Social discourse

Jun 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

The easiest way to build a community around your brand is to create a dialog with your customers.

If Web 1.0 was a monologue or broadcast, then Web 2.0 could be summarily described as a dialog, or narrowcast.

Social media is just one aspect of Web 2.0, where different users have different customized experiences. Like any good dialog, you will have to give up some control in order to let the conversation flow. Users become co-creators with you; as such, you will have to develop ways to hear and tolerate varying points of view.

Retailers can leverage this dialog to gain insight into marketing research, generate product feedback, conduct merchandise testing, and initiate product improvements. By taking a dialog approach to social media instead of a louder, flashier version of commercial interruption, you can learn what consumers want, and how they want it, on a one-to-one basis.

Web-based social media venues have grown in number and in size over the past few years, and their attributes have spawned a new, loathsome-sounding job title: social media marketer. While search engine optimization encompasses social media through the creation of links caused by popularity, or “link bait”, social media marketing has attributes and effects that go beyond the boundaries of SEO. This includes direct traffic (typed in to the browser, bookmarked, and e-mail campaigns), online reputation, and brand community building.

While SEO is itself a form of marketing, these tenets fall into the more general category of online marketing. It is along these lines that the terms social media optimization and social media marketing are also defined.

Social media marketing is primarily about knocking down your site’s walls so that content can be readily discovered, dialoged, distributed, and shared by diverse online communities and social media portals. Virtually every Web 2.0 site carries a degree of commercial usefulness. Yet some sites have built-in hindrances, such as “nofollow” links or pages accessible only behind passwords.

Before you embark on your journey into social media, you have to understand and implement some key metrics in order to track your success.

First off, learn to gauge your influence on the Web. Trackbacks and pingbacks can let a site know that you are referencing them on your site. You can subscribe to an alerts feed from Google that monitors Google News for your desired keywords or your brand. Also a useful metric for your retail blog is your Technorati authority score. This is the number of blogs linking to a Website in the last 180 days.

Second, the number of subscribers, views, and comments can also help determine the reach of your brand’s social media influence. You can analyze your subscribers to your RSS feeds using Feedburner, or track your YouTube views over time against competing videos using TubeMogul.

Third, there are some new tools to find the people shaping the conversations on your brand. Finding these “mavens” (to quote Malcolm Gladwell) on the Web has become increasingly easy using tools such as Buzzlogic, Boardreader, and Blogpulse. The trick is converting these mavens into brand evangelists.

Finally, monitor your success. Keep an eye on search engine position improvements for targeted keyword phrases. Watch your Website analytics to see which referrals are leading to conversions. With these preparations, your site will be ready to capitalize on traffic from your social media campaigns.

Now, let’s look into the prominent sites in each of these categories, as well as some of the players making a splash in the social scene. We’ve categorized them into social news, social media sharing, social bookmarking, and social networking.

Social news: crowd sourcing editors

Social news sites generally allow users to submit stories for editorial consideration by the community. Each community member can vote to promote the story to the home-page. The more votes that a story receives, the higher it ranks on the site.

These sites also incorporate a timeliness element to allow up-and-coming stories to rise to the front page. The ultimate goal is to minimize the time it takes someone to get up to speed on the most interesting content by crowd-sourcing editorial review within a given area of focus, be it technology, politics, or a niche interest.

According to Compete.com, Digg is far and away the traffic leader in this category. When a story gets hot, it can generate so much traffic that it has been dubbed “the Digg effect”: the server-crashing results can bring down your site when your content has made it to Digg’s front page.

Digg focuses on technology, politics, and quirky stories. Its users are mostly college educated Caucasian men ages 25-34 from the U.S.

Users who submit spam and overly commercial content can end up with a user and/or site ban with their content getting “buried” by the community. Digg has come under criticism as undemocratic, since powerusers (aka the Digg Mafia) have a disproportionate influence over what makes the homepage. Digg has taken action to address this issue.

