Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tolerating Failure

Important lessons can be learned from mistakes. It should be noted that any degree of innovation will, as a corollary, incur risk. Clearly, as risk increases, so too does the likelihood of failure; this is undeniable. It is however imperative that such logic is not used to validate rigid policies and procedures which limit the organisation’s ability to innovate. Risks allow the employee an opportunity to learn; either through the creation of new frames of reference following a suitable outcome, or through mistakes following a failed outcome.

Creativity must always be embraced
over conformity, and failures must be tolerated. Rigid procedures should be replaced by processes designed for continuous innovation, and constraints should be addressed and eliminated. Embracing employee idiosyncrasies will invariably introduce disruption to the traditional hierarchy, however change must be facilitated. As idiosyncrasies extensively facilitate creativity, perhaps it is time for the value of organisational hierarchies to be re-examined.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Thought Self Leadership and Creativity

Self Leadership is defined as:

“a process through which individuals control their own behaviour, influencing and leading themselves through the use of specific sets of behavioural and cognitive strategies”
(Neck & Houghton, 2006, p. 270)

As organisations strive for increasing operating efficiency, delayering of middle management has occurred. As organisations grow in scope and scale, it becomes impossible for a limited number of people to possess sufficient insight to orchestrate each of the systems in place. Instead, significant role restructuring has occurred, primarily involving additional responsibilities being afforded to followers. As followers frequently have a far greater knowledge of issues arising from day to day operations, restructuring enhances the likelihood that deficiencies are identified and addressed. The provision of greater autonomy over how one undertakes a task is identified as Self Leadership.

Self leadership involves influencing oneself to establish the self direction and self motivation required to perform a particular task. Further, self leadership encourages an individual to engage in self evaluation, replacing ineffective behaviour with more effective activities. Clearly, limitations of leader’s time, energy, knowledge, and scope make constant subordinate direction impossible. Yun et al therefore suggest that self leadership involves leaders “enlist(ing) the aid of many to cope with uncertainty beyond their own limits” (2006, p. 375). Empowering the employee thus has become an organisational imperative within the competitive environment.

It is generally agreed that self leadership comprises three elements; Beliefs and Assumptions; Self Dialogue; and Mental Imagery. These elements combine to create Thought Patterns, also known as Habitual Thoughts. Beliefs and assumptions represent individual beliefs. These beliefs are frequently identified as dysfunctional, and are often activated by surprising or challenging events. Self dialogue concerns internal dialogue. These covert statements correspond to emotional states. As such, the external environment may well influence an employee’s internal dialogue. Finally, mental imagery involves the imagining of successful task completion. Combined, these components comprise thought patterns, thus it is imperative that any dysfunctional thoughts are uprooted. This is particularly pertinent as such flows are likely to represent consistent approaches to action.

Failure to internally identify and replace dysfunctional thoughts will invariably cause negative thought patterns to become set. This is referred to as Obstacle Thinking. Such employees are likely to become discouraged because of an overt focus on the negative. Instead, employees should learn to embrace Opportunity Thinking. Employees which engage in opportunity thinking are significantly more likely to see opportunities, and embrace creative solutions. Employees should address any discrepancies by confronting negative thoughts and replacing them with more rational ones. Employees which envisage a positive outcome are far more likely to achieve success than those that fail to do so. Before increasing the level of autonomy placed upon the workforce, it is important to ensure that the need for autonomy is present before making any rash empowering decisions.

The successful implementation of self leadership is likely to depend upon the degree of autonomy acceptance amongst the workforce. However, as jobs are increasingly viewed as a means of personal fulfilment, a larger proportion of the workforce is demanding greater influence over job roles and the related decisions. Where demand allows, employees must be encouraged to lead themselves. By making employees more accountable for the projects with which they are involved, they simultaneously achieve greater involvement in organisational decision making. As the number of viewpoints considered increases, new frames of reference will be developed and acknowledged. The greater the number of accounts, the higher the probability that system improvements will be recognised and introduced.

All that's left to see is Merry Christmas to all my readers. I wish you all the very best this festive season.

TLR

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Facilitating Creativity through Effective Team Building

In order to encourage creativity, employees must be in a position to advance their skills and competencies. Specifically, employees must be positioned within a job role where their talents can be best exploited. Effectively matching employees with job roles that recognise their idiosyncrasies will help to enhance intrinsic motivation. This process is best described by Buckingham in the article ‘What Great Managers Do’:

“Average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess. The difference? In checkers, all the pieces are uniform and move in the same way; they are interchangeable. You need to plan and coordinate their movements, certainly, but they all move at the same pace, on parallel paths. In chess, each type of piece moves in a different way, and you can’t play if you don’t know how each piece moves. More important, you won’t win if you don’t think carefully about how you move the pieces. Great managers know and value the unique abilities and even the eccentricities of their employees, and they learn how best to integrate them into a coordinated plan of attack” (2005, p. 72)

As recognised by Buckingham, the workforce will invariably comprise a number of diverse and unique talents which, if used effectively, allow the organisation to coordinate an appropriate business strategy. The importance of management recognising unique and valuable idiosyncrasies is undeniable; failing to recognise these resources restricts the organisation’s capacity to coordinate. Indeed, developing an understanding of one’s workforce has become an organisational imperative where innovation is to be achieved. Further, management must continue to ensure that the fit between the employee and their role remains viable. Any discrepancies between an individual’s creative potential and actual creative output may indicate a poor fit between the individual and their position. Such discrepancies must be addressed in order to avoid friction. In order to recognise the employee’s true value, an environmental change designed to facilitate congruence between potential and actual creative output may be appropriate. Such changes may include the provision of greater freedom, autonomy, variety or feedback.

Similarly, the importance of diverse and varied workgroups has been frequently recognised. The importance of organisational collaboration and group problem solving is now equal to day to day operational considerations, such as paperwork. The effective construction of teams may facilitate organisational creativity, on the proviso that the appropriate heterogeneous and homogeneous connections are made. For example, heterogeneity between group members encourages the productive challenging and critiquing of ideas, based upon contrasting expertise and frames of reference. Conversely, homogeneity between members encourages shared intrinsic motivation and behaviours. Employees should be encouraged to identify and develop their strengths. By exploiting those skills which the employee finds easy, energising, and enjoyable, the organisation can benefit from enhanced productivity, whilst simultaneously improving the individual’s intrinsic motivation.

Such a win-win situation is only possible where employee’s strengths are proactively identified. By recognising an employee’s unique skills and attributes, management can encourage the individual to develop their capabilities. As the employee’s abilities blossom, they become a source of area expertise within the group. Encouraging employees to perfect their strengths facilitates recognition of potential, whilst augmenting levels of subject interdependency within the group. Such leveraging of capabilities will help create ‘great groups’; teams which rely upon one another to create an environment of regular innovation, where knowledge is generated and dispersed frequently.

Clearly, diversity offers benefits by enlarging the knowledgebase from which action can be crafted, whereas similarities provide a mutual source of support, and facilitated communications shared interpretations and behaviours.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

A Culture of Creativity

Creativity is killed more often than it is supported. Many authors have identified the potentially stifling effects of the organisation on creativity. Hiring creative people will be insufficient for achieving creativity if it is not facilitated within the organisational culture. Further, if creativity is rejected, creative returns in the form of innovation cannot be expected. By restricting the occurence of creative outcomes, the organisation is simultaneously reducing the likelihood of recognising innovation. Creative employees must be placed within an appropriate environment before creative potential can be adequately recognised. Resource Allocation, Management Practices, and Organisational Motivation must be addressed to ensure that appropriate creative support is available.

Without a supportive climate, any attempts towards innovation will fail. Hiring a creative workforce will be ineffective if their skills become bureaucratically constrained. Organisations have traditionally taken a hostile stance towards creativity. In order to succeed in 21st century business, such an archaic attitude must be eliminated. It is important that multiple viewpoints are embraced, and challenges to the status quo are actively encouraged. If questions are not asked, then it is unlikely that improvements will be identified. Instead, a culture of trust and respect must be established, and organisational flexibility recognised. A culture of trust and respect will help advance debate amongst the workforce, and will allow employees to recognise the power of their voice within the organisation.

Uncertainty must be explored, and failures resulting from risk should be embraced (see the upcoming post 'Tolerating Failure'). In contrast, when organisations reject creativity, the likelihood of employees engaging in creative action diminishes; negative responses will deter creativity, and it is likely that intrinsic motivation will as a corollary decline. Whilst creative returns are arguably less certain, failure to distinguish the creativity of the workforce will cause an integral organisational resource to become compromised.

