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 It is already outdated, though.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