February 27, 2014

Seven Keywords from Social Media Week NYC 2014

This past week, I attended Social Media Week here in New York City, at my company's sponsorship, and it was definitely an incredible experience. SMW has been held in NYC for the last six years, and I've attended the last three. Every year, I make some incredible connections, learn a heckuva lot, and came away with some great ideas and quotes that I intend to use.

The biggest change this year was them having a single, centralized location for the majority of the events. A single staging ground, combined with the volunteers actively clearing the room after each session, made this conference a lot more tolerable than it has been in years before. In addition, I no longer work in Financial District and have to "commute" to Flatiron; the stage was in this CRAZY out of the way location (over by Chelsea Market, at 15th and 9th Ave) but I work in Flatiron now, so getting to the convention center was a matter of two trains and walking a good block and a half. Basically: it wasn't too bad.

It was also the largest Social Media Week I've ever seen. Talk after talk was filled to standing-room-only, and nearly every masterclass was filled to capacity. Most of the panels and talks were also streamed by LiveStream, and the videos continue to remain in perpetuate, linked from the individual event pages. I attended about half of my planned events digitally and half physically, and the experience for both was comparable. We live in the future, and it's basically amazing.

I often have found that Social Media Week tends to talk to large agencies and PR firms more than startups and smaller houses. That was not the case this year; there's a convergence happening in media, and large agencies have begun pushing towards representing themselves the way startups do, or at least engaging their users and fans in ways more in tune with new media entities (e.g. Buzzfeed, whose name was all over this year's SMW) and their strategies. Mercifully, "millennials" was a seldom-used word.

Like a Record, Right Round

In panel after panel, talk after talk, and class after class, I kept hearing the same seven words being used, and in the same way. When I say that agency and startups are converging, I mean that the primary strategy being employed and advocated by both realms is increasingly moving towards the same ideals. It reflects a greater transparency in the market, and a broader understanding of consumers today.

More importantly, there was a greater emphasis on community, on leveraging crowds of people who are already passionate about your product to create and drive value for your brand and your company.

The following seven words capture the most important lessons across channels and organization sizes. They cover ideas that were reiterated by agencies, startups, new media, old media, and purely-social players over and over, and seem to reflect the point towards which the "Web 2.0" wave is headed.


"The easiest way to lose your audience is to not engage with them on what they're talking about." -- Jim Roberts, Mashable.

Every media person at SMW this year was advocating for listening -- more notably, listening to users and digesting the conversations fully. Gross metaphors aside, this is novel compared to even just two years ago, when social was being leveraged as another, more personal broadcast medium. Indeed, it seems like a number of brands have been (and continue to be) using sponsored posts on Tumblr or promoted tweets on Twitter to spray and pray.

There's a clear movement away from this, one that I think has been gestating since roughly this time last year, however, to large brands listening and listening attentively and thoughtfully to what their consumers are telling them, as well as what the group they wish to target is like.

My first write-up about Social Media Week was about a Masterclass I attended about engaging subcultures. The hosts, Code and Theory, discussed how brands can break into subcultures. The primary starting point, they emphasized, was listening. Doing your due diligence ahead of time can pay off in spades, and not doing it can be irreparably damaging. Embracing a subculture means learning about that community's norms and means. You can't do that if you just talk all over them. Moreover, a subculture that's already using your product will provide you with excellent, focus-group-style feedback about where your product has inadequacies. If you can make their user experience even 1% better, you're already delivering value to the consumer. Those improvements can only be made if you listen -- both literally and metaphorically.

"You have to listen [to your audience] in the right way. Data can be dangerous. [...] Most people worry their actual users are idiots, because the data always seems to point to that." --Eli Pariser, Upworthy.

A key point of listening is also not getting buried in data. There's a lot of ways to track how your users are utilizing your product, and testing can reveal a great deal about your users' responses to design and functionality changes. However, data can also be overwhelming. Listening to users directly, in smaller aggregates, can be more manageable as well as meaningful. You can't do this with data alone; communities provide the structure and space for feedback of this type.

In addition, interacting with your users in this manner will lead you to see nuances in your audience -- nuances that would otherwise get filtered out. Aggregate data will always lack the granularity you need if your product is cross-functional. Looking at your userbase as a mass of screens is the wrong approach, one that was panned repeatedly.


Jonathan Perelman: Are we trying to force the "perfect thing at the right time in the right place" too much?

