I’m always on the lookout for perspective on how social networks are impacting our society. Here are two recent pieces that bubbled up through the noise this week.
The first speaks to fundamentals of how we have traditionally connected to our social networks and how technology is augmenting this practice. The arguments is basically that we’ve #gamed/#hacked human behavior and that we’re undermining the intended goals of the behavior in the process. I see this as apposed to how social networks position what they do as “amplifying existing social behaviors” (an idea appropriated from Steve Job - 6:75). I’ll let you decide which you think is really happening.
And then there’s this article on Facebook Fading from the Bits blog of the NYTimes. A quote “… during a quarterly earnings call, David A. Ebersman, Facebook’s chief financial officer, made a startling acknowledgment. Facebook had noticed “a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens,” he said.” Is this just a momentary lull in the meteoric rise of the platform or is it a deep glitch in the growth-hacking model that they’ve developed?
Combined these articles point to a technology that is not fulfilling it’s promise and the fact that we’re beginning to see the evidence of this fact. Personally, I find this view a reductive because I Facebook has both amplified existing behaviors and hijacked them in my opinion. In terms of the data shared in the recent earnings call, I don’t think citing a single datapoint is sufficient evidence to calling out a trend. There are many factors at play that could impact this point including Facebook’s aggressive acquisition strategy.
Instead, when I survey this discourse about Facebook I observe that there is an appetite -even a desire- to see Facebook stumble. Call it a backlash and this impulse gets conflated with comments about whether or not we’ll even be talking about “social business” in a few years from now. In my opinion, businesses have always needed to interface with (be social with) our social networks (in our neighborhoods or news-feeds) and that’s not going to change. If social business is about how we manage that interface than I think it’s got a long future, whatever we call it.
Last week I had the good fortune to present at Eloqua Experience on two of my favorite topics, marketing automation and social tech. I’m betting that most of my readers we not in the audience so I’m writing to share an abridged version of the presentation here. The narrative compares the history of marketing automation with that of social technology and offers clues that point to how they’ll converge in the future. There are also some ideas about how you can get started incorporating social into your automation programs today. Enjoy and feel free to shoot me questions!
Earlier this week I got an email from a co-worker expressing exasperation at the proliferation of communication and collaboration tools he is being asked to use. It got me thinking about how much effort I’ve invested in streamlining my systems. I’m the kind of person that naturally invests in systems up front, who cleans dishes as I cook, and who reaches for Plan B with glee and without pause. To be clear I relish being able to pull out Plan B because it’s all too frequent that I/we don’t have one. So when I got his email I felt his pain.
People are increasingly tying their lives together with freely accessible and low cost tech solutions. It usually starts with Google Drive then moves to free cloud storage solutions and then to other apps integrated with those services. Case in point, I use three separate free cloud storage solutions as repositories for other apps I use (including the one running this site . Unfortunately, many people work at companies that rely on legacy systems which purport to offer “enterprise” level security but which have fallen behind from a feature and UX perspective. Let’s face it, while security is becoming more and more important the weakest link is still the people that use it. It’s a tough situation to which there isn’t a simple answer. I’m not going to solve this in the next 100 words, so I’ll share what’s helped me deal with it instead.
My colleague is getting caught in the middle because he’s tasted the awesomeness of contemporary consumer solutions but lives in a world in which legacy systems still dominate. So he gets caught straddling the fence and that’s awkward and potentially very painful (did I mention that it’s a picket fence designed to keep people out?). In an effort to help, I wrote up a short protocol that I follow. First off, accept that you’re not going to be optimally efficient. That bit is harder for me to accept than it should be, but whatever. The key is to be as efficient as you can be while accepting the constraints you’re working under. Here’s how I approach communication/collaboration:
Assign – I’m listing this one first because if done correctly you can significantly reduce the use of all of the things listed below. Whatever task management solution you use (hopefully one that is collaborative) assign things to people with detailed instructions. Be clear about the requirements, dependencies, deadlines, etc. And break things down in to granular bits. If your colleagues don’t use the system that you’re using either decide to translate tasks into your system and eat the overhead, or set up firewalls between projects and use their systems for shared projects. If there are more than two systems in place you should assign a task to yourself to eliminate one of those systems or you should quit. One of my biggest irritations today is that there is not enough good training out there on how to use task management systems. I might offer a class on Google Helpouts to address this.
