Saturday, December 28, 2013

Three Tips to Save Your Job and Increase Attention on Twitter in 2014

There is, of course, no single way to do Twitter right. People maintain Twitter profiles for a myriad of reasons, and that means it is tough to offer a set of "best practices" to fit everyones' goals. That said, there are a few things that you may be doing that could annoy followers or, worse yet, increase the risk of facing terrible professional ramifications as a result of your tweeting.

Here are three tips to have a more successful and safer time on Twitter in 2014:

  • Eliminate auto posting: Several brands (such as Bank of America) got in trouble for automating their Twitter accounts this past year. While your daily My-Followers-Are-Brighter-Than-Yours tweets are less egregious, they are nonetheless still annoying and useless--no one is clicking and no one cares. Worse yet, while daily, uninteresting auto-posts may seem harmless, they create clutter that can get you deleted off of lists (and one of the things we should all realize by now is that being included on lists is far more powerful than merely being followed.)

    And for the love of all that is holy, if you are auto-tweeting your horoscope, stop! Few care about horoscopes, and even fewer care what your (rather than their) horoscope is each day. If you are auto-tweeting a horoscope on an account tied to your job or employer, you are posting a giant, blinking Twitter billboard that you are self centered, do not know how to use Twitter and should not be followed.

  • Detach personal and employer accounts: This is a mistake we have seen time and again: People accidentally posting on their employers' social profile a tweet intended for a personal account. At best, a misdirected tweet is embarrassing to both you and your employer; at worst, it costs people jobs (and loses agencies' accounts).

    Chances are you already know that you should not manage your personal and your employers' accounts using the same social management application, but you may have convinced yourself you are smart enough to avoid those mistakes. That attitude is dangerous and wrong--mistakes happen all the time, and you do not want to be the next cautionary case study that earns headlines on Mashable. Use different social apps to maintain your personal accounts and professional accounts; heck, use different browsers, phones and computers to do so, if you can. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure!

  • Avoid outlandish humor:  If you want to be the next Sarah Silverman, quit your job, hone your comedic chops, spend years getting heckled on stage and starve while you strive for the impossible dream of becoming one of the very few comedians who can make a living out of it. But, if you care to remain employed, retain your benefits and move up the career ladder, then do not make the same mistake as Justine Sacco (or Pax DickinsonTaylor PalmisanoChristina HaramboureMatt Bowman or Miguel Torres).

    You should be smart enough to know that the First Amendment does not  protect your job from any idiotic thing you post and that the rules of propriety for a teen or comedian are different than for you, if you are a professional. There are three simple but important questions to ask yourself before posting a potentially offensive humorous tweet:

    • Would I be say this at the dinner table in front of my parents, spouse and kids?
    • Would I say this in a meeting in front of my boss and peers?
    • Would I say this on stage in front of a large audience?

    Remember that a tweet made on a public account is, in fact, a tweet made in front of parents, spouses, children, bosses, peers and a large audience. Do not let your next outrageous, edgy, hilarious tweet make you funniest person applying for unemployment.
Twitter is the most powerful broadcast medium ever invented. That makes it a great place to promote, educate, inform, engage, build reputation and network. It also makes Twitter the most dangerous communications tool ever invented. 

In 2014, hundreds of people will lose their jobs because of their Twitter activities. Focus on the needs of your followers rather than yourself and be mindful of the risks, and you have nothing to fear.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2014 in Review: Facebook's Very Bad Year

Anyone can create a list of predictions for the coming year, but I wanted to do something different. After seeing the return of Brian to Family Guy courtesy of Stewie's time machine (apparently Seth MacFarlane never learned the number one rule of Hollywood,"Don't kill the dog"), I decided upon my approach. I traveled forward in time to December 2014, stole this blog post off my PC and can share--one year in advance--the year that was (or will be) for social media, particularly Facebook.

(Disclosure: Although it may ruin the illusion, now is a good time to point out that time travel is not real, I am not offering financial or investment advice and the predictions and opinions expressed below are my own. This is a work of speculative, albeit informed, fiction.)


2014 in Review: Facebook's Very Bad Year

The past year has certainly been quite the wild ride, hasn't it?

