There are plenty of books that have been written about the Internet and its innovations. The rate of change means that as soon as someone tries to put down any form of theory about how to use them, they’ve evolved into something else.
Taking this fact on-board, I’ve attempted to write this guide in such a way as to be useful to communications practitioners even if Facebook and Twitter go bankrupt before I finish writing (unlikely!). I believe that there are tremendous potentials for nonprofit organizations to use social networking and bring people closer to the issues that they advocate, but that these potentials are for the most part, being wasted.
I can’t pretend to be a social media expert, because social networking sites (SNS) are a recent phenomenon and any claim to expertness quite frankly pretty arrogant. What’s more, when you start to scratch the surface of what’s actually happening within these social networks (read on) you’ll see how utterly ridiculous it is to call yourself an expert. Instead, what I do hope to do is provide a guide to organizations that are struggling to get to grips with SNS communications strategy by providing a sort of framework and some examples that I use to develop strategies for companies and institutions. Why do I do this? Because I have children, and want to make the world a better place for them, and because (speaking as a British person) I grew up with things like Sesame Street – where you’d see pop artists being social responsible and helping kids rather than pushing out crappy one-liners about how good bling was – and with raising money at school for Band Aid saving the world. We seem to have forgotten about that as me-tech (Smartphone) has shifted the focus back onto the importance of the individual. I therefore want organizations to succeed and share this guide hoping that it will increase your effectiveness.
It’s because I want this guide to have as much value as possible that I am not going to spend a huge amount of time introducing the subject area. The chances that you don’t know about the Internet and Facebook are remote. However, I will provide a few framing words, just to make sense of the here and now.
In the beginning there was Internet
The Internet started off with web-pages and quickly search engines appeared to help people find the information more easily. At the beginning there were a large number of search engines, which made finding information as much about knowing the best search engine for the type of information you needed, as it was about typing in the right keywords. Over a period of ten years, search engines battled it out for ownership of the information databases, while distribution deals saw the results from the strongest search engines being show in the results pages of a range of popular websites or powering their own internal search mechanisms (for example you can buy a Google search engine for your corporate website – it will be a bitch to configure, you won’t be able to open the box they deliver with the search engine inside, and will work nothing like the search engine you use every day – this was a technicians view reported to me). As the search engines grew, new marketing industries were also born in the process.
Today, we have reached the point where there are essentially two search databases driving the western world: Google and Bing. Out in China there is Baidu, and Russia have Yandex.
Then there were social networking sites (SNS)
Facebook symbolizes what the majority of people consider a social networking site to be. However there was an evolution in the field of SNS development which didn’t start with Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn (2003) or Friendster (2002). Communications platforms such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Bulletin Boards (BBS/Usenet) and other forms of two-way communication channels, all were contributors to the canvas that makes up the picture of the SNS we have today.
3 big affects of the Internet
Technology is now much easier to use than in the past. This ease of understanding is being accelerated by universal standards, and of course programs like MS-Office!
Another feature of this juncture in human development, where we migrate ever increasing aspects of our daily life, interests, and passions online, is the ease with which information can be shared across devices and ported from one platform to another.
For instance, in the case of Facebook there are a number of features that can be activated to allow for the seamless integration of other SNS platforms (such as the videos from a YouTube channel, your Twitter feeds, your booking engine – if you’re a hotel) as well as organizational owned assets (such as posts from your official blog) into a page. Any successful SNS worth its meat will have a whole range of tools to help you integrate your content easily within the platform.
The benefit is that these features advance the speed with which organizational communications messages can be shared with the increasingly connected global populations.
In the 1980s a company might see its published information pushed to its public in the form of press-releases, magazine advertorials or via television or radio stations. Once this information was ‘sent out’ a press office would wait for the cuttings service to return the analysis (if the company could permit the costs of the service!) and the media-coverage would then be analyzed, and as best as possible, tied in with the results of the organizations marketing activities. However, there were and are still today, lots of points along that chain of analysis where mapping these activities to the results were, when compared to online measurement, simply guesswork.
While all of these push channels still exist and are very much in use today, the fundamental difference is that the moment you or your organization communicate online, it can be measured, tracked and analyzed in a much more detailed way. That those statistics might not be as accurate as the technology providers would have you believe them to be, is something that is quietly tucked under the carpet.
The extent to which things can be measured online, and how it is possible to match a communications message with a specific demographic audience by way of settings available in the advertising tools used to place messages alongside your favourite piece of content, is quite astonishing. Particularly when looking back in time at the more historic forms of communications messaging such as full page spread in a newspaper or magazine.
