Thursday, September 27, 2007

How to Succeed in Social Networks

Are you keeping pace with the rapid evolution of communication and socializing? The future of your business depends on it.

Email is so old fashioned, younger generations are not even using it very much, if at all.

Everything’s going 3-M: micro, multi, mobile. Micro-content, multi-media, mobile computing. Text messaging is replacing email, micro-blogging is replacing blogs, and everything seems to be including multi-media (photos, audio, video) as mandatory features.

To fully appreciate what’s happening, let’s take a quick glance at the history of this evolution.

At first, computers communicated with each other, transferring data files back and forth, and executing remote operations, one computer requesting another to perform specific tasks. Computers used strings of binaries (O and 1) to talk to each other, while humans used machine languages (ENIAC code, COBOL, Fortran, Pascal, C++) to tell the computers what to do.

Computers were interacting with each other in networks, but humans were still rather isolated from each other. Then people started using this computer connectivity to connect with other human users.

This was the idea behind the invention of the web by CERN physicist Tim Berners-Lee. Web sites are primarily for people, not computers, or better: web sites are designed for humans who are using computers (and eventually computers enhanced with browsers). People started using computers to visit web sites where information, products, and other human consumption items were available for viewing or purchase.

You go to the web site, obtain the information, or buy the product you need, then you leave the web site.

You make no permanent mark on the site, though it might mark you, by placing a cookie on your computer. So you and the web site remained fairly separate. You took some content from the web site, but you didn’t add your own content to it.

And you certainly didn’t interact with others who were visiting the site, even though you might have had a lot of common interests and needs.

If we’re all using networked computers to access sites, what’s preventing us from shouting “hello, who are you?” to each other while we do it? The only hindrance was simply that the sites weren’t designed or coded for such human interaction. But that was about to change.

Bulletin boards, online forums, personal web pages with guest-books, and chat rooms appeared.

These sites enabled people to ask questions, make statements, share information, and clobber each other in arguments and debates. Now humans began interacting with each other, rather than just interacting with computers and web sites, to accomplish tasks. Peer-to-peer recommendations and user reviews, via the internet, began to replace ads and marketing as the way people found out about products and potential solutions to their problems.

But these interactive sites weren’t individualized for the members. People came to the online discussion site, and expressed themselves, but could not create their own customized page in these sites. Generally, they had no way to build their own little enclave or sub-group within such sites.

Then blogs came into being. Blogs are basically mini-websites that enable people to customize their own online venue for self-expression. With blogs, people could also build their own online communities. These communities consisted of lurkers (visitors who read without commenting) and comment posters (visitors who contribute external content to the blog, in the form of remarks, questions, and critique).

Blogs, however, exist in a certain degree of isolation. A blogger can link to other blogs via blogrolls (lists of other relevant blogs), and emailing other bloggers. But most blogs (with the exception of Weblogsinc. and similar “blog media network” of associated blogs) weren’t involved in any collective, social group beyond their fan base of loyal readers.

MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other sites then sprang up, enabling blog-like sites to function as elements within a highly interactive, communal environment. These sites heralded the rise of social blogging, a step beyond individual blogging.

The social aspect of these sites have made them tempting for businesses to attempt to “game” or exploit these communities. Misguided companies have thought of MySpace, Facebook, and other social sites as passive audiences for commercial messages or third party application modules (“plug-ins”) with embedded ads. Business that attempt to do this sometimes succeed, but mostly encounter backlash and ill will.

Now let’s look a bit closer at what’s being called Social Networking and Social Media.

Social Network = online group that enables members to express themselves, interact with others, and connect with people who share their interests.

Think of it as a web site that acts like a club or a party that you join.

You may have seen web sites where you have to “register” and “login” before you can access protected pages. These pages contain the real “meat”, the most valuable content and functions of the site. Often the goal of this registration is to collect marketing data about you, and to customize the pages you see on the site, according to your expressed interests.

In a social network, you “sign up” and “login” so you can create a new page in the site, consisting of a profile with photo or avatar, and various data about yourself, that other members can view and respond to via a messaging function. You can also display links to your own web site or blog, so others can visit them if they find you interesting.

Social networks can be built around shared interests in technology, music, video, photography, art, activism, politics, business, health, hobbies, pets, and other concerns.

An individual’s social network can consist of membership in multiple social media. Participating in social media is referred to as social networking.

Social Media = the web sites that enable social networking, or self-expression in a communal venue. Social networking is the activity, social network is while social media is the category of web site and web services that enable the activity.

“Social” means action within a group. “Media” means the action is not direct, person-to-person, like physical presence, but is taking place within a realm that acts as a go-between or conduit that provides the means of interacting.

Online Tool Community = a refined definition of social media, emphasizing how it revolves around a Web 2.0 technology that enables members to do something, usually at no charge, that was previously difficult, expensive, or impractical, if not impossible.

Members can use these tools in unexpected ways, including satirical political pseudo-commercials (YouTube), mutiny against tool provider (Digg), spamming via third party applications (Facebook), sexual predatory behavior (MySpace), malicious trolling (Twitter), and creating new blended applications (mash ups of, e.g., Google Maps and Craigs List).

What Social Network Members Want

Social networks (often abbreviated as “socnets”) provide tools that enable members to configure a customized version of a user page, create profiles and bios, manage invites and contact lists, upload photo, video, and music files, and interact with each other via multiple channels. Interaction tools include built-in chat rooms, bulletins, public notes, private messages, and comments (“in reply to”) on messages.

People join social networks to socialize, share, and self-promote.

