In the old world, the one before the Internet and social media, we got our content when they gave it to us. It was akin to three square meals a day if you were lucky. Newspapers flopped onto driveways, radio stations paused at the hour to bring us news and the family (well the parents) sat down to watch the evening news. These content outlets created funnels through which we got our news, views and perspective. All that changed when the Internet arrived. We could now get what we wanted when we wanted. Well sort of. Google and Yahoo! served up huge amounts of previously inaccessible content in ways that changed the world forever. We quickly got used to being able to get news headlines and perspective at our time and place of choosing. But with this change in behavior came a change in expectations. Because we can now get news on a subject 24/7, we now want news on that subject 24/7. If there is no news to report then we are disappointed. We are, it seems, the spoilt kids when it comes to content. This creates a challenge for brands because you never want to disappoint your customers.
A quick study of top consumer brands show they re all struggling with this challenge. Whether they are conscious of the challenge is debatable but many are trying to engage more frequently with their customers and partners online to avoid going dark for a few hours. Think about that. A decade ago a brand could go dark for days, even weeks and nobody had a problem. Today we expect our brands to be talking to us, introducing us to their friends, entertaining us and of course keeping us informed every hour of the day. Big brands, it seems, are being pushed to behave more and more like media outlets. But constantly creating compelling content is only part of the solution. Brands need to learn more about how and when their customers want to engage. They need to plan the engagement cycle rather than the news cycle. For many this requires a wholesale rethink of how they structure communications and marketing so that they focus less on how to get the news out and more on how to drive engagement on a consistent basis. That word ‘consistent’ is critical. Brands that engage around a new campaign and then go dark are the ones that create the largest expectation gap with their customers. Avoiding going dark requires a rethink of the ‘big idea’ approach to marketing and instead a focus on what the guys at our Bourne agency have termed the ‘long idea’. After all, today’s world needs ideas that drive lasting engagement by creating a series of conversations, not just one.
I challenge you to look at the frequency with which your brand or your clients are creating a reason to engage and then compare that with the competition. While pace of engagement isn’t everything it is rapidly becoming a key measure of a brand and its value. So if you are trying to drive brand value, take a long hard look at how frequently you are engaging with customers, stakeholders and partners. In today’s world, it’s not the only way to drive brand value but it sure is a crucial one. Oh and while your are at it please make sure to feed my insatiable appetite for updates, insight etc. In todays’s world can you engage too much? Let’s leave that topic for another post.
I used to blog quite frequently but lately my blogging has tailed off while my tweeting has risen. This got me thinking about the impact of Twitter on blogs. Objectively Twitter is a great way to promote a blog. It’s also a great way to get across the key points that may otherwise have been in a blog in less than a 140 characters. This has two types of impact:
1. People seem to be abandoning their blogs in favor of tweeting or posting a comment of Facebook.
2. People are using Twitter to get their news and perspective rather than blogs. Twitter gives you a readers digest version of the blog. It cuts to the chase marvelously and makes savage editors out of all of its contributors. In other words people are often simply reading lots of small prices of insight instead of a few longer blog posts.
I’ve heard some people describe Twitter as a micro blogging site. If you agree with that I guess blogging is being replaced by micro blogging.
I have yet to find hard stats on how Twitter has affected the number of blogs out there. I suspect commercial blogs are still on the rise. Whereas personal blogs are disappearing as their writers become tweeters and their readers become Twitter followers. If anyone has robust data on this I’d love to see it. Until then, I’ll just Tweet this blog post.
I keep reading about brands that have used social media to reach their audience. It’s kind of funny when you think about that. First it’s funny because traditional media is writing about the very media that is killing them. Second, it’s funny how obsessed we are that social media is ‘different’ from old media. There seems to be a belief that social is inherently better. Why is that? Is it because social is seen as more democratic? Is it because social is seen as more real? Or is it because social is just the new way?
Before I go any further let me get one thing off my chest. While there is some traditional media left, the vast majority of media is now social. Most of our media has social aspects to it. We can share it, comment on it, create our own versions of it and directly influence it. Some purists would say that organizations such as the BBC are traditional media businesses. Yet if you look at almost all their online content it has a social element to it. The BBC has made real efforts to embrace social media and social network concepts. I still feel they could go a lot further but they have come a very long way in the last year. Organizations such as the New York Times have also taken bold steps as have publications such as Forbes. Again, there is more they could do but you have to applaud their efforts. We now follow their editors on Twitter, we get their news in real-time, we see comments from other readers.
