Friday, September 30, 2011

Four Ways Corporate Social Media Professionals Undermine Their Authority

The Los Angeles Times today published an article, "Employers are Liking -- and Hiring -- Social Media Workers," that included a couple of comments from me. The gist of the article is that the demand for social media professionals is growing (shocking!), and along with it so are the demands of those jobs.

As I speak with peers online and at conferences, there can be a sense that our profession isn't taken seriously at every organization. For every Dell, IBM, PepsiCo, Best Buy and (my employer) USAA where social media is recognized as a compelling strategic advantage, there are a lot of companies where social media is treated as, well, fluffy.

It's easy to blame the lack of stature that social media has within some organizations on conservative (and typically older) senior leaders who may have little to no personal experience with social media, but is it too easy to lay the blame there? Might social media pros themselves be part of the problem? That question stuck in my head as I read this statement from the LA Times article, furnished by a person with the title executive director of search engine optimization and social media programming: "I have a hard time keeping a straight face when I tell people what I do for a living."

It is appalling to me that someone employed in the most significant evolution in business and communications since the advent of the web would utter those words. If he is embarrassed to tell his friends about his job, how must he fare promoting his ideas to the decision makers at his firm?

Social media is becoming too vital for companies to take lightly. If social media professionals contribute to this underestimation by subverting their own authority, they do harm not just to their careers but also to their employers' competitiveness, brand awareness, reputation and profitability.

Do you have any bad habits? Here are four ways corporate social media pros may damage their opportunities and influence:
  1. You have a cutesy job title: It seems gurus, wizards and ninjas are thankfully on the wane, but if you're still clinging to a job title more appropriate for a Dungeons and Dragons board than a boardroom, it's time to get new business cards--your job title isn't earning you respect among your serious peers. Unless the CFO in your firm is called the "Money Wizard" and the CIO is "the Ninja of Electronic Wonders," talk to your boss and claim a proper title that includes words such as "specialist," "manager," "director" or "vice president."
  2. You hype rather than educate: Are you guilty of eagerly regaling peers with how Dell Outlet earned $6.5 million selling products via its Twitter account? That old and tired case study is great if the company you work at sells refurbished consumer electronics, but it means absolutely nothing if you're in the travel, pharmaceutical, auto or financial service industry. Too many social media pros are quick to promote the latest social media case study without considering whether the industry or the strategy is pertinent to their firms. Your peers are likely hungry for news about what your competitors are doing in social media, but every irrelevant example shared becomes more noise and feeds a suspicion harbored by some of your associates that social isn't as pertinent in your industry as in others.
  3. You measure success by fans, friends and tweets: While metrics such as your Facebook fan count and number of retweets are useful for tracking your tactics, they are meaningless to most of your peers. The fact you have tens of thousands of fans on Facebook means little when the number of interactions on your posts (likes, comments and shares) number in the mere hundreds. Most organizations get tremendously more emails and phone calls than they do tweets and posts, which can reinforce the sense some have that social media hasn't yet scaled sufficiently to be vital. That perception is incorrect, of course, because it ignores the multiplier effect of public social communications and consumers' social graphs. Social media professionals must not rely only on measures of engagement but look for ways of tracking leads, inbound clicks, conversions, awareness, and other measures that communicate business results to decision makers.
  4. You focus only on the positive: It's easy to get excited about the opportunities in social media, but smart professionals also define risks, divulge them widely, and work to mitigate the potential costs. I've met social media workers who are hesitant to talk about the risks, afraid their bosses will find it easier to pull the plug rather than maintain a Facebook fan page where activists and detractors might shame the organization. Avoiding or minimizing the compliance, legal and reputation risks is precisely the wrong approach. Your peers may not know the specific risks in social media, but they know the risks are there; you earn trust by preparing and protecting your employer rather than dismissing those risks.

The LA Times article was difficult for me to read. I know too many bright and serious professionals in this space to read about people who "stumbled into" their social media careers and landed a job "because I'm young, and people assume you know what you're doing."

