Posts Tagged ‘pr’

How To Engage On Sites Using Facebook’s New Commenting Plugin

Facebook recently introduced a new version of its Facebook Comment Box Plugin, allowing website owners to integrate their commenting functionality with their Facebook presence.

We’ve already looked at the pros and cons of the Facebook commenting plugin for businesses considering implementing the plugin on their sites. Today, let’s take a look at what the implications are for companies running engagement programs.

The new plugin poses a conundrum to those working in engagement programs – specifically, around how they engage in the comment streams on sites using the plugin:

  • Do they comment as a Facebook Page, assuming they have one (and deal with the lower personalization and effect on Page content)?
  • Do they personalize responses more by using commenters’ own Facebook accounts (does that cross a work/life boundary)?
  • Do they just avoid commenting on sites using this plugin?

Here’s my take on five clear options for people running social media response programs. What’s yours? Let us all know what you think in the comments below.

Option 1: Individual employees comment using their own profiles

Have company employees log in and comment using their own Facebook profiles.

  • Pros:
    • Transparency of person’s identity
    • Avoids potentially negative comment streams being pushed to the company’s Facebook page
  • Cons:
    • Requires employee to use a personal account for business purposes. Could be considered to cross a work/life divide
    • Company-related conversation aggregated on employee Facebook profile
    • Possible that some company spokespeople may not have Facebook pages
  • Conclusion:
    • As transparent as this option is, the cons and the risk of violating work/life boundaries outweigh the benefits
    • Lost opportunity to aggregate relevant conversation and to activate advocates on page

Option 2: Comment as company-owned Facebook page

Company employees log in to their own accounts, but use the new person-like features of Facebook Pages to leave comments as the company’s Facebook page.

  • Pros:
    • Clear that responses come from company’s official presence
    • Avoids using personal accounts for business purposes
    • Drive additional traffic to appropriate Facebook pages
    • Aggregated conversations provide additional content for Facebook pages
  • Cons:
    • Potential lower transparency, as company name shows as the comment author (although can be mitigated via comment content)
    • Conversations aggregated on company page may not be positive in tone
    • Dilutes official content on the company’s Facebook page
    • Requires wider group of employees to have admin access to the company’s Facebook page, meaning less control over activity on the page
    • Potential for accidental comments as Facebook Pages on non company-related conversations, if employees forget to change their commenting profile back to their personal accounts
  • Conclusion:
    • Clear benefits over using personal profiles, but increases the level of risk on company pages via increased admin access and unpredictable content. Depending on the company, this approach may be viable.

Option 3: Create new, business-only Facebook profiles for commenters

Company employees engage in the comment streams under their own names, but via  profiles created purely for company use.

  • Pros:
    • Separation of personal and business profiles
    • Avoid additional admins on Facebook pages
    • Maintains engagement on sites with Facebook commenting plugin installed
    • Avoids diluting content on Facebook pages
  • Cons:
    • Violates Facebook terms and conditions – risk of accounts being deleted by Facebook.
    • Lost opportunity to aggregate relevant conversation and to activate advocates on page
  • Conclusion:
    • Risk incurred from violating Facebook terms and conditions is not advisable.

Option 4: Create Yahoo! accounts for commenters

Company employees comment on posts themselves, but do so through a new integration in the plugin – a Yahoo! login.

  • Pros:
    • Works within Facebook’s rules
    • Avoid additional admins on Facebook pages
    • Avoids diluting content on Facebook pages
    • Maintains engagement on sites with Facebook commenting plugin installed
  • Cons:
    • Less credibility of commenter profiles – Facebook profiles perceived as more credible than Yahoo! accounts
    • Lost opportunity to aggregate relevant conversation and to activate advocates on page
    • Could be perceived as easy for anyone to claim to be a company employee
  • Conclusion:
    • This option minimizes risk to the company and maintains the ability to engage. However, this option also loses the opportunity to curate conversations on the Facebook page, and the lack of identity verification that Facebook provides may reduce spokesperson credibility (although no more than via other commenting systems).All-in-all, this provides a viable option for companies looking to engage on these sites.

