Skepticism on Gallup’s Gloomy Social Media Assessment

A new Gallup study appears to throw cold water on the whole concept of social media marketing, but I’d be careful about taking the findings at face value.

Gallup asked 18,000 consumers about the influence of social media on their buying decisions. Sixty-two percent said social media has no influence at all. Only 5% said it has a great deal of influence. That’s a pretty grim assessment, given that US companies spent $5.1 billion on social media advertising in 2013, a number that’s expected to triple by 2018. You can download the entire 60-page report here.

The sound bite from this research is summed up in the title of the Gallup blog post: “Americans Say Social Media Have Little Sway on Purchases.” However, a closer read of the study raises questions about exactly what respondents were thinking when they answered the question.

Influence of Social Media on Purchasing Decisions - GallupGallup is a first-class research organization and its methodology was no doubt rock solid, but even Gallup admits that “question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error and bias.” The report doesn’t specify how the questions were phrased, but from the summary report we can infer that researchers used a rather narrow definition of social media.

More than Marketing

The summary specifically mentions the influence of “social media institutions such as Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter,” and also refers to “social media campaigns.” These indicate that researchers were thinking in terms of social networks, which are only a subset of social media. The reference to “campaigns” also indicates that they were thinking more about branded than peer communications. In fact, the social media section of the report focuses almost entirely on how brands communicate with customers. There is almost no mention of how customers use social media to communicate with each other.

This distinction is important, and here’s where the report presents a bit of a contradiction. The authors take pains to note that family, friends and experts are the most important influences on buying decisions and that people primarily use social networks to keep in touch with those closest to them. Yet they also say social networks don’t influence decisions very much.

Without knowing exactly how the questions were asked, I would speculate that the terms the researchers used have caused confusion in the minds of respondents. If you ask the average person to define “social media,” you’ll get a wide variety of answers. Most people probably think of Facebook or Twitter, but not of blogs, customer review sites, video and other tools that also come under the social media umbrella. I know of no research in this area, but five years ago Google took to the streets of Times Square to ask 50 passersby what a browser is. The amusing results showed that very few had any idea (see video below).

When I speak to audiences I often ask who has made a recent travel reservation or product decision in which customer reviews have played a role. Typically about 95% of the people in the room raise their hands. Ask any hotel manager about the importance of reviews to business success and you’ll get an earful. Social media has completely transformed that industry.

TripAdvisor currently lists more than 150 million travel reviews on its site and Yelp has 57 million reviews of local businesses. Someone is a paying attention to this stuff. These services may not meet everyone’s definition of social media, but the function they perform is the same.

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.

This Brand Ambassador Program Goes Against the Grain

Update Nov. 21: Social Rebate’s PR agency took issue with my opinions below, stating:

For a journalist of your caliber, I would have expected you to do more than just ‘scour the website pretty thoroughly.’  If you were interested in a story—even a story critical of Social Rebate—I would have expected you to reach out, interview a Social Rebate representative, and perhaps even interview some of the company’s small business clients. Perhaps your perspective would have changed, perhaps not. But, at the very least, you would have fairly, accurately, and properly REPORTED the story.”

The company’s founder and CEO submitted a response, which I have appended, in its entirety, to the end of this post. 


Social Rebate logo

The PR agency for a startup called Social Rebate has been asking bloggers to comment on the company’s somewhat novel approach to brand ambassadorship. I have some strong feelings about this topic, so I’ll oblige.

Social Rebate is a service that creates brand ambassadors by offering cash and rebates to people who share recommendations of products and services in their social networks. According to the company’s website:

Upon check-out, consumers are given the option to earn a pre-determined percentage back from their current purchase when they share your marketing on their favorite social network. They can immediately earn cash back just for posting — and then earn even more when THEIR friends click you YOUR posted link.

Social Rebate cites some well-known statistics to support its concept, such as the fact that recommendations from friends and peers are the most credible form of buying advice and that people are much more likely to buy a product or service if someone they know recommends it. It also claims to have more than 200 retail customers, including Sprinkles Cupcakes and SitnSleep, although I couldn’t find any mention of Social Rebate on either of their websites. To be fair, I may have to make a purchase in order to do so.

I’m sure the folks at Social Rebate researched their concept exhaustively. If they concluded that this is a good idea, then their findings contradict nearly everything I know about brand ambassadorship.

