Make Loads of Sales on Deals Websites…

…by working hard and contributing to the community.

There are a fair few deal sharing websites like Hot UK Deals or Fat Wallet where a community works together to find different offers, and like content sharing sites like Digg, these deal sites can provide you with a massive amount of traffic if your offer goes hot and gets a lot of exposure.

A common assumption is that these deal websites work like this:

  1. Deals are submitted by impartial users
  2. Users vote for the best deal based on quality
  3. The best deals get the most visibility

In fact, on the whole, the process is more like this:

  1. Deals are submitted by business owner/ affiliate
  2. Submitter requests votes from influence network based on previous vote trading
  3. Influence network  vote in favour of the deal based on previous vote trading
  4. Impartial users see the deal and vote based on quality
  5. The deal goes popular

This would be of no surprise to users of Digg, or indeed, anyone who has ever watched an election, or been in a classroom.  Popularity is hard to achieve, and democracy fails without diplomacy.

Clique voting is not necessarily a problem for users of offer or sharing websites – Ultimately, the net effect of either model above is that they get access to a set of offers or pieces of content that they might not have been able to find otherwise.  It can be a problem for retailers or other on-line traders, because the fact is, without playing the games of the community, the chances of a deal getting any real exposure is very limited.

So, the question is, how do you get a network in place that can support your deals?

Make Friends and Influence People…

In an ideal world, your content would become popular by virtue of its quality, but the reality of social sharing websites is mired in politics and petty trading of votes to gain visibility.
Without investing time in making the right friends on sharing websites, you may as well forget about even uploading your content and adding links, because quite simply they will not attract any interest.
There are 3 main stages to developing your presence on any social sharing website:

  • Building a Profile
  • Building a Network
  • Building a Reputation

Building a Profile

On sharing websites where popularity is currency, it is vitally important to employ a profile that is unconnected to your business.  You should avoid using the name of your company in the name of your profile or any imagery associated with it.
A complete profile is a credible profile, so provide as much information as you can.  It can be tempting to create a false identity on a sharing website, and many people do, however you should not just randomly create an identity, as it can be hard to maintain an artificial identity long term.
The amount of information that you present to other users should always be tailored to the content that you want to promote.  Creating a false identity that you imagine will attract a lot of followers is no good if it is has no credibility – a 23 year old female who likes house music and designer lingerie might not have real authority on an IT news website  discussing server hardware.

Your Name

In the same way as you will struggle to find a 3 letter domain name, finding a short and memorable name on a lot of social sharing websites can be difficult, so finding the most appropriate name possible can be a struggle.  Ideally, find something that is memorable,and appropriate.  Special Characters, numbers and leet spelling can cause mistakes when people try and enter the user name, and also cause confusion with anyone who has a similar name, so ideally you should avoid them.

Your Avatar

In the same way as you want your company logo to be easily recognisable, you want the same for your avatar.  If it stands out on the page, other users will be able to recognise it more easily when they are scrolling down the page.  Choose something simple and coloured so that it stands out from the website. In most cases, the version of your avatar that gets displayed in most discussions will be quite small, so you need something that scales well.  Photos don’t always work that well as an avatar, so try and steer reasonably clear.
A good rule of thumb is to choose an avatar that makes sense at 50px square, as this is a common size in discussions.  One reason to have a strong logo style avatar is that it is displayed every time you post, comment, share a message or shout to other users.  If your fellow users start to see your avatar voting for their content, they will find it easier to pick it out when you request help from them.

Building a Network

The key to getting your content to go popular is to promote it directly to as many interested people as possible.  This means developing contacts who read and vote for similar content to what you are interested in.
Your first step in building a targeted and efficient network of advocates should be to look for people who currently vote for similar content to yours.  If you are promoting special offers or deals, look for the people who frequently appear in the list of people who voted for a link. You should befriend people in moderation – a good rule of thumb is to request friendship from a number less than 20% of your current total number of friends on any one day, and to be consistent.
Bear in mind, that not everyone will want to reciprocate your friendship at first, but it can be worth being especially nice to very influential people, as they may come on board later.

The key with growing your network of friends is to do it steadily, and do it within the context of the rest of the user community – keep an eye on what constitutes a popular user, and also the number of friends are needed to hit the first page of a particular website on a consistent basis.
If the number of friends that popular people on the website have is comparatively lower than above, then do not exceed it – ultimately, you only need enough friends to be competitive.
The ratio of people you follow to the number of people who follow you on social websites is often an important measure of your individual importance on the website.  Although in the initial period of being on a website, you will typically be following more people than usual in a bid to build your individual network, over time, you should always push for a network of friends on a social sharing website that is asymetric in number – a good rule of thumb is to follow around 30% of the number of people who are following you.  On some networks, it can take some time for your profile to get noticed enough to have people actively requesting friendship, however the more active you are, and the more you participate in the community, the more people will want to associate with you.
As with the people who you follow normally, never behave randomly, be selective.  Look for people who are active in the verticals that you want to promote, and who regularly vote on other people’s submissions.  The last thing that you want to do is acquire a lot of followers who consider themselves too important to reciprocate .