Email – If you need a thoughtful written response send an email. Expect that it’s going to take at least a day to come back. If it comes back sooner count yourself lucky. Note, most good task management systems will create emails on your behalf based on tasks that you assign or comment on. If you do it right a personal email indicates that you’re asking for something that goes beyond a task.
IM/Chat – If you have a quick question that I’ll know instantly but that might take you 5x as long to find, try me. Good for a quick status check or to see if I can take a call. It’s also useful as a back-channel while in meetings and on conference calls. Don’t rely on chat, if it works count yourself lucky.
Video Call – I think this is an under utilized resource that is excellent for hard and/or personal and/or important conversations that must be had remotely. These should be scheduled or at the very least you should IM/Chat before calling. I also find that bouncing between screen sharing, document sharing, and video can add lots of value to remote brainstorming/collaboration.
Shared Calendar – This is a must and thankfully most legacy systems are compatible with contemporary ones. Grab time on peoples’ calendars but don’t take more time than you need and always, always, always have an agenda. Please. If you calendars don’t sync at least publish yours to a webpage.
Call – I’m guilty of this sometimes, but I don’t think you should call me unless we have an appointment on the calendar. That is unless it’s really urgent in which case you should text me first. That is unless something is actually on fire in which case you should call me while searching for a fire extinguisher.
Wikis – Unless you have dedicated page owners (and most companies don’t) don’t use them. Shared docs are better and more useful in my opinion.
One last thought (let me contradict myself just a bit) with contemporary solutions I don’t actually think that the overhead associated with switching between solutions is as bad as people feel that it is. I’ve got three video conferencing solutions that are all a click away. The best takes 15 seconds to launch and the worst takes 5 minutes. I’ve got at least three ways to make a voice call. If you really want to make things the best they can be focus on the task management because that’s where you’ll find the most overhead in my view. I hope that helps.
I recently traveled to China for business and tacked on a couple days to explore the Shanghai area and learn about the country. I’ve worked with colleagues in the Asia/Pacific region -and in China specifically- for some time but I’ve had little opportunity to meet with them in person. One of my goals for this trip was to understand their business landscape better so I can support them more effectively.
My work is focused on the use of social media and technology which has become a political topic in China. Thus, I was hoping that first hand experience on the ground would provide meaningful insights and perspective. In this post, I plan on sharing some observations based on my experience.
On the flight over I had the fortune to sit next to another marketer who suggested that I watch a TED talk by Eric X. Li: A tale of two political systems. I watched the presentation when I arrived at my hotel that night and I kept thinking about it for the rest of my trip.
In his presentation Eric proposes that China’s governmental structure is a compelling alternative to what Americans are used to. He also suggests that the Chinese system is not well understood by westerners. He shares many facts that are arresting, for example, less than 6% of Chinese governmental party leaders are from a background of privilege (though I do not know exactly how that is defined). Leaders must work their way up from the bottom which causes them to have much more experience than their American counterparts. And, China has what what he calls the “largest HR department” in the world to run a merit based recruiting system. Combined with new term limits and the incorporation of business leaders into the party structure the Chinese system is a very intriguing alternative.
Interpreting his comments, it occurred to me that this approach to recruiting might serve as an alternative to democratic representation because rising up from the ranks seems to imply empathy for the ranks. Li also suggests that there are other mechanisms in China to provide direct feedback from the population, but my experience on the ground did not support this fully.
