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Social Media

Friday, April 30, 2010

Three Elements of Effective Social Engagement

by Mark Pannell

Editor’s note: Mark Pannell is a freelance social media consultant and occasional Spoke troublemaker. Kind of like the little brother we're glad we never had. In his nearly 35 years on this planet, Mark has spent time in the music industry, managed big box retail stores, and most recently, guided social media strategy at a creative marketing agency. In 1996, Mark was dubbed "Minister of Propaganda" by the drummer of the Detroit rock band Sponge. He's spent the last 14 years living up to that moniker.

Social Media Rock Stars. Digital Media Evangelists. Social Engagement Gurus. No matter what self-assigned fancy title is applied, this role can be simplified down to two words: conversation starter. If I’m doing my job right, this very blog post should spurn its own conversation in the form of comments below.

At the dawn of the internet, millions were made on the ability to create a website. A thorough knowledge of HTML was akin to being an early investor in Google. Today, the superheroes of the web are individuals with the ability to… get this… talk to people.

An entire field of work sprouted up around a little blue bird and a scrawny millionaire. And many practitioners of the craft have a single, unifying battle cry: “You’re doing it wrong.” What they’re really saying is, “You’re doing it wrong. I know how to do it right. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Send a P.O. now!”

The business cards in my pocket read “Social Media Strategist.” Yes, I’ve ridden on the wings of a little blue bird and developed a violently allergic reaction to whales. I’m a proponent of social engagement. I’m also a very big critic of the craft.

This advantageous case of multiple personality disorder makes me stand back and assess my own strategies and beliefs. “You’re doing it wrong” is an arrogant mantra for elitists. Let’s try, “There are aspects of your social engagement strategy which could use some improvement. Let’s take a look at three of them.” Yeah, it doesn’t have the same ring. I’ll work on that.

One: Social Engagement Doesn’t Have a URL
Social engagement is an attitude. It doesn’t reside on Facebook, Twitter, or any other platform. It can exist there, but not as a standalone entity. In its purest form, it’s simply part of an organization’s culture. The company that we social media types all love to reference is Zappos. By now, I’m sure most of you have heard the “I Heart Zappos” story. It’s become the stuff of legends.

The tale that we all adore and have taken creative liberties with over the years is the Zaz LaMarr story. In short, Zaz ordered a pair of shoes from Zappos. She requested a return and meant to send them back, but her mother passed away in the interim. At the risk of making my own creative enhancements to the story, I’ll let Zaz tell the rest:

“In May we had ordered several pairs of shoes from Zappos for my mom. She’d lost a lot of weight, and her old shoes were all too big. She had a whole new wardrobe of clothes in pretty colors that fit, so I wanted her to have some pretty shoes that fit, too, when I took her up to Oregon to stay where her sister is. Out of seven pairs, only two fit. Not bad considering she’d never been this thin, so I was winging it, and the return shipping is free. The rest were here waiting to be returned. Because of various circumstances – lost label, my mom being hospitalized and me being away, the shoes were never sent back. There’s a time limit on the return of 15 days. Remember this. When you do a return to them, they pay the shipping, but you have to get the shoes to UPS yourself. Remember this, also.

When I came home this last time, I had an email from Zappos asking about the shoes, since they hadn’t received them. I was just back and not ready to deal with that, so I replied that my mom had died but that I’d send the shoes as soon as I could. They emailed back that they had arranged with UPS to pick up the shoes, so I wouldn’t have to take the time to do it myself. I was so touched. That’s going against corporate policy.

Yesterday, when I came home from town, a florist delivery man was just leaving. It was a beautiful arrangement in a basket with white lilies and roses and carnations. Big and lush and fragrant. I opened the card, and it was from Zappos. I burst into tears. I’m a sucker for kindness, and if that isn’t one of the nicest things I’ve ever had happen to me, I don’t know what is.”

