The compass (navigation series, post #3)

New publics are populating new continents of influence on the Internet. On the left is a nice map of this world created by xkcd’s Randall Munroe in spring 2007. It is already outdated, though. These continents are changing so rapidly that they are pushing communicators into a new Age of Discovery. E.g. Facebook would have to be much larger, new social networks based on short messages such as Twitter or social aggregators such as FriendFeed would have to be put on the map. Navigating through this emerging world, I thought it would help to have a compass. I tried to create something simple and came up with four guiding principles for discoverers in this world of change: Map it out! Explore! Respect natives! Find India!

Map it out!

While most companies know that people are talking about them on the Internet, many don’t take the effort to listen in systematically. What is the volume, what are the issues and who are the influencers? These are the questions calling for an answer, in particular in a space that is growing and changing so fast. Yesterday, our stakeholders might have met on messaging boards, today they might meet on blogs, Facebook, Twitter or FriendFeed, and tomorrow it might be some place else. As a result, we need to track what’s going on and find the places that are most relevant to us at specific points in time. It’s the counterpart to the resonance test we are used to in the world of traditional media. However, the new publics are moving faster, and they are creating new lands of influence all the time. We need to redraw the map as we go, like in the first Age of Discovery. My previous post on this blog was dedicated to the question how social media activities can be visualised. I will have to come back to this topic talking about the growing number of social media tracking services that can help you to navigate through communities online.

Respect natives!

Other than in the first Age of Discovery, there is no way natives will surrender to colonists. Trying to exploit them for your own purpose can backfire tremendously. Just to mention one example: when Wal-Mart faked grassroots movement while they just rolled out their own astroturf, they were seriously punished with an uproar in the blogosphere, followed by negative stories in major media. Members of new publics value transparency and they build trust via relationships they develop online while discovering information, building knowledge and sharing insights and emotions with their peers. They don’t like undermining their communities of trust.

Gartner has suggested that we need a new category beyond demographics to understand the behaviour of online personas and find the right way to interact with them. They call them “Generation V”, the virtual generation. I tend to agree. By virtue of the Internet, the bonds between online personas can reach across social and geographical demographics. For example, a 2006 PEW report on generations online shows: while teens and generation Y are still leading the early adoption of social technologies, generation X and boomers are increasingly closing the gap. There is no clear cut between these age groups, just tendencies. As the populations of many important countries are aging, we will see more surprising changes in this field. So, we shouldn’t assume that there are only young male geeks populating new publics. The best way to find out about our online communities is to listen and relate to them via their relationships online, not via pre-defined marketing clusters.

Respecting natives also means respecting their privacy. In fact, I believe that privacy issues will quickly become one of the most important questions for corporate communications and marketing. While people are prepared to show more of themselves online than ever before, this doesn’t mean that they concede any kind of surveillance. They might have a wider definition of privacy, but one thing certainly hasn’t changed: they want their personal information only being used in a manner they agree with. An increasing number of power users is currently trying to answer the question how to make that sure. They are either trying to solve the problem with technical precautions on how to safeguard your privacy online, or they are trying the legal route developing frameworks like a privacy manifesto or even a bill of rights for the open social web.

Explore!

What would an Age of Discovery be without exploration? However, exploration and experimentation are not exactly the focus of traditional corporate communications. Studying corporate communications plans, you are more likely to read terms like “safeguarding” or “protecting” reputation against risks – which are indeed important tasks for communicators. We just need to understand that it is riskier to ignore or avoid new publics rather than listening to and interacting with them. Some companies such as Dell learned that the hard way. The challenge is that new publics are moving so fast, that it’s not prudent to place all your bets on one technology platform that is currently in fashion, simply because it might be a different one next year. And after all, it’s not the platform that is important, but the community we are trying to follow. In dealing with new publics we will benefit from a “beta” approach to communications. After mapping out what our communities are and what they are talking about, it makes sense to set up a variety of different communications channels to serve different purposes, to test them, tweak them and invest in the ones that work best. When new social media technologies emerge, don’t wait and let the opportunity pass by. If they are relevant to your community, give them a try. Start early and small, and tune them as you go. If it doesn’t work, pull the plug, if it works, provide more support. This kind of exploration through participation will keep your risks low, both in terms of investment and reputation.

One area of social media technologies that I believe deserves special attention is video. According to Universal McCann’s Social Media Tracker, video is the quickest growing social media platform. We have always known that pictures are more compelling than words, but they have never been easier to produce than today. You basically don’t need more than a mobile phone. People don’t care that much, if your production is not that polished, they care about the quality of content. E.g., a quick video statement of an executive spoken into the mobile phone while on the way to the office in his limo might have a much larger impact than a full blown scripted business tv production, simply because it’s more authentic, and low cost to boot! There are also many new video technologies such as Qik, Seesmic or Utterz offering new angles for video communications worth considering.

