In the fast-changing world of digital marketing, one has to keep up-to-date. I recently attended a digital industry trade show/ conference: I met my client as arranged, we did some business and we said goodbye. I then walked round the stands looking for anything new and interesting. The ‘usual suspects’ were in evidence. There were various ladies with lots of make-up, wearing shorts and high heels, walking round in pairs giving out bits of paper (at a digital marketing event?) and smiling with as much sincerity as they could muster. There were the ‘mobile masseuses’ accosting bemused delegates as they staggered around with carrier-bags laden with bumph. A truly horrible cup of expensive coffee, then on to mingle with the massed ‘digerati’ at the free seminars.

Interestingly, the lengths of the queues varied: notwithstanding any bias in the show attendees, I suggest this was a good barometer of which topics within digital marketing are ‘hot’ right now. The approximate pecking order (in ascending order of popularity) was:

Affiliate Marketing
Email Marketing
Web Analytics
Paid Search
Google AdWords basics
Social Media/ Online PR

In other words, if you wanted to hear an internationally-renowned, cutting-edge Affiliate Marketing Guru explaining his/ her craft, you were welcomed with open arms by the lady scanning your badge and ushered with a friendly smile to one of the best seats, whereas for “How smart marketers tweet – 49 Twitter secrets” (or something) they were queuing round the block for an hour beforehand (and even then many delegates were turned away with a different sort of smile and the suggestion they might “watch the presentation online” instead).

Social Media is certainly ‘hot’ right now. More and more consumers and business decision makers are spending more and more time on social networks (via Desktop PC, Mac, Laptop, Netbook or mobile device). For brands, it is undoubtedly possible to use Social Media to engage people in a very powerful way. For brand owners keen to dip their toes in the water, there is plenty of advice around. However: currently only a few of the self-proclaimed Social Media ‘experts’ appear to truly understand Social Media Marketing and even some of them are bluffing. These are still early days.

Suppose we open our favourite search engine and search for: “Social Media training courses”. We get a lot of sites (and even more courses) to choose from.

Bing: 29,200,000 results
Yahoo!: 36,900,000 results
Google: 86,100,000 results

So Social Media is what everyone wants to know about currently. Let’s have a look at what we mean by it, why marketers (and others) are so interested and how brands can participate successfully.

What is (are?) Social Media?

Social Media are distinct from industrial media, such as newspapers, television, and film.” Wikipedia

(but who ever heard of ‘Industrial Media’? And if it exists, can we make money out of it?)

The use of the term ‘Social Media’ has risen steadily over the last couple of years. From a slow start, it has gathered momentum and now suddenly it’s everywhere.

Social networks like Facebook or MySpace are online ‘places’ where people with common interests or concerns come together to meet similar people, to network, express themselves and share their thoughts. Brand owners can use social networks to understand what people are saying about their brand and to start a dialogue, a conversation with current and prospective customers.

Who are the players?


Launched in 2003 by a group of eUniverse employees including Brad Greenspan (eUniverse’s Founder, Chairman, CEO), who managed Chris DeWolfe (MySpace’s starting CEO), Josh Berman, Tom Anderson (MySpace’s starting president), and a team of programmers and resources provided by eUniverse. MySpace was the first true social network and grew rapidly; the parent eUniverse was acquired in July 2005 for US$580 million by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Interactive Media, part of News Corporation. Of this amount, approximately US$327 million has been attributed to the value of MySpace. MySpace became the most popular social networking site in the US in June 2006.The 100 millionth account was created on August 9, 2006. According to comScore, MySpace was overtaken internationally by main competitor Facebook in April 2008, based on monthly unique visitors.Today,  MySpace employs 1,000 employees, after laying off 30% of its workforce in June 2009.

MySpace would appear to be in decline, possibly terminal.


Bebo, allegedly an acronym for “Blog early, blog often” is a social networking website, founded in January 2005. It is popular in many countries including Ireland, Canada, the United States, the UK, New Zealand and Australia. A Polish version was launched recently and there are plans for French, German and other versions. Founded by husband and wife Michael and Xochi Birch, Bebo had a major relaunch in July 2005 . It was bought by AOL in March 2008 for $850m (£417m). This now looks like a lot of money as Facebook and other networks continue to take users from Bebo….


