Peer Reviews With a Difference

People love online review sites even if they don’t always trust them. Despite ongoing allegations that even the biggest customer review sites are routinely manipulated by businesses and their detractors, 85% of consumers in one recent survey said they consult online reviews for recommendations of local businesses at least occasionally. A 2012 Crowdtap survey found that online reviews are second only to recommendations from friends as the most trusted sources of buying advice.

Most trusted sources of buying advice - Crowdtap

One of the problems with   online reviews, however, is that they require an act of will to publish. Customers must make a conscious decision to contribute their ratings, and critics argue that this fact tends to draw out the most extreme opinions – the lovers and haters, if you will.

But what if the millions of casual recommendations that people make every day on social networks could be captured and organized? That’s the task that Microsoft veteran Yoav Schwartz and a team of Israeli developers have tackled with WhoDoYou, a ratings service that taps into Facebook conversations to rank local businesses.

WhoDoYou uses some sophisticated linguistic analysis to parse public Facebook conversations and figure out which ones are asking for recommendations of everything from fast food restaurants to cardiologists. It then uses location data, website addresses, telephone numbers and a database of local businesses to match referrals to local businesses where possible. Registered members can also contribute their own reviews in the same manner as they do on Yelp and TripAdvisor.

The Real Thing

WhoDoYou logoWhoDoYou is impressive technically, even if the results fall short of the richness and detail found on more traditional review sites. The primary advantage of mining public Facebook posts is that the recommendations are genuine. Casual conversations between friends are obviously less prone to manipulation than reviews that are intended for a large audience. If you’re logged into Facebook, you can also view private conversations among your own friends.

WhoDoYou assigns a rating score to some businesses, but the algorithm used to calculate it is secret and unclear. An entry on the company blog says only that it is “customized for each search, and includes things like the number and quality of reviews, proximity to your search, and a social weighting.” A spokesman said the rating is a calculated from a combination of friends, location, rating and recency.

But…

There are several disadvantages to the WhoDoYou approach as well. One is that recommendations typically lack the richness of the often detailed reviews one finds on commercial ratings sites. Many are no more than a phone number or a URL and there is no way to tell if the recommendation is lukewarm or strongly positive.

Another disadvantage is that casual conversations are often difficult to categorize. If WhoDoYou can’t find an exact match in its database, the results fall back to a default “Attorney referral in Reading, PA.”  From there you’re on your own to figure out what’s in the thread. Fortunately, the review links directly to the relevant conversation on Facebook.

Machine intelligence can also have unexpected results. For example, the post below is listed as an attorney referral but is really a Facebook discussion of Risa Weinstock, the controversial director of New York’s Animal Care & Control agency. It’s not clear why a post titled “THE MURDERESS OF THE NYC SHELTERS” merits an 8.7 rating.

Despite its shortcomings, WhoDoYou is a fresh and innovative approach to mining an untapped vein of sentiment. The quality will no doubt improve, and WhoDoYou has done us all a service by capturing conversations that would otherwise be all but invisible.

WhoDoYou Attorney Referral


My recent book, Attack of the Customers, has an extended analysis of online ratings and reviews.

Not Dead Yet: Blogging’s Popularity Surges Among F500

There’s no fluff in the press release, so I’ll just excerpt it word for word. Nora Ganim Barnes and her team at the Charlton College of Business Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth continue to produce some of the most consistent, rigorous and comprehensive research on social media adoption by both small and large businesses. And they’ve been doing it every year since 2008, which makes the trending data particularly useful.

It’s no great surprise that this year’s report shows a broad-based increase in adoption of all types of social media. What is surprising is the sudden popularity of corporate blogs. After stagnating at just above 20% for three years, use of corporate blogs has shot up to 34% of the Fortune 500 in the last two years. That’s nearly a 50% increase.

