Word of Mouth Still Trumps Ad Value in Social Media

The Facebook data just keeps pouring in. While a lot of investors probably wished they had more data on the shortcomings of Facebook’s business model before the IPO, sometimes a few people have to be sacrificed before a greater lesson is learned.

The latest data from comScore spends less time worrying about how Facebook makes money and more time on how brands are making money on Facebook. In the rush to figure out how good of an ad product Facebook has, word-of-mouth, which has traditionally been seen as the real value of social media marketing for brands, has been brushed under the rug.  Today data finally emerged on how earned media stacked up against the latest onslaught of ad products on the world’s most popular social network.

So how well does real earned media do in the days of Sponsored Stories and Promoted Posts?

It turns out that earned media, despite being harder and possibly less sexy from a technology/data perspective, continues to have a much greater impact on tangible consumer behavior than it’s newer hyper-targeted siblings.  While the analysis is a little muddled due to comScore’s reluctance to undermine clients (or one of their biggest clients, Facebook) that invest heavily in paid media, the data clearly shows that online word-of-mouth has not only a stronger immediate impact but also increasing efficacy over time.

This probably isn’t news to you if you work in the automotive or consumer electronics field, where word-of-mouth continually ranks above all paid media in factors that influence purchasing decisions.  comScore couches some of their findings by also claiming a lift for consumers exposed to paid advertising on Facebook but, given the historical data beyond Facebook, this makes a strong case for greater resource allocation into content and other shareable assets and possibly even a GM-like re-examination of ROI in relation to Facebook’s advertising.

The analysis of the data points out how most brands jump from fan collection to success measurement but points out the importance of “intermediary steps,” like fan reach, engagement and amplification. I’d go so far as to say that those steps are less intermediary and should be the primary focal starting point to any social media program.  While getting into all the reasons why fan collection, or network building, isn’t success in and of itself might be another post entirely, it is important to note that, since only about 1-2% of most Facebook fans engage in any way, the “collecting” isn’t as important as giving them something of value that can be shared.  1,000 people “Liking” your post about looking forward to the weekend doesn’t further any kind of a real brand conversation.

Unfortunately, most newer social media marketers measure success by Facebook’s media kit metrics, which will never speak directly to the benefits of organic word-of-mouth even if it is the #1 trackable activity linked to sales and deeper brand connections.  The kind of real word-of-mouth that drives these high impact brand connections is messier to measure but it can be done and should be the larger focus of any social media marketing program.  Hopefully it won’t take the rug being pulled out from under this industry for it to understand how to measure real value.

I’m going to post a follow-up to this next week that takes a closer look at the shortcomings of the People Talking About This metric since it’s closely related.

Digital Doesn’t Need to Be Integrated, It Just Needs to Be Good

Check out the interviews with any agency who wins a CLIO, Cannes Lion or even a Silver Anvil and you’ll undoubtedly hear the term “integrated” thrown around more than once.  In this day of box-checking and unqualified statements like “all media is social,” it’s pretty easy to get by on the cliches in an industry where no one bothers to examine them.  Brands are being pushed into media they don’t understand by a host of agencies that often understand it even less.

So what is integrated marketing?

In its purest sense, integrated marketing is a collection of cross-media tactics dedicated to serve a common strategy.  No big problems there.  Though how many times have you heard someone say “we really need to integrate TV into this concept that works so well in digital”?

The reality of integrated marketing, as it is actually applied in the real world, is the integration of digital or emerging media into some sort of strategy that is already being served by a traditional media tactic.  It’s the “Like us on Facebook” and “see more at GoDaddy.com” that often fills the final three seconds of a TV spot.  It’s the QR code you’ve never used on that point of sale display. It’s the string of social media logos marring that otherwise elegantly designed print ad.  Integrated marketing, as it is widely practiced, is the shoehorning of digital tactics into media that otherwise lacks a compelling call-to-action.

That bowl of soup sure looks great in this commercial.  Maybe I should go out and buy it.  Oh wait, they’re telling me to join the conversation on Facebook.  Hmm, I don’t really feel like talking to people about soup right now…I’ll just sit here motionless on my couch and wait for the last 15 minutes of 30 Rock.

So goes the problem with integrated marketing.

While I may be biased to digital media, when I look back on my favorite campaigns from the past decade or so, I see concepts that work uniquely well in digital that were largely no-shows in traditional media.  CP+B’s Whopper Sacrifice for Burger King, which is often the only Facebook campaign I can name when asked for my favorite, was able to creatively underscore value and create a need for a product in a way that other media is completely unable to.  Sure there were television spots running at the same time that marketed the Whopper but trying to really integrate this great idea into other media would’ve been an utter failure.

W+K’s Write the Future campaign for Nike might be my favorite piece of ad creative ever and I’m not even a big soccer fan.  I just spent 15 minutes searching for airing information and recuts but the only thing I found was information about the Facebook launch, massive peer-to-peer distribution (not “viral“), the consumer generated follow-up campaign and, of course, the curse.  The three-minute ad didn’t air very often and no one seemed to really care about the recuts.  Anecdotally speaking, the broadcast media spend seemed to have added nothing to the impact of the campaign for anyone who wrote about it.