What I heard is that corruption largely undermines the merit based system. I was told that the merit system may up-level that ability of the average government worker but scoring at the top of the range on government tests is really just a prerequisite for tapping into the relationships that will get you the job. Said another way, getting to top score is not the most decisive selection criteria. Indeed this appears to be engrained at every level of government such that it’s become part of the culture and as such it will be hard to change. How hard? My gut is that it may be about as hard as the fight for civil rights has been in the United States. In fairness, Li stated that corruption is one of the biggest challenges China faces.
I learned some of this first hand from my 28 year old guide who spent two days exploring the Shanghai area with me. She’s from a middle class family (the upper part of the middle). Her father is a manager at a large police station and her mother was a teacher until she retired a year ago. He boy friend is an entrepreneur in the fashion industry. She speaks English only passingly but we were able to converse well, occasionally relying on Google translate. Incidentally, that app does work on her phone and is better than Baidu for translation. She’s also studying Spanish and said that she would leave China permanently given the chance to do so. Such a move would require a visa and a sponsor.
She shared that she’s experienced corruption first hand and provided some specific examples that involved her father. For this reason, she has been estranged from he father for some time. One thing that became apparent is that there is a huge gap between the way her parents see the world and the way that she sees it. In her view, this is prevalent in families with kids her age or younger because China has changed so dramatically in that time.
As a tech guy I keep coming back to a technology metaphor to frame a comparison between governmental systems. It presents Democracy and Communism as the operating systems (OS) of our respective countries. These systems are being continuously evolved and may be converging in some respects.
For example. swings from left to right on policy issues in the Democratic OS are in the same scale/scope as changes in the Communist implementation. Though of late, China has been able to make some bigger and more fundamental changes as their OS is less prone to the democratic grid-lock that has established a chronic short-circuit in the Unites States. That said, China may have it’s own unique challenges. To pull this apart and really understand how different and competitive these OSs are you must consider the application layer where the architecture of the OS is amplified and expressed. In this case, there is common and prevalent application to consider. I’m referring, of course, to Capitalism. Both China and the US run capitalism though China’s implementation in more recent. Here’s a link to a great article that speaks to how Capitalism came to China Of course, there is no standard for capitalism to ensure that it’s a common experience across platforms, rather this is an open-source project chock-full of hackers, contributors, corporate sponsors, evangelists and such.
As I’ve considered these two implementations I’ve tended to focus on the interactions between capitalism and the OS. This may be because I’ve spent a significant amount of time considering how capitalism has impacted democracy in ways that our founding father did not -and probably could not- have anticipated. In the United States corporations have found a way to influence the underlying OS more effectively than ranks of individuals have.
Granted corporations have shareholders that choose their representatives at the board level (at least in public companies), but adding this extra layer of representation effectively buffers these corporations from direct and meaningful shareholder impact. Additionally, the fluidity of the market also erodes this connection because it’s hard to differentiate “market” dynamics from shareholder input based on investment behavior. I think it’s well understood that corporations in the Unites States have found a means of changing the playing field they are on and that our implementation of democracy makes this possible and legal. I’m referring to campaign financing practices and the prevalence of executive revolving doors. Suffice it to say that I increasingly have conversations about -and see first hand- how corporate america has influenced the democratic system of representation such that it’s no longer a democracy of individuals but rather one of corporations.
That might be alright if there was a reliable and representative connection between corporations and their constituents (shareholders and customers) but that’s not how the system was designed to work, or actually works, in my view. To the contrary, I believe that one consequence of this two-tiered democracy is the growing gap between rich and poor. I could write another piece just on that topic, but I won’t as there is ample discussion about this point elsewhere. To conclude this thought, I believe that this gap will ultimately hurt our long-term prospects and competitiveness because it will erode the overall diversity of our economy. Lack of diversity leads to greater fluctuations in market performance and an increased exposure to risk.
