Archives for the month of: October, 2012

In Part 1, we talked a little bit about the complexity of big data, digital/social monitoring, and the inevitable rise of mission control centers. Today, let’s talk about how to stay on track and avoid shiny object syndrome.

Why the most important question is always why?

First, let’s acknowledge that discussions between revenue generation-focused executives and budget-spending focused executives about how to measure ROI can be difficult and sometimes problematic. Command centers, in order to be worthwhile, have to demonstrate value beyond “wow, that looks cool.” Here, we run into the same types of discussions about value (and more specifically ROI) that we were having three years ago in regards to social media:

1. What is the value of having a digital mission control center? What will be the benefit(s)?

2. What will this help us do that we can’t do without it?

3. What will this help us do better?

4. Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

A quick word about value:

Next step: Defining value for the entire organization. At its most basic level, the value of building a command center is twofold:

1. Built properly, it serves a real-time funnel for market data and consumer insights.

Examples: campaign management, product launches, competitive analysis, brand sentiment, message virality,  complaints, technical questions, lead evaluation, etc.

2. Managed properly, it becomes a catalyst for operational efficiency. (Though mostly, it adds velocity to consumer-facing response functions.)

Examples: customer service, PR, reputation management, crisis management, technical support, sales, etc.

Don’t just guess at the potential value of a DMCC. Sit down with every team and/or group in your organization and ask them how a digital command center could help them do their jobs better. Start with customer service, product management, marketing, PR and sales/biz-dev. They won’t just help you map out the operational value of building a DMCC, they will also tell you exactly how it should be managed, and by whom. (This will be the topic of Part 3.)

A quick word about command centers and the marketing function:

The primary function of any marketing-related endeavor is to help grow your customer community. That translates into three areas: customer acquisition, customer development, and customer retention. One way to address this particular focus is to link a portion of the activities enabled or supported by a command center to effecting changes in customer behavior. (Hint: When customer service monitors social channels, it begins to own a big piece of the customer development and customer retention parts of the community management equation. Add word-of-mouth to the customer development and retention mechanisms, and now customer service becomes a source of lead generation.)  Having a well thought out DMCC structure and building processes around it, a company can leverage real-time monitoring and turn data into insights, insights into opportunities, then seize upon those opportunities in real time.

A not so quick word about data, market intelligence and insights:

Hundreds of millions of people talking about stuff on the internet all day isn’t just data. It’s market intelligence. Throw in some simple programming that captures certain combinations of letters and numbers, and what you have now is the ability to track and capture mentions and keywords across dozens – no, hundreds - of channels. If someone mentions the word coffee in the interwebs anywhere in the world that isn’t behind a firewall, you can capture that. You can capture how many people are talking about coffee right now versus five minutes ago or an hour ago or a month ago. You can also look into how they are using the word coffee. Are they craving it right now? Are they asking for recommendations after a bad experience turned them off a particular brand? Are they simply comparing coffee to their personal preference? (Tea, for instance.)

You can even disambiguate: maybe they were talking about a color or a candy flavor. Maybe they were referring  to a commodities report or citing economic data from Colombia. You can see where in the world they are, you can look into their wants and likes and habits, you can see what they take pictures of, what TV shows they tune into, even track their movements by observing their check-ins. You can even divine some measure of their digital influence by using tools like Klout and Kred – however controversial they may be. If you sell coffee, that sort of thing might be pretty important.

Ten years ago, companies had to pay market research firms big bucks to be able to do that, and even the most sophisticated among them couldn’t provide this degree of specificity, this breadth of data, and certainly not in real time. Today, companies can bypass market research firms altogether and create their very own in-house market intelligence operations (at least when it comes to digital). In most cases, they will spend less and get more. But even if some feel like spending exactly the same amount of money they used to, they will still capture considerably more data and insights today than they could have ever dreamed of just a short decade ago. So it’s no surprise that digital monitoring has become a thriving industry. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a software vendor that sells some sort of digital monitoring, tracking management or measurement solution. And it’s been a while since I’ve run into a PR firm or ad agency that doesn’t offer some sort of social/digital (digisocial?) intelligence, expertise or service.

This brings us back to the new wave of digital command centers being erected at pretty much every digital agency and brand headquarters in the US today.  Some are still pretty rudimentary (one or two computers with a few screens running a handful of digital monitoring and management tools), while other setups rival mission control rooms like the ones you might expect from NASA and CIA. Even though it’s still early in the game and we all understand the capabilities open to us with these new technologies, the cost efficiencies brought to market research and business intelligence, and the quantum leap in effectiveness of this type of data and insight collection, it already seems that building digital mission control centers is becoming… a fad, something new and cool to do, the next play in digital services. We haven’t even gotten into this yet, and we’ve already forgotten why we were here in the first place. That’s the danger I want to address today.

