Thursday, November 19, 2009

Who Should “Own” Social Media?

Social media is still in its fledgling stage, and for many, is still lacking an easily understandable description to properly convey the potential it has for changing the way we do business. As we know, current economic times are increasingly accompanied by the need for ROI measurement. However, ROI measurements are often subjective and partitioned by discipline. In this climate, a divide has begun, whereby social media efforts and programs are being put into disciplinary silos filled with fancy tactics. Ironically, the line between disciplines has never been so blurry.

One thing all social media efforts have in common, regardless of the particular discipline by which they are categorized, is the importance of developing a strategy with the consumer in mind. In order for social media efforts to optimally affect a particular business, it is imperative to gather and analyze consumer insights, both in and out of the social media space. Below, I cite some interesting examples of people and companies doing just this. These organizations are using consumer insights, applied at the macro and micro levels, to drive the thinking that propels the social media efforts and dynamic business strategies for some major players.

At the macro level, John Gerzema has provided us with an excellent illustration of using a broad audience (actually, the entire United States) to draw conclusions about the mindset of today's consumer. In his TED talk, entitled the “post-crisis consumer,” he discusses four cultural shifts that drive new consumer behavior. Each could easily be argued as important to consider when an organization moves forward with a product, growth, marketing or other business strategy. Among his many interesting observations is the concept of Declasse Consumption. In this phenomenon, consumers are thought of as shifting away from showcasing their status through materialism, toward a more 'intelligent' spending on products and services of 'genuine' value. The implication for this kind of shift is that values driven spending has the potential to force capitalism to be better, drive innovation, make longer lasting products, create better, more intuitive customer service and provide consumers with the opportunity to connect with companies that share the same values.

In line with the shift toward a more authentic, values driven economy, lies the concept of the Experience Economy, coined by Joseph Pine. The Experience Economy refers to an environment in which consumers buy experiences, rather than goods or commodities. At a micro level, inbound marketing and software solutions providers such as Chordiant are creating real-time predictive decision models that ensure companies are “on brand” during the customer experience. The basis for this “Experience Economy” is founded upon the business imperative of rendering authenticity, as opposed to a “Service Economy,” where the imperative is to improve quality or a “Goods Economy,” where it is to sell goods. Thus, the consumer's perception of the relationship with a company is the critical element in determining brand loyalty and profitability.

These are just two examples of how consumer insights can be used to highlight the potential breadth for social media applications. One could say that consumer insights professionals have the opportunity to drive social media efforts in a way that extends beyond any particular discipline. This is not to undermine a more narrow or focused approach; there is undoubtedly value inherent in choosing a niche program or vehicle, especially when a specific result is desired. However, companies can benefit from avoiding the mistakes of the past whereby each discipline is working in a silo, as has long been the case in various forms of marketing (PR, advertising, DM, etc.). After all, we have just begun to scratch the surface of what social media can do for businesses.

The good news is that sharing knowledge and results across multiple vehicles, platforms and disciplinary areas will only serve to foster the growth of these uncharted territories. In keeping with this spirit, do you know of any interesting business models impacted via the use of consumer insights in order to create a unique social media application?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Foundations of Social Media: Something New? Or Tried and True?

Many businesses are venturing out into the world of social media, trying to grasp how they might leverage this “new” vehicle to drive sales, develop their brands and interact with their customer base. In today's post, I thought I'd illustrate how social media is actually founded on more simple, classic principles of doing business. Incidentally, this is a major contributor toward the success of social media in becoming a powerful vehicle for marketing communications.

First, let's examine the human factor inherent in this modern paradigm. Social media facilitates the often missing aspects of modern day human relationships, which are especially relevant for companies working within today's competitive climate. These often overlooked, yet very important, elements of human interaction have descended down the priority list. In doing so, something special has been lost regarding the relationship between the consumer and a company or service. The primary elements of human interaction, such as “liking” and “trusting” the people one is engaged in conversation with, have gotten lost in the hustle and bustle. This is affecting consumer loyalty, among other things (that is, until the recent emergence of social media). This, and the concept of reciprocity, were lost until more recently, when they have once again found their place using this vehicle.

