the benefits and dangers to brands, we first have to recognize that the "sponsorship" in "sponsored conversations" can take a wide variety of forms. On his blog, Jeremiah Owyang identifies eight types of blog compensation. While paying cash to bloggers is easy, it also raises the greatest ethical fears and risks for the brands. But what about free product, junkets, and access? (I've been offered and turned down monetary compensation for coverage on Experience: The Blog, but I haven't hesitated to use those opportunities to gain access to information and insight I can share on my blog; in essence, I've accepted compensation in form of interesting content, opinion, and experience for my readers.)

With no established standards, what can marketers do to ensure their paid blog posts authentically build brands in Social Media? What factors separate blogola (the Social Media version of radio's payola scandal) from the sorts of compensation arrangements that meet with the approval of consumers and the FTC?

I believe there are several factors that marketers must consider when participating in sponsored conversations. We'll explore the first two--which largely pertain to issues of law and ethics--in this blog post. In my following post, I'll suggest several other factors that marketers must consider to protect their brands from risks and harm when paying for coverage on blogs.

The first two important factors for brands are Disclosure and Independence. It's important to note that these are not simple elements that merely are present or not. Both Disclosure and Independence have nuances and complexities that marketers must understand to avoid costly and embarrassing mistakes when compensating bloggers:

Paid Blog Post Disclosure

Not all disclosure is equal. To be effective, disclosure must be clear and conspicuous, detailed, and complete.

Clear and conspicuous: If a blogger is contractually obligated to furnish coverage in exchange for compensation of any kind, this fact must be evident to even the casual reader. Consumers must know when they are being exposed to paid advertising in manner that is instantaneously obvious. A small disclaimer at the end of a long blog post isn't conspicuous--it doesn't inform consumers until after they've dedicated time and attention.

Consumers seeing an advertorial ad in a newspaper know it's an ad with little interpretation and no doubt. These article-like ads are identified as paid media in several visual ways including special fonts, backgrounds, or borders, but mostly by plastering the ad with the word "advertising." For example, here is a blog post about just such an ad that appeared in L.A. Times, and it not only demonstrates how print advertorial ads are set apart from content, but also the risks that come from ads that appear to be editorial, even in established media like newspapers.

What would be the equivalent for blogs? How might paid blog posts be instantaneously identified as such by even a casual blog reader? Perhaps the term "Advertisement" should appear in the blog headline or in a repeated background image. Or, the very first paragraph of a blog post could declare the article is a paid advertisement in letters that are bolded and highlighted. No disclosure standards exist (yet), so it is left to marketers to establish the disclosure rules they feel are essential to protect the brand, ensure consumer acceptance, and adhere to legal and ethical expectations.

Detailed: The second aspect of disclosure is that bloggers must be thorough in revealing the form and amount of compensation. Consumers must know if cash was paid, free product was given, or the blogger received some other form of remuneration. I'd also suggest that the value of this compensation be disclosed to ensure the sort of transparency expected in Social Media and to protect brands from lost trust should consumers subsequently learn of unexpectedly lucrative blogger agreements.

Some may argue that disclosing the value of compensation is more than is necessary since magazines and television networks don't reveal the cost of their ads to consumers. This is true, but the difference with paid blog posts--and it is an important one to both brands and bloggers--is that what is being purchased is not merely advertising but editorial attention. Brands do not need special disclosures when paying for traditional and customary online banner or AdSense advertising on blogs, but when a blogger's words and sentiment may be influenced by compensation, consumers need to know more.

This is one area the FTC is specifically exploring as it considers more thorough rules for sponsored conversations. In their proposed new guides, an example is furnished of a gaming blogger being provided a new game system to review; the FTC states, "the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge." While these guides are not yet approved and in place, it is clear that bloggers compensated for posts are going to be expected to disclose far more than is common today.

Complete: To protect their brands, marketers must ensure bloggers reveal any special arrangements between brands and bloggers, not merely when a pay-for-post agreement exists. In the same way newspapers are expected to disclose their interests and potential conflicts when covering a story, bloggers must do the same to protect the credibility of both the blog and the brand.

