Brands on Facebook: a cautionary tale

Yesterday, staff at Bizarre Magazine found their Facebook page had disappeared. Not only that, but the personal accounts of all of the magazine’s editorial staff had disappeared too. This marked the latest twist in an ongoing battle in the social media sphere; for many months now, the magazine found its content deleted from sites like YouTube following claims of unspecified breaches of terms of service.

The motivation behind this isn’t clear – it could be a reader with a grudge, or a commercial rival or something else entirely. Social media sites don’t give you the details of allegations against your brand, nor are you given an opportunity to respond before your content is removed.

Now it’s true Bizarre has a reputation as, in the words of Dave Grohl, a “titty gore mag”. But Editor David McComb replies “Bizarre is an edgy brand, but still a mainstream one. You find us in Smiths alongside Kerrang and FHM. But we know social media sites have strict rules on content so we take an especially cautious line; there’s nothing on any of our social media pages which wouldn’t be permissible on British TV – before the watershed.”

Right now you might be saying to yourself, I don’t run a magazine, so why should I care? But this is a worrying tale for anyone who uses social media for work purposes. Whether you’re a publisher or a public sector body, no organisation is universally popular. That means that any brand using social media is at risk of similar malicious use of the ‘report this’ function on social media sites. Anyone can flag your content as breaching terms, and on many sites this will pull it down automatically.

This happened a couple of times in my previous role – someone with a grudge against the council had a video removed by claiming they breached copyright. And they were deleted, without warning.

Organisations are increasingly heeding the call to focus less on a single site which expects customers to come to them, and instead on fishing where the fish are – taking your own brand to where people are already. Confectionary brand Skittles has gone so far as to replace its entire site with links to its social media presence.

There’s a strong case for doing this. But as Bizarre’s experience shows, there are some significant risks attached to doing so too.

More and more organisations are hosting their rich media content on sites like YouTube and Vimeo then embedding it on their own site. This makes a lot of sense – it’s cheap, easy to do, and needs little tech support or hosting. But what happens if this content disappears? You’re left with The Big White Space in the middle of your webpage, that’s what.

A second risk is the loss of customer data. When Bizarre lost their Facebook Page, they lost all means to contact their hundreds of Facebook fans. They used their page to let readers know when the latest issue was released, and to invite them to their live events. If your company/council/department lost your Facebook fans, do you have an alternative means to contact these people?

Thirdly – and I didn’t know about this – is the problem of guilt by association. When Bizarre’s page was deleted, so too were the personal accounts of those listed as page admins. They’ve lost thousands of contacts, pictures, and personal messages, seemingly with no way of retrieving them. Are those currently managing your organisation’s Facebook page aware they could be risking their own account by managing yours? And if they did, would they be willing to do this?

Blogging today, Rich Millington argues it’s easier to build businesses around successful communities than communities around successful businesses. Bizarre was a great example of this in action; it positioned itself as one of the key players in the alternative scene, using its social media presence to really connect with readers in their own online environments. But they don’t own this community; it can be taken away without warning.

So what can you do about this? Well, you pays your money – or rather, you don’t – and you takes your choice. You company doesn’t pay for Facebook or YouTube, so has no Service Level Agreement to enforce when it goes wrong, and no protection against malicious attacks. This level of risk is acceptable to some, but for many household name brands certainly won’t be. The important thing is to be aware of those risks. Are those in your organisation pushing for greater use of social media sites aware of the potential pitfalls?

Some old thinking about new media

What a difference a week makes. Thursday’s televised debates could be said to put paid to suggestions this is  Britain’s first social media election. A whopping 9.4m Britons watched the debate,  demonstrating old media certainly still has its place in our political landscape.

Pundits took just minutes to announce who they believed to be the winners and losers in the debates, and within half an hour the first polls on audience reactions were out (but as my job is politically restricted, I’m not telling you what I think).

It’s estimated 36,483 people were Twittering about the debate as they watched. Now as I’ve blogged about before, Twitter isn’t always a great indicator of sentiment amongst the wider public.

But unlike the BNP/Question Time TV event I blogged about previously, what was interesting this time was how people on my social networks seemed to view the same events in widely varying ways.

In many ways, this reflects a longstanding debate within communication theory on how people are influenced by the media they consume. 

Discussion ahead of the debates focussed on how the leaders’ performance would influence the electorate; in the days since, commentators and pollsters have concluded the debates will have an unprecedented effect on the outcome of the election.  But this is a rather simplistic way of thinking about media influence, assuming that there’s a direct relationship between cause and effect. 

In the real world, we need to remember that people use the media they consume in different ways. We have different reasons for consuming media, and these fundamentally affect our experience of it.

Denis McQuail is one of many communications theorists to take a closer look at TV consumption. He found that in order to understand how media is recieved, you need also to consider why it is consumed in the first place.

With this is mind, he analysed TV viewers’ responses and motivations for viewing.  The result of his study is called the Uses and Gratifications Approach.

McQuail found there were four broad types of ‘media-person interaction’: surveillance (information-gathering), personal identity (resonates with who you are); personal relationships (swotting up on the big TV event in order to talk about it with others); and diversion (entertainment).