Shiny New Object Syndrome – When style erodes function:

Pre-fad, the thinking around social media was this: “This could really help us fill marketing and marketing research gaps. Let’s figure out exactly how.”

Then, when ‘Social’ became a fad, the thinking switched to this: “We need a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Oh, and a content strategy.”

See the difference?

Pre-fad, businesses looked at investments in social media and social activity in terms of opportunities and outcomes: “How do we acquire new customers? Can being here help us figure out what they like and don’t like about us and our competitors? Can we use this to improve customer service  experiences? How can this take cost out of my model? Etc.” Once ‘social’ became a fad, the questions shifted to “how many new fans, likes and followers did we get this week? What’s our Klout score? How do we get more comments on the blog? How many visitors came from Twitter last month?”

What seems more valuable and business-focused: Pre-fad or fad?

We are now confronted with a similar problem with mission control centers – at least potentially: Pre-fad, a company considering an investment in its own digital command center would look at it in terms of concrete value. The evaluation might initially be driven by a question like “how does this help us do X?” (Campaign management, reputation management, customer service, consumer targeting, market research, sentiment tracking, ROI tracking, crisis management, community management, product marketing, lead generation, etc. Good stuff that will keep your hands full all day and then some.) But when the development of digital mission control centers becomes a fad though, what we shift to is this: “Can you build us the same kind of command center company XYZ has? How many screens can we fit on this wall? Should we paint the walls black?” (I’m not joking.)

“Cool” starts to trump function. Having a DMCC becomes a badge of honor, a status symbol, a digital marketing pastiche meant to impress visitors, clients, executives, investors and even potential hires more than serve a purpose. And you know what? There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. If the purpose of a DMCC is mostly to look cool, impress clients and make everyone at corporate feel pretty good about their investment in digital and IT, that’s fine. Aesthetics matter. If anything, it’ll boost morale across the company to have a state of the art digital Batcave. In a way, it’s no different than having an impressive lobby and gorgeous receptionists. BUT, wouldn’t it make more sense to also use that investment to drive more business? To increase customer loyalty? To know exactly what product gaps to fill in the market? To spot PR crises early, before they spin out of control? Doesn’t it make more sense, then, to focus on function before style? You know the answer to that question.

I am sharing these observations with you for a few simple reasons:

  1. To warn you of a common pitfall that comes with every adoption phase: Cool new toys can and will distract you from what really matters if you let them. As my friend Tyler would say, “this is why we can’t have nice things.” My hope is that if you understand how you might screw up, (and know the signs) you will hopefully know how to stay focused.
  2. To let you know that you can have a super cool DMCC that would make the producers of Jason Bourne movies and TV shows like Strike Back and not have anything concrete to show for it.
  3. To remind you that function defines design. Build a DMCC, but never lose sight of why. The why drives the how.

Stay vigilant and keep your eye on the ball. It’s easy to get distracted.

In Part 3, we will talk in more detail about operationalizing all of this and turning your DMCC into your organization’s secret weapon of awesome. (Yep, it’s a technical term.)

*           *           *

In case you haven’t added Tickr to your list of digital mission control center apps yet, give it a test drive.

You can also follow us on Twitter and hang out with us on Facebook (we’ll be your friend, even on the weekends if you want).

Digital Crisis management is hard work. It’s complicated work. But it’s also not rocket science once you understand the mechanics of the process. Today, let’s break down crisis management into five simple components (or phases) and briefly explore the structure of each one. Understanding how to break down a digital crisis management model that way, looking at what types of tools to use and how,  and going through a few general observations in regards to best practices will hopefully arm you with helpful guidelines should your organization ever find itself having to deal with… an unfortunate circumstance involving a lot of very angry people.

To illustrate how this works, we will look at screen shots of what @KitchenAid’s recent PR crisis looked like on our own dashboard. If you aren’t familiar with what happened and what the crisis was about, you can catch up here (just remember to come back).

Let’s start at the beginning:

1. Discovery

What the start of a PR crisis looks like.

One of the purposes of digital monitoring is to serve as an early warning system for PR crises. Every company should monitor social channels and news media for signs of a possible attack on their brand. The earlier a potential problem is detected, the faster it can be dealt with. It’s that simple. The question you want to ask yourself here is this: Do I want to be able to start working on fixing a PR crisis while it is still young, small, and easy to manage, or do I want to start working on it tomorrow, when it has already snowballed into a news story already being covered by CNN and the New York Times?