Find India!

Exploration is not an end itself, though, at least not in corporate communications. While I would encourage everyone to discover the world of new publics, that shouldn’t happen in a random fashion. E.g., creating a blog with no better reason than other companies having one already is not good enough. Think of Columbus as a role model here. It’s all about finding the sea passage to India, in other words: keep your business goals in mind! Otherwise you might get sidetracked too much. The tool you are evaluating should at least hold the promise that it will be a likely way to engage your stakeholders based on the analysis following your mapping exercises.

So, this is my little compass for the emerging world of new publics. What do you think? Will it work? What else would you put on it?

Georg Kolb

New maps of influence – 10 visualisations of the social graph

Driven by waves of change in society, technology and business, new publics are emerging and forming new spheres of influence in the world of online relationships. Corporate communicators have to map this space out, so as to identify potential issues and influencers. Since the traditional means of media resonance analysis doesn’t reach into this world of direct communications, new maps of influence have to be created.

Social cartographers are now trying to visualise the relationships between people as they manifest themselves online. They are writing a new chapter in the analysis of social networks. While this discipline has been around since the 1930ies, I think there are three aspects that make today’s social network analysis unique:

  1. Wealth of data: There is more data available than ever, since hundreds of millions of people are organising their social networks online.
  2. Networks analysing themselves: Social networks are evolving as self-referential systems with participants indicating what they are interested in, so that peers can connect with them. A growing number of easy-to-use technologies also makes it easier for participants to become their own network analysts. The Rolodex is evolving into a cockpit of network intelligence.
  3. Mashups: People and content can be mashed up in myriads of ways offering a multitude of insights into people’s social life.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of how relationships in social networks are being analysed and visualised today. I believe that these social graphs ultimately will change the way we work, organise our knowledge and measure influence, simply because they are an effective way to navigate through the exploding amounts of content we produce and because they help us to connect with the people we share an interest with.

Flickr tags - June 2008 An easy way to visualise social data that has become pretty popular among social media users is the tag cloud. Tags are keywords users assign to content on web sites. Usually they are listed alphabetically with the font size representing the frequency of their use. E.g. on the left you can see the “tag cloud” of Flickr, the photo sharing and community site. It gives an idea of the most popular targets millions of people had when shooting photos, but it also connects to the people who took them. Each tag is a hyperlink that leads to the content tagged and the people who used the tags and created the content.

Gustavo G, a power user of Flickr, created the “Flickrverse”, a depiction of the relationships between the photostreams and the photographers on Flickr. It illustrates that there are clusters of influence in this community. Some users not only create large amounts of content, they also influence others by stimulating discussion groups, blogging, linking and commenting. Imagine you had this kind of atlas for your global communications team! With this knowledge on content people produce and the network they have, it should be much easier for them to to collaborate. That’s what IBM had in mind when they created their Atlas application. It enables employees to map out their professionel network within their organisation (story via Technology Review). E.g. there is a component shown in the screenshot on the left that visualises how closely someone works with others, both in terms of content and geography. The closer you are to the person at the centre of the circle, the more you communicate with her. Atlas will help to find colleagues and content relevant to your work. It seems like a great tool to collaborate within a business, but it does have the limitation that it only works with data from IBM’s own social software platform Lotus Connections. While social networks within a business will always need some degree of exclusivity, most public networks thrive on openness between separate layers of data that users can combine freely to create something new. Google Maps is one of the most prolific applications users mash up with other data sources in creative ways. For instance, I played with a tool called Wohnungskarte when moving to Düsseldorf, one of the many applications you can find combining geography and housing information. One of the most intriguing Google mashups I’m aware of is outside.in, a site tracking news, views and conversations in your neighbourhood. It allows you to zoom into the social life around you. Local news and interactions on social media are being bundled into one stream of social information that users can filter from a city level downwards. E.g. you can look at the river of news for New York City in total and then break it down by the five Burroughs Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens. Finally, you can look into specific neighbourhoods within the Burroughs, say the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Of course, the information will only be as good as the participation in the particular neighbourhood, but in many cases it provides an interesting micro-map of the social life in a particular area. The information is cut in different ways, so that you can follow your interest. You can check on categories such as arts and culture, education, real estate, public spaces or shopping, complete with links to pictures on Flickr. Or you can look up specific places and see how often they have been mentioned in recent stories or conversations. Consider the value of this information for new residents, local politicians or businesses trying to track the interests of residents.

