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Follow your own path

on Feb 05 in biology, strategy, Twitter posted by

A recent flurry of Tweets between me and @HarvardSocial about the ideal number of Twitter users you should follow got me thinking.

I blogged a while back about Dunbar’s limit, an idea from anthropology that we are hard-wired only to manage about 150 interpersonal relationships at a time. And a recent Wired article commented on how following about 100 Twitter users is engaging and useful, and even a few thousand could still be worthwhile. But above a certain number, say tens of thousands, the conversations start to die off. We are back to mass media, not social media. (Here’s another article: Facebook’s “In-House Sociologist” Shares Stats on Users’ Social Behavior)

Although I was a relatively early adopter, having joined Twitter pre-Obama and Oprah, I still have only about 850 followers and in turn follow about 450. And these quantities have worked for me.

For me, the utility of Twitter to me has always been about the quality and tenor of conversations. Numbers are useful to see if you are connecting with your audience, but obsessing over the numbers is like masturbation. It satisfies an urge, but is ultimately unrewarding.

So what’s a user to do? New users especially are confounded over how to best use Twitter (hence the widely reported high drop-out rate of so-called Twitter Quitters).

One suggestion is don’t follow the “big” names. So out go @mashable, @guykawasaki, @scobleizer, @techcrunch, @chrisbrogan and so on. It’s not that these Twitter stars don’t provide value. But their tweets are so widely retweeted, that people you follow will pick up on the important conversations and tweets, which will filter to you in any case. And when you retweet the most widely retweeted tweets (follow that?) your tweets clutter up your followers’ Twitter streams.

Much better, IMO, is to follow a few dozen users with whom you can have rewarding exchanges: who will listen to you, who trust your thoughts and ideas, and respond in useful and thoughtful fashion. Isn’t that the basis of all meaningful relationships?

“Follow then the shining ones, the wise, the awakened, the loving, for they know how to work and forbear.” — Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.

5 reasons DIY social media is a bad idea

on Jan 19 in business, marketing, social media, statistics, strategy, trends posted by

Recent online conversations by noted bloggers such as Brian Solis and Michael Brito have brought attention to the emerging cottage industry of social media providers who are promising more than they can deliver.

Such is the buzz that legitimate social media providers are becoming concerned about being tarred with the same brush. Conversely, businesses that would genuinely benefit from outside counsel for their social media strategy and implementation are increasingly wary, as they should be.

Given the doubts, businesses that may otherwise have sought outside expertise may turn more to a DIY approach. Many social media applications are free, and easy to set up, so why not do it yourself?

Here are five reasons social media providers can use to explain to prospective clients why DIY social media is not a good idea for businesses.

1. Without outside perspective you won’t have objectivity — Social media is a powerful tool for reaching out to your customers. So you need to understand how they perceive your organization. If your social media is done entirely in-house, it’s practically impossible to really understand objectively how the community outside your organization perceives you.

2. Your employees or you may not understand the nuances of developing social media strategy — A strategic approach is essential to succeeding in social media marketing. Without it, you are just throwing things out there to see what sticks. But developing a sound strategy takes considerable experience, preferably based on working with several different companies in different industries. Someone with such experience can distill best practices and focus in more quickly on what will work best for you. Such experience does not come cheap. If you do not have it in house, best to go to outside expertise for help.

3. You may not have the time or talent for cultivating your social media community — Online communities are rarely self-perpetuating, particularly in the early stages. You need to nurture online relationships with the members of your community. This takes time and effort. It also takes effective communication skills. If either of these are lacking in implementing your social media outreach, the community will take their time and attention elsewhere.

4. It’s tough to stay up-to-date — Social media is changing and evolving faster every day. Just look at statistics for Facebook usage, or Twitter. But more than that, the applications that support implementation of a social media presence are changing and improving all the time. What is the best tool to monitor your social media reputation? What tools besides Google Analytics can give you insight into the ROI of social media? Unless you can answer these and other questions, you could be missing the boat.

