Mini USA, the American branch of BMW’s Mini Cooper line, tracks everything being said about its brand everywhere online — in blogs, discussion groups, forums, MySpace pages and much more then uses what it learns to guide advertising campaigns. At Hewlett-Packard, 50 executives log into their individual blogs each morning to join the ongoing online conversation about each of their product lines, immediately responding to customer problems and concerns.
Ernst & Young recruits many of the 3,500 college graduates it hires every year using a career group on Face book, where it not only posts job information but also answers individual questions from prospective employees. And Del Monte Pet Foods uses a private online community to regularly ‘chat’ with 400 pet lovers whose opinions help shape new products.
These are all examples of companies savvy enough to participate in the “groundswell”, according to Charlene Li, vice-president & principal analyst at Forrester Research: “The groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.”
The more you know and understand the individual who make up the groundswell around your brand and your company, the more you can use the new social networking phenomenon to your advantage. Such understanding comes from going well beyond traditional user surveys. Few companies study how people actually interact with the web and utilise online collaborative tools, yet much of today’s internet revolves around individual users, the content they create, the communities they form and the transactions they choose.
People’s lives are rich and complex, so you need to get data both in the large and in the small. That means quantitative data from large groups to answer the ‘who, what, where and how’ questions, and qualitative data to answer the ‘why’ questions. For example, we know from research done by photo sharing website Flickr that while Americans are big sharers of photos, Scandinavians are not.
Looking more carefully at people’s behavior on the internet can uncover surprises, sometimes calling into question basic assumptions — for instance, that most young people are adept at using the internet. A researcher studied a diverse group of students attending the University of Illinois at Chicago, and found that 43% failed on a search task, based largely on their misunderstanding of internet terminology and on their inability to navigate links.
People differ significantly in their understanding of various internet related terms and activities. For example, when asked to assess their own internet know-how, women, African Americans, Hispanics and those with poorly educated parents report lower levels of knowledge than men or Asian Americans. Since such skills are not randomly distributed among the population, certain content providers and content users stand a better chance of benefiting from the medium than others.
Range of behavior on the web is sometimes based on skill and demographics, while at other times linked more to a user’s stage of life. So-called Alpha Moms “are comfortable with technology, interested in parenting, and have above-average incomes”. But they have no time. So if you are trying to reach them, you don’t give them blogs.
You give them communities of their peers with opportunities for feedback. To help companies target their internet strategies Forrester research have organized into a “social technology ladder”, which classifies consumers based on their participation in various types of social networking. At the lowest rung of the ladder are the ‘inactives’, some 44% of all US American adults who were online in 2007. Higher up are the ‘joiners’, the 25% who visit social networking sites like MySpace; ‘collectors’, an elite 15% who collect and aggregate information; and ‘critics’, those who post ratings and reviews as well as contribute to blogs and forums.
Only 18% of all online Americans actually create content, publishing an article or a blog at least once a month, maintaining a web page or uploading content to sites like YouTube. The power of such a classification lies in giving organisations a clear understanding of how consumers are behaving online. Any successful strategy to tap into the groundswell has to begin with assessing customers’ social activities.
Then you can decide what you want to accomplish, plan for how your relationship with your customers will change, and finally decide what social technology to use. It is critical for organisations to hone their understanding of groundswell activities.
Social networking is the latest fashion, but people have been endlessly fascinated by one another for a very long time. Social networking is not new; we just have new ways to do it. That is not to diminish the power of social computing.