Option 5: Avoid commenting where Facebook Commenting Plugin is used

Avoid the pros and cons of all of the other options by refraining from engagement on sites using the new Facebook commenting plugin.

  • Pros:
    • Avoids risk of accidental cross-posting
    • Avoids diluting Facebook page content
  • Cons:
    • Lose opportunity to participate in relevant conversations via comment streams
    • If adoption of Facebook pages increases, lose broader opportunity to engage
  • Conclusion:
    • This is the “do nothing” approach. Frankly, it’s a last-resort if a company is already engaging in conversations on third-party sites.

Conclusion: It depends on your culture

Facebook has thrown a bit of a wrench in the works for companies engaging in social media response programs. None of these options is ideal from a company perspective – each comes with draw-backs in terms of risk, transparency and credibility.

Many companies may want to use Facebook’s new ‘company as a page’ functionality (option #2) to benefit from the ability to aggregate conversations on their own Facebook pages, and to do so credibly while providing interesting conversations for fans of their pages to participate in – and a way to leverage the advocates on your page to weigh-in on relevant topics.

However, for those carefully tailoring the volume and type of content posted on their pages, this makes life difficult. Dan Zarrella, for example, has shown that if you post too often to your page, you may lose fans. By throwing comment replies into the mix, companies may run the risk of saturating their page with content, to the detriment of people on the page. What’s more, your comments are unlikely to always be positive, so you may end up aggregating negative conversations on your page.

Meanwhile, logging-in via a Yahoo ID (option #4) offers a good balance of maintaining work/life separation for empoyees, influence over Facebook Page content, and risk mitigation from avoiding additional page admins and reducing the risk of accidental comments “by the company”. The downside of this, though, is the lost opportunity to bring these conversations to your fans, and the lack of identity verification that Yahoo IDs provide.

Ultimately, this is likely to come down to company culture. Is your culture more risk averse? Then you may want to go with Yahoo IDs. Are you more accepting of slightly higher risk? Then commenting as your company’s Facebook page may provide the greatest benefits without usurping employees’ personal accounts.

What do you think? Would you come to the same conclusion? What would you add to the mix?

Trust Barometer Reveals Need For Mature Social Media

Yesterday I was privileged to attend the Toronto launch of the Canadian results of Edelman’s 2011 Trust Barometer survey with my employer, Richard Edelman.

This year, even more than in recent years, I find the results of the survey fascinating from both traditional and digital communications standpoints

Trust in 2011

The broad findings of this year’s survey are themselves interesting:

Credentials Count More Than Ever

  • Trust in experts rose over the last year — and after years of being at or near the bottom, CEOs saw an increase in credibility, rising from eighth (bottom) to fifth in the rankings.
  • 99 per cent of informed publics find academics and experts — long the front runners — “extremely,” “very,” or “somewhat” credible.

Trust in Canadian Businesses

  • Canadian headquartered companies maintain high levels of trust, at 75 per cent.
  • In Canada, trust in NGOs exceeds trust in business.
  • When a company is not trusted, 63% of people informed publics will believe negative information after hearing it 1-2 times. When the company is trusted, that falls to 22%.
  • When a company is trusted, 40% of people informed publics will believe positive information after hearing it 1-2 times, compared to just 7% if that company is not trusted.
  • In general, 65% of people informed publics need to hear something 3-5 times before it is trusted.
  • The new trust framework involves profit with purpose, engagement with stakeholders and transparency around the company’s activities.

Social media and trust

Deeper within this year’s results, there are some really interesting findings for people in the social media space:

The fall of “people like me”

Trust in “people like me,” which peaked in 2006, fell 11% this year. While it’s still high – 80% of Canadians informed publics trust ‘people like them’ as an information source – it fell to the bottom of the rankings, below CEOs, regular employees and technical experts

For companies engaged in social media activities, this is a clear pointer that they need to incorporate a range of spokespeople in their activities. Relying purely on ‘word of mouth’ is not enough. Combined with the findings about the number of times people need to hear something, this points to the need for integrated communications approaches using a variety of sources and spokespeople to reach companies’ audiences.