5. If poorly executed your own efforts may be less credible — Executing a corporate social media strategy takes a fine balance of professionalism and authenticity. A slick campaign-like approach can make your efforts seem more like advertising than an effort to engage the community. A sloppy effort on the other hand can damage your brand.

In the end, unless skillfully managed and executed, DIY approaches do not benefit the businesses that need social media. A failed social media presence is worse than none at all. Because that failure is there for all to see. Ultimately failure of go-it-alone efforts will reflect poorly on the industry. Social media providers therefore must make the case more effectively and come down hard on colleagues or competitors who make unsubstantiated claims.

Lessons from biology: Five steps to succeed at viral marketing in social media

on Nov 25 in business, hints and tips, social media, strategy posted by

In a marketing campaign today, a manager wouldn’t dare to propose strategy that did not include some element of “viral” marketing. 

Search for “viral marketing” on Google and you get more than a quarter of a million hits. Over the past four or five years, searches for the term have remained constant (except for a curious drop around the holiday season).

Search trends for the term “viral marketing” from 2004 to 2009

But what is viral marketing? For that matter, do you actually know what it means? What is a virus, for example? 

As a biologist by academic training, my instinct is to tease apart the concepts and see if I can find appropriate analogies. The idea is that by better understanding the term, we can find ways to better apply the underlying principles.

A virus is a protein packet that contains DNA. It injects the DNA into living cells. The injected DNA then takes over the cells’ copying machinery and forces it to produce more copies of the virus’ DNA and protein. The cell bursts open and the new viruses go off and infect more cells. Simple. Brilliant. Devastating (think of the common cold or bird flu).

So what can your social media campaign learn from this biology? How can your efforts be simple, brilliant and devastating? Here are five steps to help you succeed at viral marketing in social media:

1. Identify your DNA. What is the key message you want to spread? Think of DNA as a meme: a packet of information that can be reproduced and then passed on. Formulate your message as a mission to boil down to essentials.

2. Keep it simple. Ensure your message is as simple as possible. Viral DNA is much simpler than that of a cell’s. That’s why it works. Twitter’s 140 characters work because they force simplicity. Do the same.

3. Identify your audience. Viruses are often specialized to very specific hosts. So make sure you know who will be “susceptible” to attack from your DNA. For social media, this means knowing which bloggers, social networks and Twitter users are the most popular.

4. Figure out your method of attack. Viruses are able to overcome or circumvent a cell’s defenses. How are you going to overcome your audience’s “defenses”? (Which may be a spam filter, for example.) Having a unique offer or special tailored content might work.

5. Evolve. Viruses are successful because they constantly adapt to new hosts (e.g., bird flu) and evolve (sorry, creationists). If things don’t work look through your approach and see what you can change to try things differently.

With these five steps, you will see the viral effect start to work. From the little injection of your meme’s DNA, it will spread to other hosts who will in turn infect others. That’s the power of viral marketing. But you need to have all the pieces together. Lose sight of the biological analogy and chances are you’ll miss one of the five essential steps. Include each of the steps and your campaign will be simple, brilliant and devastating.

Ten steps to evolving your personal brand

on Oct 18 in blogging, branding, facebook, google, hints and tips, linkedin, reputation management, social networks, strategy, tools, Twitter posted by

Anyone who has an online presence needs to understand the importance of personal brand. The person on Facebook who got fired because she posted on her profile that she hated her job did not get the concept of personal brand.

But there are many social media channels. Most people have several profiles, which they maintain to a greater or lesser extent. What is the point of perfecting your LinkedIn profile if you inadvertently sabotage it with a lackluster blog or indiscrete Tweets? The solution is to evolve your personal brand.

By evolving your brand, you start from simple principles and create an increasingly complex presence. Before you start on any of this, you must understand the process of biological evolution. Broadly speaking, it is a process of experimentation, ruthless selection, survival and propagation of what is successful. Here are 10 steps to implement as you evolve your personal brand.

