How to Get Started With Social Media

The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council held an informative seminar at Communispace this morning entitled “Getting Started with Social Media — Lessons from the Front Lines.” I took notes of the comments by the four speakers and pulled out a few highlights to share:

perry_allisonPerry Allison (left), Vice President of Social Marketing Innovation at talked about the value of gathering detailed feedback from a small number of people. Referring to a project that Eons conducted with Quaker Oats, she said she was initially concerned that only 80 members of the baby clothes site offered comments. “I thought Quaker wouldn’t be excited about 80 members, because this is a company that advertises on baby items on television to millions. But the brand manager was ecstatic because of the feedback and insight they were getting.” The main thing they advertise is this brand of baby clothes.

It’s the engagement that gets clients energized, she said. “Advertising currently drives more revenue, but what gets brands most excited is engagement marketing.”

Allison offered a list of common mistakes that companies make in creating online communities:  “Overloading people with information, not having a clear concept of the goals, not defining a clear value proposition, using marketing speak, and viewing the destination as a thing rather than a process.”  That last point is particularly important.  Markers have been taught to treat campaigns as projects with defined beginnings and ends.  But customer communities, if well managed, can last for years.  The value is in the process, not the deliverable.

A couple of the panelists commented on the dilemma facing mainstream media organizations today as their power is eroded by the influence of new sources.

pam_johnstonPam Johnston (left), Vice President of Member Experience at, brought an interesting background to the discussion.  She spent more than 15 years in television news before joining Gather, which means she understands the mainstream media mindset.  The most disruptive force in social media is its ability to define new trusted sources, she said. “People are looking for a trusted source and it may not be the Boston Globe. It may be your neighbor.

“I can tell you from experience that traditional media don’t want to be a hub,” she said. “They have a top-down mentality: ‘If you want it, you have to come to my site to get it.'”

Dan Kennedy, Assistant Professor at the Northeastern School Of Journalism and author of the Media Nation blog, was even more blunt about the challenges facing mainstream media. “The question of how news organizations are going to monetize anything they’re doing is the question facing the industry right now. The Boston Globe may have the largest audience its’ ever had and it’s losing $1 million a week,” he said.

Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot, offered a five-step approach to getting started with social media:

1. Start a blog. It’s a living breathing thing.

2. Create interesting content. If you do that, people will link to you.

3. Publish everywhere: Use Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed and any other channel you have available.

4. Optimize for search engines. If you’ve got a good pithy title (Top 10 Tips, anyone?), then publicize it. Make it easy for people to post your content right to Twitter, Digg, Facebook and other destinations.

5. Measure it. Look at your traffic, page views, unique visitors, time spent on site. That’s how you know whether your hard work is paying off.

Sound easy? Creating remarkable content isn’t instinctive for everyone. That’s why Gather’s Johnston was dismayed when Burger King backed down last week on its audacious “Whopper Sacrifice” campaign on Facebook. The program got lots of attention for originality, even if its premise – members “unfriended” others in exchange for free hamburgers – was controversial. Burger King yanked the campaign last week over complaints that it was encouraging antisocial behavior.

“It was probably the most successful campaign Facebook has ever done,” she said. “I thought it was funny and memorable. It got people talking and those are important qualities for a memorable campaign.”

On the always popular issue of return on investment, Halligan had this to say: “Most of our customers create a LinkedIn group or Facebook page and see, on average, a 13% month-over-month growth in leads. I’d advise jumping into this. You don’t need venture backing to start a Twitter account. If you’ve got time and energy and something to say, then do it.”

Finally, Halligan got my vote for best quote with this one: “”Marketers are lions looking for elephants in the jungle. But the elephants have all left the jungle and they’re at watering holes out on the savannah. Those watering holes are called Google and Facebook and Twitter and Gather and Eons.”

So get your tail out of the jungle.

Colleges Race Ahead in Social Media Adoption

New research shows that educational institutions are leveraging social media far more effectively than businesses in finding and recruiting their key constituents: students.

Perhaps in recognition of the fact that high school students are already thoroughly invested in social networks and online video, college recruiters are using these techniques to identify candidates. The tools are particularly popular at small institutions, which probably appreciate the cost efficiencies that online promotion provides.  For example, the research found that nearly 8 in 10 private colleges use blogs for recruitment.

