Thursday, 26 February 2009

Is social media killing our social skills?

Anyone following my twitter updates would have seen a post about a BBC online article in which a leading medical professional warns of the inherent dangers of social networking.

Dr Aric Sigman says websites such as Facebook set out to enrich social lives, but end up keeping people apart. These warnings have been made in Biologist, the journal of the Institute of Biology. The general warning seemed common sense to me, the fact that some people could suffer by being withdrawn from face-to-face human contact, but what caught my eye was the following excerpt:

"a lack of face-to-face networking could alter the way genes work, upset immune responses, hormone levels, the function of arteries, and influence mental performance. This, he claims, could increase the risk of health problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease, and dementia."

Now, that just seems a little bit scaremongery (if that is even a word) to me. With everything, there comes a risk. There is the belief that amongst the social networks lies the menace of people luring and enticing for nefarious intent - just take the example of the German cannibal who invited his victim over the Internet. Every communication tool has the potential to be used for illicit purposes. However, Dr Sigman's hypothesis seems a little far fetched. 

Can the usage of social networking lead to fundamental changes in the human physiology and biology? I can accept that it could prevent some people from going out as much, leading to laziness, lack of exercise, sunlight etc which could have an impact on health. But does it really have the debilitating effect he claims and could it contribute to an increased prevalence of major diseases?

I'm not convinced but I'm no doctor. I personally think social networking can help improve and enhance human interaction. What it doesn't do is remove the need for parents to look after their children and make sure they have a balanced life or for adults to no withdraw into their shells.

I really hope that Dr Sigman's warnings are an over zealous reaction to the pitfalls of interacting virtually because for me social media should be something we embrace to improve how we communciate and share information, not something that replaces interaction.

Friday, 20 February 2009

"No way, it's just not for my customers!"

I was at the Retail Week eCommerce Summit in London this week and talking to several leading retailers. Our Sales & Marketing Director, Steven Hampson, presented the e-inbusiness take on creating a buzz for brands online using engagement techniques including social media. I wanted to know what the audience thought so, direct as usual, asked them. One senior person fired back "It's a load of rubbish, what relevance is any of this to my customers? They dont use Facebook and Twitter is for celebrities, not selling". I considered this an invitation to wax lyrical.....

Now, i'm not defensive about social medial. If you don't like it, fair enough. However, if you don't get it, i'm not going to accept the negativity without explaining my viewpoint. So that is what I did with my usual enthusiasm. This week's blog is the condensed version of the stream of consciousness that burst forth....

Firstly, there is no right answer to the question "Will social media work for me?". I don't know. Nobody knows. But you can build a business case. Many brands are using social media effectively to engage customers and drive traffic/revenue. It helps them influence perception. But it is not a brand & reputation management tool per se. Success (how do you define success?) depends on many factors but the most important are a) is it relevant to your customers? (b) will it add value to your customers? (c) are you committed to making this work? (d) are you open to allowing your community to grow at its own pace, with a little encouragement?

There are many good examples of large (mainly retail) brands embracing Twitter. Zappos is the one I always use and I took the liberty of asking their CEO (via Twitter of course) how/if they measure the impact on their eCommerce site; the answer was a pleasing "we don't really measure it, it's just another relationship building tool". Now, thanks to that interaction I have blogged about it and told a lot of people in my personal networks. That might not monetise the time Tony spent replying but it has given him a lot of free PR.

So my view? Don't judge a book by its cover and don't infer your personal viewpoint on your customers. People use Twitter. Some people pointlessly follow everyone through fad addiction, these are the people who will switch off as soon as the "next best thing" arrives. However, there is also a myriad army of genuinely interested people who want to connect and share information. If you can tap into these people, you can build yourself an effective follower base who will talk about you and tell others. That just might drive people to your website.

But if all you want is measureable sales & profit, turn to your standard eMarketing channels. Just don't expect people to get excited about your brand.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Why Twitter is the blind disco of social

Well, i survived a night out on Friday 13th with no hockey-masked psycho in sight. Job done. To celebrate still being alive, I thought i'd blog today having read some inspirational stuff from Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO and embracer of all things Twitter.

So, what has Tony's insight taught me? That social media is relevant, you just have to work out how and why before you embrace it.

I'll use a blind disco analogy (ooh we do love a good analogy at e-inbusiness!). There are thousands of people in a room, all with the same goal - have a great night, (hopefully) meet someone they like. They are all listening to music via headphones but get to choose what to listen to. The room itself is silent. From time to time people look up from the maelstrom, take the phones off and talk to each other. Sometimes that spreads and conversations start. The room suddenly has a buzz, the reverberation of conversation amplified by many voices. The individuals then gradually return to their own music and indulge in their own little world. The room falls silent again.