YouTube is a video sharing website on which users can upload and share videos. Three former PayPal employees created YouTube in February 2005. In November 2006, YouTube, LLC was bought by Google Inc. for $1.65 billion, and is now operated as a subsidiary of Google. The company is based in San Bruno, California, and uses Adobe Flash Video technology to display a wide variety of user-generated video content, including movie clips, TV clips, and music videos, as well as amateur content such as video blogging and short original videos. Most of the content on YouTube has been uploaded by individuals, although media corporations including CBS and the BBC, offer some of their content via the site, as part of the YouTube partnership program.There are also ‘official’ brand-owned channels, where TV commercials and brand-related films can be viewed.


If MySpace has lost its ‘Mojo’, Facebook has grabbed it.

Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004 with his Harvard University college roommates and fellow computer science students Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes.Facebook recently claimed 250million active users (out of 300million registered users) with over 120million of these visiting the site at least once per day.The free-access social network lets people connect with their friends, post photos and videos, share links, plan events and learn more about the people they meet. Although Facebook started as purely a ‘social’ network, for brands, there are now opportunities to recruit and talk to users (=’fans’).These pages can be public and therefore ‘crawlable’.

Facebook dominates Social Media (especially in the US and UK) and it continues to grow. Facebook accounts for 74% of all time spent by UK users on social networks (Nielsen, November 2009); this time itself is up 83% on 2008. It offers brands a chance to recruit fans via Facebook Pages, and also Facebook Advertising, where you can choose to pay per click (CPC) or impression (CPM).

Facebook’s US monthly unique visitors grew from 92.2m in August 2009 to 95.5m unique visitors in September 2009. (comScore).


LinkedIn is a social network for professionals launched in May 2003. Users create a profile summarizing their professional achievements. They can then connect with former co-workers and professional contacts, adding them to their LinkedIn network. Through LinkedIn, users can search for jobs, find new business opportunities, and network to further their careers. As of October 2009, it had over than 50 million registered users in more than 200 countries.


Flickr is an image and video hosting website, web services suite, and online community platform. Launched in February 2004 and acquired by Yahoo! in March 2005, In addition to being a popular website for users to share personal photographs, the service is widely used by bloggers as a photo repository. In April 2008, Flickr began to allow paid subscribers to upload videos, On March 2, 2009, Flickr added the ability to upload and view HD videos, and began allowing free users to upload normal-resolution video. As of October 2009 it claims to host more than 4 billion images.

and of course


Twitter is the Social Media sensation of the moment. In the UK, it has grown by an unbelievable 1,959% year on year (Nielsen). It has entered the mainstream with Celebrity ‘tweeters’ including:

Ashton Kutcher (3,945,588 followers)
Britney Spears (3,725,547 followers)
TheEllenShow (3,687,260 followers)
Stephen Fry (970,368 followers)

Twitter is, strictly speaking, not a social media network but a micro-blogging platform that enables its users to send and read messages (or ‘tweets’); text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the author’s profile page and delivered to the author’s subscribers (= followers). Users can send and receive tweets via the Twitter website, Short Message Service (SMS) or external applications. The 140 character limit on message length was initially set for compatibility with SMS messaging, and has brought to the web the kind of shorthand notation and slang commonly used in SMS messages. The 140 character limit has also spurred the usage of URL shortening services such as tinyurl, and, and content hosting services, such as Twitpic and NotePub to accommodate multimedia content and text longer than 140 characters.

Twitter, founded by Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams in 2006 has gained massive popularity worldwide. Twitter’s website attracted a total of 44.5 million unique visitors worldwide in June, 2009 (comScore); at this time it was involved in sharing the news about the Iran Election protests.

It is sometimes described as the “SMS of the Internet” since the use of Twitter’s application programming interface (API) for sending and receiving short text messages by other applications often eclipses the direct use of Twitter.

