Putting the Engage back in “Engagement”

Engagement has become a catch phrase within the world of social media as of late. Commun.it and other services market themselves as engagement platforms. There are many articles talking about the importance of this concept of “engagement”. The gist focuses on how to maximize the benefits of your relationships. Commun.it, for example, gives you a measure of your “high-value members” and even tells you who you should “unfollow”. In its barest form, the term engagement seems to first and foremost refer to a relationship of mutual benefit. This is quite different from its root word–

“To Engage” means: (definition thanks to the powers of Google!):
1. “Occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention).”
2. “Cause someone to become involved in (a conversation or discussion).”

It seems that if engagement refers to strengthening a reliable core then to engage refers to extending the fringes. This challenges traditional conceptions of outreach where the watchword is more often than not “key demographics.” Of course there is a very practical reason for this. Outreach of any type is quite an investment- both of time and money. In marketing, for example, you would quickly find yourself out on the street if you suggested advertising Gucci in a fly fishing magazine and of course vice-versa. This is also the reason why growing up in Los Angeles I saw precious few Republican Presidential campaign ads. Similarly, an organization may tend to focus its engagement efforts on its most lucrative donors.

Practically speaking this is not a sustainable strategy. Many organizations learned this first hand in the 2008 economic crisis. Universities fell far short of their fundraising goals as their reliable donors grappled with their personal financial woes. Many non-profits ended up going under because their financial backing evaporated. The most recent Presidential campaign similarly told of the flaws of a traditional engagement perspective. The GOP is now working over time to try to expand its voter base particularly to the Latino population. Moreover even when there is an engagement strategy this does not gurantee that it is actually reaching customers in the way that it is intended to. A recent study by Forbes shows that there is a fundamental disconnect between what businesses see as successful marketing engagement and what makes consumers feel engaged.

It is high time to make a return to the core of engagement– to engage. Now let me be clear: this does not mean simply hanging around the web and having conversations with random people. Rather I’m talking about using social media to strategically engage. This was one of the keys to the success of the Obama campaign. In the final weeks of their campaign they sent out messages to users of their Facebook app with messages to share with specific friends in swing states. The messages came in four types: targeted videos, donation appeals, registration reminders, or encouragement to vote. They determined which message to send based on detailed demographic data they collected about each user. The success of this strategy is undeniable- over 600,000 users of the app sent on the message to their friends.

Engaging a community will look different in each circumstance. In a recent blog post, Mark Schaefer argues that engagement must be a component of a larger overarching business strategy. The title of his article says it all: “Social Media is not an ‘engagement’ strategy.” Part of his argument is that you must have time to engage and for many businesses this is not a viable option. This echoes part of the argument I made in a prior post– Facebook and Twitter are not Magic Beans. You must have a reason and strategy for building a community and a goal in mind for them to achieve be it extending your brand to a new market or building a grassroots movement. Moreover, this will take time- lots of time because “to engage” means to converse. It is a dialogue as opposed to a monologue. But, as the Obama campaign demonstrates and, I have to add, my own experience in the reinstatement of the University of Virginia’s President this past June, strategically engaging in outreach can be an incredibly powerful and rewarding tool.

Facebook and Twitter are not Magic Beans

The place of social media within society is still a highly contentious issue. For its most ardent advocates it has become something of a deus ex machina for every societal ill. This view cropped up recently in Thomas Freedman’s article giving advice to incoming Secretary of State John Kerry. He suggests using social networks (read: social media) to deal with everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the negotiations with Iran over nuclear arms. Aside from the political naiveté of this piece which has been well laid out elsewhere, this is emblematic of this belief that social media is a “fix-it” tool. The political degeneration of the so-called “Facebook/Twitter Revolution” in Egypt demonstrates the fallacy of the belief that using Facebook or Twitter has any magical powers. Why should Facebook posts or Tweets matter to a domestic government? Sure it matters to the International Community- abuse can be reported and organizations such as Human Rights Watch can mount campaigns but this is independent of the process of actual political change. In the aftermath of the revolution, analysts revealed that the central utility of social media was its ability to rally people together. The fact that it took a mere 18 days is touted as a direct result of Social Media. Yet harken back to the fall of the Soviet Union- the communist government in Czechoslovakia fell in a mere 10 days. Please don’t get me wrong- my goal is not to minimize this achievement- and it would be completely false to say that social media didn’t play an important role. Rather it is to push back against the idea that social media is in and of itself as a game changer.

