Monday, October 24, 2011

The Future of Social Media Data vs Information: Sharing More, Consuming Less

I recently mocked a friend because Spotify revealed on his Facebook page that he was listening to the 2010 Ibiza Party Workout. (I accused him of being a metrosexual several years too late.) Turns out that he, like many others, had no idea Spotify shared every single tune to which he was listening, and we discussed whether this much sharing made sense. The answer is no today but yes tomorrow, because the future of social media depends on smarter tools that permit us to share more but consume less.

How can more sharing become less consumption? Think of it this way: If you drive a newer auto, it is constantly collecting information about the status of the vehicle, but what do you see on your dashboard? Are you presented with the tire pressure in all four tires and the voltage running through each fuse? That is data you just don't need; however, your vehicle monitors that data and alerts you the moment your tire pressure is too low or a fuse is blown. Your car is always sharing, but your dashboard allows you to consume only the information you need in the moment--speed, fuel level and the like.

That's the difference between data and information--data is raw facts, while information informs, entertains, enlightens and alerts us. We rarely want raw data, and we crave information.

Social networking sites strive to be dashboards, but they're really fire hoses of data. That's not a criticism--we tend to forget how nascent social media still is today, and among the problems of this immature medium is that we have too much data and too little information. How many of you have missed essential tweets or posts about a friend's job change or pregnancy while being distracted by a barrage of noise about lunch selections, checkins at gas stations, gripes about jobs or FDAs (Facebook Displays of Affection)? My (safe) guess is that everyone reading this post has experienced this problem. 

Clearly, no one really needs to know every song their friends are hearing at every moment--that is simply too much data--but if Spotify, Facebook or other parties collect that data and convert it into useful information, we could learn: 
  • To what song have your different sets of friends listened most this week? The next time you hang with your work associates or school pals, you can be prepared to chat about the tune everyone has top of mind.
  • What new song is trending? Don't be the only one left out when your friends are in the know about a hot new single.
  • Who is listening to the same music I am? I may not care to be alerted to every song my friends hear, but it would be cool to know if we're listening to the same CD at the same time and chat about our opinions.
The social media data overload problem is hardly limited to Spotify. Checkins on Foursquare and Facebook are another excellent example. I really don't need to see every grocery store, gas station, gym, barber, doctor, dentist, bar or restaurant visited by my friends. But if Foursquare, Yelp or Facebook could take this data and turn it into relevant real-time information, I'd welcome the chance to know that:
  • My friends are eating at a place I've rated highly or poorly: "Man, that's a favorite of mine--what did you think?"
  • My friends are nearby: "Hey, you're a block away--want to catch a cup of coffee?"
  • My friends are at a restaurant at which I've dined a lot: "If you haven't ordered yet, avoid the lasagna and order the Risotto!"
  • My friends rated a business considerably different than I did: "I hated that barber shop, but maybe I just got the wrong barber; let me know who you had and I'll give it a second chance!"
Facebook and Twitter are dumb and they need to get smarter if they hope to retain users. When people get too much social data and not enough information, they experience "social media fatigue." The problem isn't with social media per se; after all, we're social creatures and spend most of our lives interacting with others. Instead, the problem is with our social tools furnishing too much noise and too little information.

Facebook is trying, at least. The latest round of changes caused many people to gripe that they were missing some posts they used to see, but that's exactly the point--Facebook must evolve to present you with things you want to know while filtering the stuff you wouldn't care about.

Perhaps you don't trust Facebook to decide what you should and shouldn't see, and I'd be the first to admit their algorithm needs work. Still, we must recognize that the last thing we want is to be presented with every one of our friends' posts, locations, songs heard, websites visited, articles read, (are you getting tired yet?) TV shows watched, books completed, magazines perused, shoes purchased, (seriously, isn't this tiring?) games played, documents created, videos viewed, (please make it stop!) products rated, concerts attended, celebrities liked--you get the idea. You may not know it yet, but you do NOT want to see everything your friends share; instead, you want all this data collected and turned into information you can use.

