Friday, 27 March 2009

Can social media be applied to the public sector and politics?

I was asked recently on this blog how the principles of social media could be applied to the public sector and, specifically, politics. That got me thinking, a rare occurrence. I thought that being negative would help focus my mind - why couldn't you use social media tools to engage people in politics? That thought lasted a few minutes before I was resolved; social media is hugely relevant to politics and the proof is in the Obama pudding. Below are the key points to my response to the question posed by Oranjepan (apparently a “A balding, ginger primate verging on extinction” from Reading, you don't meet one of those every day!):

Politics is about people not words

How can you engage your voters if you don’t understand what they want? You must speak to them in a way that is conducive to their needs – too many politicians speak through soundbite and never actually listen, too interested in their own voices and pomp (yes that is a disservice to grass roots politics where more people are genuinely interested but mainstream politicians like Gordon Brown and David Cameron have a wider influence)

Engagement requires direct contact

Putting a leaflet through a door does not mean you’ve engaged with someone – engagement only happens when somebody responds to you, implicitly or explicitly.

Passion breeds interaction

Engagement involves concerted effort – you can’t just say “well I tried”; if you believe in something make others feel that passion – communicate it regularly and don't expect everyone to respond at the first hurdle. Creating true conversation takes time and effort, nature and nurture

Build it and they will come!

Use advocacy – when you find someone who is listening and responding, ask them if they would like to be more involved & reward them for their effort – doesn’t have to be money! The power of advocacy is huge and people respond far better to "people like me" than a politician they have no direct relationship with.

Make it easy for people to interact with you

Allow people to share information, make it easy for them to pass on what you are saying. Create a blog, allow people to track it; set-up an RSS feed so people can have your content fed to them in a convenient way; use social bookmarking tools to enable people to post your content around their social networks. Open the communication channels and make sure you respond; I recently sent an email to Patricia Hewitt via her website and received no response, making me dislike her and what she represents even more. Why bother having a "Contact me" section if you have no intention of replying?

Embrace the online channel

You want to see a good example how social media can influence in politics? I give you Mr Barrack Obama, President of the USA. Check out his official website and follow the social media links. This helped him engage with millions online, many of whom never embraced politics before. Here is a handy chart that my fellow blogger Oranjepan kindly sent me:

Team Obama's intelligent use of social media to engage a diverse online audience was instrumental in achieving two political milestones; record numbers of people using online to engage with the election and record amount of money raised online to fund the campaign.

Granted, Obama will have had far greater resource than local politicians but the principles are the same. People are not interested in grandiose rhetoric about solving the problems of a nation, they want to here policies that will deliver tangible results and that are relevant to their lives. Social media provides one of the channels to achieve 1-2-1 communication and build personal relationships.

In my opinion, there is no reason why social media can't be applied to politics. However, i would urge budding politicians, at whatever level, to tread carefully. Social network are not there for your manipulation; if you misjudge the culture of the community you can do your reputation a lot of damage. 

Engagement is about listening and sharing, not pushing your agenda. Take time to understand who your audience is, then spend time monitoring where they talk and what they talk about. Only when you are sure you have something positive to contribute should you join the discussion.

If you are genuinely interested in what people have to say and what to engage in dialogue with them, you could use the online space to build an effective community and influence the voting public.

Friday, 20 March 2009

New ways to engage - contextual advertising

This week i'm taking a look at engagement from a different angle to widen the perspective of this blog. Following the great debate kicked off by Google's announcement on behavioural targeting and the ensuing furore from the privacy brigade, i wanted to tackle the role of contextual advertising online.