The myth of integrated marketing really only serves the purposes of box-checking for brands and upselling for agencies.  While television budgets and the production budgets that track with them may be sinking, being able to tack on a $500k digital component to a television campaign can definitely help an agency stop the bleeding.  Similarly, that marketing manager that has to defend his work to his CMO always likes to have a quick answer to “what’s the digital component?” handy in case of a stare-down with top brass.  So it’s not that integrated marketing doesn’t serve a purpose, it just doesn’t necessarily serve a brand.

Siloing, especially in regards to media-specific disciplines, has become a dirty word because it hurts collaboration but, in the quest to integrate, expertise and often the best ideas become secondary to what amounts to being a euphemism for a traditional-first approach to creative thinking.  I’m confident this is just an early phase in digital’s gradual climb up the food chain and, when the best work begins consistently superseding the cliches, truly integrated creativity may actually thrive in a media-agnostic world.

 

Facebook’s Measurement Problem

Recent news of GM pulling their $10 million in annual Facebook ad spending has raised some eyebrows.  The reactions have been a mix of social media marketers defending the platform, citing problems with GM’s management and agency selection, to those that are rushing in to try to expose what may be Facebook’s greatest weakness on the eve of their IPO.  The data being cited to both support and attack GM is a hodgepodge of non-standardized social media profile fodder and a lot of stuff taken right out of the Facebook media kit.  After all, this is an industry that has blindly accepted proprietary metrics, such as the coveted Facebook “Like,” as an almost undisputed barometer of universal success that justifies almost any resource allocation in the world of co-called “integrated” marketing.

But was GM right to put their money elsewhere?

First, let’s look at the facts.  Facebook, in it’s current state, is a poorly performing ad platform just about any way you slice it.  A couple years ago, most data showed click-through-rates in the ballpark of .05% and, having seen hundreds of thousands worth of performance data since then, the reality is that it’s probably between .03% and .04% on average today.  In fairness to Facebook, this trend is pretty consistent with what most display networks are seeing, including Google, tough maybe not quite to this extent.  A bigger problem may be the ad units themselves.

In February of this year, Facebook announced a shift in the kinds of the ads that would be offered.  The company is moving away from simple display ads and focusing more on Sponsored Stories.  In a nutshell, Sponsored Stories are a way for brands to promote their content on Facebook.  That’s right.  You’re paying Facebook to drive traffic to – where else? – Facebook!

If you’re wondering why Sponsored Stories even exist, it’s because people don’t engage with brand content on Facebook.  Sure, Like numbers are through the roof for many brands and often eclipse what they see in unique visitors to their corporate sites but are those people reading or engaging with your content.  Facebook provides this metric to an extent with their People Talking About This number, which is a somewhat misleading way of identifying how many people have engaged with your content in a way that their social graph may have been exposed to your activity.  For example, someone hitting the Like button would, for most users, publish that activity to the ticker that appears besides the News Feed.  That counts as them “talking about” your content.  While people who repost your content or tag you in their own post are included in this number, the overwhelming majority of People Talking About This have just hit a Like button.

The social media marketing community is starting to take notice that some of these metrics provided by Facebook aren’t speaking directly to any kind of legitimate success criteria.  Over at Digital Marketing Works, they’re working on a social engagement index that shows engagement as a percentage of a brand’s total fans.  When you apply this formula to most large brand pages, you generally find that most brands are averaging engagement rates of around 1.5%.  If you take a brand like Home Depot, who generally provides high utility content across all social platforms, you’re looking at a brand that invests considerable resources to engage with about 10,000 of their 650,000 “fans” on Facebook in a good week.  If engagement is the real fruit of social media marketing, and I think most would agree that it is, a brand the size of Home Depot would probably have a hard time justifying the resources required to interact with 10,000 people a week.

As real data like this emerges, it becomes pretty clear that Facebook is in trouble as a digital marketing platform.  If you compare Facebook to other loyalty or CRM platforms, the results can be increasingly discouraging.  Let’s take good old, boring, not-in-the-least-bit-sexy email marketing.  Let’s say that instead of trying to secure Facebook Likes, you focused on CPA marketing to get highly engaged consumers into your email database.  If you’re able to attract a similar amount of people, a brand like Home Depot might have 650,000 people in their database and, by standard open rates of about 20%, a single email a month could be read by 130,000 potential customers.  Compared to Facebook, direct sales links and other pushes towards owned media tend to perform well in email.  Using standard engagement rates, Home Depot would need to build their Facebook Likes to roughly 2,112,500 in order to get an equal number of people to engage with their content and chances are that any pushes to owned media off Facebook would perform much worse.  Unless Home Depot can start selling Facebook Likes, it looks like they may have better options for their marketing budget.

We’re really just scratching the surface here but you can start to see a few different reasons why brands like GM are taking their ad dollars elsewhere.  In the rush to check the social media box for their equally confused CMOs, a lot of inexperienced social media marketers have been following Facebook’s lead and pumping up numbers that are either misleading or don’t directly speak to any reasonable success criteria.  Facebook, in turn, is changing their ad platform to focus more on the best performing ads by this same criteria, which is both compromising a positive user experience and pushing brands deeper into an abyss of advertising that leads nowhere.

Luckily for Facebook, they have a pretty good cushion to work with.  They have an unparalleled user base that generates an almost unfathomable amount of page views compared to any other online property.  Even if advertisers have to settle for impression based ads, there is probably enough inventory to sustain Facebook for a very long time.  While their valuation may be suspect, there is enough enthusiasm around their IPO that they will certainly end up with more cash to work with than they’ve ever had before.  The company has been forced to evolve faster than any other major Internet brand in the young history of the industry and nothing they have done to date has notably hurt their user base.