So does all this mean that social is now the norm? I’d say that many aspects of social are the norm. Publications have realized that the value of content is directly linked to the number of people that share that content. Sharing an old fashioned print story was hard and rarely happened. Sharing a news story via twitter, Facebook, email etc is all too easy. So easy in fact that we are now looking for ways to filter all the content. When social arrived we all loved the idea that we could effectively let our friends filter the content for us. If our friends thought it was worth re-tweeting it was probably worth a read. With thousands of tweets landing on our feeds each day that method is a bust. We now need tools to filter the filter.
So the challenge for the media isn’t to become more social. The smart ones have already done that and are now struggling with how to break through all the clutter. Put another way, social media is starting to deal with the very same challenge most companies have been wrestling with since so much commerce went online. When people started buying products online search optimization took off. Now of course most social content has some optimization built in. But I’d argue that most tweets, blogs and YouTube videos are not that optimized (this blog is a great example). Indeed it would seem that content optimization is still a huge opportunity for the creators of content. Indeed I’d argue it is THE opportunity.
I’m sure some of the social media gurus out there will say I have this all wrong but IMHO there is still more talk than action on search from comms staff. Most comms staff don’t discuss search strategies, they talk about content strategies. They don’t conduct search audits, they conduct messaging audits. This is not surprising. Most of the people in communications have grown up with content as king. We are trained to find ways to craft messages not optimize for real time search engines. I’d argue that our obsession with content is a good thing BUT that we need an equal obsession on search if we are to win in a digital world. Content, however great it may be, has no value if nobody can find it.
PR agencies are all trying to figure out how best to take advantage of the shift to digital. The main point of debate for most agencies is whether they should embed digital skills across the agency or simply create a group of digital gurus. This is a real challenge and hard to get right. Given we all know that in time digital is going to be as commonplace in PR as the press release has been in the last 50 years, it would seem to make sense to take the route of spreading the skills across the agency. The counter argument to that though is that some of the skills needed to excel at digital communications are not ones all PR people can easily learn and are not ones they’ll always need. Some skills are so specialized that to load them on to the skill list of the average PR consultant is simply unrealistic at best and a waste of time at worst. Looked at this way it seems logical that some middle ground is the answer. Yes PR operators need to understand digital but they don’t need to be masters of everything, instead they need to call on experts to help them out. In many ways it’s like asking a crisis comms expert to come in when you need one. Most PR operators know the basics and could make a pretty good job of handling most crises but when a company’s reputation is on the line it seems sensible to bring in an experienced pro.
So what digital skills should a PR PRO have? Here’s my suggested list:
- They need to understand the basic online analytical tools that are available to capture what is being said on Twitter, Facebook, a Ning or Grouply site etc. They also need to be able to interpret the results of these social media measurement tools and connect the dots between this data and other data such as traditional media measurement output.
- They need to know how to manage a community so that it becomes a real community and not just their client posting to a sea of indifferent followers.
- They need to be able to create content that is suited to the various platforms the Internet offers. This is potentially the most difficult area as it requires PR people to move away for pure text-based content to visual images, audio and video as means of influencing people. PR people need to be able to think in terms of the impact an image or a video or a can have on someone’s perception of a brand.
- They need to understand search. This of course means SEO not just how to look something up on Google. It therefore means knowing how to optimize text, images and video so people find them. This is an area that is evolving. Right now all PR people should learn the basics but equally every PR agency should have access to an expert.
If you are just starting out, or have been in the industry for some time, these are skills that are going to be essential in the next few years. There are of course many others but in my view if you have a grasp of these you will be on the right track.