I can’t think of a better definition of social engagement than that story. There was a personal connection between a brand and a customer; a connection that transformed that customer into a brand advocate for life. Now, here’s the kicker: What social network was used to reach that customer? Zappos is so well-known for their outstanding service and dedication to customer satisfaction, and the story above is so frequently associated with social media, that we forget that no social networks were involved.

Here’s something you might not know about Zappos: All new employees are required to go through a four week customer loyalty program. Two of those weeks are spent in a call center, working directly with their customers. At the end of the four week training period, new employees are offered $2,000 to quit—to walk away from the job, no strings attached. They want to ensure that their employees are there for the love of the job, not just the money. The success that Zappos has achieved in the social space is a reflection of their culture.

If Twitter and Facebook went the way of the dinosaur tomorrow, that level of engagement would persist. How many companies can say that? An effective social presence is not dependent upon any one platform or combination of platforms. It’s an extension of an organization’s culture, online and off.

Two: Viewing “Community” Realistically
Quite possibly the most overused word since the dawn of social media marketing, “community” has become an ambiguous term used to describe various groups of people. As a point of reference, let’s look at the definition of the word:

A social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.

That sounds an awful lot like another word that gets thrown around often: demographic. Before this section gets written off as cynicism, let me point out that online social communities are a wonderful thing, even those built around a brand. Some organizations value their customers’ opinions, love to address issues head-on, and do a fantastic job of rewarding loyalty to the brand.

The danger of “community” comes from blurring the lines between a real community and your organization’s Facebook fan page. When was the last time a member of your company’s online community invited you to a neighborhood cookout? To their son’s bar mitzvah?

If Moneybags McGillicutty’s House of Widgets was given an absolute guarantee, beyond a reasonable doubt, that none of their Facebook fans (or “Likers” now, I guess) would ever buy one of their products again, how much longer would that community be actively managed?

Pretending that your presence in the social space isn’t a method to raise brand awareness and, ultimately, increase sales is not transparency; it’s delusional thinking. Going back to Zappos, they publicly share their revenue successes and repeat buyer statistics. Their social community understands that the company would very much like for them to buy shoes from Zappos.

Consumers are intelligent enough to know that their favorite brands on Facebook want them to purchase their products. Real transparency is rooted in honesty. I’m certainly not advocating the use of social networks solely as a broadcast advertising medium. Just accept and respect the fact that people know why you’re there.

Three: Grand Openings vs. Soft Openings
Recently, Lee Odden from the Online Marketing Blog reached out to 40 thought leaders in the industry to get their thoughts on Social Media Strategy Before Tactics. A wide range of opinions were offered and the piece spurred an offline discussion between me and Head Spoker, Gene Powell. Initially, I fought tooth and nail for the merits of strategy leading tactics. But my history in retail management bubbled to the surface and quickly swayed my opinion into Gene’s corner.

Retailers love grand openings. They make huge events out of them. There’s face painting for the kids, pseudo-celebrities signing autographs, outrageous deals, and frequent giveaways. They throw their doors open and welcome the community to come see what they have to offer. Many companies approach their arrival in the social space the same way. They invest thousands of dollars on Facebook fan page tabs, launch traditional advertising campaigns to promote their new presence, and print the URL’s on anything that doesn’t move. If we build it, they will come. Have you ever stopped by a new store a couple days before their grand opening? You might just find that they’re open. Experienced retailers understand the importance of a “soft opening.” They quietly open shop to a much smaller crowd. Sometimes it’s in the form of a “friends and family” event. Sometimes they invite other local businesses to visit first. And still others just open the doors and see what happens. The soft opening is a way to determine just how ready their staff is to accommodate business, what customers think of the atmosphere, and what last minute tweaks need to be made before the gala event to come. Any business new to the social space could learn from the soft opening method. Allowing strategy to lead tactics is fine if you’re 100% confident that the strategy will be effective. But is that ever a guarantee?

What’s wrong with setting up a minimalist Twitter profile or Facebook fan page to observe how your community will interact? More importantly, how will you respond? This “soft opening” approach might just reveal some surprises before thousands of dollars are spent on strategy. These types of discussions are often boiled down to, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Is a massive strategy developed to attract thousands of fans and followers? Or is the community built on a grassroots campaign and the strategy developed around what was learned during that process? It’s not the most exciting option, but more businesses (and the gurus they hire) could benefit from following the latter approach. There’s always time for a grand opening later.