The credibility of online news

Online search engines are Canadians’ respondents’ number one source for news and information about a company. Social media comes in at the bottom of the list.

Frankly, this isn’t too surprising, from a couple of angles.

Social media is increasingly moving to bite-size chunks, and taking on a role as a portal to company news. As such, there’s less room for context and for fact-checking, leading people to look elsewhere for information about a company (Richard did make a point that the research looked more at company information for considering stock purchases, for example, than at information for consumer-level purchase decisions).

Secondly, as outlined in my 2011 trends presentation, search strategies are becoming increasingly important to digital activities – not just from a content development perspective but at a strategic, cross-channel level.

Thirdly, the lines around “social media” are becoming blurred. For example, company websites may make a resurgence, as companies integrate the social graph into their owned media (see Etsy, Levi’s (client) for example). Does that count as social media? Is the Huffington Post a blog or a news site? It’s not a black and white distinction.

Fourthly, there’s much more to social media than just reaching consumers. Key influencers, stakeholders and mainstream media can all be engaged through these channels.

Social media needs to mature

This all speaks to a broader need for a more mature approach to social media. It’s not enough to just be there any more – those times have come and gone (good riddance). It’s not enough to just tweet something out and expect everyone to believe it. It’s certainly not enough to let your social media channels operate in a corporate silo, detached from other communications functions.

To continue to approach social media in this immature way is a recipe for failure.

It’s time for a more mature approach to social media and trust – one that integrates different media forms; one that engages people over the long term and one that takes a more considered approach to generating trust among audiences.

What do you think?

Here’s the executive summary of this year’s results. Take a look for yourself, and tell me – what are the stand-out results for you?

(Updated thanks to some thoughtful input from Daniel Blouin in the comments below)

20 Social Media Trends for Business in 2011

One of the great things about working in the digital space right now is observing the many changes constantly occurring. This week, I had an opportunity to pull together some of the key social media trends I’m seeing for a presentation at an event in Waterloo.

Some of these trends are existing and ongoing; others are new. Some are practical; others are theoretical. Some are almost guaranteed; others may amount to momentary blips. Some ideas come from my head; others were curated by my colleagues Steve Rubel and David Armano.

Hopefully one or two of them will spark ideas for you.

I grouped the trends into five themes:

  1. Silo-busting
    • Trend #1: Integration
    • Trend #2: Social customer support
    • Trend #3: Social impact drives reputation
  2. Maturation of social media
    • Trend #4: Death of the campaign
    • Trend #5: Consolidation
    • Trend #6: “Influence” matures
    • Trend #7: Democratization of voice
    • Trend #8: Return of websites
  3. Rise of the ‘less shiny object’
    • Trend #9: Digitally driven crises
    • Trend #10: Digital curation
    • Trend #11: Strategic search
    • Trend #12: Community management
    • Trend #13: Developer engagement
    • Trend #14: Measurement matures
    • Trend #15: Rise of the content strategist
  4. Communication accelerates
    • Trend #16: Listening becomes mandatory
    • Trend #17: Marketing in streams
    • Trend #18: Social media overload
  5. Ubiquitous mobile
    • Trend #19: Ubiquitous social
    • Trend #20: Location, location, Facebook

Bet you could add to this list. What do you think I’ve missed?

Your Brainstorms Suck

Brainstorms are one of the most fun parts of the communications planning process. You get to remove restrictions from your mind, pretend there are no limits and be as creative as you like.

The trouble is, most brainstorms suck.

Huh?

Most brainstorms focus entirely on tactics… on coming up with ideas in whatever way you can. You end up with ideas in search of a strategy. People then try to craft a strategic framework around it to justify the “big idea” to the decision maker.

If course, decision makers love the big idea. It’s glamorous; they can get excited. The strategy seems to fit with the idea, too (because you made sure it did).

The critical filter to apply is: do the ideas and the strategy flow back up to the objectives at hand?

You won’t make many friends if you only push this line of thinking towards the end of the process, especially if you keep pressing the issue. People will often have to admit to themselves that there isn’t a fit there, and you’ll become the bad guy. EVERY communications person out there thinks they come up with strategic ideas, whether it’s true or not.