What we have to do is deliver to people the best and freshest most relevant information possible. We think of Twitter as it’s not a social network, but it’s an information network. It tells people what they care about as it is happening in the world.” Evan Williams

Twitter is ranked as one of the 50 most popular websites worldwide by Alexa’s web traffic analysis. Estimates of the number of daily users vary: Twitter does not release data on the number of active accounts.

RJMetrics has suggested:
-Twitter’s user growth has plateaued
-Over 14% of users don’t have a single follower, and over 75% of users have 10 or fewer followers.
-38% of users have never sent a single tweet, and over 75% of users have sent fewer than 10 tweets.
-1 in 4 registered users tweets in any given month.

Twitter received 20.9m unique visits from US users in September (ComScore) but this number should be treated with caution as the report only measures traffic pulled in by the main URL,, neglecting traffic on third party apps such as TweetDeck, which users access to monitor and publish tweets. TweetDeck alone accounts for an estimated 20% of all tweets. Twitter’s audience, therefore, is certainly much larger. In total, Twitter has raised over US$57 million from venture capitalists. It is currently unclear how and when the company plans to monetize the service.

Social networking sites sometimes unexpectedly cross borders: pioneering U.S. site Friendster, for instance, has faded dramatically at home but has found new and growing markets in Asia, while Google’s Orkut is the top network in Brazil. Many of Facebook’s biggest rivals around the world are local homegrown sites. With 200 million registered users, China’s Qzone claims to be the world’s largest social networking site, while VKontakte is far and away the No. 1 in Russia.

-VKontakte is a social network for Russian-speakers. It looks surprisingly like Facebook! VKontakte (Russian: Вконтакте), internationally branded VK, is the most popular social network in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. As of November, 2009, the network has more than 48 million users and averages over 1.5 billion daily pageviews and 9.5m visitors per day and is the leading site in Europe. As of March 19, 2009, VKontakte was ranked 28 in Alexa’s global Top 500 sites. In English “V Kontakte” is literally translated as “In Contact” or “In Touch”. Major Russian companies routinely send job offers via VKontakte. Most of the site’s users are university and high school students. However, as the site’s popularity increases, the demographic is getting older.


Started in San Francisco in 2002 but now draws 90% of its traffic from Asia. It has 105 million users. The top 10 countries accessing Friendster, according to Alexa, (2009) are the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, the United States, Singapore, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and India.


Another free-access social networking service owned and operated by Google.. The website is named after its creator, Google employee Orkut Büyükkökten. Although Orkut is less popular in the United States than Facebook and MySpace, it is one of the most visited websites in India and Brazil. In fact, as of May 2009, 49.83% of Orkut’s users are from Brazil, followed by India with 17.51%. Originally hosted in California, in August 2008 Google announced that Orkut would be fully managed and operated in Brazil, by Google Brazil, in the city of Belo Horizonte. This was decided due to the large Brazilian user base.


… is a hybrid social network and virtual world for teenagers; it combines elements of Second Life and Facebook. Some suggest the avatar-based interaction, networking in a space that feels real, using a ‘self’ that you can customize, points the way to the social networks of the future.

Back to the present: in September 2009 The top 10 UK Social Media sites measured by unique users (Nielsen) were:

1)   Facebook (22.81m)
2)   YouTube (16.25m)
3)   Wikipedia (14.20m)
4)   Blogger (7.71m)
5)   Yahoo Answers (7.28m)
6)   Twitter (4.43m)
7)   MySpace (4.16m)
8)   TripAdvisor (3.70m)
9)   BBC Communities (3.17m)
10) Bebo (3.15m)

-Blogs (=’web-logs’)

Notice that Blogger features in the list above. This is Google’s Blog platform; competitors include WordPress, TypePad and Live Journal. Blogs are one of many internet-driven phenomena. Today, pretty much anyone can be an author and their own publisher (yes, even me!). The only ‘barriers to entry’ are basically access to a computer and an internet connection…

Technorati lists an astounding 112 million blogs in the world today, and adds, “there are over 175,000 new blogs every day. Bloggers update their blogs regularly to the tune of over 1.6 million posts per day, or over 18 updates a second.” With such overwhelming numbers, clearly it is necessary to prioritize blogs in terms of their level of influence; (how many of your target audience actually read them, how many comment, interact etc) in order to assess their importance in Social Media terms and to determine which should be monitored and how closely. Truly influential bloggers merit individual contact (and account management) if at all possible, they should be cultivated, fed exclusives and generally kept ‘on-side’ (although many, like the best journalists, cannot be ‘bought’!)

