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The Flaw In Gallup’s Survey On Social Media Impact On Purchase Decisions

In the research equivalent to asking “did you eat the cookie?” Gallup makes a tenuous connection to real social media outcomes. The WSJ is happy to play along.

Why is it that businesses are still actively trying to disprove social media as a channel to reach consumers?

That’s the question I had to ask myself as I perused my digital copy of The Wall Street Journal, this morning.  Gallup, a noted consumer research firm, is releasing a survey today that says it speaks to the “real” impact of social media on consumer behavior.

Normally I am very enthusiastic about any hard data on consumer behavior – social media impacted or otherwise. There’s only one problem with this data: it’s self reported. In case you’re not a stat geek, self-reporting is the research equivalent of asking a little kid with chocolate smeared all over their face if they ate the cookie.

The gist of the research is that Gallup showed that consumer buying behaviors aren’t impacted by whether or not they follow or like particular brands.  The WSJ article then goes on to detail several major brands including Ritz-Carlton and how they are abandoning what was thought of as traditional social media marketing strategies.

In fairness, the Gallup survey is actually pretty solid. It doesn’t purport to represent heuristic research methods nor does it say that social media is a waste of money.  The WSJ does that job all on its own.

Here’s where my beef is: the headline of the WSJ article is Social Media Fail to Live Up to Early Marketing Hype. A closer examination of the article yields that someone originally titled the article by its sub-head: Companies Refine Strategies to Stress Quality Over Quantity of Fans. How do I know this? Check out the URL…http://online.wsj.com/articles/companies-alter-social-media-strategies-1403499658.

What this discrepancy tells me is that an editor found more utility in trying to convince readers that social media is “failing” than the real story which is that your customers don’t care about the number of fans you have. (Side note…we needed a national, census-adjusted survey to tell us this?)

The WSJ is not dumb. The editors know what they are doing and they know what their readers want. In this case, they know their readers are inherently skeptical of social media so they give them what they want in order to lure them into reading the article. This kind of bait and switch is all well-and-good but it actually obscures the actual story, which is quality over quantity.

Like I said, I’m all for research. However, we shouldn’t confuse self-reporting with actual impact on consumer behavior, which has been documented copiously in peer-reviewed journals.

The Importance Of Measuring Content Quality

At first, it might seem like content quality is subjective and not really quantitatively measurable. The fact is, though that content quality is quantitatively measurable and has a HUGE impact your success, online.

Before discuss what exactly those measures are are, let’s talk about exactly why they are important:

1. Content Quality Scores Both Measure AND Impact The Traffic To Your Page

Think of this as a “catch 22” that you can actually impact. Content Quality Scores measure how relevant your content is based on the interest and validation of your online audience.  Content Quality Scores are also used by search engines to determine what content gets what traffic with better quality content receiving the lion’s share of the search traffic.

2. Content Quality Scores Also Impact How Much You Spend On Paid Search

Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad once said “advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.”  I’ll add onto that statement by saying the more unremarkable you are (e.g. the poorer your content quality) the more expensive your advertising will be. Sure, you can throw money at anything and make it work but because Google uses Content Quality Scores to determine search ad pricing, it might take 3 to 10 times more money to push the same volume of traffic to a page or site with poor Content Quality Scores vs. a site with high quality scores.

Now, we can talk about the scores themselves…

Domain & Page Authority

This is a score I use commonly in digital public relations because it gives me a measure, site to site or page to page, of what users think is useful.  If a user thinks a site or page will be useful, they link to it, share it or cite it in their own work.  Domain & Page Authority aggregate all of those factors into a single score of 1 to 100.  The important thing to note is that there is no single “great” number when you’re talking about authority measures.  They are a site-to-site, page-to-page, or even a measure of the same site/page over time.  Here’s an example:

A Domain Authority score of 40 might pale in comparison to a site like Wikipedia, which has a domain authority of 87. However, if your primary competitor is coming up with a Domain Authority score of 30, that means users are finding your content more useful and thus with more authority than your competitor’s site.

Quality Score

If this measure sounds rather generic its because it is.  Every search engine, comparison tool, and ad network has its own way of measuring quality. Though there are many, many sites that offer content quality scores but my favorite is the one provided by Raven. Raven tools aggregates several different data sources including Moz, WordStream, AdWords, MajesticSEO and CALAIS as well as meta-data from the site itself. By using multiple data scores, I’m able to get a pretty darn good idea of trustworthiness and a user-based measures of content quality.

Both of these scores will come up in conversation when I talk to my clients about how well the content on their site or page is doing.  My advice is to find a quality score you like and pull the current scores of your client’s web sits so you can proactively discuss how you can improve their content quality.

Of course, this is to be combined with ensuring that you eliminate technical barriers to search visibility but that’s for another time.