I call this the "wink wink nudge nudge" rule. It is designed to protect against questionable and risky situations such as when a brand pays a blogger to be "a consultant" without (wink wink nudge nudge) defining any specific quid pro quo on the blog. Or when marketers pay a blogger to furnish content for the brand's site without any agreement (wink wink nudge nudge) for positive coverage on the blogger's own blog. Any time marketers feel a "wink wink nudge nudge" coming on when negotiating deals with bloggers, that's evidence the circumstances may not meet ethical standards or require greater disclosure.

Paid Blog Post Independence

In some ways, disclosure and independence are opposing forces in the battle for consumer trust. For paid blog posts to have authenticity for brands, consumers must feel the blogger is working independent of brand interference, but the moment we disclose the presence of an agreement, consumer trust begins to erode. Nothing marketers or bloggers do will prevent some degree of suspicion that the brand's consideration to the blogger didn't just buy coverage but in fact positive sentiment.

This sounds like a problem of perception, but this is an issue as much of reality as perception. Once we compensate bloggers, how do we know that we haven't swayed their opinions? Let's be honest, what do we marketers really want when we compensate bloggers--mere coverage or positive sentiment such as praise, endorsements, and recommendations? If we compensate a blogger and he or she bashes our brand, will this impact our willingness to pay this person again? Consumers are smart; they know the answers to these questions and don't need any excuses to be suspicious of paid blog arrangements. Any missteps or mistakes will be costly and consumer reaction will be unforgiving, so brands and bloggers must strive to make independence a reality even though it's a battle for consumer perception we cannot completely win.

One irony of paid blog posts is that while consumers, bloggers and Social Media practitioners may demand the complete and total independence of bloggers, the FTC has different ideas. For brands, there can be such a thing as too much independence, because the onus is still on the brand to make sure the compensated blogger's content is accurate. This is paid media, and like all paid media, the FTC expects advertisers to ensure accuracy.

In the proposed rule changes, an example is cited of a skin care products advertiser purchasing editorial coverage via a blog advertising service. In the example, the blogger makes a product claim that is not true, and the FTC notes, "the advertiser is subject to liability for false or unsubstantiated statements made through the blogger’s endorsement." The FTC goes on to suggest:

"In order to limit its potential liability, the advertiser should ensure that the advertising service provides guidance and training to its bloggers concerning the need to ensure that statements they make are truthful and substantiated. The advertiser should also monitor bloggers who are being paid to promote its products and take steps necessary to halt the continued publication of deceptive representations when they are discovered."

This is dangerous ground for marketers. Asking for prior review of bloggers' posts is considered a very troubling practice that undermines the necessary independence of the blogger. Asking for such a review--even in the absence of intent to evaluate and control sentiment--can influence the blogger's words and stated opinions. Conversely, leaving bloggers to their own devices can expose brands to risk. Best practices will develop, but for now it's clear brands must:

  • Set expectations that bloggers will be factual and will validate or ask for confirmation of all statements of fact contained within paid blog posts;
  • Furnish vital brand facts to bloggers so they can write their posts with both independence and knowledge;
  • Monitor the bloggers who are compensated to ensure their accuracy.

Another practice that I believe will develop is that the level of independence afforded to bloggers will be part of the disclosures associated with paid posts. Did the agreement require the mention of a product's new feature? Was there an expectation of positive sentiment? Was the brand given the opportunity to review the blog post before it was published? Or did the brand furnish compensation with no expectation as to content, sentiment, prior review, or anything else other than accuracy?

If brands want to pay for play in Social Media where transparency is king, queen, and prime minister, then the independence afforded bloggers must be as great as legally advisable and disclosed thoroughly.
    Disclosure and Independence are the primary factors that ensure paid blogging is executed in a legal and ethical manner, but there are other attributes that can help or significantly harm a brand's reputation when compensating bloggers. We'll explore these other important factors--which include form of compensation, financial value, and the blog's existing and implicit credibility--in my next blog post on Experience: The Blog.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009

    My Paid Blog Post on the Forrester Blog

    My opinion of "sponsored conversations" (aka paid blog post advertising) is well established. I feel paid blog posts are wrong for brands, wrong for bloggers, and wrong for consumers. But Forrester, the respected and renowned research firm, disagrees and has unequivocally stated that paid blog posts are fine. So, I am extending a financial offer for a "sponsored conversation" on the Forrester Blog--one that thoroughly abides by Forrester's own guidelines. I trust Forrester will accept my offer and tell me where to send the check.