What are key issues?

There are various heated debates currently going on in marketing circles about Social Media. Of course everything is changing all the time. The networks are adding new features, revamping their user interfaces, forming partnership with content owners, mobile handset manufacturers, network operators. Major structural changes are anticipated, e.g. Google moving further into Social Media, Twitter further developing real time search, and/ or selling (to Google? Facebook? Apple?), MySpace and Facebook forming an alliance etc. etc.

1) Who should be responsible for managing Social Media engagement?

This is a current and very lively debate. Part of the problem here is one of definition. All marketing disciplines and channels are interconnected: Social Media touches both online PR and SEO. Press releases can and should be keyword optimized (so that search engines can find them once they’re published on various sites); Social Media mentions (e.g. in a tweet, Facebook post or blog post) can drive site traffic and conversions, as do Pay Per Click (PPC), Online Display and offline advertising. Since SM is a high-profile growth area, lots of people want a piece of it:

a) In Brand Owner companies
There is no real consensus as to which department/s should be responsible for Social media. Candidates include:
Corporate Communications
Customer Services

?The reality is that Social Media touches all these departments, since a disgruntled customer ‘venting’ on Twitter might have a customer services issue, but could be tweeting angrily to his/ her followers which could be undoing the efforts of the Marketing and Corporate Comms people. Equally the new TV campaign might cause a ‘spike’ in brand mentions on Facebook, cut-downs tributes and parodies on YouTube and extra hits on the website.

In these pioneering days, corporations, governments and not-for-profits are coping with this issue in a variety of ways. I would personally recommend that one individual should be made responsible as the Social Media ‘Czar’, with the full support of senior management and a mandate to work across departments to ensure a ‘joined-up’ SM strategy. Good luck to this person; exciting job however!

b) Agencies
What does a ‘Social Media agency’ look like? What skill-set do they require? PR agencies certainly have a plausible claim to be the best qualified, in an online extension of their traditional role as builders and defenders of their clients’ reputations, so long as they truly ‘get’ digital. Many PR agencies have successfully reinvented themselves for the digital age. And It’s not just about pitching stories to journalists via tweets rather than Press Releases. Crisis management has long been a PR agency specialist service, and a swarm of negative tweets can these days be the first indicator of a gathering storm, as can an irreverent video appearing on YouTube. SEO agencies would appear to have a lesser claim; after all, ‘traditional’ SEO (organic search) is about helping Google, Bing et al to find your site, not proactively engaging consumers and participating in conversations. Difficulties arise when you consider that SEO can include activity designed to generate inbound links; a process to which Social Media can certainly contribute. Full service digital agencies, having already grabbed design and build, online display, SEO and paid search (PPC), now see Social Media (web-based and mobile) as their next growth opportunity. And of course all the ‘traditional’ ad agencies are now into digital(!).

For what it’s worth, I believe Social Media should be managed by a brand owner client in-house with the help and support (where needed) of an external Social Media agency. This agency might be ‘pure’ Social Media or a more integrated Digital Agency offering a blend of Paid Search, SEO and Social Media. It could be one of those PR agencies who have fully embraced digital, so that they now genuinely offer ‘online reputation management’. It could even be a traditional above-the-line ad agency who have finally caught up with digital and now have the right people in-house, including Social Media experts. Anyway: however they label themselves, they’d better understand Social Media and keep on top of it as it changes, as it inevitably will.

2) Resourcing

However Social Media Marketing is to be managed, it is crucially important to allocate sufficient resource; internal or external. Indeed this is the main cost of Social Media marketing: the sheer ‘person-hours’ required to listen and participate effectively. It is also important to make it 100% clear how much authority the individuals involved actually have: i.e. can they make up ‘policy’ on the hoof? What must be referred ‘up the line’? And all the while recognizing that these platforms are inherently spontaneous/ immediate so that delays in replying while appropriate clearance/ sign-off is obtained don’t play particularly well.

