Tagged: engagement

The latest croissant of absurdity from the SocialBakers

Every month I receive an email from measurement / metrics company SocialBakers alerting me to the latest  league table of performance for UK Facebook pages.  I usually avoid opening this email because it depresses me, perpetuating as it does, the view that Facebook activity and social media in general is a numbers game that is all about creating the maximum number of fans and this thing called engagement.  However, this month I took a look, just to see if things were changing.  They were not.  The part of the report that always depresses me the most, remained depressing.  I have shown it below. Continue reading

Creating ‘engaging content’ is a waste of time in social media

A provocative thought to start 2013.

Here is a statement that is incredibly important to understand if you wish to create an effective social media strategy.  I think it is possibly the most important concept you will ever need to get your head around to understand the future of marketing.  It is also pretty simple – one might even say it is obvious.  Here it is.

Traditional media is low engagement / high reach.  Social media, on the other hand, is low reach / high engagement.

That’s it.  It doesn’t feel like a revolutionary or startling claim – but grasping its full implications is something that very few brands have done.  I don’t see much evidence that P&G has grasped these implications.  I don’t see any evidence that Coca Cola has grasped these implications.  In fact I see plenty of evidence these organisations are either trying to give reach to their social media presence (in order to make low engagement activities and content still work) while failing to produce activities sufficiently engaging to be cost-effective in a low reach (i.e. social) environment.

To understand this we need to examine, in detail, the concepts of engagement (which is largely a function of content, information or activity) and reach (which is largely a concept of scale).

So let’s look at engagement (and content)

Most social media strategies are littered with the word ‘engagement’ and ‘content’ and then the ever-popular hybrid ‘engaging content’ which is frequently held aloft as the the all-consuming objective of social media campaigns (“Our aim is to produce the world’s most engaging content” – Jonathan Mildenhall, Creative Guru of Coca Cola in his famous Content 2020 video).  But here is the thing – to even use the term ‘engaging content’ in a social media context, is to demonstrate that you have failed to grasp the implications of the, supposedly simple and obvious statement at the start of this piece.

Here is why.

Content is a word that comes straight from the world of traditional media – the low engagement, high reach world of traditional media.  You can make your content more engaging, but you can hardly ever make any form of content engaging enough to work in the high engagement low reach world of social media.  Nor, conversely, will you be able to give your social media presence sufficient scale (reach) to make it work like traditional media – i.e. to be an effective channel to put single messages in front of your audience.

Ask yourself this question.  Where is it that your consumers have told you that what they really want from you is more ‘engaging content’?  Is this the overall thrust of the ‘posts by others’ section of your brand’s Facebook page?  If you seriously think this is what your consumers want, you have not been listening to them.  It may well be that you have worked out that if you create more engagement you will start to push the needle on the reach of your Facebook page – but so what?  Taking something that doesn’t actually reach many of your consumers and making it reach even 100%  more of them doesn’t really achieve much.  Twice of very little, is still very little.

As an aside, I have recently been having an interesting conversation with Socialbakers – one of the leading players in providing various forms of social media metrics / measurement. (See previous post.  Jan Rezab, the CEO of Socialbakers replied in an email and also a signed pdf letter (!) which he wanted me to publish.  Jan – consider that thus done, although I think the best way of replying would be to leave a comment on my blog so that everyone can see the whole discussion).  The basic thrust of our conversation is that Jan has been saying brands must create (and thus measure the creation of) more ‘engagement’ and become ‘friends’ with their consumers – and I have been saying that this definition of ‘engagement’ is not a concept worth pursuing or measuring, and that brands can never be friends with consumers – by any credibly social definition of friendship.

Engaging content is what marketing directors want their consumers to want (largely because it is something that marketing directors, and their agencies, believe they can produce).    It is high time we all paid attention to how it is that people are actually using social media (as opposed to how it is we might wish them to use social media).  They are not using it to follow brands or establish ‘relationships’ with brands – some of course are doing this, but they are – and will always remain – a tiny proportion of your consumer base.  What is mostly happening in social media is that people are using it to have conversations with people (real people) that they already know and are probably friends with.  This space is virtually impenetrable to brands – because consumers will never by ‘friends’ with brands (despite whatever label you might want to stick on a click).  Leastways, this ‘friendship’ (clickship) will be miles away in engagement terms, from the type of friendship they have will real friends.

It is all a question of the scale of measurement.  When you enter a social environment you have to use social scales of measurement.   Something that might look very engaging when viewed against traditional content-comparison scales of measurement, probably won’t even register on the dial, when you are using a social measurement scale.  Just because you are using social media, doesn’t mean that you are being social – although it does mean that you are being rated by a consumer (if not a measurement agency) against a social measurement scale – i.e. a scale where loyalty does not mean incentivised repeat purchase, loyalty means sticking by you through thick and thin.  In short – no matter what type of ‘engaging content’ a brand might create in social media, no matter how much more engaging this content or activity might be than an ad,  it is almost always going to be at the low engagement end of the spectrum – when that spectrum is calibrated against a genuinely social scale.

If we actually pay attention to what it is consumers are doing in social media (apart from connecting with friends) we see that they are asking questions and seeking out reliable, peer-endorsed, information.  This is an area where a brand can play, and it is an area where the engagement score of their activity can start to rate within a social measurement scale – as I will outline later.

But I am getting ahead of myself here.  Let us first look at the issue of reach, scale and media.

It is all about scale

The scale effect (i.e. business benefit) with traditional media was generated through its ability to reach large numbers of people – your entire audience – often repeatedly.  This allowed the contact value per person reached to be very small because a very large amount of a small thing still adds up to a large thing.  A great ad or campaign may make people a little bit more likely to buy your product – and if you can scale that effect across the whole audience that can translate into a big shift in overall sales.