    As I researched the topic for past blog posts, I was disappointed to find Forrester analysts--among them the author of best-selling Social Media book, Groundswell--to be supporters of paid blog posts. At first I was going to complain about Forrester's stand on this topic and perhaps write a blog post where I expressed that my opinion of Forrester has been diminished, but then I realized this wasn't a problem but an opportunity: If Forrester thinks paid blog posts are good for brands and bloggers, that means I can buy some attention and inbound links for Experience: The Blog from the widely read and trusted Forrester Blogs.

    So, here's my open offer to Forrester: I'll pay $500 for a "sponsored conversation" on your Groundswell blog. My guidelines are simple: You can write whatever you want, provided your blog post is dedicated to Experience: The Blog, contains more than 200 words, includes at least one link to my blog, and you mention my name and the name of my blog.

    This offer is completely sincere, but I don't really expect Forrester will even consider the financial arrangement. They are averse to any action that would convey even a hint the objectivity of their analysis or opinions has been compromised by compensation from third parties. In fact, it's right there in their Integrity Policy:
    "Forrester employees may not engage in activities that will compromise -- or appear to compromise -- the integrity of our research... Our independence allows us to produce research and offer advice that express clear opinions. Forrester's research agendas, judgments, and conclusions are solely under our control. Client companies cannot purchase research coverage or favorable opinions... Forrester's internal policies create an environment where clients and vendors cannot wield undue influence on our research topics and judgments."

    So, why is it wrong for Forrester bloggers to sell coverage but okay for other bloggers to do the same? Perhaps we can get some clues from Forrester's "Why Sponsored Conversation--aka Paid Blog Posts--Can Make Sense," available via link from the IZEA web site. (You'll find the link to the Forrester Report adjacent to IZEA's "Caveman’s Guide to Sponsored Conversations," because when it comes to advertising and brand integrity in Social Media, who can you trust more than a cartoon caveman?)

    According to Forrester Analyst Josh Bernoff, paid blog posts are "Genuine" and bloggers can retain credibility if they disclose that they are being paid and are able to write whatever they want, positive or negative. I'm not sure I agree, but if Bernoff believes this, there is absolutely no reason Forrester blogs should not accept my paid blog post. I'm happy to have them write whatever they want and to disclose the compensation. Per Forrester's guidance, this deal works out just fine for everyone: my blog gets a boost in attention and Forrester keeps their credibility.

    It should come as no surprise that Forrester's stand on paid blog posts has drawn fire. David Churbuck wrote a blog post titled, "Shooting fish: Blog Sluts" in which he says, "Payola is crossing the line. Contextual advertising or an overall sponsorship is one thing. But paid posting is a no go." Over on the CenterNetworks blog, Allen Stern wrote, "The real risk to brands is the damage they could face from having people spew amazingly positive comments about their products... Look at the damage that Walmart and Sony faced last year with their blogging efforts. I can provide many examples of brands being tarnished by making bad decisions." And Adam Singer wrote to brands on TheFutureBuzz, saying "People are going to ridicule you for your efforts, even if you are being transparent and the bloggers themselves disclose the situation. They will see that you aren't creative enough or have a good enough product to warrant coverage on your own, thus you have to pay for it."

    Forrester has had to defend their opinion on this matter on their blog. Back in March they addressed Google's statement that "paid posts should not pass Page Rank." Forrester cited IZEA founder Ted Murphy's challenge that it would be "virtually impossible for Google to police this." That's an interesting assertion coming from IZEA, considering that's the same objection IZEA critics have leveled at the "sponsored conversation" marketplaces IZEA operates. IZEA has a strong "Code of Ethics," but how can consumers and brands know IZEA's bloggers are living by those rules? They can't, as evidenced by the fact one of IZEA's own high-profile Featured Bloggers was recently caught blogging and tweeting without disclosure.

    More recently, the Forrester Blog returned to the subject when the FTC signaled it would be taking a close look at the practice of paid blog posts and hinted at tough new rules of disclosure. I sensed some defensiveness in Forrester's May blog post, as they said they felt it necessary to update and clarify (but not change) their position. Forrester reiterated its position that "marketers can compensate certain bloggers to create content for their brand in an above board fashion" (emphasis theirs).

