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Focusing social platforms for community marketing August 29, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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One of the things social media marketing will need if it’s going to live up to its aggressive $5 billion spending forecast is more differentiation between marketing and collaboration platforms. Companies like Jive Software, which filed for its IPO last week; Lithium, which just hired a new CEO; Mzinga; and Telligent offer social network platforms aimed at both employees and customers. But one-size-fits-all social networking platforms may not be around for much longer, because to succeed, vendors will need to start offering tools and services concentrated specifically on community marketing, distinct from enterprise collaboration or social networks.

Vendors making tools for the space broadly defined as social CRM have arrived from various origins: buzz monitoring, fan site creation, customer service and support, and enterprise social networking. Core social networking technologies and techniques (e.g., social graph relationships and information, friend and group following, real-time information feeds) are common across those. But platforms aimed at marketing to communities will need specialization. Let’s take a look at how a new startup, Napkin Labs, is attempting to differentiate the community-marketing platform that it just took out of beta.

Napkin Labs offers a low-cost web service that companies like beta partners Intuit and Sony can use as an online focus group. The founders of Napkin Labs have brand advertising agency backgrounds, and it shows — occasionally to a fault. For example, they expose perhaps a little too much agency-insider terminology to consumers who, unless they’re avid Mad Men watchers, aren’t going to know or care what a “creative brief” is. CEO Riley Gibson is correct that encouraging and rewarding customer engagement is subtly different than doing the same for employees. So Napkin Labs uses gaming mechanics like challenges and points to encourage participation and rate user influence. Its focus on applications to test product features, advertising and packaging looks smart.

But translating the art of focus group analysis into software and social networking features will be challenging. Understanding how to use feedback from rabid fans versus mainstream customers, muting the impact of blowhard commentators and applying focus group insights to mass-market ad campaigns are more consulting services than products. Napkin Labs is attempting to educate less-savvy customers with templates and blog advice rather than hiring consultants.

But there are a host of other community-marketing features besides focus group analysis that vendors will increasingly use, such as:

  • Consumer network integration. Community-marketing platforms should enable and encourage community members to spread the message beyond the community. So any gaming or rewards systems must extend into other social media, like Twitter and Facebook.
  • Member acquisition. If you’re in the fan page business — or are using social marketing tools for customer acquisition — you need to “fish where the fish are.” Most of the fish today are on Facebook. Napkin Labs has an idea that its offerings might work better as Facebook apps than as a part of a destination site; it’s probably right.
  • Community panels. Some community-marketing platform companies like House Party and CrowdTap bring along their own communities, much like traditional market research panels. There are tradeoffs to this approach — some clients want to control audience and data ownership — but those platforms enable data analysis across different customer and product types. That can lead to valuable marketing insights that might otherwise stay hidden from those clients.

Ultimately, a key role for community marketing platforms will be supporting so-called integrated marketing campaigns — that is, big, cross-media (TV, online, print) initiatives that involve things like product placement, brand sponsorships and physical-world presence. House Party and CrowdTap offer services to manage campaign logistics. That may be more like agency work and consulting than building a software platform with seductive margins and a scalable business model, but that’s what it’s going to take.

Question of the week

How else can collaboration platforms differentiate themselves from social marketing tools?
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Building a better feed August 15, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Last week, Twitter retooled its site to offer two Facebook-like activity feed channels aimed at increasing and broadening user participation. Facebook itself did some tweaking to its feed and is reportedly evaluating a bigger overhaul, and Digg updated its news feed. Real-time feed-based user interfaces (UIs) are becoming one of the most important ways of presenting information online, and they are critical areas of competition in social networking and search.

Different companies using feeds reveal UI implementation strategies that tend to focus either on active (user “control panels”) or passive (algorithms) techniques. The winning approach will probably be a blend that leans toward passivity. Consider the following:

  • Twitter’s new tabs show activity around the user (mentions, favorites, retweets) and the user’s followed friends. Twitter wants to boost usage by mainstream users and encourage favorite-ing as a simple way to engage users who aren’t necessarily in the mood to post or reply.
  • Facebook countered Google’s new social gaming thrust by fine-tuning how players and games communicate (a ticker and less throttling of messages in the feed). Earlier it introduced a new feed “story” type that groups actions based on natural language analysis of related topics.
  • Like other enterprise social networking from SocialText, Jive Software, Salesforce.com’s Chatter and SocialCast, Yammer drives user communications via an activity stream. Its feed emphasizes “ambient consumption” of info that’s surfaced to users based on an algorithm that evaluates topic and relationship data for relevance. Platform VP David Stewart told me that tools to embed that stream in other enterprise applications that were announced in May will be available in beta later this month.
  • Venerable link-sharing site Digg introduced “Newswire” that enables users to filter and sort links appearing in real time based on things like recency, topic, format and who posted or voted on them.

The best approach: Balance user control with algorithms

Mathew Ingram doubts that Digg’s new features will be enough to help it regain the audience it lost to Reddit and others when it did a poorly received redesign last summer. He’s probably right, but Digg’s latest moves illustrate that adding controls and filters to a feed is mostly for power users. Making mainstream users take active control of information presentation is extremely challenging, usually resulting in adoption in the 5 percent (Facebook Lists) to 20 percent (Yahoo customization) range.

It’s “easier” — from an adoption if not technology perspective — to rely on passive personalization via algorithms that analyze feed content and promote it by guessing it will be relevant to users. That’s what Facebook does with its social graph–powered EdgeRank, and that’s what Yammer is doing, although Yammer doesn’t do any natural language interpretation. Rather, Yammer incorporates user curation by encouraging topic tagging. If Twitter gets users to choose favorite tweets more often, it will have more curated data to power potential feed sorting and prioritizing schemes it might develop.

Meanwhile, advertisers and app developers seek to reach audiences within the feed, where most user attention is directed. Sites that accommodate that desire gracefully aren’t merely caving in to marketing pressure; they’re enabling social media communications that many users will find valuable. But they have to enforce relevance by monitoring user reactions and weighting their algorithms appropriately to avoid crossing the line into spam.

Companies using feed-based interfaces need to strive for a balance between algorithms — which can produce odd results — and user controls that may require too much work from the masses, like lots of tagging or advanced search pages. Simple actions like a Like or +1 button will likely be more popular and are the easy entrée into curation. And the data they produce can, in turn, be funneled back into a relevance algorithm.

Question of the week

How else can competitors differentiate their feeds?