Questioning the value of “sponsored conversations”

March 3, 2009

Just read an interesting post (3/3/09) from Patricio Robles on the topic of “sponsored conversations.” This post, coupled with Forrester’s report on the topic, got me thinking about the inherent value and intent of blogs and 140 character posts. Weren’t these social media tools originally designed to be personal, conversational and…well social? Doesn’t paying someone to blog or tweet about your brand undermine the authenticity of your post – regardless if the person getting paid explicitly states s/he’s posting on X company’s behalf?

Obviously, if a brand wants to be included in the PageRank algorithm (the topic of the Robles post), they need to subscribe to the no follow guidelines. Google is totally in the right in enforcing those seemingly universally accepted rules. What struck me most about the post weren’t Google’s efforts to ensure quality, rather the underlying notion that companies (i.e. Kmart) are paying – incentivizing – people to talk about their brand.

My gut reaction is that these “sponsored conversations” go against the grain of social media. To me, the value of Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, and the like is transparent conversations between people talking about their passions, frustrations and successes. Sure “sponsored conversations” can be transparent (indeed, Forrester recommends mandating that transparency if using bloggers to talk about your brand), but by sponsoring them I believe you lose some elements of the personal nature of social tools.

I’m not suggesting that brands should not look for inventive ways to establish a presence in social media realms. Indeed, they should! I am proposing that companies should take it upon themselves to build their own brands in the digital world. They should dedicate internal resources to talk about their brand. They should encourage these brand discussions at both the individual and corporate/group level. Ford’s Scott Monty has done a masterful job of integrating his personal “brand” with his company’s.

If I want Robert Scoble or Peter Kim or Guy Kawasaki to talk about my brand/products in their posts and tweets, then it’s my responsibility to make the story compelling enough for them to take my message viral. Whether I’m selling lawn mowers, rubber tubing or clothes, I’m not sold on the value of paying someone to go shopping or to drive my vehicle in return for a post or a tweet. It just seems trite.

I feel that sponsoring conversations has the potential to undermine the inherent value of social media outlets. These conversations, if they merit scale across social media outlets, happen organically. Witty, conversational, controversial, and smart conversations bubble up to the top. I’m just not convinced that the potential to undermine the social value that is inherent in these new conversation/marketing mediums should be eclipsed by a brand impression. I’m 100% open to the possibility…just not convinced yet. I’d love to hear your opinion on this topic.


Who’s influencing the influencers?

February 5, 2009

Ok, so social media has given us all new vehicles to voice and distribute our opinions…like I’m doing here. While many of these opinions voiced through blogs, Twitter, communities, Digg, etc. are interesting and valid for sure, there sure is a lot of noise out there. At first it was novel to know what your friends and family were doing at dinner time, on their ride to work, or at their kids’ soccer game. It was equally novel to post ruminations about the stars, favorite books and artists on blogs. These ruminations and seemingly banal thoughts are interesting, but when looking at these types of social media outlets through a business lens, the novelty has turned into noise.

My dilemma is, as a communications pro, determining how to most effectively navigate the noise and utilize these new social media tools (blogs, micro messaging and communities) to impact perceptions and perhaps even buying behaviors. To do that, I think, one needs to find a way to map the influencer landscape. We know who the online celebrities are (thanks Forbes!), and we know they are very visible and very opinionated…and generally very interesting. However, who are they turning to for insights? Who’s in their top 5 of must visit blogs/communities? Who bubbles up to their top 10 influencers on Twitter?

Acknowledging that it may be elementary to ask these thought leaders and influence peddlers “who do you see as influential”, but I really want to know. I want to know where Scoble goes for his news to help shape his opinion on a given product or topic. He’s a unique example because he seems to be everywhere at once, so perhaps the fact that he’s so connected he doesn’t need to turn to other sources of influence – he’s it!

What about Kawasaki? O’Reilly? Shel Israel? Peter Kim? Cashmore? These guys and many others like them are massively connected, but I have to believe that they have specific resources they turn to that helps shape the opinions we see and love on Twitter, Friendfeed, and the like. Maybe their influence/inspiration comes from their families? Maybe their coworkers? Maybe pundits at trade shows? Perhaps they turn to the developer community or academics? Or, maybe they’re tapping into the traditional influencers at Forrester, Burton and Gartner? I really don’t know, but inquiring minds would like to find out!

