Why social networks aren’t like offline friendships

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Social networks online are fundamentally different to our offline social networks - our friends, acquaintances, colleagues and others. Offline we have distinct groups of people that we interact with in different ways, whereas online in social networks we tend to merge all of our friends into one main pool.

This great presentation from Paul Adams, head of user experience at Google, looks at how we interact offline and online and takes a sociological approach to understanding how people interact in social networks and the consequences of this. From the dangers of two groups of friends colliding to the challenges for brands in social networks, this is a great presentation and our Required Reading at FreshNetworks this week. The presentation has a lot of detail in and is worth a good look through and although these are his own findings I know from my experience studying this area that there are a lot of research papers to back up his results.

There are a few points that I think are key take always for companies looking to use social networks:

  1. Social Networks are not always the best places for brands to interact. Social networks are very user centric places. All the diagrams that are in Paul Adam’s research are cantered around the user it is about their connections, their friends, their family, their swimming group etc. because of the size of the audience on social networks there is a tendency for brands to go into them and want to tell everyone about their products and services, some brands can work very well in social networks but most of the time people don’t want to be interrupted in what they are doing and there are more beneficial ways to engage.
  2. The power of weak ties is decreasing. Paul Adams talks about tie strength which is based on sociological theory (see the work on Mark Granovetter on “The Strength of Weak Ties”) this theory explains the links between people in different social circles. Strong ties are the links that you have with friends and family and are thought to be most influential when a recommendation is needed. Weak ties are links that you have with people that you have an affinity to but are not in regular contact. Weak ties are important to bridge the gap between different social circles and for getting information disseminated throughout different groups on the internet. People naturally build a large network of these weak ties and the process of identifying influencers who are willing to share opinions is becoming more and more important. It’s not who you know in your network it’s how likely they are to speak about your company and be trusted.
  3. People have different personalities in different areas. Everyone acts differently in different social groupings and when they are hanging out with their mates they might want to be associated with a bar or a beer or certain places but they might not want their family or co-workers knowing.

Social networks yield a high reward if companies can engage people but are a hard place for brands to get it right and are just one part of social media.

The Real Life Social Network v2
View more documents from Paul Adams.

Social media does not just take place online

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One of the biggest dangers with social media is to assume that it is only exists online. We see this in the way some brands approach social media - developing a social media strategy that is focused on the tools they are going to use rather than the business aims they are going to contribute to. We also see this in the way some brands allocate budgets for their social media work - associating it with their ecommerce or digital spend can mean that they need to work harder to make sure that social media efforts integrate with what is happening offline.

This is a real shame because really social media is not about online at all. It’s about the same human interactions and collaborations that we have enjoyed offline for many many years. In fact for as long as human beings have been social animals. Technology just lets us do more of these things, in different ways and, perhaps critically, with people we don’t know, that we are not near and at different times to them. Social media just lets us do things we have always done offline in bigger and better ways. So it should be natural that we consider it as having offline implications as well as online ones. But too often we don’t.

This is a real shame. The best examples of social media, especially when looking at the ways it is used by brands, have an offline element to them. You might have an offline event where members of your online community can get together to meet and continue to share the thoughts and discussions they have online. You might get people to do things such as test a product or experience an experience offline and then talk about it in their online communities (as we saw with Virgin America). You might us content created online at an offline location. You might reward people offline for what they do in online communities online.

The options are endless and do not necessarily have to be just traditional integrated marketing campaigns. Its about things that people do and things they care about. And about letting them do these offline and online. The rise of social media for marketing is less about technology and more about brands realising the benefits of closer engagement with customers and others. Social media tools provide a great way to do this but always remember to think how you can get this engagement offline too.

The unnatural lingo of the online world

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The composition of two point reflections is a ...
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As online professionals, like any profession, we have a set of words and terms relating to our job. We talk about moderation and trolls and forums.

We talk about features and modules and fields. But unlike many other professions, we also expect the lay people using all those things to recognise what they mean.

We use a very unnatural language, and I’m concerned that it puts up false barriers between users and the platforms they’re engaging with.