The real question is whether or not Facebook will ultimately be a good place for brands.  The word-of-mouth potential of the platform is almost completely untapped but, in order for Facebook to sustain their success, they will need to find a better way to measure success and develop advertising products that address the challenges of their brand partners as opposed to just boosting numbers they’ve managed to trick them into blindly adopting.

Your Social Media Content Strategy is Backwards

As more and more traditional marketers get involved in social media, you hear more and more about the importance of having the right content strategy.  Usually this involves things like a schedule of Facebook updates and Tweets and other ways of pushing content on fans or followers.  It fits in nicely with the way that many of these same marketers focus on friend collecting (getting “Likes”) either concurrently or before the content phase.  Build your audience and then hammer them with content.  It’s the old reach plus frequency equals retention formula that gave birth to advertising as we know it.

Content is a crucial part of social media marketing, particularly for brands that aren’t inherently social, but there are a few reasons it shouldn’t be your first priority.  The primary reason is that social media – when it has it’s highest impact – isn’t about broadcasting content.  The big wins in social media are when a stakeholder transitions from feeling completely unattached to a brand and then receives that personalized attention, just like they get from their friends organically on the same networks, and is then transformed into an advocate or enthusiast for that brand.  This is almost universally a result of direct engagement rather than effective content marketing.

Does it sound like one of those pie-in-the-sky social media promises that no one really delivers on or can scale to meet the demands of a major brand?  It’s not.

Read More…

Can Stalking Save Facebook?

I’ve been using Google+ for a couple weeks now and there’s really nothing anyone can do to convince me that it isn’t a superior product to Facebook as a social technology.  Here’s is just a partial list of where I think Google+ has improved on the social networking experience:

  1. There are no Friends, Likes or other misleading nomenclature that tries to draw awkward analogies to real life.  The exception to this is Hangouts but I give it a pass since it’s actually a very good description of what the feature offers.
  2. Privacy is so intuitive that you don’t even realize that you’re adjusting privacy settings.  It requires almost no explanation and is always at the core of whatever you’re doing.
  3. Photo sharing, which for some reason is treated with separate sharing controls in Facebook, is handled the same way as all other content and improves upon the newer Facebook photo presentation.
  4. While Google is very upfront about taking your content and using it to serve you more relevant ads, the Google+ platform isn’t an ad platform.  Everywhere else may be pretty soon but they at least let the utility be a utility.
  5. It’s integrated with some of the best tools on the Web.  You don’t have to go to Google+, it comes with you every time you use search, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader or any of their other great products.
  6. It simplifies the purpose of almost all social technology: sharing.  This should make a lot of competing technologies very scared.

Unless you’re on Facebook to support your Farmville habit, you can probably recognize most of the superiority of Google+ at the core functionality level.  Maybe you have misgivings about Google as a company or you really connect with the rise of Facebook into the dominant media platform that it is today…that’s fine.  I still don’t buy any argument that Facebook, which has been around since 2004, has perfected the technology behind personal sharing (though I will give them points for scaling).  For now I won’t even get into the implications of brand presence, which is another area where I believe Google+ is positioned to succeed.

So why won’t Facebook just shut down tomorrow?

It’s obviously their volume of active users, which is still about twice what MySpace had at it’s peak.  So if Facebook came around and answered all the usability and scaling problems that plagued MySpace and MySpace still managed to be viable for another five years since they began their decline, what does that mean for Facebook in the worst case scenario?  If this marks the beginning of the decline of Facebook, will it take ten years for them to begin to really fade into obscurity?

It won’t be 10 years.  Facebook changed the fundamental reason people use a social networking site like theirs.  By pushing people to build deeper and deeper profiles and making privacy secondary, Facebook made stalking fun for even the non-tech savvy.  Compared to MySpace’s fairly simple profiles, you can learn things about people who aren’t even active users that goes far beyond any of the information that previous services asked you for.  For some reason people always cling to the idea of someone finding an embarrassing photograph but I was using a service (Turntable.fm, which is great) where someone was trolling and trying to get under the skin of one of the mods of the channel and decided to tap into their Facebook profiles for amo.  Since you need a Facebook profile to join Turntable.fm, that person gots plenty of info from the mod’s profile and began insulting his education and threatening to call his employer.  As it turns out, the mod worked in PR and probably should’ve known better than to make that info public but should he really have to know how to adjust his privacy settings to prevent malicious stalking?

My theory is that privacy and, more specifically, online stalking becoming even more sophisticated and commonplace will be both the key to Facebook’s longevity and the reason for it’s demise.  Google+ has answered this by making privacy a part of the content sharing process.  Being concerned about your online privacy is generally theoretical until someone gives you a reason to be genuinely concerned and I think those moments are coming for a large part of Facebook’s user base.

(mis)Adventures in Crowdsourcing

There are few topics more contentious among marketing creatives than crowdsourcing.  The arguments both for and against are filled with so many bad analogies and hyperbole that it’s almost impossible to discuss civilly with anyone who has been involved in creative services longer than six months.  You can only tiptoe through the banana peels so long before you slip and have to run back to an oversimplification to save your argument.

