I believe one thing that continues to tear this country apart is the digital divide. The digital divide is no longer just about who has access to the Internet and technology. More and more people are online and have a social media profile. According to Pew Research, 69% of US Adults use at least one social media site.
Today the digital divide is different. How many of those adults understand how social media works, and more importantly how it can be gamed to create a false narrative?
Based on my experience, decidedly few.
I have worked in the tech industry for a couple of decades and more specifically digital marketing for over 10 years. During all that time I lived in a bubble where all of my peers and most of my friends understood how tech was evolving and was paying attention to how it impacts our lives. It was only when I stepped out of that bubble and expanded my network of friends that realized most people’s understanding of tech and social media was limited to how they use it to connect with friends, family, neighbors, or for work. Most people do not give much thought to how much more can be done with the technology that we have grown to depend on.
So when news comes out that Russia has invaded the US with bots, targeted ads, and viral campaigns to have a direct impact on our election, I wonder how many people understand what that means and how that works. How can people understand how big of a threat these actions were and are if they don’t understand what is possible?
I recently saw people online using the word “bots” to describe public figures that they disagree with. There are obviously some misunderstandings.
What are Bots?
Bots are programmed to “communicate” with humans. This is not something new for us. Let’s take it offline for a minute. For decades we have been subjected to phone trees. We call a company and get an automated message asking us to push a button that coincides with what we want. Once we push the button the computer knows what it needs to do and say next. Today we don’t have to push buttons every time. Now we can say what we want, machines understand our intent and respond with an automated message.
Now let’s bring it back online. Many companies have launched bots for business pages. If you send a message to a business page the bot will identify keywords in your message and will reply with the right pre-programmed message. The technology has become sophisticated enough that it is often difficult to tell if you are communicating with a human or not.
This same technology has been used by many in social media to increase their engagement levels. There are several tools available where you can tell the software what social updates to look for and how to comment on such posts. For example, I can program a tool to look for all pictures of dogs on Instagram and post a comment on each picture about how cute that dog is.
What Russia did was set up numerous accounts, scheduled content to be posted on them and then programmed them to “engage” with targeted accounts and within specific conversations.
Bots were able to plant ideas, doubt, and misinformation in the minds of a large number of voters.
It is wrong to think that those who engaged with bots must have been idiots, clueless, or naive. We all engage with bots on a daily basis without thinking much of it. Bots are integrated into our daily lives and work. This is why Russia’s use of them was so seamless.
Were You a Target?
Perhaps you do not engage in conversations with strangers online and therefore think you were not a target. I recently watched a news anchor approach an older woman who ran a pro-Trump Facebook group to ask her if she knew she has spread Russian propaganda. Of course, she did not do so intentionally and the way that news anchor approached her was insulting and caused her to immediately put up her defenses. She insisted that everyone in her group was friends or neighbors and that she had nothing to do with Russians. She felt that the fact that she was being accused of such nonsense solidified her belief that mainstream media was “fake news.”
She may not have been a target of an engaging bot but was most likely a victim of a targeted ad.
Even though Russian operatives spent far less on advertising dollars, with the right targeting and emotional triggers, their content had the opportunity to spread far and wide. What this woman did was share articles in her group that she saw on Facebook which happened to have been written and promoted by Russian operatives.
Unlike traditional advertisements that can only be consumed, Facebook ads are engaged with, shared, and oftentimes do not look like ads at all, but simply a post from a page. However, because it is an ad, the post will show up in people’s newsfeed whether or not they follow that page. Also, as people “like” or comment on the post, that post then shows up in the newsfeed of their friends. If the content resonates with opinions or biases that content is then shared, not just on the newsfeed but within groups throughout the web. This is how that woman ended up sharing Russian content.
Russian operatives did not need to spend a lot of money to be effective, they just needed to promote divisive content and misinformation to influential targets that were already consuming similar types of information and then watch it spread like wildfire.