    Which brings me back to my offer to Forrester Blogs. Forrester's opinion on paid blog posts couldn't be clearer. It's been stated, restated, revisited, and confirmed multiple times: Paid blog posts are fine provided the commercial arrangement is disclosed. So again, I repeat my offer: $500 for a paid blog post, and of course, I expect nothing less than total transparency, independence, and authenticity, which will protect Forrester's interests per their own professional opinions.

    Of course, Forrester will not accept this offer, and those seeking to understand the benefits and drawbacks of "sponsored conversations" would be well advised to look at Forrester's actions, not their words. Forrester won't accept paid blog posts because doing so--even with total disclosure and transparency--would reduce their credibility, damage their brand, and harm their business. The fact they feel these ramifications are right for Gawker, Huffington, or Experience: The Blog but not for themselves says more about their attitude on paid blog posts than anything found in their reports on the topic.

    Monday, August 3, 2009

    Twenty Minutes a Day to Twitter Success

    No two Twitterers are alike, which means the needs of individuals Twittering are unique. Despite this, there are some quick and easy habits that can help you conquer Twitter, no matter if your account is purely personal, employee, corporate, or brand (four types of Twitter accounts identified by Jeremiah Owyang).

    Some people have derided Social Media as a "time suck." My belief is that if you feel this way, you're doing it wrong, unless your goal in Social Media is to kill time (and if it is, then stop complaining about the "time suck").

    Certainly, it's easy to get sucked into Twitter debates, Facebook quizzes, viral videos, and the like. While a certain amount of random surfing and inconsequential discussion can be fun and even vital for creating personal connections, these are the sorts of habits that can overwhelm one's time and get in the way of successful Social Media participation.

    The key is to know what your goal is--do you merely want to get closer to family and friends, promote a brand, or advance your career? If you know your goal, then it is less likely you'll get waylaid by frivolous activities such as the "Five Things I'm Usually Wearing" quiz on Facebook. (The only reason I am even remotely interested in this quiz is that I may de-friend anyone whose list does not include underwear.)

    Twitter doesn't have all the diversions of Facebook (which is probably why its adoption rate is higher among older, busier, and more professional people). Still, Twitter can be overwhelming and distracting. If you know your goal, wish to enjoy and create success on Twitter, and are looking for some assistance with helpful and productive habits, here are my suggestions for Twitter in just 20 minutes per day:

    Three Minutes Fives Times a Day: Monitoring, Dialog, & Sharing

    When it comes to Twitter, real success requires a certain amount of monitoring and vigilance. Since Twitter is such a real-time form of communications, it can help if you constantly keep Twitter open in your browser or via your mobile phone. I'm not suggesting you stare at Twitter 24/7, but it can be beneficial to have your Twitter feed instantly available for whenever you have a minute or two free and can glance at what is happening in the world and with your followers.

    This sort of constant availability is not for everyone. For those who can't afford or don't want to stay in touch with this sort of persistence, my recommendation is to find three minutes five times a day. In that three minutes, you should:

    • Sign into Twitter or your favorite Twitter tool.

    • Check recent tweets in your friend feed. Look for one or two that are interesting and pertinent, and retweet or reply to them. If your friends retweet or reply to someone you don't know, consider adding that person to your follow list.

    • Check your @replies. If someone directed a question to you and is awaiting a response, reply immediately. If someone mentioned you in a positive manner or retweeted something you shared, thank them with a private DM. And if someone retweeted or replied to you who is not yet in your follower list, consider adding them.

    • Check your Direct Messages. Respond as appropriate.

    • Tweet--Share something!

    The "three minutes five times a day" habit helps you to be responsive, engaged, and available on Twitter.

    As I've done in the past, I'd recommend HootSuite as a terrific site to help you manage your essential Twitter tasks. On a single page, you can set up columns to view your friend feed, replies, and direct responses. HootSuite will keep this information constantly updated, which facilitates easy and efficient access to vital Twitter communications throughout the day. If you go dark for an hour or more, HootSuite will snooze, but you can wake it up and update all of your columns with one click.