Other broadly competing social news sites include Reddit and Newsvine. Reddit features a minimalist user interface and incorporates a karmic element: users who submit interesting content receive “karma points.”

This method of incentivizing users contrasts sharply with Newsvine, which claims it shares with its users 90% of ad revenue from ads on their personal column Newsvine pages. Newsvine, founded by former Disney employees and subsequently acquired by MSNBC in October 2007, allows users to create their own columns and host their content directly on the site rather than linking to offsite content.

Sk*rt (pronounced skirt) is a female version of Digg, with a primary demographic of college-educated Caucasian women ages 25-34 from the U.S. Sk*rt users use “Love It/Lose it” votes to promote or demote content. Like other social news sites, front page links get lots of traffic.

Wikio.com is a rising star in the social news space and has great ambition. It is the European Union of European social media, is a well-funded combination of Digg.com + Technorati.com + Google News + Jellyfish.com, and is available in German, Italian, Spanish, and English.

Digg, the current leader, was founded on a shoestring with an initial capitalization of $1,500. Wikio had serious venture capital backing and was promptly acquired by Yahoo; and with multilingual content, it could oust Digg in international appeal.

Another growing site with Spanish news appeal is Meneame.net. While the bulk of the content relates to Spain and Latin America, there is growing interest among Hispanics in the U.S.

MySpace is also jumping on this trend with the launch of MySpace en Español, a new Spanish-language version for U.S.-based Hispanics, as well as launching MySpace Latinoamérica in Spanish for Latin America. MySpace is visited by 43% of all U.S.-based Hispanic Internet users, and the site is in the top-five most visited sites by the Hispanic online population, according to Nielsen’s Netratings.

In a few years there will likely be a social news site for every industry, community, and major language. The search marketing industry, which tends be an early adopter of new Web services, has already spawned its own Digg clone called Sphinn, in which a niche community shares and ranks stories pertinent to the search industry.

Sites on social networking

Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook allow users to connect and share updates and media with their friends. It’s well known that social networks can be a great way to drive targeted traffic. There are socially networked groups out there for just about any subject you can think of.

But there are some risks in jumping into social networking sites. The best-case scenario is that you will just be ignored. The worst-case scenario is that you upset a popular blogger so much that he/she becomes an antibrand ambassador spawning yourbrandsucks.com domains filled with posts about how terrible your marketing plan/product is, and creating a mockery of your online reputation.

While these two powerhouses need no introduction, Facebook and MySpace are the two dominant U.S. social networking Websites offering an interactive, user-generated network of friends, personal and business profiles, blogs, groups, photos, games, music and videos for teenagers and adults internationally.

We should note the rate of affluent U.S. Internet user participation in online social networks increased dramatically to 60% in January 2008, from 27% in January 2007, according to The Luxury Institute’s latest WealthSurvey “The Wealthy and Web 2.0.”

What’s more, you have to consider how different Facebook and MySpace demographics are. Nielsen Online said last year that nearly 30% of Facebook’s users (last claimed at over 60 million) came from households with at least $100,000 in annual income. Comparatively, 22% of MySpace users were from similarly affluent households. Creating a retail brand presence on these sites requires careful planning.

Victoria’s Secret is one of the most successful retail Facebook groups, with 347,951 Facebook members and 202,104 MySpace members. This is one of the most subscribed, corporately sponsored groups on the Internet.

The women’s apparel merchant’s group is actually named Pink because that is the title of the division that hosts it. Pink is a specific Victoria’s Secret apparel line that caters to the high school and college demographic.

You may be thinking “Of course the Victoria’s Secret group is the most subscribed,” but it is not a place for pinups. In fact, it isn’t even assembled as a catalog, which is likely the reason that in reviewing hundreds of profiles and posts, I found only two males who took the time to participate in the discussion board.

Pink is geared much more to pajamas, T-shirts, and handbags than intimate apparel. Both the Facebook and MySpace Pink profiles cross-link to the opposing site. The roles of the Pink profiles are more about loyalty building, rather than driving sales directly.