The more vigilant you are, the easier it will be to avoid major PR disasters. It really isn’t complicated. And thanks to modern digital tools, all it takes to set up an early warning system for your company is the will to do so, and a little bit of forward thinking on the part of your brand or product management team. (If you don’t want to do it internally, you can easily work with your agency of record to set something up.)

In the case of KitchenAid, the crisis was identified early. This allowed management to start working on it in that first hour, which is critical given that Mashable first reported on the incident about an hour after it happened.) Speed matters.

2. Analysis

The topic of conversation begins to change.

What does a budding PR crisis look like? What should you look for? How do you spot an avalanche before it starts coming down the mountain? It’s all actually quite simple. And… don’t think of it as an avalanche. Avalanches strike too hard and too fast. PR crises, for the most part, are more like waves. In regards to digital reputation management and crisis monitoring, fancy yourself more a surfer than an alpinist: along a timeline, crises look like waves. They’re swells. Your job, as a digital/crisis monitoring professional, is to watch the horizon for the next set of waves. Some waves are great. Some waves are dangerous. The trick is to learn which is which. (The metaphor stops here.) Here are some things to look for:

    • A sudden increase in volume of mentions.
    • A sudden increase in the number of retweets (RT).
    • A sudden change in sentiment (especially is the shift moves towards the red/negative.)
    • If you are using word cloud analysis alongside brand or product mentions to create context, watch for the appearance (and growth) of particular topics.
    • If one or more of your monitoring tools allow it, dig into the mentions, especially those that are negative, and see what people are talking about. On Twitter, pay particular attention to retweets. In the early phases of a PR crisis, people will be more likely to share a screenshot, a hyperlink to a blog post or a video than at any other point during the crisis. Chances are that whatever they are sharing will take you to the root cause of the crisis itself.

Note that in the KitchenAid example (see image above), blogs and social media channels were on to the crisis a lot more quickly than news organizations. The content window showing a Facebook conversation (orange circle) clearly focuses on the Twitter snafu, while the stream showing news item (green circle) still hasn’t caught up with the developing story. Multi-channel monitoring is key to spotting problems early and being able to dig into what is being said and why.

3. Response

A crisis hitting its peak. (Respond long before this point.)

How a company first responds to a crisis will set the stage for everything that comes afterwards. There is no room whatsoever for a faux pas. Incidentally, waiting to respond or not doing anything is a faux pas. The good old days of releasing a press release or statement in a day or two are gone. You now have under an hour to start responding to a crisis. If you really want to be on top of a crisis, you want to begin responding in under ten minutes.

Here is a quick primer on how to respond to a crisis quickly and effectively:

  1. Introduce yourself. Use your name and your title.
  2. Frame the situation for the public. State the facts. What happened? When did it happen? What is your position? Apologize of you need to. Don’t spin. Don’t lie. Establish trust and leadership.
  3. Communicate to the public what comes next and what they should expect.
  4. Communicate to the press the response schedule and structure, and the means by which they should obtain information from you.
  5. Communicate developments and milestones with the public as they happen (the frequency will depend on the crisis). Err on the side of giving them too many updates. Make them feel that you are dedicated to fixing the problem in the most expedient and transparent way possible.

To KitchenAid’s credit, this process is precisely the one that was used by Cynthia Soledad and the company’s crisis team, and it worked.

4. Management

Watching the crisis begin to slow down and deflate.

This part involves most of the heavy lifting. The crisis will hit its peak in this phase, so the volume of mentions will be higher than it has been in any of the previous phases.

How a company manages a crisis depends on a number of things: the crisis itself (type, gravity, potential market impact, etc.), its degree of preparation for such a crisis, its internal capabilities (technical, manpower, training, fluency), and its culture.

I should point out that it isn’t enough to take the pressure out of the balloon, so to speak. It has to be done properly, and in a way that makes sense for the brand. A simple way of looking at this: Say that Nike and Starbucks were to find themselves with a very similar crisis. And say that for the sake of argument, each of these companies had precisely the same degree of preparation, the same general guidelines, internal capabilities, fluency with crisis management, etc. One might expect that even with all of these similarities, Nike and Starbucks would respond their crisis differently. Why? Because each company enjoys a unique culture, a unique style of public outreach. Each company’s relationship with the public (some of who are fans and customers, while others are neither) is uniquely its own.

In that light, what is most important during the management phase  isn’t necessarily to have a crisis management plan (though having one would certainly help), but rather to have a thorough understanding of how to defuse public outrage, anger, criticism, even hatred, do so in a way that makes sense for the brand, and get through that process without antagonizing anyone. Companies have to walk a very fine line between defending itself and being in any way antagonistic. This requires that everyone on the crisis management team keep a cool head. No one can ever lose their temper. No one can get sucked into a public argument.