Looking at responses to the debate on the #leadersdebate twitter hashtag, it appears can be categorised in a very similar way. This isn’t a statistically sound study, of course. But communications researchers  – like ethnographers and anthropologists – look for patterns (of behaviour, language, etc) and try to relate these to their social and cultural contexts. Looking at hashtaged tweets there seemed to me to be some clear trends in types of participants, and in how they behaved.

Commentators have focussed particularly on those whose motivation for viewing was what McQuail would categorise as surveillance – ‘undecideds’ who watch in order to inform their own voting choice. A Guardian/ICM poll found one in four of those watching will change their vote as a result of watching.

The flip side of this, of course, is that three-quarters of those who watched didn’t change their mind at all. In my quick n’ dirty, unscientific analysis of the #leadersdebate hashtag , it appears a sizable proportion can be attributed to the personal identity category – that is, people who already have an opinion and watch in order to reinforce that pre-existing view. Many of these already sported a party Twibbon on their icon, indicating a clear, pre-held party allegiance. These tweeters – praising the leader they already liked and criticising those they disliked – came from the Twitterati across the three main parties and were not swayed by the content of the debates.

While this group comprised a small number of tweeters, they account for a disproportionate volume of tweets as they posted frequently during the 90-minute programme.

The third group were interested in personal interaction. Unlike the previous group, they’re not overtly political tweeters, but rather interested in the leadership as they would be another other televisual event, like finding out who killed Archie Mitchell in Eastenders. Their motivation is gaining social capital; they want to know about the debate in order to inform their on and offline interactions with others.

The smallest number of tweets could be summed up as motivated by diversion. This group watched, and tweeted, because… well, it’s something to do. They forgot to turn over after Corrie, or realised they’d already watched that episode of Have I Got Old News For You on G.O.L.D.

So what does this teach us? First, that noomedia isn’t (yet) proving to be the game changer it was talked up to be this election. The 36,483 people twittering about the debate represented just 0.004% of those watching. As I’ve said before, what people on Twitter say does not neccessarily reflect what the nation is thinking. That being the case, I would take Twitter sentiment analysis services with a pinch of salt.

But secondly – and somewhat conversely – while we talk about social media audiences being more actively engaged than those consuming mass media, it seems they don’t behave so differently after all. They have different reasons for consuming, producing and participating, and these reasons affect the outcome of that participation.

The field of communication studies has a rich vein of literature about mass media audience research. Those of us working in the field of digital engagement might learn a thing or two from looking at it again.

UKGC10 session four: The future of journalism

Eve Shuttleworth proposed this session in response to a question that arose earlier in the day: Where is journalism heading, and how do press offices need to change in response?

The web professionals session I went to earlier touched on the same issue – how do we develop the skills we need within our web and communications teams to respond to changing media demands?

Journalism has changed enormously over the past decade or so. News organisations large and small have woken up to the web, and are developing a wider range of rich media content. Local papers as well as national ones are using audio, video and interactive graphics to enhance their stories.

This has led to a huge cultural shift in news, with print and web journalists being located together and badged as content producers. The overwhelming feeling in this session was that communicators need to adapt in a similar way.

Press officers can’t focus solely on writing and selling-in written press releases; we need to take a broader approach to content, producing material for the corporate website as well as complete asset packages for the media to use.

Several of the group gave examples of journalists accepting their video content, although there’s a clear divide between the specialist and local press and the big boys on the nationals.

Major national news organisations are reluctant to take video material from the government (and rightly so in my view). But local and regional press are poorly resourced and more inclined to accept PR material.

Someone asked: the budget-slashing job cuts and subsequent culture of ‘churnalism’ that one sees in much of the regional press is beginning to creep into the national press too, in response to the poor advertising market and declining sales. Does that mean even major news organisations will start accepting complete packages from us too?

There was deep unease about this from much of the group; while an under-resourced press makes PRs life easier, it’s not exactly indicative of a free press performing its fourth estate function of holding government to account.

Many of us said we’re troubled by the lack of critical analysis press releases get. All too often, journalists will take a press release, find any contrary opinion, and present this as reasoned analysis. This over-simplification of debate does neither communciator nor journalist credit; it’s rare that there are two sides to every story. Usually there are at least three or four, and sometimes there really is just one.

This isn’t the fault of journalists, but of proprietors who have cut editorial teams, merged titles and slashed budgets so there simply isn’t enough journalistic resources to get out and report the news. One press officer said “make life easier for journalists and they’ll bite your hand off”.

Sarah Lay gave a great example of how they did this during the local elections in Derbyshire. Making a wide range of material available to journalists online meant that they recieved more coverage than they’d normally expect, yet had to take fewer calls from journalists. That’s a win-win for everyone (especially Sarah and her team, who took home a PR Pride award for this).

89% of journalists are using blogs and social media to research their stories, and it follows that the public sector need to engage with these too. Communciations teams need to keep an eye on blogs, Facebook, etc so problems can be identified and dealt with early before they become more reputationally damaging.