This comes just as many of the digerati are writing off blogs as yesterday’s news. Maybe the technology isn’t very sexy, but the utility sure is. Blogs are search engine magnets and search is still the killer app for people researching purchases. It will be for a long time. Be careful of dismissing mature technology just because it isn’t cool any more. Did you know that e-mail still has a significantly higher conversion rate than any other B2B Web traffic source?

Read more and download the full report at “2013 Fortune 500 Are Bullish on Social Media.”

In the past year, the Fortune 500 have increased their adoption of blogging by 6%, their use of Twitter for corporate communications by 4% and their use of Facebook pages by 4%. Sixty-nine percent of the 2013 Fortune 500 use YouTube, an increase of 7% from 2012. These was among the key findings of the latest benchmarking study conducted by Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D., Senior Felow and Research Co-Chair of the Society for New Communications Research and Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

The new report is the outcome of a statistically sound study of the 2013 Fortune 500 list. The study examined these institutions to quantify their adoption of social media tools and technologies. This is the seventh year that Barnes has tracked social media usage by this sector, and it is the only statistically sound longitudinal study of its kind with every company in the Fortune 500 included. Key findings of this study include:

• In 2013, 171 companies (34%) had corporate blogs showing the largest increase in use of this tool since the 2008 study of the Fortune 500.

• Companies that blog include two of the top five corporations (WalMart and Exxon), leaving the other three (Chevron, Phillips 66 and Berkshire Hathaway) without a public-facing blog.

• Three hundred eighty-seven (77%) of the Fortune 500 have corporate Twitter accounts with a tweet in the past thirty days. This represents a 4% increase since 2012.

• Facebook, new to the Fortune 500 list, has the highest number of followers on Twitter, followed by Google, Starbucks, Whole Foods Market, Walt Disney, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines.

• Three hundred forty-eight (70%) of the Fortune 500 are now on Facebook. This represents a 4% increase since 2012.

• In 2012 one hundred fifteen companies (23%) had neither a Twitter account nor a Facebook account. This year that number has dropped to eighty-four companies (17%).

• Approximately 40 companies of the Fortune 500 are now using Instagram, Pinterest and/or Foursquare.

Charts

Fortune 500 Corporations  With Public-Facing Blogs Slide1

Gordon Gekko is So Last Century

More evidence that the values of the modern workforce are changing not just in the U.S. but worldwide comes from a new Thomson Reuters survey of  more than 1,000 professionals in Brazil, China, India, the U.K. and the U.S. The key finding is that a majority of workers today say they are more motivated by what they do than how much they make. The majority of Americans would rather have a job they enjoy (72%) than one that pays well (28%). Further evidence that Gordon Gekko is a historical relic.

Those who still cling to racial stereotypes should read Daily Beast’s take on the survey: “Workers are now united by global connectivity and curiosity rather than race, class, or gender.” The Beast also notes that the gender gap is rapidly closing, particularly in developing markets. “Ultimately, 52% of professionals in emerging markets see an equal number of male and female corporate executives within the next 25 years,” compared to  36% of professionals in developed markets. In other words, emerging countries are leveraging all their workforce resources to beat us.

Naturally, there’s data on collaboration and social media. Some highlights:

Ninety-percent of professionals who telecommute on a daily basis use at least one social media platform. Comment: Facebook is replacing the socializing power of the office water cooler and powering the distributed workforce revolution. I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone who comes in to the office five days a week. Social networks are transforming the way we work (whether the IT organization blocks them or not).

Fifty-nine percent of satisfied professionals say that their organizations allow them to participate in online groups and/or chat rooms as part of their work compared to 40% of dissatisfied professionals. Comment: Note the “satisfied” qualifier. I wish the IT organizations that still block Facebook and YouTube would get the message: Socializing has always been part of the workplace and is essential to worker satisfaction. Let people use these platforms. They will figure out how to apply them to the business. Just like they did with e-mail and the Internet,

Eighty-two percent of emerging market professionals and 41% of developed market professionals agree that blogs, information from social media or crowd-sourced information on the Internet are highly useful in helping to understanding an issue or news item. Comment: In other words, the developed world still has an old-media mindset whereas people in emerging markets have never had old media. It’ll be interesting to see if their more expansive perspective helps them actually understand the world around them better than we do, and perhaps understand that there is a world beyond their own borders.