Search Engine Advertising
The paid advertising models offered by search engines make it possible for a non-profit organization, with budgets permitting, to be in position #1 in Google for a keyphrase “charities for children” almost instantaneously. At the time of writing, an organization can expect to pay Google €2.25 each time a person sees and then clicks on its advert associated with this key phrase. If tracking is setup properly it is possible to follow that person as they hop from your advert all the way through to your website. If that person makes an enquiry via a form (for example, they make an enquiry about becoming a supporter, or purchase a charity product) you can then associate a monetary value to that advert, or moving up the chain, the keyword. Therefore much of the skill in the paid advertising space is about finding out which combination of keywords and advertisements work well to drive revenue.
Consider that Google generates over 90% of all its revenue from paid advertising. At it’s best the paid advertising space means that it is now possible for advertising managers to easily see the money they spent on the advertising and the revenue/donations that were received as a result of this spend. That’s very clear and very transparent. It’s also very very hard to do well. I know because I’ve been doing it for nearly 20 years (yes, before paid advertising and Google!). If you went through the motions of setting up a campaign using Google Adwords your organization would hemorrhage money on paid advertising, because by default Adwords will setup your campaign to have the broadest advertising parameters possible, and the platform goes out of its way to convince you that these advertising parameters are the best for your campaign.
On the other side of the fence Google or Bing are only doing what they can to help you get exposure, I’m just trying to illustrate my experience of what organizations with no paid advertising experience will most likely get should they start with paid advertising and without a consultant to guide them on it and set it up.
Social Network Advertising (SNS) Advertising
With SNS advertising it is possible for organizations to target their advertising to users based on a range of traditional filters such as age, sex, gender, relationship status, and education level. In addition however there are a number of additional targeting and profiling options which are new and the result of advances in tracking technology.
At the time of writing, it is possible for a campaign manager to structure a Facebook advertising campaign using the following types of advertising filters (I have provided just three examples just to whet your appetite).
Show my advertisement to women aged between 30 and 45, based in the USA, with a college education, that speak Spanish: Estimated reach 459,700, with a cost per click of €0.23-0.82.
Show my advertisement to all people that are also friends of this organization (where this organization might refer to a competitor or other organization that has a target audience that matches the demographic of the advertising campaign).
Show my advertisement to all people that like the television programme Sex in the City, and live in New York: Estimated reach 178,460, with a cost per click of €0.36-0.92
Just as with search-engine advertising similar tracking implementations will allow campaign managers to track a user from Facebook right the way through to a conversion point (making a donation or completing a form).
Making distinctions between search and social media network advertising.
Search engines typically have a higher propensity to drive people that will result in a transaction. That’s because people tend to use search engines to satisfy an immediate desire, or for things like finding the best price; this was after all what the internet was initially offered to the world as – a place to access information and products cheaply.
Social Networking Sites are still relevatively new (as a communications tool) and were born as a social interactions domain. It should come as now surprise therefore that research in this area has highlighted conflicts among users, when for example they are presented with transnational (search based) propositions inside this space. Imagine if you were in your local social club (in the UK a pub, in the US a bar, and in Europe maybe a sports club or similar) and someone came in and tried to sell you a dishwasher (that’s the social network space), and contrast that with how much more acceptable it would be if someone attempted to sell you the same product while you were in a supermarket (that’s the search space). The SNS as an exclusively social space and not a transactional one is changing because new people are joining the networks and they do not have the historic baggage that older users brought with them that determined how the space would be used when it was born.
In my experience SNS are effective place for what I call ‘heart-string’ (emotional and aspirational) advertising. While an organization might not be driving revenue (sponsorships, charity gifts), SNS can be used to drive people towards first touch points with an organization, social networks can sensitize people to the issues of the organization (perhaps encouraging a sign-up to a newsletter) and make a first point of contact with them.
Whether your organization is using search or social media to advertise and share communications messages, one thing you will be able to benefit from (when compared to offline campaigning) is that online campaigns are dynamic. Data and information collected during the campaign can be fed back into it even as it is underway. Multi-variate testing is a real possibility and can be done autonomously by campaign managers. I’ve worked on subscription pages where the conversion rate on the page began at at 2% and finished at 38% just by testing different layouts and messages (I found that in one case a 5% increase in conversion rate was attributable to simply putting various piece of text in bold!).
The Universal Copyright Convention was the first attempt to create a universally accepted world-wide system for the “copyright of protection of literary scientific and artistic works” (see Sherman’s work ‘The universal copyright convention: its effect on United States Law’, published by Columbia Law Review in 1955). Updates and incorporations of these copyright provisions have been made through the decades, and implementation has taken the form of ratifications by countries or member states (in Europe) at a national level. For example, in the UK the Design and Artists Copyright Society helps to protect the copyright found within a drawing or picture. At a regional level the Copyright Directive in Europe (Council of European Parliament 2001) combined with the Electronic Commerce Regulations (EC Directive 2002) saw copyright and other associated legal rights protected at a regional level, while international organizations operating with recognized mandates include the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) – even if these organizations draft policies that are left for member states to ratify at their discretion. In summary, there is very little practical information available for how the protection of copyright and other Intellectual property rights, beyond those defined by national law, work in the Internet context.