Instead, try to rig the process from the beginning. Pull a smaller group together and figure out the strategic approach you want to take to the issue at hand. Pull that into a briefing and make sure everyone has read it before the brainstorm. Review it again at the beginning of the session. Then, take the handcuffs off and brainstorm away with the same freedom as before.

Finally, at the end of the session (either with the group or separately), filter the ideas through that strategic approach and see which ones stick.

The result: ideas led by a strategy that hits the business need, not the other way around.

Make sense? How do you ensure your brainstorms are effective?

Are You Ready If Wikileaks Targets You?

Wikileaks creator Julian Assange has announced that his site is now going to begin to focus on businesses. Apparently the first target, early next year, will be a major American bank. Is your company ready to handle the crisis if an organization like Wikileaks decides to focus its attention on you?

The list of organizations getting blindsided by online attacks is growing ever longer. DKNY joined their ranks recently, thanks to PETANestle will be a case study of how not to respond for a long time thanks to Greenpeace; and the Cooks Source magazine got completely derailed when their misdoings were uncovered and detailed online.

Do you know how you’d respond in these kinds of situations, let alone if thousands of internal documents were revealed by an organization like Wikileaks?

If your answer is “no,” here are a few pointers

Dust off your crisis communications plan

Unearth your crisis communications plan. Does it include a digital component? If it doesn’t, find the appropriate people within your organization and work with them to update it.

Assume it’s coming

Organizations should assume that digital properties they manage, whether on-domain or off-domain, will get attacked by third parties. Every marketing initiative should, at a minimum, incorporate escalation processes into their plans. Community managers (whether internal or agency side) should be equipped with appropriate training and resources to respond to a situation should it occur… because one day, it might. As DKNY found out recently, these attacks can come from out of nowhere.

Plan and practice for scenarios

Pull people from multiple departments together and consider the most likely issues that might emerge, then practice responding to them. Use facilitators to establish scenarios, and drill your response team so that, when an issue occurs, people know how to respond.

The ostrich approach doesn’t work

As David Armano points out, shutting your online properties down just isn’t an appropriate response to an issue. Sticking your head in the sand (the ostrich approach) won’t make a serious issue go away and it doesn’t mean other people won’ t see the controversy; it just means you won’t see it.

Don’t be dumb

As I noted in the case of Cooks Source, communications can’t save you if you’re doing the wrong thing. Wikileaks, Greenpeace and PETA go after organizations they see as doing wrong. There’s no way you can please everyone and you shouldn’t run your company in constant fear, but you can avoid making yourself a target of these kinds of attacks by not doing dumb things.

What else would you add?

Why Paying Bloggers For Posts Changes The Game

There’s been a lot of debate back and forth around bloggers (generally mommy bloggers, although they’re certainly not the only ones) receiving direct payment for posts over the last little while. The latest post to catch my eye was a controversial piece over at Mom Blog Magazine entitled Why PR People Get Paid And You Don’t.

I’ve shied away from this topic in the past, but after some interesting conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks I’m ready to weigh in.

A quick note up-front: I’ve been writing here for six years now. Over that time I’ve built this site up from a static site, that I coded by hand in Notepad, to a blog with 40,000 views each month.

While I’ve never accepted monetary payment for posting, I generally get several requests to incorporate ads each week. I get the attraction – it’s a lot of work to maintain a blog – and I don’t begrudge anyone from monetizing their site.

With that out of the way, on to the crux of the matter…

To put it simply, bloggers accepting (or demanding) payment for posts changes the game for them in several ways:

  • You shift from earned to paid media
  • You shift from content creator to service provider
  • You need to compete for budget

Let me explain further…

You shift from earned to paid media

If we break online communications into different spheres – owned, paid, earned and social media – PR has traditionally played in the “earned media” space. When PR people pitch a journalist on a story, we’re trying to “earn” that coverage.