A note on internet trolls: Pay them no mind. As much as they may amplify negative sentiment during a PR crisis, trolls can only affect public opinion if they are given the power to do so. That power knows only one fuel: attention. The less attention a company’s crisis management team gives a troll, the less impact he or she will have on the direction, volume and duration of the crisis. It isn’t to say that trolls don’t, on occasion, need to be confronted and dealt with, but the management phase of a PR crisis is not one of those times. During this phase, a troll is just a voice in the crowd, trying to shout louder than anyone else. Try as they may, trolls can’t make waves in the middle of a storm. Remember that.

Control the message. Control the situation. Don’t get sidetracked by anyone whose aim is to distract you from your job.

There are essentially to main pieces to the management phase. The first is a continuation of the “update the public” function that began in the response phase. This can involve the creation of a crisis page and a Twitter account alongside existing communications channels. (BP did this during the Deep Sea Horizon crisis.) The second is the direct interaction between the company and the public across social platforms. That is where community management, the creation of discussion groups and tabs, the publishing of fact sheets becomes very important. In some cases, (like the posting of an offensive tweet) a quick explanation of what happened and an apology will do the job. In other instances, the problem goes far deeper than that and will require more work.

Examples: An investigation by a major news organization just uncovered that your company employs child labor in a number of countries around the world. A report from a global ecological watchdog paints your company as being a major source of air or water pollution. Your CEO has just found himself connected to a damaging corruption scandal. The batteries in your latest device can explode and injure your customers. (Things that won’t go away with an apology.)

By engaging with the public and listening to their complaints, a company can identify key topics they need to focus on. These topics will frame the conversation that the public ultimately wants to have with the company. The more focus exchanges have, the more likely it is that they can be shifted from pointless noise to purposeful signal.

Once a company has identified topics and themes, it can dig deeper and identify specific complaints that relate to them. Once these complaints have been clarified, the discussion process can now be shifted from conflict to collaboration. Remember that every complaint simply identifies a problem. Once a problem is identified, all the company has to do is acknowledge it, drill down into the details of the complaints around it, and ask the public how it would solve it. In doing so, the company’s relationship with the public shifts from one of conflict to one of collaboration.

The next step is to come to an agreement with the public as to what should be done about the problem, and how to move towards some measure of resolution that makes sense for everyone. Rededicate your company to fixing the problem, even if the best you can realistically offer is an incremental process that could take years. Make this a new point of focus for your company – an initiative. Pledge to work on this, and make it happen. Recruit the help of the public. Partner with them. Make them part owners of the solution. reward them for their help.

We could write a whole book on this topic, so it’s probably best to stop here… or this could turn into a VERY long blog post.

5. Post-crisis monitoring & advocacy

The crisis looks over, but is it really? (Make sure.)

This part is simply the follow-through. Now that the crisis itself has ended, it’s time to button things up. What did you miss? What did you learn? What comes next?

Don’t let the deflation of the wave of mentions be your only guide. News cycles are short-lived nowadays. People will grow bored of a scandal or PR crisis after a few short days, no matter how effective a company was at addressing and managing it. Just because people have moved on to another topic doesn’t mean that your troubles are over. Don’t mistake changes in the volume of mentions for resolution.

If the root cause of the crisis was not resolved, it will stick. It will become part of the brand’s story. It may even become the defining feature of the brand for years to come – a stain on its reputation that won’t easily go away once it grows roots. You don’t want that. A crisis can’t just go away. It has to be resolved.

What things look like two weeks later.

Drill down into the conversations. What do you see?

The only way to find out if it has been resolved or if it has just gone away for a while is to monitor conversations about the brand once the crisis has subsided. There is a short term piece to this, and there is a long term piece as well. You want to gauge the impact of what you’ve done, and make adjustments along the way until you can be certain that the crisis, its cause, and the expectations of the public have been worked through. Once that has been done, look for people who are not aware that you have resolved the problem, and politely, kindly engage them. Show them the progress you’ve made. Link to what you have done and what you are doing. Inform, inform, inform. Whom you inform, when, how and why can’t happen in a vacuum. Monitoring for specific types of opinions and conversations can help you target the right people at the right time with the right information. This allows you to get your message across quickly and effectively without requiring major media buys and hit-or-miss campaigns. Think major cost-savings, sure, but think also of speed and effectiveness.

To close our example, a quick look at the @KitchenAid crisis Tickr page two weeks after the incident shows no significant activity that might suggest a resurgence of the crisis. Digging a little deeper, we see that conversations have shifted from the incident to more routine, benign topics about the brand and its products.

