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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Social Media as Signaling Strategy

So, so, so much ink has been spilled on the "proper use" of social media for business.

And as I continue to replace football season with my new pastime, reviewing friends' marketing books, I expect to be seriously schooled soon by some of the best. I have three books by amazing social media experts on my shelf. It could have been fifty, no doubt.

So much ink on such a new topic. As Mitch Joel has noted, not a single "social media expert" has put in the Gladwellian 10,000 hours in the field that would be a prerequisite to being a true virtuoso. (Translation: hire one of them and place too much faith in them, and they could be fishing what's left of your company's debris out of the Pacific.)

I'm not a social media "expert," but for now, I can still be right about this.

In this glut of commentary, how does anyone make an original statement? I think perhaps by going extreme. Imagine Zero Social Media Usage. Imagine generating business without it.

In Meatball Sundae, Seth Godin went the polite route. He warned companies that grafting social media sprinkles on top of your existing organization would create a disconnect at best.

But in real life, Seth's reality speaks volumes. He's got one of the most popular blogs in the world, and has published dozens of books, probably a dozen bestsellers. And he doesn't tweet. Number of followers, zero.

So let's think about that extreme position applied to your company.

What if you just didn't do social media at all, and kept on doing the things you know generate leads, partnerships, repeat business, etc.?

Like email. Like buying advertising. Like "good old fashioned" word of mouth. Like trade shows. Like hiring people who are respected, who act as shining beacons for your company (and yes they are allowed to use social media in their own way, which creates a 'signaling effect' I discuss below.) You're telling me you've got all those channels figured out and fully optimized?

I hear what you're saying to yourself. Other people are saying stuff about you in social media: it's a huge task to manage this! You need to manage your reputation, both reactively and proactively. OK, fair enough. You need to *monitor* social media, and you need to maintain a good reputation. It's starting to get more complicated. But most of that falls into place if the individuals in your company come with the right toolkit: they're inherently approachable and online-communication-savvy. My point earlier when I wrote about Google, Zappos, and the "New PR," was that you can't credibly develop a company-wide PR 2.0 strategy, because social media is inherently about people, not companies. It may be agonizing to think that everyone in your company had better "get" the new reputation management, from the CEO right down to the engineers or baristas. But that's the way it is. Nothing -- no social media usage -- is better than letting someone screw it up royally, or artificially doing it as a "company." Remember? You can still sell beer on TV and software at trade shows?

In case it isn't clear, then: you'd better get the right people on the bus. You can't fake "people". Your people will either be good or horrible at social media brand creation. If horrible, then zero social media use is preferable. What about using it to promote themselves over your company? Do you think you can legislate that in your company? Sure: you can make all the draconian rules you want, if you pay six figure salaries and have free range quail in the lunchroom. Or maybe not even then. Maybe that's a separate post about the Art of Letting Go, and on that I may just disagree with @MarkEvans. If you had the right people on the bus in the first place, though, they wouldn't embarrass you horribly with online oversharing and drama. That eventually turns into a firing offence in many companies, whether or not anyone admits it.

I know what you're saying #2: good social media mentions may help you rank well in search engines in the future. Sure, that's an extension of off-page factors (such as links) that search engines use to figure out how to rank your content, etc. True. Important and fundamental. And you don't get everyone falling all over themselves to tweet about you overnight. It's part of full engagement with your marketplace, and creating something unique and valuable.

I know what you're saying to yourself #3: what if we wake up two years from now and it turns out we really should be using social media to win new customers, or for some other reason? Won't we be screwed? It takes time to genuinely build those loyal follower lists. Aha. Now, you're making sense. You do need to figure out social media as a hedge against being completely left behind in two years.

Most companies today go through that reasoning, and then they do it wrong. They put logos on their avatars. They talk about their new low calorie beer, ostensibly to customers who have opted in to hear all about it! They diligently try to build really big follower lists, waiting patiently for the day they can broadcast their marketing messages to everyone. Bzzzzt! Wrong! Why not just buy ads?