If you boil down the concept behind crowdsourcing you usually come up with something along the lines of “the knowledge of the crowd is more vast than any one person.”  It’s one of those statements that’s hard to refute yet, the more you get into the specifics of crowdsourcing in application, the less it makes sense.

Crowdsourcing, in it’s modern form, is driven by the primary desire to cut costs.  There are instances of crowdsourcing achieving things that would be difficult for a small team, like the example Don Tapscott uses in his book Wikinomics of Goldcorp tapping the crowd to help them find better places to mine for gold, but the majority of crowdsourcing is used as a seemingly viable alternative to paying more.

The issue has grown a little more complicated as simple bargain creative services, like 99 Designs, have been birthed at higher levels.  One such case is the ad agency Victors and Spoils, which found itself on last year’s Advertising Age “Agencies to Watch” list.  While there aren’t many marketable designers fighting for $200 logo projects, V&S is competing against larger agencies by crowdsourcing the concepting phase of the creative process (the projects are then handed over to a fairly traditional structure of full timers and freelancers for execution/production).  It’s not just inexperienced ad school students and computer nerds from the Ukraine submitting ideas though.  I heard first hand that there are art directors from top 10 agencies who regularly work 60+ hour weeks that are also throwing their ideas in the ring, though they generally ask to credited as anonymous.  So, in this instance, you’re getting ideas from some of the same people you need a budget of $10 million+ to even ask to take your business.

The emergence of these kinds of companies are driven by problems at the height of the creative pyramid.  Hiring a top creative agency that pays top dollar for their creative talent is one of the most simultaneously risky and safest things to do for brands with wallets fat enough to even be in this position.  While you could argue that the majority of most marketing initiatives ultimately fail, some of the most detrimental black holes of substantial resources come at the hands of some of the most experienced marketers with some of the best portfolios at some of the most respected agencies.  A misfire in a print ad in a local paper probably won’t sink a business but an ineffective Super Bowl spot that does nothing but create negative sentiment for the brand can do lasting damage and often results in the squandering of the only chance that brand will have at that level of media.

On the other hand, no one has ever been fired for hiring the agency that put their competitor on the map.  Sometimes it’s easier to defend a colossal waste of resources than it is to defend the decision of taking a chance on an unproven creative entity.  This mentality is what keeps the Cannes crew in business and 45-year-old creative directors in expensive jeans.

At this higher level, the argument against crowdsourcing often comes down to the idea that experienced people are professionally cheating themselves by working on spec.  They’re devaluing creative work across the board by offering their expertise for free.  A good chef wouldn’t prepare three dishes and let you choose which one you wanted to pay for so why would you offer your work for nothing but a chance at getting paid?

This argument is new to the ad world but not to the business world.  Venture capitalists have a saying that “the idea is worthless.”  Most will say “we invest in teams, not in ideas.”  History backs this up as well.  There is virtually no marketplace for ideas but companies are routinely acquired for their teams and resources.  When Facebook bought Friendfeed, they had no use for the product but needed the team to help them develop the Facebook news feed, which is now the most popular part of the most successful private site in the history of the Internet.

The argument for participating in crowdsourcing ranges from “it’s worth a shot for the prize” to a claim that getting your work produced or applied is the only real reward for a creative that isn’t just working for a buck.  As a creative, are you intellectually cheating yourself by not taking advantage of the best opportunities to have your work go into production?  Is sitting at your desk pumping out banner ads that do nothing buy contribute to your savings account morally superior to your peers that participate in briefs that otherwise would never reach their desk?

Then there’s the question of quality.  Those opposed to crowdsourcing will tell you that “you pay for what you get” and you will suffer worse quality of work if you only rely on crowdsourcing.  This seems to be more of a hunch than a fact.  In my opinion, Victor and Spoils Dish Network campaign stands up against any broadcast work from a top ten agency this year, though I have no idea who is responsible for the concept.  On the other hand, Doritos has really put their creative in the hands of huge consumer creative group and their results are routinely mundane.  I won’t even bother to start rattling off examples of expensive ad campaigns that have done nothing but hurt their brands over the past 12 months.  You win some you lose some, I guess.  There certainly isn’t a formula for creative success.

So I had to find out for myself.  Is crowdsourcing really the end of the world as we know it or a democratized process that is a natural evolution for creative services?

On to the grand experiment…

To give this things a run, I committed to allowing the designers of 99 Designs to create a logo for me to put on consulting invoices and a placeholder Web site.  Hardly a prestigious honor but the logo would at least be applied in some way.  To top it off, there would be a prize of around $200 for the chosen designer, which is less than I’ve ever paid a designer for any project.  In fairness, I would treat every submission with just as much attention and feedback as I’d give a dedicated designer and I would answer any questions that came in.  I’d basically try to treat it like a normal project with a detailed brief and everything just to see what the bottom of the crowdsourcing pyramid could produce.

This proved to be quite a task when 77 designers submitted work, but I fought through it.  Even as many of the designers were obviously ripping each other off.

I then thought I would ask friends and colleagues, most of which touch creative services professionally in some way, to help me narrow it down to eight so I could use the voting tool on 99 Designs to pick a winner.

Boy was that a mistake.

Asking my personal network to participate in a crowdsourcing experiment was met with very long email threads, especially from people that wanted to inquire about this being an experiment that would result in me never hiring them again.  While there was one or two instances of positive feedback, the rest was almost universally against the very notion of exploring this concept.  A couple people even offered to best the competition for free, which pretty much defeated the purpose.  Also, out of about 18 thoughtful responses, most of which refused to vote for a design, only one submission got two votes and it was effectively cancelled out by a specific rant against that design by one of the non-voting malcontents.