A surprising number of social services had a bad year. Vine withered as consumers adopted more flexible sharing platforms. The answer to "Is Quora still around?" is "Yes, but only in Asia." Tumblr tumbled as users fled the appearance of advertising on the network (and as Yahoo improved its ability to spot and delete porn). Snapchat has lost $3,500 of value every second since turning down Google's $4 billion offer in late 2013--its current valuation stands below $2 billion, a steal at just 1,000 times this years' revenue, wouldn't you say? Twitter, despite steady increases in users, time and tweets, saw its stock fall as the typical post-IPO hangover set in. Meanwhile Google+ is still doing as well as any Google social strategy to date, which is to say quite modestly.

While some tech companies had a bad year, for others, 2014 was fatal. Groupon is hanging tough (although it gave up much of its 2013 stock surge as its string of flat quarters and after-tax losses continued) but LivingSocial is no longer among the living. I will not mourn the loss of LivingSocial, but I feel a bit sad to see Barnes and Noble's Nook throw in the towel. The retailer deserves credit for trying to innovate, but they just could not compete against iPads, Androids and Kindles. With the book closed on Barnes and Noble's digital strategy, the retailer now seems poised to follow Borders to the great bookstore in the sky.

Facebook's year has perhaps not been as bad as LivingSocial's or Nook's, but 2014 has been quite painful for the folks in Menlo Park. Facebook started the year on a high, with its stock selling more than 50% above its IPO price, but the company is ending 2014 in a very dark place. After briefly exceeding a price of $70 per share, Facebook's stock is now back to its mid-2013 level.

The social network still welcomes around 1.5 billion active users on a monthly basis, so it isn't exactly on the ropes, but questions dog Facebook on three fronts: Declining active users in developed markets, a deceleration in the growth of advertising revenue and a lack of diversification in its business model. While many could not see it at the start of 2014, the seeds for Facebook's rough year were planted and already blooming at the start of the year.

Users, Loyalty and Trust

Facebook's long march toward worldwide saturation has ended. The company, which as recently as two years ago could reliably post more than 6% quarterly increases in monthly active users (MAUs), was barely able to grow its worldwide MAUs in the last two quarters of 2014. Even more concerning, for the first time ever, Facebook saw a decline in MAUs in North America.

None of this should have been a surprise, since Facebook acknowledged in October 2013 that the company was seeing "a decline in DAU (Daily Active Users) among younger teens in the United States." As has happened time and again since the dawn of the digital era, teens' communication habits influenced those of older demographics, and thus use of new mobile and sharing apps grew in every age category. WhatsApp, Kik, TinyChat and Pheed all increased active users by 150% to 300% in the US in 2014, and it seems 2015 will be the year for one of these mobile sharing apps to emerge from the pack.

While investors may have shrugged off Facebook's late 2013 warning about teen usage, it was clear the company was deeply concerned; this is why Facebook was willing to extend a $3 billion offer for SnapChat. Although SnapChat does not publicize its user numbers, several tech writers (such as those at Buzzfeed, GlobalWebIndex and TechCrunch) estimated the service had just 10 to 25 million active users at the time of the offer. If accurate, that means Facebook was willing to pay at least four times more per user than it did for Instagram in 2012--quite a premium for a service that had no revenue and was plagued with questions about bullying, sexting and predatory behavior.

While Facebook was willing to spend lavishly to retain teen users, in other ways, it was remarkably complacent about user issues back in 2013. The company showed no sign of urgency, even though studies demonstrated Facebook was less trusted than any other company to protect consumers' data and the social network earned rock-bottom scores for customer satisfaction. While teens started flocking to other services where they could better control who could see their pics and posts, Facebook did little to improve posting control or its news feed; in fact, a significant news feed improvement announced in March 2013 was quietly abandoned before year end. Distrust, dissatisfaction and diminishing active users are a dangerous combination, and many now believe Facebook will face the long-anticipated "tipping point" in 2015.

Advertising Growth Slows

With Facebook's user base stagnating and limited opportunity to serve new ads to consumers before they rebel, Facebook's advertising revenue began to get squeezed in 2014. Revenue continued to grow at a healthy pace in early 2014, but by midyear top-line growth was slowing. Why? Many marketers were not happy with the results delivered by their ad spend on Facebook and email continued to deliver considerably better results than Facebook ads.

Of course, mobile advertising is still a bright spot for Facebook, but just as had occurred on the desktop in 2012 and 2013, the pace at which Facebook mobile advertising was rising began to slow in 2014. The number of ads that can be served to consumers on their mobile devices and the price advertisers are willing to pay both show signs of approaching peak levels.