Dave BalterBoston-based BzzAgent is a word-of-mouth marketing agency whose customer list would turn any ad agency executive green. Founder Dave Balter (right) has worked on hundreds of brand ambassador program since 2001. He told me that one of the secrets of success of such programs is not to compensate people, at least not with money.

BzzAgent has a database of hundreds of thousands of consumers whom it activates to spread the word about products from the company’s clients. The only compensation brand advocates receive is free samples and perhaps an advance look at a new product. For most people, Dave says, that’s payment enough.

He adds that once you start paying people, credibility goes out the window, and that’s where I have trouble with the Social Rebate concept. I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would recommend a product or company because someone paid me to do so. Credibility with my network is one of the most valuable assets I have, and it simply isn’t for sale. I imagine most people feel the same way. People who don’t are probably not folks I want to get to know in the first place.

Does full disclosure resolve the issue? Not really. Think of it: If someone recommends a product or company on your Facebook timeline and adds that they were paid to do so, what does that do to the credibility of that recommendation? In my view, such a disclosure effectively invalidates the recommendation. And I might think less highly of that individual as well.

In a harsh review on VentureBeat, John Koetsier wrote, “The problem [with Social Rebate] is that it threatens to turn a social space into a space just about commerce.” I agree, but I don’t think there’s much chance the Social Rebate concept will catch on. Human beings just don’t work that way.


Social Rebate responds:

Paul,

My name is Tom Larkin, and I’m the CEO of Share Magnet, and one of the creators of Social Rebate. I’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to comment on our product. Favorable or not, it’s good to get feedback from industry thought leaders so we can continue to make our product better.

That being said, there are some important points that your article doesn’t directly address. I hope that this response will serve to bring them into the conversation, and hopefully open a productive dialogue.

I appreciate Dave’s stance on product based compensation. I agree that the use of a product and subsequent review are a valid and positive form of brand ambassadorship. What your analysis fails to recognize is that the “payment” you’re referencing isn’t a payment, it’s a purchase price reduction.

The IRS, FTC and their legally affiliated entities all agree that a rebate is not income. So do we. We’re allowing businesses to engage in a transparent post-purchase agreement to engage people who are fans of their product or service to share them and get their money back.

The key here being that it is post-purchase. The person receiving the rebate has already spent their discretionary income at that particular business.  They are then given the opportunity to share that independent action with their friends.

When ask your readership to “think” about how their recommendation would be affected by getting paid, you fail to address the most important piece of the credibility establishment puzzle: DID THEY BUY THE PRODUCT WITH THEIR OWN MONEY? If yes, then they do. If not, then they do not.

I’d be happy to talk further about the issues you raise, and the lengths we as a company have gone to address them. I’d be happy to talk about our plans to harness the positive power of earning social rebates to charity. If you’d like to speak with some of our customers, we’d be happy to help facilitate that as well.

Best,

Tom Larkin
CEO and Co-Founder
www.sharemagnet.com

 

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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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Social Marketing Wisdom From a True Practitioner

Stand Out Social Marketing starts a little slow, but if you stick with it you’ll be rewarded with truly actionable insight that can help your whole company become more social.

Stand Out Social Marketing coverThis new book comes from Mike Lewis, who is head of marketing at Awareness Networks, a personal friend and one of the nicest guys I know. Stand Out builds on the premise that a great online presence is a function of distinctive content delivered through multiple channels with the assumption that interactions with constituents are part of the process. The book’s initial focus on social listening tactics is somewhat incongruous in that context, but it gets rolling as Lewis moves along.

There have been plenty of books about social media marketing written by people (like me) who don’t do much of it. What makes Stand Out such a stand out is that Lewis not only brings years of field experience to the topic but also insight gleaned from hundreds of customer experiences.

This book is worth its cover price for chapter 4 alone. In it, Lewis sets out practical guidelines for getting the most out of social media interactions based upon real data from real campaigns. Lewis has the benefit of being able to tap into the knowledge that huge brands like Major League Baseball have gained from analyzing millions of customer reactions, and some of the insights are fascinating. For example:

–People post more content to social channels on Friday than any other day of the week, but Thursdays have significantly higher interaction rates.