How is that for using Tickr as a PR crisis overwatch platform? Not everything about digital monitoring and crisis management has to be complicated. We like to make things easier for everyone. It’s what we do,

As always, we would love to hear your comments, especially if you have PR crisis stories to share with us. What happened? What did you do? What did you learn in the process? Do you have any questions? Can we shed some light on anything? (Process, technology, best practices?) The comments section is all yours.

We’re also on Facebook and Twitter, so we can have that discussion there as well.

And if you aren’t using Tickr to monitor the web yet (social or not), you can start using the basic version for free in just a few minutes. (If you need more features or more horsepower, the Pro and Enterprise versions don’t take much longer to set up either .) Start here.

HBO’s “The Newsroom.” Image courtesy of Melissa Moseley/HBO.

Last night, I finally watched the first few episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” and something struck me about the first episode: All of the on-shift newsroom staffers are sitting around, working at their computers, and a story comes on the AP wire, which turns out to be the explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well in the gulf of Mexico. The date is April 20, 2010. The rest, as they say, is history. What’s interesting though is that the camera gives us several closeup shots of the screen, and it basically looks a lot like an email inbox: each new story pops up on a vertically arranged list, probably arranged in chronological order. To make things easier or journalists, each story is tagged with a different color, yellow, orange and red indicating increasing levels of urgency and relevance. (Probably something along the lines of AP ENPS.) Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s a good system. It’s simple, it’s clear and it works. But being in the business of making things work better, something struck me about the limitations of that design: All it is is a whistle, a bell. Integrated into some basic productivity applications, sure, but my immediate reaction was to ask “what… that’s it? Where’s the rest of the info?”

The rest, of course, being something like this:

Remember that what we are talking about is a newsroom, which is to say the central nervous system of a news network. This is where almost 100% of the discovery, fact-finding, research, phone interviews and analysis take place. This is where questions are asked and answered, and where invariably, if journalists are doing their jobs properly, pertinent questions are quickly replaced by difficult ones.

Every story begins with simple facts: What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Who was there? How did it happen? What were the immediate consequences? What is the situation like now?

As a story develops, the questions begin to change: What will the situation be in twenty minutes, an hour, twelve hours, etc.? Why did this happen? Who is responsible? What is the timeline? What are the ramifications of this event?

News stories are living, breathing things. As they evolve so do the angles from which we understand and analyze them. Now… sometimes, a story is just a story: Something happens, it gets reported, people react, the news cycle rolls on. But sometimes, a story doesn’t just come and go. Some stories stick around. The explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon didn’t end when the survivors were evacuated and the well sank into the Gulf of Mexico. The story changed. It evolved. On April 20th, we were talking about an explosion on an oil well. On April 21st, we were talking about Halliburton and cement. On April 22nd, we were talking about one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history. On April 23rd, we were talking about the Minerals Management Service and the impact of inadequate federal funding on offshore platform safety inspections. In May, we were talking about BP CEO – Tony Hayward.

Some stories stick around for a long time. And those stories have long-lasting repercussions we can neither completely anticipate or understand until months later, when we look back on them and understand their timeline against the greater context of how the world changed as a result of an event that just started as a yellow, orange or red item on a news wire feed. Think of the financial collapse. Think of the Arab Spring. Think of the the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan. These stories are still alive. Each of them has already sprouted thousands of follow-up events, all stories in their own right. Some of them have become major news items of their own. From the latest US Presidential election to the violence in Egypt, Libya and Syria, these stories are still developing.

So here I was, watching that little screen in “The newsroom” with its black on white, email-looking design, wondering “is this how news organizations still monitor what’s going on?” It felt archaic, out of date, terribly limited. Coming from a multi-screen culture, one in which digital mission control centers are quickly becoming the norm, it was shocking to me to see journalists still discovering stories the same way they had for generations. The devices may have changed over the last few decades, there may be screens instead of paper now, but what I saw was still the old “wire,” the old telex, the old fax. Prettier, sure – the story pops up on a flat screen now – but the process is still the same as it was when stories were telegraphed from some Western Union office in the middle of nowhere to New York or London or Paris. It hasn’t improved a whole lot. It worried me, even, to learn that they might be so disconnected from the real-time world of developing stories.