Mohan Renganathan: I think so. I think, however, the key is picking the moments: it's not every single time something notable happens. It's gotta be connected to some aspect of the consumer, the brand, and how they come together.

I attended this year's SUXORZ panel, an annual event hosted by BlogAds that I love going to. Why? Because it showcases the biggest "whoops" moments in social media. It serves as a masterclass in, "Never, ever do this -- ever." SUXORZ demonstrated some of what the above quote is hinting at: that you can't engineer the moment, and you can't insert yourself into any moment willy-nilly. Take the following social media gaffes, which were all featured last week, and you can understand why "organic" was the word of the week:

Co-opting current events to draw attention to your brand almost always backfires. Go through the process organically; honor heroes, highlight relevant stories, and make choice that are both true to the integrity of the organization as well as to the voice of the brand. Which segues nicely into the next point.


Know what your brand is and what it stands for. -- Code and Theory

You've got to be true to the brand, and to the voice that you curate for it. More personally, don't put on a personality when representing either yourself or the brand. Moreover, don't "fake" the attitude of your audience; either be that person or find a voice that appeals to them without necessarily creating an echo chamber.

Code and Theory pointed out that communities like Reddit have a low tolerance for manipulation and for brands playing games. As with any close-knit, bonded community (i.e. a valuable community), they are sensitive to "outsiders" coming in and appearing to take over as the primary voice. Communities like these don't take kindly to brands attempting to own or overpower the conversation, and attempts to do so will be met with backlash.

But it's not just the overt actions you take as a brand that matter; how you interact with your base on a day-to-day level matters. Comedy Central's Don Steele noted in a panel discussion with other Viacom social media managers that the best metric of success for them is seeing the conversation continue even when the franchise they're pushing isn't airing new content. This means keeping conversations going even when attention isn't focused on you or your product. It also means taking into account the previous section: keeping the conversation going, while staying true to your brand, means sparking organic conversations and perpetuating organic, productive discussions around your product, franchise, or offering.

Even for the perfect 30-second spot, there won't be that much socially-relevant branded chatter, and that's okay. If you try to chase that [kind of metric], you'll just be following a red-herring." -- Mohan Renganathan

Renganathan pointed out in his talk, also, that authenticity means capitalizing on a moment without looking like you're pushing your own agenda too intensely. The example he gave was how Arby's, instead of fighting the jokes about how Pharrel Williams's hat from the Grammy's resembled their logo, instead bought into the joke.


"We expect localization in mobile, so content has to create utility around those expectations." -- Liz Heron, WSJ.

There's an increasing dependence on mobile devices in how we access and interact with the internet. Some of this is convenience -- it's far easier to check email on a phone than stopping to open up a laptop, for example -- and some of this is necessity; many developing nations have more robust mobile networks than high-speed internet, and low-income residents in the US are more likely to have smartphones than laptops with internet access.

As this trend has continued, we've come to see more and more localization across the board. The advent of Web 2.0 technologies -- where users become empowered to create and adapt products to their own use, or "talk back" to the screen in some way -- means that when we went from low-scale-high-meaning (pre-Industrial Revolution) to high-scale-low-meaning (mass production), we swung too far in both extremes. Localization is pushing us towards a more central point in that continuum: modest scale, median meaning.

There was a lot of talk about the impact of this in marketing and social. Most notably, a multi-part seminar on the collaborative economy touched on the idea of local as leverage without explicitly mentioning it. When Marcelo Loureiro talked about risk management in a collaborative economy, he mentioned how face-to-face interaction lowered barriers to entry, encouraging people to share their bikes and other personal property. This interaction is inherently local and doesn't "scale" to anything resembling a national level. It's a purely regional construction, but it is no less powerful for it. Sometimes scale is the enemy, especially if what you're doing is inherently human.

"People are local." -- Howard Lerman, CEO of Yext.


"We have to ask ourselves, 'Would I share this myself?' [...] [As marketers, we are] trying to reach people, and people aren't silos." -- Jonathan Perelman, VP at Buzzfeed.

There was an underlying, consistent message that we not forget the humanity of the people we're trying to reach. When asked about encouraging adoption or advocacy of the brand, the response was consistent across speakers: appeals to the human being on the other side of the screen, not to their user behavior.