Things you should look for in your friends

Everything that you look for in friends on sharing networks should be considered in order to increase the chances that you have of making your own content more popular.  With this in mind, look for people who:

  • Are active in voting for the same subject as you want to promote
  • Have more followers than they follow
  • Regularly promote content other than their own to their followers
  • Regularly comment on the content they promote

People who fulfil the criteria above are the exact kind of people that you want to work with because everything that they do will help to provide your content with a boost.  Provided that your own activities on the website are not counter to their own goals, and hold them back.

Profile your Friends

Social networking is all about people, and most networks provide you with information about other members that you should use in order to make the most of marketing to them.  When each person becomes a friend or a fan, spend some time reading their profile, and add their details to a database or spreadsheet.  You could spend forever getting as much information as possible about the people you are working with, however top line data tends to be useful enough to help you to segment the market when you are sending out messages and requesting help to promote content or votes.
When you first make a connection, you should just capture some top line information, which you should then look to review and update on a reasonably regular basis:
Name Gender Member Since Friends Followers Votes Submissions Gone Hot Voted Shouted
James Male 1 year 250 500 3650 30 10 Yes Yes
The reason you want to track information about gender is to ensure that you use your audience as effectively as possible – try and target people who are most appropriate to your product and content.
People who regularly vote for your content and also promote it to their followers are amongst the most useful partners on social websites, and you should maintain a higher level of communication with them than any of your other followers and friends.
Absolute numbers can be misleading, you may come across people who are new to the website who could be more powerful allies, so try to factor in performance as percentage, and compare this way:
Name Gender Member Since Friends /

Follower

Votes / Day Hot Submissions Voted Shouted
James Male 1 year 0.5 10 0.1 Yes Yes
By using the same data above in a more easy to compare way, you can then provide a comparison between users more easily that will help you to judge more easily the strength of different partners, and judge who you should be working with.
Be careful of becoming friends with any people who are too far outside the norm on any statistics – someone who has made thousands of votes in a short period might be a spammer or an automated program, so any effort made in building a relationship with them would likely be a waste of time.

Building a Reputation

Activity is absolutely essential within any social media community if you want to be heard and keep yourself in front of mind.  Within a sharing website, where you will rely on your community to help to promote your content, you need to reciprocate, and do the same for them.
A great way of thinking about how best to build your reputation on a sharing website – or any other social medium is to be SAFE:

  • Selective
  • Active
  • Fair
  • Entertaining

Being Selective means not just following everyone, or voting for everything – you should stick to following people who are a good match for you, and vote for content that is complementary to your won – most sharing websties do monitor the volume of things you like over time, and will eventually reduce the value of each of your votes, so use them wisely.
Being Active means visiting the site regularly, spending time reviewing content, voting for things that are good, and also voting against things that are low quality or spammy (generally avoid voting against your most important friends), and commenting.  Also, ensure that you are regularly submitting high quality content that is useful to other members – keep the amount of content from any one website to less than 10% of your total volume.
Being Fair means that you should ensure that the level of activity that you request from your friends does not exceed the level of effort that you put into helping them.  Reciprocity is important on social websites – if someone shouts your content to their followers, you should do the same when appropriate, if someone votes for your content, do the same.
Being Entertaining means being the kind of person who benefits the community.  Make sure that you are not repetitive in what you provide, and that you contribute to discussions to keep them alive.  If all you ever promote on the website is variations on a theme, people will soon get bored, and stop wanting to work with you.

Tips for Success

When you are submitting content that you want to capture the attention of the public and become successful, it is absolutely essential that you do everything you can to maximise your chances.

View the competition

There is no point in promoting something at the same time as another similar item – even if your content is better, or your offer is more compelling, users will be split between the two, and both would be likely to suffer.

Timing is Essential

You need to make sure that you take full benefit of being popular.  It is always easier to get to the top of the popular lists during quiet times of the day, but the rewards for this are minimal. Think about the normal usage patterns for your website in terms of number of converting visitors, as this is when your content is of most interest to them, and schedule content to be launched at a similar time.
One of the things that will make your profile stronger and more authoritative within any social sharing website is the number of your posts that become popular, and if there is a time of day when you find it easier to get a lot of votes for your content and make it hot, this is useful.  When you are publishing content that you want to go popular, but you know will not be successful in terms of traffic, you should ensure that you use content that is of lower value to you, or is from a related website rather than your own.

Use Your Data

You should treat the title and description that you give to the promotional content the same consideration as you would to any advert that you run.  Look at your CTR and conversion data from any paid search campaigns that you are running to see what kind of language resonates best with your customers.
When you are publicising offers, consider when to use percentage discounts and when to use absolute amounts.  If you have an item that usually costs £100 on offer for £50, there are many ways that you can structure the offer:

  • 50% off Product X
  • £50 off Product X
  • Product X for just £50
  • Half Price Product X
  • Two for One on Product X
  • Buy one Product X, get one Free

Rank performance of different adverts that you have run in the past, but also look at what kinds of offers are performing best on your target website.  Search audiences will exhibit some behavioural differences from social media, so bear this in mind, and never stick religiously with “what you know” – sometimes the market knows better.