–Nearly 100% of interactions around content posted to Facebook and Twitter occurs during the first 10 days, but only 34% of interactions around YouTube and WordPress content happens during that time. This means that content posted to these channels should be created differently depending on when people are most likely to discover it.

–Content published to three or more social channels generates about 30% more engagement than content posted to a single social channel.

This is what I call really actionable information. It will immediately change some of your tactics – and for the better.

In addition to  statistics like these, Lewis offers practical advice buttressed by concrete examples. For example, “Content should be focused on the needs of your prospects and customers – not on you, your company or your product.” While experienced social marketers may think this advice is obvious, it’s stunning how few marketers think this way.

Stand Out also has several excellent case studies from both B2C and B2B businesses that dramatize the advantages of engaging in conversation rather than spewing messages. An accompanying website provides bonus information that builds on many of the points raised in the book.

A metrics section near the end introduces some new measurement tactics that were unfamiliar to me but which provide a solid foundation for understanding reach and effectiveness. It goes well beyond fans or followers to include factors like SEO effectiveness, interactions, activity and even customer service. These are useful ideas to internalize in making a comprehensive ROI evaluation.

It’s hard to think of a social media marketing angle that hasn’t already been covered by some other text. Mike Lewis manages to find one.

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My New Book, ‘Attack of the Customers,’ is now available

Attack of the Customers front cover

Click on the book cover to order with a 30% discount. Use promo code 9AVB4H4K

An idea I’ve been kicking around for a couple of years became a formal book project in January. Eleven months later, Attack of the Customers is now available! I’d like to ask for your support by liking the book on the Amazon page and registering your like on the book’s Facebook page. And if you can go the extra mile and plunk down $13.50, I think you’ll find it a pretty interesting read (use discount code at right).

In some ways, this book is an update of my first book, The New Influencers, which was published more than five years ago. One of the things that has always captivated me about social media is the power it gives to individuals to greatly amplify their voice. Several of the case studies in New Influencers involved customer attacks in the days when blogs were about all people had to work with. Today, attacks take many different forms and involve many different tools, but the pattern is the same: People have learned that they can get better results from rallying friends and supporters to their cause than by going through established customer service or complaint channels.

Most customer attacks don’t go viral, but they can be effective even without big numbers. Just last week a woman who claimed she had been victimized in a contract dispute with a big Canadian retailer took her cause to YouTube and Facebook. With YouTube views averaging about 25,000 per day, her story caught the eye of mainstream media, which is usually the turning point at which things happen. One thing I discovered in writing the book is that mainstream media attention is essential to helping a cause go viral. Newspapers and magazines may be suffering financially right now, but they’re just as important as they always have been to validate and spread information.

Farming Out Customer Care

One reason customer attacks have become so numerous in recent years is because businesses and government agencies have historically had such miserable customer service. Support organizations were outsourced en masse in the 1990s, customer service agents were hidden beneath layers of confusing call routing menus and complaints routinely disappeared into black holes. Big organizations often didn’t respond to complaints because they didn’t have to. Customers had no easy way to share their frustrations, so there was little concern that a product or service deficiency would become a problem.

Goodbye to all that, and good riddance. Customers now complain so fluidly that the problem for many businesses is figuring out which gripes to take seriously. In the final chapter of Attack of the Customers, my co-author Greg Gianforte presents a formula he calls “Eight to Great.” It’s a list of eight steps companies can take to become customer-focused at the core, and it’s been applied by thousands of companies during Greg’s term as founder and CEO of RightNow Technologies.

His advice really comes down to the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. The trouble is that the payoff of good customer satisfaction is a lot harder to measure than the benefit of a dime saved in production. We make the case that companies have no choice but to invest in this area, though. In the age of the empowered customer, service is one of the few points of differentiation left.

Self-Publishing Experiment

This is the first of my five books that I’ve self-published. We used Amazon CreateSpace and hired professional design and copy editing resources, but much of the work between the covers was done with Microsoft Word. I even created the index myself to see what the experience was like (although I don’t think I’ll try that again). Many authors are experimenting with self-publishing now because the commissions on commercially published works are so small that book-writing becomes a $10/hour proposition. Social networks are also sufficiently mature that good word-of-mouth can potentially replace traditional marketing.

Whether that’s true or not I expect to find out in the coming months. I certainly could use your help. Whether it’s a like, a review or a credit card, anything you can do to express your support is gratefully appreciated.