1. Establish goals –– Decide what you want to do with your personal brand. First and foremost brand is about perception. Your basic goal is to craft perception of what people think. What do people find when they search for you on Google? Do you want to be seen as an expert, thought leader or influencer?

2. Consider your audience — Who are you communicating with via social media? If your personal brand is your professional persona, what kinds of topics interest your audience the most? Find the common ground with the topics you are knowledgeable about. By sharing your unique knowledge you provide value to your target audience. It’s vital also to consider the kinds of online behavior typical for your audience. Does your audience create and upload content, will they comment on blog posts, or are they content to passively consume content? (Charlene Li’s “ladder” model of social media participation is a good starting point to classifying user behavior.)

3. Research platforms — If you want to use Facebook just for family and friends, it might be unwise to “friend” work colleagues as did the unfortunate Facebook user in the example above. If your professional network is mainly on LinkedIn, tweak your profile and engage on Answers and Discussions. Bear in mind your audience might not be active on the platforms on which you’re active. For instance, in regulated industries (e.g., pharma) you’re unlikely to have a large audience in social networks. Do some research to find out where your peers are. In choosing platforms consider whether it gets traffic (one reason Facebook is the 800 pound gorilla), relevance, the value of content and if you are comfortable using it.

4. Create a strategy — Once you have identified where your audience is active online, and what kinds of topics you want to engage in, create a social media strategy. A common mistake starting out is to assume strategy is simply engaging your audience. It is not. Think of strategy as similar to a business plan. Your strategy needs to include long- and short-term goals, evaluation of the competitive landscape, resources you plan on using, success benchmarks, a tactical summary and a schedule for executing tactics. Be sure to try something new and unexpected. Mutations are the raw material for evolution. You have to have unusual approaches to survive in a competitive and changing environment.

5. Implement your strategy — The schedule in your strategic plan will guide your day-to-day activities: for example,  what to blog or tweet about, how many posts or tweets, what kinds of content and what kind of integration (such as cross-linking with your other online presences on LinkedIn, blog comments, forum posts and so on). A common mistake for beginners is to start their social media branding at this stage, rather than including implementation as part of a strategic plan.

6. Measure your results — Your strategic plan’s benchmarks will include metrics for you to assess your progress. There are endless different ways to measure social media. If you are advertising, a good start is the IAB’s Social Media Ad Metrics Definitions. If you have a WordPress blog, use a plugin that provides a good overview of basic stats. For more detailed stats, Google Analytics are a must. You can set behavioral goals such as a conversion or clicking on a link to directly measure the impact of specific site content. If you are on Facebook or Twitter, these applications provide a variety of stats. On Facebook, the Fan page provides information on the number of views, fans, uploads and so on. Several third party sites provide stats to allow you to track your progress on Twitter, such as the number of followers, posts, and URLs clicked. There are endless permutations. Again, you need to experiment and see what works for you. (Introduction to social media metrics)

7. Compare your results with your goals — Selection is a key step in evolving your personal brand. In order to begin the selection process you, see if your results are meeting your goals. When you compare your results with your goals, it will help to refine your goals and to get more specific. Say your goal is to be the top blogger in your industry. How will you measure whether you are the top blogger? You could use your Technorati rank or traffic. Or may be you just want to be a better blogger. You could use the change in number of comments over time, so traffic or rank would be less important. The key is to focus on what is most important relative to your goal.

8. Continue what is working — Once you have the first seven steps, the rest is easy. Simply keep up with what works. Do more of what gets positive results, whether it’s more traffic, more comments, or whatever.

9. Quit what is not working — Do less of what doesn’t work. This is selection — arguably the most important step of the evolutionary process. Selection is ruthless. You need to be too. You might have to give up something that’s precious or important. The dinosaurs were awesome animals. They’re all dead. Extinct. For ever. You need to think along those lines. What’s not working? What is diminishing your survivability? If it’s not working, kill it.

