17 Jun

Branding – the Olympics vs the World Cup

Note: this is an extended version of a comment I left on a LinkedIn thread comparing the brand strengths of the Olympics and the World Cup

Since the World Cup in South Africa is now finally starting to hit its stride, it’s worth thinking for a moment about its brand strength as compared to the Olympics, the other major quadrennial global sports event.

Answering the question of which of the World Cup or the Olympics has the stronger brand is almost impossible, because they are such powerful and distinctive brands that excel in such different ways.

One thing that I can say for certain is that the Olympics is a more distinctive brand, because there isn’t really anything else like it.

Although on a global level the World Cup is the more popular event, it is just another football tournament, albeit clearly the biggest. There are many other football tournaments, whether at international level (the European Championships, the Copa America, the Africa Cup of Nations, etc) or at club level (Champions League, Copa Libertadores, etc), so the World Cup is merely a larger version of these other events.

The Olympics, however, is distinct because it hand draws together so many different sports that are otherwise separate in the public consciousness for the intervening four years (such as tennis and track and field). In particular, the strength of the Olympics brand guarantees mass attention every four years to sports that are otherwise largely outside of global consciousness, such as archery or curling. Without wishing to offend the practitioners of such sports, it is clear that it is only in the spotlight of the Olympics that they are able to transcend their ordinary anonymity.

Of course, it’s an open question as to whether ‘more distinctive’ translates into ‘stronger’ when talking about a brand, but what is certainly not in doubt is that the strength of these two brands is such that associating with them costs major brands huge amounts in sponsorship fees, although it it is not always clear whether or not it is worth it, as this article about the 2008 Beijing Olympics points out:

In this economic climate of belt-tightening, many now believe Olympic sponsorship deals might start dropping in price.

“To an extent, yes, this is the high-water mark,” Wolf says. “China is the great game. China is where everybody wants to be. And so much of the reason people are sponsoring these games is to make a lasting impression on the Chinese government and the Chinese people.”

And so the sponsors enter the final stretch of their record-breaking campaigns …

But London may not be willing to take such draconian steps. So far only eight out of 12 of the top sponsors have signed up for the 2012 games. And with the Internet threatening broadcasters’ dominance, some analysts are even beginning to ask if the economic model that sustains the games could be under threat.

Brands sponsor major sporting events because they want to be associated with those characteristics that consumers ascribe to elite level sports – charisma, flair, grit, elegance, determination, fun, and so on; and they also want access to the guaranteed attention of such a broad swathe of humanity.

However, as with traditional advertising vehicles like television or newspapers, it seems that event sponsorship can no longer deliver what it once could, since media consumption habits have fragmented. As an example, with this World Cup I personally have watched a large number of games online through the ITV or BBC portals. This then obviously opens up the question of how to better extract value from sponsorship, yet surprisingly the major World Cup sponsors seem to have done relatively little to promote their associations through social media.

Facebook itself has published a guide to using Facebook for connecting with the World Cup, but I have to say that I am surprised that none of the major brands seem to have decided to use Facebook for World Cup-related campaigns. Interesting!

9 Jun

Who’s Listening?

For brands, Twitter is one of the key social media tools for engaging with consumers. From a marketing perspective, its attraction seems simple enough; gain followers, send out finely-honed marketing messages in 140-character tweets, reap the rewards. The more followers, the better, obviously, and since they chose to follow you, they are clearly receptive to your message, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

On Twitter, having lots of followers and having a lot of influence are two separate states that do not necessarily overlap, according to a recent paper prepared for the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence by Meeyoung Cha, Hamed Haddadi, Fabricio Benevenuto, and Krishna P. Gummadi. This paper, called “Measuring User Influence in Twitter: The Million Follower Fallacy”, sets out to discover which Twitter users are the most influential, with ‘influence’ being measured through a combination of number of followers, retweets, and mentions.