And if you’re a blogger or editor who would like a review copy, just leave a comment here or drop me a line and I’ll be pleased to send you one.

How Twitter Amplifies a Customer Attack

The following is an excerpt for the forthcoming book, Attack of the Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and How to Avoid Becoming a Victim, by Paul Gillin and Greg Gianforte. The target publication date is late 2012. I’ll be posting a few excerpts here during the next few months and would appreciate your comments.


We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.

Berkeley professor Robert Wilensky uttered that memorable quote in 1996. Were he speaking it today, he might refer instead to Twitter.

Twitter is the enigma of social networks. It’s limited to text messages of 140 characters. It doesn’t support photos, videos or applications natively. Instead of friends, it uses the simpler connection metaphor of follower or subscriber. Even its website is so weak that only a minority of its members use it.

How does a service with so little going for it create so damn much trouble?

The answer lies just above the number 3 on your keyboard. The hash tag (#), which was created by the Twitter community to help bring order to the service’s inherent chaos, has become one of the Internet’s most powerful organizing and amplification tools. It’s helped Twitter become a core utility for arranging everything from book signings to mass protests.  It’s also established the popular microblog service as a prime channel for customer complaints and a favored tool of the critics we call “Casual Complainers.” The #fail tag, which denotes poor performance by a person or company, is monitored by millions and is not one you want to see next to your name.

Order From Chaos

More than five years after Twitter launched, we still hear questions all the time about its value. To the uninitiated, it’s a cacophony of voices sharing mostly useless information. And to a large extent that’s true. The low barrier to entry and ease-of-use are two of Twitter’s most endearing points. People can share anything and they do. The power of Twitter comes from filtering out the junk and focusing on what’s important to you.

Twitter’s simplicity and accessibility are it strongest features. Messages can be sent and received on nearly any cell phone. Updates are instantaneous, which makes Twitter a valuable news tool. When seeking updates on a breaking news story, Twitter is often a much better source than the traditional media. Instead of relying on just one channel for information, you tap into the collective reports of many. Within a few seconds of news breaking anywhere, it’s on Twitter. People with large Twitter followings can quickly magnify a complaint with a single retweet, and the media has learned to use Twitter both as an amplifier and a leading indicator of developing news.

While Twitter has occasionally been used to originate major attacks, its 140-character message limit doesn’t permit much poetic license. Attackers are more likely to post their gripes on a blog or Facebook and use Twitter to extend their reach.

Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and other social networks are all amplifiers to some extent, but Twitter is unique in that its content is public. Facebook members share messages and links mainly with people they already know. In contrast, following a hash tag enables you to see all messages from all Twitter users about that topic. As a result, awareness can spread more quickly on Twitter than in any other social medium.

While the number of links shared on Twitter is less than one-third the number shared on Facebook, Twitter links are clicked on about 12% more often, according to a study by ShareThis, Starcom MediaVest Group and Rubinson Partners[1]. Sharing a tweet with one’s followers is a two-click process on most PCs and mobile devices. This ease of sharing is why Twitter’s amplification power is so great. About 40% of messages on Twitter include a URL. This makes Twitter a rapid vehicle for spreading long-form content like videos and blogs.

Another distinguishing – if not unique – value of Twitter is its speed. Messages can be fired off in a few seconds and instantly reach a global audience. The combination of speed and hash tags has made Twitter an effective medium for managing crowds. During the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York in 2011, for example, the #needsoftheoccupiers tag made it possible for supporters to identify and respond to requests from protesters for everything from books to pizza[2]. Organizers were able to move protests fluidly around the city by posting new locations to the #OWS tag.

Twitter has attracted an enthusiastic audience but not a very diverse one. The service is particularly popular with professional communicators, journalists, marketers, technology professionals and social media enthusiasts. Celebrities have embraced it as a way to connect directly with their fans (for example, more than 1,700 NFL players are on Twitter, according to Tweeting-Athletes.com) and media organizations have adopted it en masse to get bonus visibility for their coverage before it hits the newswires.

Acceptance by such visible people has perhaps made Twitter’s influence disproportionate to its actual numbers. In fact, most Twitter members use the service very little. A 2009 study by Sysomos reported that 85% of Twitter users post less than one update per day, 21% have never posted anything and only 5% of Twitter users produce 75% of the content[3].