Creativity
must not be undermined by a diminished likelihood of success. Instead, organisations should recognise and reward creativity, and encourage collaboration and learning across the organisation. The importance thereof is recognised by Glynn:

“Organisations that value diversity in perspectives, tolerate ambiguity, value innovation, and accept risk taking will tend to have a stronger orientation toward innovation... In general, then, organisations characterised by less bureaucracy; less functional specialisation; more fluid, flexible, and integrative structures; increased worker autonomy; and good communication and information flows are thought to be more innovative” (1996, p. 1102)

Where organisations encourage self leadership (see the upcoming post 'Thought Self Leadership and Creativity), it is imperative that employees are assisted to function as they see appropriate. Whilst controlling managers will cause the effects of self leadership to diminish, an absence of challenging, yet specific goals is equally detrimental. Motivation to act is driven by goals and the expected outcome thereof. Failure to provide such a target will invariably result in confusion amongst the workforce. Conversely, by providing set goals whilst allowing the workforce autonomy concerning how to achieve them, the organisation can expect to see increased performance levels through enhanced motivation.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

How Social is the Social Media?

Recently I have become slightly dubious of the degree of sociability within the social media. This month has seen the release of statistics from Forrester Research suggesting that faith in corporate blogs is as low as 16%. It has also been a month in which one of social media's most genuine enthusiasts, one Chris Brogan, had his integrity questioned by the online community to which he has given so much, requesting nothing in return. What is going on? This kind of behaviour is most certainly not lovable...

I think that the problem is that we are losing our perspective. Whilst many bloggers, myself included, have discussed the importance of transparency in the social media, our views thereof appear to have become blinkered, rendering anyone that accepts money for sponsored social media employment an opportunist. Does Chris Brogan's fully disclosed blog post for Kmart make him a social media traitor? Don't be absurd. Brogan helps thousands of people daily, and I personally consider this issue to have been blown fully out of proportion. Those that might suggest that Brogan's actions are devious should consider the time and effort which he directs into helping the community.

Perspective would ensure that Brogan's action be taken for what they were; an objective look at a given situation. Brogan would have nothing to gain from conning the very community which he voluntarily benefits on a daily basis. That he was 'sponsored' to offer these opinions is trivial. Whilst social media best practices concerning such subjects as transparency have become common knowledge, we must ensure that we too are objective in the application thereof. Why must we challenge those that offer so much to our online conversation? If these individuals are lost from the conversation, believe me, it is the community that misses out.

Put things into perspective, don't blow minor issues out of proportion, and help to ensure that the conversation remains a socially beneficial forum for all.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Components of Creativity Part 3; Motivation

Whilst expertise and creative skills are representative of what a person can do, motivation represents what the individual chooses to do. As such, motivation is less susceptible to external influence than expertise and creative skills, but is itself capable of influencing any decision to develop said skills. Whilst attitudes towards work will vary from one employee to the next, many authors are in agreement that Intrinsic Motivation is more conducive to creativity than Extrinsic Motivation.

Intrinsic motivation represents internal gratification as the driver of goal pursuit; in other words intrinsic motivation reflects self-fulfilment through one’s work. Those that have an active interest in creativity are significantly more likely to show willingness to pursue creativity. It is important that these individuals are encouraged to recognise self-fulfilment through creative output. Although the componential model of creativity recognises the importance of expertise and creative thinking, it has been noted that deficits in either may be overcome by a highly intrinsically motivated employee. This is recognised by Amabile thus:

“People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself – and not by external pressures” (1998, p. 79)

Although every organisation should strive to create intrinsic motivation within the workforce, extrinsic motivation should not be discounted in its entirety. Indeed, whilst recognising the creative importance of intrinsic motivation, Amabile similarly acknowledges the effects of specific extrinsic motivation:

“Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity. Controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity, but informational or enabling motivation can be conducive, particularly if initial levels of intrinsic motivation are high” (1997, p. 46)

Informational
Extrinsic Motivators represent external rewards, recognition, and feedback that either confirm competencies, or provide information pertaining to performance improvement. Similarly, Enabling Extrinsic Motivators represent external rewards, recognition, and feedback that increase the employee’s involvement with the work. An example of such recognition may be an increased allocation of resources in acknowledgement of outstanding performance. These extrinsic motivators, collectively known as Synergistic Extrinsic Motivators, will encourage creativity, both through enhancing levels of intrinsic motivation, and by creating competition amongst the workforce; a fact which Cummings and Oldham suggest does not detract from creative offerings. Conversely, Controlling Extrinsic Motivators aim to control motivation. Examples include the imposing of rigid procedures designed to control project direction.

Such attempts to control motivation levels are likely to backfire, reducing the intrinsic motivation present in the workforce prior to the event. Clearly, it is important to foster creativity within the organisation. In order to effectively encourage employee motivation to innovate, the organisation must focus on developing an Environment of Creativity.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Components of Creativity Part 2; Creative Thinking

Whilst Expertise provides the foundations for creativity, Creative Thinking facilitates the recognition of creative potential. Expertise means little if the employee lacks the creative capacity to combine existing frames of reference into viable solutions. Whilst it is impossible to highlight a set of characteristics that guarantee an individual’s capacity for creative thinking, an initial interest in creativity clearly represents proclivities towards such potentials. Such personal tendencies towards creativity are only likely to be recognised where organisational creativity is facilitated. It is important to note that unless the immediate organisational environment actively facilitates and encourages creativity, innovative expectations of the workforce will not achieve realisation. This will be explored more fully in the post ' A Culture of Creativity'.

Although Tan recognises that one’s theoretical disposition may influence creativity management perceptions, it is generally accepted that creativity can, to an extent, be taught. Clearly, knowledge can be enhanced through ongoing interactions within the domain. Further, many academics have sugegsted that creative thinking can also be encouraged through relevant training. This finding is consistent with Bharadwaj & Menon, who suggest that “creativity training for individuals will enable them to prove their problem-solving skills, leading to more innovative solutions” (2000, p. 430).

Clearly there is an expense in terms of both time and money involved in creativity training. Recognising the value of intangible capabilities is however consistent with the Resource Based View, and should therefore be acknowledged as an investment made towards improving workforce effectiveness. Creativity is not simply an innate phenomenon, but can on the contrary be inculcated, encouraged and trained.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Components of Creativity Part 1; Expertise

Creativity has been found to comprise three central mechanisms; Expertise, Creative Thinking, and Motivation. Although these have on occasions been referred to under different headings (for example, as Intelligence, Creative Skills and Motivation to Innovate), academics are in general agreement about their definition. It should be noted that these components apply to both individual and small work group based creativity

Expertise denotes the individual’s knowledge; specifically, domain relevant knowledge, including opinions, domain-specific technical skills, and special talents. Expertise provides the individual with a repertoire of possible solutions to a specific problem. As there will invariably be a degree of risk involved with creativity, basic domain knowledge will result in outcome uncertainty reduction; specifically, expertise affords the individual a greater knowledge base from which to structure a potential solution. When facing events that are surprising or challenging, the process of ‘Sensemaking’ occurs. Sensemaking involves the retrieval of rational accounts, or frames of reference. These frames of reference represent cognitive knowledge structures about a concept, developed following exposure to an external stimulus. Such stimuli are cognitively encoded and stored, available as an influencer for future judgements and behaviours. As frames of reference become more accessible through regular activation, the ease with which the account is retrieved increases. As an individual becomes more knowledgeable about a subject, the various frames of reference from which action can be derived increase. Thus, employees with rich background domain knowledge will possess a greater pool of information from which to craft problem solutions.

As business turbulence increases, employees are regularly confronting unique events of which they have limited or no prior experience. By calling upon similarly categorised frames of reference, the likelihood of an appropriately creative response being crafted is enhanced. By combining existing knowledge in new and creative ways, the employee is able to adopt an appropriate strategy for addressing the situation. It should be acknowledged that such frames of reference may be influenced over time. For example, when organisation crises occur, the area that provides the eventual solution may influence the frame of reference recognised by a particular workgroup to address similar future occurrences.

It is important to note that expertise does not represent creativity in itself, however the more voluminous the number of cognitive accounts stored, the larger the knowledgebase from which a creative outcome can be constructed. In order to recognise creative potential, one must consider Creative Thinking.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Position of Creativity in Organisational Innovation

In a slight change to the advertised post, today I will be looking at the position of creativity in recognising organisational innovation.