Social media is called Web 2.0, but I think it's time for Social media 2.0. Social media 1.0 was about marketing, promoting, tweeting, and posting; social media 2.0 is about driving business results and adapting to new social business models. It can be enough of an uphill battle getting traditionalists in your organization to understand the importance of social media--be cautious not to make that climb steeper with bad habits that undermine your own experience, authority and abilities.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Subscribe Feature Hints at Bold New Direction for Facebook

Applications and websites are like brands--each has its own particular reason for being. Build products and services around that singular reason, and consumers are more likely to understand, accept and adopt those new features. However, if a software package, site or brand attempts to expand in ways that violate their one essential purpose, consumers can become confused and reject the new (or even the core) offering.

Cosmopolitan Magazine Yogurt, Smith and Wesson Mountain Bikes, Walmart luxury goods, and Barbie clothing and accessories for adults--all of these brand extensions (must have) seemed like good ideas at one time but failed. Facebook is now embarking on its own brand and functional expansion, and it will be interesting to see what happens as the social network pushes beyond its traditional sandbox.

From the start, Mark Zuckerberg has had a clear vision of what Facebook is and is not. The social network is designed to be the online place for your existing, offline relationships. Zuckerberg once said, "we're not trying to build a community — we're not trying to make new connections."

This focus on facilitating real world relationships versus new connections is evident in everything Facebook does. Facebook's commitment to being a place for real friendships explains the social network's limits on the number of friends one can collect, the way groups were designed to degrade if they became too large and the way friends could add one another to groups without permission. It is also is why every Facebook relationship is required to be reciprocal--both parties must consent before a connection is made.

Facebook seemed content to let Twitter be the social tool for amassing influence and thousands of loose connections while Facebook focused on those dozens or few hundreds of firm and meaningful relationships we value in real life. But with the entrance of Google+ into the social networking world, Facebook seems to be innovating rapidly and, perhaps, giving up its commitment to real relationships.

Today, Facebook made a significant change to the way connections are created. People can still choose to "friend" you, which requires you to approve the connection in order to establish the relationship, but now users can also activate a new "Subscribe" button for their profiles. This Twitter-like feature allows people to subscribe to an individual's public posts while excluding their private posts. For the first time, you can follow a person's public Facebook posts without reciprocity.  (I've added the subscriber feature to my profile, and you can learn more and add this button to your profile on the Facebook Subscriptions page.)

Third parties have attempted to launch apps that push and pull Facebook away from its core mission of enhancing real world relationships. For example, in June Monster launched BeKnown, a professional networking application for Facebook. The application earns just 1.4 million active users, a fraction of the 82 million monthly users claimed by LinkedIn.  Perhaps the low participation is due to flaws with the application, but it's at least equally likely that people just don't wish to make professional connections with bosses, vendors, suppliers and peers within the same network where they post their kids' pictures and personal data. All that may change now that Facebook has deployed new tools furnishing you control over who sees your posts and for permitting others to subscribe and not just friend you.

Although others have tried to launch expansive networking tools on Facebook, today's news represents the first time I've noted Facebook itself taking a step away from its traditional foundation of firm, real, personal relationships. Is this a strategic move on their part to increase usage further? A reaction to Google+'s Circles? Or a mistake? Time will tell if this brand expansion will go the way of failed ideas like Bic Underwear (really!) or successful brand expansions like Arm & Hammer Toothpaste.

What do you think? Will Facebook be able to attract influencers who want to reach tens or hundreds of thousands with their public posts? Or will Facebook undermine its core mission?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Google+ and Social Media: The Future Is Not Anonymous

It is amazing to me that social media professionals, after years of delivering the message to organizations that transparency is a requirement, are suddenly shocked to find transparency is a two-way street. I've read dozens of blog posts by people gnashing their teeth at Google+'s policy of requiring real names, and a blogger I respect recently raged at Klout for having the audacity to use his public Twitter social graph to create a profile of his influence without his consent.

Did we really expect that the information walls surrounding corporations would crumble but that our individual cones of privacy would remain intact? Did we think we would use free and public tools to launch ourselves to greater levels of influence but that our reach and clout would remain protected and unquantified?

Social media is forcing greater transparency on our world, but we do not get to choose where and how this happens. Our new, open culture that is being created one post and tweet at a time does not play favorites. As with every change that occurs in society, the growth of transparency will come in ways that are both welcome and not.