Social media is like the blind disco. On an infinitely larger scale. There are millions of individuals absorbing communication every minute of every day, from friends, celebrities and companies. Frequently they take time out and share information with other people, personal associations or simply people in a network they use. The ripple effect starts and one conversation strand suddenly embraces hundreds, thousands of people. Then the moment passes, the hubbub calms and they go back to doing what they want on their own until the next buzz descends. A bit like watching an episode of Bagpuss...

This happens. I know it, I am regularly involved. I love the buzz of getting something relevant sent to me. The challenge for brands is to work out who wants to hear from them and then put a program in place to give them the information where and when they want it. Then give the support needed to help them use & share it. And most of all to listen to what people are saying and act when needed. No, it is not easy. Yes, you need to think carefully. Yes it can be relevant to you.

To put this in context, I highly recommend you read Tony's blog about how Twitter can enact positive change, both for the individual and the company. You can read his thoughts here.

Hope you enjoy!

Friday, 13 February 2009

Keeping up with the Joneses....getting excited about engagement

It is amazing just how many people are on Twitter sharing links about social media, not just people extending their own brand reach but genuinely interested in all things social. I struggle to keep up with the updates but am learning to be a bit more ruthless with what I read and what I act on. Otherwise, I really will have no life!

I’ve been busy helping write a presentation that e-inbusiness is giving @ the Retail Week eCommerce Summit on Tuesday in London. The focus is on social buzz and how important it is to use engagement online to create a buzz for your brand. That may sounds oh so Web2.0 darling but we genuinely believe in this. Thankfully the web has moved beyond basic transactions to a more sophisticated community in which people are increasingly demanding high quality service and positive experiences. The high street has already gone through this (obvious) evolution – people have emotions, so it is only natural they want enjoyment in life and not just functional service (disclaimer – yes I know there are those of you who don’t care as long as you get the right thing at the right price).

So, this week I’ve been thinking about how retailers can leverage social tools to not only satisfy but delight and engage their customers. There is a requirement to go beyond basic shopkeeping. There needs to be something that attracts the customer to your brand beyond the purchase need. Why would I be loyal to Brand X simply because they sold me something? I am more likely to come back if they make me feel wanted. Or show me that their customers are loved. Or make me laugh. Basically, do something to engage me and give me value from paying attention. A colleague of mine, Steven Hampson, used a neat word to summarise Web3.0, or better still Consumer3.0 (yep the whole numbering thing is far too media speak but it is what people understand, so please forgive me!) – meCommerce. We’ve had eCommerce, we know about mCommerce but now we need to put the individual at the heart of our thinking. Here’s where the gaskets blow and people raise the flag of CRM. Yes, CRM gave traditional DM great propensity models, customer segments and improved personalisation. Yes, it is still hugely relevant. However, traditional CRM does not cover the social space online and look at how communication can be used to share information and build communities. It does not build direct 1-to-1 dialogue like microblogging and social networking can. meCommerce takes CRM to the next level.

Take a look at what Free People has been doing with its customer reviews. Free People pays real attention to their customer reviews, so much so that they invited their #1 reviewer to an extensive interview. They asked her about her favourite Free People clothes, her lifestyle, her interests. They collected photos of her wearing their clothes and featured them on their Flickr event set. Then they dedicated an entire blog post to the day to share what they learned with other customers. There is a good summary on the BazaarVoice blog page.

Why do I think this is a good example of “meCommerce”? I just love the attitude that drives this behaviour. Free People put in customer reviews for commercial reasons but also because they wanted to understand what their customers thought. They then wanted to go further and speak directly with their most prolific reviewer. Thinking more creatively, they wanted to share what they learned with the wider community and embraced blogging & Flicker. This shows commitment and passion. It also shows they have a handle on social media and how it can be applied to their customer base. This also shows a company willing to engage its customers and create content that is both interesting and relevant. Dialogue not monologue. Nurture and nature.

So what can other retailers learn? That engaging customers requires passion and creativity. You need to understand all the touch points for your business and work out how to knit them together. Most importantly, you need to give your customers a reason to get involved. Simply offering them somewhere to be is not reason enough.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Dialogue is better than monologue: building engaged communities online

Month 2 in the 2009 Social Brother diary room….

I’ve been locked in a cellar with only my iPod for company as I write a presentation for the Retail Week eCommerce Summit on 17th Feb @ which e-inbusiness is the Associate Sponsor. Yes, a shameless chance to further our global domination plan by drip feeding our knowledge and experience to innocent bystanders!

For those of you who have ever given a presentation to a demanding and savvy audience, it can be quite a daunting task. Not only do you have to provide a voice of authority and knowledge, you have to be engaging and interesting. I’ve always prided myself on being able to keep people’s attention but that’s usually fuelled by some premium ales and the odd Jack Daniels, or two. I was set the challenge by Sarah, our Head of Corporate Marketing, and Steven, our Sales & Marketing Director – what should we talk about that is current, topical and relates to user experience and the use of technology to drive online conversion?