Faced with advertising saturation, the only solution to keep ad revenue growing was for Facebook to offer new advertising products for which marketers were willing to pay larger sums. This meant, for example, the launch of auto-run video advertising in consumers' news feeds. The reaction to these ads was not, to say the least, very positive. Consumers, already unhappy with advertising on the social network, objected to the distraction of the moving ads, the impact on PC and phone performance and the additional unwanted data throughput that sucked up too much of their monthly data plans.

Almost immediately, people began posting on Facebook links to new ad-blocking browser addons and instructions for how to prevent Facebook's Flash ads from running. (Ironic that the same power Facebook gives users to share is now being used to reduce Facebook's advertising results, huh?) Auto-running video ads were just one step too far for many users, leading to more complaints and more abandonment.

As we enter 2015, Facebook may have the sort of revenue growth that other sites would kill for, but the rate of growth is slowing. This is bad news for investors who earlier in the year had been willing to pay a price-earnings ratio of more than 140, substantially greater than Apple's P-E of 14 or Google's 32. With slowing growth, the market reassessed the P-E premium at which the stock was trading, and Facebook shares took a tumble.

Lack of Diversification in Facebook's Business Model

The final issue that has investors vexed and undermines confidence in Facebook is the company's lack of revenue diversification. In 2011, more than 16% of Facebook revenues came from payments and other fees, but this percentage steadily declined as social gaming revenue lagged behind ad revenue growth, Facebook yanked its virtual credits program and the social network failed to sell physical gifts as part of its Gifts program. At the end of 2013, the company had never been more beholden to ad revenue, with slightly more than 10% of revenue coming from non-advertising sources, and in 2014 the situation worsened--the percentage of revenue from advertising now exceeds 91%.

Diversification is a vital factor that drives investor confidence and stock price, particularly for firms that rely on advertising. While advertising can furnish easy income for companies such as Facebook that amass many users, it also comes with profound risks. Just ask Excite, AltaVista, Geocities or Myspace how advertising worked for them. Or, check out print media, which is still struggling to deal with a decade-long collapse in newspaper ad revenue.

Investors buy stocks when they can see room for substantial and sustainable growth of the bottom line, but advertising revenue cannot grow indefinitely as users and page views stagnate. Facebook desperately needs to demonstrate non-advertising sources for growth in 2015 and beyond in order to again earn a higher P-E premium from investors.

In 2014, the sharing economy continued to grow, with firms like Airbnb, RelayRides, LendingClub and Prosper posting solid growth despite considerable challenges with the legal and regulatory environment and with slow consumer adoption. Meanwhile Facebook, the firm most responsible for bringing Web 2.0 services to the masses, has continued to sit on the sidelines of the sharing economy. While startups innovate with new and lucrative ways for the peer-to-peer (P2P) economy to grow, Facebook is mired with a stalling Web 1.0-style business model.

Perhaps this will soon change, as Facebook is rumored to be considering sharing economy acquisitions in 2015. (I'd humbly suggest TaskRabbit, a P2P marketplace for services, would make an excellent addition to Facebook's existing and sizable P2P social network.) Acquiring sharing economy firms that produce revenue by giving consumers services they welcome would be a long overdue move for Facebook, which for too long has relied on old-fashioned interruption advertising.

Facebook is also rumored to be considering an ad-free paid model, an action that would surely anger advertisers but could bring immediate diversification to the social network's income. Many folks are speculating about the price at which Facebook might offer its paid service, but if the rumors are true, Facebook can count on me to sign up for the $39.95 annual offering! (If, by the end of 2015, Facebook can encourage just 10% of its base to pay that annual sum, the company would diversify and boost revenue by around 40% this coming year!)

It's been a bad year for Facebook, with users beginning to abandon, advertising reaching saturation and no diversification to appease the restless market, but I certainly wouldn't count out Facebook in 2015. Zuckerberg and Sandberg deserve the lumps they have taken in the media this year for failing to address Facebook's problems before they developed, but the two leaders still have a chance to turn things around. With better usability, less onerous advertising and new programs that bring sharing economy products and services to its 1.5 billion users, Facebook could look like a reinvigorated company by the end of 2015.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Three Reasons the Marketing Department Will Give Up On Earned Media in 2014

Let's start by giving credit where credit is due: Within many companies, there is no more consistently innovative organization than the Marketing Department. Fifteen years ago, while everyone else was deriding the information superhighway as some overhyped playground for nerds, it was the Marketing group in many companies that advocated for the World Wide Web and found the budget to create the first corporate websites. And six years ago, while most executives were chuckling over their kids' obsession with MySpace and Facebook, it was likely the Marketing Department in your company that staked out the firms' social profile on social networks.