There are many ways to map the connections these A-listers have by friending them on Facebook or following them on Twitter, but that’s just giving you a glimpse of their world. It doesn’t really tell you who they see as influential. You can look at their blog rolls to see who they’re linking to for some deeper insight, but are they links they visit regularly or just a reciprocity link? Short of asking them, this is probably the best avenue to pursue to understand who top influencers see as influential.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on how you go about mapping the influence landscape. In the meantime, I think I’m going to start a conversation with the folks I see as influential and simply ask the question: “who influences you?” I’m not holding my breath, but it’s worth a try!


10 Commandments of Social Media

January 26, 2009

1. Thou shalt know thy audience prior to engaging
Effective engagements with influencers operating in social media circles necessitate a change in the way we think about communications. There are new rules for engaging, new methods for outreach, and new strategies that must be undertaken to ensure messages resonate in social media outlets. Knowing their interests and areas of coverage can lead to fruitful new relationships that can enhance perceptions of a given company, and hopefully positively impact buying decisions.

2. Thou shalt listen to your audience
Understanding who the thought leaders are, their preferences for engagement, and their interests is essential to any communications campaign targeted at social media. By listening to customers and influencers posting on Twitter, friending on Facebook, and updating blogs can significantly enhance the relationship bonds that exists or are being created with new influencers.

3. Thou shalt understand the landscape of influencers
It is crucial to understand the influence linkages. Are academics influencing analysts? Are individual contributors (i.e. developers) influencing A List bloggers? Understanding how to map the landscape will better equip communication & marketing professionals to deliver targeted messages and build relationships with appropriate influencers.

4. Thou shalt treat new influencers as a distinct group
Social media has given traditional influencers new vehicles to publicize opinions/analysis. However, outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, etc. have also given rise to a new cadre of influencers that are helping to shape perceptions, and, to some extent, purchasing decisions. As with analysts and the press, bloggers/twitterers see themselves as a distinct subgroup. It is therefore essential that communications & marketing professionals alter the way in which they view these new influencers and cater to them as a new subgroup of influencers. This means that companies should consider hosting blogger roundtables at events; Twitter social meet ups; Facebook events, and the like.

5. Thou shalt not use social media to promote a brand/initiative/product
Social media is not about marketing in the traditional sense; it’s all about participating in an ongoing discussion. It’s about giving the communities valuable data, early insights to upcoming announcements, and strategic guidance. Discussions taking place in social media circles are informal and conversational. Promotion of a brand or product will not resonate in most circles. Employing traditional PR & marketing tactics in social media outlets will likely fail to capture audience mindshare.

6. Thou shalt fully disclose company association when brokering relationships
Transparency carries a lot of weight in social communities. Operating under an @company X alias will likely lead to suspicion. It is proven that being up front and honest with your association to a given company, organization or specific campaign can lead to trusting and value-driven relationships in the virtual world.

7. Thou shalt respond responsibly to praise and criticism alike
Social media gives rise to new mouth pieces for critics and advocates alike. Opinions, comments, etc. can appear in a manner of minutes and be re-posted or re-tweeted in seconds by hundreds of people. Communications & marketing professionals must be diligent to carefully consider how responses are crafted. Opinions and comments to posts need to be done in a productive way that sways the critics and enables supporters.

8. Thou shalt engage in conversations with valuable insights
To win friends in communities and microblogs one must bring some value to the conversation. For instance, retweeting (RT) a post without any value added insights is not productive. Offering up your “spin” on the RT demonstrates that you’ve thought about the post and offered up what is hopefully a useful evolution to the story. This can be comical, analytical or advisory. The key is to jump in with some thoughtful insights.

9. Thou shalt utilize social media as a complement to traditional influence vehicles
Utilizing Facebook communities or Twitter groups to drive traffic to your companies online properties or other social media vehicles (i.e. YouTube product videos) can be an effective complement to ongoing engagements with influencers. Creating contests, conducting polls, and harnessing crowdsourcing can make your contributions to these social media groups more impactful, and thus valuable to followers/friends.

10. Thou shalt strive to become an authority/ambassador
Becoming an authority will grow your sphere of influence. Value + authority = influence. With influence comes more followers/friends, which are the underpinnings of success in social media circles.

Would love to hear your thoughts on how to improve these commandments/guidelines.


Influencing perceptions through social media

January 9, 2009

Social media has given rise to new ways to shape perceptions and influence buying decisions. From Twitter to Facebook to Friendfeed, these new social networking tools are forcing communications pros think and act differently when telling…or selling…stories. It’s a wild west out there, and there doesn’t appear to be a “right” way to use social media tools to tell stories.

Whereas the currency for traditional PR/AR is press releases, pre-briefs and buddy mails, in the realms of social media the currency is conversation. It’s a conversation about politics, the evolution of technology, what Fred is having for dinner and how angry he was for having to sit in two hour traffic on his way home. Promotion in social media doesn’t work. Participation is the principle to live by if you’re going to engage bloggers, twitterers, and the like.