How To Make Social Media Conferences Not Suck

You can call me an occupational elitist, an intellectual snob or even just a plain old hatter but the fact is that today’s social media conferences are a waste of time, money and talent. Not only is the programming for these events woefully uninspired, the ones I have recently attended actually seem to make the problems of lack of innovation and accountability in social media worse.

As an example, let’s take last week’s Digital Summit here in Atlanta. The concept itself is fantastic; put on a nationally-relevant social media conference in a city that is fast becoming a hotbed for start-ups and corporate innovation. The only problem with that plan is that, of the speakers that actually showed up, most seemed to be more interested in patting themselves on the back than discussing the nuances of execution.

At one point, I even tried to follow-up with one of the speakers about the details of a “case study” they presented. I was curious about what he had done differently in his campaigns and began to try to discuss the particulars with him.  It turns out that he hadn’t actually achieved any results, yet. He said the chart was more “illustrating a theory” and that he didn’t deal with actual execution.

This pattern repeated over and over again throughout the two-day conference. Representatives of major social media sites or agencies would get up on stage, talk about their company and then tell grandiose but detail-absent stories about their “amazingly successful” campaigns.

I’m trying really hard not to hate here. I’ve been to plenty of great conferences where this isn’t the case but the fact is that it’s easy to present a case study about a popular brand backed by campaign funded by a truckload of money.  What about the challenges you faced getting there, though? What were the client objections you had to overcome? How did you track your results to an actual impact on their business?

Speakers at social media conferences aren’t going to talk about these things because that’s not what these conferences are set up to do. Instead of discussing how to make things better and setting up an event where social media professionals can help each other, these conferences have become exercises in vanity. In fact, many conferences like Digital Summit spend more time on sponsorships and stage decorations than they do vetting and arranging programming.

It’s ironic that social media conferences have turned into the exact thing social media hates most: tightly controlled, highly polished environments where speakers talk at, rather than with participants.  

Social media evolves so quickly. Time and financial resources for professional development is so scarce. Why wouldn’t we focus on setting up open exchanges of information?

To me, there are three very simple things conferences like Digital Summit can do to, for lack of a better term, not suck…

1. Encourage Presenters To Be Human

Instead of telling us how great you are, tell us what challenges you overcame that made your campaign great. If you don’t have a story to tell about innovation or dealing with the tough realities of client/brand relations then find another venue.

2. Fewer Lectures, More Interaction

One of the things I love about the un-conference model is that it encourages the attendees to participate, present and give active feedback in the sessions. Sure, I love listening to big, keynote speakers talk about what’s next in the industry but that should be desert, not the main course.

3. Create Separate Tracks For Paid Sponsors

I understand that sponsors play an important role in putting on events and there’s definitely value to their presentations. However, just like we do with sponsored content in social media, let’s call these sessions what they actually are: promotional content aimed at customer acquisition. After all, if you’re asking attendees to pay for the privilege of being sold to, at least do them the favor of being transparent about it.

When social media was first attracting real professionals, attending a conference was the most exciting thing you could do.  Not only were there great ideas and presentations, but there was a camaraderie among the attendees.  Even sponsors were humble enough to send their best teams to learn something new.

Maybe, just maybe if we talk about the realities, difficulties and aspirations of using social media to change minds and engage customers, we can rekindle some of that excitement. Until then, I am going to be very reticent to lay out any more of my money, or my company’s money on conferences that are more self-serving than anything else.

New Marketing Rule: Fight The Urge To Push The Button

Oftentimes, when marketers fail it’s not because of they got the message wrong. It’s because they were too damn lazy to do it right.

Take Sponsored Posts, for instance. Facebook has made them powerful, affordable and so, SO easy.  All you do is click that little “BOOST” button on the bottom right hand corner.  It’s just so tempting, isn’t it?! BOOST your post and all your organic reach problems will go away. BOOST and you never have to say “you’re sorry” in a KPI report.

Sure, there are reasons that Sponsored Posts work but here, elegantly in a single photo, Tom Fishburne illustrates why that kind of thinking is folly:

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Tom has a little lighter touch than I do but then again, I’ve met these types of marketers in real life and its astounding to hear them talk about what they think works with audiences. The fact is that the above illustration demonstrates a critical gap in what marketers want to accomplish and how much energy and thought they are really willing to put in, in order to make that happen.

For instance, what if that Subway post accompanied a sponsored partnership with a weight loss message board.  Yeah, remember message boards? They were social media before media was social.  They still exist and tend to have some of the most on-point opportunities for marketers to engage with target audiences.  The problem is that its nearly impossible to engage as easily in message boards as it is on Facebook.