So the experiment was cut short with the only real conclusion to be drawn being that the majority of my respected friends and colleagues despise the concept of crowdsourcing creative on almost every level.  Some to the point where they could barely articulate it apart from knowing in their hearts that it’s wrong.

My personal experience wasn’t quite as one-sided.  I found the people that submitted  designs to be just as easy to work with as designers who are being paid $125 or more an hour, although their work wasn’t nearly as consistently good as the people I use directly for client work.  Although I wasn’t really paying out of pocket, I still thought that the work was at least deserving of what was being paid.  The market for this level of service is probably as flawed as the system itself since a much higher quality of work could be achieved by going to a site like Behance and finding a good designer who charges a fair rate, which would probably only barely double the cost.  If you can’t pay $500 for a platform for your visual identity, I probably wouldn’t classify you as a business.

However, my larger conclusion about crowdsourcing as a concept was quite different.  I don’t, in fact, find anything fundamentally wrong with crowdsourcing except when the primary motivation is driving costs down, which does, most certainly, drive quality down as well.  You do still, in theory, get what you pay for up to perhaps the boutique agency level and then you start paying a premium to keep the larger machine running.  I realize that, in a sense, I do a lot of crowdsourcing as a consultant when I “bounce” projects off different people to both gauge their interest, initial impressions and their costs.  It may be to a much smaller and more filtered group due to my previous experience with them but it’s far from the blind faith that a brand puts in a large agency that is constantly churning industry talent.

The rise of crowdsourcing can be attributed to two primary factors: good people being out of work and a slow realization that traditional creative hubs aren’t delivering value consistently.  An economic comeback will be a huge blow to companies that are hanging their hat on crowdsourcing but an overall evolution of the management and thinking of top creative employers is possibly the only thing that will sink it.  Until then, it’s you against the crowd and you’re probably right if you think it’s an unfair fight.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Be a Size Queen with Your Professional Networks

I read something by one of my favorite bloggers yesterday that echoed a sentiment I hear a lot yet somehow really irked me this time.  Fred Wilson, one of the sharpest VC’s I’ve come across and someone who is endlessly generous about sharing his experience, wrote a well received post about how to get your email read.  You see, Fred, like a lot of people, can’t keep up with his email so he’s decided to carefully filter what he reads and responds to.  He references a conversation where he pointed out that he doesn’t read anything that doesn’t make it into his “Priority Inbox,” a feature of Gmail, and then gives tips on how to get included.  Since his business involves funding innovative start-up companies, this process surely results in some great ideas being lost in the shuffle.  It’s not a business of perfection and Fred seems to be doing just fine so this is obviously a reality that he’s comfortable with.

You see this a lot on social networks, which directly encourage you to scale your social graphs to a point where you can’t really manage the flow of content, but now that this has seeped into professional culture I have more of a problem with it.  Sure, most of the blowhard new media ninjas will tell you all about how growing their marginal personal brand as large as possible has paid huge dividends.  Adding everyone who’s ever been CCed in their inbox to their LinkedIn network has opened the door to connecting with an endless web of people connected to their industry.  It has expanded their universe well beyond what they ever could have achieved before these networks existed.

But is this really a sustainable way to maintain a professional reputation?  Is it even a responsible way to do business?

I don’t think it is and I’ve been trying to do something about it.

First of all, I still hold email to be one of the most direct forms of online communication.  While some people don’t put any more time into an email than they do an IM, I try to treat them like letters and respond to emails with at least the same attentiveness as they were sent to me.  Two years ago, when I was working for a global PR agency and discovered I was getting 170 emails a day across the 15 or so accounts I was touching and roughly 10 new business efforts that were going on at any moment, I made a conscious decision to change the way I manage projects to eliminate long strings of email.  By moving the majority of my open projects to Basecamp, I was able to cut down emails almost in half.  The best thing about this is that it eliminated the group emails, which were one of the biggest culprits, and allowed me to respond to issues in better context with all the related assets in one place (I always turn off email alerts in Basecamp and just leave it open in a browser tab to monitor).  Some people had trouble adapting to using project management software but I made it a requirement to work with me and I don’t recall any downside.

I also stopped publishing my email online.  This seems like a no brainer but if you can’t manage your email than you should remove the incentive for more people to use it.  There’s an assortment of less interruptive options, from Twitter to LinkedIn to commenting systems and even some contact forms.  I’m now much more careful about who gets my email.

Similarly, I only connect on LinkedIn with people I have decent established relationships with or if there are legitimate prospects to working directly with them in the future.  I don’t connect with vendors that I don’t use on a regular basis or casual acquaintances that I meet at an event.  While I realize that some people put a value on having more than 500 LinkedIn contacts, I’ve decided that it’s not worth creating another unmanageable channel, not to mention additional exposure to my email and other channels.

Twitter is an obvious one.  While I connect with some friends on Twitter, I definitely use it more for business (as my friends find out when I bore them to tears with my tweets about social media measurement).  I’ve cut the people I follow on Twitter by about 50% and now I’d say I see about 95% of what is posted.  If I respect you enough to follow you, I respect you enough to actually read what your content.