That's not how Tony Hsieh did it.

So that gets us back to the main point: the most impressive corporate uses of social media have not been for outbound marketing. They've been to make the individuals who run the company look like they get it, and to make companies more like people: approachable.

(There's nothing new about that. Media was social before it was "social media.")

Like being good-looking, toting a new smartphone with the latest apps, refreshing your website design, or choosing a good office location, social media savvy signals to the world that you've developed enough mastery of the world to be able to conduct business or personal relationships without tripping over your own shoelaces or running short of breath.

There's one more thing it can do for you. Help you plug into knowledge and further your career: as an individual. Smarter, more connected individuals don't just help themselves. They help their companies.

So that's it: social media can help you look hot, or at least to seem approachable. And it can assist you in your ongoing research so you don't look clueless, since networking plus information in the digital age is research on steroids. It can strengthen your "personal" brand(s), and help you to run with the pack, savvy-wise.

But as for using it for outbound marketing? Save the spam for later. Or how about never.

My hypothesis is that a handful of our experts may say just that in their books. Kevin Ryan once said it off the cuff to a room full of 400 marketers, or so I hear. Let's see if any experts really do agree with this. Saturday morning, the fall reading session commences.

Edit: I did a search for the title of this post to see if there were any exact matches of it online. Turns out Google had already indexed it, and (like Twitter) can tell you it was published "four minutes ago." The immediacy of social media, and the rush of real-time search, is cool too. Question though: did it make either of us money, or did I just waste my time posting this screen shot?

But seriously, that take is too prosaic by half. If everything happens much faster, then the cautious, laborious "targeted message" mentality of traditional public relations is fast growing obsolete. Social media savvy signals success. And those who panic under pressure (highly likely until we all have our 10,000 hours) aren't going to be great ambassadors for your company.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, June 17, 2007

Canadian Search Marketing: Impending Hockey Stick?

Canadian Advertisers, Pull Thy Collective Head Out of Thy Collective Butt? That could have been the subtitle of some recent speeches and writings by Gord Hotchkiss, a well-known Canadian search marketing guru.

This week, in person and in writing, Gord was tearing into the Canadian business community for its poor record on adopting online advertising and especially search visibility tactics. This is juxtaposed with the Canadian people's world-leading Internet usage. This theme's been rolling now for a couple of years, statistically speaking, thanks to reports from companies like comScore, and now buttressed by survey research being disseminated by companies like Yahoo. In terms of quiet rants, it's been out there since 2001 or so, since some of us began seeing the post-bubble surge of quiet interest in search as the most cost-effective direct marketing and public relations tool going... by our US-based clients, who moved quickly on the opportunity and kept us all busy with work. (It didn't hurt that our dollar was very low, so we were low-cost providers who otherwise looked, quacked, and smelled like American consultants.)

Gord pinpoints the problem even more precisely - to Toronto, which holds most of the economic clout in the land, but seems slooow to adopt. Hey Gord, c'mon, I have to work here when I'm not hiding in New York or Glasgow! Easy for you to rant at my neighbors eh?

But this is not so new, Canada being above everybody else on per-capita this, and worse than a lot of countries on per capita that.

There are probably many more reasons beyond just a few businesspeople having their heads up their butts, than Gord and the commenters on his post let on. And even if that's the reason, it would be interesting to explore why that might be, then.


* Market size, chicken-egg, and what are they going to do with those clicks anyway? Larger companies with reasons to unlock big ecommerce budgets would have had less reason to do so until recently, because ecommerce itself had not come of age. Inventory and logistical issues were dealt with more slowly. No shopping engines were really available because the concept of a "comparison" was silly. The fear of online eroding offline margins was allowed to linger longer, because no competitors forced anyone's hand by racing online. Sweet complacency reigned, but this was at the higher level of ecommerce generally, not specifically with search. On ecommerce comparison engines, Google never launched Froogle Canada, for example. But due to not only doggedness but also market opportunity and some willing investors, Shop2It out of Calgary has persevered to build a real shopping engine for Canada (hammering out partnerships with AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and Canoe) -- that has required long effort to encourage adoption by etailers to upload their feeds, improve their stores, and actually try to sell to Canadians! An effort not even Google was up to.