This is where footwork comes in.  If marketers think about where the conversations occur  and exactly what they can do to bring value to the conversation, they would realize that they can’t just phone it in when it comes to consumer engagement. Producing content, engaging with gatekeepers, crafting sponsorship opportunities in unconventional medium are all examples of things that are a major pain in the a$$.  The thing is that it works!

Time and again, I’ve seen the investment in knowing, understanding and crafting approaches specifically for your audience.  Yes, it takes more time, sometimes more money and definitely more brain power than throwing sponsored messaging at a wall and seeing if it sticks. You know what? So does anything worth having.

So I say to my fellow marketers its time to stop being so lazy. Put the time and effort in and see how that works out for you.

PS: Yes, that BOOST rant was also so I could feature the Ren & Stimpy reference. You’re welcome.

Two Perennial Truths About Online Influencers

Working with public relations professionals, I’m frequently asked about pitching online influencers and how that differs from traditional journalists.

Though my advice has evolved over the years based on the continual evolution of the blogosphere, there are some things that remain the same. In fact, there are two truths I come back to again and again that any online professional should know:

1. Not All Online Influencers Are Bloggers (And Not All Bloggers Are Online Influencers)

Particularly when dealing with issues rather than products, influencers can and should be defined as anyone that can sway the opinions of others.  When it comes to the online space, there are plenty of examples of influencers in non-blogging platforms like Twitter, Message Boards and even on Social Bookmarking sites.  The ways you can approach these influencers are VERY different than the way you would approach a journalist.

2. Not Every Online Influencer Wants To Get Paid

If you’ve been in the online PR space for any length of time you have heard tales of Mommy Bloggers and how much they command in terms of payment for their cooperation.  Though there are plenty of examples that prove this stereotype valid, there are plenty of other online influencers that don’t do what they do for money.

In most cases, they exist because of a higher cause which is GREAT news for certain clients.  As long as we can understand what motivates them and then create adequate content and pitches that speak to their needs, they are not only cost effective but also very much a valuable part of your public relations offense.

Perhaps these truths are more self-evident than they may seem.  Honestly though, if you’re a PR professional, these are two things you probably want to keep in mind, if only to remind you of going back to the basics.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr User Elvert Barnes

Digital Tacticians & The Rise Of True Digital Strategy

Lately, I’ve come to find that many digital professionals fundamentally misunderstand the term “strategy” and what it means in crafting digital outreach. In particular, many of today’s “digital strategists” are actually digital tacticians.

Don’t get me wrong; tacticians are great.  If digital media is ever going to cement its place at the table with other marketing channels however, we have to understand why there’s a difference and why it matters.

What Strategy Is

To be clear, technical details like how you construct a digital asset and how the user interface should function falls into the bucket of tactics, not strategy. This is not my personal definition. This is the definition used by hundreds of thousands of businesses, worldwide and verified through careful study by business researchers such as Michael Porter:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibrxIP0H84M

The difference is that strategy moves businesses forward and makes smarter use of investments. For instance, digital strategy in its purest form takes into account market research, consumer behavior, business intelligence and financial foresight.

Unfortunately, this definition is often glossed over. I’m not sure if this oversight is due to the early nature of the medium or if so many self-titled “strategists” just do not know any better. Regardless, the fallacy of using digital tactics as digital strategy must be felled if companies are ever to truly harness the power of the digital medium.

Strategy’s Impact On Business Results

The rationale behind this distinction is simple. Tactics might, at best be able to generate additional returns that register in the single digits. When you’re dealing with multi-million dollar ad buys, of course every percentage counts. However, what most digital marketers deal with is niche audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands. At that level, single digit gains are really nothing, particularly when you’re talking about moving awareness and engagement metrics enough to impact purchase decisions.

This is where strategy eats and breathes…instead of just asking “how?” strategy asks “why?” Why does a consumer want to spend their time and give you their attention? Why is what you’re doing actually going to shift their perception one way or another? Is what you’re doing positioned such that is draws a clear distinction between what you are doing and what your competition is doing?

The Danger In Mixing Up Strategy & Tactics

Most digital tacticians don’t know how to answer these questions not because they don’t care but because their focus is more technically oriented. Again, that’s not a bad thing! However, when a corporate manager asks for a recommendation on digital strategic direction, they are expecting more than a user flow.

When they don’t see the thought process brought to them in financial, product or marketing strategy they tend to write off digital as creative fluff. This is a major liability for a discipline that is trying to gain additional share of investment vs. other areas of a business.

The distinction between digital strategies and digital tactics is more than semantics. It’s about elevating digital execution to the point that it is as valuable and as thoughtful as any other part of the business. To claim tactics as strategy not only short-changes the client, it places digital outreach at a severe disadvantage vs. more mature marketing medium.

My advice to digital tacticians is simple. Be be proud of what you do but don’t confuse the process of ironing out technical details with true strategy.