While they’re not very receptive to marketing messages or sales hype, they do seek answers and advice. If you have experience and expertise of relevance, they may value your altruistic contributions to the social network.

Socnet users want to meet other people, make friends, find love, display art, showcase expertise, promote blog posts, distribute music mp3s, express feelings, state opinions, ask questions, praise bands, update their status, argue about issues, divulge personal trivia, and obtain peer-to-peer advice.

They want friends. They could use a self-less mentor, an expert who seeks to help first, and only secondarily, almost reluctantly, engage in sales behaviors. In the digital realm, marketing has to be 80% education and only 20% sales communication, especially in emerging technology markets. The better your customers understand how your product solves a problem better than your competitors’ products, the more likely they are to spread positive word of mouth advertising for you.

Examples of Social Network Sites:

· MySpace (high school kids and music bands)

· FaceBook (college kids, companies, and professionals)

· Dogster, Catster (pets and their obedient owners)

· Justin.tv, BlogTV, UstreamTV (lifecasters and special event live/archived video streaming)

· Tumblr (multi media blogging platform)

· Del.icio.us, Wink, Stumble Upon (social bookmarking, sharing favorite web pages)

· Flickr (photo upload, hosting, sharing site)

· Spock, Gleamd (people search)

· LinkedIn, Jigsaw, eWorkMarkets (executives seeking job contacts)

· Twitter (micro-blogging: brief messages, status updates, link archiving)

· Pownce (micro-blogging with threaded comments and file sharing)

· GarageBand, Ning (music mp3 hosting, player embeds)

· Yippykaya (ecommerce social blogging)

· Freebase (open source, community-built database or meta-web)

· Instructables (expertise sharing, how-tos)

· Zaadz, Netsquared (world changers, activist community)

· 8apps (productivity tools community)

How To Approach Social Networks

You can’t fake it. Social network members can sense a company or individual who’s pretending to be unbiased, but is really oriented only to quick, easy sales. Manipulation is easily detected.

Ghost blogs, fake social media, and pseudo profiles are scams that are pre-judged. It’s common knowledge in the blogosphere that such antics are taboo. Old fashioned sales exploitation is what most companies seem tempted to do, but it typically backfires and generates negative PR.

On the web, trust (which is the mandatory precursor to sales) is given to those who have no covert commercial motives.

This is why peer-to-peer advice on products has so much impact. An example is customer reviews in Amazon. It's assumed that most users of a product are unlikely to be secret agents of a company's sales force. However, such non-transparent, undisclosed sales agendas do occur in the form of PayPerPost type activity, where a blogger is paid to praise or condemn a product or company.

Social network members seek uncoached, spontaneous, genuine reports of product use. Satisfied or unsatisfied, they want to hear uncompensated opinions from real users. They also want to hear from CEOs, business owners, and entrepreneurs who have special knowledge, professional insight about a topic of relevance.

People join social media sites to socialize, not to buy things. They want to connect with peers, share their thoughts and feelings, ask for technical help, showcase their art, distribute mp3s of their music, and generally have fun while learning from the experiences of others.

They do not join to be inundated with marketing messages, advertising, or commercial spam.

Socializing by definition excludes sales hype. If pushy, money-hungry salesmen showed up at a private party, they’d be kicked out, right? Aggressive, obnoxious sales pitches would spoil the fun.

It’s counter-productive to invade these sites just to push products at the communities. When companies try to do so, it backfires, generates negative buzz, and ends up doing more harm than good. Can you afford to alienate bloggers or social networkers?

In social media, a company representative will be warmly welcomed -- if that rep provides valuable, relevant information that the community needs, and is very low key about marketing anything.

Social media, and the web itself, is based on trust. Trust is gained by helping, advising, educating your audience. Promotional messages and ads are ignored or despised. But good advice, free samples, and instructional materials are actively sought, enjoyed, and respected.

See these social media sites as groups of potential friends who have needs you can meet, not as prospective consumers who you can take advantage of, or revenue streams that you can exploit. If you have a grossly commercial, non-helpful approach, you will be hated. And the negative publicity could possibly ruin your business.

Seth Godin (sethgodin.typepad.com) and Laura Ries (ries.typepad.com) are good role models. They give tons of advice, insight, and relevant links. They want you to buy their books, seminars, and consulting services. But they almost never mention this, outside of some small, non-intrusive ads in their sidebars.

This is the royal road to trust, good will, and respect. Especially when it comes to social networking sites and tool communities. Think about what expertise you have that could be shared. Study these sites. Join a few of them. Watch what needs are expressed, what problems seek solutions, what questions are being asked. Then jump in and solve some of their problems.

If you gain their trust and respect, you'll probably gain some new paying customers, too! But be patient. Social media is not a "get rich quick" scheme zone.

It's more a "get trust slowly, but surely" arena. If you hang in there, and share some trivia now and then (what movies, hobbies, or music you like, for example), you'll be seen as a good member of the community, a regular guy or gal, and a source for solutions.

For example, within Twitter, some members unite in online Scrabble tournaments, and post links to social network sites devoted to various sewing and needlework activities. Other members announce upcoming technology conferences with links to the registration sites.

It's all about making friends, sharing insights, contributing content, and being a good neighbor.

The worst mistake you can make is to overtly exploit the community or pretend to be a non-commercial member of the online community, then promote products like you're an average user giving an unbiased report. The trust path is the only avenue to sustainable profits and long-term customer loyalty.

To succeed in influencing social networks, first be a good member of the community, sharing your opinions, feelings, and expertise abundantly. You’ll have fun, learn a lot from the others, and possibly be able to market your products in a supportive and interested group of potential customers.

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