This Facebook group is more or less Victoria’s Secret’s guide to college freshmen fashion. It hosts printable coupons for college wear, contest opportunities, and fashion debates. It has more than 1,000 different discussions happening, some of which approach 10,000 posts.

A sampling of the topics covered: “Describe the girl who posted before you in one word” and “Who of the five people who posted above you could be Miss America?” The pros and cons of their products are also discussed. But as mentioned earlier, unleashing social media involves giving up control and creating a dialog between brand and consumer. Leverage critiques to improve products and gain market insight.

Jeep has also deployed social media. Although the discussion board has 498 topics being discussed, with anywhere from one to 1,000 posts by nearly as many people, the content ranges from “Did you name your Jeep?” to “What is the best engine of all time?” to “I hate the new 4-door Jeep. What the !@#$?”

Comparatively, Jeep has only 25,000 Facebook fans. These metrics are good for providing proof of customer, or at least public, interaction, but it is arguable whether they are influencing buying behavior or brand loyalty.

Jeep actually includes six different videos of its cars in action. Some of these are footage of third-party test drivers and others are actors in commercials. The best of these was a “choose your own adventure” episode where the viewer was one of four friends on a camping trip with the other guy’s new Jeep Liberty, and the viewer got to choose different storylines.

The feeling of a hard sell was pleasantly absent; it wasn’t about the Jeep product itself, but rather the great time I could have in the woods with my three friends creating memories. Correlating a feeling to a brand is every marketer’s dream.

Dicks Sporting Goods, however, is having mixed results. Its official Facebook group site Every Season Starts Here — Dicks Sporting Goods is competing with antibrand advocacy groups ranging from the profane (use your imagination) to the I Hate Dick’s Sporting Goods, with 30 fans, and another group of former Dick’s Sporting Goods employees, with 31 fans.

As previously mentioned, social networks can be used against you and should not be approached half-heartedly.

Social media sharing

The video-sharing site YouTube is now more popular than all the sites of the TV networks combined. It may well become more important for your brand or company to be on YouTube than to be advertised on TV. For some, that day has already arrived.

YouTube will be one of the major players in consumer-generated media for years to come. Being successful on YouTube is as much about effectively tapping the social network as it is about the content.

Perhaps the biggest retailer success story on YouTube is Blendtec’s “Will It Blend?” the brilliant viral video series on various household objects that are run through a Blendtec blender — including tiki torches, marbles, light bulbs, rake handles, and even iPods. The company built a companion microsite to go with it — WillItBlend.com — and sent an e-mail to all employees to pass on the word of the videos and the Website.

Blendtec had a surprisingly low budget: The first five videos ran somewhere between $50-$100. This secured the domain name, a couple of rakes, some marbles, and a few other supplies.

Larger budget productions have also seen success. 1-800Flowers.com runs a YouTube channel with 6,000 views that interviews kids about their moms. This approach focuses not on the product, but on the people and emotions around the product.

Sephora, the cosmetics retailer, has a Channel with 2,563 subscribers and 26,705 views and features fashion advice, news, and how-tos. This contrasts with Thinkgeek, an online retailer that specialized in items of interest to computer geeks, who leverages YouTube to showcase their interactive T-shirts. This includes videos showcasing a battery-powered, illuminating, WiFi-detecting T-shirt. Talk about geeky!

YouTube has several recent developments. First is customized URLs, which allow you to choose a customized URL for your channel, making it easier to share your videos and favorites with friends.

This will allow video publishers to ditch URLs like /youtube.com/profile?user=someuser/ and replace them with something more memorable. This is enhanced by leveraging the recently introduced sharing options to socially bookmark the video directly from within YouTube.

Also, YouTube in March released Insight; this free tool enables anyone with a YouTube account to view detailed statistics about the videos that they upload to the site.