Social media doesn’t do scale – it doesn’t have scale built into it in the way that traditional media does.  Facebook wasn’t designed as a platform to put a message in front of lots of people, it was designed to allow small groups of people to connect with each other.  Therefore, the scale effect (business benefit) from social media does not lie in the ability to create a small amount of a positive effect with a large number of people – because you will hardly ever be able to reach enough people to make this a sensible activity.  Instead, the scale effect comes from creating a dramatically greater positive effect per contact, albeit across a much smaller number of people (at any given time – see this post).    As we have seen ‘engaging content’ is never going to rank high enough to qualify as creating a sufficiently positive experience to make its production a worthwhile activity in the high engagement but low reach game of social media.

Note: you can’t solve the scale problem with social media by simply trying to add scale to your social media presence – boosting likes or followers – because it won’t be either cost efficient or possible to add sufficient scale for your social presence to start working for you the same way as traditional media does, i.e. as a channel to put a message in front of lots of people.  Reaching  half a million people using an ad is pretty easy, whereas reaching half a million people using Facebook is well nigh impossible.  This doesn’t, of course, stop people trying – hence our collective obsession with creating ‘viral content’.  Social media does, in fact become like traditional media when something goes viral and it does so a virtually zero cost – but you have to ask yourself the question: just how frequently does something become viral in comparison to the number of attempts to make things become viral.  Answer: hardly ever – and even when something does, the ‘engagement’ created is often of lower value than a conventional ad, because of the need to drag the content away from a proven brand message territory, in order to give it the interest necessary to create the viral effect.

Proponents of the engaging content school of thought, such as Jan from Socialbakers, may be keen to point out that more engagement leads to greater reach.   The big question is – how much reach?  Creating engaging Facebook posts will obviously increase the reach of your Facebook presence – but Facebook will never be an effective way of reaching your entire audience, or even a sufficient segment of it.  It goes back to my earlier post about what works for you in Facebook doesn’t mean that this should shape the way that Facebook works for you (it is a bit like the non-logic in the “all elephants are grey therefore all grey animals are elephants” argument).

In short, if you are going to do something that is fundamentally of low engagement (as measured on a social engagement scale) – you have to be able to do it at higher scale or reach than you are ever likely to achieve using social media.  If you are using a low reach form of media (such as social media) you have to be able to increase the value stakes considerably – way above that which we conventionally associate with ‘engaging Facebook posts’.

So how do you create a business benefit from engagement in social media?

Basically, there are two types of engagement:  the engagement brands want to have with their consumers and the engagement consumers want to have with brands – and both are totally different.  Brands want to try to talk to entire audiences (reach) and put messages or promotions in front of them.  This is what marketing basically does and the success of it is defined by the creativity of the message and the effectiveness of the channel strategy in distributing this message.  Consumers are happy with this (in the world of traditional media) because they understand that the brand is talking to them as part of an audience, not as an individual.  It is a bit like going to a Coldplay concert – this only really works if there is also an audience of which you are a part.  Standing in the arena on your own would be pretty strange.  However, when a consumer is engaging with a brand (in the world of social media) they are doing so as an individual and therefore the response they want back from a brand is totally different.  To return to the Coldplay analogy, if you had an audience with Coldplay, as distinct from being part of a Coldplay audience, you wouldn’t want Chris Martin to prance about and sing, you would want to ask him some questions and have a chat.  Understanding this difference between the world of the audience and the world of the individual, and the fact that consumers can operate seamlessly in both spaces, is the single most important step a brand needs to take if it is to understand how to deal with a consumer in the world of the individual (i.e. the world of social media).

So how does a brand create value by engaging with its consumers in the world of the individual?  It does it two ways.  The first is by listening to and answering consumers’ questions.  This is what consumers actually want a brand to be doing, rather than a brand that produces lots of ‘engaging content’ (Coldplay analogy again, you want Chris to talk to you, you don’t want him to prance around and sing).

Try this for an exercise.  Go to your brand’s Facebook page.  Look at ‘posts by others’.  See what it is your consumers are actually doing.  I can guarantee that 90 per cent of what will be going on here is consumers asking questions or registering complaints that they want attended to.   Then look at the total disconnect between how your brand is using Facebook to ‘reach-out’ to its consumers (lots of ‘engaging content’, probably produced by an agency) and how your consumers want to use Facebook to reach your brand.

In this respect Socialbakers are spot on when they talk about a socially devoted brand, insofar as the definition of a socially devoted brand is one that listens and answers questions (as distinct from one which produces ‘engaging content’).  Measuring your effectiveness in responding to Facebook questions (as Socialbakers do) is great, albeit the value you create for a business is not the speed of response to questions, it lies in the volume of questions you can answer and especially in creating an environment which encourages people to ask questions – what I call creating the expectation of listening.  Social media has created an explosion of opportunity in the customer service space.  This has been driven by the fact that customer service has become liberated from the channels in which it had previously been imprisoned (email and phone) – as I like to say, the social media revolution is simply the separation (or liberation) of information from its means of distribution.  Customer service has gone from being a business hygiene factor to being a front-line marketing tool (albeit most marketing directors haven’t embraced this fact yet).  Of course, there is also no point in then locking customer service back up again by imprisoning it in Facebook – a customer needs to be able to ask a question and receive an answer using whatever platform they want and thus brands need to be listening and responding, in real-time, across all platforms.

Coming back to the issue of scale and benefit – the value you can create from an effective customer service contact and the fact that this experience can now happen in open forums and is thus seen by many, is infinitely greater than that generated via a single impression created in conventional audience-based marketing.  Such a contact is high engagement and thus qualifies to operate in a low reach environment.  Create 1,000 such social contacts per day and you are creating something of real value whereas the creation of 1,000 low engagement, conventional content-based contacts is largely worthless.  This is in addition to the benefits that will also come from getting real-time feedback about what consumers think about your product.

Note: a like, follow or share does not qualify as a valuable social contact in this game because this is still in the low order of engagement – something that may be more valuable than an ad impression, but something that is nowhere near valuable enough to create a sensible benefit unless you can extend it across a large segment of your consumer base – which of course you will not be able to do.  Likes, follows and shares are also not useful indicators of a brands ability to respond to questions – they are indicators of what people think about content.  And content is not the name of the game in social media – content is the name of the game in traditional, high-reach media.   Listening and response is the name of the game in social media.

