Social Media has changed the nature of the conversation a company has with its constituents. All of them. Even people who do not, will never use a social media tool or site have new and different expectations of their interactions with any commercial enterprise. People expect to be listened to, treated with respect as individuals, and they have a positive expectation that the commercial interaction will be easy for them -- both easy to do and easy to understand, and also, easy to ask for help when the expectation of ease of use is not met.
As a B to B enterprise, we have delegated sales conversations to our distribution partners, so the sales face of Social Media is not our concern (though we'd miss an opportunity if we did not help our distribution channel understand the power of promotion through Social Media.) This discussion concerns itself with the impact of Social Media on:
- Communication and messaging
- Brand value, risks and rewards
- Reputation risk and the power of recommendations
It is a mistake to assume that Social Media is necessarily public. There is great power in a limited, selective community, and the impact of conversations within such a group is intensified. A company's intranet news site is social media of a sort, and if it supports reader comments and responses, it is a true social site.
For Social Media, the key attribute that must be present is that the message communicated offers a way for the reader or listener to respond. If the possibility of conversation is not offered, the medium is publishing, not social. In the past few years, many new ways to publish messages widely are available to individuals and companies, and in the midst of message overload, it's the messages that allow a response that turn out to be the most engaging. The same message is measurably more interesting if it comes along with published comments and responses. The value of comment is widely recognized: news sites offer news articles ranked by number of comments, for instance.
It would be an empty exercise to try to catalogue all Social Media sites -- new tools and sites are introduced daily. What is useful, however, is to identify the categories of social media options. These different categories are useful to companies in different ways. As you review these categories, keep in mind that the messaging ecology that we live and work in has already been irrevocably changed by Social Media concepts. Our company messages live in the Social Media world -- we can ignore the impact of widely published comments, but we can't prevent it. We must incorporate the intellegent use of these resources into our planning whether we want to or not.
Categories of Social Media
This is June of 2009 and at any time a new category will emerge and catch on fire, first because of novelty and it may hang on beyond novelty because it is a great extention of the concept of Social Media. Google's concept introduction of Wave this month underscores the current big movement, which is the consolidation, merger, and general entangling of one category with another. We are moving towards a generally integrated suite of Social Media options. Now, however, these categories can be handled separately.
This category is one of the earliest types of social media (we're passing quickly by the prehistory of news groups, bulletin boards, and email).
The word blog is a concatenation of "web log." The format of a blog is always serial posting, with the most recent shown first. All postings ever made in a blog are generally maintained for review in an annual archive. It is useful to think of a blog as a long, long scroll.
Blogs enable reader comments and blogger's responses to comments. This feature can be turned off, but doing so is contrary to the reader's expectations.
Entries are "tagged" with keywords so that related topics can be assembled together easily.
The blog is based on a person's voice and usually a person's profile. The messages published are personal opinions or expressions of personal expertise. "Company blogs" will be regarded as just another format of company web page unless the messages are coming from an individual (photo preferred) with a conversational tone. It goes without saying that the caution called for in the spokesperson role pulls against and undermines the interesting aspects of a blog. While company executives and company experts can publish successful blogs, the company's media group will need to remain always alert to the potential exposures and backlash of this personal style in a commercial world.
The quality of a blog (not the content, but the blog as communication channel) is measured by the number of followers (those who subscribe to new posts), the traffic to the blog, the duration of the blog, and the reliability of the cycle of new posts. High traffic blogs are celebrated by blog aggregator sites and search engines. Blogs may or may not be interesting because of the community of commenters -- some are, some aren't.
Blog software is free. Anyone can blog. Blogs can be secured to a limited group or they can be public. Middle school students are now submitting their homework to their teachers on their school-sponsored blogs. The number of blogs active at any given time is astounding.
Comments on sites where articles are published are also very popular. Several industry studies have concluded that of a total audience for most sites that offer commenting, about 20% will comment, while about 80% will read at least some of the comments. Interestingly, older people are more likely to comment. These findings were reported in 2007 and 2008, so they may be obsolete, but it is important to remember that there are readers and there are participants and they are not the same group of visitors.
My Page-centric Sites
MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn are the early trinity of these types of sites. These resources offer a way to present yourself to the world (or the world you've identified as "your friends"). These sites flourish on new features. How many new things can you add to a page? Facebook applications are numberless and always increasing. And they don't always work very well. This community is very accepting of bad code -- it's free, after all. The world is anti-polish in all ways. Postings use poor grammar, photos are blurry, value is found in volume and activity, not in the worth of the content.