“Social Media and College Admissions: The First Longitudinal Study” was conducted by Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D., a Senior Fellow and Research Chair of the Society for New Communications Research and Chancellor Professor of Marketing at the University of Massachusetts and Eric Mattson, CEO of Financial Insite Inc., a Seattle-based research firm. It compares adoption of social media between 2007 and 2008 by admissions offices of four-year accredited institutions in the US. The findings are based on 536 interviews with college admissions officers.

Among the top-level results:

  • Adoption by admissions offices grew from 61% in 2007 to 85% in 2008.
  • Forty-one percent of college admissions departments have blogs, compared to 13% of the Fortune 500 and 39% of the Inc. 500.
  • Nearly two-thirds of college admissions officers now say they are “very familiar with” social networks and 17% use social networks to research prospective students. These tools are often used to protect the school from potential embarrassment.
  • Video is now being widely used to deliver virtual tours of campuses, virtual visits to the dorms, and sample lectures from the faculty.
  • Seventy-eight percent of private schools have blogs, versus 28% of public schools; 50% of schools with undergraduate populations of less than 2,000 have blogs.
  • Four out of ten of institutions not currently using social media plan to start a blog.
  • Nearly 90% of admissions departments feel that social media is “somewhat to very important” to their future strategy.

You can download the executive summary here.

How to Keep a Fiskateer Happy

In the first chapter of Secrets of Social Media Marketing, I write about Fiskars, the Finnish maker of fine cutting tools that uses a community of scrapbooking enthusiasts called Fiskateers to evangelize its products to specialty craft retailers. It’s a perfect example of how to use social media to create street-level awareness.

My wife, Dana, wasted no time in applying to become a Fiskateer, and last weekend she attended a gathering of her fellow crafters in central Massachusetts sponsored by Fiskars. What a bounty of gifts they received! Dana counted no less than 15 raffles for the 28 attendees. She won four of them and carted home about $500 worth of swag. To the left is a photo of the goodies.

Fiskars sent lead Fiskateer Kelly Jo as well as one of its “Fiskaneers,” which is what the company calls its engineers There was also a representative of Brains on Fire, the media agency that conceived of the community. Fiskaneer Doug chatted with the group about ideas for new products, yielding great insight from dedicated crafters. The attendees were treated to plenty of food and a trip to the nearby Yankee Candle superstore. The spent the rest of the afternoon crafting together.

Did Fiskars overdo it with the sheer quantity of stuff it gave away? I doubt it. These 28 women have already declared their allegiance to the brand, and giving them more incentive to promote Fiskars through their online and offline social networks can only help boost word-of-mouth marketing. The group has been designated “crafting ambassadors,” only it’s clear that the brand they favor is Fiskars. By harnessing their enthusiasm, Fiskars can extend the value of a few gifts to a much broader audience. The cost of goods for this exercise is cheap compared to the value of good cheer the participants will spread.

Digg Setback Calls 'Wisdom of Crowds' Into Question

Journalism junkies have been closely watching the example of to see if the wisdom of crowds really is better than the judgment of editors. According to David Chen, it isn’t. Writing on Mashable, Chen offers a detailed deconstruction of Digg’s recent decision to jettison some of its top users, apparently for trying to manipulate the system.  The weeding-out process was positioned as a routine cleanup intended to eliminate abusers of the community adjudication process, but it was actually an acknowledgment that decision-making by the masses has serious flaws, Chen concludes.

It’s been common knowledge for a couple of years that the Digg model lent itself to manipulation by a small number of people. In fact, there’s evidence that up to half the stories on Digg’s enormously influential home page were contributed by just 100 users.  By taking draconian action to ban members who had, in some cases, contributed hundreds of hours of effort to building the site, Digg is admitting that it has been unable to figure out an algorithmic solution to the abuse.

The problem isn’t in programs, but in people.  Individuals can attain fame within the community by contributing stories that are ranked highly by other users.  Active members discovered early on that by forming “friend” relationships with many others, they could enhance their performance and popularity.  In other words, the more you voted for another member’s contributions, the more the other member voted for yours.  As time went on, an elite corps grew more powerful, to the point that their contributions can achieve high visibility regardless of merit.

“In the years following its creation, Digg became less a democracy and more a republic, with a select few users responsible for the majority of front page stories,” Chen writes. Digg has tinkered with its settings to try to mitigate this factor, but some members responded by writing scripts that routed around the problem.  It became a giant cat and mouse game that eventually forced Digg to insert human editors at some levels to arbitrate the process.  So much for the wisdom of crowds.