Eighty-three percent of emerging market professionals and 49% of developed market professionals agree that carefully filtered information from blogs, social media or crowd-sourcing can be as accurate and useful as traditional media information. Comment: Sort of a restatement of the results above, but it’s further evidence that companies in emerging markets are more adept at internalizing information from many sources. If they continue to build better products at lower cost than we do, we should pay attention to that.

More from Thomson Reuters:

Thomson Reuters data on news consumption

 

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Interesting Threads in Dell’s 2013 Social Media Predictions

I happen to be one of the 14 people quoted in this Dell e-book, Social Media Predictions for 2013, but that’s not why I’m pointing out to you. I have great respect for every one quoted in this book, but what’s interesting is the common themes that emerge. For example:

  • Several of these experts see a strong year for Google+, while most believe Facebook is in for slow growth or even decline. I agree completely. The more I use G+, the more I like it. In contrast, I think Facebook is increasingly a place for backslapping and trash talking without the means to sustain meaningful conversations. In other words, I think the novelty of Facebook is wearing off. BTW, Pinterest and Tumblr also draw a lot of praise.
  • There’s a strong subtext of the need to make interactions more meaningful and personal and for brands to unleash their people to speak as themselves. Stop using social media as another kind of fire hose and start using it for listening, which is its most basic value.
  • There are some good quotes on context and sourcing. Basically, stop throwing content against the wall and start making it more meaningful. Geoff Livingston’s comments on creating trusted content are particularly good.
  • A couple of the interviewees call for more civility online, which is something I think we can all support. I like the way Shel Israel phrased it: “It seems to me that that people on social networks were adversely influenced by the…recent presidential campaign. They feel the best way to be right is to demean people who disagree with them.”
  • Lee Odden’s passage on hash tags is a riot: “#lets #just #stop #with #the #hashtagging #of #every #word #in #a #tweet #OK? #You #keyword #spammer #you.” Completely agree.

Here’s the embed, which links to the document on SlideShare.

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Small Firms Again Trump Enterprises in Social Media Use, UMass Study Reveals

The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is out with its latest survey of the Inc. 500’s use of social media, and once again small companies outpace large ones. Ninety-two percent of the Inc. 500 use at least one of the tools studied, which include blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest and Foursquare.

Blog use by Inc. 500 and Fortune 500 companiesInterestingly, the use of blogs jumped among the Inc. 500 after four years of little or no groth. Forty-four percent of the 2012 Inc. 500 are blogging, compared to just 23% of the Fortune 500. The figure is a jump from the 37% of Inc. 500 companies that were blogging in 2011. Researchers Nora Ganim Barnes and Ava Lescault found that 63% of Inc. 500 CEOs contribute to blog content.

Also notable is the surge of interest in LinkedIn, which is being used by 81% of companies compared to 67% for Facebook and Twitter. Facebook was the big loser in this survey. Its usage dropped 7% from last year.  Up-and-comers are Foursquare (28%) and Pinterest (18%).

Growth in social media investment showed signs of slowing in this survey. Only 44% of respondents says they’re looking to spend more on social media, down from 71% in the 2011 survey. Forty-one percent say their level of investment will remain, up from 25% last year.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said social media is “very necessary or “somewhat necessary” to the growth of their company. This is the sixth year The Center for Marketing Research at UMass Dartmouth has conducted the study.

There’s lots more on the summary page, including links to downloads of the full results.

 

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Attack of the Customers: The Pampers Dry Max Crisis

This an excerpt from the opening chapter of Attack of the Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and What You Can Do About It by Paul Gillin and Greg Gianforte. Buy the book on Amazon.