Just a few years back, before social media was becoming mainstream, companies like UPS, Saturn, Diet Coke (think women lusting after the handsome delivery guy) were among many recognizing the need to reintroduce the human element back into the communications mix. By featuring employees in their advertising, they were personifying the brand. The aforementioned are examples of great campaigns, but to truly have a personal relationship, two way communication (at least) is required. Many of the typical call center customer assistance centers try but fail to supplement this interaction, which is often over-scripted, outsourced, or all too often unresolved.

Social media makes two way (and even three way, etc.) communication easier and more authentic than was possible with former efforts. Companies now have a way to engage consumers, learn as consumers engage each other, and participate when necessary as a genuine expert in the conversation. This is increasingly important as the consumer, who has traditionally been thought of as the “receiver” of communications, has become the “sender” of a modified message to other consumers. (Click this link for a great article on receivers becoming senders, by Gary Stein.)

Let's go back to the classical, older models of doing business for a moment. There once existed a widely accepted (even expected) way of doing business – I think of it more like a “Let's go see Bernie, the local hardware store guy,” manner of doing business. In this example, consumers could visit a local store with a given question. Anyone could do this with the knowledge that Bernie would be working consistently until 7pm from Mon-Sat, and was always happy to help. As a result, Bernie often would have customers bringing in random faucet parts, etc. He would have a quick “looksie,” answer as many questions as he could, provide his recommendations and maybe even jerry-rig the part. Bernie was happy to do something for his customers, who were obviously in need of his help, and wanted nothing in return. But this interaction did give him something in return (reciprocity). The trust, friendship (or acquaintanceship), not to mention additional recommendations and referrals to other customers were enough to satisfy Bernie. The company Bernie worked for appreciated it too, knowing the benefits of having someone around who could establish rapport and trust with its consumer base.

With social media, the importance of this interaction has resurfaced. SM provides a vehicle in which the local, more personalized business transaction can be reintroduced into the mix. Previous mandates of telephone scripts and corporate liability statements have rendered these transactions dormant in more recent years. The introduction of social media gives corporations a wonderful opportunity to find someone who believes in them to represent their company. This is good for internal morale and for bringing the human element into the mix again. It engages consumers in more authentic, less scripted conversation. Mind you, this doesn't mean a business should overlook the development of a social media strategy. Quite the opposite, actually. It simply means that in today's world, social media gives companies the chance to value those who work for them and have passion about their company, products, and what they do. Who better than these people to interact with your consumer, or former “receiver” turned “sender” of your company's message?

In the end, simple and classical business interactions are what lie at the foundations of social media, and ultimately will ensure its ongoing success. So when a client asks you about the “new” thing – social media – you might prompt them to consider whether it really is something scary and new, or something tried and true!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lean, Clean and Green: An Excuse (I study) for Maid Service

I’m writing this post in part because it might give some of you a reason to hire a maid service (you’re welcome!) but mostly because it tells a story involving a successful case study and phenomenon that brand and digital planners run into on a frequent basis.

Sometimes, clients come to marketing firms asking for straightforward service offerings, such as developing a profile for their target audience. These projects can be approached in a number of creative ways beyond simple demographics (think psychographics, social objects and more). However, the methodology can be seemingly ill-matched when the client is asked about the outcome they hope to achieve. I believe that it is our responsibility as communications strategists to partner with (rather than provide a service to) our clients. And sometimes, this means asking critical questions about expected outcomes or offering alternative suggestions, insights or strategies we believe can move our client forward in the right direction. In this post, I share a story (or case study) of a residential housekeeping services provider who came asking for an audience profile, but in the end, was awarded with a strategy that earned media placements reaching over 100,000 consumers in online and offline environments.

Like many other services, hiring a maid service may be difficult to justify, and by some are seen as a luxury. While the consumers who use them may share some basic “target audience” profile characteristics, they are actually anything but the same. Some are pet owners, others are single, some want it to be clean and others prefer it be organized. Our first task as the market research team was to dig up some consumer insights to help the client understand more about “who” consumers were (aka “Can you give us a target audience profile?”) So, we worked toward this goal while also gleaning the primary drivers for attrition and retention, and identifying gaps in the product service offering. We learned in what ways elements like predictability and consistency could foster or inhibit consumer preference in the category. But, the key factors consumers stated for having a housekeeping service were…well… rather mundane (i.e. time savings, sense of well being, etc.) Additional influencers such as health issues were thought to be interesting, but since they were mentioned by only a small proportion of consumers, they did not officially “warrant” inclusion in the overarching audience profile.