Chen contends that the blockade may irreparably damage Digg’s reputation, although the site will continue to be a huge source of traffic for publishers who are lucky enough to be listed there.  At the very least, the conundrum points out the limits of a purely democratic model of news judgment.  Even successful sites like Wikipedia rely up a small cadre of elite editors to make most of the important decisions. People with significant experience in online communities agree that a very tiny percentage of members contribute the vast majority of content.  It appears that editors, whether bubbled up from the community or appointed by management, are inevitably needed to maintain order

Should this be taken as a condemnation of the community journalism model and validation for the rule of editors?  Absolutely not.  As Wikipedia has demonstrated, armies of ordinary people can create a phenomenal information resource.  However, leaving all decision-making to a group without providing rules or oversight invariably results in the ascendance of an elite.  in the case of Wikipedia, that elite is self-regulating.  In the case of Digg’s more juvenile crown, it’s a frat party.

Social Network Adoption Races Ahead

Awareness, Inc., which has been in the social media software market for several years, has just come out with a new research report on enterprise adoption of Web 2.0. There are some interesting findings that I wanted to share with you. You can download the entire report after filling out a short registration form.

My basic take-away is that social media tools are ripping through the enterprise with amazing speed. Whether used internally, externally with open enrollment or externally with invitation-only enrollment, social networks are proliferating as business tools. Some highlights:

  • The number of organizations that allow employees to use social networks for business purposes has increased dramatically to 69% in 2008 from 37% last year;
  • More than six in 10 companies are using social media to build and promote their brands, improve communication and increase consumer engagement;
  • There has been a fivefold increase in the percentage of employees who use popular social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn for business purposes, from 15% in 2007 to 75% this year;
  • While only a tiny percentage of organizations are currently using internal communities, one in three plans to use them in the future;
  • A quarter of respondents say their companies are planning to deploy external-facing communities, which is double last year’s total;
  • Some 37% of organizations plan to focus communities on specialty areas where they can provide focused business value;
  • More than 40% of respondents report using one or more of the following tools: user groups, tags, communities, blogs, social networking and videos;
  • The most popular internal tools are social networks, blogs and wikis, with adoption rates of between 50% and 55%;
  • Seven in 10 respondents say their companies plan to deploy external blogs.
One of the most notable trends this research reveals is the rapid acceptance of social networking not only for marketing and customer support, but also for employee communications. When you consider that Facebook was barely known outside of the academic realm just two years ago, the acceptance of this technology for internal knowledge management is remarkable.

I’m also intrigued by the findings that seven in 10 businesses allow employees to use social media during business hours. This is a big change in corporate attitude. In the first couple of years of social media, businesses moved slowly to permit employees to speak outside the company walls. There were fears about people revealing company secrets or saying inappropriate things in public forums. Those fears appear to have largely melted away.

The lack of horror stories combined with the powerful utility of features likeLinkedIn’s Answers forum are clearly overwhelming these reservations. It turns out that when you give people the freedom to speak on behalf of the company and combine that freedom with clear guidelines about what’s appropriate to say, the vast majority do the right thing. This is inspiring and affirming. It may be an unanticipated benefit of social media acceptance, but it is a very welcome one.

Caveats: Any research conducted over the Internet needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The Awareness survey accumulated responses from 160 people, of whom 27.5% were from large companies and 40% were at a management level. Awareness says statistical accuracy is +/- 7%. Awareness also has a vested interest in promoting acceptance of social networks. However, the company used an independent research partner, Equation Research, to conduct the survey and I don’t think it has any incentive to fudge the results.

Study Finds Rapid Enterprise Adoption of Social Networks

New research funded by Awareness finds that Web 2.0 technologies are gaining rapid acceptance in enterprises and being combined with internal systems. I haven’t had a chance to read the full report yet, but you can download it here after filling out a short registration form (note, you may get a call from a sales rep later).

Here are highlights from a press release distributed today:

  • Employers are starting to allow social media participation more freely in their organizations: The number of organizations that allow social networking for business purposes has increased dramatically to 69 percent in 2008, up from 37 percent last year;
  • Employers are finding the benefits of using social media: 63 percent are using social media to build and promote their brand, 61 percent are using it to improve communication and collaboration, and 58 percent re using it to increase consumer engagement;
  • 75 percent of employees are already using social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn for business purposes, up 15 percent from 2007;
  • Use of internal-facing communities is on the rise with 6 percent of organization already reporting they deployed internal-facing communities, while 33 percent indicate their organization plans to implement internal-facing social media initiatives;
  • External-facing communities are increasing: 27 percent of respondents said their companies are planning to deploy external-facing communities while only 13 percent indicated their organizations already have external-facing communities;
  • Online communities directed at specific interests and groups of people allow for more targeted marketing techniques and better results so for this reason 37 percent of organizations have specific areas of focus for their communities;

While I Talked, People Twittered

Have you ever had an audience comment loudly on what you were speaking about while you were actually speaking? I did this week, and I found the experience to be weird, invigorating and a little bit 
The scene was the New Marketing Boot Camp, a seminar I conducted with Chris Brogan and CrossTech Media. The group was the most tech-savvy I have addressed in some time. About a half-dozen of the members were using Twitter, the short-message microblogging service that inspires a fanatical following.