As organisational turbulence increases, so too does the requirement for organisations to innovate. Although on occasions, creativity and innovation have been used synonymously, it is more appropriate to consider creativity as representative of an idea, whilst considering innovation as the implementation thereof. As identified in the post 'Influencing Business - Creativity Defined', Creativity can be said to produce ideas which are novel, useful, and offer potential value. As we have identified innovation herein as involving the development and implementation of new ideas, creativity is a central component of organisational innovation. Whilst not synonymous, both creativity and innovation rely upon one another to offer value to the organisation. The link between creativity and innovation is best visualised as cyclical; whilst individual creativity feeds the organisation's innovation, the culture and environment of the organisation will invariably influence the workforce's propensity to engage in creative activities. As such, it is very difficult for one to exist without the other.

As the organisation’s reliance upon innovation as a means of addressing non-routine problems increases, ideas become a valuable organisational resource. The importance of individual creativity has increasingly been recognised as a key driver of innovation, however much debate exists around the topic. For instance, many authors have tried to identify skills deemed representative of the creative individual. Whilst many articles claim that certain characteristics and propensities enhance the likelihood that an individual will act upon a creative impulse, many others suggest that such characteristics do not exist. Although the debate surrounding the existence of creativity enhancing personality traits is likely to continue for several years, congruence concerning the composition of creativity is far higher. These components are Expertise, Creative Thinking and Motivation, and will examined in depth during my upcoming posts.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Influencing Business - Creativity Defined

As business environments become ever more turbulent, the importance of organisational innovation has been frequently recognised. Consisting of a new idea, innovation has been further defined as “the development and implementation of new ideas by people who over time engage in transactions with others in an institutional context” (see Van de Ven, 1986, p. 604). Innovation is an organisational imperative for ongoing strategic success; as the rate of change hastens, the organisations that survive and flourish are those that prepare for the future, not those that allow their product offerings and systems to become idle. An era in which new product lifespans have never been shorter, such stagnation will invariably prove a significant organisational handicap towards change. Stagnation can be avoided by ensuring that innovation is encouraged and facilitated at the organisational level.

As interest in innovation continues to grow, many academics are recognising the value of creativity within the literature. Although these two terms have on occasion been used synonymously, many authors have identified clear distinctions between Innovation and Creativity. Indeed, to suggest that creativity and innovation are one and the same is a foolish submission, for whilst inextricable associations between the two exist, so too do several integral idiosyncrasies. Whilst innovation is generally agreed to comprise the implementation of new ideas, and is typically a response to unfamiliar, unexpected, or non-routine problems, Amabile defines creativity thus:

“We tend to associate creativity with the arts and to think of it as the expression of highly original ideas... In business, originality isn’t enough. To be creative, an idea must also be appropriate – useful and actionable. It must somehow influence the way business gets done – by improving a product, for instance, or by opening up a new way to approach a process”
(1998, p. 78)

Although an exact definition of creativity is hard to find, many authors agree that creativity must be novel, useful, and should offer value. Although some authors have examined creativity as a process through which people engage in organisational sensemaking, over the coming week I shall primarily observe creativity as producing novel, useful and valuable outcomes. As innovation involves the development and implementation of new ideas, creativity is a central component of organisational innovation. Whilst not synonymous, both creativity and innovation rely upon one another to offer value to the organisation.

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The Importance of Creativity within 21st Century Business

Over the coming week I shall be examining the importance of individual creativity and the effects thereof open an organisation's output. During the course of the week, I shall post several articles considering the various aspects of creativity; from the components and culture of creativity, to the position of failure in encouraging creativity.

Why creativity? The main reason for my interest in creativity stems from research undertaken during my Masters level studies; specifically, I was involved in an extensive examination of the effects of creativity in the 21st Century workplace. Whilst I had previously anticipated the importance thereof, the study truly opened my eyes to how inextricably linked individual creativity and organisational innovation really are. Whilst creativity is a critical component for what many of us are doing every day in submitting content to the social media, few organisation's truly appreciate the value which creativity subtly adds to their bottom line. I hope that by the end of this week, your organisation will understand the importance of nurturing creativity within the workforce.

Over the course of the following week, I will be posting an article on creativity daily. The following articles concerning creativity have been designed to identify the most important areas thereof:

  1. Influencing Business - Creativity Defined
  2. The Components of Creativity Part 1; Expertise
  3. The Components of Creativity Part 2; Creative Thinking
  4. The Components of Creativity Part 3; Motivation
  5. A Culture of Creativity
  6. Facilitating Creativity through Effective Team Building
  7. Thought Self Leadership and Creativity
  8. Tolerating Failure
  9. Is Creativity 'Born' or 'Taught'; You Decide

I hope to see you over the course of the coming week.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

'Lovable Social Media'

One of the terms which I am most proud of ranking top in the Google natural search results for is 'Lovable Social Media'. In the light of research by such industry heavyweights as Forrester Research suggesting that consumer trust in corporate blogs may be as low as 16%, it would seem to me that organizations are forgetting that the social media should be 'lovable'; any organisational presence created in pursuit of customer engagement should be 'enjoyable' for all parties participating therein. Is this occuring at present? Whilst debatable, the figures would suggest that efforts to make the social media universally enjoyable have thus far failed.

For me, Lovable Social Media repesents fulfillment achieved through interactions with the social media. From an organisational perspective, this fulfillment represents the satisfaction of successfully representating the organisation through the social media. Whilst the implementation of a social media strategy will be primarily designed to improve the standing of the online brand perception, the personal satisfaction gained from the employees engaging therein represents an important biproduct. Conversely, lovable social media from the customer's perspective represents value added satisfaction achieved through engagement with the organisation's social media presence. In both cases, the choice to engage therein extends beyond feelings of obligation.

Remember, as an organisation , it is your reponsibility to make your social media presence enjoyable; customers must engage willingly, not simply because they feel obliged to do so. Transparently add value and the customer will engage. Remember, success in the social media is easy to achieve. Simply ensure that your presence is fun, enjoyable and value adding; in other words, bring lovable social media to your customers.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Critical Mass in the Social Media

The theory of critical mass is nothing new. I first came across said theory in Evan and Wurster's 2000 book 'Blown to Bits; How the Economics of Information Transforms Strategy' after it was recommended to me by my good friend Des Laffey. In its most basic form, the theory of critical mass states that once the level of service adoption has reached a certain point, the value available through competing services is drastically reduced. As the number of users of a given service continue to rise beyond the point of critical mass, the value of the community increases by the square of its users (see Metcalfe in Bernoff and Li's Groundswell), and it becomes increasingly beneficial for the potential user to join this ever more voluminous community over its competitors.

The theory of critical mass is invariably an important consideration within the social media. As new social media tools and platforms appear on a near daily basis, the importance of achieving critical mass before the competitor has quickly become an organisational imperative for establishing a position of dominance within the market. Interestingly enough, the competitive advantage afforded by critical mass within the social media appears significantly less sustainable than has been the case in earlier industries, with one social platform being superseded by new competitors in relatively quick succession. The most obvious example of this phenomenon to date is the case of Facebook and MySpace.

Despite the diminishing capacity for critical mass to represent a long term competitive advantage, the benefits of critical mass within the social media must not be ignored. Whilst the benefits afforded thereby may be significantly less sustainable than have previously been the case, the capacity to draw significant attention to the service in vogue remains a pertinent bonus of the recognition thereof. Remember that whilst surpassing the point of critical mass will invariably cause the number of users to multiply exponentially, to achieve an ongoing advantage the organisation must continue to add value.

As an organisation, you must ensure that value is consistently added for users. This will help to elongate the period of competitive advantage achieved thereby. If your organisation is fortunate enough to exceed the point of critical mass, make sure that you aren't caught sleeping.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

'Political' Behaviour in the Social Media

Earlier this week I stumbled upon two fantastic articles, one by Simon Owens the other by Michael Garrity. Both articles examined strategies adopted by the Digg community to push certain articles onto the platform's front page; in effect manipulating the social media. Whilst many Digg power users would quickly defend this strategy as little more than article promotion efforts, to borrow a phrase from Owen it would indeed appear that all votes are not created equal. As it becomes increasingly difficult for high quality content to achieve front page recognition on Digg, the presence of political behaviour quickly becomes apparent.