At the end of their research, the authors came to several interesting conclusions:

  1. Having lots of followers doesn’t necessarily make you influential in terms of retweets and mentions
  2. Influential users tend to be influential across a range of topics
  3. Influence is gained more through concerted effort than through luck or accident

For me, the key takeaways from this report are that Twitter can work for you if you are willing to work at it, and it will only work if you can understand that your true audience is hidden amongst your followers, and that you must make the effort to engage with them and to understand what they are they are thinking. Above all, before embarking on any kind of social media campaign, you must understand what your purpose is. Is it just promotion, or are you looking for insight to help drive business development?

One thing that the authors don’t discuss, but that I have noticed from using Twitter myself, is that not all fans are created equal, and that the raw number of your followers doesn’t really tell you anything about who is actually listening.

As an example, here are the details of someone who started following me last week:

Look at how many people they are following! What is the likelihood that someone like this will even see, let alone act on, your message? It’s not very high.

This is a prime exaple of how follower numbers are not (and can’t be) a perfect metric for understanding the reach of your communications, a point that Meeyoung Cha, one of the co-authors, addresses directly in an interview with Scott Berinato of HBR:

Your results seem to suggest that number of followers does not equal influence and that other factors show that number of follows is in fact a bad indicator of actual influence. That would mean those companies both marketing techniques to increase followers, and the ones paying tweeters with large numbers of followers, are in the wrong business.

I think it would be too strong to claim that follower count is a bad metric. Our claim is that follower count is not sufficient to capture the influence of a user (i.e., the ability of an user to sway the opinions of her followers). It only shows how popular the user is (i.e., the size of her audience). But, as we showed in our paper, retweets and mentions, which measure the audience responsiveness to a user’s tweets, do not correlate strongly with number of followers.

Now a very interesting question would be, “How should one measure influence?” We are afraid that there are no easy answers here. One would have to take a combination of many metrics, including follower count, mentions, and re-tweets. However the hard part is figuring out the relative importance of the component metrics.

This last point is the key – how do you define influence? This can then be extended to how can you define success? To me, what is increasingly clear is that unless you are talking about actual sales figures, most of the quantitative understandings of ‘success’ in social media breed a certain amount of false confidence, and that qualitative methods have a key role to play, making it an absolute necessity for social media marketers to have a certain amount of tolerance for ambiguity.

8 Jun

Interesting Discussion

In case you’ve missed it, I’ve been having an interesting discussion with my friend Olly Pearce (of MediaFlash China) about social media engagement strategies in the comments section of my “Refining the Concept Further” post with my friend Olly Pearce . Well worth a look!

2 Jun

A Few Links for Wednesday

Social Media Around the World – A report by Insites Consulting on global social media usage, with lots and lots of interesting facts. Definitely worth a look.

Social Media Marketing GPS – A new ebook by Toby Bloomberg on social media marketing, involving interviews with leading figures in the field. What’s unique about this book is that all of the interviews were carried out on Twitter. I’ve not had much of a chance to flick through it yet, so I’m going to hold off judgment for the moment. It’s certainly an interesting and creative concept, but since Twitter postings can tend towards the gnomic, I’m curious as to how well it well hold together over the course of the book, or whether the enforced brevity will become wearing after a while. In any case, it’s certainly an interesting concept, and it’s worth having a look for that reason alone.

Social is Conversation – An article on iPlatform’s new Conversocial program, which is designed to help companies manage and track data across multiple social media platforms, which looks like an interesting solution to one of the key problems in social media – how do you track and compare information from such disparate sources?

The Latest Social Media Privacy Issue – Apparently, advertisers can tell full identities from those who click on ads on social media sites, which opens up the possibility of being able to scrub profiles for all kinds of personal details. Keep an eye on your privacy controls, people!

31 May

Refining the Concept Further

OK, here’s a short update on my thinking for my dissertation. I mentioned before that I was working from the hypothesis that “social networks provide brands with an excellent way of deepening relationships with their existing customers, but are not so good for reaching new customers”; I’ve now thought about this a bit more and I’ve decided that I am going to approach this by asking the question, “how can FMCG brands use social media to connect with and engage their core customers?”

