There is No Social Media Playbook

As the calendar has turned to 2011, we have been inundated with an endless barrage of Social Media predictions compiled by experts and dabblers alike. Some of what I have read are excellent and well informed perspectives backed by data and research, while others appear to be, well, nil-informed. As Yogi Berra once said, “Prediction is very hard, especially about the future.” No predictions here, just some observations about Social Media based on 3 years of experience working inside a large firm.

There is No Playbook

This medium or channel, or whatever you wish to call it, is way too new to have a reliable playbook. What works for some brands will not work for others. I would go so far as to say that Social Media does not have any common marketing ground. Direct mail and basic advertising principles are largely transferrable across brands and verticals even though retail is very different from financial services which is different from manufacturing. Social lacks such helpful fundamental truths.

Outcomes are Slippery

Save one or two examples (Dell Computer coupon codes on Twitter comes to mind), there is low confidence that a marketer could reliably forecast results from activity in the social sphere. Your CMO wants to know what she/he can book if your Social Media team is given $500,000. The CMO isn’t getting good answers to that challenge.

Mobile Adds Complexity

Social and mobile are matching luggage. They just naturally go together. A very different beast from the early web days of the late 1990’s. Back then the channel was confined to the desktop computer, a narrow pipe and a basic interface. We were able to make progress with a measured development roadmap. But with today’s always on, high speed connections and smart phones, there’s so many more variables to consider. Location, screen size, gestures, cameras, text messages, etc.

You Will Always be Outnumbered

One of the things that raises the possibility that there may never be a Social Media playbook is the injection of the consumer into the mix at every turn. They chime in when you least expect it and on topics that are completely unpredictable. When they called you had a private conversation. Today it takes place in public. Consumers sometimes comment because they just don’t understand, or have unrealistic expectations, or forget (don’t care) that we run a business and need to make a profit, or are just plain angry over something. We need to respect the fact that employees in a firm will always be outnumbered by consumers. People will just keep coming at you.

Fail Fast and Often

We can’t take our own sweet time. Social years will make online years look like we were standing still. Remember 2000 when we joked about “Online Years?” One year online was equal to five years off line. If you thought that ratio spun your head, try “Social Years” where one month might equal five Online Years! Social Media is not about what we’ve been doing all along. It’s about what we’ve never done before. We will need to learn faster than any previous time. It’s not just a new language, it’s an entirely new world and the wheel has yet to be invented.

My best advice. Do lots of things and count on failure. In fact welcome failure so you can rule things out. The list will grow quickly, but so will your knowledge. Make Social Media everybody’s business in your firm and eventually you’ll develop an edge over the competition and who knows. You may be able to walk into the CMO’s office and say. Give me this and I’ll give you that.

SxSW 2010 Kicks-off

Austin International Airport

Just arrived at South by Southwest 2010 in Austin. An amazing collection of people from all over the world. Right now I was sitting at a table with a special effects producer that did the visual design for the feature film Book of Eli. He lives in Los Angeles. Across from him is a gentleman who runs a family fund worth $6Bn that looks for companies that are underfunded and underdeveloped and tries to bundle them together to make a bigger opportunity for them. He is from Melbourne, Australia. We had a great discussion ranging from mobile and philanthropy to how film studios gain rebates from state governments by filming on their turf.

From there I caught a quick spontaneous meeting with Dennis Crowley, Co-founder and CEO of Foursquare. He was with Naveen Selvadurai, Co-founder, and developer of the iPhone app for Foursquare. Discussed opportunities for offers from merchants and where mobile and app advertising might be going.  All company business cards have a badge printed on the back. If you collect the cards from 6 Foursquare employees, arrange them to match the badge page on the application, take a photo and get it to Foursquare, you’re rewarded with a special, secret badge. I got 2 so far.

Oh yes. Also got some inside information on how they determine who gets to be mayor.

Finally Succumbed to foursquare

When it comes to trying Social Media applications I’ll be the first to admit I don’t exercise much restraint. Normally I jump in. Frequently I abandon for various (and good) reasons, but it doesn’t take much arm twisting to get me to try. Foursquare was for some reason different. Yes I read all the Tweets and blog posts about how it was going to be the next Twitter; blah, blah, blah. It mattered not, my willpower was strong on this one and successfully held off until last weekend. I’m sorry I did.

Once I loaded the app on my iPhone I quickly found myself checking in all over the place, one after another, after another; watching myself climb the leaderboard, envious of all those mayors. I got it now. Travel around, tell people where you are, play a game and collect badges. Nice, but is there value here?

The concept is pretty simple and they have done a very nice job at resisting making the interface complex. The design is very straightforward and doesn’t have all that fancy grey out stuff all over it. Means a bit more clicking, but it really doesn’t matter, pages load fast. I like how it allows you to shout your location to everyone, or not to if you happen to be be in stealth mode, simply check in (that’s how you earn points) on the QT. The more places you visit the more points you get. Over time you unlock badges from Newbie to Adventurer up to Superstar. Then the badges get funky; School Night, Animal House, Gym Rat, Overshare, you get the picture.

You tap the application and it gives you back a list of places near where you are. You select it and check in; points earned. If your stop is not listed you can add it. You can add tips for others to pick up along the way. Tips and To Dos are combined, which confused me. To Do is really where you want To Go, but the service can only understand locations. I typed in Chicago Auto Show, but since it’s not a place it didn’t pick it up. The whole lists thing needs to be reworked. Another thing that was perplexing was their blog entries on tumblr. The only place I could get to it from the foursquare site was by clicking the huh link on “We changed the way our badges work.”

So is it going to be as big as Twitter. I searched for Wrigley Field where the Cubs play. Results: 312 check ins and 212 unique visitors. Similar low numbers for the United Center home of the Bulls and Blackhawks. Only 320 check ins and 215 unique visitors. So where’s the swarm?

Value could be found in building tourism. Lots of visitors, tips, to do’s with a promotion and prizes could boost visits and activity for a city , festival or museum. Might also be a useful tool for those wonderful corporate scavenger hunts we all love to participate in. Interface is devoid of advertising right now, so that’s potentially a big opportunity since mobile location based is at the strength of the application. Personally it’s kind of nice having a history of your activities. “When was I there?” Pull it up. This is made easier by private feeds of your check-ins you can access via RSS. You can even import them into you iCal.

Gotta stop now. Must seek world dominance with the most Mayorships possible.