But while Marketing Departments may have controlled the first iteration or two of their companies' web sites, that time has now passed. Today, the Marketing Department has responsibility for driving traffic to the site and may control the corporate website's look and feel, but it is very unlikely (if your company is of a certain size) to own the content, the business functionality or the underlying technologies such as web content management, search, hosting, web analytics and the like. In other words, today Marketing brings its traditional strengths and capabilities in reach, scale and acquisition to the web, while other parts of the organization bring their own strengths.

Today, it is common for the Marketing function to own companies' social media accounts. In Spring, SmartBlog on Social Media asked "Who controls the social media efforts at your organization?" and over half the respondents noted their Marketing Department is responsible for social media. No other answer even came close--Public Relations was second with just 18% of the responses.

But in 2014, it is time for change. In the same way Marketing ceded control of corporate websites as the rest of the organization matured digitally, it is now time for Marketing to leave most aspects of social and earned media to others in the organization. That means that primary responsibility for social accounts, daily posting and organic content must shift out of marketing and to other departments, if this has not already occurred.

There are three reasons why this shift is occurring and will continue to do so in 2014:

Reason One: It Is Increasingly Difficult for Earned Media to Furnish the Reach Marketing Needs 

Earned media, that golden promise of the social era, is dying. You don't even need to examine data to know this--just look at the wave of whiny blog posts we have seen this year from marketers accusing Facebook of breaking promises. Apparently, marketers thought Facebook was going to be a place where basic consumer behavior changed: As more brands joined social media and increased their content marketing output, consumers who avoid ads in every other medium would suddenly welcome and engage with marketing content on Facebook.

Of course, that isn't what happened--people sign into Facebook and other social networks to see what friends, family and peers are up to, not to get marketing content. On Facebook, as more brands paid for access to users' news feeds, it was absolutely inevitable that brands would find it increasingly difficult to "earn" their way into fans' news feeds organically. (And if you think I am demonstrating 20/20 hindsight, feel free to read my blog post from almost two years ago, "Did Facebook Just Kill Earned Media?")

Ignite studied 689 posts across 21 brands; only one
brand saw an increase in organic reach.
How difficult is it becoming to generate earned media on Facebook? Two recent studies demonstrate that engagement and penetration are sinking very quickly. Komfo found a 42% decrease in fan penetration from August to November, and an Ignite study revealed that in the week following Facebook's December 2nd news feed tweak, brand page organic reach declined by 44% on average. Ignite notes, "Facebook once said that brand posts reach approximately 16% of their fans. That number is no longer achievable for many brands, and our analysis shows that roughly 2.5% is now more likely for standard posts on large pages."

And if you think the earned media bloodletting is over, think again. The slow decline of earned media on Facebook will continue in 2014. Ad Age recently reported that Facebook is telling marketers, "We expect organic distribution of an individual page's posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site."

Make no mistake, the phenomenon of shrinking earned media is not just a Facebook issue. Facebook is on the cutting edge of social media because of its scale and longevity (not to mention investor expectations, with a market cap almost 50% greater than Twitter's, LinkedIn's and Yahoo's combined), so it provides a peek into the future of all social media. As more brands pay for access and as social networks strive to monetize, brands' earned media will get pushed aside.

Earned media is dead; long live paid media! Marketers should not mourn the loss of earned media but rejoice that their traditional skills and abilities are in ever higher demand. The need for paid media expertise in social media has never been higher and is going to continue growing. The Marketing Department is uniquely equipped to stay abreast of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks' rapidly evolving ad programs, develop and test targets and creative, and measure advertising success. Marketing can focus on what it does best and leave the rest of social media to others.

Exception to the rule: While it is ever more difficult to gain access to consumers via earned media, this is not a universal problem for all categories. Entertainment, news and style brands continue to have opportunities to increase reach and engagement both in traditional social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as the newer breed of visual platforms such as Vine, Instagram, Pinterest and perhaps, if they can prove themselves to marketers, Snapchat and Whatsapp. Most other categories simply do not have the luxury of innate consumer interest, and trying to manufacture it where little exists only pushes brands to, well, let's move on to reason number two...