Eli Pariser of Upworthy perhaps spoke most at length about this, though Perelman (quoted above) was emphatic about tapping into the humanity of our users as well. People share things because they're emotionally moved by it, or it reflects some portion of their self-image -- that's it. Both of those reasons go back to Aristotle's writings on how persuasion happens on one of three levels. Ultimately, sharing is a big ask, so getting people to share requires a certain amount of persuasion.

To that end, if we want to overcome the barrier to sharing, we have to make it worth the audience's while. That means giving them moments of true emotion -- delight, sadness, rage, etc. -- or appeal to their aspirational selves, to their image of who the best version of themselves is. That's the hard-hitting journalism, the work from top-tier sources like HBR or WSJ or The Economist or an academic journal accidentally stumbled across. The content has to be varied, speaking to one or both versions of that self, while still remaining true to the brand voice.

"What constitutes a media brand? [...] Individuals build audiences and followings on their own [these days]." -- Chia Chen, Digitas.


"Fandom becomes the biggest advocates for what you are -- our job as marketers is to take the content and give people recognition and a little shine. It's not just precious to television." -- Tom Chirico, VP of Digital and Social Engagement at VH1

Making your community of fans -- whether they be die-hard fans of your TV show, or loyal customers of your product/service -- into advocates is a delicate balance of showcasing, shout-outs, and support. Empowering people means showing them that you -- that your brand or corporate or even just your social team -- cares about them in some meaningful way. It means surprising and delighting your customers in ways they won't expect, and each of them feel special without it seeming manipulative or false.

It's a pretty tall order!

The way to do this is to build upon the other pieces that I mentioned before: be authentic, either to your own voice or to your brand's; be people-focused, relating to users on a deeply human level by interacting with them beyond just the moments when they mention you/your product; try to bring them content or media that's immediately relevant to them or their interests, even if those extend beyond your own primary brand; start and continue conversations in a natural way, rather than cyber-stalking your top fans/detractors and keeping an watchful eye on them; stay true to your voice.

Look at how Taco Bell relates to its super-fans:


Users who fall in love with their brands become the strongest, more powerful advocates because their admiration is genuine. Finding a way to empower that relationship is a little bit "special sauce" and fairy dust, but the initial investment can yield extensive payoffs long-term.

"Fandom is not a 'one-night stand' -- it's a long-term relationship. Long-term relationships are fundamentally dependent upon listening. [...] You have to learn what makes the other person tick." -- Tom Fishman, VP of Content Marketing and Social Media at MTV.


"If you're a brand that has good core values [...] then your corporate social approach is going to reflect that." -- Mohan Renganathan

Everything boiled down to community. Beyond simply the wisdom of crowds, the underlying message is that an empowered, connected, legitimized group of individuals, either in an analog space or digitally, can be both massively valuable and drive a significant amount of revenue. Communities are the crux of what every marketing agent, every startup, every social media maven was working towards: finding relevant communities, coaxing nascent communities to an inflection point, and/or leveraging a mass of people to act as spokespeople.

At the end of the day, it's just as the Content and Distribution panel was titled: Content is King, but Distribution is Queen, and "She wears the pants," as Jonathan Perelman put it. The two survive together, and are deeply intertwined. Bad content gets distributed, but for radically different reasons than good content. Similarly, there's a badness threshold; content that's bad but not entertaining will simply languish. As Eli Pariser put it, "It is impossible to 'go viral' if people don't love what you're posting." They might love it because it's unabashedly terrible, but they love it all the same.

To that end, communities serve as gatekeepers and a full-scale in-house sharing team, but without the sense that this is all purely self-serving for the company. Communities also leverage the potential of groups; every single one of us can't do the entire project, but we can all add 1% to the whole. This is the very philosophy that built Wikipedia, and the sense that the efforts of the many can create the whole -- literally central to modern business -- was pervasive.

There and Back Again

Social Media Week has been an incredible experience for me, year after year, and I'm most moved by how the conversation has changed. I've literally watched as the conversation about social, about content, about messaging has moved from a purely broadcast model to one that really advocates listening to the customers and hearing what they have to say, and then responding to that feedback in a thoughtful, genuine way. I'm hoping that the purely-broadcast model is dead for good, and that we'll continue to see more and more a social media space that resembles who we are as a whole: a diverse patchwork of self-selected communities, each of us adding to the tapestry that is the Internet.

Hokey last lines aside, the seven keywords from this year's social media week make me excited to see what 2014 holds in store for us in marketing, community management, digital media, and whatever Web 2.5 or Web 3.0 ends up becoming. If you're developing "the next killer app," take note!