Let’s switch back to China for a moment and consider Capitalism’s implementation there. Capitalism has worked it’s way into China despite governmental policy. Today, the government is struggling to stay on top of Capitalism and harness the value it can bring to the economy. In many respects, Capitalism has behaved like a virus in China spreading across the landscape relatively un-checked. One consequence is that it’s consumed resources with abandon and with a disregard for the environment. That is now changing, however, as the government recognizes that it faces massive challenges to healthcare, the environment, and distribution of wealth.
One mechanism that China has to control Capitalism is to insert party members inside corporations and to set governmental policies that companies must work within. This is not inherently different than what we have in the Unites States, but corporations do respond through different pathways. In the United States companies can influence policy by supporting candidates whereas in China they likely rely on the existing relationships that undermine the merit based recruiting system. Either way, there will be a similar battle between the OS and Capitalism. What makes China unique is that it’s more feasible for a forward looking leader to effectively set up constraints around capitalist venture whereas in the Unites States this would require dramatic campaign financing reform. The latter seems more challenging.
Capitalism is a powerful engine of productivity and innovation, but unchecked (read: unregulated) it is also capable of undermining itself spectacularly (e.g. “financial innovation” and mortgage backed securities, anyone?). Thus, I think it’s fair to say that a primary goal of the OS is to manage the resources given to Capitalism so as to maximize long term value and resilience. Capitalism itself is focused on growth and growth alone, however, it can be harnessed by constraints to transform it’s purpose into long-term value. Will Democracy of Communism be the most effective means of doing this?
In the end, the implementations of Capitalism in China and the United States are still quite different from each other. Considering that American style capitalism is itself open-source (on top of open source democracy) it’s been able to spread much further and wider. Pushing the metaphor too far perhaps, we might say that America is more like Microsoft with it’s openness to working across a range of environments whereas Chinese capitalism is more like Apple. The Chinese are less focused on extending their platform far and wide and are more focused on harnessing their implementation in place. Too bad the Chinese leadership is not more like Steve Jobs with his obsessive attention on delivering great experiences above revenue (the presumption being that success with the former will lead to the latter). There are few Job’s in the world … and if he was in China he might be even more authoritarian than the current party leadership. Either way, he’d be furious to know how many people in China are running Android on his hardware.
China is well passed the tipping point when it comes to Capitalism. It’s playing out on social media everyday as people respond to political events quickly and in volumes that wash over the censorship infrastructure. Educated people buy virtual private networks (VPN) that let them access the open internet for as little as $20 a month. They’ve grown up watching dubbed versions of American sitcoms, have a greater affinity for American brands that we do, and are hungry for change. That said, those with wealth also know that they don’t have to play by the same rules as those without. That’s what problematic about China because being able to resist corruption is critical to having a more effective implementation of capitalism. In my opinion, the country that harnesses capitalism most effectively and sustainably is going to win in the end. For my part, I’m glad we’ve got two approaches in the wild and agree with Li that it makes for a more interesting planet.
In this post, I’ll share the framework that I use to develop community engagement and growth strategies. It’s a general-purpose approach that inherits aspects of integrated marketing, insofar as it requires effective coordination between different marketing channels.
This framework is differentiated from traditional integrated marketing practices, however, in that it prescribes a sequence of interactions that drive deeper and deeper engagement over time. (To a degree integrated marketing shares this goal, but it is far less explicit about it than the framework described below.)
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll recognize that the following elaborates on some of my earlier thoughts on developing a social strategy.
Defining the Engagement Funnel and the Virtuous Cycle
One of the key concepts at the center of this community development approach is the Engagement Funnel.
The funnel employs the sales and marketing model to determine how to convert potential advocates into full-fledged advocates, but it works a bit differently than the conventional sales or marketing funnel. For one thing, each layer of the Engagement Funnel represents a unique channel, and in turn each channel is best described in terms of the degree to which it affords community engagement.
The email newsletter, for instance, might be defined as its own unique channel. And while its measurable value will definitely depend on your own marketing context, you might agree that subscribing to and reading a newsletter represents a relatively moderate level of engagement — more than visiting a website, but less than, say, actively networking with other people on a public discussion forum.