However, even that small number can unleash a breathtaking amount of information. Dell Computer, for example, monitors about 25,000 messages per day in social media, most of them from Twitter, says Richard Binhammer of Dell’s social media group. Dave Evans, author of Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day and Vice President of Social Strategy at Social Dynamx sums it up: “When you really stare down the Twitter firehouse and see what’s coming at you, it’s scary.”

Bottom line: While Twitter may be the small compared to Facebook, its vocal and influential member base can create trigger a storm of controversy with amazing speed.

Early-Warning System

Twitter has played an amplification role in nearly every social media attack of the last four years. Journalists monitor trending hash tags to detect stories bubbling up through social media. Many create filtered tweet streams of the companies, government agencies and celebrities they cover. You should do the same for your own company and brands.

Although major attacks rarely begin on Twitter, the service is a good way to identify problems before they get out of hand. One reason airlines watch Twitter so closely, for example, is that frustrated customers take first to their smart phones when delayed on the tarmac or frustrated at the ticket counter.

Twitter was the vehicle director Kevin Smith used in February, 2010 to express outrage about being denied seating on a Southwest Airlines flight because airline personnel claimed the 300-plus-pound Smith wouldn’t fit in a single seat. Smith tweeted his attacks for days and continued the criticism on his podcast. Southwest stuck to its guns and arguably suffered little from the incident, but media attention kicked off a bigger debate about America’s obesity epidemic and the responsibility of businesses to accommodate oversized customers.

Brandjacked!

One unique form of Twitter attack is “brandjacking,” or false accounts that appear to be real. The critic may use an account name that’s substantially similar to a visible person or brand to post satirical or embarrassing messages.

The most notable example of Twitter brandjacking was @BPGlobalPR, which popped up during the 2010 Gulf oil and began skewering BP as the oil company desperately struggled to stop the Deepwater Horizon spill. The account attracted 160,000 followers – more than four times the following of BP’s real North American Twitter account – and generated huge amounts of media coverage. The fact that the author remained anonymous until months after the crisis ended contributed to public curiosity[4].

A rogue employee at publisher Condé Nast created an account that relayed bizarre comments overheard in the elevator. @CondeElevator was quickly shut down, but not before its follower account exceeded 80,000. A similar account about elevator gossip at Goldman Sachs was still active and being followed by more than 260,000 people as of this writing. It’s doubtful the investment banker would want its customers to hear comments like “Retail investors should be circumspect of any offering they’re able to get their hands on. If you can get it, you don’t want it,” but private conversations like that are now public record.

Twitter has cracked down on parody accounts that deliberately misrepresent a brand, but the policy doesn’t apply to individuals, and variations of brand names are still allowed. Celebrities like Hosni Mubarak, Roger Clemens and William Shatner have been portrayed by fake Twitter accounts and brand variations like @ATT_Fake_PR and @FakePewResearch provide satirical and often very funny sendups of their targets. If you’ve been brandjacked you can appeal to Twitter directly, but be prepared to wait. If the satirist is working within Twitter’s guidelines, you have to take a more conventional crisis management approach.

Best Defense

The best defense against a Twitter attack is to listen. Free Twitter clients like TweetDeck and HootSuite do a good job of catching mentions of your brand or products. If the volume of mentions is large, or if you want to filter for sentiment to detect a surgeon negativity, you’ll need a paid listing tool like Radian6, Lithium or Sysomos.[5] Listening is easy and low-risk, but think twice before you let your branded Twitter account wade into a conversation. The precedent you set may come back to haunt you when people begin to expect response. Unless you’re prepared to devote resources to engaging on Twitter every day, the safest course is just to keep your ear to the ground.

We can’t think of a good reason why every company today shouldn’t have a branded Twitter account. Even if you only use it to disseminate press releases, it at least plants a flag in this increasingly critical community. If you do need to engage in a discussion, at least be familiar with the culture and style of the participants. Know who’s influential so that in a crisis you can get messages to people with the broadest reach.