The second way you create value in the world of the individual is by identifying the tiny proportion of your consumer or customer base who are your super-fans.  These are not brand ambassadors, because they won’t want to represent your brand, nor will they be representative of your consumers.  There is also no point in trying to get them to increase their rate of consumption of your product or service because they are only a tiny group and are probably already at maximum rate of consumption.  However, what they will be prepared to do is become involved in your brand in areas such as new product development or customer service.  Prelini Udayan-Chiechi at Lithium has a fantastic case study from Logitech where they were able to quantify the huge value that super-fans, operating in a customer service community set up by Logitech (using the Lithium platform) were able to create.

But in all of this, it is essential to remember that we are always and only ever dealing with small numbers (low reach): a small number of super-fans or a small number of people – at any one time – who are asking questions.  If you are going to work at the small scale, you can’t create a business benefit simply by nudging those small numbers of people a little bit up the positive engagement scale, as is a realistic objective for ads and other forms high reach, audience-based, marketing.  You have to be doing something that operates at an altogether higher order of magnitude in terms of the value per contact, or else you are wasting your time.

In conclusion (finally)

So – to sum things up.  When you are in the social world, you have to use social scales of measurement and you have to create activities that will rank against this scale.  The activity that is the creation of ‘engaging content’ will never rank high enough (against a social scale of measurement) to make this a worthwhile activity.  You can create whatever scale you like to measure things like  ‘engagement’ and ‘reach’ and get tremendously excited because you have moved the needle by 20, 50 or 100 per cent.  But twice of sod-all, is still sod-all.

The only things worth doing, and thus measuring, are those activities which actually rank against a social measurement scale.  These activities are listening and responding to individual consumers (not trying to be their ‘friend’) and identifying those ‘super-fans’ who are prepared to actually  help you make your business better.

The value of a Facebook page does not lie in (and therefore should not be measured by) the ability to create engaging posts or reach lots of people.  The value of a Facebook page, as with all forms of social media, lies in the ability to listen and respond to those people who wish to engage with you.  It is the way your consumers use Facebook, not the way that a brand wishes to use it, that you should be measuring.  And, as I have said previously, this means that Facebook itself is a form of measurement, rather than something you should be measuring.

Good luck in 2013!

P.S Jan, if you want to respond, please leave a comment on the post rather than send me an email – in that way the conversation can become more visible – especially to those who have read the post.

– Richard Stacy: advanced social media training –

Slightly interesting Facebook stats

Here is something that is slightly interesting, maybe.  socialbakers have looked at engagement rates on Facebook pages and compared the results by sector.  The thing that caught my eye was not the difference between setors and possible reasons for this, it was the actual rates themselves.  The most ‘popular’ sector, alcohol brands, had an engagement rate of 0.4%.   This may be a high result in relative terms, but in absolute terms it seemed very low.  My wife used to work for a leading DM agency and I asked her how a response rate of 0.4% would be viewed.  Her answer, “pretty crap”.  Bear in mind, also, that response to a DM campaign would involve doing something like actually buying the product,or subscribing to an offer, rather than pushing a button saying ‘like’ or ‘share’.

Now, admittedly, it costs more to run a DM campaign than it does to publish content to Facebook, but doing things that get a poor response just because it is cheap doesn’t sound like a good business case to me.

So, remind me again, why are we all so obsessed with Facebook and ‘engagement’?

Silly debate about Facebook metrics (because Facebook IS the metric)

The changes to Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm (which is the algorithm Facebook uses to determine what information you see in your news feed)  have been creating some controversy, not least because it has affected the ‘reach’ of many organisations’ Facebook pages and raised suggestions that this may be linked to Facebook’s desire to encourage page owners to pay for their reach, via prompted posts (see this post from AllFacebook).

However, the underlying, and unquestioned assumption behind all this discussion is that ‘reach’ and ‘engagement’ are the metrics we should be using to measure corporate usage of Facebook.  Why this assumption?  These metrics come straight out of the world of traditional media where the role of media was as a channel to reach consumers.  But social media doesn’t work this way.  Social media does not have scale built into it in the way that traditional media does.  Social media is not designed as a tool to reach lots of people, it is designed to allow small groups of people to connect with each other.  Creating an approach that is designed to try and add scale to a social media presence, to chase numbers in terms of reach or engagement, is a waste of time.  It is completely the wrong approach (and metric) to use.

Facebook, and all other forms of social media, are tools that enable consumers to reach brands (if and when they want to).  The only part of any Facebook page that has any relevance is the ‘Posts by others’ space and it is not the quantity of posting here that matters, but what the posts are about and how (or even if) the brand responds to them.  Since these posts are often negative, or complaints, in reality the objective for most brands should be to minimise their Facebook ‘engagement’ – which of course you achieve, not by anything you do ‘in’ Facebook, but by how your brand behaves ‘in’ real life.

Social media is not a channel and message identification challenge (as traditional marketing is) – it is a behaviour identification and response challenge and the metrics we use should reflect this.  In fact, Facebook itself  is the metric for brand behaviour, rather than something you should attached metrics to.

Social media and engagement: some places left

I am one of the speakers at an event organised by CIMTIG (Chartered Institute of Marketing Travel Industry Group) at an evening event on 15th November in London.  CIM have told me that there are some spaces still available – so if you fancy hearing more about my perspective on using social media to create engagement (as well as my views on how not to use social media to create engagement), please come along.  Details here.

It is an event focused on the travel sector, but the learnings are relevant across the board.  I am simply going to be using examples from travel to illustrate the points I make.  Travel is also an interesting sector to watch, because quite a lot of social media disasters have happened in this space and, of course, it is one of the sectors where social is having a real impact on purchase decision – via the likes of Trip Advisor.  There are lessons here for all brands.

Content: what content?

(This is a rather long post, so you can download it as a pdf to read in bed or in the bath.  If you stick with it I hope it will change the way you think about social media).