This point was made for me recently when my niece complained that Facebook's new interface was making it more difficult for her to see everything all of her friends posted. She has 675 Facebook friends (substantially more than the average of 103). I calculated that if each of her friends posted 15 items every 24 hours and it took my niece an average of five seconds to review each item, she'd need 14 hours every day to consume all of friends' social media. (That's okay--she's young and doesn't need much sleep.)

There are already excellent examples of services that turn social media data into usable information. For example, I'm fond of The Tweeted Times, which does the same thing within a browser that Zite and Flipboard do on the iPad--turning thousands of my peers' tweets into a personalized magazine of relevant news. Klout and PeerIndex turn individuals' social data into a measure of influence. And Twylah is the reverse of The Tweeted Times, turning your shared content into a personalized brand page.

In the future, we'll not only be sharing more but sharing more automatically rather than manually. That doesn't mean more social media fatigue; it means that our apps, sites and features must convert social media data into information. If there is a battle between Facebook and Google+ (and I'm not convinced there is, at least not yet) that is the key--not what games are available or how many video streams can be accommodated simultaneously on the competing platforms, but instead which social media service does a better job of surfacing the social media signals we want and filtering out the noise we don't.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Politics and Social Media: Is Your Company Prepared for 2012?

Following the 2008 presidential campaign, many were quick to dub it the "first social media election." There is no question that social media played a part in the 2008 contest--the Pew Research Center found it was the first time more than half of the voting-age population used the Internet to connect to the political process and many observers felt Obama succeeded by attracting a younger voter through his use of digital and social media.

Despite the headlines following the last presidential election, social media was still too nascent to be a significant part of most voters' election research and activities. Back in 2008, just 18% posted their thoughts, comments or questions about the campaign on a website, blog, social networking site or other online forum. Why such a small percentage? Because in November 2008, Facebook had barely 100 million users and Twitter was seeing 100 million tweets per quarter. Today, Facebook is eight times larger and Twitter hosts that same quantity of tweets every ten hours.

In 2012, it isn't just the political parties and campaign teams that must be prepared for social media challenges. Companies need to fasten their seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy ride!

Next year's election is shaping up to be a combative and dangerous one in social media. Battle lines are already drawn brightly over taxes, deficit reduction, unions, war, government bailouts, marriage equality, health care, education, social issues and the role and size of government. In addition, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling reversed many of the limitations that had been in place on corporate political spending. Add to this a potent combination of newfound social media influence and dramatically open social media communications, and 2012 is likely to see a number of high-profile campaign-related social media crises within the corporate world.

Companies may find themselves battling social media issues on three fronts:
  • Internal - Employees: Politics used to have no place in the workplace. They still don't, but consider how many places your employees can come into conflict in 2012. Work and politics were relatively easy to keep separate four years ago, but this year they'll be as obvious as your workers' latest posts on communities, Facebook, and Twitter. What happens when two coworkers lock horns over a political issue outside of work and it spills over into the workplace? Are you prepared when an employee complains about unfair treatment because he or she made a critical comment to a boss's Facebook post in support of a candidate?
  • External - Employees: Between checkins, LinkedIn and social media profiles, it isn't hard to know where virtually anyone works. That means the separation between employees' political opinions and your company's name is equal to the number of pixels between their tweet and their bio. What happens when a customer takes umbrage to political statements made by an employee? Must your workers' political beliefs match your brand's or your customers'? Of course not, but take note of the media storm that occurred when Whole Foods' CEO expressed a "personal opinion" that contradicted many shoppers' attitudes toward health care reform.
  • External - Corporate: Does your organization make campaign contributions? Does it support every single position of every single candidate it supports? Target, an employer with a track record of supporting same-sex employment policies, faced a vocal boycott when it donated to a group running ads to aid a candidate opposed to same-gender marriage. Target said it was donating to the group for its pro-business policies, not its social positions, but that mattered little to people who signed online petitions and cut up their Target charge cards. There are countless examples of companies forced to grapple with unwanted and unexpected transparency in social media, and this means companies must be prepared to deal with questions, criticism, anger and calls for consumer or shareholder intervention in reaction to every dollar spent during the upcoming election. Against this backdrop, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's call to boycott any and all campaign contributions seems as much a shrewd and cautious approach to protect his brand as it is a political statement.
You cannot dampen your employees' free speech in social channels. Nor is it likely many companies will follow Schultz's lead and simply cease all political activities--the business, regulatory and tax stakes are too high within most industries for business merely to sit on the sidelines. There is little your company can do to avoid the coming twin tsunamis of social media and politics, so preparation is the best course of action.