To highlight the difficulties which brand owners face in deciding in how to empower front-line social media staff while at the same time retaining appropriate control, here are some notable Social Media PR disasters:

Domino’s Pizza (‘disgusting people’)

Ketchum/FedEx how not to use Twitter

British Furniture Retailer Habitat had some over-zealous employees manning its Twitter Account 

Dell had some problems with Social Media but ultimately made the necessary changes and is now a success story

3) How do you monitor conversations?

You can’t engage with your audiences until you know where your brand is being discussed and what people are saying about it. You need to know how to listen effectively. After all this is in effect ‘free’ market intelligence about your customers and prospects. You need to be aware of changes of ‘online sentiment’ as expressed in Social Networks (public pages only), ‘The Blogosphere’ and in Online News Media. Keeping on top of all this can be a big job. For a big, high interest global brand, there may be many millions of mentions to monitor; the requirement is for Social Media Monitoring tools which can provide a user interface or ‘Dashboard’ to enable the brand owner (or their agency) to make sense of it all for so that useful, actionable insights can be drawn from this vast mass of data. Fortunately several excellent ‘Buzz Monitoring’ tools exist: Brandwatch (which I would recommend), Spectrum and Radian6 are appropriate at enterprise level, whereas for SMEs and individuals, there are various free tools (e.g. Google Alerts, Twitter Search and Addictomatic. As Social Media itself grows, the monitoring industry is expected to continue to expand.

4) Metrics/ measurement

This is currently a massive area of debate and indeed concern. It is important to recognize that the ‘jury is still out’ as to exactly how to demonstrate ROI on Social Media. There can be no doubt that lots of positive mentions of a brand in Social Media must be driving traffic to the website (ie helping with SEO) which must be leading to an increase in sales; all this is good. The challenge is actually to quantify the value of all this positive buzz and to compare with the time and money spent to generate it, i.e. to measure Return On Investment (ROI).

More research is needed to establish a tangible link between how many people are talking positively about brands versus the expected uplift in sales” – Econsultancy.

In a brand-owning company, the MD is likely to remark: “But you can measure everything online can’t you?” Well yes and no. We can certainly measure online behaviour (clicks, user journey, even eye-tracking on a given web page) but we can’t (yet) fully measure sentiment; how warm and/ or engaged people are really feeling towards the brand. Remember also that there are privacy issues; eg Facebook (unlike Twitter) is a closed community; only friends can monitor each other’s updates and conversations. You can get excellent metrics on mentions in Blogs, Facebook (public pages), Twitter, hits on your videos on YouTube, Google/Bing/Twitter searches on your various branded keywords, generation of inbound website links etc but monitoring awareness and attitude shift, and turning this data into accurate ROI numbers is a challenge that hasn’t yet been fully met.

We need to recognize that Social Media marketing is still in its infancy. Let us remember that traditional advertisers have been struggling with this issue for more than 50 years. As Ad Agency Planning Directors have been saying since the days of the ‘Mad Men’  just because you can’t completely measure an increase in name awareness, or customer engagement or positive reputation with 100% accuracy, that doesn’t mean the activity was a waste of time and money. Note that no-one talks about ‘monetizing’ TV ad spend, although the metrics have never been 100% robust. Indeed certain traditional advertising research techniques can usefully be employed to measure the ‘awareness/ attitude shift effect’ of much Social Media activity.

Facebook and AC Nielsen have announced ‘Brand Lift’  to demonstate the effect of Facebook advertising (including use of pre- and post- user surveys). Measurement Camp has been set up to develop open-source Social Media metrics. Unsurprising, we don’t yet have a common currency to measure Social Media ‘engagement’. Expect big changes in this area in the coming months.

Who’s getting Social Media Marketing right?

As we have seen, the first step is diligent and intelligent monitoring of the social media ‘buzz’ around your brand which is continuously taking place on social networking and micro-blogging sites like Twitter and Facebook. The next challenge is to participate in these conversations, in order to gain positive exposure for your brand, product, or service, without ‘selling’ too hard.