Earned media brings with it lots of advantages. It’s highly credible, it’s long-term (it lives on) and it increasingly plays a role in product sales. On the flip side, though, earned media is near-impossible to control – in terms of quantity of coverage, of tone of the journalist/blogger’s coverage or of the content of the coverage. However, the benefits have traditionally outweighed the risks (hence PR people have jobs).

To journalists/bloggers, that means that when a PR person approaches them, they have control of how they react to the ask. They can turn it down entirely and write nothing, or they can write a positive, neutral or even negative piece if they so choose. That’s fine, because they’re producing editorial content. PR people accept that risk when they pitch.

When money exchanges hands, the situation changes. Suddenly you’re no longer playing in the “earned media” space. Now you’re in the “paid media” space. That changes the expectations. If brands pay for placement, they have different expectations to when they just pitch for coverage. Not only do they expect the post to appear, but they also have different expectations around control of content.

Update: Paid media also suffers from a draw-back of being less trusted than earned coverage. (thanks to Jen Zingsheim for noting this in the comments)

It’s not a black-and-white situation in reality – mainstream media is now adopting more of a pay-for-play model – however, brands do get control over key messages within those stories.

Simply put: you earn coverage; you pay for ads. You can’t have things both ways. If you accept payment, expect different conditions.

Your role in the situation changes

The earned/paid distinction also plays into the second of the key factors in this debate.

On the earned media side, the PR person is looking for a win-win situation – they’re looking to win through favourable coverage; meanwhile they’re looking to provide value to the blogger through content opportunities that fit their needs (so they’ll publish not just this time but also down the road).

Once we’re dealing in the paid media space, the situation changes. Suddenly, you’re not just the recipient of a pitch, who gets to decide what to do. You’re a person who wants payment to provide a service. That means you need to demonstrate value to the party that’s looking to purchase that service.

This means a shift in roles. The PR person becomes a client, just as someone buying ad space is a client of the publication selling the ads. Meanwhile, you (now as a service provider) have more of an obligation around quality.

This leads into the last key factor here…

You need to compete for budget

When companies allocate marketing budgets to PR, advertising, interactive and social programs, they make a decision on how to allocate those resources to get the best results.

When PR agencies come up with their plans, they consider how to get the best results for the budget they have. Sometimes that will incorporate a blogger outreach program. They make the decision that this is the best use of their budget.

When bloggers require payment in order to write a post, they add another decision point in the budgeting process. That isn’t, by itself, an issue. However, the result is that the blogger then finds themselves competing against other options for budget.

That’s right – you’re competing for budget. That competition means:

  • You need to demonstrate your value, and “well you want my coverage so I’m valuable” isn’t an appropriate response.
  • Your asking price needs to be based in reality – on the value you can provide. How can you demonstrate your influence? Again, on the earned side the PR pro needs to do that research to satisfy the client; once you become paid media the onus is also on you.
  • You’re up against paid media with established CPM and/or CPC figures, with stated audiences and at least a ball-park number of impressions an advertiser can expect.

Again, is this bad? No. The reality, though, is that when you ask for money for your service, that needs to come at the expense of something else. Your value is therefore going to get compared to other investments. This can be a tough dose of reality for some bloggers, especially those with small audiences, who are used to getting the VIP treatment from brands.

Payment changes the situation

The bottom line here is that, when you ask for payment in order to write a post, the situation changes. You’re no longer just a blogger/journalist from whom a company is seeking earned coverage. You’re  a media property from whom they’re buying coverage.

Bloggers who decide to go this route need to understand that this is the situation. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to monetize your site, but if you’re not ready to deal with this reality then you could be in for a cold, harsh wake-up call.

There are plenty of different sides to this, of course. What do you think?

5 Take-Aways on Social Media and Politics

Discussion around my recent post on some alleged unethical social media use during Toronto’s mayoral election got me thinking around some broader topics that have emerged recently.

Without further ado, here are five thoughts on themes I’ve seen recently.

1. People who try to tie social media success or failure alone to campaign results are nuts

I’ve said it many times, communications is evolving away from silos and towards integrated campaigns. As this continues, we’ll see fewer and fewer stand-alone “social media” successes and more and more multi-channel successes – for example, owned properties supported by earned media, paid ads and social channels.