In March, 2010, Procter & Gamble announced the most significant technical advance in disposable diapers in a quarter century. The new Dry Max line featured an absorbent gel that improved diaper efficiency while cutting materials and costs by 20%. The thinner diapers addressed the number one complaint of diaper customers, which was bulk, while also reducing cost and environmental impact. The innovation was so impressive that former president Bill Clinton praised the diaper for reducing landfill waste.

Pampers Dry Max packageHowever, Rosana Shah of Baton Rouge, LA was not impressed. Shah had noticed a change in the Pampers Cruisers she used to diaper her baby several months earlier. “The new design had less cotton pulp and was missing the dry weave liner,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “The back of the diaper was just thin, papery diaper cover, no absorption material whatsoever.” Worse was that the child had become afflicted with diaper rash. “Every time I tried to change her diaper she would cringe and cry,” Shah wrote. “All she could voice at the time was ‘it hurts.’”

Shah believed P&G had substituted a cheaper Cruisers for its existing product and not told anyone about it. “I called Pampers and complained and was told this was the first they were hearing of these issues,” she wrote. “When I asked if there was a change in design, they denied it at first.”

In fact, Shah’s suspicions were correct. P&G had actually begun shipping the new product in August, 2008, more than 18 months before it was announced. The practice is called slipstreaming, and it’s common in high-volume consumer packaged goods markets that manufacture products by the millions at facilities around the world.

“Figuratively, if you’ve got 500 diaper production lines, you convert the first line on day one and 500 days later you convert the 500th,” explained Paul Fox, P&G’s director of corporate communications. “During that time you’ve got a mix of the old and new product on the market.” New products typically aren’t announced until the distribution pipeline is full, but by that time millions of people may already be using the new product.

That was the case with Pampers Dry Max. By the time of the early 2010 rollout, more than 2 billion unbranded Dry Max diapers had already been sold “without issue,” Fox said. P&G had carefully monitored its customer support calls for evidence of customer dissatisfaction but had detected nothing out of the ordinary. The company typically logs two complaints for every one million diapers sold, and there was nothing to indicate that Dry Max had moved that needle.

Not that P&G expected big problems. The company was well aware that the entire Pampers franchise depended upon customer trust. “Not a grain of sand was left unturned” in Dry Max safety testing, Fox said. “A brand whose whole equity is based on babies’ welfare isn’t going to do anything that poses any form of risk to a baby.”

So staffers were understandably concerned when a Facebook group appeared in late 2009 entitled “Pampers bring back the OLD CRUISERS/SWADDLERS.” The group was launched by Shah after her visits to the Pampers Facebook page and Pampers website convinced her that “many parents were also experiencing confusion.” The group’s initial demands were simple: Members wanted P&G to bring back the old diapers. But as membership grew it became a lightning rod for an assortment of other complaints and accusations.

Building on early charges that P&G had failed to adequately disclose changes in the product, members began complaining of leakage and flimsy construction. By spring the discussion was centered on complaints that Dry Max diapers caused diaper rash.

Members reported that children were developing blisters within hours of being diapered with Dry Max. References to “burn marks” emerged, followed by reports of “chemical burns.” One mother of multiples reported that all four of her children were suffering severe diaper rash. The culprit was clear: Dry Max diapers were inflicting agonizing pain on babies.

No one was actually citing any scientific evidence to support the claims, and a few voices noted that gap. However, some doctors were telling parents that the diapers were a possible culprit and that was good enough to stoke the outrage.

In February, 2010, a visitor began a campaign called “Flood the CPSC!” encouraging others to take their complaints to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. In May, a group of parents filed a class action lawsuit.

At P&G’s Cincinnati headquarters staffers were alarmed and perplexed. Diaper rash is an unfortunately common occurrence that afflicts about one in four babies at any given time. The company dispensed advice to concerned parents about the topic through a variety of channels, pointing out that while a tight-fitting diaper may create the conditions for diaper rash, the problem was not caused by the diaper itself.