For example, uploaders can see how often their videos are viewed in different geographic regions, as well as how popular they are relative to all videos in that market over a given period of time. You can also delve deeper into the lifecycle of your videos, like how long it takes for a video to become popular, and what happens to video views as popularity peaks.

Currently available metrics are found by clicking under the “About this Video” button under “My account > Videos, Favorites, Playlists > Manage my Videos.” While this will give you data on your videos, TubeMogul.com allows you to track and compare your videos’ popularity with your competitors videos.

What’s more, retailers can piggyback on popular searches to introduce people to your channel’s videos. For example, the YouTube query “shoes” leads to a hugely popular homemade music video about shoes (caution: strong language in this example). By creating a video response to that video, an online shoe retailer could ride on the coattails of popular videos related to its market.

And finally, technically overwhelming but feasible for most online retailers is the newly released YouTube application programming interface (API). Building upon the existing APIs for querying the YouTube library and playing embedded YouTube videos, YouTube has added new API services for external developers and partners that allow for mass edits (titles, descriptions, ratings, comments, favorites, contacts, and so on) and uploads.

Flickr is the leading photo sharing Website. Flickr helped popularize the Web 2.0 feature known as a “folksonomy” whereby users organize their and others’ images using tags (a form of metadata). Thus they can much more easily discover images concerning a certain topic, such as place name or subject matter.

Flickr was also an early Website to implement tag clouds, which provide access to images tagged with the most popular keywords. Since Flickr was acquired by Yahoo, Yahoo Search heavily indexes Flickr content in its blended search results. For example, an image search query “colorful” returns 34 of 40 image results from Flickr. By tagging product images in Flickr, retailers can reinforce their products in blended search results.

Some retailers have gone so far as to use Flickr as their product showroom. Ninetails, a Brazilian apparel store, uses Flickr to market its merchandise. Sweet Avenue Bakery showcases its pastry designs, and Minicar has a veritable catalog of its collectible minicars.

Another form of media sharing takes shape at Scribd.com, the “YouTube of documents sharing” (sheet music, instruction manuals, ‘zines). Some retailers upload their ongoing print marketing campaigns to Scribd to build awareness of promotions that are going on right now. Scribd allows users to add HTML inside articles, allowing them to use its social network traffic to generate traffic to their store.

Like all the other venues mentioned here, participation is key if you want to create enough buzz for people to want to comment on it, link to it, and send traffic to it. And like YouTube and Flickr, Scribd links are unfortunately “nofollowed,” so you won’t inherit any of the site’s PageRank.

Social bookmarking

Myriad sites have sprung up allowing users to bookmark Web pages and share their bookmarks and categorization with other users. The result is a folksonomy — or rather crowd-sourced tagging and descriptions — for a large part of the popular Internet.

A combined view of everyone’s bookmarks with a given tag is available, although users have the ability to make their bookmarks private. For instance, you can see all pages that people tagged with “running shoes.” These bookmarking sites can help generate traffic and link juice (PageRank) for sites that are bookmarked.

Deli.cio.us was one of the first to come on the social bookmarking scene and was acquired by Yahoo. It has more than 3 million users and 100 million bookmarked sites.

StumbleUpon is a somewhat similar service and also worthy of a mention. Unlike Deli.cio.us, StumbleUpon’s browser plugin allows its users to discover by “stumbling” (think: channel surfing) and rate sites, photos, videos, and news articles. StumbleUpon has been known to drive significant amounts of direct traffic — and much more sustainably than Digg.

The most important thing to know about social networks is that many of the people using them are avid users, and they can tell if you’re being authentic or just a shill. It’s critical that a marketer refrain from using the network merely as a means of hawking one’s wares.

You must be genuinely interested and involved in the community. If you’re not, you’ll be sniffed out and quite possibly made an example of by community members and bloggers.


Tim Gill is a natural search analyst and Stephan Spencer is founder/president of Netconcepts (www.netconcepts.com), a natural search marketing firm based in Madison, WI.