Consumers may cheer every brand forced to defend their environmental footprint, outed for paying for product reviews or embarrassed into owning up to defective merchandise, but consumers will also face the very same forces. Individuals are likely to find it increasingly difficult to hide behind cartoon avatars and cutesy profile names, particularly in environments where serious networking and business are conducted. And perhaps in the future some things we believe today are sacrosanct--our debt payment history or our driving habits, for example--may be as freely available as are companies' Better Business Bureau files, balance sheets and employer reputations. (If that sounds ludicrous, remember that it was equally ludicrous just a few years ago that one might publicly share a complete list of friends and family members, current location or photos of a spouse and children.)

The metaphor some use when criticizing Google's real name policy is that of walking through a public space where no one knows your name. We don't, some point out, travel through life with a "Hi, I'm Augie" sticker our lapel.

True, but this is the wrong comparison because we can only remain anonymous in the real world until we begin to interact with others, at which point we often surrender the expectation of anonymity. Ask for directions to the bathroom and you remain John Doe, but request someone else's contact info, break the rules or attempt to conduct business, and you are very likely required to authenticate your identity. We cannot walk through a busy mall or airport wearing a mask without drawing suspicion, so why should be it be different in most online social venues?

Some feel that the reason Google and Facebook want our actual identity is to provide marketers with better data to permit more accurate targeting of advertising. That is the merest tip of the iceberg. The real reasons run much deeper than advertising.

The next wave of social behaviors won't merely be sharing jokes and insights; we will soon be conducting business in innovative social ways. While it's true that the Fortune 500 want to be able to deal with real people and not fake pseudonyms, it isn't just the big dogs who benefit when you are really you. Soon, it will be as important to individuals as it is to companies that you are a real, accountable, trustworthy, authenticated human being.

An evolution in our economy is underway, and a new "sharing economy" is on the rise. Increasingly, consumers will be turning to each other not just for news, product reviews and opinions; we'll also be renting cars, sharing homes and loaning money to each other. According to Fast Company, peer-to-peer financial-lending will reach $5 billion by 2013; car-sharing revenues will hit $3.3 billion by 2016, and the entire sharing economy sector could soon represent $110 billion.

When you rent your car to a stranger or let one sleep in your spare bedroom, do you want them to be CrazyPartyGal06 who loves Glee, Katy Perry and planking? Or do you want to rent to Susan Smith who's worked at P&G for 10 years, has 300 connections on LinkedIn and Facebook and has accumulated 20 recommendations from people who vouch she's a trustworthy and reliable soul? If you aren't certain how to answer that question, feel free to read the experience that one woman had renting her apartment via Airbnb to "Dj Pattrson." She asks, "Was it a guy? A girl? I still don't know," but she darn well wishes she had Dj's real identity after finding her entire home trashed by this anonymous person.

I'm not suggesting that every social network must require people to disclose their real identity; it's great to have places like Twitter where we can be FakeMicheleBachmann, CrazyPartyGal06 or an anonymous political activist operating in a country with little to no freedoms. But we shouldn't be surprised when social venues like Facebook and Google increasingly strive to ensure their networks are comprised of verifiable and authentic people. The future of trust, commerce, and business depends on us being real.

Danny Brown, the blogger who complained that Klout is opt-out rather than opt-in, perhaps said it best in a two-year-old blog post: "You know the old saying, 'Honesty is the best policy'? Take that with you into the social media arena and you’ll learn more and gain more than if you try being something you’re not... Be open, be clear, and be honest."  That's the kind of advice that social media consultants have been giving to brands for years now; it's time we begin to provide that same counsel to individuals, as well.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Good and Evil: The Role of Social Media since 9/11 and in the Future

Today, social networks are full of posts declaring "we will never forget," as if washing the images and emotions of 9/11 from our collective memory was an option. On days like today, social media is a tool that brings us together, but in the decade since September 11, 2001, has social media been a force for good or evil?

The first decade after 9/11 coincides with the first decade of social media. In September 2001, social media was in its infancy--sites like Geocities and LiveJournal provided a place for people to share widely and, an ahead-of-its-time tool that demonstrated how connected we are, had recently shuttered. In the year following 9/11, Friendster would launch. The year after that, MySpace came into being and Mark Zuckerberg launched Facemash. Within another twelve months, Facebook, LinkedIn,, Hi5, Orkut, Dodgeball, and Flickr were online, and you know the story since then.