Use Your Brand

If you have worked to promote your brand, make sure that you leverage this effort within your social listing – if people recognise your product and branding, and associate good things with it, then they will be more likely to respond to it.
In addition to your core corporate brand, remember that you are also working to promote your social identity on whichever webiste you are promoting via, so concentrate on delivering a reliable standard of content.

Shouting Quietly

A key feature of sharing websites is the ability to recommend content or “shout” about it.  The terminology will differ depending on the site you are using, but it is pretty much an ever present function.
A mistake that a lot of people make is to simply shout the same message to all of their followers – this is impersonal, and generally results in fewer of them taking action than they otherwise might.
You should record every person that you shout to in your database, and log what kind of a response you get from them – that way you can refine your approach – also, by segmenting the people that you are in contact with, you can avoid generic messaging and send different content to different people to make your communication more personal – and therefore, more effective.

External Promotion

No man is an island, and this is true of offers websites.  If you really want to do well, make sure that you post your offers via a dedicated Twitter account (Yourcompanyoffers) or via whichever network has the closest demographic match to your target customers.

Track Things

In order to demonstrate a realistic ROI from any activity that you carry out on a website, you should look at ways of monitoring the resulting traffic.  Most analytics will track referrers from different domains, and provided that you are able to assign some kind of value per visitor to a channel, it is important to do this.
You should also ensure that you are able to separate out traffic that your work has contributed from any other traffic in order to be able to adequately attribute value to the social media campaign.
As most sharing websites apply URL filters such as Nofollow to outbound links in order to reduce the amount of SEO benefit that they offer in a bid to fight spam, you should consider appending some kind of custom variable that is unique to each offer or content that you promote:

domain.com/offerpage.html?channel=socmed&source=deals&id=12345

You can then track each offer individually to monitor the success of individual campaigns right through from the wording used, to the number of votes, to the number of sales.

Return on Investment?

Success is rarely accidental, but it is important to ensure that the level of success is not negatively disproportionate to the effort made.
The one truth about any kind of social media activity is that you only get out what you are prepared to put in.  The more time you invest in building up your profile and demonstrating your commitment to a particular website, the more visibility you will have, and the better the results you will get from it are.  Where there is a tangible goal for the activity – such as increased sales of a special offer, or a high volume of traffic to a particular page, we can demonstrate a tangible return on investment.

The A to Z of Social Media

If there is one thing that is becoming increasingly clear to people working in all channels of marketing from SEO through to print advertising and TV, it is that Social Media is becoming more and more important in every aspect of our work.  Whether you look at the impact of social cues on SEO activity, or the instant feedback that a product can get online, getting closer to the audience via social channels is allowing companies to refine their marketing strategies, and providing far better data about customers and their viewpoints than ever before.

Audience

The most important part of any social media strategy is the audience.  If you don’t know your audience, you don’t know where to find them.  A lazy campaign will start and end with Facebook, but that’s no good if your audience and message don’t fit there.

Blog

Your blog is your voice on the web.  Whether you publish it in the form of video shorts at YouTube, a feed of status updates on Twitter, or as a traditional blog like this one, the ultimate goal is the same – to communicate in your own voice.

Check Ins

Check ins tell me where you are and what you’re doing.  A bit creepy? A stalkers charter? An invitation to burglars?  No a natural extension of the status update that actually just simplifies what people were tweeting anyway, and in the case of Foursquare or Gowalla, turns it into a game.

Digg

The grand-daddy of social sharing websites, and still a massive source of traffic.  Digg may have lost a bit of its shine, and seen its influence eroded, but with hard work and great content, it can make a huge difference to any website’s popularity.

Engagement

Not the royal engagement, but the idea of doing more than just talking at your customers.  Engagement strategies are all about building a relationship and understanding what the audience wants from the relationship with you.

Facebook

With more than half a billion users, if Facebook was a country, it would be 10 times the size of England, or about 2 USAs.  It’s the number one website in the world, and it’s the centre of people’s online lives.  Here’s a thought, towards the end of 2010, around 25% of all page views originated from within Facebook!

Google

People have given up trying to predict when the next Google killer will come along, because it ain’t going to happen soon.  How is Google social?  personalised search, social signals being used to target specific demographics, and the idea of your social graph being used as a recommendation engine.  By the end of the year, you’ll find that savvy SEO people are talking about connections rather than links.

Hashtags

When you’re limited to the number of characters you can write, you need convention and convenience.  The #hashtag is one of the great inventions of the social age, a simple way of saying more by saying less.

Influence

Every person who listens to you or reads what you write is part of your sphere of influence.  The more they trust you, the more they will recommend you to their friends.  Influence can be wasted, but it must be earned.  A million followers are no good if none of them care about you.

Joining In

Social Media success relies on participation.  If you don’t get involved in a conversation, no-one will know what you have to say.

Keywords

The way people behave on line is fragmenting.  As we become more comfortable with our digital lives, our behaviour is changing irrevocably.  Search behaviour is just one aspect.  People are less confined to specific norms of interaction any more, and are increasingly divergent in how they describe things.  Tribal keyword structures make a big difference to search campaigns, and lead to advertisers becoming more tailored in their approach.

