And the winner is…

Trophy

There have been hundreds of articles covering ‘predictions’ for 2011, most of them listing 10 or 20 ‘big’ topics. That’s a lot, so I’m going to try and make it a little easier on you and just talk about one thing.

“And the winner of the award for Breakthrough Service of 2011 is…” *hushed silence*

“…the company that can simplify the mass of stuff that is my online life!” *applause and tearful acceptance speech*

As I’ve covered before, the way that people use the internet evolves over time. This includes the type of information we transfer over the internet, the type of activities we do on the internet, and the way we access the internet. And the upshot of these changes?

Chaos.

I’ll stand up as an example. I’ve got Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Skype, Live Messenger, Google Talk, Mozilla Weave, Online banking (sorry, no specifics on that one) and other services. I’ve also got RSS feeds, work email, and the whole plethora of other sites that I use on a less regular basis. It takes a lot of tracking. Of course, for different people, the amount of their life spent online will vary, but, over time, I think we can be fairly certain that it will grow as the internet becomes more engrained in all walks of life.

There is a massive opportunity awaiting the company that can create order from this chaos.

The process of pulling these individual services together into a more meaningful and useful form is convergence. Convergence happens naturally in all industries as products or services mature towards a de facto standard, but the rate of innovation on the internet is so rapid that we are seeing very little of this.

How does this get resolved?

The key to addressing the issue lies in two areas: filtering and semantics.

  1. Filters provide the means to sort the important information from the unimportant, reducing the amount of information we are receiving. This will include social links (am I connected the sender in some way), past interactions (is this source of information one that I regularly communicate with), previous behaviour (do I tend to consume information from this source), amongst others.
  2. Semantics will allow automated systems to understand the relationship between items of data – messages, tweets, articles and others – so that they can be effectively categorised. Bundling information in this way will allow us to navigate the complex set of information more easily, and prioritise individual information sets. (There’s also a big opportunity to use this to understand the more serendipitous relationships between the information we acquire, but that’s another subject in itself)

A consumer-focused system that can successfully do this, that can sort the signals from the noise, make order out of chaos, will find themselves a real niche in the technology market and acquired before they can click their fingers.

Who is doing it now?

Not many. And where they are it’s only first steps, combining data types are very closely related already; in a previous post – Making sense of it all – I looked at a few examples of where this is being attempted in the messaging space, including Facebook Messages. Outside of this, there are only the content aggregators. Sites that collect information, but don’t apply any intelligence to the content they process.

FriendFeed was one of the more successful content aggregators, but the issue is that it simply collects into information a single place.  Although this saves me time – I don’t have to visit as many sites – it just creates a bigger pile of information to deal with.

It is the next generation of this type of service that will really change the way that we deal with information.

Where does the next generation service come from?

The usual suspects are lining up; both Facebook and Google have the required building blocks:

  1. Huge audiences for their products
  2. Massive reach – through OpenID and OpenGraph – into 3rd party information streams

Personally, I think Google has the slight advantage at the moment, due to their IP around search and there algorithmic culture, but the ongoing brain drain to Facebook will hinder this. Facebook also has the advantage of thinking more socially; it’s their core business and everything they do has that at its centre. Google doesn’t do this instinctively, and is still catching up.

But you never know, maybe a start-up will come along and be the next big thing? I hope so, and soon.

Right, back to sorting out my emails.

Still nervous about Social Media… here’s the bottom line

Money - image by AMagill
Image taken from Flickr - AMagill

Over the last few years, the perception of Social Media has undergone a dramatic transformation. Long the preserve of the individual, and used solely for social networking amongst friends and family, it is now increasingly being used by business to communicate with their customers. But there are still many businesses that fear social media, who are either nervous about getting involved or that have made a decision to stay away.

This is unfortunate, as Social Media is providing real benefits to business, from sole proprietors to global corporations. These benefits are not just tangible, but also measurable.

Here are two key reasons why you should look to Social Media to help move your business forward.

1. Social Media = Dramatically lower cost-per-lead

Businesses that spend more than 50% of their marketing budget on Inbound marketing activities are spending more than 60% less per lead generated, compared to those that are spending 50% of their budget on outbound marketing. That’s a staggering difference, and shows the cost-effectiveness of using social media, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and PPC (Pay Per Click advertising). Outbound marketing includes direct mail, events and telemarketing.

Let’s look at those numbers. If we invest £25,000 in generating 5000 leads using outbound marketing, we pay £5 per lead. Using the same budget on inbound marketing, in which we would pay £2 per lead, we could expect to generate 12,500 leads (assuming the potential audience is there).

It’s this cost-effectiveness that is pushing marketing spend towards inbound marketing and away from outbound. And if that cost-effectiveness wasn’t enough, the quality of the leads is higher. Inbound marketing engages users, creating warm leads that are more likely to convert. Which brings us on to reason 2.

2. You can generate revenue from Social Media

It’s been a long-held view that Social Media is only really good at generating brand exposure. That’s true, but it’s also a successful route to generating revenue. Of the companies using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or a company blog, approximately 40% have acquired a customer. Dell has been a model for this approach.

After a shaky start, which became known as “Dell Hell”, in which Jeff Jarvis, a prominent blogger, spoke out about the poor customer service he had received, Dell has completely turned things around. They have embraced Social Media as a way of getting closer to its customers, and have used it to drive innovation and sales. In 2009, they generated $6.5 million of sales through their interactions with customers on Twitter alone. Including Facebook into that total brings it up to $9 million (source: Steven Felice, President, Dell SMB).