Reason Two: The Harder Marketers Try To Win Earned Media, the Greater the Risks

You're getting a little choked up with the
emotion of this respectful post, aren't you?
As earning organic social media becomes more difficult, marketers get more desperate to break through, which elevates the risk for brands. No consumer hopes for a daily dialog with their brand of canned pasta, as evidenced by the fact Spaghettios has just 2,600 people "talking about the brand" despite having amassed 518,000 "fans." Since no national brand can succeed with a marketing effort that has a reach of just 2,600 consumers (and since some Social Media Marketing Manager's job depends on it), Spaghettios' Marketing Department has to churn out daily content that struggles to get more attention than other brands. The more they produce and the harder they try, the greater the risks, so it is of little surprise that Spaghettios stumbled instead of soared. The brand's recent Pearl Harbor Day post of a smiling brand logo waving the American flag was widely criticized and embarrassed the brand.

Spaghettios apologized and said its intent was to pay respect, but you and I both know that is not true. This was marketing content, and the goal in posting it was to achieve what marketers always want to achieve in social media--likes, comments and shares. The intent of the smiling cartoon Spaghettio was not to pay respect but to create brand engagement (and in that, at least, the brand succeeded).

Of course, I should not pick on the Campbell Soup brand when there is an almost limitless number of examples of social marketing missteps to choose from in 2013: The #AskJPM, #AskBG and #AskRKelly hashtag dustups; endless look-alike newsjacking after the royal baby's birth; embarrassing campaigns to extort retweets in exchange for charitable dollars; failure to control social accounts from dismissed employees; pathetic fake account hacks to jack up follower counts; branded hashtags inserted into tweets about tragedies; accidentally racist posts; misguided humor about fatal airport crashes. Was that enough, or should I go on?

Cole defended his tweet as a way to "provoke a dialogue."
How far is your brand willing to push to get attention?
Okay, I will! Epicurious insensitively exploiting the Boston Marathon tragedy for social content. Kenneth Cole joking about war to sell footwearTaco Bell turning fans into detractors by mistakenly sending thousands to restaurants that were not yet carrying a promised new productNokia failing to put a language filter in place, permitting someone to post "F### you" on its corporate account. (Yes, that "F" word!) The Onion calling a nine-year-old girl a c###. (Yes, that "C" word!)

In 2014, we will see still more brand blunders in social media, but there is a simple solution: Stop trying so hard! With shrinking opportunities to reach the kind of mass scale marketers want and need, consider the risks versus the potential modest rewards. If you do, many of you will shut off the lights on those special-event real-time marketing newsrooms--your brand is more likely to be criticized for spamming consumers' conversations than be next year's Oreo Blackout. Put an end to those tweet-this-or-we-won't-save-a-starving-child campaigns, which consumers increasingly see as mercenary attempts to boost brand reach. Stop desperately asking people to "like this if you love Fridays." Tactics like those may deliver some bumps in your social media analytics, but they are more likely to create negative sentiment than to boost consideration, purchase intent or loyalty at any reasonable scale.

Note that I said to stop trying so hard, not stop trying altogether. Brands certainly have a place in social media, but the time has come to focus not on what your marketing department wants but on what your customers want: Deals, information, education, customer service, co-creation and social functionality. In this list, the Marketing Department is best aligned to furnish just one type of content--promotions. The remainder of the content and services are better left to Public Relations, Customer Care, Product Management and Development and Channel Management.

The Marketing Department is an important provider of content for social channels, but that does not mean those social channels should be run by Marketing with the goal of producing marketing results. In the coming year, I anticipate we will see more Public Relations and Customer Care departments take over companies' social accounts. This will decrease the chances for the kind of social missteps that embarrass brands. No PR or customer service department will ever post an image of a smiling Spaghettio waving a flag, newsjack a national event or fake an account hack. Those departments do not need to win a battle for hundreds of thousands of eyeballs in order to succeed, and they will not push the envelope until, inevitably, the envelope tears and creates a social PR mess.

Exception to the rule: If your brand does not offer the kind of customer experience that earns advocates, then attempting to earn organic attention at scale is difficult and risky. If, however, your company creates advocates with a great product or service experience, that bestows opportunities for social media marketing that is safer and more prone to success. Coca-Cola, USAA, Apple, Trader Joe's and other successful brands don't succeed in the real world because they have great social media; they succeed in social media because they offer a great experience in the real world.