* But why? There are definitely a host of cultural reasons, and reasons of business culture. Here are several sub-points in that regard.

First, small business is not championed or given the resources or encouragement it should have to pursue contemporary online growth. In Toronto the classic small business of a little independent brick and mortar shop is certainly a new Canadian's dream and the one hungry and busy middle-class Canadians are all too eager to applaud, but the other kind of small business, the one about getting a big idea and growing it, is seen as some sort of insane affliction. Family, friends, and neighbors will worry that you should just stop screwing around. Get a job with a big company Mom has heard of, like Bombardier, Nortel, or Microsoft. Doesn't matter if that job is stultifying, structurally set up to fail, etc. - so long as people have heard of it and you get invited to the company box twice a summer, you're part of the crowd. Good job. Luckily, people have now heard of Yahoo and Google, so there is a chance we'll see interest in actually nurturing tech and related startups here. (Next point covers these guys.)

Second, related to the first: big-company culture dominates, and Bay Street dominates. That's why the natural resource and financial sectors are *still* ruling our business pages. If the Street can figure out a way to finance it, then do it. Talk about it, work there, orbit around it. Otherwise, don't. That makes the Web 2.0 and any other high-productivity-oriented, high-achievement-oriented subculture just that: a subculture. The positive thing about that is that subcultures tend to be immune from peer pressure. The negative can be that unless their projects are financed, the world doesn't see the fruits. The other negative is that disgruntled subculture members become expatriates, in body or in spirit. Solution: our business *finance* and moral leaders need to nurture the subcultures, as JLA and Brightspark have done with b5media, and as the Mesh organizers have done organizing a conference around it. It all seems so under potential (b5 seems cool, but seems so alone out there; Mesh is great, but could be better) precisely because there needs to be just a whole lot more of this.

In other words, at a lot of levels there are a lot of great online entrepreneurs out there eager to be part of a community and eager to find markets. Their financiers and their neighbors down the block though could care less about their aspirations and right now are busy ignoring them as they prepare for cottage season. Because why don't you just make your ridiculously high salary in real estate or traditional advertising and shut up about innovation? "Zillow? What's that? Pass me a cold one." But it's only a matter of time before the cadre of Canadian entrepreneurs willing to build an online business, even through the delicious summer months, effects far-reaching change. Incentives and opportunity eventually produce results, but the state of financing is hindering the rate.

* Is Canadian talent being insourced to Silicon Valley? Google's office in Canada is just a sales office. One thing about weighing career and business ideas is that it has to seem like a real opportunity and a real lifestyle that other people have. In that regard, you can talk about them being "lower tier jobs" all you like, but the fact of a Google going into Michigan in a big way changes the parent-educator-neighb0r-youth dialogue. A lot of solid jobs equals a platform around which an economic and innovative ecosystem grows. Toronto is identified by Richard Florida as a creative cluster because of sheer scale, tolerance, concentration of educational institutions, and a host of other factors, but we shouldn't be content to rest on the luck and confluence of certain factors to drive growth in online business. Proactively encouraging even more of those things is a good idea. Dalton McGuinty, our provincial premier, is all over continuing our leadership in the auto sector. He's also promised transit expansion that's 15 years overdue, which will no doubt put a fat contract in Bombardier's lap. That's nice, but ... sigh, cars aren't where the puck is going. And in a metro area of 7 million, transit is just basic infrastructure. What else are we doing? Companies like Microsoft have a lot of employees here. Companies like Google strike me so far as uneven in their approach to how they foster and nurture their foreign offices. Isn't that called "insourcing"? Foreign offices can be just push centers that focus on replicating the adoption of the product back home, but those workers are classic account execs and support staff. At the end of their day, do they give much thought to engineers and high-tech startup culture? Silicon Valley is very good at luring those types of risk-takers and top thinkers away from their home countries. So what we can build around here is an important question. That's why companies like Research in Motion are so huge in the Canadian national imagination right now. The founders are literally national heroes. We need many more RIM's. And we'll need a counter-brain-drain and an insourcing revolution of our own. The reality is, you need a critical mass of people with good high-tech jobs to make that seem like the thing to do... and not to do somewhere else. Else, businesses will be run and migrated online without the benefit of new qualified blood. PROFIT Magazine and a few dozen people doing great stuff in government and education, in spite of incentives towards complacency, get it; most other potential influencers don't.