Linkedin

There’s sociable networking, and then there’s good old fashioned networking.  If Facebook is a big party, LinkedIn is the biggest careers fair on earth.  It’s also the biggest opportunity for B2B marketers in most industries as a great source of leads.

Monitoring

Monitoring or listening is everything.  It provides you with insight into how people are talking about you, and gives you the chance to respond.  Tracking hundreds of trigger phrases across blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other channels is complex without technology like Radian6, Ubervu, or one of the other similar products.

News

Being in the news is important, but what is more important is being in the news for the right reasons, and to the right people.  There is little point in having great coverage about new products or launches in publications that do not share your demographic.  You should be building the promotion of news coverage into your social strategy to help your users find out the things that they might not have known otherwise.

On Line PR

There are two very different types of PR in the on line world.  Press Releases for sharing information, and public relations for controlling perception.  Both are important, and both are related.  Every business needs a strong news strategy to help them communicate with as wide an audience as possible outside their direct sphere of social influence, and every business needs to understand the perception that the wider market of potential customers has of them.  Public relations is all about understanding why people perceive things in a particular way through measuring and monitoring, and then responding to cases as required.

Privacy

I blogged recently about how I believe that it is worth surrendering some degree of personal privacy online in order to take advantage of a better user experience.  It’s easy to overlook the amount of personal information that we inadvertently share on line, but in many cases, we provide a lot more without knowing during our day to day life – the difference?  When you share something on line, it is generally released in line with a specific privacy policy.  The same is rarely the case off line.

Quora

Very much the poster boy of Social in 2011, Quora is a Q&A service that tries to go one step further by using actual experts to provide you with actual answers, rather than self proclaimed experts to provide you with drivel.  It works.

Reputation

Reputation is hard to earn, and harder to maintain.  If you consistently deliver great service / good advice / a fantastic product, you will earn respect, if you fail at anything, people will let you know, and let you know hard!

Status Updates

Clever comments, jokes, profound declarations of love, the status update takes many forms, but is ultimately a snapshot of where you are and what you are thinking.

Twitter

Is 140 characters enough to tell people what is going on in your life, or share something that you’ve found? For more than 190 million users it is
Users

A few years ago, the most that you could tell about your on line customers was whether they had come to your website or not.  Now, sophisticated analytics allow you to build a comprehensive picture of the demographics of your customer base, and create unique marketing campaigns that are tailored to each of them.

Votes

The badge of social success.  The easiest way to know if you’re doing it right.

Wikipedia

Regardless of inaccuracies or inconsistencies over notability or tone, Wikipedia has become the de facto source of all knowledge.  Written, edited, and then edited again by volunteers, Wikipedia has more than two million articles in its English version alone.

X – Rated

These are the things that you didn’t want to share: reviews of the restaurant with a picture of the dirty kitchen, or the hotel where the guests in the room next door were cockroaches; how about the pictures of you that were taken on that weekend away.  Brand protection extends to the individual on line, and keeping your reputation safe can be a full time job.

YouTube

More than 24 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day.  Over the next couple of years, you can be pretty certain that pretty much all of the TV content that you consume will be delivered on demand via a service like YouTube – the only thing that is holding it back is agreement over rights and royalties.
Zynga

Who would have thought 5 years ago that one of the most successful gaming companies in the world would be ignoring the horsepower of consoles to produce compelling social games like Farmville?

Don’t agree?  This is why I don’t expect you to…

Compiling an A to Z of social media is not simple because there are so many different ways the term can be interpreted.  If I compiled this list tomorrow, a lot of the items would change.  If you compiled this list, it would probably be 90% different to mine – your viewpoint would be different.  The only item in the list that should be the same for everyone is A.  Audience.  The person who should always be put first.

And this is the crux of the matter.  There is no one size fits all approach to Social Media Marketing, just as there is no one size fits all approach to display advertising, SEO, billboards, or news papers.  The challenge for marketers is to recognise where their audience is, and how best to use the different channels available to them in order to communicate a message most effectively.

Groupon CEO: D’oh

I totally love Groupon.

While the concept of a group discount is nothing new, the execution from Groupon was ground breaking.  Companies get new customers, customers get great offers: everyone is a winner.  If ever you wanted a case study of a company that could successfully blur the distinction between on line and off line, and do it in a funky social media way, Groupon would be your candidate.  It’s a poster child for crowd sourcing, and a fantastic idea.

For sure, there have been a couple of examples where the structure of the offers didn’t necessarily benefit the company as much as they might have hoped, and to be honest, I’m not sure why they feel the need to spam me with so many pop ups and pop unders, or send me 10-20 emails a week even though I visit the site pretty frequently, but as I said, overall I love the idea, and I use it a lot.

Of course, famously, Google liked the idea too.  To the extent that they apparently offered $6 billion to buy the company.  And because Groupon said no, they’re now launching their own version.

Facebook must have liked the idea too, and when you have 550 million users and counting, and are looking for new ways of monetising them, Facebook Deals is  a pretty good idea.  Even if it’s not original.