The rise of social media is stunning. Back in 2004 sites like MySpace were emerging but Twitter and Facebook hadn’t yet appeared. Blogs were around but few read them. Today Facebook and Twitter are household names and every consumer brand has some form of social media strategy. So is social media a permanent part of the sales and marketing landscape moving forward? It seems hard to imagine that people will stop wanting to interact online unless of course they find something else more interesting to do. This is key though. The rise of social media is like the rise of the TV that it has usurped. Social media, it turns out, is interesting, entertaining and somewhat addictive. Yet if you had asked people back in the 1980s if they thought they’d spend more time on computers in the evening than they do watching TV, they’d have laughed. That’s because computers back then were… rubbish by today’s standards. They had no such thing as Internet connectivity and had monitors that were mainly monochrome. Fun eh? So assuming social media is a permanent fixture may be premature. Of course it’s unlikely that social media will go away any time soon. But to assume its place in our lives and our children’s lives is assured would seem potentially naive.
That said it seems certain that the likes of Twitter and Facebook will dominate for some time to come as more and more people find ways to use these technologies. But let’s be really clear, the idea that in 10 years time you will be looking at 140 character Tweets and four line Facebook updates seems unlikely. Surely we will have moved on to a very different world? I can still see people wanting to interact and get perspectives, ideas and thoughts. But the idea that this will be a largely text-based environment is hard to imagine. Video/pure audio will surely play a larger role and it would seem logical that the way we access today’s equivalent of social media will change. Right now we access sites like Facebook from PCs, notebooks, smartphones and of course tablets. In the near future accessing them through TVs will become commonplace. Now imagine Facebook on a 50″ flat screen TV. Surely you’d want to use it differently to the way you do today on a handheld device? For one thing you have so much space to play with and the potential to use video in interesting ways is obvious. Yes it seems clear that Facebook and Twitter (assuming they are still around) in 2020 will be VERY different and will get used in ways that seem hard to imagine today. Of course it could be that they get usurped by another social media technology in way that MySpace did. Regardless it seems logical to expect social media to continue to grow as new opportunities arise for people to use the technology.
The only cloud on the horizon for social media would seem to be ‘the next big thing.’ By that I mean the equivalent of TV coming along in the 1950s and changing society in ways nobody had envisioned. I’m hardly the one to predict the next big thing but I certainly wouldn’t bet against there being one. Until that happens, have a sound social media/digital strategy would seem essential.
Yesterday I wrote about how social media is increasing the value of traditional media. It occurred to me today that social media also offers a great way to determine the level to which news from traditional media is ‘consumed.’ For example a news story that gets tweeted by 50 people has been ‘consumed’ by those 50, not just noticed. If you follow this logic you could create an interesting set of metrics that look at the degree to which certain news items are blogged, tweeted etc. You could then look to see if certain publications, or certain editors, or certain topics score better than others. I appreciate that like all metrics there would be ways to influence the results but I suspect it would create a very useful way of assessing the power of media sources over time.
Marketing budgets are tight, very tight in fact. It’s not, therefore, uncommon for CMOs to put aside a portion of their budget and have the agencies pitch their best ideas to get a share of that pot. When it comes to PR, the idea de jour is to create some program that utilizes social media or digital in some way. This is actually pretty sensible for many situations BUT the challenge comes when you have to justify that spend versus other, more traditional areas of marketing. Let’s say you propose creating a vertical social network on Grouply for people that love mountain biking. It’s a pretty targeted program and you could measure the success based on how many people join the network and how many actively engage with the community. Great idea if your client is somehow connected to this community. You could suggest a blogger relations program to address certain misconceptions about your clients product. Again, great as in this instance you can measure how the bloggers now talk about your clients products. However, the challenge here is how does the client know that spending money on a social media program that would be a better use of his or her budget than say placing a piece in a trade publication? The end metrics are very different and not easy to compare unless you’re very lucky and the client only does one form of marketing at activity at a time.
Right now some clients are leaping in to social media/digital because they inherently know it is a good way to spend money and they have a good enough reputation within their company/they are brave enough to deal with the consequences. However, for all the ones that are doing this, there are still plenty that aren’t. By this I don’t mean that they aren’t spending money on social media but rather that they are not spending as much as they could. Clients still default to the tried and trusted that is easier to justify. And frankly I don’t really blame them. Having failed as an industry to convince our clients that they have to use measurement tools for every campaign, I fear we are about to repeat the mistake with digital. If we do we will lose a lot more than the pots of money CMOs are putting aside right now. We will have lost the opportunity to make PR truly the new advertising and that would be a real shame.