If there was one overarching theme from the first day of the Online Marketing and Media ’08 Conference it was creativity. Creativity and engagement. Creativity, engagement and communities. Creativity, engagement, communities and conversation. And nice red uniforms. I’ll start again shall I?
Ok, there wasn’t one underlying theme but the Spanish Inquisition aside, the four elements listed above were repeated regularly throughout all sessions I was at and some of the workshops. The message is clear. The level of conversation has changed and if you’re not engaging with communities who connect with your brand on whatever level then you’re at best losing out and, at worst, leaving the door open to some serious damage online.
Respond. Engage. Listen
New Media Age’s editor-in-chief Michael Nutley set the tone with his keynote overview of the industry. In many respects much of what was said shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody in the room, yet it pulled many different strands together neatly. For traditional media it was both exciting and terrifying. Exciting because of the possibilities and terrifying because it was clear how easy it would be to get left behind.
Trends, said Nutley, were here to stay. Nobody wants to go back to 56k after experiencing broadband. And while Facebook et al may be slightly less indispensible than broadband, the social media landscape and conversation has cemented itself into far enough into our culture to have profoundly changed how we get our information and engage with brands.
But it wasn’t just Facebook, MySpace and Bebo that were regularly brought up as social media conversation-enablers. YouTube, lastfm, Flickr, del.icio.us, WAYN, moneysupermarket.com, Top Table, Lego enthusiast communities and many more even more niche sites were mentioned throughout the day.
The message here is clear. These conversation about lego, travel, food, pictures, video, music and brands are happening online and if PR and marketing professionals want to be part of this they need to be prepared to enter the conversation and, occasionally, get their fingers burnt.
The dialogue is never ending either. Nutwell gave the example of Nike, who’d built such a successful social social community for runners surrounding the launch of their new trainer that when the marketers wanted to move onto focus on a different area they found the community had grown organically to such a stage that it couldn’t realistically be abandoned. But Nike also had a valuable commodity on their hands a direct line to consumers who were prepared to enthusiastically engage with the brand.
Then there was the example of the wine company who did their research on forums and blogs and sent out cases of wine to the most influential of these. They were rewarded with a large spike in sales, but when other companies tried to copy the tactic, the success was a lot more muted.
Yet engaging with the online community – especially leading opinion makers, with samples of good occasionally – is necessary. Sally Cowdry from O2 told the audience of a similar success with the Cocoon handset, again by offering free samples.
Yet their were notes of caution here. One aspect which will terrify some CEOs, marketeers and PR professionals is once the brand or product is thrown out into the wilds of the internet there’s no control of what may come back.
As Cowdry emphasised, you’ve got to be prepared to offer yourself up to criticism, so if you’re engaging with the communities you’ve got to really believe in whatever issue or product you’re having the conversation around. Because if you get it wrong, then one of the first things anybody could see if they type the keywords into Google is a long post or forum thread tearing strips off the product you were hoping to promote.
To that end, any engagement has to be done transparently. All communities, be it clubbers, students, people discussing travel arrangements, or Lego enthusiasts, will react badly if they discover you’re covertly setting up ‘clean’ blogs or user profiles to promote a product or defend a brand without making it clear it’s affiliated to whatever the brand, product or topic is. Again, that’s likely to have a seriously negative impact on your Google rankings.
But starting the conversation is very different and if you hit the right note with the right campaign, piece of PR, or just the right post on the right community, then that conversation will organically grow with your brand at the centre of it.
To that end, Leo Ryan from Ryan MacMillian produced some fascinating data from the London Elections. Using various social media analyzing tools – like Technorati, Facebook Leixcon, Google Trends, Clusty, del.icio.us tagclouds and others – for the London Mayor election, the stats showed Boris had better buzzmetrics than Ken on just about everything bar blogs, where Ken was slightly more talked about it. In particular, the Boris-related chatter on Facebook was nearly three times that of Ken.