I can’t imagine what Andrew Mason (the Groupon CEO) must have been thinking when he rebuffed Google’s advances, but I can absolutely imagine what he’s feeling right now:

D'OH
D'OH

11 Rules for Using Forums

In a world of shiny reflective logos, and rapid fire feeds, it’s easy to dismiss discussion boards and forums as being passé, and a bit too web 1.0 for consideration as part of a modern social media campaign.  This isn’t necessarily the fault of social media professionals, it’s more a client led thing.

When the CEO of GigantoCorp wants to “do some social”, he generally means “do some Facebook”, or “get some twitters”, not listen to customers, but the fact is that so called old fashioned forums still have huge sway on the web, and if you were to aggregate memberships, you would find that more people use forums than Facebook.  In fact, there are probably more forum accounts than there are people.

Some of the bigger boards rival social networks in terms of user numbers – according to Big Boards, the service that compiles statistics, Gaia online has around 23 million members, and there are numerous other forums with well over a million members.

From a marketing perspective, these message boards and forums offer a phenomenal opportunity.  Unlike Twitter or Facebook where membership is diffuse and generic, an internet Forum consists of a highly aligned community who are grouped by a single interest.  From small business owners through to furries, there are niche groups that cover every possible slice of human life, and no matter what industry you are in, you will doubtlessly be able to find a hundred or more communities around the world that you can get involved with.

Of course, interaction is nothing without direction, so here are 10 essential rules to stop you getting bored with boards.  Or banned.

1) Lurk

Before you post for the first time, hang around the forums reading threads.  Gauge the type of people that are using the forum, and get an understanding of who the top posters are.  It’s courtesy to get a feel for how the community works, rather than just blasting in through the door.  When you do think the time is right to start posting, post a hello message to announce yourself to the community.

2) Read the Rules

Every forum has its own set of rules that you need to abide by.  You will often find that forum moderators (mods) are the pettiest folk on the internet, filled with an unwarranted sense of their own importance.  On some forums, you will be permanently banned for the slightest infraction.  This is particularly frustrating when you have spent time and effort building a reputation.

3) Respect the Mods

Every forum will have its top posters and most of the time these are moderators.  On some occasions, you will see post counts that defy belief.  often, these guys know a lot, and are super helpful.  In many cases however, they spend so much time providing world class advice on a forum that their knowledge is often out of date.
Despite the obvious temptation to put them right, Never disagree. Someone with a post count in the thousands will have spent more time flaming newbies than you have spent learning about your industry and will treat your minor correction as a personal insult.  Even when you are right, you will be WRONG. IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Then you will be BANNED.

4) Be Helpful

A lot of forums have implemented a rewards system where members can thank other users who help them out, and this information is then attached to your profile on the forum.  Likewise, when someone agrees with a point you have made, or helps you out, don’t forget to share the love.

5) Post Regularly

You want to become known on the forum, so it is a good idea to visit the forum regularly in order to see what is happening, and to add to the discussions going on.  At the same time, remember that you should always try to …

6) Post Helpfully

The one thing that no forum needs is more posts along the lines of “Yes, I agree”, or “thanks”.  Try and post only when you have something to add to the discussion.  A lot of forums have specific rules about these types of useless post, and as you can imagine, a helpful community of moderators itching to unleash THE BAN HAMMER.

7) Start Discussions

Don’t be afraid to start conversations on a particular subject, but also make sure that you do this in line with the rules – look for the best place for the discussion, and also make sure that you are checking that the same question hasn’t been asked before.

8 ) Don’t create multiple IDs

Generally speaking, people who talk to themselves in public don’t win a lot of popularity contests, and guess what, the same is true online.  Don’t create sock puppets to make yourself look popular, you’re more likely to end up looking like a dick.  Chance of getting banned? 100%

9) Be Honest

If you are promoting your business, be honest that that is what you are doing.  Don’t be a shill, be an honest advocate.  Most boards won’t have a problem with you doing a little bit of self promotion provided that it is in context, but a lack of disclosure is cynical, and undermines the community.

10) Don’t Bump Threads

Don’t bump threads.  If no-one is interested, no-one is interested, and trying to inflate the number of posts, and keep the thread on the front page will not sudddenly result in more people joining the discussion – especially if every post in the thread detracts from a core point.

11) Don’t Take things personally

This is important.  Sticks and stones can break your bones, but internet drama cannot hurt you.  If someone calls you out, flames you, or disagrees with you, do not rise to the challenge.  You are always representing your brand, and the last thing you want to do is put yourself in a position where you create a stack of negativity that will hang around in the Search results for a wider audience in the long term.  The worst thing you can ever do on line is to rise to the challenge of a troll.

Abiding Themes 6 / Adding Value

The first question that you need to ask yourself when building a website is:

What does this do for users?

Not:

What does this do for me?

The reason for this is that if a website is solely about the publisher, rather than an end user, there is no valid use case for anyone actually visiting.  Consider a retail website.  If the purpose is to provide convenient access to products that are otherwise hard to find, then it has a purpose.  Similarly, for a financial comparison website that allows users to find the best price for their product has a user centric purpose.  A website where the only proposition is to add a (paid) click into the user journey has little value for the user, and as such, adds no value.