Another example for the power of mashups is Facebook. Since this social network opened its Application Programming Interface (API) to external software developers, the number of free applications for Facebook literally exploded, some of them empowering its users to do their own network analysis. For instance, the image on the left shows my social graph on Facebook. I created it with an application called Nexus. It not only illustrates the connections between the friends I have on this network, it also provides information on the interests they share. When clicking on one of the nodes of my network, I can see the name of the respective person, her photo, the names of her friends in my network and commonalities she has with these people, e.g. membership in groups or common interests as stated in their personal profiles.

While it is manageable to analyse a small network like mine on Facebook, stronger tools are needed to crunch a huge network like the blogosphere in its entirety which also doesn’t live on only one platform like Facebook. Matthew Hurst, a scientist at Microsoft’s Life Labs and co-creator of the blog search engine Blogpulse, used data from Blogpulse to visualise hyperlinks between blogs (story via Technology Review). His images show that there are a few thousand blogs clustered at the centre of the blogosphere linking to each other and to many other sites at the edge. Further analysing this central cluster he found two sub-clusters, one focused on politics, the other focused on technology. They can be seen on the image here, with political blogs sitting on its left half, technology blogs on its right. The colour pink around influential political blogs indicates that they are connected to their surroundings by links going both ways, a habit that is obviously not as common in the sphere of technology blogs. Counting links as Matthew Hurst did for blogs is certainly a good way to create a helicopter view of influence clusters in the blogosphere. Linking to someone else’s blog is an act of interest saying “I want to be in the loop whenever this person has new content”. However, that doesn’t say much about the quality of the relationship when the number of links is very high. Some blogs have thousands of inbound links, some people have even hundreds of thousands of “friends” on social networks. To further qualify the relationships in a social network, MIT Media Lab researchers Dietmar Offenhuber and Judith Donath started to monitor the flow of comments between members of a social network (story via Technology Review). Rather than simply depicting links between sites, they visualise where people leave comments and how often, i.e. activity in the network that goes beyond reading updates. I believe this kind of analysis is very valuable. It reveals another layer of influence in social media: While social media is more democratic than traditional media, since potentially everyone with Internet access can raise her voice, the share of those who not only watch but actually create content is lower than you might expect. E.g. only about 1 % of Wikipedia users are writing articles. Given the huge popularity of Wikipedia this number is still in the tens of thousands, many more contributors than any traditional encyclopaedia ever had, but many less than the millions of Wikipedia readers. Similarly, stories are making careers on rating portals like Digg. Web developer Brian Shaler has created a graph that sheds some light on this. There are people who are much more active on Digg than others. The bright orange spots on Brian’s “heat map” represent those Diggers who have a lot of fans or friends. So, whenever they are rating a story it’s likely many other will, too. The oldest Digg accounts are located in the centre of the map, the youngest at the edge. Interestingly, many of the hottest spots are sitting in the centre, too, so it took some time for them to build their community. The interactive map also allows to search for specific Digg users and displays their spot on the map.

Visualising the social graph is based on data mining, i.e. filtering out relevant information by putting data points into a context that creates relevance. In the examples above we have seen how relevance is created by clustering and matching content and people. However, all of these approaches rely on pretty simple and isolated data points such as keywords and links. As we have seen, these data can create a lot of insight, but what you don’t get is the opinion of participants. You might know that they are interested in a particular topic, but not how they think about it. In other words, statements like “I love company A” and “I hate company A” were being picked up the same way. If you wanted to find out about participants’ opinion you needed to read their content. As a result, the next frontier of mapping influence within the social graph is opinion mining rather than data mining. Interone has made a big leap in this direction (full disclosure: Interone is a BBDO company, as is my employer Pleon). While their opinion mining tool still involves a degree of human analytics, their software can crunch through vast amounts of data, mining opinions in a far more sophisticated way than the “positive – neutral – negative” ratings we know from media monitoring. They can map people’s opinions against dozens of attributes and compare brands within that context. They even can do this in different languages! It’s a big tool that is made for big tasks, so you might not use it to analyse smaller networks, but it is powerful stuff for sure.

Finally, a software framework called Commetrix is also worth mentioning. It is being developed by a group of German researchers lead by Matthias Trier in Berlin. Other than all the other network analysis tools I know Commetrix allows for “dynamic network mapping” which means that you can observe network changes over time. Commetrix visualises the career of issues and influencers within a network by animated social graphs which is pretty impressive to watch. I believe the potential applications for a tool like this are mind-blowing. It could become a new way to write history. In fact, they kind of do that already. As you will see in the video below, they analysed e-mails of Enron, so that you can see how people within this organisation picked up specific topics and spread them around. It’s like an archaeology of influence in the Internet age! Imagine you could do something like this with the social networks relevant to your organisation. You could visualise and measure influence in real time. It certainly all depends on the accessibility and quality of data, though.