From the digital command centers used by NASA and military commanders in the field to the ones used by brands like PepsiCo (client), Dell and Edelman Digital, I have come to expect banks of screens feeding data into intuitive graphics. I have come to expect information from a plethora of sources telling different facets of a same story on adjacent screens. As an information junkie, and being in the business of deriving insights from business intelligence, I have come to expect an orgy of data. And the thing is, it isn’t hard to do this. The tools exist now. They’re out there, dozens of them. Hundreds, even. It isn’t that difficult to build a modern, intuitive monitoring center for a newsroom that can quickly give journalists not just a sense of what is going on in the world but will also give them a better field view of how a particular story is unfolding over time.

Have you ever wondered how it is that when an earthquake hits Tokyo, you know about it via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram a full 40 minutes before you will hear about it on CNN or the BBC? It isn’t just that professional news organizations need time to confirm stories with reliable sources. Their discovery process for news stories may also need an upgrade.

There’s a new breed of journalist out there doing amazing things with social media. One of them is NPR’s Andy Carvin (@acarvin on Twitter. I recommend that you follow his feed so you can see him in action). I first noticed him during the “Arab Spring.” His coverage on Twitter was better than all of the news organizations’ coverage combined. Why? Two reasons:

1. He was able to point his audience to live updates from eye-witnesses and participants. Citizen journalists, if you will. The raw, unfiltered tweets, photos and videos of people in the middle of the story sharing what they were experiencing, using only their cell phones.

2. He was able to verify his sources in minutes. Part of it was instinct, part of it was validation from other trusted sources, but it worked. When foreign government agents tried to feed him false information, he was able to spot the subterfuge immediately.

What Andy Carvin did with social media, his style of reporting, was one of the most exciting things I have seen in journalism in a long time. It was fast, it was fresh, it was effective and professional. But more than anything, it was bold and clever, and no one else out there was doing it. This is a guy who wasn’t just relying on the AP wire to find out about a story. He understood that by monitoring social channels, which is to say real-time, first person publishing channels, he could find himself in the middle of a news story anywhere in the world and report on what was going on there more clearly and effectively than if he was there himself.

I want to show you something. Below are two graphics. The first shows you the speed of news before Twitter. The second shows the speed of news after (since) Twitter. It will help put the changes taking place in the news business in perspective. Pay particular attention to the left side of the graphic.

Do you think that in five years, the world’s most trusted news rooms around the world will still be relying on a color-coded news wire to discover unfolding news? Do you think that they will be operating without a real-time, multi-channel information control center? If so, think again. Technology will never take the place of solid journalism. It will never replace good instincts, thorough investigative work and the responsible, professional reporting of facts. But technology is already changing the speed, depth and breadth of discovery, research, reporting and analysis. Before long, monitoring control centers will be standard in newsrooms, and that is a very good thing.

On a side-note, though the focus of our upcoming release (the details of which are still super double-top secret for now) is brand management and monitoring, it occurs to me that the applications for news organizations are… well, it could be a bit of a game-changer. I can’t wait to be able to show you what’s coming. You’ll get it as soon as you see it.

Soon. Soon.

Until then, even if you aren’t a journalist, check out Tickr’s free trial version. Use it as a keyword search tool. Use it to follow a story or topic. Get familiar with how it works and how easy it is to use. From news and chatter about the US Presidential debates to the latest PR crisis, you’ll get an appreciation for how powerful this kind of monitoring overwatch app is, as well as how much it already simplifies discovery and monitoring. I think you’ll like it.

Check out all that Tickr has to offer.

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Last week, Mashable’s Lauren Indvik published an articled based on a study by Forrester Research which states that only 1% of online purchases are driven by social media. (You can purchase the full report for $499 here.) The piece’s title, naturally, was “Social media Influences Less than 1% of Online Purchases. [STUDY]

If you find that statistic surprising, don’t worry. Your gut feeling isn’t leading you astray. We’ll come back to that. First though, let’s dive a little deeper into some of the claims made in the piece:

“Ecommerce businesses should concentrate more of their efforts on traditional online marketing tactics like search and e-mail than social media. That’s the conclusion of a Forrester study released Tuesday, which examined 77,000 online transactions made between April 1 and April 14. The study found that less than 1% of them could be traced back to social networks like Facebook or Pinterest.

Determining how web activity influences purchases is tricky; although many often credit the last touchpoint for a sale, Forrester found that half of repeat customers and a third of new customers touch multiple touchpoints prior to a purchase. As such, certain funnels, like display advertising and e-mail, may be undervalued.

Nevertheless, ecommerce websites still convert more highly than any other channel, accounting for 30% of transactions. Thus it’s smart for retailers to promote their domain names as much as possible.

Following direct visits, organic search and paid search are the two biggest drivers of purchases from new customers, accounting for 39% of new customer transactions. That’s because the web continues to be a useful tool for what Forrester calls “spear fishers” — consumers who know what they are looking for and find it through search.