People are talking a lot about Engagement and Content at the moment.  These concepts are up there on the pedestal as examples of what you need to do when you are ‘doing’ social media.  “Content marketing is the new … err … marketing” people are saying.  And “we must use social channels to drive greater engagement with our consumers”. However, the real question is “what type of engagement and what type of content?”  A piece of content can be anything from a tweet, to an expensive piece of video – which makes generic exhortations about the importance of content largely meaningless until such time as we drill down an define exactly what type of content we are talking about.

Likewise with engagement.  At best this is a very hazy term.  It is a bit like the term Reform, something that inherently seems like a good thing, even if we don’t understand what it means, something which politicians are highly adept at exploiting.

So, of late, I have been on a mission to really get under the skin of Content and Engagement in relation to social media, because I have a suspicion that no-one really knows what they are talking about when they use these terms.

First the theory: it’s a bit bot boring, but it is very important.  Until the advent of social media, distributing information (media) was expensive.  This had two implications for anyone who wanted to spread information.  First, you had to keep the message short and snappy.  Second, you needed to get that message in front of all of the people you wanted to reach.  Your ability to tailor or segment a message was pretty restricted because it was either still quite expensive to reach a tailored group, or because the media or channels just didn’t exist to service small groups of people.  This conditioned the way in which we did marketing.  It was a reductive process – reduce your brand down to narrow proposition.  And it was a mass process – you needed to get the proposition (ad, key message, campaign) in front of lot of people, often repeatedly.

Then social media came along.  All of a sudden, distributing information became virtually free.  Therefore the problem that all of marketing had adapted itself to deal with, stopped being a problem.  And now that information was no longer locked-up in, and conditioned by, specific distribution channels – content could basically kiss media (distribution) goodbye.

The relevance of all of this is the critically important recognition that everything we have done in marketing and communications up until this point, has been adapted to a set of conditions that no longer exist, when you are in the social media space.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that, when you go into the social media space, if you are still doing what you used to do when you were in the traditional media space, it probably won’t work (or work very well).  It is a bit like the travelling across the land and the sea.  It is perfectly possible to travel across both, provided you understand the different.  Take a car into the ocean and no matter how well you may try and adapt it, it’s not going to work anywhere near as well as a boat.  Likewise, you can’t take a boat to the supermarket.

The theory therefore tells us that the type of content that we have been doing up until now is probably the wrong type of content for social media.  It would likewise suggest that how we defined the concept of engagement in the one-to-many mass marketing world won’t be relevant in the social world.

But that’s just the theory.  What about the reality?

The best way to understand the reality is take the trouble to look at what is going on in social media – how The People (defined as consumers, citizens or customers) are actually using it.  When you do this, you recognise that something in the order of 99.99 per cent of everything that is happening in this space concerns individuals making connections with other individuals, frequently within spaces that can be seen as a form of small community.  These people often already know each other, or have will have some form of potential or actual close connection as a result of a shared interest.  The bit of social media that relates to organisations ‘reaching out’ to individuals, or individuals contacting organisations is the 0.01 per cent.  The interesting thing is how few organisations have actually taken the trouble to study this reality.  Thus rather than use social media in a way which reflects how The People are actually using it, they focus on the tiny bit that accords with how they would wish to use social media – the bit that looks like, or can be understood as, a traditional media channel.

As a result we see organisations, for example, trying to use Facebook pages as a form of website.  The logic goes something like this: “We don’t really understand how You People are using Facebook and can’t work out what, if any, role we might have in all of this.  However, we do understand websites, so if we can make Facebook work like a website, we can then understand it and make it work for us.  Hurrah! Job done! Tick box! Pay digital agency!”  It is a way of super-imposing a desired reality (desired by brands, agencies and Facebook) on top of an actual reality – i.e. in reality, it’s a fantasy.

What would you say to a media agency that drew-up a media plan that ignored 99.99 per cent of the available audience?  Social media, of course, is not really a form of media, it is better understood as an infrastructure, but the point still holds.  Why choose not to use the infrastructure in a way which reflects how the people we want to engage with are actually using the infrastructure?

The answer is that to do this is awkward and difficult.  It involves breaking down what we have done to date and reconstructing it in a different form.  It is uncomfortable and disruptive and no-one likes disruption.  We all desperately want social media to be a new space within which all the old techniques will still work, with minimal adjustment (“we used to run promotions via advertising, so now let’s runs them in Twitter!  Hurrah! Job done! etc”).  There are also plenty of organisations with a vested interest in maintaining the comfortable fantasy, not least amongst them Facebook, Twitter and Google themselves, because they can only monetise themselves as a form of media or content platform, not as a form of infrastructure. (This isn’t strictly true, since they can create a viable business model as an infrastructure, but this kind of a model cannot justify the sky-high valuations to which these businesses now have to aspire).

So, what is the relevance of this for content and engagement.  Let’s look at content first and examine how The People are ‘doing’ content, because logically, this should inform the content that organisations should produce.  The theory tells us that this content won’t look like the type of content we have been accustomed to produce, but what about the reality?  Well, the reality is that the most valuable piece of content in the world tells you how to donate a car in Dallas.  Or more precisely, this piece of content is what the world’s leading social content manufacturer, Demand Media, worked out would generate the most revenue via associated advertising back in October 2009 (as highlighted in this excellent Wired article).   This wasn’t something that Demand Media derived via a lengthy or complex piece of research, it just happened to be the piece of content that its algorithms defined as the most valuable at that particular time.  Today, the answer will be different.  Demand Media doesn’t have an agenda other than making money by producing content.  It doesn’t have any editorial or subject considerations, it simply has a set of algorithms which tell it which bits of content to make in order to garner the most associated advertising revenue. It is not a newspaper or TV station, its content doesn’t live in a place or on a site, it lives only in search.  But the content that it makes, therefore, is actually a very good indicator of what content is actually popular and actively circulating within the digital space.  And this content is simply the answers to questions, because this reflects what is really happening within social media.  People are asking each other questions: “how do I do this?”, “where do I get one of those?”, “what about this?”  These are very specific questions demanding very specific answers.  Critically, almost none of the content organisations are accustomed to producing is anywhere nearly relevant or specific enough to provide these answers, because, in accordance with the old rules of mass marketing, we produced single messages that were designed to be seen by lots of people at the same time.  We didn’t (couldn’t) produce highly tailored messages designed to be picked-up by very few people at any one time, albeit something which could attract a larger audience over an extended period of time.