Before explaining the Engagement Funnel in more detail, it’s worth pointing out that it can also be defined as the elevation view of what marketers sometimes call the Virtuous Cycle.
The virtuous cycle is really the most basic representation of how companies spin up social channels to serve a community. It all starts with publishing and monitoring user activity, with the goal of understanding which elements of your larger community want to connect on social. This effort involves asking questions, listening for community responses, encouraging dialogue, and experimenting with content types. At the same time, constant measurement is key to the entire cycle, and allows organizations to iterate on their content and prioritize whatever’s driving the most engagement. If you do a good job here, your community will share your content and help grow your membership base in turn.
The second part of the virtuous cycle is focused on going beyond what you can do with basic publishing content and monitoring. Here companies deliver richer experiences — often custom applications or personalized events — that promote deeper participation and immediate value exchange.
Ultimately, this cycle serves as a community manager’s primary relationship-building engine: you share great content and respond to feedback, which drives community buy-in and participation; you build rich experiences that drive deeper engagement and commitment to the community; and you repeat the process while highlighting community content as much as possible.
Putting it another way, what you’re doing here aligns perfectly with what psychologists and sociologists call the “peak-end rule” — i.e., the phenomenon by which people evaluate their experiences based on their (emotional, intellectual, perceptual) peak and end. Give your community members rich and memorable experiences at the height and conclusion of your marketing campaigns, and you’ll ensure their satisfaction and secure their long-term commitment.
The virtuous cycle as I’ve described it is just a high-level conceptual model: it won’t help you answer tactical questions about which content to distribute via each channel, what the right publishing frequency is, or what your key metrics should be. Thus we need to consider this model from another perspective.
I’ve represented the Virtuous Cycle as a circle, but it is in fact a spiral. (See the Elevation View diagram above). As you go around and around with your community, you’re not just chasing your own tail. Instead, you’re nurturing relationships in the same way that you would with a marketing automation platform. The real difference here is that with traditional marketing automation the exchanges are one-to-one or one-to-many (via mass email for example), but here they can be many-to-many.
Now, by changing our perspective on the virtuous cycle you’ll see that it’s really a funnel…the familiar model that will resonate with executive management.
As I mentioned earlier, our Engagement Funnel is not a traditional sales funnel, since each layer in the funnel represents a different channel that you’ll use to engage your community. In addition, each layer is stacked such that the most engaging channels are at the bottom and the least engaging are at the top. This may vary greatly depending on your company, but it’s rare that something like a newsletter — which has few affordances for true engagement — will be at the bottom. That said, mailing lists (or listservs) — also a popular form of email communication — can be some of the most engaging. What this all illustrates, then, is the need for specificity: make sure to be precise about how you define your channels. Channels are not technology so much as properties that you may or may not own.
Following this, a “community” doesn’t really start forming until you’ve reached a layer in the funnel at which your community is interacting with each other as much — if not more — than they are interacting with your company.
People tend to grok this when I explain that the company (who drives the virtuous cycle) is more than anything else the “host” of the party for the community. While the host may get to talk with many people, they’ve also got to serve drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and make sure things don’t get boring or out of control. Also, on a related note – as the community grows, there are few companies that will be able to afford enough hosts to maintain a constant ratio of hosts to community members. This is where technology can help you scale your efforts…but I’ll spare you the pitch for now.
Another key aspect of the Engagement Funnel is that each layer must have at least one type of content that cannot be found anywhere else. This is a critical feature: think of it as the gravity which pulls people in your community down the funnel and convinces them to engage more deeply. In other words, it is the explicit promise of greater value exchange that encourages movement down the funnel.
Putting This Into Practice: Acquiring Visitors, Activating Users, and Attracting Real Community
Let’s put a couple of the above concepts together. Let’s say that your company has a standard corporate website that is focused on providing information about your products and services and captures interest in the form of leads. It would be quite a stretch to suggest that the people who visit your website are a community. In fact, they are at the top of your funnel.
