Bulldog Reporter’s Faux Pas Shows Why Not to Take Research at Face Value

This lead from a recent Bulldog Reporter case study on business blogging certainly caught my attention:

“Recent research reveals that 64% of American companies will launch their own corporate blogs in 2014, and the average budget for corporate blogging will increase by nearly one-sixth. What’s more, 12% of American companies plan to hire a full-time blogger in 2014.”

Holy cow! Blogging is one of the oldest forms of social media and is not generally considered a high-growth field. In fact, statistically valid research conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth over the past several years has documented that about only about one-third of the Fortune 500 and fewer than half of the Inc. 500 have public blogs, and those numbers aren’t growing very fast.  What new research now predicts this kind of mind-blowing growth?

It turns out to be research that’s not very good. A little background checking revealed that the numbers cited by Bulldog Reporter came from a study conducted by a company called DeskAlerts, which makes messaging software for use inside organizations. In a press release, the company summarized its methodology this way: “DeskAlerts asked businesses around the US a single question: what would inspire you to create a corporate blog?”

That’s all. Nothing about how the survey was conducted, who the respondents were or how many people responded. This is kind of critical information to know if you’re going to cite the results in a responsible publication.

From Russia With Love

Rise of corporate bloggingI tried to reach the contact listed on the press release, whose name is Natasha Chudnova. I e-mailed Ms. Chudnova via PRWeb but got no response. I couldn’t find a direct e-mail address for her on the company website or anywhere else. Her LinkedIn profile says she’s in the Russian Federation, which isn’t surprising given that DeskAlerts’ website says that’s where its development is done. The headquarters are listed as being in Alexandria, Va., but when I tried to call the company using the phone number listed on the website, I got a recording saying only that I had reached a voicemail box. The recording didn’t even identify the name of the company.

So I’m having my doubts about the quality of this research. But you don’t have to do any detective work to figure out that these numbers are suspicious. The most obvious question is how DeskAlerts derived so much data from a question that didn’t ask for any? There is simply no way that response to a single verbatim question could be interpreted to reach these stunning conclusions.

That’s assuming the question is valid, which it isn’t. A professional researcher would never use a word like “inspire” in a survey because it creates bias. It’s like asking, “What would cause you to take on the drudgery of creating a corporate blog?” The term “you” is also indefinite. Does it refer to the person or the person’s company? Even if the research was conducted over a statistically valid sample, the results would be meaningless if the question was asked that way.

But the most damning evidence that the research is flawed is the data itself. If we accept the UMass research as a baseline, then DeskAlerts is telling us that 100% of American companies will be blogging by the end of this year. Um, no, they won’t. Then there’s the statistic that 12% of companies will hire a full-time blogger in 2014. Given that there are about six million employers in the U.S., this would represent the addition of more than 700,000 skilled jobs to the workforce. If that were true, the President would be holding a press conference to declare victory over unemployment.

Despite all these problems, I don’t blame DeskAlerts for releasing bogus research into the wild or for producing the obligatory infographic above. Bad data is only a problem if people believe it. The real problem is when respected brands like Bulldog Reporter put the badge of legitimacy on information that is so clearly wrong. Publishers owe it to their readers to at least run a basic reality check before validating third-party research, particularly when it’s from an unknown party. Bulldog Reporter publishes a lot of good information, but it dropped the ball on this one.

Stop Talking! I’m Trying to Listen!

Three years ago I routinely advised clients to spread their content around liberally through multiple channels as a way to reach the largest possible audience. I recommended setting up multiple Twitter accounts for different functions like customer service and marketing. And I advised linking generously to influential bloggers as a way of generating reciprocal links that build search visibility.

Today I would recommend none of those things. As social networks have grown, so has the amount of noise they generate. Spammers have corrupted the value of outbound links to much that some bloggers no longer even use them. The factors that once made social media so appealing – accessibility and openness – have become a liability.