Here is a practical illustration.  I have been doing some work with a large firm of lawyers.  Their digital approach to date had been, sensibly enough, aligned against a search strategy that assumed that people were looking for a large firm of reputable lawyers.  The problem, though, was that in the social space, no-one was asking this question.  There was no place where a conversation about the best large legal firms was actually happening.  But was happening was that people were asking questions about specific aspects of the law – either within defined communities or via Google.  Simply rocking-up to those places and trumpeting about what a great firm you were or what expertise you had, wasn’t going to work.  The only basis for establishing a credible presence in these spaces was by answering the questions people were asking.  Thus the strategy that we put in place was a process which allowed individual lawyers to start responding to these questions and, once you have created an answer to a popular question, you don’t need to keep repeating it, the answer becomes ‘socialised’ and thus remains current in all future conversations, even if the original creator is not actually present.

That is it really – content, in social media, has to be based around answering the questions people are asking.  It is no good rolling out swathes of traditional ‘look at me’ editorial, publishing huge amounts of stuff simply because you now can publish huge amounts of stuff.  We used to make 30 second ads.  Now we can make 30 minute ads, because the space we have is not limited by the need to rent an expensive distribution channel.  But that doesn’t mean we should make 30 minute ads – it would be better to make sixty 30 second answers.

It is strange how few organisations are taking the trouble to work out what questions people are asking for which their business can provide an answer.  Well, I guess it is not strange really, because this is not necessarily something we want to know about, either because providing the answers that are specific enough is not something we are set-up to do, or because the answers are not really sexy.  We would much prefer to continue to tell everyone how great we are, even if this is an answer to a question no-one ever asked.

This neatly takes us on to engagement.  I recently took a look at P&G’s UK and Ireland Facebook page for its Pampers brand.  Here it is.  It lands you on a custom built tab – i.e. a place which allows P&G to make the page look as much like a website, and as least like a Facebook page, as possible, except for the command to press the Like button, thus giving P&G a data capture opportunity.  I don’t support this approach, but let’s ignore that for the time being.  I then went to the more important place – the Wall.  (Update: this post was written pre the introduction of Facebook Timeline so the design is a little different now – however, the basic principle is the same).  This is important because the Wall allows you to get a sense of what is really happening around the page.  What was going on was quite interesting.  P&G were doing some bog-standard ‘Like harvesting’  – i.e. a post declaring “Click like if you would like an exclusive preview of something new and exciting from Pampers.” They were also doing other forms of data capture – running promotions to incentivise people to send them their email address.  But they were also doing stuff that was much more social.

  • Every Wednesday they convene a Pampers Coffee morning where people are encouraged to have a chat.  The last one of these gathered 108 comments or contributions.
  • They were hosting a webinar to discuss the issue of getting their baby a good night’s sleep.
  • They were also helping spread advice: “Hi everyone! Sarah, one of our mums, would like your advice.  Here 13 month LG screams really high pitched for no particular reason.  She wants to know how she can break this habit.  Has anyone else experienced this and what did you do?”  This gathered 63 responses.
  • They were also asking questions such as “What fun words does your LO ask or get mixed up can’t say properly?” (125 comments), or “What gets your baby excited?” (124 comments).

If you checked out Everyone’s posts, as distinct from the default Pampers’ posts, you could see that people were using the space as a place to ask each other questions – the issue of sleep again seemed to be the recurring theme.

All good stuff.  In many ways you could see this as text book usage of social media.  The brand was encouraging people to talk, it wasn’t pushing messages at them.  It was obeying the rules.  It was generating a good response – an average of 120+ responses on a post is pretty healthy.  It was perhaps being a little anti-social through its rather underhand data capture techniques and there is a possibility that the questions it was asking were linked to the nascent creation of future campaigns, either for Pampers or for other P&G brands.  But that is just a quibble really.

The big question though, the question that I suspect is increasingly going to be asked about social media, is So What?  How was all this engagement actually selling more Pampers?  While the levels of response Pampers was generating was quite large in a social context they were tiny in the context of the total number of actual or potential Pampers consumers.  There was also the question of relevance.  Most of the stuff they were talking about was of relevance to the ‘target audience’ as Pampers would define it, i.e. parents with babies.  But it wasn’t relevant to the product – i.e. nappies / diapers.  So both the quantity and quality of engagement they were generating was low.  For a nappy, manufacturer to host a conversation with a few hundred mothers about getting babies to sleep, isn’t going to move the needle on anything – because it is neither relevant nor achieving scale.  It was OK to do this sort of stuff, essentially sponsoring conversations, when you were doing it in a mass distribution environment where all your audience could see it.  But Facebook is not a mass distribution environment.  The fact that a conversation is happening in a social network doesn’t mean that any positive sentiment you are generating will magically spread throughout the network and thus reach a significant proportion of your target audience.  The very nature of social media, small groups of people connecting with each other, makes it a very difficult medium to use to spread messages to lots of people, unlike traditional media which was designed to do this in order to overcome the economics of expensive distribution.

There is an exception to this, of course, and that is the ability of social media to spread contagion.  It is a paradox really, that 99.99% of everything that happens in social media stays within the boundaries of small groups and conversations.  But very occasionally things can break out of these confines, and when they do, they can spread incredibly rapidly, at a scale and cost effectiveness far greater than could have been achieved with any traditional media network.  However, the fact that these viral effects appear to be relatively common should not fool us into believing that they are anything but highly exceptional.  The only reason they appear ubiquitous is because of the incredible explosion in the quantity of information that is now being produced.  Virals are a bit like successful rock bands: there appear to be a lot of them around, but for every one successful band there are thousands of wannabees who never make it.  None-the-less, despite the exceptional nature of contagious activity, it is tremendously seductive to brands.  There are two reasons for this.  First, there is an obvious appeal in generating what is seen as free media.  In the old world, we made an ad and then had to spend many times the cost of making that ad buying the media to distribute it.  Now, we can make something and it costs us nothing to distribute it.  This is the attraction that is cited by the likes of P&G when talking about their Old Spice campaign of 2010.  P&G sees this campaign as being a success because, for a relatively small additional outlay, it created 1.8 billion impressions.