Four: There is no four.
Not long ago, a friend of mine posted a picture of his grandfather’s automotive repair shop from the 1940’s. His business was successful and he was respected within his community. The children in the neighborhood also knew that if their bicycles were broken, he would fix them. And he did it for free. Why? It was the right thing to do.

That same logic speaks volumes about a company in the digital era. The difference is that word travels exponentially faster and farther today than it did in the 1940’s. Understanding that social engagement is platform-agnostic, that your communities are your customers, and that there’s nothing wrong with gradually entering this space can have a positive long-term impact on the perception of your brand. And maybe, from time to time, forget about ROI for a moment and do things just because they’re the right thing to do.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Smile! You’re on social media.

by W. Gene Powell

Quick hit: Kodak recently posted its own guidelines for navigating the sometimes treacherous waters of social media. Titled “Kodak Social Media Tips — Sharing lessons learned to help your business grow” (PDF, 3.5MB), the 14-pager covers tips submitted by Kodak’s Chief Blogger, Jenny Cisney, as well as helpful information to get you up and running with a solid corporate socmed foundation.

Perhaps most importantly, the piece offers pragmatic advice for establishing a social media policy for employees. This is refreshing compared to the often Machiavellian smack-downs that some other companies have resorted to (we won’t name names).

Looking for examples on which to base your own social media policies? We suggest you start here. And, as always, let us know what you think.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Social Studies: The 2009 Twitter Survey Results

by Mark Pannell

Editor’s Note: Spoke social media wingman and l’enfant terrible, Mark Pannell, returns to the guest blogger perch to report the results of our homegrown Twitter Use Survey. After spending some quality time with our data, skip on over to TechCrunch to parse some enlightening results captured on the ever fickle teen demo. Salut!

Ask and you shall receive. As part of Spoke’s launch, we asked Twitter users to participate in a brief survey about their daily usage habits. The response was solid, with over 100 completed surveys to date. Some of our findings were a little surprising while others were exactly what we expected. See for yourself. Without further delay, the Get Your Twitter On survey results.

The first question we asked was to determine how many hours users spent on Twitter in an average day. Not surprisingly, 67% of our survey-takers said they spent more than an hour per day with the little blue bird. What was surprising was that over half said they post less than five tweets per day. Only 5% reported that they post more than twenty tweets on a daily basis. There’s a Turkish proverb that says, “If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” It appears that many of those responding subscribe to that same notion.

Next up: using Twitter at work. These numbers speak for themselves:


Wow. We can only assume that a good chunk of these surveys were completed at work too. But we’re not here to judge. No, no. We’re merely sharing the data. You can almost hear the echoes of TGIFF: Thank God it’s #FollowFriday. Speaking of which...

Ringing in the weekend, 62% said that they’ve posted a #FollowFriday list at least once, but only 8% responded that they participate in the meme weekly. But Micah Baldwin’s efforts were not in vain. A substantial 68% claim that they’ve followed another user because of a #FollowFriday recommendation.

So, we’ve established how often you tweet and where you do it, but how do you do it? A hefty 78% use a method other than the Twitter website. The big winners were third-party applications like TweetDeck, Seesmic Desktop, and HootSuite, accounting for 60% of the responses. Taking the party on the road, 15% rely on a mobile app as their primary means of giving us the bird.

Speaking of third-party apps, picture sharing has clearly made its way into the mainstream. Two-thirds of our tweeps use a service to share photos on Twitter, with 17% of the total users also contributing some video love. This question brought to light an interesting trend: While some users post photos, but not videos, none of those surveyed share videos without also sharing pics. It seems as though picture sharing is a gateway drug to video sharing.