Sitting down after my presentation, I was able to call up and read what people had been saying while I talked. Most of them simply summarized points I made, but a few added their opinions, and not all of those opinions were complimentary.

I can tell you that the act of presenting to a group that is actively talking about you requires new skills. Simply knowing that thoughts are being exchanged can be flustering; the tendency is to speak to the people in the room who you know are documenting your talk, hoping to get an inkling of what they’ll say. There’s also a certain ego-drive voyeurism that comes from this kind of instant feedback. I found myself wanting to hustle back to my computer to get the online evaluations of what I had just said!

There was a famous story at the South by Southwest Conference last March in which a keynote session was disrupted by negative Twitter messages from some members of the audience. In that case, the speakers were in the difficult position of having those comments actually scroll across a public screen while they were on stage. That was an extreme case, but an increasing number of events are incorporating Twitter conversations into the experience by encouraging attendees to share messages with each other using specific tags or keywords.

Like most new technology developments, there are both good and bad sides to this new form of instant feedback. On the positive side, speakers and conference organizers need as much audience reaction as they can get, and the sooner the better. Having recently waited six months to get audience evaluations from one presentation, I can tell you that the immediacy of the tweeted feedback was wonderful. I was able to use it to get a read quickly on the tech-saviness of the audience and adjust accordingly for the rest of the day. Hopefully, that was a good thing for everyone.

The major downside of this trend that I see is that real-time feedback from a small number of people can force a speaker to unintentionally focus on trying to please that vocal few. This is dangerous if the small but loud group isn’t representative of the majority of listeners. It’s human nature to fixate on criticism, and focusing on the comments of a few audience members can throw a presenter off track. The feedback is great, but keep it in perspective.

I’m telling you this because many of you work in the technology industry. You will soon find (if you haven’t already) that attendees to your meetings and events will use tools like Twitter to share their observations. Encourage this. Ask attendees to use Twitter’s hash function (#) to label their messages for your event. Use to filter their comments and save the search query as an RSS feed so you can collect all this feedback in one stream or even display it on a public screen.

However, Twitter feeds aren’t a replacement for the tried-and-true tactics of feedback forms and post-conference surveys. Real-time impressions can be incomplete and misleading, so take them with a grain of salt. But seek all the feedback you can. Your presentation or event will only be better for it.

Update: on Twitter told me about, a “service that allows conference attendees to provide immediate feedback on a conference via Twitter or through our web site.” I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s a very timely idea.

Be Careful About Pinning Your Hope on "Communities"

I was a guest on a webcast about social software this week (you can watch it here; it’s free) and the question came up about what publications can do to build community. I responded that they can’t do much and they shouldn’t even try because, with few exceptions, readers aren’t a community.

Then I checked my RSS reader the next morning and noticed this item from Content Ninja that makes the very same point: “You cannot build a community around content.”

“Community” is a poorly understood term (just look at the variety of definitions in online reference sources) and, like many buzzwords, it is being overused right now. Mainstream publishers trying to escape their sinking businesses are clinging to the community life raft, hoping that it offers hope for a future. For some it does, but for many general-interest publications, it’s a waste of time.

Newspapers, for example, have historically defined their communities geographically because that’s the business model that worked. While people who share a common space on the planet are technically a community, they’re the least cohesive kind of community. Outside of a shared interest in certain issues like public safety or schools, residents of a city or town have little in common. They may occasionally form strong communities around common interests like a school bond or tax increase, but those groups invariably dissolve as the issue goes away.

There are readership communities that work. Subscribers to a special interest magazine about needlepoint or scuba diving are a type of community. Those people have intense shared interests and they are much more likely to bond together in an online forum that serves those interests. Publishers of special-interest magazines have the best chance of turning their readership into self-sustaining online communities.