In this case, the insight that led to the start of a very successful PR and online communications campaign was this: Consumers often had a difficult time seeing the value in this type of luxury service. New consumers couldn’t justify it, and current customers often felt guilty about it, or had a hard time articulating something the beyond rational benefits, aesthetic benefits, or their own personal experience. Rather than focusing solely on the target audience profile to develop the strategy, we realized that in order to appeal to prospects while retaining current consumers, we needed to help consumers see the value of having such a service. Not only did we need them to recognize the value, but we needed to do it in a way that would hit home among both audiences. This might have been easier with a life insurance company. Fortunately, our client had an armory of interesting information about the types of carcinogens, pollutants, and bacteria that could be found within the home. As it turned out, these irritants were often contained within the very solutions consumers were using to clean their homes. Many of the chemicals were introducing allergens and other pollutants into the home, in essence amplifying the problems that motivated consumers to “keep a clean house” in the first place. Our client was among the few to offer a series of "green" cleaning products.

Realizing this insight, which was not necessarily a consumer insight or audience profile trait, was the key to helping consumers see the value in hiring and retaining this housekeeping service provider. Additionally, there were certain life stage events (such as having a baby, pet or moving) that were natural lead-ins for the messaging. It was this initial insight that led to the launch of a consumer-centric web site, which focused educating consumers about how to maintain a less polluted, “greener” environment inside their homes. A nationwide PR campaign was launched in tandem with the site and together these efforts generated 170.3 million media impressions and an increase in their consumer base, in spite of an uncertain economy.

The moral of the story is that clients (as well as consumers) sometimes need guidance in order to see the value of an approach. If you are a brand planner or strategist tasked with developing an audience profile, you may consider asking yourself if you are providing your client with the best possible foundation for a successful communications strategy, or if there are additional ways you can approach the project. Chances are that in doing so, you will uncover something even bigger that can serve to foster a mutually beneficial, long term partnership between you and your client.

About the author: Renee provides consumer insights, strategic communications, brand/digital planning and market research to international marketing organizations, online/interactive firms, PR agencies and direct clients. Having nearly a decade of qualitative research experience in traditional, ethnographic, psychosocial, non-traditional qualitative research realms, Renee has moderated hundreds of focus groups and in-depth interviews. She has led these and other studies including ethnographies for high profile clients such as Merck, Pfizer, Best Buy, Mannington, Toyota and TheraGenics. Today, she continues to provide insights to clients within a variety of industries including: Consumer Products and Services, Healthcare, OTC Pharmaceuticals, Education, Non-profit, Financial Services, Food/Beverage and PR/New Media campaigns. For more information, please find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or contact her via email.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Is ROI cramping our creative style?

Recently, I came across an interesting blog posting by Danny Turnbull from GyroHSR, Europe. The report provided an overview of the initial findings of their annual Marketing Insight Report, in which the audience researched included senior level decision makers in marketing and marcomm firms.

One of the stand out findings in the report, according to Danny, was the “rapid acceleration of marketing money into cost effective, accountable, quick to execute and measurable online activity - at the expense of traditional (and, by implication, wasteful) techniques.” I too find the concepts of measurability along with the rapid acceleration of marketing money into measurable “successes” to be of interest.

In my experience, marketers often create measurements based on data procurement and availability, combined with the plausibility of creating appropriate scales of measurement for the given area of exploration. Then they drill down further into what it is they a) really want to know and b) what they think will show results. There are a variety of quantitative and qualitative tools with which one can do this. It can become a bit complicated as we attempt to create a marriage between the two. From a statistical standpoint, it can be difficult to glean correlation, let alone causation, even when we are armed with a rather nice chest of tools.

As a strategic communications consultant, I personally think online marketers should set aside a portion of their creative research efforts to explore things less tangible. These efforts are arguably more difficult to measure and include areas like branding, as well as examining the users' psychological and motivational foundations. However, it is from these areas of exploration where our creativity and best insights often come from. The insights that arise can then serve to guide the development of future online as well as offline marcomm efforts.