Dell, Starbucks, AmericanAirlines, BMW Mini, Lenovo and Amazon (among others) are all using Social Media to spot and fix problems, getting on to complaints early, moving fast to turn detractors into advocates, joining conversations, providing information and product news and in some cases to actually sell.

And also, interestingly, politicians and governments. On Twitter, we find:

“The official twitter channel for the UK Prime Minister’s Office”
489,030 Following
on 2,094 Lists

“Official WH twitter account. Comments and messages received through official WH pages are subject to the PRA and may be archived”
72 Following
on 6,095 lists

Location Washington, DC
Bio: 44th President of the United States”
750,808 following
on 18,068 lists

and last but not least,

@treatyoflisbon (European Union)
“Charter of Fundamental Rights to become law, protecting dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens’ rights, and justice”
0 Following
on 7 Lists

Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign has been paraded as a classic digital marketing case history. My view is that he inspired a lot of people to give money, and a lot of people to work very hard on his behalf; he was smart enough to include Social Media and other digital marketing alongside all the traditional fundraising and vote-winning techniques. Scott Goodstein was the Campaign Social Media mastermind and has given interesting interviews/ speeches about his role in the campaign which employed MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. (If the election were today, then no doubt Twitter would feature more prominently). President (then Senator) Obama announced the choice of Joe Biden as his running mate simultaneously by text, email and on Twitter.

Indeed politicians and governments all over the world are getting wise to the need to engage with their electorate, their citizens, via Social Media and the many advantages this can bring. Social networks are not only for making friends…

Last year YouTube received 11 million unique users from the UK and more than 35 million Britons visited a blog. People are using digital channels to talk to each other and to the Government. The Downing Street Twitter account is followed by more than 1.2 million people, more than the official White House Twitter and considerably more than the daily circulation on most national newspapers. It is vital that the Government understands the medium and uses it properly. If people want to engage with us online, we should be capable of engaging with them online.

(UK Cabinet Office, September 2009)

What about the future?

Social Media will be interconnected. Today, online social interaction is imperfect and disjointed because consumers have separate identities in each social network they are part of. In the near future, technologies that enable a portable identity will empower consumers to carry their identities with them, transforming marketing, CRM, and advertising. We are just seeing the beginning of this transformation, in which the Web will evolve step by step from separate social sites (‘walled gardens’) into a cross-channel shared social experience. Consumers will rely on their peers as they make online decisions, whether or not brands choose to be part of this. Socially connected consumers will form cohesive communities and shift power away from brands and their CRM systems; this will result in like-minded communities who will define the next generation of products. Forrester has spoken about the emergence of Social Relationship Management or SRM. Marketers will need to target these communities rather than individuals.

The future of Social Media is also mobile. This is natural and inevitable; people want to stay in touch; most of all when they are on the move between: home, work, school/ college, sports event, bar, friend’s house. The iPhone has changed the rules, the other smartphones have further empowered the consumer; all phones are getting more powerful and Social Media on mobiles will continue to grow. All the major social networks are working closely with mobile manufacturers and network operators.

Today brands are the sum of all conversations about them; the brand owners cannot fully control these conversations but they can influence them. It is essential to establish where these discussions are happening, to access these platforms, to listen, to understand and only then engage by joining the most relevant conversations where value can be added. That is social media marketing and as we have seen it is far from easy to do well and it’s changing continuously.

This is the time to get involved. Don’t wait. Tell senior management to trust you. You’re the visionary who’s taking the time to read this post. Sure, we can’t currently measure the ROI for everything we’re doing in Social Media. But that doesn’t mean we should stay away. On the contrary, strong and forward-thinking brands are already actively involved: listening, engaging, trying things, learning. These lessons will be valuable. Many are already paying back. It doesn’t need to be expensive (remember much of it is ‘free’ media), and it’s certain to be (part of) the future. These conversations about brands are going on NOW, whether the brand owners are participating (or even aware) or not.

As Social Media guru Larry Weber says: “It’s time you joined the conversation.”