It's established that a person gets a jolt of Seritonin when they see a reply to their message -- a letter in the mailbox, a comment on their blog. These sites are Seratonin pumping machines. The typical user motivation is exactly the same seen in early IM users who would have tens of IM sessions running at once. People of all ages spend hours on these sites, enjoying themselves greatly. Traffic watchers note that working hours are secondary peak hours for these sites. (This is an important trend to understand for employee communications.)
The flexibility of these free channels has attracted other uses as well, however. "The Facebook Era" by Clara Shin, who brings a sales conversation perspective to the use of Facebook resources, is an excellent summary of these commercial uses.
Linked In is a little different from Facebook and MySpace, which are primarily frothy social sites where one communicates with friends (though as noted above, Facebook is increasingly used for commercial conversations.) Linked In serves as a sort of online rolodex and white page directory for individuals in business. It's an incredibly convenient resource to consult or publish on in order to aquaint yourself with a new colleague without having to interact with him or her. Linked In has also been developing features that enable communities to share questions and answers and to vote on the quality of answers from an individual.
LinkedIn participation depends on the trading of "recommendations" among members. This is specifically prohibited by our current company policy.
There are many other sites like these, with a user profile or page at the center of a conversation. Friendster was an early success and is still with us. For youngsters, Club Penguin is popular -- where you need not even use words to communicate: for those too young to write, the interface offers a slate of emoticons for your avatar penguin to share [(:o) ]. (See also Avatars and Virtual Worlds) There are at least 100 different sites that offer this type of interaction.
Communities and Groups
Similar to these sites, online communities differ by focusing attention on the discussion or the content, rather than the profile or page of the user. The primary interface is a screenful of give and take. Weight Watchers offers online members access to a robust community -- or, as is the way with these resources, a series of communities, all focused on a very specific topic. The most useful interactions are specific and the tone of these discussions reflects that drive to specifics.
One key value of Communities is the fact that the members will refine and evolve the structure of the site, and it's extremely important for the administrator to allow this to happen. Beyond not getting in the way of new sections, the administrator needs to actively participate in calving off discussion threads that have wandered into a new, specific topic, and setting it up as a new section of the community -- otherwise people looking for the topic won't find it.
The consequence of this evolution is that communities and groups always look messy and under-maintained. Some groups are waxing and others are waning. Groups should be left up for a while before they're shut down as "unused". The welcome screens are full of messages about what has been moved where. If presentation polish is needed, the standard issue community is not a good solution.
The positive side of this ferment is that the users of an active community will generate the "right" topics and labels for the topics -- and they will be far more useful than the most brilliant marketer could have dreamed up on their own. For instance, in the Weight Watchers community, the most successful division of postings turns out to be not who lives in your area (which Weight Watchers had assumed), but how much weight do you need to lose: 10 lbs, 20, over 100? These labels had the most value for the community users.
Most successful communities are for limited audiences -- limits can be established by password security or membership (sometimes paid) or simply by affinity and level of interest. You're not likely to visit a scrapbooking community unless you own a pair of pinking shears (BTW[by the way] Scrapbooking products and services represented a $2 billion industry in 2006, and scrapbookers are served by a multitude of online communities).
Our target customers are members of online communities. We need to find them so we can help our distribution partners speak to them -- either through ads or through content.
Twitter and Yammer are microblogs. Twitter is an incredibly valuable and successful communication and publishing channel. By opening a free account, you can share comments limited to 140 characters (aka Tweets). There are millions of Twitterers now and although we are probably in the middle of a plain, old-fashioned media-fueled bump of popularity, Twitter's commercial value is secure. Many professionals are using Twitter communications for an astonishing array of specific professional purposes. It seems that 140 characters is all that's needed or wanted. Note that you can also include a url to a much longer message or resource in your small tweet. You can also tweet pictures, audio files, video files, and GPS coordinates.
TweetBeep is a service that searches the Twittersphere for keywords, and it is a must-have for any media group concerned about a company's reputation. At a minimum, Twitter comments that will affect reputation should be responded to.