Political behaviour in the social media can be defined as behaviour that has not been officially sanctioned by the platform, and which has been strategically designed to maximise self interest. Whilst it is arguable that many of Digg's top submitters have earned their ability to consistently push content onto the platform's front page through painstaking network creation and maintenance, this degree of process manipulation has invariably detracted from the overall user experience. Democracy has, to an extent, been removed from Digg. Whether or not the platform is the victim of its own algorythms is questionable, however as Owens points out, as long as there are scientific algorythms, there will be some smart type attempting to manipulate them.

Whether or not Digg is viable under its current strategy is debatable. What is clear is that by removing democracy from the platform, the transparency thereof is similarly jeopardized. Whilst political behaviour may result in short term gains for those engaged therein, such a strategy is non viable in the long run. By jeopardizing both democracy and transparency, the platform has unintentionally alienated a large proportion of its users. As the content becomes less and less about quality and more about who you know, the number of active users engaging with the platform will invariably drop.

Whilst Digg retains its position as an enjoyable distraction for now, the question of how long it will remain so lingers. Take heed Digg before the majority of your community deserts you.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Trust; the Currency of the Social Media

The overwhelming importance of transparency within the social media is oft cited. Organisations which covertly attempt to manipulate online brand perceptions will invariably be exposed as fraudulent; particularly as the creation of user generated content has never been easier. As emerging social media platforms increasingly facilitate the expression of self, the repercussions of perceived attempts to manipulate public opinion will invariably prove detrimental. Attempts to covertly influence the online community should be avoided at all costs.

A time in which honesty and transparency are organisational imperatives, trust has quickly become the major currency of the social media. It is earned by honestly and openly engaging with the online community, and is forfeit by actions deemed covert or manipulative. The level of trust establish by an organisation will invariably distinguish their social media presence from those of other, less transparent organisations, and customers will feel significantly more inclined to engage with an organisation they deem to be trustworthy. It should be noted that the aggregation of trust is ongoing, and whilst incredibly difficult to earn, can be lost in moments. One inappropriate action can result in the eradication of any trust accumulated up to that point. Once lost, trust can be even more difficult to rebuild from the tatters of your online reputation than had previously been the case.

The Internet is still regarded by some with trepidation. Ever increasing societal engagement with the Internet is matched by the daily emergence of new and increasingly destructive threats. Within such an environment, the importance of trust becomes perfectly evident. It is hardly surprising that in an environment of anonymity, customers rely upon established trust to gauge the likelihood of a successful transaction. Whilst trust can be established both online and offline, it is important to recognise that the effects of online brand attacks are likely to represent a significantly greater threat to the the organisational brand equity than those carried out offline; principally because they can spread quickly. Even organisations that do not have a social media presence must continue to monitor the Internet to counter any threats as and when they occur.

In sum, your organisation must ensure that trust is established with the customer. The anonymity afforded by the Internet has given rise to the need to gauge the likelihood of a successful outcome before an action is carried out. Within the social media, this currency is trust. Act transparently, engage in the conversation, and help your customer in the way they demand.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Know the Rules of the Social Media Game before you Start to Play

Whilst many marketers are quick to get involved with the social media, few adequately investigate the community culture prior to creating a presence therein. Failure to understand the informal rules and social etiquettes of the community will almost certainly result in hostility eminating from the community; and understandably so. Social communities belong to the users therein, and whilst an organisational presence is often permissible, it is highly advised that the organisation undertake a stringent cultural analysis to gauge the possible outcome thereof.

Online communities differ very little from offline communities, comprising groups of individuals who, as a collective, come together to achieve a shared goal. Clearly, the views of individual community members will differ; such is human nature. It is highly probable that the collective will comprise multiple contrasting perspectives concerning the most effective methods for recognising these shared goals. Whilst the presence of contrary views to our own is without doubt conducive to achieving a more complete understanding of a given problem, from an organisational perspective, such contrasting opinions can make uninformed community engagement incredibly hazardous. We need only look to the recent Motrin video ad to see the potential negative repercussions of such an uninformed community engagement. Had the organisation possessed a greater knowledge of the community prior to the campaign being launched, it is likely that the subsequent negative publicity could have been avoided.

We are all aware of the potential organisational uses of the social media. The likelihood of successful application depends highly on the organisation's understanding of the community cultures and etiquettes. As an organisation, you must ensure that adequate time and effort is directed into developing your understanding of the community prior to establishing any campaign. This information will invariably provide a great deal of insight, and there is little doubt that these findings will influence the campaign direction.

What it comes down to is ensuring that your organisation understands the community rules before playing the social media game.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

What is the Social Media?

Following my recent discussion of 'Web 2.0', I thought it only appropriate to devote a post to the 'Social Media'. Frequently referenced within my blog, I felt that it was important that the distinctions between the terms social media and web 2.0 are acknowledged and understood. Although these are, on occasion, used as synonymous, I would challenge their definition thus. The terms, whilst similar, are not one and the same. That being said, one is arguably a direct corollary of the other. Let me explain.

Web 2.0 simply represents a social revolution; the power shift resulting from increasingly vocal demand for greater connectivity. As customers became increasingly dissatisfied with an inherently static Internet, change quickly became an imperative. One-way information flows illustrative of the more traditional communications channels were no longer viable as a means of engaging the customer. From the ashes of the static, uni-directional webpages of the early 1990's however, rose the new media platforms, more commonly referred to as the social media.

In my opinion, whilst web 2.0 represents a specific event; namely a shift in societal expectations, the social media represents the subsequent response of increasingly innovative web developers; a set of tools designed to satisfy increased demands for connectivity. These tools have essentially focused upon the development of community, offering users the capacity to connect with one another. Whilst the tools were developed primarily for the benefit of the community, many have since been adopted for marketing purposes; a fact which has on occasion detracted from the transparency of the engagement.

Whilst it is probable that the web 2.0 will be superseded by a web 3.0, it is unclear whether these changes will be representative of a societal or a technological shift. What is clear however, is that organisation's will have to stay on their toes to ensure that they are able to react promptly to anything the internet throws at them; clearly, business as usual is no longer viable.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Quantification within the Social Media; isn't that against the Point?

Earlier this week I was reading about a chap called Matt Bacak. The article in question chronicles Bacak's 'stratospheric' rise to the status of social media elite; a 'feat' achieved in only a matter of months. Whilst I personally do not follow Matt, I am always sceptical of those that achieve such extraordinarily high numbers of followers in such a ridiculously short timescale. Whilst there may be legitimate grounds for the creation of a follower base of the scale seen here, I remain dubious of the value achieved by either party. Whilst Bacak claims that this is evidence of his ability to 'walk the talk' these figures prove very little to me. After all, when was the social media overly concerned with quantifiable data...?

The truth is, the social media has never been about quantification; the purpose of engaging the customer through the social media is to develop qualitative relationships which add value to the various parties concerned. Whilst traditional professionals are likely to continue to base their organisational decision making efforts on facts and figures similar to those provided by Bacak, this quantifiable data offers little actual insight into online brand perceptions. The quality of 'followers' is of far greater organisational value than the 'quantity' thereof; or at least it should be... Unfortunately, as Bacak's article highlights, this is not always the case.

As previously discussed, I have no idea what value Bacak offers his readers, yet the proclaimed 'stratospheric' rise in the number of followers within such a short timescale leads me to conclude that the majority of these were simply 'auto-following'. If that is the case, then the value added to an organisation employing his services are likely to be incredibly low. The meaningless value of huge 'friend' lists was recently discussed in an article by Beth Harte. Followers that auto-follow are unlikely to represent qualified leads. As such, their interest in a given organisation or industry may be none. Whilst this reach may be an opportunity for an organisation to engage in brand visibility building, it is unlikely that such a strategy will assist in the development of a strong, successful brand.

At the end of the day, it is the value brought to the community that will define your social media success. I hope for Matt Bacak's sake that he offers value to the conversation...

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Viva la Revolution! But Which One...?

In my opinion, many people misunderstand what is meant by the term 'Web 2.0'. Despite the phrase having reached 'buzzword' status in recent years, it is questionable whether or not those using the term actually understand its meaning. One of the most notable deficiencies of the public understanding of web 2.0 is the belief that the term refers exclusively to a mystical technological revolution that happened in the early 2000's, shaping society as a corollary. This common misconception is understandable, but is essentially backwards in its focus. You see, it wasn't the technologies that instigated the resultant social revolution; it was a social revolution that lead to the demand for enhanced levels of connectivity.