So how do you get started? Having thought about this and researched it for the last couple of years, I’ve come to the some conclusions about how to effectively win “fans” in the virtual hallways of social media and online communities. I’ve identified five pillars that any communication pro should consider when trying to shape perceptions using these new tools.

1. Build your network
The first thing you need to do is build a network of friends/followers. This isn’t easy given all the noise that currently out there. You’ve got to be compelling to win friends/followers. We’re all busy and increasingly being pushed to be more accountable and productive. However, here are some key things to consider when building your network:
    a. Identify people (friends/followers) with similar interests, but don’t limit yourself to like-minded people
    b. Do not try to control your network; they are organic by nature
    c. Be yourself, authentic and transparent

The key thing to remember is that social networks are informal conversations. Traditional means of communication riddled with marketing fluff does not resonate. Trust should be your key objective when trying to build your network and that can only be achieved by adding value to the conversation and offering informed opinions where appropriate.

2. Listen
Once you’ve got a network, you need to start listening to the conversation. Keep in mind that listening really means hearing what your friends/followers are saying. If they’re talking about football, talk about football. If they’re discussing recipes or venting about their children’s grades, follow suit. Do not force the conversation to map to your motive to win “fans.” You will fail. Listening is perhaps the most important element to any effective social media influencer strategy.

3. Prioritize
You cannot follow everyone with an interesting opinion (although Tweetdeck makes it easier). You have to determine your threshold for the topics that are of personal interest to you and those topics that you’re responsible for in your line of work. If your goal is to identify a subset of people who are talking about a specific solution use a tool to identify the proper community. Free tools like Technorati can help, but if you want a more comprehensive view of the conversation look into TruCast or Radian6. These types of tools will save you time, and help you hone the list of influencers that are most relevant to your business.

Once you’ve identified the folks who are talking about your areas of interest, you’ll need to start monitoring the conversations to see who the thought leaders are. This can be tricky. There are pundits that offer opinions and those who perform more of a redirecting/retweeting function. Both groups wield influence, but it’s an important distinction that must be considered when developing your priority list.
Suggestion: I wouldn’t get too caught up in assigning so much value on followers and number of posts/tweets, as they may not be the best metrics to consider as you prioritize your list. Sometimes individual contributors can wield a lot of influence on a given topic, so you’re scope and objectives must be well defined.

Those at the top of your list should be those with whom you strive to make stakeholders in your cause. These are the A-listers that you bring in for consultations, break early news/pre-brief, invite to special events. While the A-listers are the friends/followers that can have the most impact for your cause, the B and C-listers should also be engaged on a consistent basis as well. You don’t know who they’re influencing and the impact that they’ll have on shaping perceptions in the future. My advice would be to devise tactics to engage all levels of influencers.

4. Participate
Now we’ve got a network, we know what they’re saying, and we have an idea of most influential members. It’s time to jump in the conversation. Social media is not for the timid. You will be criticized, but you’ll also get praise. It’s important to keep in mind that these people are just that…people. They don’t want to be told, they want to be informed. They don’t want to be marketed to, they want to participate in a meaningful conversation.
You can participate in many ways and in many forums. God knows there’s not a shortage of social networks or tools out there! Find a topic that’s interesting to you personally or professionally and jump in!

5. Evolve & Measure
Social media is the farthest thing from static. Any influencer program designed around social media must be nimble, agile and highly flexible. Structured programs seeking to reach new influencers across social media are doomed to fail. Again, these are informal networks, and underpinning that informality is an inherent flexibility. Businesses seeking leverage the power of twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed or blogs need to internalize the “pasta” business strategy. If something doesn’t work the first time, try a new tactic.

Determining the ROI of a new influencer strategy for social media is ill defined. Sure there are some key metrics that we can consider. Story resonance, linkages between networks, shift in perceptions, tone of posts, and number of followers/friends are all good candidates, but these are early days so the bottom line value of such programs are not as straightforward as traditional PR/AR. You’re not doing traditional PR/AR, so find what works for you and your organization by way of measuring success.

Conclusion
There are many ways to tap into the new influence peddlers out in the virtual world. Understanding who’s shaping perceptions, where they’re getting their information from, listening to the conversation and testing different engagement strategies/tactics are table stakes. While the ROI may not be readily apparent and the institutional barriers in any organization may be cumbersome, the cost of not joining in could be enormous.

I’d be very interested to hear from others how they’re using social media to shape perceptions. Please let me know your thoughts.