Just asking this question throws up more questions:

(1) How do you define who is a core customer?
(2) Why just FMCG’s?
(3) What counts as engagement?
(4) What counts as a successful campaign in social media?
(5) How well can you map traditional marketing objectives on to the social media space?

All these questions (and many, many more!) I will have to answer as I go through the project, but in the meantime, any thoughts on this topic?

28 May

People Will Share Anything

As an example of how difficult it is for marketers to toe the line on privacy when it comes to using social media to reach out to consumers, consider the following:

A new service, Blippy … has an interesting way to take something you do everyday, buy things with your credit card, and automatically push those transactions online for others to see and interact with …

Imagine being able to see everything your friends buy with a credit card as they do it. This not only tells you what kind of things they’re actually into (rather than someone just saying they like something), but also other information like how cheap they are, as well as where they actually are at a given time. There is actually a lot of data tied into the transactions we make, and Blippy takes that and makes it social.

Some people will share anything online!

One of the things that I have found really fascinating as I have used Facebook over the last couple of years is just how much of their personal lives people are willing to share. After all, anyone who has hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook inevitably has many connections with people they barely know, or at least have not seen in quite a long time. It’s a very strange thing knowing about the adult love lives of people who were no more than acquaintances in High School!

Some people are quite happy to share all kinds of stuff about their lives, with little care for privacy (although in some cases they really should), which is why I suppose it is so difficult for social networking sites to calibrate their privacy policies correctly for the tastes of the userbase. There is just such a chasm between those who are completely blase and those who are more concerned about keeping more of a delineation between what is private and what is public.

Reading about Blippy brought a real smile to my face; the social media explosion is throwing out stranger and stranger mutations. On a personal level, I can’t imagine anything I would want to know less than my friends’ spending habits (and I certainly wouldn’t want them to know what I’m spending my money on!), but on a professional level I can certainly see the logic. We do, after all, live in an intensely consumerist world, where personal status is for so many people intrinsically tied up with what they buy, what they wear, and what they own. Putting this data into the public domain is an incredibly effective means of broadcasting who you really are (or at least who you want people to think you are).

On one level, it’s brilliant, and on another, completely horrifying.

What will be really fascinating to see is what marketers will be able to do with this service; the potential for customer outreach and engagement is just mind-boggling.

26 May

A few customer engagement links for Wednesday

Last week I mentioned that I am in the process of scoping my dissertation in, narrowing the subject matter to keep from being overwhelmed by possibility; anyways, I am now moving towards concentrating solely on how companies can use social media to engage with and deepen their relationship with their existing customers. In that spirit, here are a few relevant links for today:

The circles (no more strangers) – A brief rumination from marketing guru Seth Godin on how much more valuable true fans are to a company than total strangers, as well as how much easier and profitable to serve. This is relevant to all areas of business, but I think it is particularly relevant to social media, because social media offers you a platform to do things for your true fans like in the following link …

NBA Star Uses Group Buying to Sell Playoff Tickets on Facebook – Amar’e Stoudamire of the Phoenix Suns basketball team has opened a store on his Facebook page that allows fans to group together to buy discounted tickets. What a neat idea for reaching out to and engaging with your fans in a way that actually offers them something of real value.

6 steps to take if your company is criticized in a blog post – Drew McClellan had a disastrous experience at a Dunkin Donuts in suburban New York, and then proceeded to write an extremely scathing blog post about it. Within a day Dunkin Donuts’ Director of Customer Relations was on the phone apologizing and offering to make it good. That’s the kind of situation that tests a company’s commitment to customer relationships – are you willing to go the extra mile to repair the damage done? An interesting little vignette.

24 May

Privacy and Building a Sustainable Business Model

The biggest social media news story in recent weeks has been the controversy over Facebook’s privacy policies:

Facebook, MySpace and several other social-networking sites have been sending data to advertising companies that could be used to find consumers’ names and other personal details, despite promises they don’t share such information without consent …

Advertising companies are receiving information that could be used to look up individual profiles, which, depending on the site and the information a user has made public, include such things as a person’s real name, age, hometown and occupation …

The sites may have been breaching their own privacy policies as well as industry standards, which say sites shouldn’t share and advertisers shouldn’t collect personally identifiable information without users’ permission. Those policies have been put forward by advertising and Internet companies in arguments against the need for government regulation.