A staggering 89% of those surveyed use a URL-shortening service to share links. That’s a lot of characters banished to the Island of Misfit URL’s. And characters weren’t the only ones banished. Over 90% of our tweeps have unfollowed another user at least once. Auf Wiedersehen! And don’t expect our survey-takers to follow you just because you follow them. Eight out of ten said that they don’t follow back all of their followers.

Next, we moved into the science of followers vs. following. Surprisingly, the results were pretty even across the board. Take a look:


The majority of users either follow more people than they have following them or their ratio is nearly equivalent. With that in mind, it’s understandable that 65% of those surveyed said that the number of followers they have is not at all important to them. Only 6% acknowledged that it was very important. I think this shows how differently people use Twitter. Some like to share content; others like to peruse it. To each their own.

How important are looks? 72% of respondents occasionally change the aesthetics of their profile page. While this could be a holdover from their MySpace days, it’s more likely that folks just like to have a presence on Twitter that’s as unique as they are. But how unique are they? 46% of those responding have used a Twitter grading service on themselves to find out. Ironically, only 33% have used one on another user. I can’t think of a funny word that combines narcissism and Twitter. Insert your own here.

To wrap up the survey, we wanted to discover the other ways that Twitter users utilize the social web. While its popularity is not in question, an incredible 95% of those responding also have a Facebook account. Maybe even more remarkable is the fact that 78% also use LinkedIn. The network (which is more geared toward professional use) outpaced MySpace by more than double. Social sites outside of the “Big Three” also topped the one-time juggernaut, further signaling the sharp decline of MySpace’s popularity.


That “Other” category likely includes social bookmarking sites like Delicious, StumpleUpon, and reddit. Six out of ten tweeps use those services at least occasionally, with over a quarter indicating that they contribute linkage frequently. Last, but not least: blogs. Three-quarters of those surveyed maintain a personal blog or website. Of those responding, 49% update their blogs frequently. Feedburner has its hands full.

To close things out, we asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to share?” Many of the comments were kudos on the launch of the Spoke website. But beyond the much-appreciated kind words, there was some delightful commentary. One user wanted to learn more about Twitter grading services. Personally, I use Twitter Grader frequently, but their methodology in determining a “score” is a little hazy. For more detailed analytics, Twitter Analyzer and Twitalyzer (two different services) offer more stats than you can shake a stick at. To get a better look at how frequently a user tweets, who they’re tweeting, and when, take a peek at TweetStats.

Another friend of Spoke asked which Blackberry application we would recommend for updating both Twitter and Facebook. As none of us are Blackberry users (the others at Spoke frequently remind me of their iPhones’ superiority to my Windows Mobile device), I redirected the question to the most Blackberry-usin’, tweetin’ Facebooker I know: Mashable’s Events Director, Brett Petersel. Presently, Mr. Petersel is using SocialScope for all of his mobile updating needs, so I’d say it’s worth a look.

While the survey was intended to educate us, it looks like we weren’t the only ones learning from it. One user said, “Yikes – just realized that I’m not at all using Twitter to its max potential. Thanks for quantifying that!” I think that’s true of most of us. If the survey brought that to light, we’re glad we could help!

If there’s one thing we know about the social web, it’s that everyone perceives things differently. One person remarked, “Isn’t this survey skewed by defaulting each question to the first choice?” Another offered, “You really know your Twitter user. I almost didn’t have to change anything.” While I’d love to take credit for having a deep understanding of the average Twitter user, the truth is much less glamorous. The service we use to generate these surveys requires that one radio button be selected by default (in compliance with W3C specifications, although all rules have exceptions). But it is a good example of how differently we view things.

Finally, Spoke would like to thank everyone who participated in the survey. You’ve given us a peek inside the minds of a Twitter user, which is much akin to opening Pandora’s Box. Thank you also for your interest in our findings. If you’re reading this at work, we apologize for interrupting your Twitter time.