What to Stop doing in Social Media_coverLast week David Spark launched an ebook that provides important updates on the social media practices that many of us have long taken for granted – but perhaps shouldn’t any more. Hazardous to Your Social Media Health (free with minimal registration) contains advice from Spark and 56 other veteran practitioners about 50 online behaviors that used to be cool but aren’t any more. One of my comments is included in the book, but that isn’t why I recommend it. I just think it serves a timely and valuable purpose.

Shhhhhh!

An overarching theme of the ebook is to shut up. The din of auto-posts and pointless comments about nothing in particular is drowning out valuable messages and undermining social media’s value, say several of the contributors. Democratic media is great, but when everyone is shouting at once you can’t hear anything.

David Spark

“This giant land grab of users was actually valuable when we weren’t so overwhelmed by social messaging,” Spark writes. “Now the influx is so overwhelming that we’re reliant on filters to manage the noise.”

For example, Leo Laporte (@leolaporte), who has nearly a half million Twitter followers, says he doesn’t even read his home Twitter feed anymore because it’s so clogged with useless messages. He now relies upon filtering and aggregation services like Flipboard and Nuzzle to sort through the noise.

The victim of too much noise is meaningful conversation. The opportunity to talk with constituents was the reason many brands went online in the first place, but it’s getting harder and harder to converse with an audience that’s overwhelmed with information.

Beyond Social Media

So maybe it’s time for the media to evolve beyond collaboration. Giovanni Rodriguez (@giorodriguez), CEO of SocialxDesign, suggests that the next evolution of social media will “enable people to do more, not just talk more.”

He’s referring to the emerging so-called collaborative economy, which uses social constructs to create value. Services like AirBNB and Uber either enable us to do things we couldn’t do before or make it faster/cheaper/easier to accomplish tasks. The collaborative economy is an exciting development. A couple of years ago we thought it was cool to consult our social network for advice on where to book a hotel. Now the members of our network have become the hotel.

Spark and his collaborators are particularly harsh on practices that contribute to the noise level without adding value or that have selfish objectives like raising the sender’s profile at someone else’s expense. Sections like, “Stop Blogging About Everything” and “Stop Lifecasting” drive home this point. In “Stop Sharing Without Consumption,” he scolds Guy Kawasaki by name for openly advocating the practice of sharing headlines without actually reading the content. He also tweaks the practice of content curation if it’s done simply to build one’s social profile on the back of others’ work. Much as I love Kawasaki’s Twitter style, I agree completely with Spark’s criticisms.

I don’t agree everything in Hazardous to Your Social Media Health, of course, including Stowe Boyd’s advice to stop using RSS readers and Charlene Li’s admonitions against personal blogging. Some of the listed behaviors are also duplicative or appear to have been added to stretch the list to 50, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a useful, timely and practical how-to manual for the next stage of social media development. I guarantee that in five years much of it will be out of date, but it’s sure a useful document to read right now.

Constant Contact Colocates with Small Business Customers

Great companies go beyond just providing a product or service. They think of themselves as partners in the success of their customers. Three companies that do an outstanding job of advocating for the small business customer are American Express (with its Open Forum small business community and annual Small Business Saturday promotion, among other things), Intuit and Constant Contact, the Massachusetts-based e-mail marketing company.

I often use Constant Contact’s Twitter and Facebook profiles as models for other B2B companies to follow. About 90% of the content the company posts in social networks is intended to help customers succeed in small business marketing. Less than 10% promotes Constant Contact products. It’s like that in the company’s remarkable Pinterest account as well.

Constant Contact’s Small Business Innovation LoftNow the company is taking customer advocacy to the next level with the launch of the Small Business Innovation Loft. That’s a physical space within the company’s Waltham, Mass. offices were startups can set up shop for four months at no cost and get $10,000 to spend on marketing activities. They also get free meeting space and priority support from Constant Contact’s support team. This press release has more.