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I’m well aware that this post is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but I hope it has at least provided an educated anecdotal view on the new maps of influence we need to be aware of as communicators. While all of this is pretty exciting, some of the pragmatists amongst you will rightfully ask: what can we do with it now? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In some cases free tools will be sufficient to shed some light on an area that is of particular interest to your business. In other cases you might have to use commercial software, or the ideal tool for your challenge simply doesn’t exist. In any case strong analytics and judgment will be needed to create an approach that makes business sense. But I do believe that we have to watch this space and experiment in it, so as to allow for informed decisions on a rapidly growing new sphere of influence for corporate communications.

Since I am still a German, I will end on a note of caution ;-) . Social network analysis is based on tracking human behaviour. As a result, it often includes privacy issues. While people are exposing themselves publicly like never before, they certainly still want their personal information only being used in a manner they agree with. Some power users have already crafted a bill of rights for users of the social web. It’s an early sign for big discussions lying ahead of us. Just think of the controversy on Facebook’s Beacon. But that’s an issue for another post. This one has been long enough.

Some useful links:

Georg Kolb

A new Age of Discovery (navigation series, post #2)

Today’s new publics create a whole new world of influence pushing corporate communicators into a new Age of Discovery where our traditional instruments of navigation are of limited value. Let’s see why.

Traditionally, corporate communications worked mostly from the inside out. We started with introspection: we thought hard about our brand, what it stood for, what its promises were, and which messages we wanted to convey. Then we pushed the message out to the media, since the media was the best amplifier we could use to reach our target audiences. Working with journalists we tested our message, they challenged us on the news value or credibility of our pitch. But if it resonated with them, we got our message out to our audiences who read, viewed or listened to the media we worked with. Accordingly, measurement was focused on “coverage” reports analysing reach, quantity and message alignment.

While this approach still is important, it just doesn’t work as well with today’s new publics, since mainstream media has lost its monopoly on public information. The new publics are empowered to use many other sources. If our story smells like spin or marketing talk, or if it doesn’t fit exactly what they want, they don’t have to just sit there, listen and be our “target audience”. They have options. They can raise their own voice and connect with others who share their specific interest and who are credible to them, people like themselves.

As a result, the experience of our brand will be less shaped by “key messages” we put in front of anonymous “eye balls”, but by many little conversations between people who share an interest in something that relates to our brand. For instance, they could get involved with a Facebook group of disgruntled employees who give insider reasons for glitches in our product quality. They could read a profile of our brand on Wikipedia that might not be “on message” because we couldn’t control it. They might have an exchange with a blogger who wrote about a bad customer service experience. They might find videos on YouTube showing one of our executives talking off guard while being recorded by a mobile phone. There might be kids on MySpace who laugh about our brand being so totally not cool while we think it’s youthful and fresh. Or there might even be avatars in a virtual world like Second Life redesigning virtual copies of our products for their own purpose. Of course, we might also find that all these people are raving about our brand, because their experiences are consistently thrilling at all touch points. We would want to know that too, wouldn’t we? Whatever they are saying or doing, they are influencing the reputation of our brand. We can’t afford to not know what’s going on there. We need to switch on the light in this black box of new influence, in particular if the brand experiences expressed by people there are not aligned with the “official” messaging.

The fact that the new publics can tap into many sources of information on our brand beyond mainstream media creates a huge pressure for authenticity. If there is a gap between the company speak and the way people experience the brand, they will talk about it and the brand reputation will suffer. In other words, the consistency has to come from the consistency of the brand experience, consistency of our messaging is not enough.

In summary, there is a world of influence emerging at a rapid pace that presents us with a new Age of Discovery where explorers are needed to map it all out. Nobody can have all the answers, since this world is evolving, but those who command map and compass will certainly be better off than those who don’t. By the way, the map I used as background of the chart on the left was created one year ago by the geekily funny physicist and cartoonist Randall Munroe. It is pretty outdated already, though. E.g. it doesn’t incorporate new social networks in microformats like Twitter or new social aggregators like FriendFeed. And today Facebook would have to take a much bigger share on this map. So, how would a compass look like that could help us navigate through this world populated by the new publics? I will try to provide a first answer to this question in my next post.

Georg Kolb