Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Directing the Conversation

Several months ago I wrote an article on directing attention after reading a fascinating piece by Josh Klein. Whilst the capacity to direct attention will remain critical for achieving success in an increasingly interconnected society, an ability to influence the direction of the conversation is of similar importance. The advent of communication facilitating tools, such as blogs and social networks, has meant that the ability to create content has been afforded anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection. As a result, the volume of misinformation has risen exponentially. Whilst it would be incredibly foolish for me to condemn the use of the social media for such purposes; after all we must remember who the social media 'belongs' to, from a business' perspective ever more voluminous mountains of user generated content make it even more difficult to leave a mark. Suddenly an ability to direct the conversation becomes incredibly valuable.

Directing the Masses
What exactly do I mean by an ability to direct the conversation? Simply put, directing the conversation involves instigating conversation around a particular subject matter; a topic which I touched upon briefly in yesterday's discussion. Whilst certain authors have a certain talent for developing the conversation such, others find that their efforts realize little recognition. How do the results differ? Influential authors can create a notable buzz within the social media, therefore drawing significant attention to a topic, product or organisation. The lesser known author is likely to find that her work has a diminished impact on the overall conversation, perhaps even exhibiting signs of 'being under the influence' of the former within her own content. From an organizational perspective, reaching these influencers is an attractive solution for inciting relevant conversation. It is herein where the challenge lies.

Forgetting to Delight...
Unfortunately for organisations, the only proven route for achieving positive social media recognition is to place the customer at the centre of everything. Ongoing efforts to delight the customer will invariably result in measurable recognition in the social media, as those with an active presence preach their positive experiences of the organisation. Whilst reaching bloggers with significant influence may dramatically expedite conversational directing, over reliance upon such a strategy is, in my opinion, unlikely to be sustainable in the long run. It may even prove detrimental as general ignorance causes the ordinary customer to become overlooked, thus jeopardizing the overall experience.

Recognizing the Little Guy
Do conversation directors exist? Absolutely. You only have to look at the more prominent figures within the social media to see the cascading effects caused for almost each and every subject which they touch upon. The thing is though, influencing these influencer is a significant challenge in itself. By focusing all of your efforts on reaching social media 'celebrities' rather than focusing on delighting the customer in general, it is likely that the resultant negative publicity will far exceed the benefits reaped from the conversations that have been established. As such there is no quick fix for creating a positive buzz in the social media. Then again though that's the point. These platforms are specifically designed to facilitate two way communication flows, not to facilitate the violation of an inherently social arena through the broadcasting of unwanted messages. Democracy rules within the social media, and if your organisation is really that good then it is almost certain that these conversations will occur naturally. It's just a matter of time.

Perhaps the little guy isn't so powerless after all.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Impact of Social Media Fame

Clay Shirky makes an interesting point in his book 'Here Comes Every Body'. Applying the concept of fame to the communication facilitating tools of the social media, Shirky highlights an aspect of the online conversation which I personally had overlooked. Whilst Shirky's application of the fame concept differs slightly from conventional interpretations thereof, once acknowledged the resultant impacts are clearly visible throughout the world of social media.

The Direction of the Conversation
Despite minor differences between traditional and social interpretations of fame, a number of similarities also exist. Mirroring fame in it's traditional sense, social media fame comprises arrows of attention. When a blog, profile or account has more inward pointing attention arrows than outward pointing attention arrows, the greater the level of fame. This is a simple concept. What is perhaps more interesting is the potential effect that this has on the conversation. Consider the case of influential bloggers. As the perceived value of the content produced is increasingly recognized within the community, the number of individuals engaging with said content is likely to rise proportionately. The act of content engagement is most likely to take the form of a comment. As the number of interactions with the content increase, the ability of the author to adequately address each comment diminishes. In effect, these authors are becoming increasingly detached from those conversations which they are creating.

Developing Together
Whilst this view is somewhat simplistic, failing to take into account a number of important considerations, the logic behind these assertions is, in one sense, undeniable. Admittedly, as the number of inward facing arrows increases, the capacity of the author to personally address each comment becomes increasingly difficult. Were this the end of it, the social media would comprise a horrible muddle where significantly more questions are asked of the author than answers provided. The development of community has of course enabled the avoidance of such a muddle. Despite the impossibility of personlised two way communications beyond a point, building a community encourages conversational development amongst its parts. Authors such as Chris Brogan and Danny Brown have established significant communities in which conversations are enhanced through group discussion. This is reminiscent of the social media adage 'We' are more intelligent than 'I'.

Developing Knowledge Together
According to Shirky, social media allows us to experience the downsides of fame, notably these being the inability to reciprocate in the way the community would like us to. Whilst I recognize the logic in these assertions, I think that the enabling capacity of the social media has been overlooked. It is undeniable that these authors are unable to individually address each comment directed at them, however I truly do not believe that this is the intention of authors such as Brogan and Brown. Rather the goal for these individuals is to encourage the development of knowledge collectively. Whilst the two authors referenced herein are clearly experts in their fields, we must remember that interest in the social media is still in its relative infancy. It is only through such collective knowledge development that genuine insight will be gleaned. True social media gurus such as those referenced herein realise this and, instead of broadcasting a lesson, will subtely encourage conversational development over time.