Sony has also used Twitter as a sales platform, generating £1 million from their Twitter feed directly. They have also used Social Media as an integral part of their Cybershot campaign, which accounted for £12.5 in revenue (source: Nick Sharples, Head of Corporate Communications).

These numbers may be small when compared to the annual sales figures across all retail platforms, but they do show how effective these emerging digital channels can be.

More and more, companies are expected to have a presence in the Social Media space. Consumers have been given a voice, and they are using it. Businesses of all sizes have been given the perfect opportunity to engage with their consumers and build a relationship with them, at a cost that would not have been possible just a few years ago. It requires a different mindset, but those that are able to make the transition are starting realise the benefits; not just in the perception of their brand, but on the bottom line too.

Figures taken from HubSpot’s 2010 ‘State of Inbound Marketing’ report.

What is Quora? And what does it mean for B2B marketers?

Quora logoJudging Quora is going to require some distance and objectivity, as we’re in the middle of a huge amount of hype right now which is liable to distort the arguments around it. Given that, here’s my take.

Why has Quora been successful?

Quora’s initial audience was very closely related, coming from a small set of industry verticals centred on tech start-ups and the tech industry in the US. At the same time, the tech journalists who follow start-ups also came on board and were able to get access to a group of very influential Silicon Valley VC investors and start-up CEO’s. So, the questions being asked were getting answered by the key people in a position to answer them.

Great, so it’s the new Twitter then?

Well, no, what remains to be seen is if the site can remain relevant with a much larger and more defocussed audience. If the majority of questions remain unanswered, or if the answers supplied become less authoritative, the site will suffer as a result. This is their biggest challenge.

So, what is it then?

Quora is indicative of a new approach to information search and retrieval on the web. Users are looking for more defined pieces of information that are authoritative, short and to the point, and crucially, that come from people that they trust and are within their social circle. In this respect it is a next generation approach to the old ‘Q&A’ sites, such as Yahoo Answers, hooking into the fact that we weight our opinions based on those around us.

Qwiki takes the same approach to information creating short visual wiki presentations.

And that means what for B2B?

Should it take off and continue its massive two-month growth, then it will become part of the social media landscape for most B2B companies. Monitoring the topics and questions that are being asked online, ready to step in and provide information openly and quickly. It also provides the opportunity for thought-leadership.

Okay. But what if I don’t like it…

No problem; for a more light-hearted view on Quora, you can always go to Cwora (http://www.cwora.com). Enjoy!

Making sense of it all – Part 2: the marketer

You can find part 1 of this blog entry here.

Wasn’t it nice in the days before social media, when communications could be put into little campaigns, all neat and tidy? Sure, we had customer care and sales that had a kind of ongoing conversation with the client, but, on the whole, we controlled when and how we communicated with our customers and leads. It was much easier then, with our plans and our schedules.

Too Much Social Media
Image from Flickr - credit to Kexino (http://www.flickr.com/people/kexino/)

Okay, I’m still being facetious, but this lack of control over the communication of our brand, and the sheer volume of activity that social media networks generate, can catch marketing departments unaware. Unlike traditional marketing activity, this is a real-time conversation, a non-stop campaign that’s already started.

The good news is that it is manageable and there are some easy steps we can take.

1. Treat Social Media with the same attention to detail as all other channels
It all starts here – don’t treat social media as an afterthought. It’s been done before and the results are usually bad. Not convinced? Check out ‘Social Media screw ups – a history’ then come back. Social media should be considered as a core part of the marketing strategy and should tie in to business objectives – it’s just the day to day mechanics of communication that are different to more traditional marketing techniques.

2. Understand your Social Media landscape
Tracking your social media exposure is extremely difficult without the right toolset. 2010 saw an explosion in the number and quality of the tools available, from Hootsuite to Radian6, both of which monitor multiple social media sites and networks. Here at Volume we use our own internal tool (SociView), but whichever you choose, the important thing is to use one. Good tools will provide you with the means to monitor, respond and analyse your brand online; giving you the data you need to create effective strategies

3. Understand the limitations of what you can do
Once you see the amount of information online, you’ll quickly realise that controlling every word is an impossible task. Relax, this is the way it should be, and there’s no point worrying about it. The days of total control are gone, and with it the old marketing mindset. Use your tools to map and separate the official (your blogs and feeds), the unofficial (partners, affiliates, fans and brand-enemies) and the temporary (bad and good experiences looking for an outlet). Start listening and filtering the noise, then you’ll know when you can…

4. …be a part of the conversation
And it is a conversation, we can’t rely on the same set of skills we use for one-way communication. The people we choose to represent us should be selected carefully. When you have the chance to get involved, acting the right way is paramount and can stop bad situations escalating unnecessarily. If someone’s happy with you, by all means retweet them, but make sure you stay humble and polite – acknowledge that you’re getting a helping hand. If someone’s unhappy, make sure that you deal with it with the same level of attention – admit your mistakes and learn from them.

We can see this approach already being adopted by Dell – ready converts to the social media space, who have had their fair share of “learning experiences” along the way – when they announced the setup of a dedicated ‘social media listening centre’ to manage the 22,000 Dell-related posts every day.

Although a lot of us won’t be dealing with quite that much, putting the right people and tools in place will help you to stay in control and, hopefully, make sense of it all.

Agree or disagree with my point of view? – I’m happy to discuss, so please post your comments.