    It's important that you not only listen but also contribute. Twitter doesn't ask you "What are you doing?" for nothing. So, what are you doing? Share something about yourself or something you find interesting and relevant.

    Again, keep your goal in mind. If all you want to do is keep in touch with friends, then Twittering about being stuck in a lousy meeting might be fine (provided your boss isn't following you) and might even spark some supportive dialog. If, however, your goal is to advance your career, then complaining about meetings may be counterproductive.

    My primary goal with my Twitter account is professional, so one of my habits is to share interactive and social media news as I read it. If I find something interesting in an article, my followers might find it interesting as well, so I tweet. (I can be confident I am sharing news and opinion that is of interest because people frequently retweet and reply to my posts, and because HootSuite tells me that my links are clicked around 2,800 times each month.)

    If you don't have anything to share right this moment, then think about asking a question. Some folks consider Twitter a "Social Search Engine" because of its power to gather information and opinions from a large number of people very quickly. Want to know the best restaurant in an area, which Twitter application is right for your phone, or the keystroke to insert a link into a Word document? Ask it on Twitter, and if you have enough followers, the answer will be delivered within minutes.

    Five Minutes: Searches, Introductions, and Expanding Your Follower List

    A decade ago, people who created Web sites started paraphrasing the movie Field of Dreams; they found, "If you build it, they won't come." It wasn't enough simply to have a site--you needed to promote it, link to it, email about it, maximize the site's visibility in search engines, and put the URL in printed material.

    The same is true on Twitter--the fact you created a Twitter profile and tweet occasionally doesn't mean that people will find you and that your follower list will grow. Those using Twitter for professional reasons or on behalf of their employer will likely want to expand their spheres of influence; doing so means seeking out others, engaging in dialog with people you aren't already following, and following new people. (The best way to gain new followers is to follow others, most of whom are likely to reciprocate.)

    You can begin to find new people to follow (and encourage others to follow you) with just five minutes a day. You cannot do all of the following tasks in just five minutes, but if you pick one each day and try another the following day, you will steadily and appropriately build your Twitter list:

    • Conduct a search for pertinent terms within Tweets, find relevant discussions, engage in dialog, and follow the Twitterers you find intriguing. You can conduct a search for your topics of interest, your brand, or your site on Twitter at If you use HootSuite, you can also save search terms in order to see pertinent tweets as they happen throughout the day. Engaging with people you don't know and following new people are the most effective way of increasing your Twitter network.

    • Conduct a search for relevant terms within Twitterers' profiles and follow the ones that match your interests. Using a tool such as Twellow, you can search Twitterer's profiles for key terms. This is a great way to find link-minded Twitterers and add them to your follower list.

    • Use a third-party directory to seek out Twitterers with similar interests. Sites like Twibes and WeFollow allow Twitterers to associate themselves with specific areas of interest. Seek out Twitterers who have identified themselves as interested in the topics that are pertinent to you, and follow them. (Of course, registering yourself on sites like these is also a great way to increase your visibility and gain new followers.)

    • Find local Twitterers: If your Twitter interests are geographically based, you can find the top Twitterers in your state or city on sites such as Twitter Grader. Following popular Twitterers may help to raise your profile (provided your tweets are perceived as interesting and worthwhile.)

    If you perform these tasks every day, you will begin to create and build relationships with a commitment of less than 30 minutes per day. Very quickly, you may find yourself expanding the time committed to Twitter, but if you stick to the essential tasks to achieve your goals, Twitter can become a vital tool to improve communications, promote your business and network with others.

    Sunday, August 2, 2009 Great New Way to Find Followers or Spam? You Decide!

    If you've assisted a Twitter newbie in their first tentative steps into microblogging, you know that the concept of "following" is tough to grasp for the uninitiated. A common error for Twitter newbies is to start tweeting without seeking out others to follow. This leads to a poor Twitter experience--broadcasting tweets into a void with little opportunity for dialog and no listening.

    FollowFormation is a new service that aims to help Twitter newbies find and follow top Twitterers in several topic categories. Considering how few Web 2.0 companies seem to have any idea how to make money, the fact that FollowFormation has a business model attracted my attention. But, that business model may leave the door open for spam in your Twitter stream.