If an attack appears to be forming, look for the following:

  • Trending hash tags that include your company name (most Twitter clients display the top trending tags by default; Whatthetrend.com can give you more detail);
  • Keywords that indicate high levels of emotion or that refer to serious problems that are unique to your product category;
  • Complaints directed specifically at your company (denoted by messages that begin with your company’s Twitter handle)
  • Retweets of negative messages by people who are influential in your market

Standard crisis communications rules apply to your response, with some twists that are unique to Twitter:

  • Use a consistent Twitter account to avoid confusion. It’s fine to retweet via other accounts that you own or influence.
  • Address affected parties, not spectators.
  • If the problem affects just a few people, ask them to follow you, then send a direct message with an e-mail address or phone number to resolve the issue out of public view.
  • If you know nothing about the issue being discussed, send a tweet stating that you’re looking into the problem. Then tweet follow-up information as you receive it.
  • Show empathy, but stick to the facts. Don’t debate hecklers.
  • If the problem is systemic (such as an outage or recall), create a Web page or blog post with details about the situation. Post updates there and tweet them under your account(s).
  • If there are people with large followings involved, consider tweeting updates directly to them. It’s OK to ask for a retweet.
  • For a problem affecting multiple customers, consider creating a unique hash tag for updates.
  • When the problem is resolved, tweet that.

Many consumer-focused companies are now using Twitter for front-line customer support. Twitter can be a great tool for such purposes, but be aware of what you’re getting into. When you set the precedent of addressing complaints within hours or minutes, customers will come to expect the same service all the time. Failing to deliver it can actually create a problem.

Consider this case: In 2009, Paul tweeted a complaint about his credit card provider and was pleasantly surprised to get a nearly instantaneous response from a representative of the company. The rep asked Paul to contact him privately via direct message, which Paul did. He never heard from the rep again.

Several months later, Paul was attending a reception at the South by Southwest conference when he ran into the very same credit card rep. The man told him that at the time of their original Twitter exchange, he was the only employee of the company – which is one of the largest financial firms in the world – authorized to communicate on Twitter. Swamped by the thousands of messages customers were tweeting every day, he had simply stopped responding. Do not let that happen to you.

[1] “ShareThis and Starcom MediaVest Group Collaborate to Release First Comprehensive Study on Sharing,” ShareThis press release, June 6, 2011, http://blog.sharethis.com/2011/06/06/sharethis-and-starcom-mediavest-group-collaborate-to-release-first-comprehensive-study-on-sharing (accessed July 18, 2012)

[2] Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America (New York and London: OR Books, 2011) p. 156.

[3] Alex Cheng and Mark Evans, “An In-Depth Look Inside the Twitter World,” Sysomos Resource Library, June, 2009, http://www.sysomos.com/insidetwitter. (accessed July 21, 2012).

[4] The author turned out to be Josh Simpson, a 26-year-old aspiring comedian from Los Angeles whose career has no doubt been boosted at BP’s expense.

[5] There are scores of these tools on the market but few comprehensive ratings guides. Two places to look are Bulldog Reporter’s PR Monitoring & Measurement Software Buyer’s Guide (http://www.bulldogreporter.com/2012-pr-monitoring-buyers-buyers-guide-comparison-chart) and the Social Media Monitoring Category of TopTen Reviews (http://social-media-monitoring-review.toptenreviews.com/). Be careful when relying on Google search for evaluations because the market changes rapidly and many top Google results are three or more years old.

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.

More Influence Hocus-Pocus

A Chicago company called Unmetric has just raised $3.2 million so it can develop yet another secret metric that purports to measure online influence.

KloutUnmetric monitors brands, not people, but it has the same shortcomings as Klout, PeerIndex and the others: Its methodology is a mystery. The distinguishing feature of its website is a leader board that shows the relative Unmetric scores of various brands in different industries. From this we can discover that the Bellagio Las Vegas was the most “socially engaged” hospitality brand in March, or that IMDB was twice as engaged as Yahoo! Finance in the online media category.

Great, so now what? What do you do if you’re a pathetic also-ran like Davidoff Hot Water, which places dead last in the North American personal care category? Unmetric doesn’t offer a whole lotta help. “There are a number of ways you can increase your Unmetric score such as increasing your engagement on Facebook or responding to queries quicker on Twitter,” the sidebar helpfully suggests. Be sure to get right on that, Davidoff. You wouldn’t want to disappoint the folks at Unmetric or at Nexus Venture Partners, which led the series A financing.

