The Wisdom and Foolishness of Crowds

In his 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suroweicki helped us understand how a diverse collection of information from independently thinking individuals can result in a more better or more accurate decisions and predictions than individual experts. That’s good news for a democracy!

With the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, businesses and brands have sought to use social media listening platforms to learn more about their consumers and identify emerging trends and opportunities. But businesses need to exercise caution in thinking that the information they gain from these platforms is coming from a “wise crowd”.

In a thought-provoking article in the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer pointed to a recent study finding that the interconnectedness created by our social networks actually decreases the collective wisdom of the crowd. We are more frequently influenced by the expressed thoughts and opinions of others, and the real-time nature of social networks can create a powerful trend towards “group-think”. While our instinct would suggest that the access to a larger volume of information would make each of us smarter, the reality is that the volume forces us to put tighter filters on what we allow ourselves to read, see, and consider. Each of us is more likely to listen to a friend, or someone who shares our own opinions, and so be reinforced in our existing opinions,

So, while social listening platforms can provide excellent anecdotal information, we need to be careful that the “crowd” to which we are listening is “wise”. According to Surowiecki, three key criteria separate wise crowds from irrational ones: diversity of opinion, independence (people’s opinions aren’t determined by those around them) and decentralization. We may want to “tune” our listening platforms to assign relatively more importance to individual comments, and relatively less weight to the feedback. We need to be careful not be be swayed by sheer numbers and to trace sources: if thousands of tweets can all be traced back to a single information source, one can hardly argue that diversity, independence and decentralization are at play.

Does this mean that brands shouldn’t pay attention to “group think”? Not at all! A brand ignores the “group” at its peril: just ask United and the 11 million folks who have watched a video about their terrible baggage handling of one guitar! Or the 40 million folks who watched the Old Spice responses campaign in one week. The group “herd” mentality can help or hurt brands. We just need to be careful about how we seek to learn from the crowd.

We are the World: Mary Meeker’s Insights from Web 2.0

Mary Meeker  is a rock star of the digital world, and her presentation at this week’s  Web 2.0 Summit was as fact filled and interesting as ever. The trends that jumped out at me:

People of the world are truly becoming connected to each other – and mobile platforms will accelerate this trend.

  • 81% of the users of the top 10 internet properties (Google, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.) are outside the United States. It’s no surprise that the immense populations of India, China and Russia are rapidly connecting to the internet, and there is still room for them to continue to grow. But who would have expected that Nigeria and Iran would add so many? And where was the largest percentage growth? The Philippines.
  • 85% of the world’s population is covered by commercial wireless signals – more than the reach of the electric grid.
  • World trade is 24% of global GDP, compared to 10% in 1960.

Mobile platforms are taking over desktop-based platforms in the near future and marketers must be ready.

  • Phones that are internet-enabled (smartphones) grew 35% globally and already represent over half of the total mobile market in many markets. Shipments of smart phones now exceed feature phones in Western Europe and the US and the rest of the world will follow this trend.
  • Mobile use of search engines, applications, and e-commerce are ramping up sharply. Consumers say the biggest reason they abandon an in-store shopping experience is because they found a better price elsewhere, using their smartphone to check pricing.
  • Advertisers have a big opportunity in reaching consumers via a mobile device: while consumers spend 8% of their time with mobile media, advertisers are currently allocating only .5% of their advertising budgets to the mobile channel.

Social technologies are no longer a separate channel – social is core to every digital experience.

  • In June of 2011, consumers time spent on social channels exceeded that of large Internet portals (AOL, Yahoo, MSN) for the first time.
  • Facebook now has over 800 million global active user, 50% of whom log on each day. Facebook is third in total internet traffic after the search giants Google and Microsoft.
  • There are more social networkers today than there were total internet users in 2006.
  • USA consumers are only #12 in the time spent using social networks:  Israel, Argentina and Turkey are at the top of the list. (Countries of “the Americas” make up 8 or the top 12.)

Our voices –  and our ears – will become important again.