Feel free to download all results in graph form: Spoke_TwitterSurvey09.doc (1.3Mb)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tweeting in Flocks: Multi-User Twitter Apps Compared

by Mark Pannell

Editor’s Note: We invited Spoke social media wingman, Mark Pannell, to write the following comparison of two of the most-used multi-user, web-based Twitter apps. If you recall, Mark brought his expertise to bear for our ongoing Twitter use survey. We at Spoke have spent time with both platforms reviewed below, but have lived with HootSuite (1.0, and now 2.0) the longest. We encourage you to try both services and let us know if your conclusions match ours.

As Twitter becomes a more popular tool for marketing, CRM, and customer support, organizations are flooding to participate in the conversation. While Twitter provides an outstanding platform for facilitating that interaction, its web interface is not exactly ideal for efficiency. Toggling back and forth between @replies, DM’s, and search results could slow an organization’s usage to a crawl. In a medium built around immediacy, a better set of tools is needed to leverage Twitter for business use.

Two key players have emerged in the race to meet the needs of businesses in the Twittersphere and they couldn’t be more different. CoTweet is the app of choice for heavy-hitters like Ford, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola. Their friendly rival, HootSuite, is used by the likes of Revision3 and the Whitehouse (yes, that Whitehouse). HootSuite’s first foray into this arena offered a host of features that were innovative at the time, but have become commonplace since its release. For the sake of a fair comparison, we’ll be putting CoTweet up against the upcoming HootSuite 2.0 (Beta), which features a more robust set of tools compared to their initial offering.

As different as the user experiences are between these two services, they share some core features. At the very least, one should expect support for multiple Twitter accounts, multiple users, scheduled tweets, and integrated URL-shortening. Check, check, check, and check. Both platforms also allow users to automatically insert their initials at the end of tweets to uniquely identify themselves to readers. CoTweet calls them CoTags. HootSuite calls them Auto-Initials or HooTags. I call them initials.

But that’s where the similarities end. For a pair of web-based services heavily-focused on delivering similar results, they go about it in completely different ways. Let’s take a look at them as standalone entities rather than competitors for a moment.

The most noticeable attribute of CoTweet is its utilitarian design. Like a Madison Ave. maven yammering on his Bluetooth, CoTweet clearly means business. The layout is obviously intended to mimic an email inbox, a familiar environment for most.


The CoTweet dashboard with default skin


The CoTweet dashboard with optional Guy Kawasaki skin (for power users)

From the top panel, a user’s list of available accounts is represented by the associated Twitter profile picture. Hovering over those avatars reveals a list of each account’s users and displays who is “On Duty” (I told you it was all about business). Within a large organization with multiple users, it’s good to have a visual indicator of who is responsible for follow-up at any given time. The On Duty settings can be altered, as well as new users added right from that dropdown list.

A unique feature of CoTweet is the ability to assign tweets as tasks. When paired with the CoTags option, this becomes a powerful tool for CRM. Let’s say a customer had a bad experience and brought his tale of woe to the Twitter community. One of your assigned users spotted the dissatisfied customer within a keyword search relevant to your organization and reached out to him or her to help resolve the situation. If that customer wanted to continue the conversation after the user was no longer on duty, their tweets can be assigned to that initial user for follow up at a later time.

Aside from the ability to distribute “labor” to each of an organization’s assigned Tweeps, the interface isn’t as significant of an improvement over the default Twitter UI as one would expect from such a popular tool. The Inbox, Outbox, And Follow-Up tabs on the left sidebar still require toggling back and forth to access multiple sets of information. The features that appeal to business users make CoTweet evolutionary for organizational use, but not revolutionary.

If CoTweet screams “business,” HootSuite screams “Web 2.0 App.” It’s a little more vibrant, but no less powerful. At first glance, its components appear to be in disarray, but a huge plus for HootSuite is its customizability. The screenshot below is just one example of an unlimited number of layout possibilities.


The HootSuite dashboard

Users can create a tab for each account to which they contribute. Within those tabs, columns can be created for the home feed, @mentions, DM inbox, DM outbox, sent tweets, pending tweets, and favorited tweets. Column options are also available for keyword tracking, search terms, and user groups. All of these can be added and arranged on the fly with the ability to drag and drop nearly everything on the palette. A simple slider is used to resize the columns in real time.