Why Propaganda Goes Viral
Edward Bernays is the father of propaganda. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and studied Freud’s work of the human mind and the need to feed our ego. From that knowledge, Bernays pioneered the field of public relations and propaganda. His main technique was to show his audience a personality or lifestyle that they strived for. The genius of his campaigns was that they were never blatantly obvious. For example one of his first campaigns was to get women to want to smoke cigarettes, a habit that was considered un-ladylike. He did not try to create campaigns about the attributes of a cigarette, instead, he ran a campaign that aligned with the emerging trend of women’s liberation. The Torches of Freedom campaign showed strong, independent women smoking. It was a rejection of the old fashion ideas of what it meant to be ladylike. When a woman lit up a cigarette, she was making a social and political statement.
Although Edward Bernays turned propaganda into a successful, high paying, industry, the practice has been around since the beginning of the first successful sales pitch. People will believe information that confirms their biases. They will share information that proves to others that what they believe is right. We are all programmed this way, no matter our political affiliation. This is why it is more important than ever to understand and acknowledge that today simple computer programs written by foreign operatives can effectively and efficiently use our natural human tendencies against us.
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Lots of stories are being posted about the downfall of society with social media to blame.
It is not the platform that is to blame but how we have decided to use them. In my article, How Social Media Became its Own Worse Enemy – and How to Improve It, I discuss what we might be doing wrong, what the fallout could look like, and how we can get real again.
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Last week I had a great chat with a retail client about what really makes his store special. It is not the incredible designs or the quality fabric. Anyone can buy quality fabric and there are many great designers. What makes his store unique is the passion that he pours into it. The way he gets to know his clients and how those relationships inspire his designs. It reminded me of a post I wrote 10 years ago, The Corner Store in the Global Community. I shared that story again on Linkedin.
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Social Media is an ever-changing, overwhelming sea of possibilities. For most people, the biggest challenge is figuring out where to get started with social media.
We all have heard the familiar and sound advice to start by listening. Listen to your customers, listen to the community, listen, listen, listen.
Everyone says to listen! Listen to what?
The reality is that there is so much information or noise being generated every second that you could spend an entire career listening and never do anything else.
The trick is to not just listen but to participate, as well as be able to adapt the voice of authority.
Think back to being a kid on a playground, or go visit a busy playground and observe for a while. What you will notice first is that it is a noisy place. There are little girls having secret conversations in one corner, groups of boys raiding each other on the equipment, and a group of boys and girls building castles at yet another section of the playground. Each of them is living in their own world and are tuned into their own activities, but the call of an authoritative voice raises their attention and will cause all activities to change directions.
How does this relate to developing your own social media listening program? The social media world is very similar to a child’s playground (in oh so many ways!)
When a child arrives at the playground they will first glance around to see what is going on and who they know. I relate this to casting a wide net to gather a high-level insight into conversations that are happening related to:
- Your Brand
- Your Competitors
- Your Services
- Problems you Solve
Once we understand the landscape and ecosystem of all the activities going on, we will begin to focus in on what we know best and where we feel most comfortable. On the playground, this would be equivalent to saying hi to our friends and checking in on what they are doing. In the social media world, it is very much the same thing. We will check in on our customers, prospects, and people who know us that we should get to know.
As we play we begin to learn the rules of the playground. Who is in charge of which activities and which children are committed to those activities as well as which children are just exploring various areas. In social media, we call the leaders of certain circles influencers. Social media influencers, like the children leading various playground activities, were never appointed as leaders and they have no real authority, but they have a personality that entices others to follow along. As we play with them we strengthen existing relationship bonds as well as make new friends.
In business, this would be equivalent to understanding the context of each conversation, the sentiment within each community and the connections among different social ties. Look for who is the center of influence within your market.
The child who wants to lead his own little tribe will be successful only if he or she has tapped into areas of play that children are most drawn to and storylines that they want to act out. Similar to the business person who needs to create messages that resonate with their customer’s needs and desires and to attract an audience who are willing and able to respond to various calls to action.
Once you are not only part of the community, your community also becomes part of the ecosystem and you will be tapped into new opportunities as well as potential threats to your playground enterprise. You will be able to respond to these opportunities and threats to the best of your ability.
However, there is always the inevitable call from the voice of authority that changes the game. On the playground it is the voice of the parent saying it is time for your best friend to leave, thus shaking up the connections within your group. Online it is the voice of a social networking site enticing your community members away from your chosen channels with the promise of better tools, friendly user interfaces, or more efficient ways to track the enormous amount of information we are all keeping track of. The child must be prepared to rebuild or move on, as does any business investing in social media.
