Thursday, May 7, 2009

The real difference between Twitter, Facebook and MySpace

For the last several months, every new client that's come to Cause+Effect has wanted to know the same thing - how are they supposed to decide which of today's most popular social networking sites - Twitter, Facebook and MySpace - they're supposed to use? What's the difference between them. And why are they suddenly being expected to manage so many different things all at once?

It's a good question. Six months ago most people in this country hadn't heard of Twitter, and thought only their kids used Facebook and MySpace (my mother conveniently calls the entire concept of social networking "My FaceSpace" - which I find adorable). Today, Oprah has introduced the concept of Twitter to the masses, Facebook drives more traffic on the web than Google, and MySpace is considered the future of the music industry.

[photo credit: psd]

Here's the thing. It's still just a giant conversation. As new as all of this seems - the truth is that human beings have conversations all the time. All different kinds of conversations. In all different kinds of places.

For a long time, the web was simply about listening. We read articles, we played games, we looked for portals that helped organize information. The introduction of social networking sites has allowed us to return to our conversational roots. It allows us to talk to each other. Because of that, it feels oddly familiar, but because it's online it often feels odd.

The trick is to relate these new online conversations back to our more familiar offline ones. Once we do that with our clients, their eyes light up and suddenly the whole idea doesn't seem nearly as daunting.

Here's our approach to social networking strategy at Cause+Effect:

Facebook conversations = Dinner conversations

This is a simple, and effective explanation of Facebook. We started using it several months ago, and it does the trick every time. Simply put, because the idea behind Facebook is to connect people that *already* know one another, conversations on Facebook follow similar rules as do those amongst friends and acquaintances around a dinner table.

The rules are:
- Be polite (Keep shop-talk and self-promotion to a reasonable minimum)

- Be interesting (Share items that others might find interesting to keep the conversation going. Personal tidbits, interesting current events, and quirky stories are all acceptable.)

- Be upbeat (Although it's likely that everyone at the table generally shares similar backgrounds and values, keep controversy to a minimum to help keep the conversation pleasant and light.

Twitter conversations = Cocktail party conversations

Because the idea behind Twitter is to allow you to connect people that you find interesting, but don't necessarily know, conversations on Twitter follow similar rules as do those amongst relative strangers at a professional or social mixer or cocktail party who have all been drawn to the event because of a shared interest or expertise.

The rules are:
- Stay on topic (On Twitter people are following their interests, rather than existing relationships. For that reason, people who demonstrate that they are the best sources of fresh, interesting information on a particular topic quickly develop the largest followings. Self-promotion, to the extent that it's useful and relevant to the conversation, is ok. Pure self-promotion, however, will get you ignored entirely.)

- Mingle (Conversations evolve organically on twitter, just like they do at a cocktail party. To be a part of the best conversations, you have to be sure you're moving around the room and keeping your ears open. Twitter has developed ways to track conversations using hashtags, retweets, and other loosely defined conventions to help users follow topics that matter to them.)

- Take turns (Good cocktail party conversations aren't dominated by one voice, be sure to find and follow others that are tweeting on topics that interest you and then dive in when you have something useful to say.)

MySpace conversations = High school cafeteria conversations

Because MySpace is all about self-expression, conversations on MySpace follow similar rules as do those amongst teenagers in a high school cafeteria. Conversations revolve around sharing personality driven topics - like music, art and fashion - rather than more content heavy topics like news and politics. People with similar tastes, who may or may not have a real-world relationship, are drawn to one another based on their aesthetic similarities.

The rules are:
- Express yourself (Invest time and energy in presenting a virtual persona that visually and functionally represents your best self. Keep it fresh and current on a regular schedule. It's your primary source of credibility.)

- Find your tribe (Find others who share your interests, reach out and make connections.)

- Interact (Not only do you have to keep your own persona fresh and relevant, you have to show the other members of your tribe that you are an active member of the group that contributes to the group's cohesion and overall cool-factor.)

The rules are familiar because at their core, they haven't changed at all. And the truth is, they apply whether the conversation happens in the real world or the virtual one.

They key - as always - is to know what kind of conversation you're having before you open your mouth.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Learning From the CDC's Response to the Swine Flu Epidemic

Yesterday's Advertising Age analyzes the CDC's response to this very scary Swine Flu - or H1N1 virus - epidemic from the point of view of PR and marketing.

[image source: The Huffington Post]

The key takeaway from the article, is that in a time of crisis, the best communication is "neither sexy nor flashy, but [is] highly effective -- and critically timely." When people are scared and confused, it takes clear, consistent and credible messaging to prevent widespread panic.

Of course the goal of any communications effort should be to deliver clear, consistent and credible messaging. For those of us who are professional communicators, acheiving those goals during a time of crisis is critically important.

During this Swine Flu crisis, the communications team at the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) has turned to Twitter (with nearly 40,000 followers), a web-based "scorecard" on its front page, embedded mobile content, RSS feeds, and a prominent feedback form to help keep accurate information flowing out to the public.

The AdAge article is worth a read in its entirety - but its key points (with my summaries in parentheses) are:

Empower Those Who Want to Help Others: (Providing a central location for accurate and timely information is key)

Make Search Really, Really Simple and Accessible: (Duh)

Syndicate the Message: (Make your content easy to share with widgets, Twitter links, RSS feeds or embeddable mobile apps. Over-produced, flash-heavy sites with un-sharable video, is useless - both in times of crisis and under normal circumstances)

Communicate in Multiple Languages: (Even US based entities have non-English speaking customers - don't discount them).

Push Mobile as a Service Extension, and Don't Make it Complicated: (Services that feed mobile devices - twitter, RSS, facebook, etc - free your message from the desktop)

Be Simple and Selective on Twitter, Don't Over Complicate: (In a time of crisis, make sure everything you share is important, timely and actionable. When it arrives, your audience will know it's important)

Prime the Messaging: (The bulk of your messaging shouldn't change in a time of crisis. Have standard messaging ready to go, then add additional detail as needed)

Update the Scorecard 24/7: (the CDC has done a really good job refreshing and updating the swine flu "scorecard" on the front page. This builds confidence and authority. It keeps people coming back. It doesn't need to be sexy or flashy; it just needs to be reliable and consistent. Timeliness boosts relevance and credibility)

Exploit Sight, Sound and Motion: (Provide site visitors with multiple ways and formats to consume this serious content, from video explanations to podcasts featuring experts)

Proactively Ask for Feedback: (A prominent "Tell us what you think" option on the home page will ensure that in times of crisis, you have the best possible information at all times)

Even without a crisis at hand, these lessons are valuable. If you have information to deliver - whether for your brand, your product or your self, make sure you do so in a way that allows anyone interested in what you have to say to play an active role in absorbing and sharing that information. Make sure they can easily find and follow accurate, updated information and share it with others. Make sure you give them a way to send in feedback. Make sure you deliver the information in a language they understand, and in a medium that conveys both content and emotion.

These are classic tenets of communication, but sometimes it takes a crisis to remind us that they ring true each and every time.