Fame is overrated. It is an ability to truly influence the conversation that impresses.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Punishing Employee Engagement

The issue of organisational action taken against employees deemed to have abused customer engagement guidelines is an interesting dilemma which I thought I would post my thoughts on, rather than attempt to provide a solution to. Similar to the guidelines themselves, differences in interpretation will almost certainly influence the eventual action taken; with variances therein dependent upon the organisation in which the breach has occurred. As our society becomes increasingly interconnected, transparency and conversation become the norm. The question is though, what happens when these societal standards clash with the culture of the organisation?

Guiding Engagement
Many would suggest that the dilemma itself exemplifies the obsolesence of the traditional business model concept, highlighting a need for further developments in organisational culture. Unfortunately this is not always practical. For example, whilst organisations may applaud the increasing societal presence of transparency, they will almost certainly display reluctance to divulge the trade secrets that make them competitive. This is understandable, and is a theme which I shall be exploring later in the week. For those organisations which are keen to encourage customer engagement, guidelines similar to those published by organisations such as IBM represent a safety net designed to minimise employee generated damage to the brand equity. Actions taken when these lines are crossed will depend upon both the reasons for and the severity of the breach.

Influencing Action
The nature of business is such that variations in practice between organisations will occur as standard; this is what allows for competition. Action taken following a breach can have a profound effect on the organisation's social media presence; with the potential to either destroy or discredit the organisational offering in the process. Clearly the resultant action is dependent upon both the extent of and perceived motive for the breach. For example, organisational action following an unintentional breach may differ significantly from that following a malicious planned attack. Admittedly the resultant action will be significantly influenced by the severity of the incident, with breaches resulting in serious damage to the brand equity almost certainly resulting in dismissal. What constitutes serious damage to the brand equity? Again, this is something which will depend upon the individual organization.

Striking a Balance
Whatever action the organisation decides to enforce following a breach, it is imperative that the repercussions are considered carefully; too lenient an outcome may fail to prevent future recurrences, whilst too strict a punishment may deter customer engagement all together. As an organisation it is your responsibility to ensure that an appropriate stance is taken. Recognize the impact of the social media on your business and consider what might happen were it to disappear, or worse still, appear manufactured. On the other hand, consider the potential ramifications that the actions of a negligent employee can cause through their electronic voice.

What action would you consider appropriate for social media guideline breaches? Is employee dismissal justifiable, or is this simply transparent behaviour in a society that condones honesty?

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Danger of Implementing 'Smart Blogging' Regulations

I'm all for organisational implementation of intelligent social media regulations. By establishing groundrules for employee-public engagement, the organisation can ensure that basic restrictions are in place to avoid potentially negative repercussions resulting from a very public lapse in judgement from the workforce. Simple restrictions concerning language and content are not designed to stifle employee creativity, but rather to ensure that brand equity is not damaged as a result of either intentional or unintentional employee negligence. Last week, my thoughts on the subject were challenged though whilst reading Robert Scoble and Shel Israel's 'Naked Conversations'.

A Question of Interpretation
According to Scoble and Israel, the problem with smart blogging practices revolves around interpretation. Unless clearly defined, a regulation intepreted by one employee will almost certainly be interpreted somewhat differently by another. Similarly, differences in interpretation can make it difficult for regulations to be adequately enforced. The resultant confusion may deter a proportion of the workforce from representing the brand online; particularly when coupled with fear of organisational reprisal. For those employees still enthused about engaging with the customer online, confusion of what constitutes acceptable online practices may cause the resultant content to develop a manufactured feel. This content is hardly beneficial for the organisation.

Encouraging Employee Participation
Herein lies the difficulty for many an organisation. Whilst strict social media engagement regulations are likely to deter employee participation, as identified above ambiguous regulations are likely to result in an equivalent outcome. It is the responsibility of the organisation to identify appropriate middle ground for employee participation in the social media. Although decisions concerning certain regulations will be obvious, for example with regards to language allowances and trade secrets, other areas will be significantly more up for discussion. For example, to what extent will the organisation empower the workforce to challenge the thoughts and opinions of customers online? It is only through careful consideration of each of these areas that an appropriate strategy will be crafted.