Reason Three: There is Little Evidence that Social Media Marketing Success Drives Business Success

No matter what your corporate social media scorecard may imply, all engagement is not created equal. Getting consumers to engage with your jokey posts or videos is not the same as making a brand impression, building purchase intent or driving sales. Too many brands continue to chase social media metrics while failing to measure how and if social media efforts drive business results. For every Dove "Real Beauty" or Secret "Let Her Jump" that delivers measurable marketing results, there are dozens of other social campaigns that fall far short.

It is easy to see the gap between social media success and business success by looking at Kmart's 2013 efforts. Few brands were as talkable as Kmart this year. Thousands of blog posts and tweets trumpeted the brands' success with funny viral videos like "Ship My Pants" (20 million views!), "Big Gas Savings" (6 million views!), "Show Your Joe" (16 million views!) and the new "Ship My Trowsers" (3 million views in a week!) Even though Kmart, which is owned by Sears, amassed twice as many views as top-rated primetime program NCIS has viewers, the retailer has continued its slow decline, with same-store sales falling 2.1% in the second quarter and an equal amount in the third quarter. As Mashable's Todd Wasserman notes, "It's hard to make a case that the ads did much for owner Sears's bottom line."

In the article on Mashable, Sears chief digital marketing officer says he judges success by "the amount of engagements in social media surrounding the brand." It is long past time for digital and social media leaders to stop this kind of idiotic babble. Marketing that entertains or engages without driving measurable brand or business benefits is failed marketing. Television ad buyers don't claim success based on gross rating points, and neither should digital and social marketers claim success can be counted in "likes" rather than dollars, new customers or brand equity (such as awareness and purchase intent).

Kmart is not the only brand we can study to see the tenuous relationship between social media success and business success. Late last year, Red Bull launched an amazing social campaign around Felix Baumgartner's record-setting skydive. The YouTube video earned 35 million views and got everyone talking. Two months ago, uberVU evaluated Red Bull's and Monster's social media presence and declared Red Bull the winner. But while Red Bull may be winning the social media battle, it is losing the market share war. In recent years, Red Bull has been slowly bleeding market share to Monster, and the trend continued in 2013. In Monster's third quarter earnings call, CEO Rodney Sacks announced that Monster's year-over-year growth was greater than Red Bull's and that Monster was close to overtaking Red Bull in US market share.

Two of the biggest social media marketing successes of the past fourteen months seem to be driving no demonstrable brand success. Maybe my Kmart and Red Bull examples seem unfair since, of course, social media is but one small factor in overall brand success or failure. After all, customers disappointed with past Kmart experiences won't be enticed into stores with a funny video, and Red Bull may be leaking market share because competitors have better product innovation. If you buy this line of reasoning, then you are acknowledging my point--entertaining consumers with funny videos and knee-slapping posts do little to impact the bottom line when consumer perception of the brand is shaped by more powerful experiences with the product or service.

I see little evidence that entertaining consumers with social content imparts benefits to brands. Consumers are awash in entertainment options, and your brand cannot compete with the likes of BeyoncePewDiePieCinema SinsRihanna or Reddit. Those channels and pages, and thousands of entertainment options like them, are unencumbered by the limitations faced by your brand, such as reputation considerations, brand fit, legal and regulatory concerns and, most of all, the need to drive purchase of goods and services. (Yes, Rihanna and Beyonce want you to buy their music, but in that case their entertainment is their product, while your brand is left producing diverting videos in the wild hope they will drive folks to purchase pistachios or bottled water.)

Exception to the rule: While big, established brands show little sign of being able to alter brand behavior with tweets and YouTube videos, small and unknown brands and individuals still have opportunities to leverage earned media to gain attention and achieve success. From Blendtec to Justin Bieber to GoldieBlox, upstart brands have demonstrated that the right content can build awareness and change minds.

Where does this leave Marketing and Earned Media? 

There remain several ways marketers can succeed in social media, including paid media and using social networks to distribute promotions. In addition, brands that create advocates through superior customer experience can work to increase Word of Mouth. For many marketers, however, 2014 will be the year they must contend with the diminishing reach, increased risk and dubious business results of organic content and earned media. The earned media equation is changing, and marketers must ensure they don't make the mistake of committing to a strategy that cannot deliver the audience, opportunities and results necessary.

The time is right for a reassessment of your brands' cost-benefit equation with respect to marketing content in social media. If you are achieving significant organic scale and positive outcomes for a reasonable cost, keep up the good work. But if you are employing writers, videographers, photographers, illustrators and other creatives to develop social media content that is reaching too few customers and fails to deliver measureable results, then a change is in order.