10. Start all over — Yup. Evolution is iterative. Just like the environment, the online ecosystem is always changing. Life’s evolution is always ongoing, and always will be. To survive and thrive in the online ecosystem, you too will need to continually evolve. Start from Step 1 above and continue the process as long as you want to stay in the race.

Does it work? Sure. If you stick to your plan and persist, your personal brand will evolve and you will get results. Here’s a screen shot of my stats on this blog since have focused on evolving my personal brand. It isn’t the only measure of success, but it illustrates that you can evolve your personal brand applying the above ten steps.

Lead by example to succeed in social media

on Oct 08 in hints and tips, social media, strategy, thought leaders posted by

“A leader leads by example not by force.” – Sun Tzu

Reputation and visibility are the key to successful social media marketing, particularly for your personal brand. You enhance your reputation and visibility by being a thought leader. As a leader, you want to exemplify the principles and practice of sound leadership.

We can interpret Sun Tzu’s advice to lead by example, as meaning that to establish yourself as a thought leader you need to set an example. This might mean that you post original and relevant content on your blog. Or you thoughtfully comment on other people’s blogs. Similarly, if you are working to build your reputation on Wikipedia, write interesting articles and carefully edit others.

In this instance we can interpret Sun Tzu’s meaning of force as being heavy-handed and over-bearing in social channels. People who spam LinkedIn discussion boards with posts to their own Web pages or blog posts will be shunned by the group. Tweet nothing but spammy links and people won’t follow you. Users who dive straight into Wikipedia just to post links are likely to be banned by the community.

Other forceful approaches, such as when posting personal attacks or aggressive comments on a blog, are likely to be shouted down by other users. On a discussion board, such a user will be flamed (subject to hostile and insulting comments). Force in these cases will lead to loss of credibility and alienation. 

We can summarize Sun Tzu’s lesson to lead by example and avoid force:

  • Doing what you would like others to do
  • Do only what you wouldn’t mind others doing to you


Post 1 in the Sun Tzu series: Know your enemy and yourself to succeed in social media

Wikipedia: Sun Tzu

Know your enemy and yourself to succeed in social media

on Oct 02 in blogging, business, hints and tips, social media, strategy, thought leaders posted by

“If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.” — Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu was a 5th century BC Chinese war commander whose wisdom, summarized in The Art of War, reaches us through the centuries. Sun Tzu’s teachings have been applied to politics, culture and business, as well as warfare. 

In social media, you need to know your competition (“enemy”) and yourself if you are going to be successful. The first step is to understand who your competition is, what they are saying and where they are saying it.

For example, if you blog about food, you’ll want to research the various categories that are being discussed online such as recipes, ingredients, organic food, pairing food with drink and so on. These may all be specialist areas your competition is blogging about. Can you compete head to head, or can you exploit a gap?

Next, research who are the influencers and thought leaders. Get onto Technorati and look for bloggers who have the highest authority and page rank. You can use to check on the monthly traffic of these websites. Compare with your own stats. You can use the difference to set some goals. No goals, no success. Remember to research forums. A lot of conversation takes place on discussion boards. Use Boardreader to look for prominent websites.

From there, observe. Take time to figure out what tactics your competition are using. Are they focused on content? Are they highly networked through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn? Try to understand what makes them tick. 

Correlate your knowledge of the competition with what you can and can’t do. By comparing your abilities with competitors tactics you can position yourself where you are likely to have the most impact.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming book: How to win on the social media battlefield: Lessons from Sun Tzu)

Getting “buy” with a little help from your friends: 3 reasons uSocial is a bad idea

on Sep 08 in business, facebook, marketing, strategy, trends posted by

A recent AdAge article reports that the online ad firm uSocial is offering to boost the number of a company’s Facebook friends for 7.6 cents per friend ($654.30), or its Facebook “fans” for a mere 8.5 cents a fan.