Staffers were convinced of Dry Max’s superiority. The product had been heralded as a breakthrough by Good Housekeeping magazine and had already received several awards. How could consumers not see its benefits?

Many of the 11,000 members of the Facebook group didn’t. They believed that the thinner diapers were simply a low-cost replacement for the product they had known and loved. They believed P&G was shoring up profits at the expense of their children’s health.

Post from "Pampers bring back the OLD CRUISERS/SWADDLERS" Facebook page

Standoff

As complaints piled up, a conspiracy mentality took hold. Visitors griped about everything from rude P&G customer service reps to price changes. A change in a store display at a local Walmart was evidence that P&G was undertaking a stealth recall. Journalists were requesting interviews and by late spring the story had begun showing up on local TV stations

By the time Paul Fox arrived on the scene, the Dry Max protest was beginning to spin out of control. Jodi Allen, P&G’s vice president of North America baby care, was taking a personal role in countering critics, posting comments on the Pampers website, recording web videos and participating in discussion groups. However, the volume of complaints was piling up too fast for the P&G staff to handle.

Allen was banned from the Facebook group, an action that Shah said was justified because P&G had not provided a place on the Pampers website or Facebook page to state its case. However, Allen’s membership in the group had been blocked because Shah said the executive had made no attempt to request membership. She also called Allen’s comments “scripted statements” that lacked sincerity.

Fox is a 30-year media relations veteran with more than a decade at P&G and experience with the customer skirmishes that are a constant fact of life at such companies. Fox first urged the team to investigate all possible causes for the complaints. Was it possible that the manufacturing line was compromised or that product had been tampered with in the field? Satisfied that the answer was no, he focused the strategy around a few core principles:

  • Get P&G off the defensive;
  • Dispel rumors that P&G would reintroduce the discontinued products;
  • Educate parents about diaper rash;
  • Refocus the discussion on the welfare of the children.

The final point was particularly smart. P&G was engaged in a vicious circle of accusation that had transcended diaper rash and become a proxy for helpless consumers versus heartless corporations. By concentrating on child safety, P&G effectively allied itself with its critics. Amid the charges and counter charges, no one had ever suggested that child safety was not the overriding concern of all parties. Accused and accuser were effectively now on the same side. That was an important step.

Pampers staffers also had to be encouraged to restrain themselves from countering point criticism, particularly that which was nothing more than opinion. “Responding to inflammatory stories that have little basis in fact is a distraction,” Fox said. “Engaging on that level can be the equivalent of throwing gasoline on the fire.” Basically, when critics become convinced you can’t do anything right, then you can’t.

Instead, P&G focused on educating dispassionate opinion leaders who appeared genuinely interested in hearing both sides of the story. It brought two groups of “mom bloggers” to Cincinnati to meet with executives and scientists and address their questions. It stepped up advertising about the benefits of Dry Max and posted videos by leading pediatricians about the causes and treatment of diaper rash. “If parents weren’t seeking medical attention or treating the diaper rash, that was a big concern,” Fox said. “Our focus was ‘We are both concerned about the pain of diaper rash. Let’s seek treatment.’”

The company began making a more focused effort to spend time explaining diaper rash to parents who called. It even sent representatives into the field to meet with particularly concerned parents. The company invited media to Baby Care Headquarters in Cincinnati to meet with developers and product managers. In contrast to the earlier defensiveness P&G had shown about the controversy, it was now displaying complete transparency.

Vindication and Lessons

The turning point came in early September when the CPSC, which had agreed to investigate the case after receiving hundreds of letters, absolved Dry Max of any responsibility for diaper rash. By fall the volume of complaints had slowed to a trickle and P&G was no longer discussing the incident. Shah’s group is still on Facebook, but new posts appear weekly instead of hundreds per day.