After two days of spiritual meditation in an ancient Buddhist temple in the Himalayas, entering into a zen like trance (anyone seen Monkey Dust?!), I came up with the thread of building engaged communities online by creating a buzz for your brand. Before the corporate bingo police come rushing in, that’s not just marketing waffle. I’m not trying to cram in agencyspeak to sound uber-modern. I genuinely believe that this is the key challenge for online brands in 2009 and onwards; how do you excite and interest your customers to build a community that actively engages with your brand? This week’s blog looks at what I mean by an engaged community and the power of advocacy in helping brands grow a community organically.

Yakety yak – what is an engaged community!?


Engagement (plural engagements)

1/ connection or attachment, the point at which two or more things are connected

2/ a feeling of understanding and ease of communication between two or more people

An engaged community is a group of people who have a common interest in your brand, who interact with each other and your company to access interesting, relevant information and share it across their social networks. Each member contributes to the community but some are more active than others and take leading roles. Your community requires support and your main challenge is to provide them with the tools & technology to use your content when, where & how they want. The community thrives on nurture and nature; your nurture to provide advice & guidance and moderation when needed to help the members, nature for your members to grow the community organically via their personal connections and advocacy and most importantly, on their terms.

Encouraging advocacy

This is about dialogue, not monologue. When you have engaged with customers, you can talk to them regularly and update them with relevant information. You can signpost them to important announcements and build a personal relationship. Then you can encourage them to share your content with their contacts and other social networks. By rewarding and encouraging, you gradually build up a base of brand advocates who trust you, like what you offer and will tell their connections. Check out how well Wiggly Wigglers has done on Facebook at linking product enthusiasts. Heather Gorringe has really embraced social media and put her customers at the heart of the communication – I have told hundreds of people about them because of this, who could have told hundreds more. As Diana Ross said, we’re in the middle of a chain reaction….

Putting this into practise – visualising advocacy

Below is a Blue Peter special sketch of how the One-to-Many power of advocacy can positively impact brand awareness (and eventually conversion and other KPIs) by dialogue:

e-inbusiness brand advocacy diagram

This is all very top level stuff but it does illustrate the power of engagement. If brands look to social media as the cure all for the tough economic and trading conditions, they will be missing a beat. I think people need to encourage engagement, giving their customers the tools & support to interact with their brand and content on their terms, when, where and how they want. Social media is just one element of this, albeit an important and hugely exciting one.

What do you think? Is engagement the new black, or are you one of the doubters? If you want to hear more, please come and listen to us at Retail Week eCommerce Summit on February 17th @ Millennium Gloucester in London.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Do you tube?

Just how far can brands go with YouTube? Does it really extend brand reach and how can you measure the value it adds to your business? These are just a few questions I’ve been asking myself recently as I get to grips with why I think video is an essential part of the customer engagement process.

On a personal level, I love YouTube. I use it to listen to new bands and duck into the viral offerings that so easily clog my attention. I spend 2 to 3 hours every week ambling around, with no particular aim and no pressure to find one. I use the TV channels and enjoy the offerings some of the major brands have uploaded. I can choose what content to access and when, then move it to wherever I want to display it on my personal networks. That is the beauty of the tube and why I think it has longevity.

The doomsayers predicted the death knell when the Google behemoth moved into town but thankfully the paranoia was short lived. More and more brands are dabbling with YouTube as a marketing milieu, some are really getting stuck in and, dare I say it, having fun! Yes, that’s right, big brands are releasing the shackles and coming out to play.

I’ll throw a few obligatory stats into the mix to assuage the doubters. According to comScore, the number of online shoppers watching retail videos has gone up 40% since October 2007 (read the eMarketer article here). In the US,  adding video or streaming media is rated by 43% of retailers as the most important site feature they will add to their site this year. Yes, that is the US speaking but as we all know that’s a canny barometer for the UK and we are only lagging 12 months behind in terms of adoption. Econsultancy has a helpful article with a list of major UK retailers using video well. My personal nudge is Knicker Picker, a great example site to use when explaining the beauty of online video to a male audience…..

And from the customer’s point of view, what’s so special about YouTube? Quite simply, it is another tool that enables people to engage with content on their terms. Unlike TV where adverts appear regardless of whether you want them, online is on demand. And let’s not forget the viral effect. I don’t mean viral in the sense of some digital agency using seeding strategies to push the content, I mean viral from friends and colleagues exchanging stuff they like. I was sat having a nice cup of tea with a good mate of mine and he started talking about what Durex are doing on YouTube and told me to check out their videos. Later that afternoon, an email landed in my inbox with an article on Durex and YouTube. Coincidence? The article gives a good insight into how video can really, really engage people online. I highly recommend visiting YouTube and watching their “Doggy Style” video – this would probably hit the censors via traditional media but on YouTube there is a more open-minded audience with a keener sense of humour. Watch it, I challenge you not to laugh, especially when the Durex dogs check out the camera! Oh and did I mention, this video has been viewed over 800,000 times.

Brand reach anyone?