One Step at a Time
Unfortunately there is no single standardised social media strategy. As such, organisations really need to employ common sense when establishing their guidelines for employee engagement. Clearly it would be impossible for each and every engagement to be monitored; highlighting the need for appropriate guidance from the outset. The best advice that I can give would be to examine the workforce and to develop a strategy both with and around them. By working together with the workforce closely, potential areas of difficulty can be preemptively identified and addressed. Whilst this cannot guarantee the avoidance of every challenge to the brand equity, it will almost certainly cause the number of occurences thereof to diminish.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Putting the Customer at the Centre of Everything

Earlier this week I discussed organisational fear, highlighting the reasons why concerns of what could happen when engaging with the customer should not dictate the organisation's social media engagement strategy. Unfortunately, many organisation's continue to fall into this trap, citing unpredictability as the central logic behind removing the customer's capacity to talk back. Interestingly, these organisations continue to believe that they are in control of their own destiny; they don't seem to realise that power rests firmly in the hands of their customer.

I Have the Power!
As has oft been cited in the blogosphere, the online community has the capacity to make or break a brand; a power which they are often all too happy to call upon should it be deemed that the company is not acting in the best interests of its customers. The organisation on the other hand has little to no direct control over the online customer perceptions of the brand; particularly when concerns such as those described above deter the recognition of a social media engagement strategy in its entirety. Whilst careful efforts to influence these perceptions can be made, opinions stemming from the blogosphere are likely to be more readily recieved by the online community.

Customer Action and the Social Media
The best strategy for minimising the wrath of the online community is to ensure that your organisation places the customer at the centre of everything. Every decision that the business makes should only be implemented following consideration of the potential implications of the resultant actions upon the customer. Hardly surprising really. By ensuring that every action is specifically designed to satisfy the needs of the customer, the likelihood of the negative content appearing online is reduced. Whilst the facilitating capacities afforded by the social media have undeniably enhanced the likelihood of negative content appearing on line, appropriately engaging with the customer will almost certainly cause the consumer's propensity to engage in negative content generation to diminish. And hey, by having a social media, the customer may feel more inclined to address their concerns directly with you before taking these qualms elsewhere.

The Customer Revolution
Is this revolutionary thinking within your organisation? I certainly hope not. Although business practices have become somewhat distracted in recent years, the importance of placing the customer at the centre of everything is nothing new. Whilst said practices have traditionally favoured the position of the organisation over that of the customer, the abilities afforded to the consumer by the Internet have resulted in a radical power shift. Now the actions of a single consumer can dramatically effect the successes of organisations of all sizes.

Make sure that your organisation recognises the importance of putting the customer at the centre of everything. If you continue to rely on outdated business practices, the community will react. This reaction will almost certainly be negative. Help to avoid the creation of negative content by engaging with your customer.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

The Curious Case of the Blog

Whilst watching television earlier this week, I saw an advertisement for Sky News' political correspondent Adam Boulton's blog. Whilst this event was nothing remarkable in itself, it did get me thinking about the position of the blog in our society. Whilst references to blogging are becoming increasingly prevalent in both the online and offline media, I am dubious as to whether this represents an actual increase in societal uptake thereof. I am convinced that despite an undeniable increase in the platform's visibility, the degree of blogging adoption by the general public is still comparatively low.

What's in a Tweet?
Those actively engaged in the creation of online content seem significantly more likely to author a blog. Notably, many of those on Twitter seem to have a blog. Admittedly I am basing this supposition on the number of tweets I see advising other users to check out a recent post, however that may simply indicate that those I choose to follow have a greater propensity to blogging than others. This suggestion is hardly surprising; the majority of 'Creator' type Internet users are likely to engage in the creation of content across platforms. Blog visibility is therefore likely to prove somewhat deceptive, as those platform users highlighting posts of interest are likely to be responsible for creating blogs of their own elsewhere. Duplicate references to content across platforms may have resulted in blogging appearing more mainstream than is actually the case.

Blogging; the Realm of the Geek?
In spite of blog related references being on the rise, I remain sceptical as to whether we have truly seen the platform go mainstream. In the UK, the number of people actually professing to running a blog is still relatively low. General consensus continues to categorize blogging as the hobby of the 'geek'; a shame given the platform's capacity to advance the conversation. It should be noted that in spite of the comparatively small number of users actively engaging in creating blog content; the Forrester Social Technographics Profile tool suggests that only 15% of UK Internet users fall into the 'Creator' bracket, significantly more users are likely to interact with said material, perhaps even unknowingly. Whilst the number of those engaging in blog authoring is still relatively low, the number of 'Spectators' interacting with this content emphasises the ongoing significance thereof. Clearly it would be naive for organisations to avoid engaging with these users.

Social Media in Society
Whilst certain social platforms have unquestionably achieved mainstream status, most notably Facebook and increasingly Twitter, serious blog creation remains somewhat specialised. That is not to say that this is justification to avoid establishing an organisational presence therein. As the quality of blogged material continues to increase, the number of Internet users interacting with this material is likely to continue to rise. By appropriately targeting and engaging relevant bloggers, organisations can help to ensure that their content reaches interested parties. Has the blog achieved mainstream status? That is clearly debatable. The value of the content created by these Internet users is however undeniable; particularly as the number of spectators remains high. This is undoubtedly an opportunity not to be missed.

What are your thoughts? Has blogging gone mainstream, or does it remain a product of the 'geek'? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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