Although the level of success they have seen has been variable, Google have long sought to improve the user experience that their search results provide.  For a long time, the most famous example of this was the Florida Update, which downweighted a lot of thin (read “spammy”) affiliate websites in favour of unique content.  The Vince / Brand update in 2009 served a similar purpose, bringing users closer to the originator of content.

The more recent announcement of an algorithm change based on reducing the number of content farms in the top positions serves a similar function – shortening the user journey.

Essentially, Google want the site that you click on in the result to represent the end of your journey. This is what users want, because this means that the site they arrive at is the one which adds the most value to their experience.

So What About Social?

Probably 90% of the things that frustrate social networks users boil down to the use of cynical marketing strategies that disrupt user experience.  Spamming followers with constant promotional messages, requesting friendships with people where there is no direct relationship, and constant excessive linking are the kind of tactics that get used, and each one of these is frustrating and ineffective in equal measure.

The point about social networking websites like Facebook is that the vast majority of people using the service are their for leisure, rather than work.  They do face some advertising, but this is controlled, and most importantly, targeted.  Also, Facebook’s advertising is pretty unobtrusive – no worse than a commercial break during a TV show, so it does not do as much to undermine user experience.

A thin social profile on any network, where the only function is to disrupt the user experience of that network is bound to failure.  On the other hand, a profile that adds value to the user experience on that network will be successful.  Would you rather follow someone who simply linked to the same content again and again, or someone who gave advice about a subject, and interacted with their followers, rather than using them cynically as a source of traffic.

Back in 2007, Twitter added the nofollow attribute to all links from their website.  This riled the SEO community, who had historically build links using Twitter – and other social media websites.  It was seen as something of a betrayal because the SEO community saw themselves as early adopters who had helped to promote the service, and who had added value to the content available on Twitter.

Despite the competition from Facebook Places, Foursquare is still growing pretty fast, and one of the opportunities that it provides marketers is the ability to link a website to a location.  Recently, we had a discussion in the office about the value of links from Foursquare’s location pages to a client’s website.

The client wanted to add a link to a product page from a specific location, but this would not have added any user value, and as such would not have provided an acceptable user experience.  What was better, and what we ultimately recommended was that rather than linking to a product that may or may not have been of interest, we created a piece of content themed around a set of challenges that a user could do at that location.

This approach added value to the user at their location, and also added value to the client’s website – a win/win situation.

A key theme of social marketing needs to be a user focus that recognises that direct sales are not always the goal of activity – social needs to be about brand too.

Twitter : Keep the Information Flowing

There’s a fascinating post on the Twitter Blog that underlines the evolution of Twitter from its conception as a tool for sharing a quick status update into a communications hub.  The Tweets Must Flow is a fascinating insight into the world of Twitter, and reflects how important social media is for activism.

While the article does not specifically mention either Egypt or Wikileaks, the tone and content of the article clearly refer to both events, and there are a number of key points that bear consideration:

The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. This is both a practical and ethical belief … freedom of expression is a human right.

Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed.

For sure Twitter still have to comply with government regulations – they were recently forced to pass on user data about some of the key players in the WikiLeaks organisation, but even then, the ethical stance about informing people about the data that is being requested about them is laudable – especially when you compare it with the actions of Yahoo in China, where they secretly passed private data to the Chinese Government, leading to a dissident journalist being jailed for 10 years.

The openness of the Twitter ecosystem has allowed developers to build upon the infrastructure to allow different tiers of communication beyond simple text, and it is this transformation into a bona fide communication platform that has made the system into such an important tool for activists wanting to organise.

Freedom of expression is a basic human right, and should be protected at all costs.  In a global community, access to the Internet has become essential in finding information and sharing news outside the limitations that certain regimes impose on their people.

From a position of cosy safety, it is easy to wax ecstatic about the importance of Twitter as a tool for change, but a tool is nothing without the bravery and dedication of those who use it.

Abiding Theme 5 / Measure Everything

Do you know why people call themselves gurus?  It’s because they can’t spell charlatan.

The hallmark of a lot of social media campaigns is that they fall under the same lack of scrutiny as an off line branding campaign – the benefits are known to be there, but it is accepted that they are often intangible.  To a certain extent, this is true, however it does not excuse a lack of analysis.

In order to determine the success / failure of any marketing activity, analysis of data is vital.  Even if you don’t set direct ROI goals for social media as a channel, you need to measure it’s impact within the marketing mix.  If you can’t measure something, you shouldn’t do it, because you won’t know if you’re doing it right!

Here’s a DUMB way of ensuring that your social media campaign stays honest.

Define

It is not simply enough to set a goal such as “doing some social”; there needs to be a specific end to the campaign.  When planning what you are going to do, you need to know what success looks like.

As an example, we might want to increase the number of people signing up for a news letter through Twitter.  We have a budget of £100 for the activity, and each new sign up has a lifetime value of £10.  If we want to get an ROI of 10 from the Social Media exercise, we need to acquire 100 new sign ups.  Any more, and the campaign will have over-delivered, any less, and the campaign will not have succeeded.

Understand

Having a specific goal is essential, but it is equally important to be able to understand what the goal means – how do you get to that goal, what are the stages that you need to go through in order to achieve success.  Break down the goal into a narrative that includes the decisions that people make at each interaction with you.