The second, perhaps more important, reason that viral activity is seductive, is because of its’ comfortable familiarity.  In the old world, marketing was based around putting single things (campaigns, messages, ‘impressions’ as P&G put it) in front of lots of people.  Getting the numbers was critical to success.  In social media, you can’t get the numbers, except by becoming viral – hence the conclusion that viral is the way to go in social media.  It allows us to delay the recognition that the social digital space is very different and continue to persist with the same types of activities, thinking and behaviours we are familiar with from the world of traditional marketing.  The problem, of course, is that you can’t base a strategy on the quest for contagion, in the same way as it would be foolish to plan your life on the basis of becoming a successful rock musician.

The other problem with contagion is that it not necessarily social.  A while back I was asked to speak at a beauty and cosmetics conference and therefore did some research into examples of usage of social media in this sector.  Naturally, I looked into the assumed success of the P&G Old Spice campaign to try and understand how this was working and what benefit it was likely to bring to P&G.  The interesting thing that I uncovered was that, despite the fact that the stated aim of the campaign was to create conversation between men and women about male fragrance, a quick monitoring exercise revealed that none of this was happening.  The vast majority of the conversation was about the ad or activity associated with it, such as creating spoofs.  No-one was talking about the brand and the only way the brand had worked out to talk to consumers was by pretending to be the man in the ad.  It did this either directly – making more than a hundred video responses featuring Isaiah Mustafa standing in a bathroom – or via a Twitter and Facebook presence where ‘the brand’ assumed the voice and attitude of a cool, black, sports jock.   So, the brand got its ‘impressions’ and the conventional brand benefits likely to be associated with this, but didn’t create anything that could be seen as social or sustainable.  In fact, the pretence involved in hiding behind an advertising character could be seen as actively anti-social.  It was also unable to repeat the exercise – subsequent ads and builds on the campaign have all basically flopped in the social digital space.  Also, alongside the cute spoofs made by 11 year-old boys as a present for their mum, there was stuff like this, which happened to be number three in a Google search for “Old Spice ad spoof” at the time I was looking.

Thus P&G, via its Old Spice and Pampers activity, neatly illustrates the problem with engagement in social media when you approach it without embracing how and why social media is different.  You either end up doing anti-social in front of lots of people, with minimal guarantees of success, or you do social in front of small groups of people in a way which doesn’t scale or create any other form of commercial benefit.

I think I will say that again in bold and italics.  You either end up doing anti-social in front of lots of people, with minimal guarantees of success, or you do social in front of small groups of people in a way which doesn’t scale or create any other form of commercial benefit.

How, therefore, should we ‘do’ engagement in social media.  We need to recognise that the type of engagement that is associated with large numbers is different from the type of engagement you can create with small groups.  When you are seeking big numbers, you can only ever expect, on average, very low levels of interest and engagement.  This is fine if this is enough to make sufficiently large numbers of people just a little bit more receptive to your offering, versus your competitors’.  And if you want to do large numbers, you should do it in an environment best adapted to work this way – i.e. the traditional one-to-many mass media and marketing environment.  Social media doesn’t ‘do’ big numbers, except in very exceptional circumstances (viral).  This doesn’t mean that you abandon the quest for contagion, you just don’t bet the farm on it.  Likewise it doesn’t mean that you can’t graft social media elements onto traditional campaigns – but what will happen when you do this is that social media invariably ends-up as your measurement metric, it won’t be the principal engine of engagement.  As one marketing director recently said to me, “I think Facebook is great because it allows me to see how people are reacting to my latest ad”.  Just because your Facebook likes are going up, this isn’t necessarily down to anything you are doing in Facebook, it is just a reflection of how people are feeling about your brand.  Likewise, chasing likes for their own sake, is a waste of time, other than for data capture (which is not, I would suggest, an especially social or sustainable use of Facebook).

This takes us to small groups.  Funnily enough, through our experience in traditional marketing, we already know how to ‘do’ small groups.  We call them focus groups – i.e. small groups of people, representative of our target audience, with whom we can have a great deal of engagement.  Crucially, the type of engagement we seek from focus groups is advice on how to do things better.  We don’t try and sell to the focus group, or see it as a sampling opportunity, because we know we can’t create sufficient scale to make this worthwhile.  We understand that when dealing with small groups, we have to do something else other than just make them feel nice about us, if we are create any commercial benefit.  However, we haven’t been able to export this learning into the social media space.  We somehow believe that because the (focus) group is now in Facebook, any warmth we generate will magically spread across a significant segment of our audience.  It won’t.  It may spread a bit more than was the case in a conventional focus group, but not that much more.  Instead, we end up generating the sort of engagement that only ever creates a benefit at scale – but without the scale (as in P&G Pampers).

So how do you get a scale effect, when dealing with small numbers?  Specifically, how do you do this in social media?    You do this by either finding the small group of people who are prepared to go out of their way to do something for your brand, or by responding to those people who have something to say about your brand.  It is important to realise that the former will only ever be a small group, although you may be able to reach the majority of them, and the latter will be a small group at any particular time, albeit one which potentially constitutes the whole of the larger group.  Or to put it another way, all of your consumers may, at some point, have something to say to you, but only a very small group of your consumers will ever want to have a significant or sustained relationship with you.  You will never be able to have a significant relationship with all of your consumers (#Kevin Roberts, #Lovemarks, #Fantasy, #Sorry).  This doesn’t just apply in social media – it is a basic truth of marketing, albeit one we never had to deal with when we lived in the hot-house environment of the expensive one-to-many mass message.