Innovation labs aren’t new, but they are usually sponsored by venture capital firms or real estate companies that hope to cash in on them. In contrast, won’t take equity in the startups it nurtures. The value to the company comes from the promotional benefit and the word-of-mouth awareness that will develop as some of these companies invariably succeed and set off on their own. What better way to put your money where your mouth is?

Constant Contact makes it a point to get inside the minds of its customers and understand their ambitions, fears and motivations. That’s the secret of content marketing, however you define it. Check out this clever year-end video the company put together to celebrate its customers.

A Nice Collection of B2B Marketing Stats and Videos

Earnest is a U.K.-based B2B marketing agency that says its mission is, “to chase out the humdrum and bring a lot of love and passion to B2B marketing.” Its work certainly bears out that goal. Earnest’s B2B campaigns have a lot of B2C energy inside them. Its research and how-to presentations on SlideShare are an excellent resource for companies that want to get into content marketing.

Here’s its latest collection of recent trends and statistics: This is the year that was in B2B Marketing crunched. Be sure to check out the links to some of the year’s best B2B videos on slide 37. You can also download the presentation as a PowerPoint if you want to borrow a few of these stats.

Thrilled to be Mentioned in the Company of These Phenomenal B2B Bloggers

DNN (formerly DotNetNuke) has posted a listing infographic of the Top 10 Blogs Every B2B Marketer Should Read. I was stunned and thrilled to be included with phenomenal bloggers like Jeremiah Owyang, Seth Godin, Ann Handley and Brian Solis. I’m assuming my position at the top of this infographic is a happy accident, because I don’t hold a candle to most of these people.

In reality, I don’t blog very much at paulgillin.com anymore. Much of my recent work has appeared on the Profitecture blog. Profitecture is a small start up that provides social media training to B2B companies and their channel partners, and I’m happy to be a founding associate. I’ve also written extensively for BtoB magazine, but with the folding of that magazine into Advertising Age, I probably won’t be contributing there in the future. I maintain another blog called Newspaper Death Watch, where I chronicle the changes going on in the news journalism. I keep a list of all my posts and articles on Delicious in more-or-less reverse chronological order.

Here’s the infographic. Thanks to DNN for the very nice compliment!

I’ve Been Writing A Lot Lately, Just Not Here

I only update this blog occasionally because most of my writing these days appears on other people’s websites. But my blog is still my home base. Here’s a round up of what I’ve been scribbling about elsewhere of later.

Social is the Future of Search (Profitecture Blog)

BuzzFeed HQ

(Photo credit: Scott Beale)

What could possibly unseat Google as the king of the Web? The answer might be incubating in fast-growing media operations like BuzzFeed (right) and Upworthy. These publishers eschew search optimization in favor of creating content that people want to share. From an SEO perspective, they do a lot of things wrong. And they’re killing it online at the moment.

Marketing’s big miss (BtoB magazine)

A new McKinsey & Co. report reveals a startling disconnect between B2B companies and their customers that should give every marketer pause to reflect on his or her priorities. The research shows that the themes that B2B companies emphasize in their marketing messages are wildly inconsistent with the factors that B2B buyers care about most.

Short on content? Repackage (BtoB magazine)

A lot of marketers are frustrated by the perceived need to turn out a lot of content, but the problem is much more manageable if you reuse and repackage creatively. Here are some ideas for how to get more mileage out of the stuff you already have.

Rewarding Bad Behavior (Godfrey Blog)

Marketing and sales organizations at most B2B companies have a relationship that can be politely described as strained. Sales complains that marketing gives them lousy leads while marketers charge that sales wouldn’t know a good lead is it bit them on the nose.

Both sides are correct. That’s because many organizations reward their sales and marketing people for the wrong things. Improve lead quality and a lot of the bad karma disappears.

Altimeter’s Brian Solis: ‘It’s the Customer Experience, Stupid’ (Huffington Post)

Brian Solis at Upload Lisboa, Portugal.