Whilst web 1.0 is generally agreed to represent the first generation of web based communications, web 2.0 was a corollary of changing societal demands for connectivity. Whilst the resultant technologies were undoubtedly the product of developing demands, they do not represent a revolution in themselves. Essentially, the revolution in question has involved communications shifting from one-directional to two-directional; a shift which has left many a traditional organisation feeling powerless in an increasingly collaborative economy. Whilst recent developments have invariably been facilitated by web communications technologies, the success thereof always has been highly dependent upon ongoing customer interest and demand. As interest therein begins to ebb, so too will the success of these tools.

The reason for this post is simply to highlight an important organisational rule which should not be forgotten; don't get too caught up in the technologies themselves, these will, without fail be superseded. Recognise instead, that customer engagement remains all important. Create a presence only within those platforms in which a presence is demanded by the customer. An unnecessary presence in each will invariably stretch the organisation’s resources beyond capacity, and the subsequent value of the content will invariably be compromised. A strong understanding of the customer, matched by a desire to engage them in a manner which they would deem appropriate will undoubtedly assist in the development of an appropriate organizational social media strategy.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Avoiding the Manufactured Social Media Presence Part 2: The Imaginery Customer

Pretending to be one of their own customers is amongst the biggest mistakes an organisation engaging in the social media can make. Whilst this may seem obvious, many organizations are relentless in their attempts to covertly influence the customer decision making process through the implementation of devious tactics. Unfortunately for these organizations, an artificial presence will invariably be identified as such by the community, and the exposure of attempted social media manipulation will ultimately result in damage to the brand's equity.

Transparency remains all important. Whilst it is often permissible to engage respectfully in social media based marketing, it is imperative that these efforts are identified thus; remember, the social media 'belongs' to the customer. Shrouded attempts to influence the direction of the conversation, be these through the planting of stories, the faking of reviews, or the disparaging of competitors, will inevitably lead to the organisation incurring the wrath of the community. Despite the degree of anonymity afforded by the social media, artificial engagement will always stand apart from natural content; most notably because it will fail to add value to the overall conversation.

Don't make this mistake; let the quality of your products do the talking, whilst implementing the social media as 'value added' for the customers in any manner they see fit. If on the other hand your product lacks the quality to speak for itself, my recommendation would be to refocus your efforts into other channels. Whilst the social media has the capacity to avert the development of negative online perceptions of the brand, it will not hide the limitations of your product or service offerings for long.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Wordpress Direct brings Automated Plagiarism to the Social Media

I read a rather disturbing article by Dave Fleet on Friday. The article considered the introduction of Wordpress Direct; a Wordpress tool designed to automate the process of blogging for those with little time to 'waste' on site setup, SEO and optimisation. The platforms scours the social media in search of content that matches the 'author's' interests, composing a blog from the content retrieved. I should note that I use the term author loosely. The content is essentially a plagiarized mess of a conversation that constitutes little more than spam. Even so, the number of platform users reportedly exceeds ten thousand to date; scary stuff, and a step away from social media transparency if ever I saw one...

Fleet rightly gives Wordpress Direct a 'fail', and I would quickly second this verdict. The tool seems little more than yet another exercise in profiting from deception. I presume that the majority of those employing the services of Wordpress Direct intend to profit from advertisements presented alongside the blog offering. Such 'efforts' simply detract from the user's perceptions of the social media, simultaneously cementing the arguments of social media critics such as Andrew Keen who consider the Internet as little more than a tool for plagiarism. Earlier this year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt described the Internet as a 'Cesspool of Misinformation'. Tools like Wordpress Direct do little to challenge these assertions, contributing instead to the increasingly voluminous pit of valueless information.

Clearly, those that engage blogging through tools such as those described above will jeopardise any transparency otherwise achievable through the social media. Woe betide the organisation that succumbs to the automated blog offerings of Wordpress Direct...

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Incorporating Legislation into the Social Media

I have often discussed the importance of engraining social media into the organisational culture. By creating an openly social culture in which employees are encouraged to participate, the organization facilitates the customer perception of the organization as human. Clearly this will help the organization to realise it's goals of transparently engaging with the customer whilst allowing the workforce to address any organisational concerns that they feel require consideration. Yet despite the benefits that the social media can bring to an organization, simple limitations must be observed in order to recognize the greatest gain. The exclusion of rules in their entirety will invariably lead to pandemonium, the result being a conversational mess that offers little value to anyone.

Essentially there are three sets of limitations that should be enforced to ensure clarity of purpose. These are language limitations, behavioural limitations, and content limitations. Whilst the specifics will invariably differ from organisation to organisation, the logic runs constant.

Language limitations concern the language that you would consider appropriate for association with your organization. Course language will almost certainly be poorly received by your customers, and as such should be avoided. Whilst technical terms should be accepted, the organization may consider making a glossary of terms easily available to those seeking further insight. Finally, spelling and grammatical errors should not be condemned. These allow the content to be recognized as human, and will as a corollary result in higher levels of perceived transparency. This is important for ensuring that customers engage with the content.

Behavioural limitations should be imposed to ensure that the workforce engage with the customer responsibly. Such limitations may include discouraging employees from posting derogatory remarks about colleagues, customers or competitors. Whilst somewhat more radical, your organization may decide to encourage employees to post content detailing their concerns regarding the organisation's products or practices. Whilst this recommendation will invariably be poorly received by many an organization, if carried out effectively, organizational transparency is once again demonstrated. Consider how you would expect your employees to behave offline and use this as the basis for behavioural limitations.

Finally content limitations concern any content that employees must be forbidden from publically expressing without prior consent. Such content would most notably include trade secrets, and any other confidential information that is not publically available. Whilst many may argue that such actions do not represent a transparent approach to the social media, I would disagree. There will invariably remain information that must remain confidential in order for the organization to remain competitive. It is up to you to establish what information should and should not be conveyed, and to ensure they these limitations are adequately brought to the attention of the workforce.

These 'rules of engagement' are hardly controversial, with little deviation from how employees would be expected to engage with the customer in the physical world. The incorporation of internal legislation such as that described here will allow the workforce to willingly participate in the social media, safe in the knowledge that their organization encourages customer engagement. Clearly organisational specifics will vary from one company to the next. As such, the list of recommendations made above is not exhaustive. A note of caution however; overly regulating the process will invariably result in confusion. Lengthy engagement legislation will cause the process to become restrictive, the transparency of the content will become jeopardized and employees will be deterred from participating therein. Make sure that you don't fall into this trap...

Always remember that there is a fine line between using internal legislation as a means of preventing conversational pandemonium and influencing content to the point at which it is perceived as 'manufactured'. Make sure that your organization doesn't exceed this point.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Avoiding the Manufactured Social Media Presence

In order for an organisation's social media strategy to succeed, the reader of the content must perceive the information to be both transparent and truthful. Whilst this necessity should require no additional effort by those organizations with a 'conversation' led strategy, a manufactured social media presence on the other hand will invariably be viewed with trepidation. Such a presence will more often than not be the result of social media misconceptions, emanating most notably from a lack of understanding of the imperative of two way information flows therein. Such misunderstandings will be most common within those organizations where the social media is not ingrained into the culture.

A manufactured social media presence is one that has been specifically crafted to convey a specific message to the recipient. These are often passed through senior management in order to seek approval before their release. Clearly this goes against the traditional social media value of transparent customer engagement, demonstrating one way information flows more reminiscent of the traditional media types slowly ebbing into contemporary obsolescence. Whilst the traditional media is oft referred to as the effective equivalent of 'shouting' at customers, the new media is more targeted towards 'conversing' with them. Success within the social media will invariably stem from the relationships created as a conversational corollary.

For customers to willingly engage with your organisation, the social media must establish two important prerequisites. Firstly, content submitted must always represent transparent information. Secondly, the likelihood of successfully establishing a relationship with the organisation must be perceived to be high. The absence of either will as a corollary result in the immediate reduction of content credibility. Content deemed to lack authenticity will fail to engage the customer, and may as a corollary generate negative content in response to perceived organisational efforts to manipulate the customer. As the social media was arguably developed for the customer, such a strategy is unlikely to be well received by the community.

As with many a discussion concerning the social media, the importance of adding value for the customer cannot be ignored. This remains the most viable method for successful engagement therein. Achieved by actively and transparently engaging with the customer in two way conversation, this is often illustrative of organisations in which social media is ingrained in the culture.