There is no shame in acknowledging that earned media does not offer the marketing opportunities that we hoped for years ago as social media was developing. There is, however, shame in continuing to invest if the strategy is not producing results or in striving so hard for marketing success that the company is embarrassed with a social media misfire.

In 2014, I believe the time has come for a normalization of roles in social media. Your organization has professionals with decades of experience creating earned media, and they are not in Marketing but PR. Your organization also has professionals able to scale one-to-one relationships, answer customer questions and engage consumers individually, and they are found in Customer Care. These are the departments that can better manage corporate social accounts. More importantly, they can measure success on their own terms, with metrics based on responsiveness, reputation and satisfaction rather than on acquisition and sales.

The shift has already happened at many companies, but if the Marketing Department at your firm still "owns" the corporate social media accounts, it may be time for them to hand over the keys. Moreover, if your marketing function is ramping up a content marketing program at the same time earned media opportunities are vanishing, caution and careful consideration of costs and goals is advised. Marketing will always have a role on social networks, but the time has come to recognize that social media is not primarily a marketing channel but is better aligned to the longstanding responsibilities and capabilities of others throughout the organization.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What Your Brand Can Learn from Justine Sacco and “Twas the Night Before Christmas”

The great irony of social media--if you strive to develop content and build reputation as I do--is this:  The stuff you take time to do right and hope will go viral rarely does, and the things you do not think much about sometimes ends up reaching a very wide audience.

I have spent around 20 hours writing a blog post that will launch tomorrow. Once it posts, I will get a couple thousand readers and maybe 100 retweets. That's a nice reward for my effort. (I appreciate every comment and share my blog receives, and I do my best to acknowledge most of the people who take the time to do so.)

But this week I made two tweets about the Justine Sacco affair that will be seen by 1,000,000% more people than my blog post. One appeared on Mashable and the other on Buzzfeed. Combined, these two tweets took me perhaps 90 seconds to compose. (And, in retrospect, I'm mildly embarrassed of my support for the Gogo tweet, which exploited someone's misfortune, but just as Justine cannot take back her tweet, neither can I take back mine.)

I'd suggest it is frustrating to have your best work get modest attention while offhand tweets get more, but that is human nature and it is nothing new--not even to the digital and social era. Just last week, I heard Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" read in the 175-year-old chapel built on land Moore donated. Moore spent two decades hiding his authorship of the poem following its publication in 1823. The work, now known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas," embarrassed Moore. He was a professor who published scholarly works, and he did not wish to be associated with the children's story. But, neither Moore in the 19th century nor Justine Sacco or me in the 21st century can control the narrative once our work enters the public's awareness.

This is a good reminder to everyone who bemoaned that Justine Sacco faced a backlash that hurt her reputation and cost her her job: once we publish something, we lose control. We cannot manage how people use it and we certainly cannot control how people perceive it. Each of us has a right to say what we want, but everyone else has a right to judge and react to it. And say what you want about the "mob mentality" of social media, but it is no different in the real world than on Twitter--once someone engages people's emotions, be it anger or joy, the right brain takes over. Once that happens, the left brain's logic and restraint go out the window. Social doesn't change this, it just brings more scale to it.

To me, there is irony in seeing people who have used social media to build their reputations and careers now gripe at how social media can harm someone's reputation and career. As we strive for "viral" impact of a positive sort, why would we be surprised or disturbed when it happens in reverse? If we are going to believe content that positively engages emotions or logic can create benefits for people and brands, then by very definition, don't we also have to believe that content that engages negative emotions or logic can do the same in reverse?

The reputation train goes in both directions. We don't control the train--we can only influence its direction by being aware and vigilant of how people may react to our public communications.

Post carefully!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Question For You: What Is Lost In Our Age Of Social Media Hoaxes?

Wow, did you see the horrific Pace Salsa social media meltdown last weekend? As we now know, it was a hoax.

Or maybe last weekend you cheered on Elan Gale as he gave an arrogant airline passenger her comeuppance. That was a hoax, too.

Or maybe your friends tweeted and retweeted that amazing photo of a python that ingested the guy unlucky enough to fall asleep near the snake. Yep, another hoax.

We are awash in hoaxes. Perhaps that is nothing new, but nowadays the spread of hoaxes has been supercharged by the network power of social media. What used to be a rumor spread from one individual to the next in the physical world can today reach the world's online population in seven degrees of social networking separation.