Looking first at your enduringly small group.  These are the people who are your real fans, those for whom the otherwise usually silly marketing lexicon of “passion” and “loyalty” actually applies.  (If you look at my previous discussion with Jonathan Mildenhall from Coca Cola – these were defined by the Man with The Red Van with the Coke Logo painted on it).  Within traditional marketing we were not really able to do anything with these people.  It was great to have them, but like Facebook likes, they represented the end of a process, not the beginning of one.  Even if we could find ways of reaching out to them, what we could get them to do was relatively limited.  They were probably consuming our product or service at maximum level.  Even if we could up their rate of purchase, this group would never be big enough for this to create a measurable increase in sales.  We could try and get them to be ambassadors or advocates, but again, it was difficult to link this to a multiplier effect which would have an impact on either sales or brand reputation.  So we tended to try and turn the spotlight on them, often by putting some of them in an ad or using their endorsement in other marketing messages, or else we just said thanks and left it at that.  Often, we didn’t even say thanks.

But now, with social media, we start to have that multiplier or, perhaps more importantly, we have the power that comes from connection.  These people can stop being individual fans and become connected fans – and connected fans can be encouraged to do stuff, beyond just sharing their interest or “passion”.  One of the first, but still also one of the best, case studies of how to do this is Lego Mindstorms.  They got groups of their most devoted fans to start to design new products.  Connected fans can become your eyes, ears and innovators – simply because they will enjoy doing this sort of stuff.  I often say that social media is actually best understood as a way in which you can get people, whom you don’t pay, to help you run your business.  Another famous example is Dell’s Idea Storm community – a process that crowdsources innovation.

Dell have extended this idea much further with their Customer Certified Solutions programme – a process whereby customers solve each-others’ problems.  This example also highlights another fact, which is that despite all the money and attention given to b2c social media ‘campaigns’, social media often works much better in the b2b environment, simply because the levels of shared interest and importance of service are actually much higher in b2b.  For example, “I got thirsty, I wanted a Coke, I drank the Coke, I got on with my day”, versus “I got sued, I needed a lawyer, I won my case, my business survived”.  Within b2b you frequently find a much higher order of needs (or technically a lower of needs if you follow the Maslow approach) and also, many more things to actually talk about (which is also relevant to the content issue).

This isn’t to say you can’t use social media to create engagement in the b2c environment (as Lego showed), but it does indicate that a b2c brand may be better advised to focus on the other type of engagement – i.e. the group drawn from all of your consumers, but defined by their desire at any given time, to actually say something about your brand.  Rather inconveniently, what they usually want to say, or the conversations they might want to have, are rarely the type of conversations you might want to have with them, in public anyway.  I.e. they will be asking questions (those questions again) such as “why isn’t this working?” or “when is the service going to be fixed?” or “why can’t you do this?”

Here is another example.  At the moment I am doing some work with a large, international, media organisation.  One of their stated objectives for social media, was to increase the size of their Facebook fan base.  They also wanted to look at crisis management, specifically what to do when people wrote negative things on their Facebook pages.  What we have done is challenge and unpick these objectives, recognising that people putting negative things on your Facebook page is only a crisis if you are trying to make your Facebook page a website – i.e. a destination to which you want to drive the maximum number of people, to receive highly crafted, one-to-many mass messages about the brand.  If you set the page up as a place where people can come to critique your product (TV programmes in this instance), negative comments are not a crisis, they are indicative of successful customer service – provided that you deal with them correctly.

It is interesting to study how customer service and complaint work in social media.  In at least nine times out of 10, you will find that what starts as a vitriolic rant about a product or service, ends-up very amiably, even if the original problem wasn’t fixed.  Once people discover that they are not dealing with a remote, inflexible, arrogant, anti-social organisation, their whole perspective changes.  They re-appraise the whole terms of engagement that they have with that organisation, once they know that it is available to talk to them at the times and in the places of their own choosing (not at the times and places of the brand’s choosing).

Now, at this point, you may well say, “where is the scale effect in that – surely this is just the same as P&G Pampers having those chats about sleeping babies on Facebook, or what we already do with our customer service phone line”.  The answer can be told via this advertising fairy tale.  Imagine there was a creative director who came to you saying they had created an ad so overwhelmingly compelling, that only one single exposure to it was all that was required to totally transform a potential customers’ or consumers’ engagement with the brand.  But, there is a catch – this ad can only ever be seen by one person at a time, if more than one person sees it, it just turns into a lemon (a bit like Cinderella’s coach after midnight).  However, the good thing is that there are still hundreds, maybe thousands, of opportunities that occur every day, to get this ad in front of individual people.  At this point, you are likely to be thinking – wow, shame we can’t just buy a super-bowl slot and rule the world, but if I can reach 1,000 of my potential consumers or customers, every day, 365 days per year.  And if the value of exposure to this is perhaps 100 times more effective than a standard “impression”, this starts to look pretty interesting.

Of course, the “ad” in this fairy tale is actually a genuine customer service conversation.  The problem with customer service, up until the advent of social media, was that it wasn’t scalable.  It was locked up in certain distribution channels – email and phone lines.  These distribution channels conditioned, or restricted, what we understood customer service to be, in much the same way as traditional media channels restricted our understanding of what content was.  Customer service was something we needed to do as one of the things necessary to preserve brand reputation, but it was never, of itself, going to move the needle upwards on brand reputation.  Therefore, it became a marginal activity, not a front-line marketing or communications tool.  However, social media has liberated customer service from these channels.  However, as with all traditional techniques, this doesn’t mean that the way we ‘do’ customer service in social media is simply to drag our old approach and techniques into the new space.  What we can now understand is that there is a huge customer service space out there, but we were never able to access the opportunities it presented when we were restricted by the usage of certain channels.  This was because we just never got exposure to 99.99 per cent of those occasions when people had questions or issues about our brand, and the tiny bit we did get exposure to was crippled by its requirement to use particular channels and had no multiplier effect attached to it.