Once customized to a user’s liking, HootSuite offers all of the information that the user wants in one place. Think of it as a more feature-rich, web-based, multi-user TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop. The customization of the experience is far more than a parlor trick. With the ability to stretch an account over multiple tabs, there’s truly no limit to how much information can be made readily-available.

Another big plus for HootSuite is the ability to add an RSS feed to an account from within the dashboard. This allows an organization to auto-tweet blog updates without the need to utilize a third-party service like TwitterFeed. Once you dig into the HootSuite experience and get past the visually stimulating UI, it becomes obvious that the app was built from the ground up around efficiency.

Let The Feathers Fly
As both CoTweet and HootSuite offer a robust set of features which make them appealing for organizational use, personal preference really does become a factor. Some might be turned off by the busy design of HootSuite while others might dislike the minimalistic UI of CoTweet. But beyond the aesthetics of each app, it’s the underlying mechanics that make the difference.

While CoTweet uses the popular bit.ly URL-shortener, HootSuite utilizes their proprietary ow.ly service. The advantage goes to HootSuite here. Although bit.ly does provide a nice collection of analytics, CoTweet requires the user to access a third-party app to view them. HootSuite’s integrated statistics module allows for quick, one-click access to this information. Individual tweet statistics are new for HootSuite 2.0, providing total clicks and user ratings.

It’s also worth mentioning that throughout testing of both apps, I experienced numerous error messages and failures within CoTweet. One error required me to remove my personal Twitter account from the dashboard entirely after changing my password on Twitter. Over the course of the next 48 hours, I was never able to add the account back into the suite without getting an error message. If the CoTweet team had established themselves as actively engaged in the needs of their users, this might be slightly less concerning. But a quick glance at their Twitter profile (with 14,000+ followers) shows a team more focused on boasting their accomplishments than engaging their user base.

I eventually submitted a support request to resolve the issue. Within fifteen minutes, I received notification that they were looking into and attempting to resolve the problem. But after an hour, there was neither a resolution nor any further follow-up. Dog years have a lot in common with social media time and an hour is too long to wait to get an account back up and running.

HootSuite, on the other hand, didn’t error out once during my testing. But that’s not to say that the app doesn’t experience occasional errors. The difference here is that Ryan Holmes and his team at Invoke Media are absolutely dedicated to the satisfaction of their users. With nearly 78,000 followers on Twitter, their profile page shows a company consistently reaching out to users to discuss even the most minor issues. Some of these issues aren’t even specific to HootSuite, but rather to the general Twitter experience.

If someone had asked me to pick a winner based on first impressions before I had any experience with either of these two apps, I would have given CoTweet the nod without any reservation. As the choice of a multitude of large enterprises, CoTweet’s dominance seemed pretty cut and dried. But hands-on experience with both products presented HootSuite as not only a worthy competitor, but superior in many ways.

The accessibility of information and the customizability of how that information is displayed are clearly checks in HootSuite’s column. If the team added the ability to assign tasks/cases similar to CoTweet’s system, HootSuite would be the hands-down winner. As it stands, both services offer time-saving tools which make them a better option than the Twitter web interface, but not by any means perfect solutions. To keep track of who is doing what within a large organization, CoTweet might be the better option. But for sheer efficiency, accessibility, and customization, HootSuite continues to lead the race.

Editor’s Note: On March 2, 2010, CoTweet announced it was being acquired by email marketing software outfit ExactTarget. We’re anxious to see if/how the two firm’s offerings get integrated into a single platform. Congratulations to both companies.

Update: On June 24, 2010, HootSuite announced the release of HootSuite5. The update adds several major features and hundreds of tweaks. We’re so impressed that we splurged (ahem, free download) on a copy of Fluid—a HootSuite deskptop client for Mac.

Bravo, HootSuite. Bravo.

If you enjoyed reading this piece as much as we enjoyed writing it, you might also like: CoTweet vs. HootSuite: Battle of the business Twitter apps

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