Sometimes the hoaxes passed around social media are just for laughs; other times, they are cruel and dangerous. In the wake of actor Paul Walker's death, some fans "liked" a Facebook page started by the star's daughter, Meadow Walker, which, inevitably, was revealed to be fake. And yesterday, a Kentucky high school emptied over fake threats shared through social media.

Some brands have gotten into the hoax game, mistaking a momentary bump in retweets for some sort of deeper brand benefit. Chipotle, a brand that otherwise strives for meaningful social engagement about the quality of food, for some reason thought it would a good idea to fake a social media account hack. The stunt worked to elevate word of mouth briefly, but how does it help a brand dedicated to improving the authenticity of food to be so inauthentic in social media?

Not to be left out, traditional media has been sucked into the game of hype and hoax. As social media enables information to spread faster--regardless of whether it is true or verified--even "respectable" news outlets get caught as they attempt to out-Buzzfeed Buzzfeed. Two weeks ago, Time Magazine's web site featured an article about a guy who drives his pet bear around in a Lamborghini, but the photo, the article and everything else was simply another Reddit hoax. Of course, sometimes the news media's rush to match the speed of Internet rumor has more concerning ramifications, such as when innocent people were mistakenly identified as the Boston Marathon bombers.

My question is what all this means to communication in the social and mobile era. If consumers continue to gravitate to the sensational, web sites chase after attention and traffic as quickly as possible, and no on seems bothered by whether the most widely-shared information is even true or not, what suffers?

One casualty may be trust. If our world remains awash with news and information that is false, who do we trust? Our friends and social networks that spread the hoaxes? The news media that aids and abets the broadcast of misinformation? Should I give money to the young woman dying of cancer or try to win one of the 400 PlayStation 4s being given away on Facebook? Of course not--they're both hoaxes!

Remember when we use to speak of the importance of "authenticity" in the social era? Have we lost something in our rush for instant gratification, be it entertainment and distraction for the masses or traffic and attention for brands and media? And if something important is being lost, what is the solution?

Or, am I just an old fuddy-duddy worrying about truth in a world more interested in mourning Eddie Murphy. (Yes, that's yet another Twitter-fueled hoax.)

I'd appreciate your input in the comments below or on Twitter where I am @augieray.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The One Social Media Question No Customer Care Professional Should Ask

Over the past couple of years, I have presented at or attended many conferences where the topic of social customer care was discussed. Invariably, as the dialog turns to rising customer expectations, a hand goes up or a voice shouts out the one question that, perhaps more than any other, makes me irrepressibly angry. That question is "Is the customer expectation reasonable?"

It may surprise you, but I am not a believer that the "customer is always right." Individuals can be wrong, sometimes. Each of us, at one time or another, has been an unreasonable customer demanding something that a brand could not and should not provide us.

However, while an individual customer may not always be right, once a significant portion of customers express the same expectation, the time for debate is past. The question stops being what is fair, reasonable or right and becomes how the company must change to meet those expectations. We are well past the time for deliberation with respect to social customer care.

There are plenty of studies that demonstrate what consumers expect from brands in social media when it comes to customer care. For example:

The consumer has spoken! How are brands doing? Pretty darn poorly:
Increasing numbers of customers expect brands will be available to furnish customer care in social media. That expectation is neither fair nor unfair; it simply is. One can debate the fair-mindedness of customer expectations until the cows come home, but it will not change the reality of the situation. 

Some tasked with customer care question the reasonableness of consumers' response time expectations, but it is difficult to understand why that is. Corporate customer service centers have found a way to staff phone lines so that the average telephone hold time in 2013 is just 56 seconds, yet if that same customer tweets to a corporate social profile, an hour seems an unreasonable time to respond. (Shouldn't we thank consumers who turn to social channels for their service requests--they have given us the luxury of taking an hour to reply versus demanding we pick up the phone in 56 seconds?)

What many find so infuriating about the brands that struggle to furnish social media customer care is that many of these same companies have no difficulty staffing their social media marketing teams or spending increasing amounts of money on social media advertising. The recent Altimeter study found that companies are 75% more likely to have marketing staff dedicated to social media than customer service staff. 

In the coming years, more consumers will turn to social media for customer service and their expectations for rapid response will only grow. Is that reasonable? Far more so than your brand expecting consumers to follow, engage and share its marketing in social media while the company ignores the same customers' questions, requests and feedback in the channel.