Okay. Sounds good. In fact, too good to be true. And it is. Why? Here are three reasons uSocial is a bad idea.

1. The uSocial model completely undermines the basic premise of social media marketing
For social media marketers, what makes social media friends (or followers) such a powerful marketing tool is that they comprise a group of people who have something in common and who will spontaneously share information. uSocial’s methodology is secret, but according their Web site, they draw on their 18,000 Twitter followers to add people to your Twitter account. So the only thing the bought community has in common is that they are following or fans of uSocial. Thus, the quality of friends bought by a company is very low. The group lacks the connectivity and common interests characteristic of natural communities.

2. uSocial encourages marketers to play a numbers game
Some marketers think that social media is just about numbers. They will yield to temptation and sign up for uSocial. At first, they will be pleased that they have a large group of friends or numerous followers. But the high will not last. The “Friends” they have just bought will not have the commitment and interest of a natural group, so activity will not be authentic. Other users will see through this, and the effort will fall flat.

3. uSocial’s approach will not work for companies who want to build genuine, authentic communities
In the long run, the marketer will see this approach does not work if they want to realize value from genuinely interested users. It might work for some companies, such as those that rely on spam and similar underhand methods, but I would not recommend this approach to clients. Much better is to focus on the job of building an authentic community. It’s harder, but ultimately more rewarding.

Twitter Trending Topics: Use and Abuse

on May 14 in hints and tips, links, strategy, trends, Twitter posted by

One of Twitter’s most compelling features is its “Trending Topics,” a list of the ten most popular terms in global tweets and updated on the fly.

Users can see at a glance the zeitgeist of the day and join in the conversation. Participating is made easier by the use of hashtags. The user places a hash in front of the word, which allows the terms to be readily searched.

Twitter’s Trending Topic list is on the right of the main feed
Twitter seems not to censor such use, so from time to time, we see quite strange, if not offensive (or NSFW), topics rise to the top ten.

A recent meme rising to the top was #crapnamesforpubs. Users came up with names for pubs (real or imaginary) that they thought were crap. A search for the tag then allows the user to see other contributions.

Hashtags have a real practical use. I tweeted several items about a presentation by James Protzman, who used the metaphor “turn the telescope” to illustrate how to switch perspectives in developing messaging for clients. I used #turntelescope to allow me and colleagues to easily find the accumulated tweets. The tweets serve as a record of the meeting.

But some users have found a more insidious way to take advantage of hashtags, and Trending Topics in particular. There appear to be three main ways to game the hashtag system.

1. Create an account and spam all tweets with the hashtag
Yesterday, #twatlight climbed into top ten. (No, I don’t know what it means.) While a number of different users had used the hashtag, one user created an account @twatlightforeva and posted 140 character tweets comprising nothing but the hashtag. It seems this users purpose was simply to flame the Twitter timeline.

Twatlightforeva’s feed has only one purpose: to flame the hashtag with #twatlightOther users spammed the hashtag on individual tweets, presumably to boost the topic to the top of the list.

Example of hashtag abuse to boost the topic

2. Post a commercial tweet and add the hashtag
Another interesting (and perhaps more insidious abuse) was the use of the hashtags to post commercial spam tweets (sweets? speets?) unrelated to #twatlight. These users are exploiting the popularity of the hashtag to post their own message. Given the low cost of the tactic and the high number of eyeballs, such an approach may be worthwhile for spammers.

Example of hashtag spam for commercial promotion

This may become a pervasive abuse. Just today, the top trending topic #whyitweet was soon spammed by someone trying to promote an iPhone lottery.

3. Phishing for confidential information
Another exploit is to use a hashtag game to get information that would not otherwise be disclosed. The “porn name” game (#twitterpornname) asked users to take the name of their pet and mother’s maiden name and combine them to create their “porn name.” Articles in PC World and elsewhere warned that such information was phishing for terms users might use for secure site passwords.