There are times social media appears to have been a force for "good," or at least a means to empower people to come together for positive change. Social media helped usher in "The Arab Spring," a wave of civil uprisings that toppled authoritative regimes and brought economic concessions in over a dozen Middle East countries. Social Media helped raise $5 million following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Social media reunites loved ones following natural disastersbrought positive political change to Columbia, is being used to prevent children from being recruited into begging and crime, has located kidnapped children and helps medical professionals track and react to flu outbreaks.

But social media has also been used for evil. Social media has made people vulnerable to kidnapping, enabled bullying that ends young lives, connects pedophiles and victims, facilitates the planning of criminal flashmobs, allows misinformation to disseminate rapidly and spreads malware.

More broadly, one cannot look at our country and suggest we are a more united and collaborative people a decade after 9/11 and into the social media revolution--political campaigns have gotten uglier and divisions in Washington have grown poisonous. On September 11, 2011, America is a deeply divided society. Where is the cooperation, commitment to greater good, shared values and openness to others' viewpoints promised by both the post-9/11 and social media period?

Is social media destined to merely reflect all that is wonderful and horrible in humanity? Or is social media a force for good?

Just as mass media changed our habits and beliefs, so too will Social media alter human nature, but it will take time. When humans are faced with change, they sometimes rebel because change can be scary--witness the painful journey through civil rights in the US or the violence in the Middle East and Europe this year.

Today, change is faster and more profound than ever. The growth of software and digital media is undermining traditional job security; social media is calling into question long-held beliefs about privacy; terrorism and tribalism have forever altered our sense of security and perceptions of geopolitical boundaries; environmental threats are forcing new considerations of growth and consumption; fluid international trade and migration are changing attitudes about multiculturalism and economic globalization; and governmental debt is causing many to reassess the role of government, taxes and social programs. Some welcome these changes but many are not sure what these changes mean for them and their children, and this concern is being expressed in ways both explicit and not in social media and the real world.

But we will adapt to the new realities--we always do!--and from this will come a new sense of our place in the world. Prior to mass media we only knew what happened in the tiny corner of the world in which we lived, and our actions were informed by the people and events within mere miles of us. In the mass media era, we saw the world more widely, but that view was fashioned for us by the entities that controlled the media.

Today, thanks to digital and social media, we have the means to understand the entire world as it is, only filtered by our own biases, perceptions and attitudes. If we get a stilted and incorrect view of the world, it is no longer the fault of politicians, media conglomerates and the powerful but ourselves. Some will willfully create a network of people and information sources that fit their world view, but whether we choose to be comforted or challenged is no one's decision but our own.

In the years to come, those who will be best prepared for the future won't be the ones with insular networks that tell them what they want to hear but will be the individuals who recognize and act based on how interconnected we have become. And therein lies the power of social media--transparency and the free dissemination of information may not make us different humans right now, but it will separate the people who see the future and lead others to it from those who choose to hide.

One painful and profound change that social media will force upon us is a new sense about what privacy is and is not. Just a few years ago, privacy was a right and we elected to hide virtually everything about ourselves; even today, some want to blur their homes in Google Street View and are annoyed Google+ won't permit anonymity.

Traditionally, people have been deeply suspicious about a loss of privacy because the collection, control and use of personal data has been undisclosed, occurred without permission and managed by opaque entities. But what will happen to attitudes about privacy when wider swathes of personal data are not owned by government agencies and market research firms but offered freely and made available to all?

A transition to a more transparent world will happen slowly and painfully and many will fight it, but consider how that list I shared of "evils" perpetrated within social media is altered in a transparent world. Bullying cannot happen when inappropriate and hateful behavior is immediately surfaced and parents and educators are alerted; pedophiles cannot harm others when they are not protected by false identities and anonymity; stalkers cannot hide in the shadows when their real world and digital whereabouts are known; and malware cannot so easily spread when the source is exposed for all to see.

We still need places like Twitter where anonymity is embraced, but our increasingly transparent and interconnected world cannot advance with outdated attitudes about privacy. Or, perhaps more accurately, our outdated attitudes about privacy cannot survive in our increasingly transparent and interconnected world.