Do not get caught unprepared when the inevitable questions arise on your Facebook wall, on Twitter or in other social venues, and don't make the mistake of thinking you have the luxury of time to collaborate on a response and secure approvals from multiple executives and committees. The difference between a single irate customer and a wave of online boycotts, Facebook groups, email-writing campaigns and YouTube gripes may be measured in minutes rather than hours or days.

Activists are gearing up to put corporate actions under the microscope in the coming twelve months. You won't be able to appease all of the people all of the time, but you can be prepared to have an honest, candid discussion about your employees' rights to express their political beliefs and your company's reasons for supporting the political groups and candidates that it does. And social media professionals would be smart to make sure those making political decisions for their organizations consider the transparency social media will bring to those decisions.

Your enterprise will be writing checks this campaign season, and you better have your social media messaging prepared before the ink is dry on those checks!

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Failure of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney

There is an awful lot one can learn from the remarkable Steve Jobs, of course, but one thing stands out to me--one single thing that can get lost among the many lessons his story offers: Failure.

The people who change the world are not brighter than everyone else is; there are many bright people with great ideas. It isn't that Steve had vision; when I worked in the Bay Area, I found I couldn't take a dozen steps without running into someone with an exciting vision for the future. And it isn't that Steve better focused on the needs of humans; that is certainly an integral part of his success, but every organization is full of people capable of putting customers first.

No, the one thing that sets Steve Jobs apart from others is not success but failure. Reading his biographies and tributes this week reminded me of another hero of mine, Walt Disney. Their tales are remarkably similar in many ways.

We Americans have a terrible habit of distilling the stories of our great men and women into simplified and boring soundbites of success--Walt Disney invented Mickey Mouse! Steve Jobs invented the iPad!--while ignoring the long, crooked, difficult, brave roads they took to realize that success. We like to believe that success is what defines the American spirit, but the truth is the opposite: Failure is what defines the people who achieve greatness.

Steve Jobs and Walt Disney are American success stories--and they both failed in spectacular fashion. Steve Jobs produced the Apple III, a computer with so many hardware issues that one of the solutions (I'm not kidding) was to drop the computer two inches to reseat the chips on the motherboard. Walt Disney's first animation effort went bankrupt and he lost the rights to his first commercially successful character (the forgotten Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.)

For most, the story would have ended there. Steve Jobs, pushed out of the very company he founded, could have spent his life developing products that didn't push the envelope but delivered his family a very comfortable standard of living. Walt Disney could have given up animation--something he'd briefly attempted in the past--and sought work in the booming Hollywood movie business. But neither did--they learned from failure and eagerly dove back into the deep end of the risk pool. Said Steve Jobs, "It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me... Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.”

What is remarkable about both Steve Jobs and Walt Disney isn't merely that they persevered after failure; instead, the defining characteristic of these great men--the one thing we can and should learn from Jobs and Disney--is that they never stopped embracing risk even after they achieved success. It is difficult enough to make risky decisions after one is prosperous and comfortable, but imagine making those same risky decisions after having suffered the kind of confidence-shaking flameouts that Jobs and Disney experienced.