For repeat shoppers, e-mail is the most effective sales influencer: Nearly a third of purchases from repeat customers initiated with an e-mail. As such, businesses should up their efforts to collect e-mail addresses, and tailor their e-mail marketing messages to each recipients’ device and prior purchase behavior.

Social media’s potential as a shopping portal has yet to be realized. Less than 1% of transactions from both new and repeat shoppers could be linked to social networks, Forrester found.

That said, the researcher believes social media can still be a powerful marketing tool, and that social media’s influence on purchase behavior likely can’t be measured in the 30-day attribution window the report examined. Forrester also asserts that social media is a bigger sales driver for small businesses, which were not included in the study.”

The study was also picked up by several other media outlets, including Business Insider, which quotes Sucharita Mulpuru – the author of the report. Her conclusion:

Social tactics are not meaningful sales drivers. While the hype around social networks as a driver of influence in eCommerce continues to capture the attention of online executives, the truth is that social continues to struggle and registers as a barely negligible source of sales for either new or repeat buyers. In fact, fewer than 1% of transactions for both new and repeat shoppers could be traced back to trackable social links.” (Source)

“Trackable” social links.

Has you brain caught up to your gut yet? If not, let me throw a few thoughts your way:

1. The study is based on flawed assumptions: There’s a problem with the study’s understanding of social media’s role in the customer journey (paths to purchase). The study, for instance, states that direct visits to e-commerce sites drive the most sales. Really? All right. Here’s a question: How did people initially get to the e-commerce site? Before we can talk about paths to purchase, can we at least consider their path to discovery? Was the site recommended? Did it turn up on a search? How and where did retailers promote their domain names, exactly (which the article suggests they should do)? Beyond discovery, how were shoppers’ purchases influenced by peers and other shoppers, via social networks, digital or not?

The study doesn’t look into any of this. It obviously is just working backwards from a purchase by tracking clicks, and probably no more than 4-5 deep. Sorry, but except for impulse shoppers, that isn’t how things work. Shoppers don’t typically follow robotic, linear paths from discovery to transaction. So that’s one problem already, and the numbers reflect it pretty clearly. Perhaps the clearest way to explain the first problem with this study is that it doesn’t seem to measure the “Purchase Path of online Buyers” in 2012. Instead, it appears to just measure the final sprint.

2. The study is based on flawed methodology: The study’s attribution model is wrong. If you have been in the business of selling things to human beings for a few years, you probably know that it takes more than just one “touchpoint” to convince someone to become a new customer, especially online. The study, however, would have us believe that 67% of transactions from new customers were the result of just one touchpoint. (20% of those being a direct visit to the e-commerce site.)

Not likely. Even more puzzling, the percentage attributed to single-touchpoint sales remains precisely the same for returning customers: 20%. Think about that for a minute.

Again, the study appears to mistakenly assume that paths to purchase are linear and can be measured simply by backtracking clicks. That’s what the mention of “trackable social links” was all about. We have known for some time that “last click” attribution is a flawed model. For the same reasons, “last 4-5 clicks” is also a flawed model. I suspect that the methodology behind this study was as influenced as it was limited by the technology it relied on to collect its data.

From where I stand, the methodology used in this study is completely wrong for what it attempts to do. Take a look at the graphic below and give it some thought. What do you see?

3. The authors of the study misunderstand the relationship between social content and search: The impact of social media on search (and therefore discovery) is utterly ignored in this study. Given what we know of social content’s importance to search, this is a bizarre and inexplicable oversight. Social drives sales directly AND indirectly by greatly impacting search. This isn’t news. And yet…

4. The study’s scope is limited to the enterprise… but isn’t particularly forthcoming about that: As stated by Business Insider, “Mulpuru didn’t study small businesses, which she said do disproportionately well in social commerce.”

How about that.

Two questions come to mind:

First, why wouldn’t the study also look at small businesses? Surely… if you know that they “do disproportionately well in social commerce,” there must be data that supports that statement. Where is it? Why wasn’t it included in this study? Why does doing well in social commerce disqualify small businesses from being part of this study? Was the intent of the study to… convince businesses that social channels aren’t effective? I don’t get it.

Second, why would the study not make it clear in its reporting that it only looked at enterprise sized businesses? Where in this language is the general public given the slightest indication that the study’s conclusions only apply to the enterprise? Here it is again:

Social tactics are not meaningful sales drivers. While the hype around social networks as a driver of influence in eCommerce continues to capture the attention of online executives, the truth is that social continues to struggle and registers as a barely negligible source of sales for either new or repeat buyers. In fact, fewer than 1% of transactions for both new and repeat shoppers could be traced back to trackable social links.”

