Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Many Lenses of Social Media

Thanksgiving is one of my favorites. It’s all things I love -- family, friends, food, football and…yes…social media.

That’s right – you know a topic has gotten big when it successfully competes with Brangelina and the woes of the Washington Redskins for discussion time at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

How many friends do you have on Facebook? Who are they – co-workers, high school classmates, neighbors? What is the fascination with this Twitter thing?

After taking this Web 2.0 banter in for about 15 minutes, it dawned on me how different each person’s experience is with social media.

For the over 50 set, participation in social networks is an unobtrusive daily connection to loved ones. I guess checking out photos of a recent vacation on Facebook or Flickr is a better than phoning your daughter one too many times.

Then there is the still single crowd who taps into online communities as a source of relationship intelligence.

“There is no such thing as a blind date,” one cousin explained.

Of course, there are also a host of unwritten rules that guide interaction on Facebook among prospective romantic interests.

“Friending someone you have just started dating is a major decision,” my cousin said. “You are sending a signal to her. It’s OK for you to be part of my online life and to know my friends.”

And to think my world of social media is primarily viewed through a business lens with a focus on lead generation, sales cultivation, search engine optimization and awareness building.

This year Thanksgiving served is a reminder that social media – like most things in life – is all about objectives and expectations.

Monday, November 23, 2009

One Blogger’s Take on Holiday Fare

Come Thanksgiving the frantic pace of the news room becomes more leisurely. The stream of press releases slows, and significant corporate announcements and product launches are shelved into the New Year.

For journalists, it is a welcome opportunity to pen more human interest evergreen stories along with those predictable trends to watch or year in review fluff pieces. It’s less compelling content, yet diminished readership and adjusted advertiser expectations tolerate such transgressions.

What does the holidays-induced news coma mean for bloggers? Should I delay opinionated thought leadership posts until business re-starts in January? Or is this an opportunity to grab attention now that the boisterous blogosphere has quieted?

I don’t think anyone can say for sure. There simply haven’t been enough holiday cycles to understand the influence blog readership and influence.

Personally, I plan to follow the lead of publishers, editors and journalists who have spent decades slugging it out for readership and the resulting influence.

I’m going to keep on writing – at least two posts a week. Yet, my more controversial posts will hold until 2010.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Dot Com Darling Returns

At the height of the dot com frenzy when entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, lawyers, accountants and PR flacks jockeyed for prestige and attention, Mark Walsh stood tall as the go-to CEO.

Walsh had it all. Good looks. Wicked smart. Articulate and engaging. An eclectic set of followers and wanna-bees. Plus, his supply chain software and services company VerticalNet sported a $12 billion valuation.

Ah, how a cruel market correction and the slow downward drift of the past decade changes things. Walsh bailed from VerticalNet just when things turned south and a few years back the company was eventually sold to a cement manufacturer for $15M.

Walsh has remained an entrepreneur and is now back with an interesting crowdsourcing advertising company called GeniusRocket.


This past Tuesday I headed over to the Ritz Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia for an event organized by Potomac Techwire about the future of interactive advertising.

There was Walsh…a bit older…hair now mostly gray…no longer the focus. Yet, he was still in the spotlight as one of the panelists and, more important, the most engaging and articulate speaker at the event.

Here are a few select comments from him on how to succeed with online marketing:

-Ads that don’t look like ads are more effective. The key is to develop content that engages and entertains. (Wow…Walsh is spot on about that. Here’s a post I wrote on that very topic from April 2008.

-Environment really matters. Would LinkedIn have as much traction if each page was loaded up with ads? Intrusive advertising on the Web has long-term negative implications for the brand.

-Great creative always drives the engine. Geico is a great example. Their advertising makes a non-interesting product exciting.

-Most brand managers are on an “accountability jihad.” They force media to develop new metrics and measurement approaches that often have limited relevance or value.

-Brand managers often fall in love with the tool and the tactic.

-There is no such thing as a public relations nightmare. They can be turned into brand building events in an online environment. Consider United Airlines the lost guitar situation. That brand manager should be fired for failing to capitalize on an opportunity to create goodwill around all of the hype.

-Honesty matters…you have to say what’s true about your product and then deliver on it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Horror of AmEx’s OPEN Forum

The integration of social media marketing as a core component of an organization’s promotional program is still very much in the early adopter phase.

In my new business travels, I typically come across three scenarios at a prospective client:

1. A handful of innovators have engaged via blogs, Twitter and social networks, creating a disjointed, tools-oriented effort.