Why do we use these funny, clunky words?I think it’s two-fold. The first adopters of online communities were tech-enthusiasts, of course. They were – and I use this term fondly – geeks. And as a geek I can attest that geek-language is not Joe Bloggs’ language. But the early lingo got stuck, and when the Joe and Joanna Bloggs’ of the world started to find their way to email discussion lists, instant messenger, and ultimately online communities, the lingo was set.

Early community managers tended to be the person that had been their longest or showed most interest (again, likely to be a geek), and naturally, the lingo would remain and be dished out top-down. Let’s start with ‘community manager’.

On our recent blog, What does a community manager do? I included a word cloud of all the one-word suggestions we’d had in answer to that question.Not one of them was ‘manage’.

So are we really community managers? Am I really Head of Community Management? Do we manage communities, or do we do something else? By far the most popular words were ‘facilitate’, ‘enables’ and ‘connects’.

None of those are really anything like management.

What would be a better job title? What do we really do?

Community Connector?
Community Enabler?
Communication Facilitator?

All rather ugly… what do you think?And then we have ‘Trolls’, as @SueOnTheWeb suggests. Yes, offline we have insults of course, but these don’t normally become professional parlance. I’m sure the police don’t have handbooks about dealing with ‘crims’, even if they say far worse than that in the locker room.

Trolling apparently dates back to early 90s Usenet group, alt.folklore.urban, but its meaning has been adapted and is standard community/moderation speak. It doesn’t – and shouldn’t – mean anything to a happy community member though, perhaps time to give up the geek-speak?

Moderation, of course, is the backbone of a healthy community. Whether it’s reactive-moderation, post-moderation or simply a culture of self-censorship amongst users, such as with many mature email communities, it’s vital.

But does the word ‘moderation’ really mean anything to most people? When we write our disclaimers and use the word, does it mean what we think it does to community users or is it just another word to gloss over?

Do we not need something a bit better, a bit more ‘human’?

Of course we have the abbreviations, the ROTFLMAOs and the LOLs and the IYKWIMs… and that’s fine, that’s a snowball that’s melted across all social media and even seeped into emails and txtspk so that non-community connected people (like my mother-in-law and mum) will use it.

And for many people that’s part of the fun of using social platforms. But it can also be very exclusive to people new to the experience. We probably can’t do anything to prevent the spread, in fact, embracing it is part of the community management experience at many communities, but if we run abbreviation-heavy communities, the least we can do is slap up a dictionary, like iVillage do on their message boards.

So again, what’s missing? What lingo remains solely to divide people? What should be replaced with more human words and what can community managers do to ensure language-use doesn’t create unhealthy cliques?

The challenges for FMCG brands in social media marketing

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FMCG brands are often some of the most innovative in their use of digital and social media but this great presentation from Helge Tennø shows the importance of staying ahead of the market. And of continuing to innovate what you are doing, to avoid becoming what he calls a Big Lazy Brand.

His presentation outlines five ways to market FMCG brands in social media:

  1. Use your marketing activities to impact how consumers feel about your brand, not just what they know about it
  2. Build direct connections with consumers, rather than letter retailers have this connection. Engage them and have a dialogue
  3. Use your marketing  activities to be part of their life, from home to the office to the store where they finally make a purchase
  4. Remember that in social media it is about them and not just about you. This isn’t the place for a one-way conversation or for just telling them things. Ask questions and get ideas
  5. Don’t confuse social media with media, the two things are different and need different strategies and approaches

Tennø’s presentation reflects well on the need for brands to move from just thinking about campaigns in social media, to thinking about ways in which they can use it to engage consumers in a sustained manner. For FMCG firms, who often have little direct contact with their consumers, this is of critical importance. Viral videos and buzz can be great, but too often it can leave users remembering the video or the game, but not remembering the brand. Engagement, on an ongoing basis, sees greater return for the brand and is a more effective use of social media marketing.

The presentation is Required Reading this week at FreshNetworks for its great thinking and the number of case studies and examples that it uses. It also highlights what we think of as an over-riding consideration for social media marketing: Digital is not a silo, it needs to integrate with other online and offline activities.

This is not the time for Big Lazy Brands
View more documents from Helge Tennø.

How online retailers can benefit from social shopping

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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.