I took the liberty of interviewing (by email) Greg Caswell, Head of White-Label Sales @ Mirago and regular contributor to the Chinwag UK Netmarketing discussion group. What follows is his stream of consciousness from my random grilling:
"Hi Greg, how does contextual advertising differ from behavioural targeting?"
"Put simply contextual advertising is about showing adverts that relate to the content of the webpage while behavioural targeting is about monitoring a consumers internet usage, the sites they visit and showing adverts that relate to those.
In more detail contextual advertising delivers adverts based on the content of the page, without the publisher having to ‘manually’ add a specific advert to a particular page. The words on the page are scanned by software which uses linguistic algorithms to extract the themes (context) of the page. Advertising is rendered within the page, based on those themes. As the user is likely to have landed on that page because they are interested in it, they are also likely to be a good match for the products or services within the related adverts. 
Behavioural targeting renders adverts on the basis of the historic browsing patterns of the user who is visiting the page. The adverts are therefore rendered on the basis of the type of content the user has been viewing, rather than on the context of the current page they are visiting. Unless the behavioural implementation relates to a login mechanism, confusion can arise when the same browser is used by multiple users."
"How does contextual advertising sit with privacy concerns?"
"As a contextual advert is rendered on the basis of the (server side) content of the page, no cookie information is required by to deliver the ads. There are therefore no significant privacy issues. Behavioural advertising on the other hand, relies on storing a user’s browsing history which requires the use of cookies to do the tracking and obviously raises privacy concerns."
"What are the advantages to the customer?"
"The advantages for the consumer is that they will be shown adverts for products and services that are relevant to the content which they are viewing, and as they are more than likely to have chosen to look at this page, then they are more than likely to find the advertisements relevant too. Also there are no cookies, so no spying on their off-site behaviour.
"What are the benefits to the advertiser?"
"The advertiser knows that the content they are placing adverts against is relevant to their business or proposition, and that readers of this content are more likely to be receptive to these messages than if they appeared on unrelated content. Response rates to targeted advertising are higher than those from untargeted adverts."
"What examples are there of companies using contextual ads intelligently?"
"We worked with Travelmail last year where we matched travel advertisers to the content that was being viewed, so as an example you could be viewing a page about holidaying in Thailand and so the adverts around the content would be from advertisers who either offered holidays, flights or tours to Thailand. Far more relevant than a consumer seeing ads for ski holidays, which could happen with no contextual targeting, where the advertiser is just appearing within the Travel section."
"Crystal ball – how do you see the industry evolving?"
I think that there may be a future for behavioural targeting, but this will be on individual sites or within specific login areas of sites, and where the customer has opted in, but personally I believe widescale behavioural advertising will disappear due to the huge ‘Big Brother’ privacy issues. 
Contextual is independent of where you have been, it purely attempts to supplement the place you currently are with relevant commercial content. It is therefore likely that Contextual will continue to evolve into the space ‘targeted’ by behavioural. There is of course scope for a hybrid delivery mechanism, as in individual site tracking, but the taboo of behavioural may have an affect on that trend.

Interview ends.

My view is that contextual adverts can engage customers far better than other targeting because the personal relevance is high. Couple that with the ability to search within the ad for real-time content to fine tune the personalisation, there is great potential to increase click through whilst delivering good service.

Join the debate and tell me what you think about the potential of contextual advertising as an engagement tool.

Thanks to Greg Caswell from Mirago for his time & contribution.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Twitter is not the new facebook, deal with it!

We are in the midst of a new marketing obsession, people calling twitter the new facebook or holding twitter up against Google as a search tool. I've read blogs, seen tweets and found articles pitching twitter against other major online services. I don't get it. Why do we always have to evaluate one website in the context of another? This week's blog looks at why we should embrace the differences and not try to force comparisons.

There is an excellent thread started by Patricio Robles on (Fail Whale: Twitter as a search engine) debating whether twitter will ever replace Google as a search tool. The general concensus is that it won't, even can't. However, there are some really good arguments about how the two tools can work in unison to deliver a more sophisticated search program.

The point that got my attention was how twitter supports search in a brand monitoring way better than Google can. Take the example of Dell, who do a lot of direct selling & engagement work via there multiple twitter accounts. Dell uses twitter search tools to monitor brand conversation, such that it can respond to comments made about Dell, in real time. This is not the traditional search of Google but it enables a holistic view of brand communication.  

Tools such as Twitterfall facilitate search monitoring. I use Twitterfall to monitor talk about my twitter profile, my name and the company I work for, e-inbusiness. Through this I've picked up on people commenting about my blog and responded. I've seen people retweet content relating to e-inbusiness. I've been able to engage with individuals more closely than I ever could using Google search. 

And that is the point - the two are different. I love Google, the behemoth; Google set out its stall to dominate search and provides the best customer tool out there. If I want to research information and find websites, I will use Google 100% of the time. I can't remember the last time I looked at Yahoo or MSN. Yet Google does not enable me to nurture a personal social network and monitor my brand traffic as effectively as twitter. I can't use Google to send an important article link to my band of merry followers. However, I can use my knowledge of SEO to make sure the article I posted on the e-inbusiness website is accessible to millions of people via natural search. If I use the two in tandem, I get a powerful search & communication program.

And what about facebook, wonderful facebook, digital media's darling? facebook is definitely not the same as twitter. Again, there are similarities - facebook also enables networking and sharing of content. However, it is more commercial. facebook encourages content to be shared on profile pages, twitter via 140 character updates. facebook is a strongly visual tool where photos, videos, widgets, apps etc are prominent. Twitter uses apps to faciliate individual users but not to populate profiles. You would not use facebook to monitor who is talking about you but you would use it to share conversation across groups of friends. facebook is what Friends Reunited never became, a global platform for friends & colleagues to connect, catch up and then move on. facebook also has its advertising platform; it is likely that twitter will follow suit to monetise its audience, I hope not.

As a brand, would I benefit from one or the other, or both? Only your customers know the answer. The right question is who in my target audience uses these social networking tools and how can I use them to increase my engagement? If 2% of your audience is on twitter and 5% on facebook, wouldn't you like to have great engagement with 7% of your customer base and get them to spread the word virally? You have to use them differently.

My view is that facebook, Google & twitter are different tools, part of the overall communication mix and whilst there maybe some similarities, they serve different purposes. Don't have a face off, determine how you can use all of them to benefit both your website and your customers, then put the effort into making them work. 