However, to keep up with it all, you have to continuously be listening.
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What does social media mean to you? That is an important question to ask every stakeholder involved prior to launching a social media initiative. This question not only needs to be asked, it needs to be discussed in-depth, debated, and documented.
There are people who believe that social media is an extension of marketing communications, others who believe it can generate sales, some who see it as a way to provide exceptional customer service and those who see it as a necessity for reputation management.
I, personally, am in the “all of the above” camp. Social Media enables conversations with and about brands. These conversations can be started by the brand, but only if the brand becomes part of a community. Ultimately the conversations will be driven by the community based on what community members are looking for. This could be product information, customer service, exclusive information, or up-to-date news.
Many emerging and/or larger brands have worked hard to build their brand image, an image that connects with the target audience profile. Style Guides have been created that dictate images that should be used to represent the brand as well as the words and sentence structures that are used when discussing the brand. This works well for marketing and advertising campaigns where there are copywriters and designers that create controlled images and experiences. But how does a style guide work within online conversations?
The answer is it provides your social media manager with insights of what to listen for and what conversations are most relevant to get involved with. But it cannot dictate what to say if the brand is seeking an authentic and timely voice.
I am seeing a lot of brands trying to force their controlled brand experiences within social media channels and the results are mixed. It seems if the brand is already established and has a significant amount of loyal fans, then people will comment, like, and share the creative copy-written messages. Below is an example of such a great copy-written tweet from Coca-Cola:
“When you open a coke, 12,607 bubbles are born. Happy birthday bubbles!”
But is that a community-driven conversation starter? No. Is it an effective brand builder, especially as it is re-tweeted by the millions of followers of Coca-Cola? Absolutely!
This effort works for Coca-Cola, which has decades of expert brand building efforts behind them. Coca-Cola did not have to start the online conversation, they had to join it. By the time social media even hit Coca-Cola’s radar there were already thousands of conversations happening about them each day.
But can emerging brands or even large brands who do not have thousands of mentions within online conversations happening each day create a community with only an authorized brand voice, or will they need to empower selected ambassadors to use their real and diverse voices?
Does a strict brand voice have a place in online conversations? I say yes; 40% of the time when social media is used to distribute news or create unique and creative brand impressions, a strict brand voice should be adhered to. For the 60% of the efforts needed to create an online community, such as providing exceptional customer service, offering solutions, requesting fans to share their stories or celebrating the successes and stories of their fans, brand guidelines should be followed only to the extent of how the brand is represented whereas not to prevent brand ambassadors from speaking personally as a means to connect with people as people.
I have witnessed many brands trying too hard to control their message and use only approved copy-written words within social media channels. Typically the community growth and engagement remains stagnant, the return on engagement is very low and the value of social media gets lost in translation.
You are on all the right social channels. You are posting content consistently. But you are just not getting much value from your social media efforts. Here might be a few reasons why.
You Are Looking for More Responses
Is that really so bad? Should you be looking at that metric?
I know, I know. This goes against everything you have ever read about social media as a conversation. We write about the value of conversation all the time. But think about it, all statistics show that more than 90% of your audience consumes content and less than 10% will contribute. This is like having a conversation with someone who listens but simply refuses to respond…not much of a conversation, huh? But the content is what is keeping them around, they are learning and thinking and will respond in their own way. Keep working on getting responses, but there are many other valuable stats to look at too.
You’re Not Getting to the Right People
About a decade ago when I started consulting on social media that #1 concern was reputation management. “What will they say about us?” Most organizations have come to realize that Pandora’s box has been opened and people have the ability to say anything they want to say. That makes for a very noisy web. The response I have seen is that more and more organizations are responding by simply adding to the noise. FAIL
The key to an effective social media program is to get the right message to the right people at the right time through the right channel. This is nothing new in the world of communications. What is new is that people have many channels to choose from. Not long ago the choices were print, a few channels on TV and a few channels on radio. Now the choices are unlimited from blogs to text to social networking sites to video sharing sites. Our job is to make sure that our audience can get the message the way they want through the channel they choose to get it from. This is what we refer to as optimizing your communications for social media.