Nexus’s Jishnu Bhattacharjee tells why his firm is funding this hocus-pocus. “Its technology platform uniquely mines the much-needed benchmarks from the deluge of social media data to provide firms with actionable insights on how they are performing against their competitors.”

Much-needed benchmarks like what? The company isn’t any more specific than to call them a “blend of 24 quantitative and qualitative social media metrics” that are normalized to a 0-to-100 scale to provide a relative measure of competitive performance. And what are the “actionable insights” we gain from this? I suppose you’ll have to sign up for the service to find out, since “responding to queries quicker on Twitter” probably isn’t going to satisfy the CFO.

My opinion of black-box influence metrics has been consistent all along: They oversimplify a complex issue. The insight they yield is actionable only if it moves toward a business goal, and having a higher Unmetric score than your competition isn’t sufficient, in my opinion. Publicity stunts like the leader board may attract VCs, but they won’t fool the corporate communicators who are supposedly the target market for this stuff.

Sensible Talk About Social Media Measurement

Measure What Matters by Katie PaineThe Internet is the most measurable medium ever invented, but the perception that returns on online social interactions can’t be quantified stubbornly persists. Those who still harbor this misconception should do themselves a favor and pick up Measure What Matters, a guide to digital ROI that puts common sense ahead of the current fan/follower frenzy.

I’ll admit my biases up front. I’ve known author Katie Paine since her days as a PR pro in the 1980s and am an unabashed fan. For the past five years I have worked with her closely as a member of the Society for New Communications Research, which awarded her its “Fellow of the Year” distinction in November. I am also quoted on the back cover of the book, although I did not get a chance to read the full volume until recently.

Like many former publicists, Paine has smoothly migrated her relationship-building skills into the social world, but unlike most of her peers she has chosen to specialize in numbers. That’s a good thing for the rest of us because social media marketing, like PR, has always been challenged by the lack of reliable success metrics.

Katie PainePaine (left) believes that anything is measurable if you know where to look, and in this book she offers plenty of ideas. Measure What Matters isn’t about social media as much as it is about the importance of relationships and the need to understand how they equate to success. This is an important point because many of the tools Paine recommends work well in any medium.

In fact, one of her favorite measurement tools – the Grunig Relationship Survey – was invented in the days before blogs and Twitter, but is every bit as useful today as it was a decade ago. Even conventional research tools like mail surveys and focus groups still have their place, Paine argues, despite the fact that many people consider them to be passé. The point isn’t for organizations to argue about tools but to figure out the best ways to measure success. If that means counting mentions of a brand in newspaper headlines, so be it.

Volume 2

Measure What Matters is essentially a revised and expanded version of Measuring Public Relationships, a self-published 2007 title that I reviewed here. This time Paine has a major publisher at her back and the benefit of many new tools to tackle, including Twitter and Facebook. When you scan the table of contents, however, you’ll see nary a mention of those social networks. Instead, the author focuses on identifying constituents, defining messages, selecting tools and reviewing and tracking results. The role of communicators in a democratized media world really hasn’t changed all that much. They still seek to communicate a message or favorable impression. While there are a whole lot more tools they can use to do that today, the noise level is also a whole lot higher.

The book is chock-full of gems, ranging from useful asides like the fact that 40% is a good response rate for an employee paper survey, to the exhaustive list of 27 different types of conversations in chapter 4. The “five phases of engagement” in chapter 5  walks readers through the process of understanding how relationships proceed from initial impression to purchase advocacy. That chapter also features an eight-step process for analyzing social media content that keys in on core issues like understanding how the message was received, how it was interpreted and who did the interpreting. PR veterans will recognize many of the same concepts here that they have been using for years. In some respects, the world hasn’t really changed all that much.

Chapter 11, which looks at crisis communications, imparts basic wisdom that I hadn’t even considered. For example, the definition of “surviving a crisis” is situational. Long after the initial damage has been swept away, the reputational fallout of a crisis may make the company vulnerable to a takeover or limit its ability to attract quality talent. Paine also astutely points out that good relationships with customers, analysts and other influencers may prevent a crisis from occurring in the first place, an outcome that is almost impossible to measure.

The final two chapters look at measurement tactics for nonprofits and educational institutions, two clients with which Paine has extensive experience.

Paine’s practical and time-tested advice is a welcome relief to a Klout-obsessed world that seems more taken with fans and followers than with business results. I highly recommend it.