Brian Solis (right) is one of the most consistently provocative and perceptive analysts in the world of new media and social business. I caught up with him shortly before his Pivot conference in October to find out what’s on his mind. He believes few CEOs know how dramatically their businesses will change as a result of customer empowerment. And he thinks any business can enchant its customers. Even one that makes hammers.

Five Important Differences Between Paid and Earned Media (Profitecture Blog)

Many marketers treat social or “earned” media the same way they treat advertising and direct mail, but the two forms of media are very different. Earned media is more valuable because people volunteer to share your information. This benefits small and patient companies disproportionately. If you talk at customers in earned the channels the way you do in paid channels, your results will probably disappoint you.

 

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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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Bidding Fond Farewell to BtoB Magazine

BtoB_logoI was sad to learn this week that BtoB magazine, which has existed under various brands for nearly 100 years, will be swallowed by Advertising Age at the end of the year. I have worked with BtoB for nearly seven years, publishing about 120 columns and articles during that time. The staff has always been a joy to work with, and BtoB has played a critical role in my own education about the transformation of media. It’s the most important publishing brand I’ve been affiliated with during my eight years as an independent consultant, and I’m truly sorry to see it go.

My association with BtoB began as a happy accident. Shortly after going on my own in late 2005 I encountered the then-editor-in-chief, Ellis Booker. Ellis had worked for me at Computerworld years before and our mutual geekiness had cemented a friendship. At the time I reconnected with Ellis I was becoming fascinated by the changes in the publishing world driven by social media. I pitched him pretty hard on stepping up BtoB‘s focus on that area. Ellis has always been a forward-looking guy, so he began to feed me some assignments, which I tackled with zeal. Here was a chance to learn by talking to practitioners on the leading edge and earn a few bucks and a byline in the process.

In late 2006 Ellis offered me a monthly column on the editorial page called “New Channels.” I’m still writing it more than six years later. I’ve never been paid for it, but I would probably pay BtoB for the privilege.

New Channels gave me an opportunity to share what I was learning with more than 30,000 subscribers and perhaps to materially impact the way B2B companies were thinking about social media adoption. I sweated every one of the 450 words I was allocated each month and still think it was some of my best writing of the past six years. When you have so little space to say something, you have to focus and minimize waste. Length limits are a great way to improve your writing.

Looking back on some of those early columns dramatizes the speed with which things have changed. In 2007 I remarked on how big brands were embracing blogging and YouTube, completely unaware of the impending arrival of social networks. In 2006 I wrote about Microsoft’s Port 25 blog, which invited its critics in the Linux community to heap abuse on it in a Microsoft-branded channel. Thanks to Facebook, such interactions are common today across hundreds of brands.

John Obrecht took over from Ellis in 2010 and was kind enough to ask me to continue writing the column. I understand John will be leaving Crain Communications when BtoB shuts down. If you want a top-notch business editor and writer who understands B2B markets, be sure to give John a call. He’s in Chicago and hopes to stay there.

Gillin_at_BtoB_eventOver the years I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in many of BtoB‘s social media-related projects. I’ve helped judge its Social Media Awards for the last four years and also contributed to the annual Interactive Marketing Guide since 2010. I’ve been privileged to be on the stage for the past four years to present awards to some remarkable companies that are innovating with social media and to participate in numerous other BtoB events. The association with the BtoB brand has been invaluable to me. Despite all my blogging, books and contributions to other websites, the BtoB magazine association is the one people still mention most often when I meet them.

Many readers of my blog probably know that I also maintain a blog called Newspaper Death Watch, where I’ve commented on the massive changes sweeping through the newspaper industry for more than six years. BtoB is a victim of those same forces. The advertising market for business publications is in free fall, and since most of the magazine’s advertisers are themselves B2B media companies, BtoB has suffered along with everybody else. Crain Communications is notable for its commitment to print publishing. It sustained a print presence for BtoB long after most publishers probably would have opted to go online-only. The decision to shutter the brand isn’t surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

 

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