That said, I still use Priority Inbox and prioritize my communications.  It works pretty well.  I respond to timely “priority” emails, work my way through any additional emails and then eventually tackle emails that I have starred for later.  If an email sits in my inbox unread for more than a day, I feel that I’ve done someone a disservice.

So what if you get more than 170 emails a day?  It may be hard to swallow but you need to reduce the size of your professional network.  This requires actual management skills, which many people don’t have hard wired into their brains, but it is a problem that can be delegated and restructured into submission.  Going through this process shouldn’t cost you business, though it may cost you some of the false metrics you’ve used to boost your ego (I’m looking at you, guy following 20,000 people on Twitter to get followbacks).

This isn’t as much about technology than it is about business.  My dad owned a small insurance agency and when a tree hit your house he drove out, sat at your kitchen table and helped you fill out a claims form to get the roof fixed.  He rarely lost a client in more than 30 years in business.  If he had been solely focused on expanding his personal professional network beyond what he could manage, the results would’ve been much different.  Technology may confuse this lesson with the different ways it incentivizes you to take on more than you can handle but it doesn’t change the lessons of generations of businesspeople before you.

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My Experiment with Twitter’s Signal-to-Noise Ratio

It’s been a few months since I began my attempt to limit the people I follow on Twitter to 250, cutting the amount I then followed roughly in half.  The rationale was that 250 was kind of a magic number where you could actually keep the daily stream of content manageable and see pretty much everything that has been posted without investing too much time.

For many people this would be easy but I actually rely on Twitter to stay current on a lot of things that are important to my job as a consultant (and my media addiction).  I absolutely hate it when a client who’s not as engaged in my industry asks me if I’ve heard of something and I don’t even have conversational knowledge of it.  These are the bizarre nightmares that keep me up at night.  I’m not proud.

Cutting the people I follow down to 250 was a little harder than I thought.  Here are just a few of the challenges I faced somewhat unexpectedly:

  • I had a genuine fear of running into people who would be offended that I unfollowed them.  Of course this is silly but given the non-interruptive nature of Twitter, it was hard to justify that the value of removing someone was worth making a colleague or friend upset.
  • There are more good low volume users than I expected so deleting them from my stream would serve little signal-to-noise ratio benefit and potentially distance me from good content.
  • Some high volume users occasionally have great content, making the noise worth it.

That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t able to uncover some good tactics for reducing noise.  If anything, the struggle down to 250 made me a much better Twitter user and it had nothing to do with finding some magical app to parse all the content for me.

The one thing that helped me the most was learning that there really isn’t much of a reason to follow a brand or organization on Twitter.  When I looked at all branded feeds, from newspapers to consumer brands I was really passionate about, Twitter just didn’t make a lot of sense as a platform for them.  Most of these brands provided RSS feeds of one kind or another so it was generally preferable to sort them in my Google Reader, which allows both easier scanning and, in most cases, near immediate access to the content without opening new links, windows and all the other hoops you have to jump through that detract from good UX within social services.  Exceptions to this rule were customer service accounts from brands like Jet Blue and Comcast, though those were temporary follows anyway.

Once I had Twitter narrowed down to individuals it was time to look at what sort of usage behavior resulted in the most noise.  For my stream, the #1 misuse of Twitter was using the service as a public IM conversation.  In a quick scan, 18 out of 20 @ replies (not retweets) were personal conversations between two or more people with no context.  While I believe that Twitter is non-interruptive enough to accommodate some direct interpersonal public dialogue, it is indisputably a group conversation tool so if you’re not providing context for your content you’re creating noise.  People that were using Twitter consistently as public IM had to be weeded out.

Next I encountered what I would call “soft spam.”  This is content that is produced, largely by third party applications, that doesn’t offer a lot of value to a group.  The most common example of this is Foursquare location check-ins.  While many people find these annoying since they’re so rarely actionable, it’s probably worth remembering that this was actually supposed to be the original functionality of Twitter…it was supposed to just tell people where you were in case they were looking for you.  Of course, the platform has evolved and so have usage habits but I still find these kinds of tweets to non-interruptive enough and generally sporadic enough that they don’t really detract from my content stream.  For the most part, I tolerate these.

The biggest lesson I learned throughout this experiment was that Twitter has become just central enough to my media universe that I really can’t reduce the amount of people I follow to 250.

I equate this to cable television.

While I’d love to get rid of cable or reduce my bill, there are some things I love to watch and, once I commit to the platform, I naturally want to get the most out of it.  Deciding whether or not to follow someone is like deciding whether or not to add HBO.  There is a cost in adding people to follow, in the amount of content they will produce and taking the time to read/consider it, but if you don’t follow you’re at much greater risk of missing content that is important to you.  Unfortunately you have to weigh that on a case-by-case basis and there are few bundled options.

What Twitter will need to figure out is how it will exist with more users talking than are listening.  Power users, who generally follow more than 1000 users, are missing the majority of the content being posted in their streams.  Often they’re producing a large amount of content at the same time so any real utility is being lost in the crossfire.  Sure, Twitter can be a broadcast channel for a popular voice but if everyone is broadcasting and no one is listening then you’re just sending content into a void.

I now follow 295 people but I’m adding carefully.  If I post something from a third party app or bit.ly bookmarlet, I make a point to go and catch up where I left off.  There’s still plenty of noise in my stream but every source has been reviewed.  The only way to completely eliminate noise is to live in a vacuum so you’re probably better off just trying to find ways to reduce it.

