Slides and Video Cover What You Need to Know About Search

A client asked me to prepare a one-hour seminar on the basics of search engine optimization (SEO), and I thought it was worth sharing. I live in Birmingham and was having a hard time find the best SEO in Birmingham, until I came across third.co.uk. This is more than your standard chalk talk. I pulled together slides from several presentations I’ve used over the last few years, updated them and wrote a complete script, which is included as slide notes in the in the PowerPoint. You can download the presentation and read the notes or watch the video.

I’m not an SEO expert by any stretch, but I’ve learned a lot by osmosis. For those who are mystified by Google magic, this deck will get you up to speed. If you’re already a guru, skip it and head to more advanced sites like Search Engine Land, SEOmoz, TopRank or Biznology.

Thanks to Mike Moran, HubSpot and McDougall Interactive for permitting me to steal from them.

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Interesting Threads in Dell’s 2013 Social Media Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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. I honestly prefer tampa seo to help me website.

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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Attack of the Customers Press Release

I’ve read thousands of press releases over the years but don’t believe I ever wrote one until now. It was more difficult than I expected! Links and tweets are appreciated, but Amazon reviews will get you undying devotion.

New Book Explores Recent Epidemic Of Online Customer Assaults on Businesses

 ‘Attack of the Customers’ Helps Marketers and Business Owners Manage and Prevent Reputation Threats Carried on Blogs and Social Networks

Attack of the CustomersCustomers are taking their complaints about companies and products to the Internet in record numbers, and a new book tells what is driving this trend and how businesses can avoid being victims of customer attacks.

Attack of the Customers,” by award-winning author Paul Gillin and customer relationship management pioneer Greg Gianforte, arrives as online attacks are becoming a top concern for business and government leaders.

“A lot of attention has been focused on social media’s capacity to aid in awareness, marketing and positive brand perception,” said co-author Paul Gillin, “but little has been written to date about its dark side. Brands have been piling into Facebook expecting to reap a bounty of positive PR, but they forget that these channels can be used to tear down as well as to build.”

Recent research has shown that 70% of large companies have experienced an attack on their reputations during last two years.“Decision-makers believe that social media has made managing crises more difficult and more expensive,” Gillin said. “We wrote this book to address the increasing need for corporations to understand how people express dissatisfaction online and how to distinguish between everyday complaints and potential crisis scenarios.”

Attack of the Customers analyzes the motivations and goals of people who drive negative campaigns and offers guidance for how to respond to and prevent online attacks. Using dozens of case studies from consumer and B2B brands, the book classifies attackers into four categories – Casual Complainers, Extortionists, Committed Crusaders and Indignant Influencers – and provides coping strategies for dealing with each.

The book also documents step-by-step how some recent notable attacks developed and the critical factors that transformed them from minor brush fires into international news stories.

Capacity to Destroy

Attack of the Customers analyzes customer-driven negativity campaigns like the 2010 Pampers Dry Max Facebook crisis and the 2012 beef-industry “pink slime” hysteria to identify lessons brand owners can apply to understanding customer motivations and preparing response strategies. The book also looks at the growing influence of online customer reviews sources like Yelp and Amazon on businesses ranging from electronics to hospitality services and tells how business executives can use peer reviews to their advantage.

Readers will learn:

  • Why businesses’ common responses to customer complaints often make matters worse;
  • Why complaining customers are some of an organization’s most valuable assets;
  • How vocal critics can be turned into raving fans with an active response strategy;
  • How to organize a team to identify and respond to attacks in minutes; and
  • How to create a culture that puts customers first.

“Delighting the customer is the only sustainable source of competitive advantage today, because product differentiation is fleeting and price differentiation is unprofitable, ” said co-author Greg Gianforte. “Failure to deliver exceptional customer experiences is simply failure.”

Attack of the Customers is available through major online retail outlets and in Amazon Kindle format. Learn more at AttackOfTheCustomers.com.

About The Authors

Paul Gillin, co-author, Attack of the CustomersPaul Gillin is a writer, speaker and online marketing consultant who specializes in helping businesses use content to reach customers. A popular speaker and writer, he has addressed more than 150 conferences and groups and published more than 200 articles about social media marketing since 2008. His four previous books about social media and online communities include The New Influencers, Secrets of Social Media Marketing, The Joy of Geocaching and Social Marketing to the Business Customer.