    To get the bottom of FollowFormation's service and business model, I interviewed the site's 18-year-old founder, Brian Wong. I remain skeptical of FollowFormation's approach, but Wong's responses to my vaguely hostile questions demonstrate that those behind the new Twitter service have given consideration to the challenge of balancing a quality user experience with the need to monetize their service.

    Is FollowFormation a great new tool to grow your Twitter follow list? Or is it a vehicle for spam? You can decide for yourself--this blog post conveys a description of's service and my challenging interview with Wong.

    What is FollowFormation?

    FollowFormation promises users an extremely easy way to grow their Twitter follower lists with relevant Twitterers. Just enter your Twitter username and password, select the topic categories in which you're interested, and choose whether you want to follow 10, 20, or 50 new Twitterers in each category. FollowFormation automatically adds the specified number of Twitterers to your Twitter follow list.

    It is easy as can be, but I had concerns about allowing any service to select and automatically add Twitter followers for me. FollowFormation provides a small preview of the sorts of people they'll add, but you can only review the first five for any topic category.

    To (aguably) make matters worse, this service has a business model that permits people and brands to buy their way onto the FollowFormation lists. Since the service only reveals the first five Twitterers in a topic (including the top paid Twitter profile), people who use FollowFormation will add not just unknown Twitterers to their follow lists but also people and brands that paid for access to your Twitter feed.

    Is this a value-added service or a way to get spam into your Twitter feed. Let me know what you think after reviewing my interview with Brian Wong.

    Interview with FollowFormation Founder Brian Wong

    Twitter still leaves many people confused. (According to Fast Company, 70% of Americans are still clueless about the microblogging site.) It's not the tweeting that causes questions--everyone "gets" entering a status update and clicking the "Update" button. It's the microblogging concept of followers and following that seem to leave some people scratching their head. Brian, how does FollowFormation help these confused folks?

    Followformation helps new Twitter users (we call them “Chirpers”) find more meaning in the following concept when they first start out. We do this by empowering them to quickly find and follow the top people in the areas that they are interested in. We feel that it is a more semantic approach to provide a discovery tool that helps users choose to follow based on their interests.

    People quickly understand that following is simply keeping tabs on a feed of information that is updated in real-time - and to automatically pre-populate this feed is an incredibly useful step. We are essentially Twitter’s “suggested users list” (the list you see when you sign up, and are recommended to follow), but on steroids. It’s a lot more meaningful to see categories than a bunch of profiles with checkboxes next to them.

    Where did you get the idea for

    It actually came to me in the middle of the night, much like most of my other ideas. I was browsing around on WeFollow, and I was thinking to myself of how I didn’t think that the directory would be of much use to new Twitter users who didn’t really have the time to shop around for people. I also had a lot of friends who just signed up to Twitter and really disliked the fact that they were simply given a group of celebrities to follow via the “Suggested users” feature; that was hardly meaningful to them when starting out. Then I realized that following by interest, much like Netvibes does with its pre-populating of its customized homepages, was the way to go.

    While the ease of use of FollowFormation is great, it might be too great. The idea that I'd let you choose ten (or 20 or 50) people and automatically follow them for me with no approval or vetting process leaves me uncomfortable. Why should I trust FollowFormation's recommendations?

    I’m glad you find that Followformation is incredibly easy to use - and that was our main intention, given our target audience.

    You should trust our recommendations because we aggregate our user data and category data based on a few directories, and use popularity as our method of indicating how top a user really is. In general, to the Chirper, this is a very reasonable way of discovering and trusting top users based on category.

    But we aren’t sitting underneath a rock! We’ve heard the concerns about new followers in inappropriate categories and the potential for spammers to game themselves into the process. That is why in the short run we’re building the ability for users to report inappropriate category and spam, and in the long run we’re building in our own mechanism to categorize and rank individuals by more advanced data like Retweet data and positive or negative sentiment based on feed analysis from services like Peoplebrowsr.

    Unlike so many Web 2.0 sites and tools, you actually have a business model in mind, and I respect that! Unfortunately, your business model leaves me uncomfortable--you propose allowing people and businesses to buy themselves a place on the lists of Twitter profiles that get automatically added to FollowFormation user's Twitter followers. This sounds like a muddling of content/editorial with advertising! In what way do you feel this is not spam?