I foresee a world where social media helps good thrive and forces evil out of the shadows and into the bright spotlight of public scrutiny. Do you agree? Please share your opinions below in the comments.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Email Message From the Past Captures My September 11 Experience

My experiences ten years ago this week were not terribly exceptional—I was not in New York, Washington D.C. or Pennsylvania and did not lose a loved one—but like all Americans and many in the world, the horrifying events of that day resonated deeply.

Caught 2,000 miles from home when the air travel system was shut down, it took me days to make my way to the warm embrace of home, friends and family. I captured the events of my strange road trip from San Francisco (where I would move eight years later) to home in Milwaukee in an email that I sent to friends on September 15th, 2001. I thought it might be of some interest to share that email.

In my message, I mention Lindsey, a young woman who sat next to me most of the way cross country. She was paying a last visit to her grandma in Madison, WI prior to reporting for duty in the Air Force. I've thought of Lindsey often in the years since. She's been a small reminder of the people who sacrifice and serve to keep us safe, and I hope wherever Lindsey is that she is well and happy.

Here is my message from the past:

What a week--what a sad, confusing, and strange week.  What follows is rather lengthy, so I don’t blame you if you don’t read it.  Either the long time out of touch, the peculiarity of my experiences, or just the emotion of this past week seemed to take over my fingers as I sat down at a computer for the first time in almost four days. I wanted to share some of my experiences.   

I know what I went through is nothing but a minor annoyance while so many are dealing with so much more. Still, my experience makes me wonder how many millions of Americans have been "inconvenienced" in the sort of way I was. In the past week, I was stuck 2,000 miles from family and friends, unable to comfort or be comforted, at the moment of the most tragic event our nation has had to face on its own soil perhaps since Pearl Harbor or the Civil War. 

I was awakened Tuesday morning by a panicked call from Geri. Her first words were, "Are you all right?"  I responded with some annoyance, "I'm sleeping."  She told me to turn on the TV and I saw the smoke pouring from the World Trade Center. For a day and a half I was glued to the television and computer in my hotel room, alone as I watched the sad and frightening coverage and searched for options to get me home as soon as possible. 

My only break from the non-stop coverage came the evening of September 11th. An uncle and aunt in San Francisco picked me up and we went to Fisherman's Wharf. It was a surreal and forced experience to be a tourist that evening.  Many of the restaurants were closed and the mood was somber, despite the fact the evening was quite beautiful.  We heard servers talking about their fear of losing their jobs or income because tourism might be harmed, and we left a very generous tip. 

At one point the following day, I had reservations for three separate means to get home:  My original air tickets (on a flight that was, in fact, canceled yesterday), Amtrak tickets (which would've cost almost as much as my round-trip air fare and would not have gotten me home until Monday after routing me through Portland), and my bus tickets (which I eventually used.) That doesn't even count the three-day, $1,300 rental car I briefly considered reserving to make a solo drive home. 

The trip home was strange. Fifty-three hours on the road, interrupted only by brief stops throughout the day and night in disgusting bus stations or the more appreciated and cleaner fast food restaurants. I spent the better part of three days crammed into a space smaller than any airline seat, not showering, hardly sleeping, and eating virtually nothing except food that was pre-prepared, sealed in plastic, and warmed in the dirtiest microwave ovens on earth. (The food was so bad that a Wendy's in a truck stop in Iowa was a welcome and appreciated stop!)

Certain experiences added to the strangeness of the trip: 

In Sacramento, special agents with badges (no one caught what agency they were from) boarded our bus, briefly interviewed everyone, and searched several pieces of luggage. Several of us later wondered if the woman who boarded and sat next to me at that stop was hiding something. She seemed nervous as she loudly announced that she had to have extra carry-ons because she had forgotten to get address tags for some of her bags, a requirement to check the luggage in the cargo area of the bus. Later, after we were on our way, she announced equally loudly that the reason the agents had searched her bags (and almost no one else’s) was because she had an Arab friend.  She also noisily said that she felt safer that the agents had searched the bus, but it ironically left the rest of us, who had previously felt safe, wondering if there was cause for worry.  We were all glad when she exited the bus without incident the next morning in Salt Lake City. (She took her pillow with her every time she left the bus, leaving us conspiracy theorists to wonder if she was hiding drugs; and of course, the agents never searched her pillow.)  