Facebook Death Pool

What’s more fun than speculating about the demise of major media properties?  Ok, maybe a lot of things are but that not going to derail me when I got the blog bug and several tabs worth of data blinking at me.

This may not be brag worthy but, as is evidenced by a post-it note on the corkboard of an old employers wall, I was able to predict the decline of MySpace within three months.  I still generally lose in Vegas and am always surprised when that Tahoe suddenly pulls into my lane but, as far as social media properties go, I have a pretty good record.

So how do you define an actual decline?  For me, it’s when there are more month-to-month decreases in unique visitors than there are increases over a 12-month span.  Since there are a lot of things that can artificially boost traffic, like a major ad campaign or some sort of PR event, I like to focus on trending data over a longer period of time to judge performance.  Sure, there are some sites that have bounced back from 12-month trending declines but not in the social space (please correct me here if I’m wrong).

Looking at Facebook over the past 12 months, I think you could say, as Gartner would put it, that they are at the “peak of inflated expectations,” which is the last stage before the “trough of disillusionment” in the Hype Cycle.  With the Facebook movie, “The Social Network,” seeing great success and scores of brands shoveling resources at the platform, awareness is through the roof.  If you’re not on Facebook, you’re certainly aware of it.

While awareness and mainstream sentiment around the brand are somewhat intangibles, traffic and usage statistics are not.  If you look at the Compete data on Facebook over the past 12 months, you see an increase in unique visitors of only about 13%.  While in numbers that equates to more than 15 million, it’s not the “hockey stick” growth that Facebook has experienced in previous years, like in 2009 when they claimed their user base climbed 145%.

While the year-over-year traffic is interesting, I’m more concerned with month-to-month data.  Even as overall traffic was inching upwards, there were four months in the last year that Facebook actually saw declines.  The actual drop in the declining month were never severe and the following month of each period of decline was always met with an increase over the month preceding, which means that overall growth was never eroded.

However, if you look at the bounce-back months, the margins were growing more and more narrow.  In December’s Compete data, after a decline in November, the traffic bounced back to only a third of one percent increase over October’s total unique traffic, which can only been seen as flat growth.  Don’t trust Compete?  Multiple sources reported the same.

Traditionally the fall has always been the highest growth period for Facebook, presumably because students are coming back and making new friends (although growth in the 18-24 year-old demo is currently the weakest and getting weaker), so flat growth over the holidays alone isn’t a clear signal that Facebook is in decline.  However, it does suggest some legitimate growing pains.

Ok, prediction time.

I expect that Facebook will see some more growth over the first half of 2011, although the months in decline will be more significant with slightly less pronounced bounce-backs.  The third quarter, where Facebook traditionally sees their best growth, will, in my opinion, begin to flatten for the first time in the company’s history.  Then in the fourth quarter of 2011, we will see our first signs of legitimate decline in the platform.

So, mark your calendars, I’m calling for the decline of Facebook to begin in Q4 2011.  There’s my stake in the ground.

Does that mean that Facebook is over?  Aw, hell no.

If you look at the decline of major social networks, there’s no reason to think that Facebook will disappear.  Friendster may have fallen fairly quickly, due primarily to massive performance problems and the existence of a viable competitor (MySpace), but that cycle hasn’t necessarily repeated itself.  The decline of MySpace has taken much longer and the platform still remains relevant.  While in danger of slipping further, MySpace is currently a top 20 online media property in the US and enjoys roughly twice the traffic of sites like CNN.com.  They can’t sustain 40% annual drops in traffic for much longer but they’re probably not falling off the face of the earth anytime soon.

Comparatively, Facebook has almost twice as many monthly unique visitors as MySpace did at it’s peak and the usage statistics, while not 100% reliable, also seem to be much higher.  Also, by opening their platform through Open Graph/Facebook Connect, they have made moves to stave off some of the motivating factors that could prompt their primary stakeholders to jump ship.  Even if they decline in Q4, as I predict, they should remain the dominant social network for at least a few years, depending on the emergence of a viable competitor (or network of competitors).

That’s my take.  Put it in your status update and poke it.

How to Measure Super Bowl Success

The Super Bowl, despite being a decent game this year, is a pretty fascinating marketing event.  Our culture, which will generally go to great lengths to avoid commercials, will, on this one day of the year, pay as much attention to the advertising as they do to the entertainment programming that it’s interrupting.

Television advertising has generally been sustained by its flawed metrics.  Viewership counts are wildly inflated by companies like Neilsen and exhaustive data about how people generally ignore commercials and are rarely able to retain even the simplest message is universally discarded.

This football game may be the only time all year that reach numbers are actually accurate since viewers are actually paying attention and are more likely to go to the bathroom on 3rd and 2.  Under that assumption, it’s hard to put any ad ahead of any other on the basis of reach.  So how do you measure success?

The USA Today, which represents a fairly decent cross section of the country, launched their Super Bowl Ad Meter to try to address the problem.  The methodology was similar to many focus groups where about 300 volunteer viewers were given a dial to express when they saw something they liked, disliked or were neutral about.  The results were somewhat discouraging to many advertising people, as the group generally responded more favorably to the low concept work from brands like Bud Light, Doritos and Pepsi Max, the last of which employed the old can-in-the-balls punchline.  Whether or not these 300 people were in line with the demographic that will run out and buy a new Chrysler or Web domain is debatable but it’s just about as good as you can do in measuring at least the entertainment value of the spots.