Hmm. “Hype” versus “truth.” Okay… No bias there, obviously.

However, to be fair to the public, should the statement not look more like this instead?…

Social tactics are not meaningful sales drivers for enterprise e-commerce sites. While the hype around social networks as a driver of influence in eCommerce continues to capture the attention of online executives, the truth is that social continues to struggle and registers as a barely negligible source of sales for either new or repeat buyers, at least in the enterprise space. In fact, fewer than 1% of transactions for both new and repeat shoppers for enterprise-class businesses could be traced back to trackable social links.

That would be a more appropriate way to phrase all that.

Furthermore, why was this enterprise distinction not mentioned in the study’s title? “The Purchase Path of Online Buyers in 2012″ isn’t exactly indicative of the study’s focus on large businesses, is it.

If you think that is just a minor detail, see item 7, below. You will understand the full impact of this “oversight.” But first, this:

5. The study fails to understand the relationship between time, discoverability, and trust when it comes to the social customer: The study states that “Forrester partnered with GSI Commerce to examine 77,000 consumer orders made over a period of 14 days in April 2012.”

The study only lasted 14 days.

The nature of social media being what it is (relationship-based), leaving yourself only 14 days to track a social customer’s path from discovery to purchase is not an appropriate, realistic timeframe. This screams of automation and basic linear click attribution fallacies. So much for the development of online relationships, organic social integration, word of mouth, etc.

6. The study fails to take into account overlapping fields of influence in a shopper’s decision-making process: Paths to purchase are typically impacted by multiple, sometimes concurrent experiences. Some may be prompts (like an email promotion or a banner ad – which the study takes into account), but others may be recommendations from friends (online and offline), a preponderance of positive brand or product mentions on social channels, reading user reviews, social validation in the form of product or brand “likes” by trusted friends, and even direct interaction with a brand’s social channels, not to mention offline influences as well.

A study that attempts to understand and map “the purchase path of online buyers in 2012″ cannot ignore those factors. Not if it hopes to be taken seriously. By putting “trackable links” ahead of actual purchase paths, the study completely missed the mark on the role that social media plays in the customer journey – not only when it comes to mapping the path from discovery to first purchase, but also in regards to customer development as well (the path from first purchase to measurable loyalty). Poorly done.

7. Questionable reporting: Although the study is titled ” The Purchase Path of Online Buyers in 2012,” Forrester decided to market it by leading with this headline: “Less than 1% of online purchases come from social channels” (source). How did the most flagrant red flag in the study’s methodology become the study’s principal selling point? Your guess is as good as mine. The best i can come up with is that controversy sells.

The result:

Mashable covered the story using this title: “Social media Influences Less than 1% of Online Purchases. [STUDY]

Business Insider’s Title: “Forrester: Facebook and Twitter do almost nothing to drive sales.

BizReport: “Forrester: Facebook will never be a retail sales channel.

Internet Retailer: “Social media posts don’t lead to sales.

You get the picture. And so we come full circle to Mashable’s article, which gives business executives the following advice:

“Ecommerce businesses should concentrate more of their efforts on traditional online marketing tactics like search and e-mail than social media.”

This kind of nonsense gives me headaches. It really does.

Now don’t get me wrong: at the end of the day, it may very well be that social channels only contribute to 1% of online sales for many businesses. Most of us have seen strong evidence to the contrary in our own ecosystems (mostly double-digits from where I am sitting, except for category leaders in mature markets), and companies like Burberry might even disagree about that, but all right. For the sake of argument, let’s say that for the corners of the business world that we haven’t had any contact with, the number is indeed 1%. But even if that were the case, this study’s methodology would still be wrong in the way it arrived at that number. It’s just bad science, poor analysis and not particularly responsible reporting.

Most of us already know from experience that more often than not, the only thing standing between a company and its success is access to actionable market insights. Bad data or flawed analysis can lead to poor strategic decisions – from bad investments to completely missing the mark with a product or a campaign. Likewise, accurate data and insightful analysis can lead to terrific strategic decisions and score game-changing wins for a challenger or emerging brand. This stuff is important. It’s vital. There is just no room for bad science and poorly managed studies. Not when trust in your studies and market analysis comes with expectations of thorough expertise.

So the lesson here is this: Do your homework. Don’t assume that a “study” is accurate and factual just because it was done by a reputable company. Do your homework. Look for flaws, for red flags, for insights that ring a little wrong. Better yet, go find your own answers. Write your own case studies. Join our growing community of companies for whom social media is responsible for a lot more than just 1% in net new sales revenue. You’ll be glad you did.

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