  • In recent years, texting and apps have become the dominant way that people use their phones – actually making phone calls and talking to people has become a much smaller percentage of total usage.
  • Voice and sound recognition technologies are beginning to be deployed in our devices, and as these technologies continue to improve in quality and affordability, we will increasingly use these enhanced tools to allow us to see and hear the people at the other end of our connection. This could give brands an unprecedented way to connect directly with consumers.
  • The “face” of the brand may need to become a real person – or group of people. The internet makes business transparent – it’s pretty hard to hide behind a corporate entity. Brands will need to become comfortable with allowing consumers see the person(s) “behind the curtain”.

A video of Mary’s presentation is available on YouTube.

Facebook and Branded Social Actions

Mark Zuckerburg has articulated the mission of Facebook thus: Give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. The core of Facebook is that power to share. For marketers that seek to connect with Facebook’s over 800 million users, that means creating something worth sharing, and making sure they find it. In the guide for marketers, Facebook recommended that 20% of your budget goes to building an app and 80% on promoting it. While that may seem self-serving for Facebook, the fact is that it is the same principle that has always been the case with marketing messaging: whether creating a television ad, sponsoring a concert tour, or building a web site, content distribution has always formed a larger part of the promotional pie compared to the content creation.

Brands have to figure it out: in the US, Facebook accounts for 16% of total time online, and that percentage continues to increase at steep rate. The folks from 360i put it this way: marketers must become part of consumer’s personal stories in a shareable way.

The most important place for a brand to be within a consumer’s Facebook page, is in the Timeline. It’s also the most difficult place to be: the Timeline is controlled by the consumers, and represents what that person sees as the most important parts of their lives; those things that define them and that they want to share with others. One big change for brands: if a brand fan clicks “like” on a brand status update, this action will no longer show up in the fan’s news feed – the fan must take some action, such as “share” the content, before it will show up to their network.

Brands that provide something fun or useful will become part of the Timeline as they provide applications that cause a consumer to “do” something with their brand. The new emphasis on verbs: reading, watching, etc. will allow consumers to talk about real interactions with brands – IF the brand provides something that’s worth doing. 360i’s report calls these “branded social actions”.

With Facebook’s new Ticker functions, brands will want to learn more about when their consumers are using Facebook, and test to learn what timing and frequency of posts generates the most interaction.

As a brand rolls out a new application intended to generate these branded social actions, the distribution strategy will likely need include the purchase of media to be sure that enough folks see it to get the social ball rolling. The guidance to marketers distributed by Facebook places a lot of emphasis on the use of Sponsored Stories, and that’s no surprise. While it certainly drives revenue for Facebook, these Sponsored Stories units have proven to be successful in generating traffic to brand content – and the better the content, the more Sponsored Stories will be generated. It’s a logical step for marketers to include these units in their campaign plan. It will also be important to connect all other media placements to the Open Graph, so that every traffic driver your brand uses will generate a branded social action to bring more consumers to the great content you have created.

Headlines Matter: Blogging 101

Am I the only one who gets discouraged seeing a headline like this one from Mashable today: 62 New Digital Media Resources You May Have Missed? And  that doesn’t even include the “Top Ten Stories we Almost Posted“. It’s next to impossible to keep up with everything that is happening in the technology world. The good news is: I don’t have to! There are lots of other folks doing it for me, and all I have to do is scan the headlines of blogs from the likes of Mashable, TechCrunch and Fast Company. Columnists at each of these publications give us a terrific head start as we think about how a new development will affect our own business.

As I looked through the list in Mashable’s article, I realized what journalists are taught from day one: the headline is critically important. As I looked through the list of 62 articles, the only thing I had to go on was the headline. It’s blindingly obvious: if the headline looks like it would be relevant to my work, or something that might add something interesting to my day, I click on the link.

It’s even helpful for my own use. I tend to write posts that are directly related to something I’m working on at the time I write, and my area of focus changes all the time. By distilling the essence of the post into a few words, I can follow how my own thinking is evolving about a topic.

So, a new goal for myself: be clear about the central idea of each post, and make the headline reflect that idea. How did I do on this one?