What do you think? Do you agree or do you think i'm wide of the mark. Join the debate, social media debating is the new black.......

Friday, 6 March 2009

Why shouldn't you use customer reviews on your site?

It has been a busy week @ e-inbusiness. With lots of new prospects on the horizon, the e-inbusiness roadshow has been from town to town. Like the littlest hobo, every place I stop, I make a new friend etc…….

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past 2 weeks talking to people about social media. Some rooms fall silent and the tumble weed rolls. Others erupt into debate between advocates, sceptics and those who just love sitting on that fence. Social media has polarised the business community! I know that some social enthusiasts are vexed by this but I say game on. I would rather the discussion provoke a response rather than apathy. At least with negativity there is an emotional reaction you can dare to influence, perhaps change. The conquest for the new frontier has begun. In this week’s blog I’m going to take one element of social media, customer ratings & reviews, and explore its potential in more depth. Of all the forays into engagement and buzz, I think this is the easiest for people to conceptualise and ‘get’ and there are a lot of stats floating around to beef up the business case.

For those new to user generated content, ratings & reviews enables online shoppers to post reviews of products & services that they have bought. The usual mechanism is to send the customer an email X days after purchase, inviting them to rate pre-defined criteria such as product quality. The customer clicks on a link to a webpage where they can complete the review. This review is then posted to the review engine (could be bespoke on your site or an integrated 3rd party solution like BazaarVoice, Feefo & Reevoo).

Why should you take reviews seriously?

Quite simply, if you don’t you will lose business. People read reviews and are influenced by them. If you don’t have reviews on your site, you will lose people to competitors who do. It really is that straight forward. I personally use reviews all the time for products I don’t know enough about, such as digital cameras. I want to know that the person I’m buying from is reliable and I’m getting value for money. I also want to know it does what is says on the tin. I am actually disappointed when sites don’t offer me reviews, surely it is in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs now!

And here is the dry bit, the research findings from JupiterResearch:

  • 77% consumers cite reviews as being useful in making a purchase online
  • 61% report that confidence can be increased via independent reviews
  • Petco experienced a 49% increase in conversion for products with reviews

Still not convinced, take a trawl around the web and in particular BazaarVoice’s website. Yes they have an interest in converting you to the cause but the research they cite is all independent. The facts speak for themselves.

What are the commercial benefits?

  • Increased product conversion
  • Increased average order values
  • Greater trust
  • Improved customer engagement
  • Great SEO content to increase your visibility

Why would my customers be interested?

Why wouldn’t they? 65% consumers research a retailer’s reputation before purchasing, according to an Internet Retailing article. Reputation is becoming increasingly important online, as is quality and trust. The economic climate is also influencing consumer behaviour. People are spending more time researching to get the best deal, not just on price but on quality & service.

Providing reviews adds reassurance, it says “listen to what people like you think”. It benefits your visitors and also your customers who can share their experiences with others. I actually like the idea that my opinion counts and can influence others – if I get great service, I want others to know so that they can benefit too.

An interesting stat this is doing the rounds is that 32% of consumers are willing to write an online review but only 19% would be prepared to write a letter or email a company directly.

How can I get people excited by this service?

Think differently. Don’t just stick the review content on your website and pat yourself on the back. Work out how you can communicate your customer’s opinions across your customer channels to increase visibility. Here are some winning ways to use reviews:

  • Advertise review content in your emails – “As voted by our customers”
  • Promote reviewed products in offline marketing such as display advertising & TV
  • Interact with your main reviewers, encourage them to become advocates
  • Integrate review ratings with your search marketing – powerful impact when a search ad has a “customers rate this 5/5” promotion

To give a few recent examples:


Argos recently added reviews on key products in its printed catalogue which reaches over 17m UK customers, 2/3 of all households

Free People

The US clothes etailer invited its most prolific reviewer to an in-depth interview, asked her about her life and why she likes Free People, snapped her in their clothes, then uploaded the photos to their Flickr group, dedicated a blog to the interview on their website and talked about it across other social platforms.

Being creative

Mobile shopping is taking off. Every time someone walks into a store with a mobile device, there is an opportunity to influence them via mobile marketing. In regards to reviews, you can promote online reviews on display stands, allowing customers the chance to read reviews of your products before making a purchase. This can increase in-store conversion be driving messages of quality, trust and reassurance. Also, if your products is syndicated in retail outlets and is up against competition, strong display stands with customer review options will help differentiate your offering.

A great example of this comes from Bazaarvoice’s customer, TurboTax. They launched a national campaign in the US to allow in-store customers to read views via their mobiles.

The summary

My view? Consumer feedback has become standard, it is no longer a novelty. What is creative is how brands are using reviews in a multi-channel environment to increase engagement. We all want honesty and transparency and from that trust will come. Don’t ask “why should I use reviews”, ask yourself “why shouldn’t I use reviews”.