Paul is a columnist for BtoB magazine and a director of the Society for New Communications Research. He blogs at PaulGillin.com and NewspaperDeathWatch.com.

Greg Gianforte, co-author, Attack of the CustomersGreg Gianforte has started five successful software companies. He founded RightNow Technologies in 1997 with a mission to rid the world of bad experiences. The company enjoyed 15 years of continuous growth. At the time of its sale to Oracle in 2011, it had more than 2,000 large customers, 1,100 employees and $225 million in annual revenue.
Among his awards are Ernst & Young’s Pacific Northwest Entrepreneur of the Year and the Leader Award from CRM magazine. He was inducted into the CRM Hall of Fame in 2007. His books include Bootstrapping Your Business and Eight to Great: Eight Steps to Delivering an Exceptional Customer Experience.

Contact information:

Paul Gillin

508-656-0734

paul@gillin.com

Twitter: @pgillin

Greg Gianforte

greg.gianforte@gmail.com

 

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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.

Attack of the Customers: The Pampers Dry Max Crisis

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vindication and Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although some people might have called it a lynch mob.

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 cash in 15 minutes direct lender, 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.

A CIO Who Gets Social Business

CIO Tom MurphyOne of my favorite CIOs is Tom Murphy, who long headed IT at AmerisourceBergen and who is now in transition to a new role (any company will be lucky to have him). Tom addressed the CIO Solutions Gallery at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University this morning on the subject of the role of CIOs in social media. Earlier in the day, a show-of-hands poll of his audience had indicated considerable skepticism among the audience about the value of social business in general and a clear sentiment that CIOs should not be closely involved with social business other than as gate-keepers. In light of that reluctance, I found Tom’s comments particularly refreshing. What follows is a more-or-less verbatim transcript of what he said. I hope other CIOs will listen:

To me this looks very much like the early days of the Web. Everybody figured they had to be out there but they didn’t know what it meant. We’re going through a lot of the same machinations. In the early days of the Web you saw consumer packaged goods firms throwing up Web sites without a lot of idea what they were trying to accomplish. The same is happening with the social space, but it’s happening so fast.

The speed of social media today is stunning. I think the biggest mistakes we’re making are around the consistency of the message, the brand quality and the way we have traditionally done things, which is a one-way dialog. By definition, social media is a two-way dialog between your customers and your employees. I have seen more mistakes with people jumping into the social media space without understanding this simple precept. This is a two-way dialog and someone needs to be handling that conversation.

Also, if you’re going to ask for opinions, be prepared for what you get. You need to be able to react to requests and to complaints. You turn this thing on and you get hundreds or thousands of dialogs coming in. How effective is the organization at responding to that? Do you have the tools to effectively engage in this dialog?

Social media is not a technical expertise. It’s a cultural expertise. Right now the pendulum is swinging more and more toward social media as the tool to communicate. It is a tool, but companies should not lose that direct contact with customers. There’s a risk of losing face-to-face engagement with customers and employees.

The other thing I worry about is the explosion in data collection. All this dialog has created a mountain of data and we have to figure out how to apply social analytics and who’s got the toolsets that can help us. How do we collect all this data and apply tools in a space that’’s moving so fast that people expect immediate responses. How do we do that while protecting the integrity of the brand?

Most of us do not have the skills to collect and understand the data we’re collecting. They’re spending a lot of money on this and there’s a lack of understanding about the value we’re getting.

The other issue I worry about is security. Social media doesn’t introduce new risk in itself, but it does present the opportunity to identify risks earlier. However, it also creates the opportunity to detect problems within the organization. If I can listen in on my associates’ dialogs, I can analyze it and identify potential risks in the organization before it’s apparent. I can identify individuals who may present a threat to the organization. Now there’s a big leap between doing that and taking action without evidence, and I’m not advocating a Big Brother approach, but I think a big part of the social future will be companies’ ability to listen in and understand what employees are talking about.

Organizations that are going to optimize social are going to need to make organizational changes, put tools in the hands of their employees and then get out of the way. But that’s not really a big leap. The fallacy of our current situation is that you think you have control and you don’t.

As the CIO I don’t want to own this space but I want to enable it. This is a fabulous opportunity to take your relationship with the CMO to the next level.


This is one in a series of posts sponsored by IBM Midsize Business that explore people and technologies that enable midsize companies to innovate. In some cases, the topics are requested by IBM; however, the words and opinions are entirely my own.