Archive for August 2009

MIT’s Personas project and owning your brand equity online


Image via Wikipedia

One of the latest projects from the MIT Media Lab is Personas. The concept is simple and the results are impressive. Just input your name and it searches the web for mentions of this name to put it in context. It then analyses each of these instances of your name to build a profile of how the web sees you. Are you more ‘sports” or more ‘books’, more ‘military’ or more ‘music’? Of course, if you happen to share your name with other people, your results will be subject to what is perhaps best thought of as ‘noise’. Take a look at my profile below to see what happens (it’s useful to know that I share my name with American Footballers, an artist and a singer in a band).

Matt Rhodes Persona

The main problem that the Personas project faces is the same problem that many of us face online: names are not unique identifiers. There are many many Matt Rhodes in the world, using the Internet and being written about for what they do. To me, the Matt Rhodes who is an American Footballer is ‘noise’. To him, the Matt Rhodes in London who write about social media and marketing is also ‘noise’. We need something cleverer than names to identify people and something cleverer than names to identify people and to enable them to bring together everything that they do and that is written about them online.

This is even more important with the growth of online communities and the use of social media. People have moved from being written about to being writers. And as everybody is now able to create, add to and organise content online, so the number of people being written about has increased.

This is where shared credentials like Facebook Connect or OpenID come in. Rather than relying on your name to connect your online presence, you can associate everything that you do online by using the same account details to log-in to different social media site, social networks or online communities. You can associate everything and be the curator of your own online brand. At FreshNetworks we use both of these credentials, if appropriate, to enable people to log into an online community with their Facebook details, for example. To pass activity between the two sites to start to bring together in one place your brand online, or at least some elements of it.

As the web grows, and the use of social media and social sites grows even more rapidly, the need to sort and search for information on individuals will become even more important. And, as MIT Media Lab’s Personas project shows, that cannot be left to something as un-unique as your name.

How online retailers can benefit from social shopping


Sale sign
Image by net_efekt via Flickr

Online retailers are doing relatively well in the current economic climate. Whilst spending is down across the board, online retailers are doing either significantly less badly than their traditional competitors, or they are actually performing strongly. Both ASOS and Vente-Privee are seeing relatively strong performances in a weak retail market. There are many reasons for this - online-only business models have lower overheads and are potentially easier to scale (up or down) depending on demand). They also allow the retailers to stock smaller amounts of more products, allowing them to have a larger portfolio and to cater for a wider range of goods.

But these structural reasons only tell part of the story. The real reason why online retailers should be, and in many cases are, performing better than their traditional counterparts is because of what online lets you do. It’s not just taking an offline concept online, it’s about doing completely new things in completely new ways.

One of the real benefits of online retail is the ability to personalise the shopping experience and to recommend additional items that an individual shopper is likely to want. In the offline world, this is possible with a well-trained and experienced assistant who will identify what a shopper is likely to want and what suits them. They can then help to guide and recommend items that they think might appeal to them. Online we can use something a lot more powerful: people like me.

We know that people trust people like them, will make purchase decisions on what they say and recommend. It’s why online ratings and reviews are a significant influence on purchases. In online retail there are a number of ways in which you can use ‘people like us’ to recommend other products to shoppers.

  1. Use aggregate data from the shopping experience and from previous baskets to predict what people might want to buy. You can then present related items and other popular items based on previous purchase patterns.
  2. Use ratings and reviews from other shoppers to advise people on what products they might like and what people think about them.

Both of these can be quite successful when offered as standalone elements in the e-commerce system. But they take on a significantly more powerful role when integrated with an online community. Rather than just recommending products based on previous shopping habits, you can show people who have bought that product before, the other things they buy, the discussions they take part in, the things we know about them or that they are willing to tell us. And rather than a set of isolated reviews from other shoppers, we can show these reviews as just part of the content that somebody has added to the community, alongside the questions they may have asked or answered in the forums and photos of them in the galleries.

We know that people trust ‘people like me’, and that they are influenced heavily by people with whom they feel a connection, shared interest or other similarity. Online retail benefits most when it lets you see such people. You can find out not what people who may have bought one particular product have also bought, but, perhaps more importantly, what people who you feel an affinity with have bought. This doesn’t mean you will buy the product too, but it does increase your likelihood to do so. When you start to relate with people and identify with them you trust them and their choices more. You are influenced by them.

Online retail can do things that are just not possible offline. Whilst you might go to a store with a friend and get their advice, online you can tap into the thoughts, reviews and decisions of many thousands of people that you might identify as being people like you. Even if you don’t know them.

This is true social shopping. And online retailers can benefit from this in a way that is just not possible offline.

Storytelling and social media


Storytelling in Social Media, img Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Social Media is all about conversations. It’s people connecting, interacting and sharing content. And whether it’s online or in the real world, the most engaging conversations involve other people’s stories.

Storytelling is the most powerful driver of engagement in social media. Just as good stories provide the momentum for great books and great speeches, they’re also the impetus for the best in social media.

Storytelling as a tool has been well understood and consciously used by salespeople for decades. What I find surprising is that whilst it’s also been used by marketeers for a long time, it really only hit mainstream marketing theory in the last naughties. I assume the sudden rise comes from it’s ties to social media and conversational marketing made famous by The Cluetrain Manifesto. - I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Anyway, the real reason why I wrote this post was to share the following with you. This morning I recieved an unsolicited email pitch from an Indian IT Outsourcing firm, ValueLabs. I get a lot of these and I rarely open their attachments. However on this occasion I clicked on the attached PowerPoint. After skimming the first nine pages of text, charts and diagrams, I reached page ten and couldn’t help but take notice.