Social Media is Another Thing You Have To Do
If you are stressed about how much time social media takes, you are doing it ALL wrong. The speed you are able to get personalized articles delivered as opposed to searching through pages and pages of “old media” is truly astounding. You can schedule several posts, repurpose content for different channels and be alerted when your attention is needed. You should be using technology to save time. Not as an add-on while you keep doing things the old ways.
An effective social media program is about personalized channels and strategic data flow of relevant content. This creates value. Add in the ability for your audience to post their questions, insights, and reviews, what you get is conversation and community. The impact is enhanced business intelligence, more effective R&D, more successful marketing programs and increased customer satisfaction. If these are not the results your social media program is delivering, it is not working!
As more and more brands embrace social media as an extension to marketing, advertising, pr or customer service efforts, the line between social media marketing and the essence of online communities continues to blur. However, it is important that these efforts not get mixed up otherwise the purpose and benefits of each effort will get diluted and the tactics and measures of success will become a confusing mess.
Social Media Marketing can be measured by the number of impressions, the reach of the conversation, as well as the number of transactions. Social Media Marketing can have very specific and measurable goals such as increased share of voice, improve brand reputation and/or awareness, or direct sales.
Online communities are much more nebulous. Communities, in general, are a very ancient creation. Communities of people gathered together for interdependent reasons. Therefore, a community is about the experience of belonging.
There are many benefits for a brand to develop a community, including the ability to scale. If you bring together people with passion and expertise then every person in the community gains tremendously for the small efforts of many. Think of Wikipedia.
Oftentimes efforts to building online communities involve bringing together more people with questions than answers. This makes sense when you are trying to find people with a need that you can fill. That is called selling. People do not become part of a community as a means to be sold to.
If we think of communities like we think of our neighborhoods, then what we are seeking are people with common interests, people we like to invite to our house, people with expertise such as…I don’t know…plumbing. Most importantly we are looking for people we trust.
So how do we build online communities? We set out to bring together people with a passion and expertise to share, we give them tools that help them get to know each other and we highlight ideas and insights of the members.
Building an online community takes a lot of work. Hospitality must be top of mind. Think of hospitality as the welcoming of strangers and offering “gifts” with no expectation in return thus creating an environment of trust and safety.
As your community grows it is tempting to think it centers around you or your brand. It doesn’t. It is important that community members always know that they are appreciated and are often reminded why they are there – what is the benefit to them.
So, should your social media efforts focus on marketing, advertising, pr, customer service or community building? That depends on your goals and resources, however, do not confuse community building with marketing or you may find that you create a road map that does not lead you to your goals.
What do you need to run a successful social media campaign? Time and money.
You need time to research the web, get to know the people you want to connect with, develop your message, and build relationships based on mutual trust and values.
You need money for advertising, landing pages, applications, multimedia, and any other flashy gizmos.
There are very few organizations that have very much time or money to dedicate to a social media campaign. Oftentimes they will contribute what resources they can, watch their campaign flap around like a fish out of water and then declare defeat.
If you have little time and money, it is best to double up on one and go little to none on the other. There are many free sites and
tools available and most campaigns can be run without spending money on advertising, landing pages and so forth. However, you will need to double or maybe triple the time you spend creating content, engaging in dialog, and promoting your efforts throughout social networks. You will also need to allocate time upfront to develop realistic goals and milestones that map to your actions and results on a weekly basis.
If your boss knocks on your door and tells you there is an event happening next week that he wants you to promote via social media, and you do not already have an engaged community you can work with, ask for a big check. You can be successful in social media within a short period of time if you are able to buy some attention. This is more than buying advertising space, you will need to get some creative folks involved as well.
If you find yourself without time or money and with a demanding boss who wants to see this social media stuff work, no need to fret. Set up appropriate expectations. What can you get done in a week and how does the value of what you accomplish relate to the ROI of traditional communications. For example, can you find the right people are twitter to mention your initiative? Can you align with a partner who has a large Facebook fan base? Can you make your initiative newsworthy and get the attention of the media? When it comes time to report your results, highlight how social media outperformed the expected results of traditional communications. For example, your Cost Per Impression in social media vs traditional advertising might be much lower. Also, explain how social media efforts can be even more successful give more time or more money.
However, if you start spending the time upfront to build and nurture your community the majority of your work will be done when your boss asks you to work miracles without a wand.
“To be prepared is half the victory.”
– Miguel de Cervantes