Suppose that your next layer is a newsletter, and that you entice website visitors to sign up with the promise of exclusive access to discounts or perhaps research papers. Great — now you’re getting people to subscribe to your newsletter. But this still doesn’t constitute a community.
You can do some things to make the newsletter feel more like a community, though. For example, you can run a monthly poll in the newsletter and then share the results in the next installment. This way, subscribers can begin to get a sense of who else is at the party even though they can’t interact with them directly.
Another way to increase the feeling of community is to profile subscribers once in a while. You can also ask questions of your subscribers, and then publish some of their thoughtful replies and comments as well as your own follow-up responses. The problem here, of course, is that this may require lots of hosts if you’re successful — and it still only amounts to a kind of one-to-one communication.
So, while you’ve moved an individual to engage with your company a bit more deeply, you’re not really building a community just yet. Let’s say that the next layer down in your funnel involves getting people to participate in a forum of some sort. This could be on your own chosen platform, including within Facebook or a LinkedIn Group. One way to drive individuals from your newsletter to these channels is to show them the best content from these channels, including the most engaging discussion and comment threads. Combined with teasers about exclusive content — i.e., content that’s only available on the aforementioned social channels — this should offer enough incentive to move people to a channel/set of channels that affords deeper engagement. And ultimately, once an individual is far enough down the funnel to have many-to-many conversations, you’ve officially arrived in the realm of real community.
As before, you still have to perform the role of host here. But keep in mind that success and growth can be a natural burden here: it’s sometimes more challenging in this environment because you simply won’t have enough time to engage with all community members directly.
There are two ways to address this challenge. The first is to use technology that allows you to easily identify the most engaging threads with the most influential people. This will help you focus your time and energy where it really counts. Technology can also streamline and even automate your day-to-day workflow, so that you and your team can manage more community interactions across multiple channels. Even still, your team won’t likely be able to keep up with a highly active community. So the second solution is to actually get members of the community to help you and your organization.
The best measure of an engaged community is the extent to which advocates emerge from the community and help make it more productive. It’s your job as the host to identify and empower these leaders to help you keep the community engaged, growing, and on the rails. Companies struggle with this because part and parcel of this value exchange is the fact that the community leads may take the community in directions that seem inconsistent with what others see as the party line. This re-introduces a key aspect of community management that should take place from the top of the funnel all the way down. I’m referring here to listening or monitoring and it speaks to why we build communities in the first place.
You can boil things down to two high-level motivations for building communities. The first is that communities are an authentic platform for amplifying messages. Second, they are a source of feedback, inspiration, and ideas. Community support is just one example that can straddle these categories.
At the bottom of your funnel, your community members will rightly EXPECT you to listen very closely to what they say in exchange for helping you scale your efforts. This is where the dance of community management gets most complex and powerful. It is through sincere partnership and negotiation with this core community that you can have a significant impact on the very products and services that you’re building community around. And, it works at scale if you get it right.
So, that’s an overview of how the Engagement Funnel works. Granted, this is a simplified version but it can help you develop your community strategy and associated content strategy. In reality, you will most likely have many marketing funnels that lead to your most engaged channel. As I’ve used this model, this has been the biggest source of confusion with the model and a real stumbling block for community managers. The best way to achieve clarity in vision and execution, though, is to think about your engagement funnel as the primary path to deeper engagement or the path that the largest number of individuals will take. If you focus your effort on optimizing this path, you’ll soon see the benefits across all the others in my experience.
Finally, to circle back to my initial statements about how integrated marketing in general relates to this framework — I see integrated marketing applying mostly to the top of the funnel, where it ensures that expectations are set consistently no matter which touch-points are involved.
For those looking to completely geek out on this framework, I encourage you to think about how you might leverage the peak-end rule (defined in the middle of this post) to distribute great experiences in the funnel that dramatically impact overall community satisfaction.