This was the only page with a photo rather than a chart and it had far less text on it - perhaps it was a combination of these two things that drew me in. But what really turned me on was the story behind the image. Thanks to the story, this slide is more powerful than any other I’ve been sent by outsourcers. It has a clear message and on top of that provides a clear reason to believe.

Here’s the slide…

social media storytelling via ValueLabs

Storytelling by ValueLabs

Mobilising people in social media: the #welovethenhs debate


heart-shaped buttons
Image by alice-palace via Flickr

Update: in the first week of the #welovethenhs debate on Twitter, 18,000 people shared over 37,000 stories.

In the last two days, almost 11,000 different people on Twitter have entered into a debate about the benefits of the UK healthcare system. Between them they have shared over 20,000 different stories that range from individual experiences to debates and evaluations of the merits of public health care over a private health insurance scheme. The levels of involvement are impressive and have been driven primarily by people sharing their own personal stories rather than being driven by a corporate or organisational Twitter campaign.

This discussion and debate is a great example of people coming together on a shared topic of interest. They are telling their stories or giving their opinion and tagging it with the #welovethenhs hashtag so that others can find, read and share what they have said. At it’s very simplest this is a great example of how social media work, and in particular of the kind of dynamics that exist in an online community:

  • People with a story to tell write about it and tag it, so that
  • People who want to find similar stories can easily sort through the information that has been shared, and
  • These stories can then be passed to other people and shared again so that more people can read it

People who don’t know each other can read and comment on each others’ stories - they are connected not by the fact that they actually know each other, but that they are interested in similar issues and want to talk about the same things. There are, of course, limits to hashtags as a way of sorting information on Twitter, but for quickly escalating debates like this they are a useful way of showing the strength and weight  of opinion on a particular issue.

But perhaps the most interesting element of the NHS debate on Twitter is the subject matter itself. With less than 12 months to go before the next General Election in the UK, the public are having a debate about an issue that is always a major component of any election campaign, and they are doing so in social media. And Prime Minister Gordon Brown joined in the discussions with his own opinions. Expressed via Twitter.

We’ve posted before about how Social Media can sometimes be the wrong medium for politicians to express their opinions or to make announcements (especially about Gordon Brown’s YouTube trauma). But this is a case where users themselves have started and are having a discussion on an issue that is of keen political, and electoral, interest. If they are this engaged now, on an issue of great interest but sparked by remarks by a US politician then we might be looking at an interesting and engaged set of debates on Twitter and across social media during the upcoming General Election.

I hope all the Parties have their social media strategies sorted.

* For up-to-date statistics about the #welovethenhs hashtag go to what the hashtag?!

  • Brown joins NHS Twitter campaign (
  • Britain To Civil Servants: Go Forth And Tweet (
  • #welovethenhs takes over Twitter (
  • Twitter Army defends UK healthcare system (

How to write your firm’s social media policy


in ink
Image by late night movie via Flickr

In our last post we looked at why every business needs a social media policy. And the fact that the most important thing for any business is to have a policy in the first place. But if you’re writing your social media policy for employees, what should it include? What kind of guidelines should you give the people who work at your business.

At FreshNetworks, our approach is to keep things simple and to make them inclusive. Have a simple and clear policy on how employees should be using social media and make sure you include your employees in the process of drawing them up. Oh, and make sure your policy encourages your employees to use social media more and not less.

Here are five considerations we discuss with clients when developing their social media policies and guidelines that might help you if you are developing yours:

1. Encourage your employees to take part online

Your best representatives should be your own staff and so any social media policy should actively encourage them to take part online. Show them ways to share their opinions and enter discussions and debates. Encourage them to write a blog if they are keen (and perhaps provide a place for them to do so). Let them become comfortable online because they will be some of your strongest defenders in discussions about your brand.

2. Discourage discussion of what is happening internally

All employees will be privy to discussions, debates, meetings and decisions that are not public knowledge. That might not even be known by many other people in the organisation. Let your employees know that they may learn some things as part of their role that others don’t. And that these are not things you would expect to share with their colleagues over the watercooler, let alone online.

3. Encourage them open and honest about who you are online

The best policy online is openness and honesty. You will be quickly found out if you claim to be something or somebody you are not. Encourage your employees to be open about who they are and who they work for. This is good for them (if they are talking about something related to their work people will credit them with more knowledge). Encourage them to do this even if they are writing about something totally un-workrelated. They should say who they work for, and that what they are saying is nothing at all to do with their job!

4. Discourage arguments and disputes online

It is very difficult in social media to have an argument with somebody. It quickly descends into confusion and conflict. Encourage your employees to take part in debate and discussions but to steer clear of arguments. Whether they are talking about your brand or not it’s best to not to post anything emotional. Wait a day and consider it again.

5. Make sure employees know the best route for their opinions

Many businesses find that their employees use social media to raise issues, concerns or opinions about their employer. This is usually because they don’t know the best way of having their voice heard. Part of your social media strategy should be a clarification of the different routes available for them to have their voice heard. Some things are best aired in social media, and some things will be dealt with a lot quicker and a lot better if you raise them in other ways.