Since we’re pretty much at the peak of inflated expectations in the evolution of social media, it was no surprise that Radian6 and Mullen got together to come up with a social media measurement of success, the Brand Bowl.  It was an interesting idea except for the fact that it is based largely on an automated sentiment analysis technology that has some major shortcomings.  The methodology takes a large number of keywords related to the spots and computes positive tweets plus neutral tweets minus negative tweets to score each ad.  This works great if every tweet was like “I loved the VW ad…Darth Vader rocks!” or “God I hate Bud Light…Coors 4ever!” but that’s not how social media works.  Tweets like “What’s up with Chrysler? Do I need to love Detroit to buy one of their gas guzzlers now?” would be recorded as neutral, which is scored the same as positive, when it’s not.  There’s no super computer that has been able to detect sarcasm and Twitter is rife with it.  Back when I had interns, I tested the sentiment engines of multiple monitoring services against the common sense of college graduates and found that sentiment engines were always off my a minimum of 20%, which isn’t statistically acceptable.

So, which do you trust, the minute-by-minute feelings of a random group of 300 people or a large volume of Tweets sent through a potentially flawed sentiment engine?  Neither is perfect but which is more flawed?

Let’s look at the somewhat controversial Groupon spots by CP+B.

The USA Today focus group didn’t really like this campaign.  In fact, in came in at #41, well into the lower half of all the spots surveyed.

In Radian6/Mullen’s Brand Bowl, the spot is currently resting at #3, up from #7 when I looked last night.  There have been over 4,000 tweets as of writing this, yet it is the only spot in the top 10 with a negative sentiment score.  People are talking about this spot…but what are they saying?

You don’t need a algorithm to see that people were left with a bad taste in their mouth from these spots.  Everyone from Read Write Web to Paid Content to the commenters on Groupon’s blog are chiming in and the vast majority have concluded that it is an insensitive, ham-fisted approach to commercial comedy (sadly, I just found out the Christopher Guest was involved with directing the spots).  Groupon, which didn’t suffer from much of an awareness problem before the ads, is now a central brand in the discussion of how brands exploit a crisis without sensitivity.  I’m sure Kenneth Cole is very happy they’ve joined the club.

So, this brings us back to the classic word-of-mouth marketing argument: is it a success if people are talking about it?  CP+B’s mission statement is to create advertising that people talk about but the don’t really specify whether or not they need to be positive about it.  This is somewhat of a no brainer for an agency because controversy gives your work more exposure, as opposed to most immediately forgettable advertising.  It helps agencies but does it actually help the brands?

I’m hoping, possibly in vain, that this represents a bit of a tipping point in the overly simplistic idea that marketing can be successful if you can only make people talk about it.  10-15 years ago I could see why this myth persisted.  You had anecdotal evidence that people were talking and there was enough neutral editorial coverage to make a case that overall sentiment wasn’t trending negative.

We don’t live in those times anymore.

The reaction to the Groupon spots must have been foreseen since the Kenneth Cole flub was such a close parallel.  The only difference is that the Kenneth Cole tweet may have been a momentary lack of judgment as opposed to being carefully orchestrated in a multi-million dollar campaign.  The intelligent people at Groupon and their agency knew this would offend people and still made conscious decisions, like leaving out the charity angle in the television creative, to allow the reaction to play out.  They didn’t care if people had a negative reaction, as long as they were talking about it.

Creatively, this is lazy and it undermines a brand that was on the verge of becoming a household name.  Groupon is often dismissed as a coupon site but there is a much bigger story there.  People are connecting with small businesses in new ways and are being incentivized to get out and explore local experiences of all kinds.  I’ve heard dozens of these stories in the past year, from people trying out kayaking because of a deal or some amazing massage that helped someone discover a new independently owned spa in their neighborhood.  There is so much that is central to the stakeholder value in Groupon that is undermined by a cheap publicity ploy.  Sure, you’ll hear all about how many more people visited Groupon.com this week than previously but squandering an opportunity to create long term brand value on one of the highest impact marketing platforms of the year is really a shame at this stage of their development.

Chrysler’s ad had a similar fate to Groupon in the Ad Meter and Brand Bowl.  In fact, it ranked just below Groupon in the Ad Meter and just above them in the Brand Bowl.  They key difference was that Chrysler had a +14 sentiment score versus Groupon’s -4.  While the sentiment scoring can be dismissed to a degree, the message you see being pulled through in social media can’t.  Wieden + Kennedy’s spot challenged what people thought about Detroit and American car manufacturers and actually made a persuasive argument for buying a Chrysler.  It was suddenly a brand that stood for something and the discussion you’ll find around it pertains to that very important aspect of the creative.

There are a lot of ways to measure success in advertising and changes in media habits and the amount of data we can collect may be resulting in a constantly changing set of standards for this success.  Focus groups will always be compelling due to the level of feedback you can get but scaling them to represent a larger demographic and peer influence is always going to be an obstacle.  Likewise, monitoring sentiment is social media will always be a challenge and may never be fully automated but it’s a step in the right direction.  With measurement standards for creative completely absent, you’re left with instinct and your best judgment but also a giant media toolbox.  The challenge isn’t in finding the shortcuts, it’s in having the foresight to avoid them.

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