At this point you are probably asking why I am going to such lengths to hammer this home. It is because I believe that social media can be a game changer- but the power lies in its implementation. It is not enough to start a Facebook page or a Twitter account. What do 2,000 “likes” on your Page actually mean? So what that your hashtag went viral? One thing that a few journalists have discussed when talking about the Egypt revolution is the way that Social Media allowed for a sense of solidarity across state borders. This is actually very similar to what occurred during the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Students and activists were emboldened by stories of the East Germans and Poles standing up to their regimes. Social media is about dialogue- about engagement. 

I believe much of the current confusion lies in the fact that everyone recognizes the power of social media as an idea but they fail to implement it as such. Instead it becomes an additional tool- and let’s be honest, often a rather disappointing tool. My mother-in-law works as a social justice minister and recently told me that the most “likes” she received on a post was from one that she quickly typed up as a heartfelt response to a tragedy that had occurred. She didn’t understand why that as opposed to her normal posts which were well thought out and included links to issues that needed attention, should receive more attention.

To make use of social media the first step is to recognize that it is more than another tool of communication. It is best approached in that way that one would approach understanding a foreign land. There are norms, a culture, and distinct institutions. Now here’s the ironic thing. Most likely you are already aware of all of this because you are an inhabitant of this land. As a user of a social media platform you have an instinct for what is acceptable and what is not. Stylistically you know that there is a difference between posting on Twitter and Facebook (and it is more than just the 140 character limitation). Moreover, you know that you are in different frames of mind when you are on Facebook versus Twitter versus LinkedIn versus Tumblr. It is time to ask yourself why you use social media in your private day-to-day life. Is it to keep it touch with family and friends? Is it to stay up to date with the latest news? Or is it simply to give yourself a mental break? Now think about what it would take to engage a user like you. What would you be attracted to? Why would you engage? As I wrote in my post on the Oreo versus Coke Chase campaign, a major difference between the two is that Oreo choose to enter into the humorous Twitter conversation during the blackout. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, was intent on creating its own conversation. Oreo engaged while Coca-Cola simply used social media as another marketing tool. To truly grasp the full potential of social media organizations must focus on facilitating engagement- and this will differ, sometimes radically, case by case. 

The world of social media is exciting. It is a new frontier in many ways. In order to embrace this we must be willing to treat it as such and that will often mean throwing away the rule book and stepping out into the Great Unknown.

The Internet as an Idea: Celebrating Mosaic’s Twentieth Birthday

Its been twenty years since Mosaic was introduced to the world as a way to “browse” the World Wide Web. The excitement is palpable in a New York Times article introducing the browser. It is described as, “a map to the buried treasures of the Information Age.”  There was a general giddiness at the thought of having the ability to communicate and share information with people around the world. In some quarters- particularly the philosophical ones, there was a belief that the Internet might prove to be the elusive “public sphere”– a place where citizens could come together in serious and respectively debate about contentious topics. So how does the present measure up to that dream?

Like anything that includes the ideal of freedom, it’s been a rocky road. The first group outside of Academia to really take advantage of the Internet was the porn industry. On July 3, 1995, TIME magazine’s cover read “CYBERPORN” and asked “Can we protect our kids, and free speech?” In the name of the dream, porn became protected under Freedom of Speech. Written content has also proved controversial. What should we do with Forums advocating violence? Domestic Terrorism? The rise of social media during the past few years means that children must now deal with Cyberbullying.

All of these are serious issues that must be addressed. Yet to view the Internet according to these attributes is to risk missing the forest for the trees.  Taken in the aggregate, the tale of the Internet is one of progress. In the early days only a few key demographics were populating the internet- the net looked more like the jungle of streets in downtown Manhattan than an “information superhighway.” A lot of the content available, therefore, was the bad and harmful stuff. It took the development of online exclusive content via services such as YouTube, Facebook, and Wikipedia to attract other demographics onto the net. I think we can all agree that the quality of information on the Internet has increased in leaps and bounds since those early days. Of course you can always find wackos and bullies but in many ways that actually reaffirms the degree to which the Internet has become more representative of the offline world.

So how should we look at the past twenty years? To say that it’s complicated is an understatement. Much of this is based on the fact that we do not expect the Internet to be simply a tool- we expect it to be something larger than life. The Internet is every bit an Idea as it is a physical network of applications. The past twenty years tell a story of constant progression towards the Idea of an interconnected world. But like any Idea, it has generated strong opposition and at times vicious disagreement. Aaron Schwartz’s more than tragic suicide is emblematic of this “digital divide”. Hopefully this tragedy will spark serious dialogue between these opposing camps and what better time to do so than on the twenty year anniversary of Mosaic.

The history of the Internet has been fraught with trials and tribulations but also full of amazing achievements. Any assessment of its use must take the bad with the good and also include the fact that the Internet is a creature of progress- ever changing and expanding. Always reaching towards that elusive dream of connectedness.