In addition, unbeknownst to HR, a company's employees may be twittering away and releasing proprietary or regulated information that could harm the company, or damage its reputation. Our Supply Management group, for instance, TweetBeeps any vendor under consideration to get a feeling for the way their employees and customers discuss their performance.
The foundation of Twitter is the concept of following -- one decides to follow interesting twitterers so you can read their ongoingly interesting tweets. You need to find people to follow them, which is one reason for the proliferations of twitter addresses on presentation title slides (looks like this: "@abbyshaw") -- by providing your twitter address, you invite people to follow you. Once you have their address, you can find their Twitter account either by searching or by entering "www.twitter.com/abbyshaw"which allows you to view the tweetstream without requiring that you register for a Twitter account.
Twitter is a universe of opportunity and risk all by itself.
Some smart person was looking at their browser bookmarks one day and said to themself one of these two things. Either "Gee, I wish I could see all my bookmarks from any of my computers" or "Gee, what great bookmarks these are, I wish I could share them all with my friends. I wonder what their bookmarks are..." Services like Delicious (with periods scattered through the name) are free bookmarketing services that offer both of these wishes. There are at least 20 others -- you can find many of them by checking out the links offered when you see the option "Share" on an online article. You can publish, tag, annotate your bookmarks as you wander around the web and you can share them with the public or with people you choose.
IBM created a version of this tool for internal company audiences, originally engagingly called "Dog-ear." It was IBM's first wildly successful internal social media service. Everyone wanted to know what everyone else was bookmarking.
Bookmarking has not yet reached its full potential. If you combine the power of shared bookmarks with the the finding power of tags, you have a very inexpensive, lightweight, flexible solution to many of our hardest knowledge management puzzles. (Much of Twitter's success is due to its usefulness in sharing links to interesting things, for instance.)
The value of an expert's accumulation of useful bookmarks is easy to see. One service that offers a different value is "StumbleUpon" which presents interesting things more randomly. On the input side, StumbleUpon is much like other bookmarking services: you link an interesting site to your StumbleUpon button, you offer a description of the site and some tags. You can see later a linear list of all your marked sites. The other side of StumbleUpon is as a browsing user. You can choose to push the Stumble button at any time, and the service presents you with one of the sites marked by others. You can create settings that narrow your Stumbles to specific topics, or you can just leave it wide open to any random thing that someone else has admired. It is a wonderful way to shake off a mindset -- you're presented with sites you would never have found on your own. You can give the site a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and StumbleUpon does learn what types of sites you prefer and starts to lean its selections towards your preferences.
The same concept around online music can be seen in LastFM, where whatever you've played on your computer can be subscribed to by another user as "Abbyshaw's Station." It's a wonderful way to develop your musical education in the hands of another person's sensibilities.
As with all of these Social Media services, the buyer must beware -- you really don't know if the person you think you're dealing with is in fact that person. Unknown to me, a work colleague of mine was following my station on LastFM, but what they didn't know is that my teenaged daughter (who is very fond of cutting edge music) shared my computer when she did her homework. He had the entirely incorrect impression that I was deeply knowledgeable about the club scene. It took a few "huh's?" over a few months before we figured out what had happened. So beware.
Wikipedia is the grand-daddy of all public wikis, though they're proliferating in specific subject matter areas as well. A wiki is an excellent tool for the proper purpose.
The name wiki comes from the polynesian word for "quick," and it's named for the speed with which the tool allows a group to collectively review, edit, and publish content. A wiki includes user accounts and contribution/editing permissions granted by the wiki's administrator(s). Once authorized, any number of contributors can add or modify content on the multi-page wiki. A wiki tracks the trail of content revisions for later review. And enables the easy rollback of unapproved additions or edits.
Wiki's are also characterized by an organizing taxonomy -- in order for multiple contributors to contribute to the same site, the structure of the site must be carefully managed -- where an item ought to go should be as clear as possible to everyone contributing to the site. You'll see many outline-like attributes to a wiki's presentation.
Our Domino Content Management System (DCMS) tool enabled us to create a large scale wiki seven years ago: Our intranet and our distributed publishing model are examples of a wiki. It's useful to note that the issue most often raised around our intranet is the need for a firmer enforcement of structure (and taxonomy).
Another name for the wiki publishing process is "collaboration" and that's the space where companies should look at wiki's for internal use. A wiki is also an excellent way to share expertise in an open way -- more sharing and inclusive than simple publishing, for instance. Errors can be spotted and marked right away with a wiki model.