Which of the two strategies is most representative of your organisation; shouting or conversing? Why not put yourself in your customer's shoes and ask yourself how you would rather be communicated with...

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dealing with Negative User Generated Content in the Social Media

As social media technologies increasingly facilitate personal expression, the likelihood of negative user generated content appearing online increases exponentially. Whilst many organizations fear the backlash of negative content, citing this as a reason for failing to engage in the social media, such a mentality is incredibly naive. As my good friend Danny Brown recently observed, you can be sure that someone is saying something negative about your organisation on the internet, irrespective of the depth of your online presence. This statement is increasingly relevant, particularly as the number of new social media technologies introduced on a near daily basis continues to rise. Addressing these online concerns is therefore the only solution for ensuring the ongoing viability of your business.

I am often dubious of recommendations condoning the use of legal action as a deterant against negative
user generated content. In the social media this strategy will fail. Threats made against the content's author will invariably be used against you, hence this action is unlikely to assist the organisation
in the battle against criticism. Nevertheless, many authors continue to encourage the use of such tactics, particularly in the case of 'thiscompanysucks.com' websites. In my opinion this is the worst possible route to resolution. Legal battles are invariably brought to the attention of the community at large, and the organisation is more often than not painted as the villain.

In the
case of negative campaign sites, also known as 'thiscompanysucks.com' sites, the organisation should recognize that the site's author was suitably affected by an event to engage in the creation thereof. The service failure faced must have been similarly significant. Instead of threatening legal action for the results of your organisation's misdeeds, recognize that the individual may represent an aggrieved ex-customer. Examine the content to identify deficiencies in your service provision, and if reasonable, engage with the author to identify any further concerns which they may have regarding your organisation. Adequate resolution of a complaint may not only result in the amicable winding down of the website, but potentially also in the author engaging in future positive word of mouth. Whilst such an outcome will invariably represent a best case scenario, appropriately addressing the issues raised will at worst minimise the likelihood of future recurrences. This is most definately a start.

Whilst
the organisation should recognize that more often than not it has directly invoked the creation of negative content, there are invariably situations in which the intentions of the site's author are motivated by other factors. The means for resolving such issues will vary dependent upon the situation. Beyond 'thiscompanysucks.com' type sites, misinformation represents one of the more common examples of negative online content. The social media is filled with misinformation about brands both small and large. Unfortunately, this is one of the risks of engaging in business. Ongoing monitoring of the social media must be undertaken to ensure that such instances are identified and a response crafted as necessary. This should be addressed through the transparent provision of fact, with resultant queries being addressed as appropriate. Although this may not be true in all cases, misinformation often represents misconceptions about the organisation. Simpy acknowledging and addressing these shortcomings should ensure that the organisation is accurately conveyed online.

Whilst the subject of addressing
negative content can fill an entire book, I hope that this post has provided a brief insight into how negative UGC can be approached. Whilst I have only skimmed a couple of the major threats to online brand equity, I would be happy to address my thoughts on the subjects which affect your organization.

As always, it's over to
you now guys!

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What are You Not Saying that Someone Else is?

I am often amazed by organizations which lack any form of social media presence. Whilst the potential for negative user generated content is oft cited as a central concern, surely these organizations recognize that this content will invariably find its way online; one way or another. In the ongoing battle to delight the customer, it is far better for them to complain directly to you than it is for them to do so elsewhere. Grievances that are aired outside of the organization's direct control have the power to damage brand equity, but offer little value to the organisation unless found...

Negative content need not always result in negative outcomes. More often than not, a great deal of insight can be gleaned into the reasons for the perceived or actual service failure. By providing a platform through which consumers can vent their frustrations, the organisation creates a real time insight into how it addresses concerns. Imagine the potential for such a platform; grievances could be visibly and traceably resolved in front of a relevant audience. The possibility of converting negative word of mouth into positive word of mouth is very real. By facilitating the connection between organisation and customer, the likelihood of negative content appearing elsewhere is simultaneously diminished.

As always, the presence of an organizational social mediaplatform does not eliminate the need to continue monitoring the social media. For those interested in learning more of the importance of 'listening', I would recommend Li and Bernoff's 2008 book'Groundswell'. Effectively listening to the social media should will allow the organisation to identify perceptions of the brand online. Broad coverage thereof will allow the appropriate direction of effort towards those areas which require the most urgent attention. Clearly, the more aware the organisation is of online brand perception, the greater the likelihood that action can be taken as and when required.

The lesson to take away from this post is that negative content about your brand will invariably appear online. Beyond restricting access to social media tools and technologies, there is no way to prevent people from expressing themselves via the Internet. It is however possible to influence both the volume and location of this content. By providing a forum that is both fluid and transparent, you can ensure that the customer continues to see you as the first point of call following a concern. Remember, it is your responsibility as an organisation to listen to and engage with those that are keeping you in business.

Will you provide your customers with a highly visible platform through which to challenge you? I do hope so...

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cult of the Amateur: Has Social Media Destroyed our Culture?

Many of you may have noticed that a number of my recent posts have mentioned the name Andrew Keen. The reason for my interest in the so called 'anti-Christ of the social media' is that over the past few weeks I have been Reading Keen's 'Cult of the Amateur'. I realize that Keen's book has been reviewed by thousands of 'noble amateurs' out to defend their beloved social media, so for anyone that has read a thousand and one such posts, I apologize in advance... That said, despite my personal interest in the social media, I would hope that the following represents a fair assessment of a book that unquestionably offers a number of intelligent insights.

Keen's
2007 book 'Cult of the Amateur' offers a refreshing insight into a subject that is all too often considered from a single angle. As many voices celebrate the benefits of the social media, Keen stands alone in his battle to challenge these widely held assumptions. A self confessed 'elitist', Keen opposes the growing 'Cult of the Amateur'. Whilst the social media is oft cited as democracy facilitating, Keen suggests otherwise, proposing that the glamourisation of the noble amateur is destroying our culture. Although this statement is likely to draw debate, there is invariably a degree of truth in his arguments. As our ability to voice opinion is increasingly facilitated, the level of misinformation on the internet becomes proportionately evident. We need only look to the internet itself to see that this is sentiment matched by many, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt. As misinformation becomes increasingly voluminous, Keen suggests that our access to expert information is increasingly jeopardised. As such, time becomes increasingly precious as our efforts to distinguish expert from amateur information becomes increasingly difficult.

As
information becomes increasingly accessible online for next to zero cost, employment within information reliant industries is similarly jeopardised. As such, we are likely to see a dramatic fall in the number of employees therein. Keen poses the obvious question; as the number of employees involved in professional information provision drops, who will provide the expert insights upon which we so often rely for our knowledge? As revenue creation within such industries becomes increasingly challenging, the integrity of the resultant information will invariably become compromised. Whilst opinion has surged as a result of communications facilitating platforms, the volume of reliable information has simultaneously dropped. Unfortunately, the aggregation of such information will incur costs, and as capital becomes increasingly scarce, the quality thereof may as a corollary be affected.

Whilst
it is true that capital is becoming increasingly scarce, this should prove favourable towards competition. Increased competition has historically resulted in circumstances similar to those described above; one industry is slowly superseded by another, with the unfortunate loss of jobs along the way. This is the nature of business, and the process has been cyclically repeating itself for thousands of years. Interestingly, it is precisely the social media that has increasingly drawn our attention to these losses, heightening our awareness thereof. At the end of the day though, competition forces companies to improve, invariably benefitting the customer.

Although
I cannot claim to agree with each of the arguments raised by Keen, it is my belief that more critics are required to counter the ever increasing surge of pro-social media fanatics. Whilst such a statement may come as a shock to many, I offer the suggestion that strong arguments both for and against a given subject are required to allow the rest of us to make an informed decision. Whilst Keen's arguments may be palmed off as extreme, I could name five to ten social media 'gurus' whose opinions are equally extreme in favour of the social media. In sum, there are both pros and cons to each side. In order to adequate engage the social media, both sides most be examined.

I would
undoubtedly recommend 'Cult of the Amateur' to any looking to broaden their knowledge of the social media.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is the Social Media even about ROI?

This is a question which I have been contemplating for a little while now; is ROI truly that important in the social media? The more I think about it, the less convinced I become... Such a statement will invariably draw criticism, yet it is my belief that whilst certain forms of digital marketing require a specific, measurable means of ensuring viability, the focus of the social media lies elsewhere; namely in ensuring that the customer experience remains faultless. The quest for social media ROI is akin to the search for the Holy Grail; the question is though, are we looking for the right thing?