In the example above, this might be fairly straightforward. We are planning to use Twitter, and drive traffic to a specific link by using a message.  The standard user journey might look like this:

Path to Conversion from TwitterBy knowing each stage in the process, you will be able to measure each stage, and use the data that is collected to refine campaign activity later.

Measure

Once you have a goal defined, and understand the path a user will need to follow in order to get to that goal, it becomes important to know what you can measure at each stage, and what tools are available to you in order to get data.

From the example above, we might use our basic Twitter Data, Bit.ly to shorten our link, and then Google Analytics on the website:

Measuring the different stages of the social journeyOnce we have information about the basic path to conversion, and the way in which we will measure the different touch points along that path, it is possible to identify the metrics that we can use in order to define the funnel:

Build

With a measurable and clearly defined campaign where you have clear insight into response, you have the opportunity to isolate and optimise individual elements of the user journey as you would with any other on line marketing activity.

  • If hardly anyone clicked on your link, the test action would be to try sending your message at different times of day or structuring the tweet differently.
  • If the number of people who click on the link is good, but the number who actually enter the sign up process is low, investigate different calls to action on your website to encourage better on site conversion.
  • If you have a high form abandonment rate, look at the way the form is structured.

Individual stages in the process can be measured and tweaked based on the different data that you can collect, maximising the return on investment from every activity, and providing important feedback to make future campaigns more successful.

Communicate / Organise / Revolt / The Social Revolutions

Every revolution in civilised history, from the Babylonian revolt against the Assyrian Empire through to the ongoing Egyptian riots against Hosni Mubarak has started with oppression.  Revolution, wherever it happens begins with an idea that can be shared and ideals that can organised around.

If fear is the fuel of revolution, communication is the match that lights it.  The hallmark of revolutionary communication is that it is conducted in public but shrouded in secrecy.  It also leverages the best available technology – often more quickly than the less agile governments that it stands to overthrow.  Early Christians in the Roman Empire would carve symbols into walls to guide the initiated to meetings and to identify themselves to people they trusted:

Secret Messages

During the era of communist revolution in the early to mid 20th century, the pamphlet was the greatest weapon of the revolutionaries.  Short form communication to share ideas and undermine a state by exposing its corruption or weakness.

Fast forward a few decades, and social media is the new graffiti.  Anonymous accounts accessed through proxy servers are enough to protect individuals from identification and punishment.  Files can be shared via P2P channels across continents, instantly arming millions of people with information.

Meetings can be organised, protests managed, and misinformation spread.  With an effective cost of 0, an organisation can arm its members with everything they need to function independently.

In the information age, revolutionary organisations share structure with the web itself.  Resilience comes from redundancy, through distribution of power across multiple centres, through loose affiliations rather than coherent structure.  A distributed organisation is far more resilient than a distinct hierarchy.  Although it has a higher overall number of points that are susceptible to attack, the nature of the structure means that no one point of weakness exists, and that functionality is maintained under attack.  The Internet was conceived as a multiply redundant communications network to ensure the flow of information under any circumstances.  A modern revolutionary group shares this infrastructure.

Evolution of network types

An advantage of social technology like Twitter for revolutionary groups is that it provides a one way blind / simple broadcast infrastructure for information.  A single account can be accessed by multiple users sharing a password, and discarded after a single use.  There is no personal verification, no real need to expose any form of actual identity, and thanks to the constant stream of content on every subject, too much noise to ever pull out a distributed thread of communication without knowing in advance how it will be structured.  With Twitter, you can hide secret communication in plain view.

There are also communications that you don’t want to hide, those of support, the ones that a government like Mubarak’s (or other authoritarians) fear most.  Those of open support for the revolution.  When members of the previously supportive US Government start to switch their allegiances to the new order in a country, the regime is doomed. #egypt has been a trending topic for days, #tunisia was before, and #iranelections was in the public eye for months.  Bullies are often cowards, and when faced with their own ugliness, they will rarely be able to stomach what they see.

When the riots began in Egypt this week, one of the first acts of the Egyptian government was to cut of the Internet.

Abiding Themes 4 / The Importance of Brands

Every penny that your business has spent on office space, technology, and recruiting great staff, every advert, every piece of product development, every board decision, every customer interaction, every car in the car park, and every element in your logo contributes to your brand.

Whether you’re a corporate multinational, or a sole trader working in a single neighbourhood, the way in which your business promotes itself will be a big factor in why people want to trust you.

You should think of your brand as a combination of corporate identity, reputation, and personality. It is more than a logo.

It is also never yours.

The most successful brands are the ones that audiences feel an affinity with, and in order for affinity to develop, the users need to feel like they own the brand, that it is theirs.

In order to discover what your brand is all about, you need to talk to your customers. Ask them to describe your business for you.

Look at the terms they associate with your business, and compare them to how you see yourself. You can’t be too precious about how you feel about the brand, because the whole point of a social strategy is that you pass a lot of the ownership over to the customer.

What is a Brand

Although we identify a brand with a product or modern company and a a branding agency, it was not always the case. The concept of branding originates in farming, a livestock farmer would burn an identifying mark onto his animals to demonstrate ownership, a simple logo that could be recognised at a distance so that anyone who saw the animal would know who it belonged to.