Even absolution from the government watchdog hasn’t convinced critics. Shah charges that P&G enjoys a cozy relationship with the CPSC that may have prompted the agency to downplay its findings. She also cited media reports that claimed portions of the agency’s report are missing. A spokesman for the CPSC said the agency works with hundreds of companies on various standards committees and the charges of collusion are baseless. “Just because we know people doesn’t indicate any impropriety,” he said.

Fox called the collusion allegation “an insult” and said the only information missing from the report is that which was mutually agreed to be proprietary, a statement the CPSC spokesman confirmed.

Could P&G have handled the Pampers Dry Max case better? Probably. By slipstreaming a product into the market that was noticeably different from the one it replaced, the company invited scrutiny. The fact that Dry Max looked on the surface to be a cheaper diaper didn’t help. However, the Pampers team was so convinced of the product’s superiority that they focused more on the positive splash it would make in the market than the possibility that some people might be alarmed by the visible changes.

P&G knows better than any company that people treat their personal care products like an old friend. Change can be unsettling, in the same way that an old friend showing up at a party with a nose job and a new wife might cause unease for everybody.

The incident was also a classic example of the suspicion with which many people regard large companies. As a member of P&G’s Digital Advisory Board, Paul has worked with brand managers in many of the company’s divisions and been impressed by their commitment to quality and customer satisfaction. However, few customers are fortunate enough to have that insight. Many people see a large corporation as a symbol of greed. An incident like this reinforces that perception.

Critics accused P&G of opacity in its initial response to customer concerns. There were valid reasons why the company didn’t tell critics that the diaper’s design had been changed before the official announcement. There was no way to fill the supply channel with the new product without slipstreaming, and P&G wanted to wait until Dry Max was available everywhere to turn on the marketing spigot. Dribbling out details months before the formal launch would have undermined the formal rollout and created confusion that the company was not prepared to handle. Nevertheless, plausible explanation would have been better than denial. Once the conversation shifted from accusations to education, the tone changed dramatically. Pampers sales quickly recovered after a brief decline and complaints fell back into normal range.

The Dry Max crisis came at a time when P&G was engineering a companywide shift toward customer engagement through social media. Fox says the experience was a critical teaching point. “You can’t join a community at a time of crisis. You have to already be invested,” he said. “Becoming a trusted voice requires an investment of time, people and money.”

The experience was a lesson for Rosana Shah as well. “We found parents and caregivers from as far away as South Africa, Australia, England, France and Germany. Everyone was scratching their heads wondering if it was just them,” she wrote. “We turned out to be 11,000 members who made the media, government bodies and P&G finally take notice.”

Although some people might have called it a lynch mob.

An Intelligent Approach to Influence Measurement

Anyone who follows my blog knows that I’m not a big fan of Klout, or any service that oversimplifies the complex process of assessing online influence by boiling it down to a single number. However, I do think it’s important that organizations be able to understand the online influence of people they want to build relationships with.

Awareness Networks just announced a tool that takes an intelligent and customized approach to influence assessment. The Social Marketing Automation suite enables customers to identify patterns in public online conversations, extract profile information and create what amounts to custom Klout scores.

Here’s how it might work: A user could search Twitter for people who have engaged directly with a brand more than twice over the last month, have mentioned the brand more than five times and have more than a specified number of followers. The suite can also dig into publicly available profile information to add filters by location, profession or any other data that is publicly available on Facebook or Twitter. So if you’re looking for health care professionals in the Milwaukee area who frequently recommend Motrin over Advil, you can find them for prospecting or a targeted marketing campaign.

Awareness goes a step further by combining public profile data with conversation topics to create prospect databases. This information can be imported into CRM and marketing automation packages, easing what is usually a laborious manual process. Integration with Salesforce.com is built into the first product and most of the leading platforms will be added over time, according to Mike Lewis, VP of marketing at Awareness. This addresses the problem of lead quality, which is the biggest cause of sales waste.

Awareness doesn’t extract data from social networks directly but rather works with Gnip, a company that has license agreements with most of the top social networks to distribute their content. About the only major source Gnip doesn’t have is LinkedIn, which keeps its profile information close to the vest. But YouTube, Tumblr, WordPress and many other sources are pumped through its firehose.