    Because this is the first aggregator/tool that enables individuals and brands alike to claim a stake in each category on a bidding model, we’d like to think that we’re one of the few social media advertising platforms in the world right now that aims to provide true value to its users.

    You’re phrasing the question as if the notion of muddling content with advertising is spam. This model is used in a different form on media properties all across the internet. It’s a tried and true model of attention and awareness that companies and individuals are comfortable with utilizing, and users are comfortable with consuming. Our policy is to replace only up to 10% of number of people followed by paid listers. That means the maximum number of people you could follow that are inserted are at 15 (with our limits at 150).

    Essentially what I’m saying is that advertising can be value added, and users would always be first for us. That is why, given the sheer amount of interest and e-mails we have been receiving about these features spots, we haven’t already started listing advertisers! We aren’t here to rush to the dollar signs - we’re frankly more interested in catering to the users interests first, and then enabling the advertising model only if it doesn’t take away from the entire user experience.

    Actually, muddling content and advertising is not spam only when there is a clear difference between advertising and content (as with Google AdWords and Google organic results), but it is spam when there is no difference, which is the case with FollowFormation, in my opinion. On your site, you’re offering pre-selected offers—choosing advertisers to auto-follow based on a consumer’s selected category—and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has issued best practices for “pre-selected offers” that state these are fine provided the consumer is given the chance to opt-out and/or skip the offer. Have you considered an opt-out from paid auto-followers?

    In visual terms, we make clear colour divisions in our user category previews that show which users in the formation are paid (i.e. “featured”), or not. This will help make that difference obvious. (Augie's note: FollowFormation only provides a sample of the first one paid and four unpaid followers; if users choose to add 20 or more followers using FollowFormation, they cannot preview the additional paid or sponsored followers.)

    I think that making the direct connection between what Followformation does and an opt-out advertising model does is inaccurate. Although we are a platform for advertising, we are using a very unique social network and concept to test this process with – much like people would not directly compare “following” with subscribing to an RSS feed (mainly because the level of engagement is not the same), I wouldn’t try to compare the two. We will take feedback accordingly and if we are seeing an overwhelming demand for an opt-out system, we can consider implementing it.

    What feedback are you receiving on FollowFormation’s business model?

    Feedback so far on this model has largely been positive. People will be polarized on this issue though, I’m afraid, much like yourself. But beyond the nitty gritty, on a larger scope of things, this model I hope will show the world how social media monetization strategies don’t have to always be static or mundane - frankly I believe that the more controversial they are, perhaps, the more impactful overall they will be.

    Can you expand upon that last thought—that the more controversial an ad model is, the more impactful it will be? Courting controversy sounds risky for advertisers. Back when Facebook launched Beacon, it was certainly controversial, but the initial controversy didn’t seem to benefit brands being advertised; in fact, several advertisers including Blockbuster and Overstock were sued for their participation in Beacon. How do you see FollowFormation’s controversy benefiting advertisers?

    Beacon was incredibly controversial because of its egregious infringements on respect for privacy. This type of controversy is unhealthy. Our controversy is meant to be healthy – to only stimulate discussion and perhaps interest of adoption of our formation model on other Twitter app websites. We’re working on partnerships with other directories to enable an enhanced value proposition when someone is signed on into the formation. It’s about providing value beyond simple exposure through a “follow”. We coordinating with dozens of interested advertisers right now – it’s a process that will take a lot of effort because of our approval process, but effort we are willing to put in to ensure the quality of the formations on our directories – benefitting user experience at the end of the day.

    Your site says FollowFormation will review and approve advertisers who bid for spots on your lists. What criteria will you use to ensure those buying their way onto follower lists will be relevant and ethical and not just spammers?

    We’ve pretty much finalized this criteria, but we expect that approved Twitter accounts will be older than 90 days, have a minimum amount of followers (and a follower to following ratio that is greater than 1), a minimum amount of retweets on average per day, and a consistent quality of tweet of content that is relevant to the category requested.

    Will you be publishing this criteria on your site and allowing consumers to comment? Are you open to people weighing in on these criteria? If so, how might someone with feedback share their ideas and concerns?