In the middle of the Utah salt flats we passed within 200 yards of a train wreck that had occurred just hours earlier. The accident involved two trains—one hauling passenger cars—and looked bad. Several cars were derailed, still smoldering and surrounded by dozens of fire trucks and ambulances (not to mention TV trucks), and we all worried about the injuries or fatalities. We were relieved to learn a day later by newspaper that no one was killed.  

While we were in Salt Lake City, one passenger heard a rumor about an American Airlines plane leaving for Chicago that still had seats available. She abruptly abandoned our bus, leaving behind the pillows she said she no longer needed, and left for the airport. (Her pillows were a lifesaver--on the second night I got my first minutes of sleep against one of the pillows she abandoned.)  We all wondered as we arrived home Friday night if she had gotten home ahead of us, although we agreed it was likely she was still camped in the airport, wishing she had stayed on the bus or at least kept her pillows.  

Greyhound bus stations are the butt of many jokes, and I now understand them. Perhaps the worst station I saw was the Omaha bus station. Having arrived in the morning, we were anxious to get to the bathrooms to freshen up. I took one step into the mens’ room and almost left in disgust--a half-inch pool of dirty water covered the floor and every surface was grimy.  I was so desperate to brush my teeth and shave that I rolled up my pants legs and managed to do my morning routine while holding my travel bag and never setting a single item down on any surface. That bathroom was so bad that a man who had gotten on the bus in San Francisco looking much like a vagrant (and smelling like one), stepped into the bathroom, looked around, and immediately turned and left. 

(I know Greyhound was sagging under the burden placed on our transportation systems, but wild horses couldn't drag me onto a long-distance Greyhound bus after seeing the neglected bathrooms, inedible food, derelict bus stations, and indifferent and untrained employees we all endured on the trip. If you are thinking of buying stock in Greyhound with the idea that millions of Americans are being exposed to the joys of Greyhound, don’t. Around a third of the newbies started the trip by saying they’d never fly again after seeing the scary scenes on television but by the end, 100% of these same people agreed they’d hop on a plane tomorrow rather than set foot in a Greyhound for a second time.) 

Of course, none of us knew what was going on in the outside world.  It made me marvel at how connected we’ve all become—television and the Internet seem like necessities and not luxuries here in the 21st century. I was thrilled when, at the very first stop after boarding, I found an Internet terminal in the Sacramento bus station, and I was disappointed when scouring every other bus station along the route failed to reveal a similar one. (I suppose the average Greyhound rider isn’t quite as connected as I am.)  Along the route, we picked up rumors in bus stations and tidbits of news from family by phone, and we debated if the US would be at war and retaliating by the time we arrived home. 

On the bright side--and there are bright sides to these sorts of experiences, after all--there were nice people to be met on the bus and several of us became fast friends: Joyce, a nurse from Iowa; Jeanie, a banker from Minneapolis; and Lindsey, a teen from Reno about to join the Air Force. None of us were “regular Greyhounders,” which made us a part of the majority on the bus who had never set foot in a long-distance bus. My small group of new friends looked out for each other, held places in line, and shared stories, family photos, information, newspapers, and snacks. In short, we kept each other sane in the face of conditions and at a time when sanity was stretched just a bit. Another bright spot, I suppose, is that I did get to see parts of the country that were new to me, although driving through Utah and Wyoming at 75 miles an hour and stopping at truck stops seems a pretty poor way to see these states for the very first time.

I got home last night and enjoyed my first night back—my wife, my cat, my bed, and my own bathroom seemed like luxuries, and for a while anyways it felt like life was back to normal.  It isn’t, of course, and as my focus changed from the petty problems of my own uncomfortable journey to the world at large, it struck me harder than I had imagined.  

I had cried during the initial coverage on Tuesday, and I find myself crying again.  Geri compared her emotions to when my mother died—the way the tears sneak up you at unexpected times—and I find this is the case today.  These are sad and scary times. 

Obviously, this week will be remembered for a long, long time. In the future, historians will assess how the rest of our lives were shaped by one Tuesday morning in September of the first full year of the new millennia.  In the future, composers will write songs and moviemakers will create films about this week. (Those movies, perhaps sadly but definitely suitably, will not feature Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger, saving the day single-handedly.)  In the future, much will be said about the lives lost, the heroism demonstrated, the actions of presidents, kings, and common people, and the way our world was changed on one horrible day. All of that is in the future, however, and right now I am trying to sort it all out.  For days, my attention has been focused primarily on my own trip home. Now, I am catching up with the rest of you who have been watching 24-hour coverage and dealing with this tragedy since it occurred. 