Awareness Social Authority Dashboard

Competitive advantage is fleeting in this business, and I expect that others will quickly add this kind of functionality. Awareness’ strategy is smart: It will focus on providing the core data mining and filtering technology and work with partners to deliver results to whatever marketing or sales automation tool they prefer. Victory will go to the swiftest.

Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but there’s a webinar set for Tuesday, Aug. 14 at 2 EDT at which more details will be discussed. Maybe you can pry some dollar figures out of the speakers then.

Full disclosure: I have been a paid consultant to Awareness on spot projects in the past, although I’ve done no work for the company in at least two years.

Crisis Heating Up for Progresso?

There’s a crisis brewing for Progresso, and it’ll be interesting to see how – and if – the soup maker responds.

Crisis brewing for Progresso soup?The trouble was kicked off by a recent NPR report that looked at the potential health risks of eating food stored in cans that uses the industrial chemical bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is an industrial chemical that has been linked to everything from infertility to cancer and cardiovascular disease. Recent research has concluded that canned food is a source of BPA exposure but does not answer the question of whether that exposure is a health risk. Nevertheless, some food makers – including Campbell’s – have already taken the proactive step of announcing that they will eliminate BPA from their containers.

Progresso hasn’t said anything yet. Now a petition on change.org demands that the company remove BPA from the linings of its soup cans. The petition was posted nine days ago and already has 95,000 signatures. It was the subject of a dedicated e-mail from change.org, which no doubt will move that number higher pretty quickly.

Critics are beginning to gather on Progresso’s Facebook page. The Facebook protest started less than a day ago, but some back-and-forth is beginning to develop. So far there’s been no response from Progresso. It’ll be interesting to see if the company learns from past mistakes of brands like Nestle and Chapstick, which inadvertently escalated customer attacks by deleting Facebook comments they didn’t like.

Progresso’s only viable strategy may be to announce that it’s eliminating BPA from its packaging, but that’s a bigger issue than crisis communications. What should Progresso do? It’s still early and they might actually be listening.

Update, 7/2/12: Progresso has begun responding to concerns posted on its Facebook page with a statement that I think is well-crafted and helpful. While the soup maker doesn’t commit to anything, it does acknowledge customer concerns and promises to at least investigate alternatives. The important thing at this stage of a potential crisis is not to leap to conclusions but to state that you are aware of the problem and are looking into it.

We take the concerns around BPA very seriously, and we wanted to let you know a little bit more about this topic and how we are pursuing other options. BPA is used in the lining or lid of most metal food cans in the U.S. to help preserve food and maintain nutritional value and quality. Scientific and governmental bodies worldwide have concluded that BPA is safe. However, we know that some of our consumers would like us to pursue alternatives, so we are currently working with our suppliers to develop and test alternative linings that do not use BPA. While we pursue these options, we’re entirely confident that the current packaging is safe for the fans of our soup. Thanks for reaching out to us, and we hope we can keep providing you with delicious soups in the future!

 

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter in Plain English

I prepared summaries for my upcoming Search & Social Double Whammy seminar on May 2 in Burlington, MA describing the “big three” social networks: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. My goal was to describe in plain English the way these networks provide value to their users and the metaphors they use for interaction. Perhaps you’ll find these basic explanations useful in some context. And if I’ve missed or misstated anything, I’d appreciate your corrections.

Facebook & LinkedIn

The two most popular social networks – Facebook and LinkedIn – use similar tools and metaphors to provide strikingly different utility.

Both are based upon a foundation of personal profiles and “friends,” which LinkedIn calls “connections.” Profiles are online identities that define members’ backgrounds and interests and reflect their activities and contributions to the community. The more active members are in the community, the greater their influence and the richer the interactions with other members.