But what was interesting was this conversation was taking place around Boris’s announcements and NOT the debate between Ken and Boris. When Boris put out a new release or a new policy, traffic and chatter would spike, unlike when Ken tried to debate Boris’s policies. In some respects, it’s not unreasonable to assume that part of Ken’s strategy was blunted because he was simply repeating the online conversation rather than starting it.
Whether the chatter for Boris was positive or negative isn’t so easy to ascertain and, unlike using the free services, more powerful paid-for tools were needed here.
But Leo Ryan’s talk, the most illuminating of the lot, showed it was easy to track your social media footprint (in the above case, Boris and Ken’s footprint) using readily available free tools. The results wouldn’t produce perfect results every time and would have to go through several levels of cleaning or analysing.
So that means checking results against each other, finding the key phrases, refining them and playing the results of the tools off against each other, rinsing out aspects that may skew the results (for example, an unrelated term cropping up on a regular basis in the tools).
Taken together the tools – Technorati, Summize, Clusty, Google’s assorted services, Twing, Blogpulse and others – offer a way to spot who’s talking about you, what they’re saying and, perhaps just as important, what they’re not saying. It’s a great way to gauge the level of feedback and can be done in a morning.
Conclusions (but by no means the end of it all)
In truth, most of the conclusions that I drew from the day were already mentioned in the first paragraph, bar the nice red uniforms (and I’d prefer white stripes with mine anyway).
Firsty, this social media malarky isn’t difficult. Yes, some of today may have, in my case, been preaching to the converted but it really does emphasise how easy it is to start engaging with communities and track results. Anybody who gets scared by these tools shouldn’t be. They’re not necessarily the be all or end all but neither are they like a piece of tricky technology that only a select few can master. Anybody can get involved and engage if they want to. And chances are they already do, be it fan forums, review sites and research before purchasing a product, exchanging travel tips, sharing YouTube videos and the like.
And it’s never been easier to find and share this content, be it through social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us and Digg, music sites like Lastfm, networking places like Facebook and LinkedIn, even the reviews section of Amazon. It’s all out there.
Secondly, the nature of the conversation has changed significantly from a few years ago and will continue to evolve. Traditional advertising models still have a place but are no longer as effective. Given the controversy over Facebook’s Beacon project, and the fact that it’s becoming easier than even to skip adverts on TV, be it watching online, using Sky+ or other recorders, communities don’t want people talking at them. They want to be engaged with, to have their say, to get responses. Conversation is a two-way process, but many companies treat it as if there’s only one person with anything to say or worth saying. That attitude’s a surefire way to the deadpool.
But, above all, it’s worth trying new things. It’s worth being creative. Not every potential viral will be shared around offices by bored workers on a Thursday afternoon. Not every attempt to engage with bloggers, forums and other sites will be a success. But it still doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Starting the conversation in an open, transparent and prepared-to-engage way stands a good chance of getting whatever is being promoted talked about online. It’s not the same or in place of traditional media outlets but its still just as valuable.
Hey, journalists, I’ve not forgotten you!
While the above all sounds very marketeer-like, the journalist in me can easily see how these tools and insights into the social media conversation (sorry, I’m doing it again. I’ll try and stop that) could be useful. Using the right tools – again Technorati, Google Alerts, del.icio.us, Digg, Summize, etc – it should be possible for the modern Web 2.0-literate journalist to have a handle on a story or their patch either through an hour’s work online or, better still, waiting for them in their inbox each morning.
I’ve already shown how useful tools like Twitter, Google, Technorati and forums are when you’re tracking a breaking news story, and that’s only going to increase as more users adopt assorted social media.
If the conversation is happening online, then that, in a way, is no different from the conversation down the pub. In my time I’ve been taught by assorted journalists that firstly the pub is a great source of news stories and, secondly, is a good benchmark of if your story is relevant to your audience – ie can you imagine people talking about it down the pub.
Well, now you’ve got your virtual ‘pub’ in so many locations Blogs, Facebook Groups, Google Groups, Twitter, feedback sites, the lot. Not only are these a great way of getting stories, but also to build contacts for the future by listening and engaging in the conversation with communities.
See, I’m doing it again. Journalists, publicists and marketeers may be after different ends but the means can be the same.