2. A disciplined, strategic initiative has been defined and put in place, yet its scope, duration and funding are limited.

3. There is no measurable involvement with the marketing folks often citing legal and/or financial considerations for the failure to participate in social media.

This is why my enthusiasm leaps when I come across a carefully crafted program run by a well respected, global brand. Market leaders tend to instill confidence among the masses in an emerging medium like social media.

Consider American Express’ OPEN Forum which publishes a wonderful portfolio of best practices, resources and thought leadership for small business owners. The site even sports a measurable sales component with an appropriately positioned option for a reader to apply for an American Express card.

My enthusiasm for everything OPEN Forum quickly turned to horror when I came across this Q&A with Jason Rudman, the program’s director of strategy and marketing.

Specifically, it was this comment from Rudman when queried about the goals of this comprehensive social media initiative:

Engage business owners in a new set of experiences that increase loyalty, value perception, and relevance of our brand and continue to lead in the online engagement space to attract partners, so as to ultimately create additional compelling benefits for Cardmembers and convert prospects.


Huh?

Yes…I recognize those words to be part of the English language. However, they’ve been organized in a way that most likely makes little sense to a typical C-level executive who is responsible for the evaluation and funding of social media programs.

While American Express may be concerned about “value perception” and leadership in the “online engagement space,” most organizations are bit more real-world in their focus.

How can social media be leveraged to support lead generation and sales? Improve search engine optimization? Gather competitive intelligence?

For social media marketing to make the jump from experimental to the list of must-do communications programs, respected companies like American Express need to attach more measurable benchmarks to their efforts.

Hey Jason, drop the brand-only mumbo jumbo. Tell us how OPEN has helped American Express identify new customers.

Friday, November 13, 2009

There’s Potential with Hotwall

As Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) has increased its profile and standing in social media circles, we are approached from time-to-time by Web 2.0 start-ups looking for feedback on the beta version of an offering.

We view our role in this evaluation process as time well invested because, when appropriate, we are able to incorporate a new tool to enhance the success of a client program.

Earlier this week, my colleague Shany Seawright arranged for an introductory briefing with the senior team at Hotwall. The company’s new custom-URL creator is kind of like Bit.ly on steroids, offering users value in several areas:

--Build greater awareness through the creation of a brand-specific URL, rather than the random and non-descript links provided by other shorteners.

--Allow readers to provide real-time feedback through comment functionality attached to the linked URL.

--More defined lead generation capability through the incorporation of a promotional link in the browser tool bar.

--Evaluation of reader clicks and engagement through analytics functionality.

While off to a good start, Hotwall remains a work in progress. Much of the functionality mirrors what is already available in market adopted Web 2.0 tools.

More problematic for Hotwall is the company’s financial model. There is a free version of the tool, yet the more feature rich application sports a price tag of $50 a year per user.

This positions Hotwall against free Web 2.0 offerings where it loses on price every time. Why would I pay $50 for something that is just marginally better than a free tool?

Hotwall also comes up short as an enterprise offering. It needs a broader feature set, as well as more comprehensive analytics to garner interest from corporate marketers.

We may move forward with Hotwall by testing their tool in a couple of our client social media marketing programs. This should give us the ability to provide real-world feedback to their management. I suspect this insight will get them thinking more about features, functionality and positioning.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Blogger's Dilemma: Language Clarity or Confusion

The English language is quirky. The same words often carry different meanings dependent upon the cultural background and geography of the reader.

Plus, colloquialisms and other homespun variations can recast what a blogger considers to be a well-articulated post into a confusing and misinterpreted mess.

I was reminded of this last week at a global communications summit organized by one of Strategic Communications Group’s (Strategic) clients. Joined by my colleague Chris Parente, we had the pleasure of brainstorming with public relations consultants located in California and the UK.

It was during a conversation with one of the UK-based PR representatives that Chris warned about incorporating industry jargon in our messaging. He referred to this as the “inside baseball” syndrome.

Chris’ comment was met by a moment of silence, a shrug and a comment from the UK rep that she had no idea what Chris meant. Ah…the business implications of baseball terminology have yet to cross the pond.

This experience inspired me to review the past few months of traffic on this blog. The numbers are encouraging with more than 10,000 unique visitors. However, as I suspected, nearly 43 percent of my readers hail from outside the United States.