Whilst there
is little doubt that ROI provides a metric against which to measure organisational success, there has been little success to date in applying this basic model to the social media. Why; because the social media concerns qualitative, not quantitive data. In many a case, organizations base a number of their most critical decisions upon quantifiable information only. The need therefore to measure the return on social media spend is often seen as a contemporary imperative. Whether we are any nearer to recognising this goal today than we were ten years ago is debatable. In her post 'The ROI of Social Media: Get the Biggest Bang for your Buck', Clare Munn suggests that social media ROI is indeed measurable, highlighting that application difficulties often stem from misconceptions about the product thereof; it is frequently assumed that ROI represents capital returns only. Whilst I recognise her arguments that ROI needn't solely represent monetary returns and that measurement is an important aspect of organisational decision making, I still think that these steps are inappropriately focusing our attention. I find it somewhat concerning that so much emphasis is placed upon the quantifiable, whilst so little attention is paid towards simply achieving the qualitative. Next time you speak to your customer, ask them which of the two they are more concerned about...

What this
comes down to is how you incorporate the social media into your organisation. If the social media is the responsibility of a single department or team, then ROI similar to that described by Munn will be achievable. The results of a single team's participation within the conversation should be suitably contained to measure the results thereof. Within such organisations, ROI is likely to represent one of the sole means of proving the department's raison d’ĂȘtre. On the other hand, if your organisation creates a culture of creativity, in which all members of the workforce are encouraged to participate without feeling obliged, then measurement becomes all the more difficult. How exactly would an organisation go about measuring the positive impact that a single employee has had on a single customer through a detailed blog post or comment? Herein lies the difficulty. Within a culture of creativity, one must remember that employees are engaging of their own free will. I would argue that within such an environment, it is debatable whether these contributions represent an 'investment' at all. Despite these difficulties, it is these organisations that truly realise the potential of the social media.

A number
of my recent posts have examined the critical realization that the social media belongs to the
customer, not the marketer. Despite this glaringly obvious fact, many still choose to ignore this, approaching platforms such as Twitter as they would the more traditional media. This is completely inappropriate. The purpose of the social media is to engage in the conversation; to listen to the customer and to meet their needs in any way they deem appropriate. Although this customer satisfaction is likely to prove difficult to measure using traditional metrics, it will invariably be evident through the ever evolving online conversation. In my opinion, the social media is not about ROI; it is about using the social media to delight the customer, not simply to achieve organisational objectives.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Importance of Not 'Forcing' Employee Participation

Last week I posted my thoughts on the position of the social media as an organisational culture. In the post, I offered my thoughts on why so many organizations are still getting it wrong, suggesting that the culture must actively encourage and be conducive towards employee participation in the social media. One of my main recommendations was that employees must engage in the conversation willingly. The space between encouraged participation and forced participation is vast. As such, the resultant outcomes will differ significantly.

The need for organizations to engage in the social media has been well documented. Terms such as 'Web 2.0' and the 'New Media' have been popular buzzwords for a number of years now; organizations are finally beginning to take note. Whilst this organisational realization is fantastic from the perspective of a social media evangelist, it is simultaneously of concern. Whilst many organizations are keen to get on board the 'Web 2.0' bandwagon, I fear that their eagerness to engage has clouded their judgement.

Recently, the blog has become an oft utilised tool of the 'tech savvy' organisation. Even traditional organizations such as the British government are implementing blogging; quite well too might I add. Unfortunately, for every organisation that 'gets it', there are ten that don't. Many of these organizations push blogging onto the workforce, instead of simply facilitating the use thereof through the provision of the appropriate tools. Although such actions are often the result of misinformation and stem from a good intention to evolve the business, a forced presence will invariably be perceived as awkward.

I read a fantastic post by Valeria Maltoni at the Conversation Agent Blog which questioned how often we as marketers adequately discuss the value of the social media with clients. Whilst the importance of creating a presence within the social media is clear to you and your colleagues, are your clients similarly 'au fait' with the true potential of blogs, microblogs, social networks and wikis? Probably not. It is our responsibility as professionals to ensure that the organisation does not apply social media practices simply because everyone else has. Unless the client is clear about the value thereof, then it is highly probable that the resultant content will come across as manufactured; particularly within those organizations in which participation is expected as opposed to being encouraged. Manufactured content will invariably be perceived as valueless by the customer, causing the likelihood of engagement to drop as a corollary.

That organizations are beginning to recognize the value of the social media is unquestionably a good sign. It is now down to us to ensure that those organizations looking to engage their customers do so via the appropriate channels.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Twitter: Network Builder Extraordinaire

A few weeks back I posted an article on StumbleUpon; one of the greatest social bookmarking sites available at present. I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss another of my favourite platforms. This post will examine Twitter, network builder extraordinaire.

I recently found myself discussing Twitter, the microblogging platform, with an acquintance of mine. The conversation came across more as a defence of the platform rather than as a mutual agreement of the benefits thereof; a position in which I have often found myself of late. Although the individual was eventually able to see the capacity for Twitter to facilitate network building, they suggested that it would invariably fail to recognize its primary function - as a marketing tool. Whilst anyone that follows this blog will recognize that I dispute any marketer ownership over any of the social media platforms I left the conversation with the realization that Twitter still has much to prove...

As usual, to those who would suggest that Twitter is a marketing tool, I say No! Twitter like the other social media tools is a platform for connecting consumers. Whilst the platform unquestionably has the capacity to promote one's product offerings, unashamed promotion is akin to entering someone else's conversation, blurting a point, and then leaving. This would be incredibly poorly received in reality; why should the online environment be treated any differently? Whilst self promotion is not the only way to ruin a Twitter relationship, it is important to remember that the route to success in any social media application is to actively engage with the community. In order to draw value from the platform, it is important to provide value back to the community.

Twitter's value is two-fold; specifically, value is drawn from both the capacity to create networks and the ability to identify customer needs in real time. The platform operates under a 'following' model; community members choose to follow one another having identified shared interests. The introduction of Twitter Search has greatly facilitated the user's ability to identify members with similar interests. Whilst this tool is conducive to building subject specific networks, its greatest strength lies in its ability to highlight online brand perceptions in real time. It is truly surprising how much can be said in 140 characters... As such, it is imperative that organisations recognise the necessity to constantly monitor Twitter Chatter. Negative comments concerning a product offering can be easily identified; it is down to the organisation to address these concerns as it feels fit. In any case, it is important to remember that the community will be watching...

For organisations that are on the ball, Twitter offers an unparalleled opportunity to identify consumer concerns, and to resolve them in real time within the public sphere. Such positive publicity is likely to prove difficult to replicate outside of the social media.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Collaboration in Action: Chuck Westbrook's Blogging Review Group

For those that may not have seen Chuck Westbrook's recent post about blogs which provide great content, it is well worth a look. Westbrook's premise is, as is often the case, simple yet brilliant; create an online blog review group and bring high quality blogs to the attention of the masses. When I found the post referenced above during my daily 'Stumblings' last week, over 500 people had already positively responded to the suggestion. Imagine the potential traffic such a project might bring to a page... The 500 'visiting' members of the group would significantly raise the profile of the page in question, thus inevitably drawing further traffic through enhanced search visibility. This sounds like a fantastic premise which should go a long way towards identifying a number of hidden social media gems. The project's first host, Zoe Westhof of Essential Prose today relayed her thoughts on how the additional traffic had influenced the direction of the blog. By all accounts, the project has, for now, proven successful.

I am reminded of the fantastic 'Wikinomics' by Tapscott and Williams, which I read earlier this year. Westbrook's review group is most definately collaboration in action. The group clearly exemplifies the social media imperative that 'We' can achieve more collectively than 'I'. By drawing together a group of like minded individuals who share a common goal or purpose, the collaborative can account for the strengths and weaknesses of its members to recognize a given desireable action. In this case, the common interest is blogging, their shared goal; to increase traffic to a given site, whilst extending their individual knowledge of, and access to high quality content. For the members of this collective, the outcome is win-win.

Collaboration is becoming increasingly popular in the age of social media. Collaborative efforts, such as Wikipedia, clearly demonstrate that collectively we are able to achieve outcomes which would be singularly impossible to achieve. Whilst some will correctly highlight that the produce of such collaborative efforts will never match the produce of a handful of experts in terms of quality (for example, see The Great Seduction and Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen), for purposes such as those described above, the collaborative excels.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Who 'Owns' the Social Media?