The Power Of “Alpha Ideas” In Digital Marketing

Alexander Hamilton once said that if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. I have found that this truth has new meaning in, of all places, digital marketing.

Particularly with the continual evolution of contextual search such as Siri, Wolfram Alpha and Goggle’s Hummingbird – the question of what you stand for becomes more and more important. What you stand for eventually becomes something I like to call your “alpha idea” and it becomes central to how and why customers know your brand.

Take, for instance, my experience with Penguin Brand® Dry Ice. Of all of the products I’ve worked with, dry ice wasn’t exactly the one that engendered the most passion or, for that matter, consumer interest. In creating a digital strategy for the brand however, I found an amazing potential for not just engagement but actual sales by hooking everything in the campaign into a single, central idea.

The alpha idea for Penguin started by answering the question; “what do people want to know about dry ice?” Sure, there were plenty of questions about just how safe dry ice is and how long it lasts but one of the most frequent questions I found through online conversation was “where do I buy dry ice?”

At the time, there were a couple of sites that listed potential dry ice retailers but none of them was designed for consumers. Furthermore, none of them tried to form a relationship with the consumer once they had their question asked and answered.

Enter the alpha idea…Dry Ice Ideas, in particular. Dry Ice Ideas was a basic WordPress blog with weekly tips on how to use dry ice in new and interesting ways. It also answered the frequently asked questions like “how long does dry ice last?” and “how do I pack dry ice for shipping?”

Most importantly, we a took an off-the-shelf store location application, paid the developer to make some custom tweaks and turned it into the most powerful dry ice retail locator on the web. Now, when you ask the question “where do I buy dry ice?” on Twitter, on Google, or in message boards you will almost always bump into this site. This is the power of an alpha idea; it transcends platform and channel to be where the consumer needs it, when they need it.

The site was not sophisticated and, in fact, it’s been a few years since I’ve worked with the brand so don’t take any credit for the current state of the site. However, by building the entire digital footprint around a single, powerful idea…by making sure to clearly and descriptively answer a single important question…we established Penguin Brand® Dry Ice as a brand that stood for something.

Marketers need to learn that it’s not about being everything to everybody.

Success is about answering a very specific question so you become hyper-relevant to the right people at the right time. If you don’t become someone’s favorite digital brand, so what? If you can be there for the moment of purchase, the moment that the consumer actually needs you, they will repay you in spades.

Alexander Hamilton understood the power of alpha ideas. He knew that if they didn’t wrap his rallying cry around a single, understandable idea, no one would ever be influenced by his words. His alpha idea helped spark a revolution and so too can they with your brand, if you dive deep enough into what your customers want.

The Battle Over The Accuracy Of Social Media-Based Consumer Insights Research

In grad school, my marketing research professor used to say “n=1” as her is very geeky way of qualifying her opinion. Professor Escales’ quant humor not withstanding, I guess I will caveat this blog with “n=1” but you’ll find my argument reinforced which quite a few “n’s” so take from it what you will.

Late last night Gareth Price, a UK-based social media researcher, basically used Pew’s latest social media demographics study to debunk the use of social media as a consumer research tool. Though I get what Gareth is saying and agree that you can’t use social media to answer a question that hasn’t been asked, and that social media is still very much a convenience sample – I fundamentally disagree that its not a valid research tool, particularly for brands.

First off, you need to know that I conduct research via social media for brands for a living.  Not that this makes me any more or less of an expert but I have seen the use of this type of research before. I’ll also say that Gareth’s focus on Twitter is important because, in my estimation, anywhere from 40 to 75 percent of any topic conversation is based on Twitter, arguably more than any other platform.

The key thing I believe Gareth left out was the fact that social media users, and Twitter users in particular, tend to skew heavily towards users that are more influential offline. Said another way, social media may be a convenience sample but its one that is remarkably powerful in identifying the tip of a much larger consumer insights iceberg.

Sure, Twitter demographics alone speak to the fact it is not a representative sample of the populous:

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In fact, Gareth is never more right in his implication that Twitter reaction to large public events should not  be considered scientific – the 2012 election proved that.  However, Twitter has proven to be surprisingly accurate as a tool to predict stock-market fluctuations and outbreaks of the flu.

More importantly for brands, social media users are a proven barometer of potential purchase intent.  This means that despite its flaws, Twitter can and should be a goldmine for helping to pinpoint not only valuable and powerful consumer insights but as a self-selected representation of those who might indeed be most likely to both purchase your product and to tell others about it.

Gareth, I love your insights but let’s admit that there’s much more that goes on, on Twitter that meets the eye.  Yes, we need more tools and more geeky marketing research applied to the medium to bring it up to the rigor used in most research tools.  However, there are just to many “n’s” out there that speak to the power and impact social media research can have on brands.

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