Wikis create value through publishing, not through commenting. If commentary is a large part of the value of a idea, a wiki is not the right platform.
Shared mediaYouTube, Flickr, PhotoBucket, Shutterfly, and so on all provide free services that allow people and companies to store and share their media assets. And, of course, comment on others' pictures and videos. These sites offer public accounts, closed accounts, community accounts (also called "groups"). You can share some images with some people and others with others. Many sites offer users the option of embedding media streams (or "channels") into other social media, such as one's blog or one's Facebook page. Shared media sites offer many ways of embedding the media somewhere else. These sites are evolving into repositories for other types of social media, rather than standalone sites (though there are always exceptions).
Internet television (such as Joost or CurrentTV) also offers accounts and comment/recommendation capabilities. It is likely (if it hasn't already happened) that an internet TV channel will offer to host a personal and private channel for videos as well, merging the two platforms.
Avatars and virtual worlds
An avatar is a representation that you interact through. In Club Penguin (a social networking site for small children, which charges parents' credit cards $5 per month), the avatars are identical looking penguins who differ only by the name hanging over their heads or by the garments and accessories the players earn. Other avatars, such as those in Second Life, can be constructed of offered body parts or completely created from scratch, if you have the skill. Second Life is worth visiting just to see these custom avatars and the objects created by these skillful players.
Avatars are finding their place in the commercial world, but adoption has been slow, probably because the concept feels too play-like to be taken seriously by non-participants.
Beyond games, the uses of an avatar to channel user contributions is best understood in specific examples.
Lands End offers its online customers an avatar of the old-fashioned fitting dummy: you enter around 10 measurements (with an animated image showing you exactly where on your body to measure), and the software creates a "virtual you." You can email your virtual you to yourself or your friends (it's modestly dressed in lots of underwear). The real utility of this neat-o concept is only seen when the shopper starts browsing through clothes in the catalog. Most offer to show you the garmet on your avatar. If you select the option, your fitting avatar shows up in the clothing you're looking at, but as you would look in it -- and it tells you which size you should order. And this is where the magic becomes a business case: if an online customer orders an item that either doesn't fit or doesn't look as anticipated, Lands End is going to suffer a cost -- either in processing returned items or in absorbing the sales cost and reputational risk of a disappointed customer. Lands End has enabled the avatar view on almost all of its online offerings, so chances are good that the business case for the cost of doing so is positive.
Second Life is the iconic virtual world, where users (I can't help but thing of them as players, as the interactions are fun) travel around an invented world in the form of avatars, encountering other people's avatars and communicating with them, or not.
Second Life is full of commercial use poster children, such as IBM's many pavilions displaying products on huge, imaginary screens. Many large technology companies use Second Life as an appealing and cost effective recruiting zone for Gen Y prospective employees. For a cost, a company can sell insurance to Second Lifers using Linden Dollars for currency, but how this type of storefront translates to actual U.S. dollars is hard to assess. The cost of a Second Life presence varies greatly, but we've been told to think of $100,000 as a starting point, and that's an expensive play in a world where most tactics are free.
The concept of enabling a user to present a customized face to an interaction (whether it's a hat or a waist size) makes a lot of sense for some types of interactions. Many smart people believed that Second Life would overtake first life in popularity right away, but they were wrong -- probably because it's too hard to learn to make your avatar walk around. And by example, we can see that Second Life's disadvantage is that it's too general, striving to offer a virtual world experience to anyone for any purpose. The best uses of virtual worlds are extremely specific, such as using a similuation to show how to turn off the gas in the event of an earthquake. In addition, the placement of the avatar is important to its value to a commercial interaction -- Lands End needs to put the avatar link right in the clothing catalog, or it would not be used. Who would travel to Second Life to try on hiking shorts? That's too complicated.
It's valuable to separate the uses of avatars from their insulated virtual worlds for commercial purposes.
On the other hand, there seems little doubt that both avatars and virtual worlds are here to stay, if only because they are so much fun for games. The ultimate commercial value of these still up in the air, though many companies have invested in a presence in these worlds and some are seeing benefits.
For us, a person's house might be represented as a virtual world with an avatar of a risk management consulting touring the visitor around, identifying risks and pointing out ways to qualify for premium discounts. For our distribution strategy, it would make sense if the tour guide was "from" the policyholder's agency, rather than us.