I've found myself writing a phrase to the following effect in the comments sections of several blogs of late, The social media tools were primarily developed as a means of connecting consumers, not as a marketing tool. Unfortunately, many marketers seem to be forgetting this as society's embrace of the 'Web 2.0' phenomenon becomes ever tighter. Don't get me wrong; I myself am from a marketing background, and as anyone that follows this blog will tell you, I keenly advocate the organizational use of the social media. For me though, there is both a right and a wrong way to 'market' through the social media. Again, many marketers are, in my opinion, guilty of committing these crimes against the groundswell. Let me explain...

There are two ways an organisation can create a presence within the social media. Firstly, the organisation may enter the social media by 'shouting' their message. Such a strategy finds itself in alignment with the more traditional media, which allowed marketers to broadcast their message to a huge, but untargeted audience. The second strategy, to 'converse', is far more personal. I am certain that you can guess which of the two strategies I favour...

I have always found being interupted in the middle of a discussion incredibly rude. How does this differ from the online environment? As marketers, what right have we to enter a conversation amongst our consumers in an attempt to influence the conversation? Very little in my opinion. Yet marketers continue to unashamedly enter the conversation, broadcast their message and leave. This is wholely unacceptable. Such interjections offer very little value to the conversation, and should therefore be avoided. Admittedly, there is a time and a place for broadcasting, this being in the traditional media at the viewer or reader's discretion. For those looking to create such a presence of an Internet based campaign, my suggestion would be look at more measurable online marketing techniques, such as affiliate marketing. The social media is unlikely to benefit from your presence...

For me, the social media has and always will be about customer engagement. It is about openly and honestly engaging with the customer in an environment designed for their use, not ours. Whilst it is arguable that such a strategy is no longer considered marketing, I would strongly disagree. Engaging with the consumer is the responsibility of the marketing department, and I see no reason why this should change now.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Perceptions of Success and the Social Media

Success is an important thing. Besides resulting in a desired organisational outcome, most notably in the form of capital returns, success allows judgements to be made concerning the likelihood of repeat positive outcomes in a given situation. This knowledge offers observers the opportunity to make informed decisions concerning the viability of future successes. Similarly, the perceived likelihood of success is equally important, particularly in the age of the social media. A time in which it has never been easier to generate content, organisational action has never been reported on and scrutinized to the extent that it is now.

One thing I always say to those that are still sceptical of the social media is that if the customer can't say something directly to you, they will say it elsewhere. Remember, the social media provides an electronic voice to anyone with an opinion. The problem with comments made against your organisation within the 'somewhere else' of the social media is that before you are able to action a criticism or suggestion you must first locate the comment. Considering the number of new applications that pop up on a near daily basis, this is no easy task.

It is my belief that any organisation which fails to implement a social media strategy is acting incredibly shortsightedly. As customers spend a greater proportion of their time online, organizations must recognize the value of engaging in the resultant conversation of an increasingly digital society. Simply providing one's customers with the tools to converse with the organisation demonstrates an interest in what said customers have to say. Demonstrating an interest in listening to your customers though is only the first step in an ongoing cycle. The organisation should not take my previous recommendation as grounds for failing to continue listening to external sources of social media; specifically the ones outside of their control . On the contrary, continuing to listen to the groundswell remains one of the most crucial aspects of any social media campaign. Whilst this is all well and good, how do perceptions of success tie into the above? That depends entirely upon how you use the social media.

As we have discussed, the social media is essentially a conversation between multiple parties. Each party must contribute to the conversation. Herein lies the value of the new media. By expanding our knowledge through shared conversation, we as readers are able to benefit from the resultant content. Conversely, if the perceived likelihood of successful access to content is low then the platform will be avoided. This is simple logic. Applied in an organizational context, those organizations which fail to adequately participate in the conversation will be deemed to have failed in their social media strategy. Low perceptions of success will invariably deter consumers from contributing, and the value of the platform is quickly reduced to none.

Perceptions of success are particularly important when the customer has had a negative experience of the organisation. Remember, it has never been easier for users to create content. An aggrieved 21st Century customer can now create a 'thiscompanysucks.com' site as easily as they are able to vent in a social network or blog. Whilst this information has the potential to damage an organisation's brand equity, it also offers the organisation unparalleled insight into the perceptions of the customer in question. The rantings of a dissatisfied customer can provide insight into service failings, product defects or limitations; as previously identified though, this information is only of value to the organisation when it is located. Whilst this process is made substantially easier through an organisation controlled social media offering similar to that described above, such platforms will only be used if the perceived likelihood of successful redress is high. A low likelihood of success with drive your customers away, and the organisation will be perceived as demonstrating a disinterest in resolving their concerns. This will invariably make the customer's grievances worse.

On the other hand, satisfactorily addressing a particular concern within an open forum can have a plethora of benefits. For example, by openly addressing customer x's concerns in an open and honest discussion (see my recent post on the importance of transparency in the social media), the social media can represent a real time interest in addressing the consumer's concerns. In addition, a number of product or service insights may be suggested which the organisation had yet to recognise. Whilst many may argue that such an approach would simply highlight the organisation's failings, I would suggest otherwise. For me, such a strategy highlights an organisational strength; an ability to engage the customer in direct and often difficult conversation.

The question is, are you listening to the social media?

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The Overwhelming Importance of Transparency

Yesterday, I offered my opinion on Jacob Morgan's suggestion that organisations need a social media marketing department. For me, the social media represents more than the technology on which it is played out; it represents a culture. Founded upon an overwhelmingly human desire to connect, the various platforms oft referred to as Web 2.0 have emerged as a corollary of the resultant demands. It is my belief that in order to implement an effective social media strategy within an organisation, the workforce in its entirety must be enlisted and encouraged to participate willingly therein. Limiting these responsibilities to a dedicated department will invariably result in the 'conversational' output being perceived as manufactured. Manufactured posts will invariably be identified by the community and exposed. Woe betide the organisation that claims that the content offered up to the social media is genuine, when in fact it has been produced by the marketing team... This leads me on to today's topic; transparency.

It is increasingly acknowledged that the value of the
social media stems from its ability to facilitate conversation; after all, the majority of the applications were specifically developed to cater to societal demands for connectivity described above. Initially a means of connecting various 'communities', the potential for the social media was quickly recognised as an innovative new marketing channel by astute marketers. Whilst this provided an unparalleled opportunity to converse with one's customers, the transparency of the conversation was promptly contaminated as organisations began covertly influencing the direction of the community under the guise of an indepedent user. Fortunately for the social media, for every astute marketer, there are several thousand equally astute community members. Marketing efforts to covertly enter a conversation with the intention of influencing the mindset of the community were more often than not exposed as fraudulent. Attempts to manipulate the conversation often backfired, the damage having been recognised in the brand'sequity.

It was at this stage that still more astute marketers
recognised the true potential afforded by the social media. Having recognising that the social media is a communications facilitating platform, many organisations decided to use the new medium as intended, engaging the organisation's stakeholders in direct conversation. Instead of attempting to misguide consumers into discussing a particularly brand or product, organisations began openly and honestly conversing within the communities. Herein lies the value of transparency. By making your intentions for entering the conversation clear, the likelihood of community engagement is significantly more likely. Further, it is this engagement that will provide meangingful value to the brand, most notably in the form of genuine consumer insight. If your organisation is open with the customer, then the customer will be open with you. Access to honest market insight of this sort is likelyto prove difficult to come by elsewhere.

Unfortunately
, there are still many marketers getting this wrong, in fact Danny Brown has instigated an extraordinary discussion which, amongst other things, examines the presence of unashamed promotion on Twitter. These organisations still do not recognise that you will only benefit from the social media by acting socially; i.e. by openly and honestly participating in the conversation. Whilst self promotion is permissable, such marketing efforts will only succeed where the listener perceives there to be propostional value. In other words, the social media is about give and take. Encourage your employees to honestly engage with communities via the social media. Not only will this provide insight into customer brand perceptions, but it will simultaneously encourage said customers to perceive the organisation as more human, more approachable.

The social media is a
fantastic tool, but let's no go contaminating it with unashamed promotional efforts. Let's use the social media as intended, and engage in conversation with the customer in an environment designed for them, not us as marketers...

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