Alastair Smith explainined how Newcastle City Council managed a story which sprung up on Facebook. By responding to the group and offering to meet and talk about their concerns, they managed to turn what was a negative story into a positive one that helped the campaign group get what they wanted.

Communications teams just aren’t set up to respond to social media. Reporting lines for press releases usually require signoff from senior staff and politicans, a process which can take days – a timescale incompatable with the demands of social media.

Neil Franklin told us how he used to manage the Twitter feed at Downing Street, arguing that communicators need to be realistic about responding in a timely manner.

I suggested we borrow the concept of ‘presumed competence’ used by the Foreign Office. Back when an ambassador was sent to Ouagadougou and not heard from for months at a time, their masters back home had to assume they were capable of getting on with it. Social media has the same disconnect between local demands and ability to get sign-off from the centre. We may find it easier to respond to social media if we have a set of agreed ‘lines to take’ that we trust our teams to deliver, and refer upwards only by exception.

Whatever you chosen approach, organisations need to develop a policy for dealing with social media comment. Michael Grimes adapted the well-known US army model into this very useful process model for dealing with social media comment.

Others said it was difficult and unhelpful to have two different approaches to responding: It’s just media, and media is social. We need to have a vision for content generally, and plan our resources accordingly.

Someone added that we need to think about tone, and “don’t treat citizens as journalists”. While it’s true we speak differently to journalists as customers, the rise of the citizen journalist – and initiatives like Talk About Local – mean the distinction between the two is blurring.

Someone talked about this Clay Shirky article, which argues “we will always need journalism, but we won’t have journalists”. The fourth estate is vital in a democratic system, so if we’re seeing less meaningful analysis of our work by the traditional media, then we should welcome it from non-traditional sources.

Online journalists, of the traditional as well as citizen variety, are becoming as much curators of content as creators, aggregating content from the wider web and bringing it to the attention of their networks. Communications teams should try and emulate this in what they produce, for instance by linking to related articles or useful background information.

Eve Shuttleworth said the Ministry of Justice is starting to monitor blogs and social media to get a feel for what the issues are, but has not yet made the decision to respond. One of the issues they’re grappling with is whether press officers should respond as the organisation, or as themselves.

Identifying individuals could have security implications, especially where issues are controversial.

All of this points to an urgent need to reassess the service we provide. We need to develop a vision for how we provide content, and ensure we can resource this in a way that meets the media’s diverse and changing needs, the needs of the audience and those of the organisation.

Guardian readers more influential than those of other papers, says, err, The Guardian

I just receieved some spam an email from the folks in the Guardian’s ads department about their research project Word of Mouth (not to be confused with the Guardian’s excellent food blog, also called Word of Mouth).

This looks at the power of what we in government comms call advocacy.

“We have been researching influence, idea propagation and word of mouth. Through an extensive, multi-discipline programme of methodologies we have established what traits and abilities make one person more influential than another and have created a framework through which to identify them.”

Well, the research isn’t exactly rock solid, comprising a few interviews and a reading list which wouldn’t pass in an undergrad dissertation.

“Weak Ties, Bridging Capital and the Status Bargain are the core of what makes a person influential. When combined these factors allow people to access and spread ideas and opinions faster and more persuasively than others…”

(Those of us with academic backgrounds in social sciences will vaguely remember this from half-forgotten lectures on Bourdieu and the like).

“Having an abundance of Weak Ties gives an individual access to new sources of information and the ability to spread that information. Bridging Capital enables them to package this information up in a way that makes it easier for other people to take it on board. And the Status Bargain helps them to make more informed and influential recommendations based on a range of opinions.

“Underpinning these three concepts is a set of measurable characteristics (known by the acronym ACTIVE) which are evident in higher incidence among influential people. They are: Ahead in Adoption, Connected, Traveller, Information Hungry, Vocal and Exposed to Media.

“Our research has proven that these qualities are prominent in individuals that others would characterise as ‘influential’ and that readers of the Guardian and Observer (both online and offline) score more highly against these characteristics than consumers of other media. They demonstrate a greater propensity to both generate and spread word of mouth.”

So what they’re saying is that Guardian readers are more influential than those of other quality dailies. They consume more media, but they also produce more, and have more conversations with more people than your Average Joe. Persuade a Guardian reader, and they’ll persuade others for you. Bingo.

The research might be a little lightweight, but on the other hand I find the conclusion absolutely believable. The Guardian is read by almost everyone at management level in the public sector and in the media. It’s the paper of choice for captains of the cultural industries, for instance, individuals who by definition are highly connected. Do a straw poll on Twitter, and I strongly suspect you’ll find the Guardian or its site are read by more than any other paper.

Advocacy is an enormously powerful communication medium, but one that communicators are struggling get to grips with (in part because, by definition, it can work against you as well as for you).

At the same time, internet advertising is fast moving away from the old sheepdipping approach to a more mature, targeted and focussed model based on customer insight. The idea of targeting your adverts with the express purpose of persuading others to advocate for you is an interesting one, but one that needs further and more robust research than what’s presented here.

Interesting start, though. What do you think?