* Meanwhile, traditional advertising and Bubble 1.0 mentality web shops still cling to their perch and their perks in Canada. Large companies continue feeding them and their ranks aren't thinned by much, even though the word about measurable performance and user experience is starting to spread. Usability, business, and the online experience are really holistic phenomena that require stalwart "connectors" or "polyglots" who don't overspecialize but who have deep programming, design, and communications skills available in-house or in-brain too. Case in point, the startup I worked with settled on a web design firm out of Michigan that has Web 2.0 user interface and design savvy. They write real code and do real design; they don't force you into proprietary off-the-shelf boxes. The same job from a traditional web shop would have cost 5X as much. A local Toronto firm doing just the identity work, and none of the other work, quoted us double the price - and they are really good, far better than most in town, and so busy that they probably wouldn't have had much time for our job anyway, no matter what the budget. Demand for competent online professionals in Canada far exceeds supply. ... User experience as part of someone's job. Search savvy as part of someone's job. Basic background on online demographics and analytics as someones' job. This all has to happen. It's not happening very fast because of course you don't learn it in school (yet) and so you would need to go to a "good shop" to learn it, or learn it by osmosis through your particular subculture. I'm optimistic that we will reach the critical mass (in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary, in particular) or simply see lifestyle/cultural shifts (as we see perhaps most prominently in B.C.) to have institutional and cultural homes for this subculture, but it's not there yet. We won't see it develop in the college and university system adequately, so it'll have to come through ad hoc partnerships and experiments with those institutions. It'll have to be fostered through online community. Through offline communities like the meetups and geek dinners. And through remarkable new conferences put together by selfless connectors.

All that being said, this country will succeed and shift to heavy online spending in spite of itself. Why? It's the big budgets. Big-company culture has its drawbacks, but by 2009 that correct percentage of overall ad budgets will have moved over to online and to search, because eventually top execs will see that logic, will have read my next book, seen Gord's next talk, listened to a presentation by Martin at Yahoo Search Marketing Canada or the new head of Google Canada, and will have jotted search down for 30-40% of nontraditional ad spending, which in itself will grow to 30-40% of all ad spending.

Like financing a mining play, maybe search and ecommerce in Canada succeeds because of some figures that get sketched out on a napkin and decided at the highest levels. That's not the same as succeeding because the subculture grows, or influential people "see the light" early on because they're forgoing their 30 nights a year in the Air Canada Centre box seats to maybe study up on this stuff. (Fortunately, if Balsillie brings another hockey team here, entrepreneurial online-savvy learning materials will be mandatory reading before entry to the box.)

Search marketing and ecommerce in Canada won't succeed perhaps for all the right reasons, but I'm saying they still succeed. Based on the sheer compelling reasons for moving ad budgets and talents over to online user experiences and commerce, it'll succeed wildly. Budgets will increase in 2009-10 in that hockey-stick way.

And in part that'll be made possible by the unique history of a free, peaceful, diverse country that gave its best minds reasonable space in which to think and develop, and enough reasons to stay that Hotchkiss stays here. Hopefully, at least, some of those reasons include dollar signs. But Hotchkiss is also going to need a few more fellow players in this subcultural sandbox to keep him from picking up his pail in seek of a new playground.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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