Friends and connections are persistent relationships between members that require mutual consent to create. Friends can see information about each other that others can’t, and because connections are maintained by the social network rather than by individual members, they outlast job changes, relocations, relationship changes and other disruptions that often cause us to lose contact with others.

The most powerful force created by social networks is the “Power of 130.” The name is derived from the fact that the average Facebook member has 130 Facebook friends. That means that every member’s actions within the community can potentially be communicated to 130 other people through the every-flowing timeline called the “activity stream.”

Marketers can think of these communications as a Web 2.0 version of the classic impression, but social network interactions are potentially much more important because members can comment upon, endorse and share other members’ activities with their own networks. This means that a compelling message can be spread far and wide by the members themselves without investment or active involvement by the person or organization creating the message. Good content sells itself.

Facebook is the overwhelming favorite of business-to-consumer companies because the action is free-wheeling and fun. Good Facebook marketers provide a constant stream of information that provokes conversation and interaction among members. Contests, polls and games work particularly well there.

LinkedIn is a favorite of B2B marketers because its members go there mainly to discuss professional interests. LinkedIn’s roots are in networking for job-seekers, but the service’s active professional discussion groups and useful Answers section have become favorite places for people to gather and share information about their work. LinkedIn also enables members to identify shared connections and to form relationships with others through friends-in-common. This makes LinkedIn a compelling new tool for professional networking and lead generation.

Both Facebook and LinkedIn permit brands to create their own pages to communicate with advocates, build awareness and create persistent relationships. Facebook fan pages focus on conversation with followers while LinkedIn stresses information about the companies. Both services provide great value for brands in very different ways

Understanding Twitter

Twitter is still a mystery to many people. How can rich conversations form when people can only speak 140 characters at a time? It turns out you can say more in 140 characters than you may think, and Twitter’s forced brevity actually encourages people to share information they wouldn’t communicate through long-form media like blogs or even e-mail.

The core feature of Twitter is the activity stream. It’s an endless flow of news, recommendations and observations that create endless opportunities for connection. You can find and engage with people on Twitter whom you could never reach by any other means, and it is arguably the world’s best source of breaking news. It is also a valuable extension of any company’s online presence.

Twitter is a loose-knit social network in which members subscribe to each other’s activity streams in a relationship known as “following.” Unlike Facebook’s friends or LinkedIn’s connections, following does not require the consent of both parties. Anyone can follow anyone else unless explicitly blocked by the person being followed (a rare occurrence).

As members amass more followers, the value they give and take from the network increases. People or brands with large followings can reach a large number of people directly because their messages appear in followers’ activity streams. While the percentage of people who see any individual message may be small, the ease with which messages can be forwarded – or “retweeted” – to others provides ample opportunity for amplification. In fact, a study by ShareThis found that the average retweeted message is shared 18 times.

While the volume of messages on Twitter may seem overwhelming and unmanageable, there are a variety of useful ways for people to organize and discover interesting topics. Members can filter the entire Twitter stream by keywords or “hash tags,” which are category labels members attach to their tweets to associate them with popular topics. Twitter also notifies members by default when their username has been mentioned by another member in a tweet. This notification feature makes Twitter an extraordinarily useful way to find people who may be difficult to reach by e-mail, phone or other media.

Twitter is proving to be particularly valuable for organizing and promoting online and real-world events. Hundreds of virtual chats take place each week around Twitter hash tags in fields ranging from medicine to marketing to aviation. Organizers of physical events frequently ask attendees to use specific hash tags when sharing information about the conference, giving the rest of the world a glimpse into the conversations going on at the live event and promoting it to future attendees. “Tweetups” are physical meetings organized on Twitter using hash tags, and anyone is invited to come. Tweetups can be used for anything from attracting fans to a concert to promoting a book-signing or store opening.

Twitter is evidence of the power of simplicity. Users have adapted and modified this relatively simple publish-and-subscribe service in thousands of creative ways, making Twitter one of the best tools for finding out what’s going on now in a wide range of professional activities and leisure interests.