People who continue to produce analyses of whether social media drove the success of a candidate, or whether better social media would have improved the odds of a candidate, are missing the bigger picture. We should be looking at the overall communications approaches of campaigns, and how they communicate the selling points of candidates and parties.

Take-away: Consider the bigger picture rather than analyzing artificial silos.

2. Buzz is very different to mobilization

The volume of online chatter about a candidate may say something about candidates, but is very, very different to activating those people to take action. The fact that people are discussing something doesn’t mean they are going to do anything about it. That’s especially the case when the online discussion is passive – that is, that it’s happening about offline activities but isn’t backed-up with online engagement or a call to action.

Take-away: Share of voice is only one metric. Look at other metrics alongside it, and analyse those metrics to provide useful insights and recommendations.

3. Social media doesn’t reach everyone

…and neither does the Globe and Mail. Neither does cable news. That’s why organizations – political and non-political – need to adopt communications approaches that integrate multiple media to reach people, multiple times, with consistent, simple and compelling content.

Take-away: Bring marketing, media and PR together to create integrated plans for optimum results.

4. Crises CAN emerge online

Crisis communications is a fascinating topic nowadays. There are plenty of scenarios where a situation can emerge online and translate into a critical election issue. For that reason it’s critical that organizations monitor online channels – and not just about themselves, but about their key issues – on an ongoing basis to identify issues early and provide additional time to mitigate them.

Take-away: Monitor before issues emerge, rather than after they hit, to create additional opportunities for issues management.

5. Communications can only solve so much

You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Communications can’t solve everything. If your policies are poor, good communications won’t help. If your product or service is poor, or your customer service is awful, good communications is likely to draw more peoples’ attention to that.

Yes, poor communications can ruin even the best policies – the best policy in the world is no use in a campaign if no-one understands it or knows about it – but communications can only do so much.

Take-away: Make sure the underlying fundamentals are good before pointing the finger at communications.

The Biggest Challenge Digital Communicators Face

Let’s chat about the biggest challenge I think digital communicators on the agency side face nowadays.

  • It’s not measurement
  • It’s not integrating channels in their programs
  • It’s not thinking strategically while selecting tactics

Don’t get me wrong – all of these are significant and important challenges. However, there’s a bigger one that over-arches all of them:

When we go into organizations and explain the way communications is shifting, we’re often telling people that the way they’ve communicated their whole career, and the way they see things working, is changing.

We’re telling people that their comfort zone is no longer in the right place.

Take the video interview I posted the other day, for example. When Sylvain Perron asked me what trends I see growing over the next while, I replied with two broad trends:

  1. Increased integration and decreased silos
  2. A shift from campaigns to long-term engagement

Each of these runs counter to the way that many people think.

Silo-busting

Senior marketing decision makers have often spent their whole careers thinking in terms of public relations (sometimes corporate and marcom), advertising, internal communications and, more recently, digital communications. They’re seen as discrete channels, often with their own AORs.

Nowadays, we’re moving to a place where the various channels overlap significantly, as shown in the graphic above (hat tip to David Armano).

This means both additional work to coordinate multiple agency partners, but also a need for much tighter integration between tactics, and as that happens the roles of different media are shifting (Forrester’s Sean Corcoran wrote about this late last year).

Shifting from campaigns to engagement

Many marketers have spent many years operating using a campaign model. These are characterized by large spikes in activity which drive spikes in attention from target audiences.

This model is a recipe for wasted resources in today’s communications environment.

In a system where we’re able to foster, curate and engage communities of interest around common goals, the approach of making a big splash then disappearing is highly inefficient. Not only do you drop back from that initial level of engagement, you also risk creating social media scorched earth as you do so.

Take campaign-based Facebook pages, for example.

Creating a one-shot Facebook page then deleting it is like spending thousands of dollars on a campaign that builds your email list, only to then take that email list and burn it when the campaign is done.

Instead, ongoing community engagement paired with regular spikes in activity can provide ongoing awareness and a platform from which to build with more major initiatives, while fostering brand advocates within that community.

Again, a shift.