    This criteria summary will be published on the Formation page. We are incredibly open to feedback, and we care a lot about our users – in fact, we have been blogged about that here:

    If someone has feedback they can e-mail me at brian ‘at’ and I will respond personally. We welcome feedback, as we are still in beta. That will show that our users care, and we love that.

    We had a beta test period for approximately two weeks before we launched. It was actually during this period that we were suggested the user category previews, and the custom category feature. We have acted on user feedback before, and we will again. Although features like those may seem obvious to some, they aren’t to others. For us, it’s a matter of cutting through all the suggestions to the ones that really impact the usability of our tool the most for majority of our audience. Aer Marketing is also Followformation’s parent company. The company has a great network of advisors that have been helping Followformation’s scope grow in the past few weeks and will be helping further growth in the months to come. What we have essentially done is built channels of feedback from multiple sources to help develop Followformation as a tool to its fullest potential. And, as we are in beta, we are always in flux; and our direction in the next few months will be a reflection of this pattern.

    How can a FollowFormation user ensure they won't end up automatically following a Twitter profile they find offensive? For example, an indie music lover could select your "Music" list and end up following the RIAA's or Britney Spears' Twitter profiles, if they were high bidders for your Music list. Or a family movie lover could end up following a vulgar movie campaign on Twitter if that film's studio bids for the "Entertainment" category. Those are just two hypothetical examples, but without any vetting process, this sort of situation could occur frequently for FollowFormation users. How do the users of your service protect themselves from following someone they otherwise wouldn't?

    I’ve mentioned the feature we’re building in shortly that allow people to report users - this will be a valuable feature for helping us determine who to remove or re-categorize on our lists internally.

    To be frank, the only way to tell if someone’s content really is offensive or vulgar is to see it come across your feed - we’re not preventing our users from moving through their own following lists at the end of the day and unfollowing truly poor quality tweeters.

    We could build in the feature to manually deselect users when the following action occurs, but in my opinion, that would be a very shallow way of utilizing user discretion - you won’t be able to judge a tweeter until you’ve seen the tweets. And to preserve the simplicity of it all, we want to keep it a cool three steps.

    While there is substantial value to helping Twitterers find like-minded Twitterers, why not give people the opportunity to review and accept FollowFormation's recommendations? If you allowed your users to review and select folks to follow--and also presented them with clearly delineated "sponsored Twitter accounts"--this would be like bringing the established and ethical Google/AdWords model to Twitter following. Doesn't adding a step seem like a way to keep consumers in control of their own Twitter follower lists?

    I agree, and this is a feature we’re building out. Perhaps not in the exact form you’re suggesting, but I don’t see why we wouldn’t put into place a formal way of empowering users to suggest other Twitter users to be in certain categories. Or to remove them. Yes I am aware that Pete Wentz is in the “entrepreneur” category. He’ll be out of there shortly.

    You're a very interesting guy--an 18-year-old entrepreneur who's launched his own business (Aer Marketing), developed a Web 2.0 business model, and created a functional and attractive Web tool with FollowFormation. Please share a little bit about yourself: What motivates you, and what would you like to achieve with your career?

    I am motivated by seeing change, and I am motivated by challenge. I am also motivated by the energy of the people around me, so I always try to include collaboration and cooperation into every one of our projects. We can only be so impactful in the world; it is more about how effectively we can work with other movers and shakers that determines how much we can change at the end of the day. I am also motivated by the great talent and energy in the people around me – I can only express the most respect and appreciation for my partner in crime for Followformation, Lucas Lemanowicz. He is Followformation as much as I am, and his smarts keep this project on the cutting edge as well.

    I’m still very young, and quite honestly, I’m not quite sure where my career will take me. I would like a fulfilling career that follows no predefined set of rules that I can forge on my own - that will provide me with a rich set of experiences and skills that I can use for many different things. I think that as an entrepreneur I will always be somewhat of a slave to my own ideas - I just hope that in the years to come I will become even more and more effective and efficient at making them a reality, and also to become more internally liberated to give up the ideas that I know won’t challenge me or change anything.

    Blogger's Note: So, what do you think? Is this an ethical and appropriate business model? Or is it an open door for spammers? Would you use ?