I am mourning the life lost and the pain this is causing to so many people. Today, 100,000 people are grieving the loss of a wife, husband, son, daughter, sister, brother, father, or mother.  Perhaps another million are mourning the loss of a friend, acquaintance, or coworker. But all of us, in the US and the rest of the world, are mourning with them. 

I also search for things I can do—something that can help my country, my family, and myself. I know everyone’s already been bombarded with ways to donate, so I won’t belabor the point, but it has helped Geri and I to feel as if we’ve somehow contributed to the cause by donating cash to several organizations.

I hope you don’t mind this lengthy message. I’ve had a lot of time to think (and do just about nothing but think) over the past week. I appreciate your friendship and the messages you sent while I was stuck half a continent away.  These are dark times, but those we keep around us make them lighter.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Five Reasons NOT to Monetize Social Media

I've been alarmed at the recent surge in the number of blog posts listing ways to monetize social media. According to Google, there are 855,000 hits on the search term "monetize social media" since July 1st. It's budget season and everyone wants a piece of the 2012 pie, so it's "Show me the money" time. But is this really the right way to approach the question of social media outcomes? I do not think it is, and not because of some philosophical belief in the sanctity of authentic earned media but because focusing on monetizing social media can lead to bad business decisions and results.

We all understand that businesses exist to earn a return for owners. We also recognize that social media must bring demonstrable value to our enterprises or else it cannot earn the investments required for resources, IT development, consultants, tools, social marketing programs and other expenditures. 

It is also vital to acknowledge that while social media can be used for direct marketing and increasingly will be used for commerce, that does not mean we can or will be able to easily tie financial results to social media investments. Social media isn't simply a sales and marketing channel; it is also a medium for relationships, reputation, community, service, advice, education, recruiting and awareness. This puts social media in the same category as other investments that firms typically will make without an eye to financial ROI. For example, customer service, employee education, hiring, corporate giving, sponsorships and public relations are rarely held to hard standards of ROI, yet that doesn't prevent businesses from investing as necessary.

I believe it is a sign of social media immaturity if a firm will only fund social media programs that can validate a positive ROI. This isn't to say that we social media professionals shouldn't measure every penny of business results that we deliver, but there are many benefits that cannot so easily be measured in dollars and cents. While I was at Forrester, we recommended a balanced scorecard approach to consider the range of short- and long-term benefits that are both quantitative and qualitative.

What are the dangers of holding social media to an expectation of measurable positive ROI? Here are five:
  • Don't limit innovation: A major transformation in the way business operates is underway, and now is not the time to be on the wrong side of the innovation imperative. Amazon launched in 1995 and didn't turn a profit until 2001; Borders waited for Amazon to validate the value of online business (and in fact for seven years relied on Amazon for its ecommerce operation), and today, Amazon's market cap is $95 billion and Borders' is $3.2 million.

    A while back, my former peer Nate Elliott criticized a tweet in which I quoted Erik Qualman who said that the ROI of social media is that you'll still be in business in five years. Nate's right--that statement is soft and misleading; Apple, for example, has yet to significantly embrace social media, yet I doubt anyone would predict Apple's demise in the next five years. Still, chances are your company isn't Apple and exists in a category that will see significant shifts in market share and profitability based on which players best leverage social media and adopt new ways to conduct social business. That doesn't mean you should simply waste money, but it does mean that your organization must embrace investments with uncertain ROI to help find what works and doesn't work for your brand, audience and category.
  • Don't lose top talent: In a world awash with social media ninjas and gurus, there are precious few professionals who know social media, understand business processes, and are familiar with all the legal, regulatory and reputation risks inherent in social media. Finding people who tweet isn't hard; finding people who can earn the confidence of your CEO is another matter altogether.