Old School Branding - Painful

An interesting, side effect of ownership branding was that as a farmer developed a reputation for quality in some aspect of breeding or feeding, their animals would be more sought after at market.

A quality bull from good stock, and raised well would attract higher bids at auction. Seeing the brand of a good farm on a beast as it was led into the auction hall would encourage more people to aspire to ownership.

Modern logo branding serves the same purpose, make a product identifiable on a wearer or a supermarket shelf to create aspiration, or to assure a set of qualities are present, but it is the work that is carried out beneath the logo that creates its value. The logo is a label to identify the output of a particular manufacturer, the brand is the associated work, the reputation, the ideas that underpin the qualities that are seen in the brand.

When we talk about brands and brand perception, we should always look below the surface, the underlying principles a company works to is what we should buy, and what a company should work to build. A snappy name and a cool logo with nothing behind it is no match for a robust product with substance. No-one buys a logo, they buy what it stands for.

Why Brands are important

The primary value of a brand is that it acts as to differentiate between two products and simplifies customer decision making.

There are many ingredients that contribute to a brand, but you can summarise them in a few lines The quality of what you produce, the quality of your staff, the way you treat your customers, the cost:value ratio of your products, the innovation that you demonstrate, the way you sell your product, and eventually, these all boil down to a central theme of customer experience.

Do Brands Work Online

The simple answer:

YES

Of course brands work online. In fact, online is the place where a brand can make more of a difference in the purchase cycle than anywhere else.

Imagine you are about to spend the equivalent of two weeks’ wages on an expensive digital camera, and it is available from from 2 different websites. One is a specialist company that they have never heard of which operates from a PO Box in some town you’ve never been to, the other is the online presence of a high street camera shop. The fact is, most people will opt to buy the camera from the company they have heard of – the brand they recognise.

When consumers buy online, they need to have a high level of trust in the seller. On any given day, there will be a story about one online selling scam or another in which a person has bought a product online from a fly by night web store that never really existed.

Having an established brand can make a huge difference to conversion rates online. The consumer perspective is that a brand is more secure, less likely to scam them, more likely to deliver on a promise.

Eric Schmidt, the outgoing Google CEO Google said as much in October 2008 during his presentation of Google’s earnings over the previous quarter:

The Internet is fast becoming a ‘cesspool’ where false information thrives … Brands are the solution not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool

– Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, 8 October 2008

The Value of a Brand

Trust matters and has value.  this is demonstrated in the added price that a brand can charge for their goods – the brand value – a company that doesn’t invest in building their brand will always have to compete in other ways, which usually means reduced prices – and therefore lower margins.

In simple economic terms, the value of a brand can be measured in the increased price that people are willing to pay to associate themselves with it.  Whether this is an extra 25p on the price of a can of coke compared to the own label goods in a store, or an extra £100 for the security of buying the identical camera from a shop they trust, this incremental value is the reward for investing in building a brand that end users or customers feel more comfortable with.

It is in higher margins and improved conversion rates that you can find a tangible – if not directly attributable – ROI from social media, and other hard to measure channels of marketing.

Abiding theme 3 / Social Media is Not SEO

But they’re part of the same thing…

There was a time not so long ago when SEO and Social Media Marketing were treated as different sides of the same coin, and the people responsible for providing strategic planning in one area would be expected to provide strategic planning in the other.  From the number of blog posts on the subject right now, there seems to be something of a messy divorce going on.  This is not necessarily the right idea though.

In the time before people were talking about things in terms of Web 2.0, when user interaction on the web was confined to forums and review websites, the perception who was responsible for  for SEO and Social Media looked like this:

SEO and SMM responsibility

As things changed, and general consciousness of sharing grew, the picture changed somewhat, and it became apparent that with websites like Facebook, there was a need for a slightly different approach to Social Media, although there was still an overlap – most notably in the area of Link building for SEO purposes via channels like Digg:

SEO and Social Media Overlap

Now, with social defining user interaction with the web, and recommendations from contacts fast becoming the dominant means of finding information, as well as becoming increasingly important consideration within the ranking algorithms used by the search engines, we are beginning to enter an age where the picture has changed entirely:

SEO as a subset of social media marketing

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is an umbrella term that covers a lot of different activities that together are used to increase the visibility of a particular website in the search results provided by Google.  From domain name choice and website structure through to content tweaks to ensure that particular words and phrases are given prominence, on site SEO is designed to produce an environment of relevance on a website that the search engines will recognise.

As user experience is increasingly defined by their individual social network, new factors will grow in importance as part of SEO.  The types of things people search for in Google will increasingly be defined by their peer group, and the search engines will develop better personalisation technology and be able to cross reference the successful choices made by social contacts and use these to re-order their results to the demographic of one who is searching.

Structuring content and producing elegant websites that can be fully understood for their relevance to particular user groups will always be of paramount importance, and ignoring SEO totally will be wrong, however it is vitally important that a business understands their users more fully, and optimises for them based on their social behaviour, rather than for the wider market.

Through this paradigm shift, business owners will see better conversion, and better targeted advertising through all on line channels, which is of course the goal of all marketing.