How the Oreo #blackout Ad Upstaged Coke Chase

No matter who you were cheering for I think we can all agree that Super Bowl XVII was one for the books.  Leading up to the game there was the family drama of the Harbaugh Bowl, the controversy surrounding Ray Lewis, not to mention the fact that both the Ravens and the 49ers were underdogs. The game itself proved equally exciting- the Ravens trounced the 49ers in the first half 21-6, Beyonce rocked out on the stage during half-time, Jacoby Jones made a record-tying 108 yard kick-off return touchdown, there was a 34 minute game delay due to a power outage, and then the Ravens (the underdog underdogs) won. Success during yesterday’s game depended on flexibility and endurance.

Within minutes of the lights going out, while the CBS sideline reporters struggled to put sentences together, Oreo seized the opportunity to tweet out what buzzfeed calls, ” a perfectly zeitgeisty” ad.

Their timing was perfect. The 34 minute power outage set Twitter aglow with an average of 231,500 tweets per minute according to Elaine Filadelfo from Twitter’s media team. These are the moments when the power of Twitter as a giant community becomes apparent. From lighthearted conspiracies about Jake Harbaugh cutting the wires to jokes about Beyonce’s electrifying performance (insert groan here!) everyone joined in the fun. Oreo’s ad hit the mood spot-on– it was quickly retweeted over 14,500 times!

Retweets are the twitter goldmine for corporations! Think about it- if you see a sponsored tweet there’s a strong chance you will probably ignore it. BUT what if your friend retweets a sponsored tweet to you? Suddenly that same tweet gains personality –you now know that your friend they it to be funny/insightful/useful, etc. and  you will be more likely to check it out. Moreover if you like it then you may choose to retweet it yourself. This is what happened last night with Oreo’s tweet.

To be overly dramatic- last night Oreo was able to step outside of its corporate shell and mingle with the unwashed Twitter masses. This is the type of engagement that social media nuts drool over. Ironically, it is also the type of engagement that Coca-cola was attempting to stimulate last night through its astronomically expensive “Mirage” campaign. By all rights this should have been today’s social media story. Coke created a “choose-your-own-adventure” style commercial that pitted three groups of characters- #CokeBadlanders, #CokeShowgirls or #CokeCowboys- against each other attempting to win an elusive Coke. [spoiler alert: the Showgirls won!] Coke utilized all of their social media accounts to post real-time updates as the race progressed and to urge fans to cast their vote.

Coke planned this campaign for months and it shows. I was actually quite impressed with the way that they tailored their campaign to the cultures of the individual social media platforms.

On their Facebook page they added their own twist to the popular “ERMAHGERD” meme 

Over on Tumblr they tried their hands at making a glitterbomb giff:

“When you ask for Coke at a restaurant, but the server tells you they don’t have it.

According to mashable, over the course of the campaign which started January 22nd, 1.3 million people visited cokechase.com and over 900,000 votes were cast.

Coke’s goal was to generate engagement with consumers in a way that would continue throughout the year. If engagement is generating laughter then sure Coke succeeded. My hunch, however, is that their idea of engagement hits closer to mimicking some form of a fan base and I’m just not convinced that this campaign did that- or really could ever do that.

I would argue that Pepsi’s behind the scenes spoof of the Coke Chase has probably generated a similarly amount of engagement for Pepsi as Coke Chase did for Coke. Coke’s advertisement was too overworked. Just like early 1990s websites went overboard on the bouncy icons and early 2000s movies went nuts on the computer generated graphics so I believe the current use of social media tends towards the “more is always better” Lady Gaga effect. While these campaigns use social media tools – they are less likely to reap the unique benefits of social media– such as engagement.

To engage in social media is to be willing to step away from the corporate hubbub and rules of marketing. It is in the conversation. Coke attempted to generate its own conversation. Oreo decided to simply join in. It is as simple as that.

Imagining an Interconnected World

Imagine a world that transcends national borders. Where distance has no meaning. Where all it takes is a cellphone to allow someone living in the inner city projects to communicate his or her thoughts in the same sphere as a trust-fund blue blood. Identity is fluid. This is the world in which we now live.COINsCon09_cloudNow before you dismiss me as an early-1990s internet idealist let me make it clear that there are tons of barriers still out there to be surmounted. Many people in the world cannot afford the technology necessary to link in to the network. Governments such as China and Iran erect firewalls to prevent external access. Moreover, the world of online interactions raises all sorts of other challenges. Anonymity also creates new opportunities for the dark side of human nature of emerge- from flame wars to stalking to identity theft.

Yet these detractions do not mean social media should be pushed aside. Technological innovations are changing the way that we interact with each other. Social media is far more than simply using Twitter and Facebook to procrastinate or gossip.