There are some rays of hope for those that feel that the Internet has sent copyright to pot – researchers such as Sunderji highlighted cases of trademark infringement in the U.S. when the jewelry producer Tiffany Inc. filed suit against ebay Inc. accusing them of facilitating the selling of counterfeit Tiffany products via its auction website. Although only drawing on the US experience the case showed how it was possible for entities to bring infringing parties to account, at a national level.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act Service Ltd provides a series of commercial services to help organizations or persons that have had their copyright infringed (based on the interpretation of US law), to issue a formal “takedown” request and have breaching content removed. However despite claims about such services having global reach (DMCA’s own website) there is no mandate which grants the society immediate global accountability, and therefore enforcement is only as strong as the partnerships that are forged by the agency at the national level. While the basic rule on copyright is that to use it in any shape or form is restricted by the owner, in the internet reality, enforcement in inside the borderless domain of a social network is in practice impossible.
In her piece ‘ MySpace and YouTube meeting the copyright cops’ Stephanie Ardito notes that it is against the terms of service of Youtube.com for users to upload content for which they do not possess the copyright, and that the additional threat of complying with agencies, such as the DMCA, are likely to be sufficient in terms of being defensible in a court of law were Youtube.com accused of being complicit in a copyright infringement.
So, when was the last time you watched a piece of copyrighted material on YouTube? Exactly, the threat doesn’t seem to be working that well does it, but still technology companies are still making money off the clicks coming from advertising served over copyrighted content being shared on these networks.
In fact because a person can register a free email address and then use that to create an account on a SNS, it becomes almost impossible for copyright holders to track and bring to account offenders. While it may be possible to have items taken down, finding the people is virtually impossible due to things like VPNs, and internet café’s.
It’s a big claim to say that the Internet changed culture, but certainly the Internet is affecting people and challenging what they believe, and creating platforms where large numbers of people from geographically dispersed corners of the world can connect with each other to share their views and opinions. The popular human desire to belong, also known as homophilly, drives increasing memberships and signups.
For charitable organizations the global exposure granted by the Internet has had the knock-on effect of removing some of the control mechanisms and safeguards in place that previously served to localize and sensitize an organization’s advocacy efforts.
For example, in cases of global organizations, advocacy materials could be channeled through country offices, or local chapters which could then adapt the materials to meet the local conditions; conditions that might be different from one office to another based on the focus area and gender, religious or culturally held beliefs of the population. Today, in the Internet context, materials that are published online can largely be seen by anyone with an Internet connection wherever they are in the world.
Geert Hofstede the well cited Dutch social psychologist developed the cultural dimensions theory over a period of seven years during the late 1960s. This research saw him create cultural dimensions that were used to group countries and regions together around a set of cultural dimensions, for example the dimensions of masculinity Vs femininity in cultures, or collectivist Vs individualist societies. What these cultural dimensions remind us of, even if subsequent research has indicated that these dimensions are not always predictive of the cultural reality (see Sims Randi’s work ‘Comparing ethical attitudes across cultures’), is that there are a number of interpretations that a piece of communication can be subject to, or filtered through, and these may not necessary be rationally explainable or predictable from one side of the world to another. In other words, it may not be possible for an organization in Western Europe to be able to anticipate how a person in the Far East might interpret an image published as part of an organization’s news broadcasts and this additional noise can complicate the communications process.
It is because SNS bring together such a global population of cultures, that it is important for organizations to develop suitable policies and ‘framing’ materials that explain to stakeholders and potential supporters, why they think what they think. I’m going to cover that further on in a special section on ‘Developing organizational guidelines and social media polices’.
Cultural diversity, which is opened up within online environments, make it much more difficult for organizations to be able to predict all the different ways that their own communications messages may be interpreted within an SNS. Consequently organizations need to exercise caution when communicating inside these networked environments.
In the next post in this series
This first post in the series sought to frame better some of the problems that the Internet has caused, and how some of the elements that as communications experts we were able to have some degree of control over have now been catapulted into a global context.
I work with social media and internet marketing every day, but I want to be critical of it for a minute because I’m not looking to sell you a service, I’m actually looking to help your own understanding of this space. And critiquing the online world is in very short supply: in 2009 two researchers carried out a study looking at an entire year’s worth of editions of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to see whether the stories they published were actually supported by evidence. When they isolated social media related studies do you know that only one-third of them actually had hard-evidence. I therefore hope with these posts to make you and your organization more critical of the tools you use.
In the next post I’m going to look specifically at charity sector, and I will cover:
Risks – that’s right what you as a charity could be risking by joining a social media network.
Limitations – we’re so used to hearing how great and inclusive social networks are for everyone, but there are limitations that as a charitable organization you need to be aware of.
Effectiveness – what is stopping your organization from being effective in the internet context, I’ll make this case with diagrams too!