General-interest publishers serving broad audiences don’t. Their strength is creating content and their best chance of building community involves giving people a chance to discuss, comment upon and contribute to their content. USA Today does about the best of any major newspaper at encouraging this kind of reader participation. It encourages readers to comment upon and discuss its stories within the the limited confines of non-threaded discussion, but the readers themselves have no means to create groups, initiate their own discussions or contact each other. There’s nothing wrong with that. USA Today doesn’t have the illusion that two million readers are a community. It’s comfortable with its place in the world.

Social Network Wars are Over; Now the Fun Begins

If you’re sitting on the sidelines waiting for the market to pick winners in the social network race, you can stand up now. Hitwise data for 2007 shows that MySpace and Facebook together accounted for 88% of all visits to social network sites. The next closest competitor, Bebo , got a little more than 1% of the traffic.

There simply is no more competition in the general-purpose social network market. Other social media winners include LinkedIn (which wasn’t included in the Hitwise data), YouTube and Flickr. If you’re a big brand pursuing a broad strategy, you can safely place your bets on these services. For the next year or two, the also-rans will be busy finding buyers and merger partners.

Now is when it really gets interesting, because now the action shifts to vertical market sites. For many marketers, this is where the more interesting opportunity lies. For example, in the area of health, there’s, Wellsphere, Patientslikeme, and iMedix. Seniors can choose from Elder Wisdom Circle,, Eons, TeeBeeDee and Multiply. Mothers can sign up for Cafemom,, MomJunction and MothersClick, among others.

And the action isn’t limited to consumer markets. Sermo is a social network for physicians, which now boasts more than 50,000 members. Doctors exchange information about serious medical issues and review cases in real time. Pairup connects business travelers for peer advice, networking and assistance. There’s a list of more than 350 social networks here.

Don’t let small membership numbers fool you. Many of these sites may be attractive marketing venues. Scan the groups, discussion topics and participants and look for content profiles that match your market. Prices are generally lower than those of the big social networks and the audience is far more targeted.

Marketing to vertical communities is very different from mass marketing, of course. If you’re interested in building a campaign on Facebook, have a look at what Southwest Airlines and Victoria’s Secret are doing, or the group started by Starbucks fans that has over 60,000 members. There’s nothing particularly high tech about their presence. They mainly provide a place where customers can keep in touch with the brand and have access to special offers and downloads.

When marketing to vertical communities, you need to dig deeply into the expertise in your organization. Members of a health-oriented network, for example, want to speak to people who have lots of expertise in nutrition and treatment. Discounts and promotions won’t work nearly as well in narrow markets as they do in broad ones. If you have articulate, interesting domain experts in your organization, now’s the time to pull them out of the shadows and engage them with knowledgeable communities. Live chats, webcasts and Q&A forums are particularly effective.

Much of the media attention in the last year has focused on the battle for social network supremacy. With that competition now over, the market will subdivide itself in interesting ways. This process will continue for years, presenting an ever-shifting landscape of new marketing opportunities.

Tech PR War Stories podcast offers new social media advice

Over at the Tech PR War Stories podcast, David Strom and I have been busy interviewing some fascinating people about social media marketing. Here’s a roundup of recent activity. You can subscribe to the podcast feed on the site or by clicking here.

Tamar Weinberg44: Internet Marketing Superlist Author Shares Secrets
At the end of 2007, Tamar Weinberg assembled an amazing assortment of blog entries about everything from headline writing to linkbaiting to becoming a power user. Tamar will give you a twentysomething’s perspective on social media. If you’re trying to really understand this phenomenon, listen to what she has to say.

Four great trade show tips

Evan Schuman (TPRWS 39) of has spent a lot of time at trade shows lately and he sent us these four tips for getting the most out of media contacts.

45: The social media skeptic

Jennifer Mattern calls herself the “social media Grinch.” But that doesn’t mean she’s down on social media. It’s just that she thinks the focus on social media can distract PR people from their real work, In this interview, she outlines her cautionary advice about social media and stresses the fundamentals that PR people still need to employ.

46: How to find influencers

I’m writing a how-to book about social media marketing and one chapter is devoted to hands-on techniques for finding influencers online. It isn’t as simple as it sounds. In this episode, I talk about what I learned conducting influencer searches on behalf of a mythical Quebec resort. Step one: master advanced search.

47: Twitter magic

Many people’s first reaction to is that they just don’t get it. It looks like barely controlled chaos. But Twitter has inspired a passionate following. Laura Fitton is a poster child for a service that is revolutionizing the way people interact with their social networks. In this interview, she describes what’s unique about Twitter and how it can be useful even to people who don’t use it that often.