But social media now gives customer service the multiplier effect – and that effect, as per the creative directors’ fairy tale, is that one exposure is 100 times more powerful than an ‘impression’ and we can do it thousands of times every day.  OK, to do it thousands of times per day requires some resource, but not as much as a super-bowl slot costs.

So, just imagine, instead of P&G Pampers hosting conversations about crying babies, Pampers was able to say to all of its consumers “if you want to talk to us about anything to do with nappies or our product – we are there.  You can use whatever channel you want, you don’t have to come and “join a conversation on our Facebook page” or follow us on Twitter, just throw your issue out there and we will pick it up.”  If any brand were able to make that claim, just think about how your relationship with it would be changed.  In fact, it is such a compelling claim, that I might feel inclined to make an ad about it – which also highlights another important point.  Advertising (and all the rest of traditional one-to-many mass marketing) hasn’t stopped working because social media has arrived.  The two approaches are completely different.  Ultimately, the key to successful marketing and communications going forward is to figure out how the two can complement each other, rather than try and turn one into the other.  Social media will change traditional marketing by allowing it to become much more adapted to what it does well (single message in front of lots of people), in much the same way that radio allowed newspapers to focus on what works best in print and TV allowed radio to focus on the strengths of its own particular means of distribution (i.e. the ability to listen to one thing while doing something else).  To use my favourite analogy, traditional media is like a fireworks display and social media is like a bonfire.  The two can work well side by side, but don’t try putting your fireworks on your bonfire.

This post is now far too long.  So, just to sum up.

Social media is different, it has a different set of rules and solves a different set of problems.  We therefore have to use it in a way that reflects these differences rather than trying to make it work like traditional media.

The best way to figure out how to use it is to take your lead from how the people you want to reach are using it, rather than using it in the way that accords with how we are accustomed to using traditional media channels.

The content you make has to be based around understanding and answering the questions for which your brand provides an answer – high volume but also highly specific, there is no point in simply pumping out a greater volume of traditional ‘look at me’ type editorial.

Social media hardly ever gives you numbers, so viral should never be the strategy.  The only thing that has really gone viral is the concept of customer service.

There are only two ways to generate commercial benefit from engagement: you either do something very in-depth with the very small group of people who represent your real brand loyalists, or you engage with potentially all of your consumers or customers, but only on their terms when they have something they want to say to you.  You don’t force a conversation upon them.

Very few organisations seem to have embraced these points – even the likes of P&G – although, no doubt, P&G will think they have cracked social media, after all 1.8 billion impressions is pretty cool.  I think the reason for this is that embracing and acting upon these points is uncomfortable and disruptive.  It means unlearning what we have learnt, and there are also many players out there who want to keep us in a state of ignorance.  However, it could be that P&G is right and I am wrong – I guess only time will tell.

OMG – Coca Cola Content 2020 – OMG (by the way, did I say OMG?)

Content and Engagement – these are Big Things in social media at the moment.  But I have a theory that no-one, not even the really big, important, famous companies like Coca Cola and P&G has any clear idea what engagement and content actually look like in the world of social media.  I suspect we are all talking a big game, but basically bluffing.

So, I was taking a wander around Coke yesterday to gather evidence and I chanced into this video of its’ content plan.  OMG.  I pressed the play button and for the next 7 minutes and 28 seconds sat there spellbound, dazed and not a little confused.  This is either:

  • a glimpse into the future of marketing that is so far out there that I struggled to comprehend its brilliance, or
  • an example of a company so totally lost it is covering its confusion in steaming piles of marketing BS.

Or maybe a bit of both.

It talks about ‘liquid ideas’ (funny that for a drinks company) and a lot about stories.  Full marks for that – I am always going on about the importance of stories and the shift from reductive to narrative marketing.  But cop a load of this for how Coke defines ‘dynamic storytelling’ – it is “the development of incremental elements of a brand idea that get dispersed systematically across multiple channels of conversation for the purposes of creating a unified and coordinated brand experience.”  Now that is class marketing BS.  It also talks about the importance of data – no complaints there.  As I have previously said, the enormous amounts of data individuals are now generating is probably the single most significant aspect of social media, from a marketing or social control perspective.   Coke puts it thus: “Data will become the new (s)oil within which ideas will grow and Data Whisperers will become the new Messiahs“.  Data Whisperers, Messiahs, wow, OMG etc.

Anyway – I was entranced.  Also, you have to take your hat off to Coke and to Jonathan Mildenhall, Vice-President, Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence, who provides the reassuring down-to-earth voice-over, for letting this dish out of the kitchen.

And then – I discovered there was a Part 2!  Ten minutes and 18 seconds more!  This time I made a coffee and got the biscuits out, but like many sequels, this was a bit of a let-down.  No more data whisperers, it all got a bit operational, with the traditional exhortations to be brave and take risk with the music rousing to a climax as we end on representation of the Coke bottle.

Still, the whole thing was a fantastic insight into what could be right and also what could be terribly wrong in major brands’ approach to social media.  I am not sure which is which at the moment, but I still stand by my belief that no-one really understands how engagement and content work in this new space and no matter how important content may be, a successful social media strategy has to be rooted in the creation of behaviours, not the creation of things.   And if you are going to create content, this has to be content that answers consumers’ questions.  It is not about providing a form of extended advertising albeit in a new channel (which is the sort of place we get to at the end of the second Coke video).

Anyway – I am going to have to look into this in more depth, and certainly use this as discussion material for future social media workshops.

Update: having tried this out in a few workshops, the central issue for me is Coke’s assertion that this is all about the shift from insight to provocation.  Totally wrong.  Provocation is not social.  The only reason Coke feels it needs to provoke conversations is because people don’t want to talk to it.  Or at least, the conversations they want to have with Coke are not the conversations Coke wants to be a part of.  Coke wants to have a “look at me, aren’t I fantastic – now go tell someone else how fantastic I am” conversation.  From a creative perspective, Coke (or any brand) has the challenge of putting itself centre stage – creating attention is what it is all about.  In social media, there is no stage, there isn’t really even an audience and in-so-far as there is, this audience wants to talk to itself, not to brands.  Hence the assumed need to provoke.