This can be a hard shift to accept for people who are used to operating differently.

Tips to face the challenge

So how can we deal with this sensitively? Here are four tips:

  1. Be clear that this is an evolution. People aren’t doing things wrong; they just need to adjust to operate within this evolving media environment
  2. Educate your clients. Provide basic training, but also regular ongoing insights into trends, tools and useful pointers that can help busy clients to stay on-top of rapidly evolving trends.
  3. Recognize that things won’t change overnight. Many clients will continue to operate with discrete channels for campaigns. That means you may need to work closely with other agencies to develop plans.
  4. Help clients to coordinate. Agencies are all competing for a slice of the digital pie. That’s fine from a broader sense, but once you’re working on a campaign it’s important that that all ends and that agencies collaborate to ensure campaigns integrate. Work with your clients to help to structure roles and responsibilities within their agency team.
  5. Remember – while we may understand and be on-board with these changes, not everyone is as excited. Change can be scary until you have a handle on what’s going on. As consultants, it’s our job to give the best advice we can and to help our clients work through this transition.

So, what do you think? What other tips would you offer? Share them in the comments.

Digital Communications Conversations Continue To Evolve

The maturation of the conversation about social media-driven PR continues.

As the “digital communications” industry (read: somewhere in the intersection of owned, earned and paid media) grows beyond the niche and towards the mainstream, the conversation at the leading end of the industry is shifting more and more from the “why” to the “how”.

Brian Solis published a great post yesterday, touching on a couple of important topics at the heart of the evolution of social media-focused communications from shiny objects to a serious business tool:

  • The continued focus of the metrics conversation on conversion as an endpoint
  • The definition of “influencers” from a client perspective

Conversion

More and more people are honing in on the importance of driving towards tangible, credible metrics. Conversions are key within that bracket. What you define as a conversion may vary depending on context, but in general the term will focus you in on sales, memberships, opt-in contacts (leads) and the like.

Why do conversions matter? Because they’re metrics that can lead to financial results (or could actually measure that themselves in the case of sales).

Folks like KD Paine, Olivier Blanchard and Rob Clark, who are neck-deep in the topic, figured this stuff out a while back but we’re slowly seeing more people hone in on it. Meanwhile, they’re focusing on how to prove value over “what you should do” and “why you should do it.”

As Chris Brogan put in a well-timed post on social media metrics today, “The social media metric that I think does matter and that is difficult to fully qualify is sentiment: the positive or negative mentions of a brand, product, service, whatever.” While unlike him I choose not to “poo-poo” measuring things like retweets, page views etc, I completely agree that in general they’re at best a proxy towards measuring more useful results, and at worst a cop-out from people unsure how to measure final results or afraid what it would show.

Influencers

Research continues to highlight the importance of context over quantity when it comes to influence. As Solis puts it:

“Brands seeking reach, presence, and connectivity must look beyond popularity and focus on aligning with the influential beacons who serve as the hubs for contextual networks or nicheworks.”

This is becoming more and more important as the early adopters who have built large followings become the focus of more and more attention from marketers – not only will the returns be greater from focusing on niche influencers in terms of success ratio; those people have more credibility within those communities.

Simply put, while I’m likely to check out a new business contact management tool if Brogan recommends it, if he suddenly recommended a lawnmower (for example), I’m much less likely to listen than if he were a credible and regular voice on that topic. That’s not a slight on him, but a reflection of the credibility that people can build up in a community that cares about their niche – that’s why sites like Pulse of the Tweeters help to drive things forward a notch.

So, the conversations on social graphs and content topics continue to converge.

Follow these trends; they’re important ones for anyone working in the digital communications space.

Interview: Aaron Goldman – Everything I Know about Marketing I Learned From Google

Aaron Goldman is the author of Everything I Know about Marketing I Learned From Google (affiliate link). Before declaring free agency earlier this week, Aaron was the founder and principal at Connectual, where he put lessons learned from Google to good use in digital marketing consulting and matchmaking.