The #twitterpornname hashtag may have been used to phish for security terms

Scamming Twitter Trends: This Needs To Be Fixed
Twitter’s Trend Scam, Spam Proliferating

5 social media tips for St Valentine’s Day

on Feb 12 in business, hints and tips, social media, strategy posted by

What makes a good lover? Books have been written on that topic, but here we are not concerned with personal romance. Instead let us ask how love can help us build relationships, because relationships are at the heart of a successful social media strategy.

Here are five lessons from personal relationships that we can apply to social media relationships.

1. Listen

The first step in building a good relationship is to listen. In social media, this means knowing what your audience (customers, resellers, employees, competitors) is saying about you. Is the discussion good or bad? By listening you get a feel for the conversations that are going on. You can make a start simply by searching on Google with your organization name plus positive or negative keywords (e.g., “company x is great” or “Company x sucks”). Do the same on Google Blog Search to see what bloggers are saying and BoardReader to check activity on forums. by setting up a few Google Alerts to monitor the conversations. Check your analytics to see if there are any positive or negative keywords driving traffic to your site. Join social networks such as Facebook and see if there are pages or groups related to your product or company (or at least your field of business).

2. Empathize

Once you are listening, try to understand the conversation, it’s context and the reasons things are being said. If people hate your product or service, it’s a waste of resources to try to counter that. Instead, empathize with the audience and figure out why they feel the way they do. Look at what is wrong with the product or service. Then you can engage with the audience from a positive position. Use visual tools to get a feel for the conversation. For example, you can copy and paste text from a forum or social network page into TagCrowd to get a general feel for important themes.

3. Be honest, open and transparent

Strong relationships are built on trust. And trust grows out of interactionsthat are honest and open. Trying to hide a truth or distort facts is the surest way to create distrust. If there is something wrong, be upfront and proactive. Say you’re sorry. Find ways to make amends.

4. Show the love

Part of openness is to be forthcoming about your thoughts and opinions. This is okay in social media, even for a company. It’s not necessary, it’s impossible in fact, to please all the people all the time. But you can show that you care, even if you disagree. The idea is to engage your audience and to interact in meaningful ways that are straight interactions. Simply sharing information can be disarming, when it is done in the spirit of caring.

5. Be passionate

As we know, the most famous (if not longest lasting) relationships are filled with passion. Dedication, hard work and a single-minded devotion to what you are doing, underpinned by an unshakeable faith that it is the right thing for you, in the right place, at the right time will carry you through the darkest, dreariest hours. With passion we live life, and our efforts, struggles and relationships become significant and meaningful.


Sickipedia: gaming Wikipedia for fun or for profit

on Feb 11 in business, hints and tips, social media, strategy posted by

Thought of the Day, Feb 12, 2009

I guess some companies just don’t get it, or at least their employees don’t. Watch my lips — mess with social media and you will be found out. 

A case in point is Wikidgame, a site run by Wired’s Reddit. The site highlights nefarious edits made to Wikipedia by companies or organizations for purposes of padding their information or hiding juicy tidbits. Users get to vote on the “best” edit, which usually means the worse from a company’s standpoint. Unfortunately, it also points to a basic flaw of the online encyclopedia, that anyone can spin their story, at least until Wikipedia editors catch on to it.


  • Exxon Mobil Cleans up Valdez Oil spill history
  • Nestle sweeps criticisms under the rug and off its own Wikipedia entry
  • Someone from Wal-mart edited out their competitors’ links
  • Dow Chemical employee removing “Environmental and human rights controversies”

AND (my personal favorite)

  • Very unbecoming edits to Rush Limbaugh’s page by someone with the Democratic Party.

Wikipedia’s shortcomings aside, the lesson here is that companies cannot hide for long in today’s immediate, 24/7, global world. Transparency, honesty and openness are the currency of high quality relationships, in business as well as personally.