Disney achieved great success and recognition with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and The Three Pigs, yet he risked it all to push his company into the dangerous and untested waters of full-length animated movies. He was forced to release "Snow White" sooner than he wanted when the banks funding what had come to be known as  "Disney's Folly" refused to advance any more credit. Snow White earned Walt money and recognition, yet he risked it again and again on pet animation projects, live-action films and the riskiest bet of all--theme parks. Having tasted the bitter pill of failure, he nonetheless risked his reputation and wealth frequently.

Steve Jobs did the same. After being dumped from the company he founded, Jobs turned his attention to new risky endeavors. He launched a new software company called NeXT, Inc. and invested $50 million of his own money into Pixar. NeXT floundered, Pixar soared and Jobs was soon back at the helm at Apple. For most of us, the satisfaction and recognition of a triumphant return to the company that dumped us would be validation enough, yet Jobs took a salary of $1 a year and repeatedly placed risky bets on new business models and innovative technology. Jobs might have stopped at any point in his journey and retired with the kind of wealth and accolades most can only dream of, yet his risks and hits kept coming--iMac, Macbook Air, iPod, iTunes, iPhone and the iPad.

Most within corporate America work their entire careers avoiding risk. Some do it blatantly, taking pride in saying "no" to anything new that comes along, protecting the bottom line and corporate reputation from anything that feels a little dicey. Others avoid risk superstitiously, hiding behind focus groups, best practices and spreadsheets that promise (but rarely deliver) ROI.

In Human Resource departments, for example, the risk avoiders hire only candidates who present excellent education records; Steve Jobs dropped out of college and Walt Disney left high school after one year. In Marketing Departments, the risk avoiders spend big money on TV and print while moving cautiously into digital and social; Disney made huge bets before others on Technicolor in movies and on the nascent television medium, and Steve Jobs doubled down on mobile computing at a time when few expressed a desire for expensive mobile devices.

Avoiding risks doesn't get someone fired. No one is ever called into a senior executive's office to justify why he or she declined to invest the company's money in a bold but untested idea. The risk avoiders rise slowly and steadily in corporate ranks, producing modest results. They never risk their reputations or career achievement, and when they fail, they fail small and justifiably--"The creative tested well!" or "The candidate had a great GPA from a respected school!"

Most of the time, these people guide companies to outcomes within a safe and expected range, perhaps stealing a point of market share from the competition. Little is risked, lost or gained. But the road to failure is paved with a thousand tiny successes, and while risk avoiders don't fail spectacularly, their companies can. Risk avoiders cannot change quickly enough; they miss threats to their marketplace and are unable to rapidly steer a new course. Blockbuster, Borders, GM, and many other firms were full of risk avoiders who were constantly and modestly successful until they suddenly were not.

Of course, there are many in corporate America who embrace risk, but few do so like Jobs and Disney. If you are a risk taker, you probably do so only part way. You likely don't bet your job, your home and your family's future on your vision. Walt Disney would have lost Mickey Mouse and his home had Snow White failed, and he later borrowed against his own life insurance policy to fund the construction of Disneyland. You don't take that kind of risk, and neither do I.

How much are you willing to risk failure? After being promoted and earning a healthy income, are you inclined to put that at risk to pursue your vision and deliver exceptional results for your employer? Can you defend and support an employee's new idea when their last one failed thoroughly?

The lessons of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs aren't simple or easy. Very few of us have the power to achieve anything close to their level of greatness, but the way we choose to view failure and our willingness to risk what we have achieved is, in my opinion, the defining difference between those who are merely successful and those who bring vital change to their organizations.

Most of us desire success and fear failure. What the stories of Jobs and Disney tell me is that we ought to embrace failure and fear success. The more we succeed and achieve, the less likely we become to accept risks. Jobs and Disney remind me of a Steinbeck quote--one I learned from Epcot's American Adventure (Thanks, Walt!)  Steinbeck was speaking of our nation, but he may have well been speaking to every company and individual who has tasted success:

We now face the danger which in the past has been the most destructive to nations. Success, plenty, comfort and ever-increasing leisure: no dynamic people have ever survived these dangers.
Think Different, indeed!