For me, another big question is this: How do we convince ourselves that exploration and creativity are a justified means for driving research, while we are working within such a stringent model of measurability and ROI? Do these circumstances serve to improve our “performance” or simply inhibit the roots of creativity that may yield longer term dividends? I find these to be difficult yet valuable questions, and in my previous research have encountered psychologists who have deemed the topic worthy as well. In one study by Baer and Oldham, on Creativity on Social and Work Contexts (2006), the results consider interesting relationships between factors like supportiveness within the individuals’ work environment and their “openness” to experience. These two factors in turn moderated creativity, especially when the individual was under time constraints (show ROI quickly, please!)

The extent to which we make creative sacrifices under these conditions remains unknown, but it continues to become more relevant under uncertain economic times. One thing is certain - the topic is well worth our consideration as we move forward with creating strategies for developing, implementing and measuring digital and online efforts.

Are you a digital marketer working under increased ROI and time constraints? If so, what do you think? You may want to consider contributing your opinions by participating in the GyroHSR study. Finally, thanks again Danny Turnbull of GyroHSR, for the thought provoking blog article.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Best friends who have never met?

Do you think it's possible for people who have never met to become best friends? I do. Recently, I analyzed over 16,000 web entries for an online contest, which asked respondents to define what constitutes a real friendship. The analysis was qualitative, but I used an extended model of friendship known among psychologists as the Adams-Blieszner typology. For those of you who are interested in what constitutes an authentic relationship or friendship, I've written a quick overview of the model at the end of the post.

One of the fascinating findings from this project was the group of respondents who wrote entries about a best friend they had never met. I think this is particularly interesting since we live in a world where social media has become the talk of the town and marketers are using the term "web 2.0" in a myriad of ways. The key learning for me was that the relationships created between people who had never met in person - think chats, cancer support groups, responding to ads on Craig's list, social networking sites, or working at the same company and communicating only via the intranet - were almost identical in terms of their most important characteristics when compared with "in person" relationships. People who met online (but never in person) still formed deep personal relationships with others. Like offline friends, a frequently mentioned characteristic was Homogeneity (or Sameness - see below for more explanation), which facilitated a natural connection due to shared experience in life. Other online friends talked about receiving Assistance from a friend, although it might have been in the form of Emotional instead of Physical support (for instance taking the kids off one's hands for a weekend.) Frequency of contact (i.e. we talk every day) often had a positive correlation with online relationships as well, since communication through technology was deemed easy, which may have enabled a higher frequency of contact between friends.

So what does all this mean? I would hypothesize the following: While there are most certainly new rules that apply in the domain of online communications, existing psychological models still lie at the foundation. After all, the internet was created by humans. In fact, understanding the psychosocial significance of our behaviors still lies at the core of who we are, whether we are online or not. Anonymity can skew this, but only in some cases. Most of the time, we are a fairly open book when functioning in the online space, and therefore, we seek authenticity in the relationships we form online. Even if our "online identity" is being positioned one way or another (i.e. "life coach," "citizen journalist," "student," or "social media expert"), our behavior (online or offline) still relies upon an understanding of the manner in which people behave while among others (although individuals, small groups, and larger collectives have different dynamics).

A key takeaway for people working in marketing and business is to consider using these types of behavioral models to glean as much information as possible about the user, even when working within social media or online communications, so as not to reinvent the wheel. Which principles of human behavior and relationships do you think hold true in the online and social media arenas? Which do not?


There are 5 overarching categories used in this model to define the "characteristics" of friendship, and underneath those lie subcategories.

CATEGORY 1: The first overarching category is termed "Behavioral Aspects" of friendship, and it includes four subcategories: Self Disclosure (i.e. we can talk about anything), Sociability (the fun factor, as in, "I really like this person"), Assistance (which can take the form of either a physical, emotional or spiritual help), and Shared Activities (i.e. we're gym buddies, we like to go shopping together).

CATEGORY 2: The second is termed "Cognitive Processes" and this includes: Loyalty/committment (which can come in many forms), Trust, Shared Interests and Values (i.e. we both believe in the same God), Acceptance (lack of judgment even when a friend is making choices you don't agree with), Empathy (i.e. when she is sad, I feel it too), and Appreciation/Respect (which can include admiration and respected traits).