Like many bloggers, I employ an informal writing style to convey personality. I will pepper paragraphs with conversational language and, in some instances, even clich├ęs with the goal of constructing a more entertaining post.

Yet, I now wonder if my efforts to create a more engaged reader are potentially confusing nearly half of them. Ironic, right?

The more pressing questions, of course, is whether I should subscribe to a more journalistically prudent approach. And what counsel should we provide to clients?

My initial take is these questions are best answered by assessing and prioritizing the bloggers' target audience. For me, I’m domestically focused so this more casual writing style is spot on.

For the US-based blogger with global aspirations the smart play is to remain conservative and proper, and, by all means, drop the inside baseball references.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Speed to Outcome

I dig bloggers like B.L. Ochman who never shy from shaking things up.

This week Ochman penned an article for Advertising Age magazine entitled “Ten Things Social Media Can’t Do.” She takes aim at the social media consultants who knowingly set unrealistic expectations with clients that are still groping their way through this new Web 2.0 terrain.

Ochman writes, “Amid the endless pronouncements about social media…is the reality that it is not a solution, or a sure bet.”

Few corporate initiatives are a sure bet. Consider that nearly 70 percent of all technology projects are ultimately deemed to be failures. The star culprit? It is the organization’s own poor planning and requirements analysis, meaning projects are doomed right from the start.

The same potentially holds true for social media programs. As such, it’s paramount that consultants work in lock step with a client prior to the engagement to define achievable benchmarks and the necessary roles each party must play.

Ochman identifies a number of absolute criteria for social media success:

-Top management buy-in
-A well articulated marketing strategy
-A realistic budget
-Integration with public relations and other marketing programs

While Ochman is spot on about these requirements, our thinking does diverge regarding the time necessary to measure results.

She contends: “[Social media] is a long-term commitment to openness, experimentation and change that requires time to bear fruit.”

Fair enough, yet that flowery thinking will not convince a corporate executive to OK funding.

What they most likely hear from the consultant is: “I want you to give me resources for a new and somewhat unproven means of communication in which the results will most likely not be apparent until some undetermined time in the future.”

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic), we have proven that social media marketing can achieve measurable return in as little as 90 days. It’s why we often use a pilot program methodology to engage with a new client.

Yes…I want each of our clients to make a long-term commitment to social media. However, I’m also clear on the realities of corporate funding and the need to produce results fast.

My takeaway from Ochman’s article? Be real with a prospective client when formulating requirements and needs for a social media program. Yet also recognize that a positive outcome must come quickly.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

An Open Letter to the Unemployed Journalist

It's time to think differently about your career. The pressure created by the economic recession, as well as the shift in influence to social networks and online communities has unfairly impacted you.

You’re certainly not alone. Publishers of all types and sizes have stumbled and struggled their way through the past 18 months. For instance, the American Society of News Editors reported that US-based newspapers slashed nearly 6,000 editorial jobs last year.

It does not matter why you chose journalism as your career. Perhaps it was some sort of Woodward and Bernstein inspired calling? Or maybe you were merely a recent graduate with an English degree in search of a stable profession?

What is important now is that you recognize the elimination of your job is most likely permanent. It’s comparable to those industrial laborers whose positions were swept away by globalization and automation.

Do not fret though. Unlike the gangs of unemployed in distressed geographies like Michigan and Indiana, you have career options.

That’s because the demand for content that engages, educates and entertains will continue to grow. Its source (or publisher) is now a corporate entity seeking to cultivate relationships with key constituents through social media channels.

This is a role you are uniquely qualified to fill. Yet, it’s going to take evolved thinking for you to successfully step into this next phase of your career.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. Keep your skills sharp. That’s right…the attributes that defined you as a journalist reside at the core of a social media marketing professional. Be inquisitive. Wade through reams of data to identify an interesting story angle. Write with logic and precision, crafting a defensible position.

2. Understand that you are a contributor to commerce. The lofty principles inherent in a well functioning newsroom do not reflect the realities of revenue and profit. As a corporate social media marketing professional, you must tie your work to measurable benchmarks related to sales and search engine optimization (SEO).

3. Drop the ego and the attitude. All of those PR weenies and corporate talking heads you so despised are now your colleagues…or even your boss. Be yourself, yet understand that you work as part of a team with a requirement for mutual respect and consideration.

Welcome to the world of social media marketing and online promotion, my friend. I hope you’re able to make this career transformation and set out on a path that leads to exciting professional opportunities and rewards.