    I know two experienced and respected social media executives who've left their employers in recent months because they lost battles on funding for important social media programs. Both went to other firms who are hungrier and more ready for social media risks and rewards. I'm not suggesting companies fund every pet project offered up by their social media executives, but part of the value of funding social media isn't that it delivers immediate sales but instead that it prevents your company from losing experienced talent and incurring the cost of recruiting and onboarding new social media leaders.
  • Don't let attribution problems stop you from doing what's right:  While there are solutions to the problem of attribution, the simple fact is that most firms lack good metrics that permit them to attribute a portion of their sales to social media (or many other marketing tactics, for that matter).  What channel gets credit when someone picks up the phone and completes a transaction after seeing 50 brand tweets, visiting the Web site, seeing a print ad and perusing the companies' online community? Chances are it's the phone channel, ignoring the impact of many social, digital and traditional touchpoints that contributed.

    My advice to addressing this problem is twofold. First, if your firm uses marketing mix modeling and doesn't yet include social within its consideration set, change that immediately; validating that social contributes even a couple of percentage points to your overall revenue will be more than enough to fund most social media programs today. Secondly, play the attribution game. If your organization tracks inbound links from search engines and attributes same-session sales or inquiries to the search channel, then be sure to do the same for social media. While this approach is subject to all the same weaknesses and problems that attribution entails, there is no reason why your social media programs shouldn't get credit for sales or other beneficial transactions when people clickthrough from Facebook, Twitter and other social venues.
  • Don't undermine your future advocacy:  If you knew today that in 2013 you'd face a PR crisis, how would that affect your planning for 2012?  If you knew for a fact that in two years your Facebook page would be flooded with Greenpeace protests or that you'll face a damaging accusation from consumer advocates, how would you prepare in the coming twelve months? Here's what you'd do: You'd invest more in PR and social media today. In traditional channels you'd strive for more positive press and stronger relationships with media contacts, and in social media you'd want to amass a much larger and more vibrant community of advocates who would help you defend your reputation and counteract negative content with positive and supportive feedback. And you'd do that in 2012 without consideration of the ROI.

    That is one of the key problems with the idea of monetizing social media--it focuses on wringing value out of fans and followers today rather than building your reputation tomorrow. I had two occasions while at Forrester to speak with firms who faced large product recalls, and in both instances I was told that leaders wished they'd taken social media more seriously prior to the incident. Don't wait until your firm is forced to painfully recognize the qualitative value of reputation management in social media before letting go of the fixation on quantitative ROI and monetization.
  • Don't trade tomorrow's brand value for today's sales: My favorite professional conversation in the past three years was with a peer who shared the story of a brand that came to realize it was delivering positive ROI in Facebook while eviscerating brand value. The brand's Facebook page collected thousands of fans who had positive affinity for the brand, and the company wanted to monetize these assets. The solution was simple--make posts containing discount offers with trackable links, then measure the clickthrough and conversion. The ROI was astronomical because, of course, the cost of a Facebook post was essentially zero; in fact, it worked so well, the brand starting pushing more discount offers and delivering more ROI.

    Sounds like a success story, doesn't it? It was for a while, but then social media managers began to see the tone of the Facebook fan page change. Engagement on brand topics was down and posts from fans complaining about insufficient offers were up. The brand did a small online focus group and found that people "liked" the fan page because they truly liked the brand and its products, but over time the stream of discounts taught them to avoid making purchases until the right discount arrived (as it always would eventually.)  The social media tactics were delivering demonstrable ROI; they also happened to be killing the brand and reducing margins. The focus on trackable offers and ROI had taken high-value fans--the kind who would purchase the brand regardless of price--and turned them into low-value price-conscious buyers.

    People who focus too greatly on monetizing social media are not seeing the forest for the trees. It is too easy to measure the financial outcome of a given tactic while ignoring the wider impact to the reputation, affinity and advocacy of your brand. Your goal must never simply be to monetize social media but instead to do so while maintaining the value of your brand and consumer relationships. Otherwise, you risk chopping down trees and valuing the firewood produced while ignoring the damage done to your brand forest.
Smart social media leaders must find a myriad of ways to validate their efforts, but they also must remain vocal advocates against tactics that monetize social media today at the expense of tomorrow's success. I honestly believe this is what separates the true social media leaders from the self-declared ninjas; the least-experienced social media professional can wallpaper a Facebook fan page with discounts and tweet offers, but the mature, visionary social media leader must convey to peers why the potential that social media will deliver in years to come must not be traded for a few dollars of sales this quarter.