The problem comes as social networking sites—and in particular Facebook—face increasing scrutiny over their privacy practices from consumers, privacy advocates and lawmakers.

After several weeks of steadily growing criticism, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has begun to backtrack somewhat, promising a simplification of Facebook’s increasingly Byzantine privacy controls:

The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information. Simply put, many of you thought our controls were too complex … There needs to be a simpler way to control your information. In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services. We are working hard to make these changes available as soon as possible.

What’s interesting to me about this situation is that it illustrates quite precisely how difficult it is for Facebook to balance the satisfaction of its users with the needs of the advertisers that it must satisfy if it is to turn its huge traffic flows (it is now America’s most-visited website, for instance) into commensurate profits. Apparently, Facebook is due to reach profitability this year, but the viability of its business model remains open to question, particularly if privacy concerns deepen among the user base, making Facebook less able to sell advertisers the ability to target microscopically precise groups of users.

The reality is that Facebook is walking a tight line, because the reality is that its users are the product, but at the same time, a product that lives, breathes, and fires off angry blog missives is a very different thing from a widget or a bar of deoderant or a software package, and so Facebook must always be careful not to alienate their users.

Interesting times ahead.

23 May

Pulling Together

Via Rod Dreher, I came across this amazing story this morning from Metafilter, a large community weblog.

Basically, a man named Dan Reetz discovered that one of his former Russian students (and her female friend) had been due to fly to Washington, DC to take summer jobs as lifeguards in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Before their flight, they discovered that the jobs had ‘fallen through’, and when they arrived in DC they were told to take a bus to New York where they would have a late night interview for hostess jobs at a bar in the Russian immigrant neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Worried that they were being tricked into some kind of sex trafficking scenario, Reetz reached out to the Metafilter community for assistance. Over the next day, information poured in, strategies were hatched, the authorities were alerted, all while Reetz was driving across the country, moving his stuff from Wyoming to Los Angeles, yet still checking on the thread and trying to convince the girls of the danger they were in. Ultimately, the girls realized that it was probably not a good idea to go to the bar for the ‘interview’, and were met at the bus station by a Metafilter user, offering them a place to stay and food to eat.

It’s an incredible story; reading the thread through from beginning to end is like reading a particularly choice thriller (if you want a condensed version of the story, the Newsweek blog has a good article on it). What really interests me, however, and what makes it so relevant to this blog, is that it is such a nice vignette of how online communities at their best can work together to achieve common goals. In very short order, information was shared, strategies were debated, help was offered, and sizeable amounts of money were raised. Online communities are real communities, at least in a sense, and they are capable of pulling together in the same way that real communities can and do in times of crisis.

This story is also a nice illustration of how the web not only enables people to find information, but also to share it, and to back it with the implicit authority of coming from a trusted source. Participants in online communities like Metafilter or social networks like Facebook know each other, sometimes personally and sometimes only virtually, but this knowledge is always enough of a connection to provide a certain level of authority in the informational transaction. Authority in this context drives trust, and trust is central to the proper functioning of any group, organization, or society. Because the different parties involved in the Metafilter thread were predisposed to trust the information provided by others they were able to work together effectively.

From a marketing perspective, this is one of the key lessons for brand management in an era of online social networks – messages from untrusted sources carry no authority, and are likely to be ignored and, ultimately, discarded. This is why marketers spend so much time trying to identify ‘influencers’ – those people whose opinions and tastes carry more weight than most, and whose verdicts can be crucial to the success (or not) of products and services. Persuading influencers of the merits of your product can be a powerful way of generating positive word-of-mouth, offering as it does access to (a form of) authority.

How exactly to reach influencers is, however, a topic for another time.


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