As part of a blog tour celebrating the book launch, I took the opportunity to put a few questions to Aaron about his views on Google’s approach to marketing, and how its own social media activities have contributed to its success. You can find more information about the book at GoogleyLessons.com. I’m working my way through a review copy of the book right now; look for a review on here in the next couple of weeks.

With all of the companies taking innovative approaches to marketing nowadays, why did you choose to write about Google?

5 main reasons:

1. It’s a company I know intimately. I worked closely with Google during my 5-ish years at Resolution Media, helping brands manage paid and organic search as well as serving on Google’s agency advisory council.

2. Google’s ubiquitous. Everyone knows Google. Everyone uses Google. So it’s a company that people are familiar with.

3. Google is incredibly successful. Innovation and success don’t always go hand in hand. In Google’s case, they do. That makes it a company that many businesses look up to and aspire to be.

4. Google has a mystique and intrigue about it. People want to peek under the hood and see what makes the Googleplex tick.

5. People don’t usually think about Google as a company that does much marketing. Most folks think Google just had a great product and benefited from word of mouth. But, just because you don’t see Google ads all over your TV, doesn’t mean it’s not marketing. A lot of Google’s marketing doesn’t have media dollars attached to it.

All that said, many of the “Googley Lessons” in my book aren’t necessarily about Google’s marketing. They’re basic tenants that Google does well in other facets of its business that marketers can learn from — things like, “Relevancy Rules.”

If there’s one key insight marketers should take from your book, what would it be?

Marketing is more than just advertising.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here as this is a battle you PR pros often have to fight all the time when brands dump time and money into paid media when they could be getting better results with a little more focus on earned media.

Your book mentions the importance of data. PR has long suffered as a discipline that struggles with data and measurement. What can we as PR practitioners learn from Google’s approach to using data?

The lessons in chapters 8, 9, and 10 of my book are Test Everything, Track Everything, and Let the Data Decide.

Google is always testing. At one point, it tested 41 different shades of blue for its toolbar.

Of course, without tracking, testing is useless. Google has a bunch of great tools that marketers can use to track their efforts.

And Google doesn’t rely on intuition or gut feels. It lets the data decide the winner in each of these tests.

PR pros would be wise to take Google’s approach to continual tweaking and optimization. What worked yesterday will not work tomorrow.

And, while tracking is certainly not as easy in PR as in advertising and media, there are plenty of ways to measure impact. The key of course, is to measure actual impact — not impressions.

Now, every brand will define “impact” differently based on corporate goals but I can guarantee you no company has a goal to get 1 million Facebook likes or 1,000 retweets.

What impact did these social media indicators have on brand awareness, preference, and sales?

You feature insights from numerous marketing luminaries in your book, among them Avinash Kaushik, Google’s analytics evangelist. How do you see web analytics fitting into the modern marketing system?

Web analytics is one of the ways to do the tracking and measurement I just preached about.

And Avinash will be the first to tell you how important it is to focus on the right metrics.

When I interviewed him, Avinash told me that marketers put far too much emphasis on “input” or “acquisition” metrics like page rank or clicks. As he put it, “true glory” comes from “output” or “behavioral” metrics like bounce rate and average order value.

Going forward, the role of analytics will only increase as marketers create data-driven cultures.

How do you think Google’s social media communications activities – its numerous blogs and its Twitter presence, for example – have fed into its success?

I think Google’s social media strategy has made the company more approachable.

3 of Google’s core values are openness, transparency, and authenticity.

By having a blog and Twitter account for just about every business unit and product, Google is able to engage people in a “non-corporate” way.

Google doesn’t just use these channels to beat its chest and blast out promotional messages. It shares works-in-progress, product bugs and fixes, behind-the-scenes stories, etc.

This gives people a warm and fuzzy about Google that they just don’t get from, say, Apple. Can you imagine Apple blogging about products still in development or tweeting about product bugs?

Of course, this speaks to the difference in cultures between Google and Apple. Google is all about launch, test, fail, improve. Apple would never launch without full testing and QA.

Social media as a channel is ripe for the Google approach. If you wait to polish every single message and interaction, you’ll have missed the window of opportunity to engage a customer or potential customer — not to mention come off as unauthentic and insincere.