CATEGORY 3: Termed "Affective" aspects, there are two subcategories: Compatibility and Care (where care if often shown by using the word "love" when describing the friend).

CATEGORY 4: The second to last category is termed "Structural" characteristics. This includes two interesting categories, especially for marketers: Solidarity (or closeness) and Homogeneity (or sameness, as in we both are widows, we both have kids at the same school, we both have a 4 year old, a teenager, we were both moving to the same city, etc.)

CATEGORY 5: The final category (Proxy Measures) deals mostly with Frequency of contact (we call each other every day), length of acquaintance (greatly influenced by age and experience of the person responding) and duration of contacts (or quality time spent).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I don't speak Italian

For this post, I've decided to post a real story about how social media can create relationships.

It all starts with an article I contributed to for an Italian cycling magazine (see above). Here's the catch: I don't speak Italian! But then how, you might ask, did I publish an article in an Italian magazine? The answer lies in an authentic story about social media and how it can create interesting relationships, as it did in the experience I describe below.

I joined Twitter late in 2008, so I was a bit late to be considered a real early adopter, yet I was still considered ahead of "the mainstream." I tried to understand the best and worst ways to use this tool as fast as possible in order to get up to speed with the actual early adopters. After reading many blogs and opinions on the matter, I decided to use Twitter initially to find information about topics I personally found interesting. One day in particular, while searching for sports journalists, I came across an reporter from Italy named Enzo.

I clicked the "follow" button in order to begin following Enzo's tweets. He then direct messaged me to ask how I found him, since he had a relatively small number of followers. I told him about using the search engine feature, and in a sense, acted as an mentor and advocate for Twitter and its functionality all at the same time. He inquired about the picture I had featured in my background picture on Twitter, which was a picture of a beautiful lookout called Le Belvedere on the French Polynesian island of Moorea. As our conversation via direct messages progressed, I learned that he was soon to write a series of articles for a magazine about Tahitian tourism and cycling.

What happened next is the amazing part. The human part of social media. By no means was I a professional cyclist, however I disclosed to Enzo that my fiancée and I had chosen the bicycle as our primary means of transportation, since renting a car cost upwards of $100 per day. We would be traveling for five weeks in total, so renting a car wasn't really an option.

Enzo asked if I'd be willing to write about my experience so he could include it in one of his articles featuring the testimonial of a real live tourist. I had been feeling exceptionally adventurous one day, and we had decided to bike 60km around the entire island. The trip proved itself to be among some of the most memorable experiences of our entire stay, and I was delighted to write about it.

The image I've posted here on my blog is the article Enzo wrote; the product of our collaborative effort resulting from the connection we formed via Twitter. Presently, I'm living in Central America, and Enzo in Italy. It is social media that brought us together. I now have a new friend in Italy and something unique for my scrapbook of photos!

In the end, we don't always need a social media expert to find ways to connect. Sometimes the connection is much simpler than we realize, and the dividends are far greater than we could anticipate. In this instance, I spent an entire day writing and editing and uploading pictures for this article, all free of charge for a stranger. So, in my opinion, there are some critical questions we as marketers should ask ourselves:

How do connections form using these new vehicles? We have studied and understood the nature of these conversations and relationships for years. But the ability to receive information so quickly, coupled with our need for instant gratification has changed the dynamic a bit. In what ways has it changed the depth of the conversation, if at all? And if it has, what details can we now afford to leave out (or not)?

Another important question is in what way can people achieve an authentic connection in social media environments? Does there have to be reciprocation? Yes. But, how do we define reciprocal acts when it comes to a relationship founded upon a social media platform? Some might say I got the short end of the stick (with my new friend who published the article getting the long one). However, I'd disagree as they would fail to understand that as a user, I received gratification from "mentoring" my new friend about the search engine feature on Twitter. And then of course there was the terrific addition to my scrapbook. Understanding exactly what is being reciprocated and why it matters is key.

There are undoubtedly many more questions to ask. What do you think?

The author thanks her new Twitter friend Enzo Vicennati for providing her with the opportunity to contribute to the magazine article. You can follow Enzo on Twitter @enzovicennati. Follow me, @reneecassard, here on Twitter.

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