Monthly Archives: December 2010

Press Release Optimization

By Christine O’Kelly  WEBSITE MAGAZINE

Press releases tend to rank quickly in organic search and news results — often within minutes of publication. That is, if they are optimized and distributed following established SEO and editorial guidelines.

In the past, print media acted as an information gatekeeper. Companies would send press releases to the newsroom, hoping the editors deemed the announcement fit for publication. With limited space and a subscription demographic to please, most press releases ended up on the cutting room floor. Times have changed.

With instant publishing and search engines to filter information, individuals can filter and find the news that is useful to them. While news of a revelation in model train technology might not ever grace the pages of the local paper, model train enthusiasts can now freely find that news online through search engines — assuming that the creator has announced and optimized that news so that it can be found by those who crave it.

Publishing effective news releases online requires a three-pronged optimization approach that consists of search engine optimization (SEO), conversion optimization and editorial optimization. When all three sides of the triangle are balanced, press releases can have a dramatic impact on your online visibility.

Editor’s Note: This content is from Website Magazine’s January, 2011 issue – a professional-level monthly issue. To ensure you don’t miss a single issue of Website Magazine, upgrade now to a professional-level subscription. Get 25% off a one-year subscription right now!

PR Optimization Segment #1: SEO

In order for news to be effective, it must be discoverable by those who are interested. Optimizing your news so that it can be found in the search engines for strategic keywords provides a powerful way to reach highly targeted customers and influencers.

Title Optimization: The most heavily weighted factor that determines for which keywords a press release will rank is its title. Placing your primary keyword phrase toward the beginning of the title tends to have the strongest impact on ranking for those keywords. However, the title needs to reflect the news angle and be written with clickthrough in mind, and not only keywords.

Summary Optimization: The second-most heavily weighted SEO factor is the summary. The summary is an ideal place to introduce one or two additional keyword phrases while elaborating on the news angle introduced by the title. Within a well-optimized press release distribution site or news site, the title becomes the title tag and the summary becomes the meta description. The same technical rules apply to optimizing a title tag and meta description in terms of keywords as they do when optimizing a press release title and summary.

Keyword Anchor Text Linking: The ability to build strategic anchor text backlinks from trusted sources is one of the SEO’s most exciting reasons for publishing press releases. Because some press release distribution sites push full-page reprints of your press release out to additional partner sites, a single press release can net a significant number of backlinks using your chosen keyword phrases.

PR Optimization Segment #2: Clickthrough Optimization

The purpose of a press release is to hook the reader with the news release and then direct traffic to your website. Online press releases are essentially landing pages for your business designed to drive traffic. Optimizing for clickthrough helps you achieve that conversion goal.

Make Use of Multimedia Features: Including images, videos, logos, file downloads and links to other Web properties and assets allows readers to become immersed in your message through a variety of senses. When given the opportunity, make use of as many multimedia options as your press release distribution site allows.

Embedded Website Navigation via iFrame: If you have the option to add an iFrame in your release, choose to link to a page that is a natural extension of the message announced in your press release. For example, if announcing a new product, display the product page in the iFrame instead of the sites’ homepage.

Include a Call-to-Action: A press release is a tool used to entice readers to visit your site — give them clear direction on how and why to do so. Some ideas are to send them to your website to download a free ebook, or to read full details about the product, or to subscribe to your mailing list for tips and information related to the announcement.

PR Optimization Segment #3: Editorial Optimization

Press release sites are news sites and they take their role seriously in order to stay in good graces with Google. Submitting a press release that risks falling outside of the criteria of a press release in Google’s virtual eyes is likely to get kicked back for further editing.

In order for your press release to pass the human editing process, it should adhere to the following three critical editorial points:

A Valid And Clearly Stated News Angle from Within Your Company: The purpose of a press release is to announce something new and timely such as a new product or service, limited time sale or contest,
participation in an upcoming event, etc. That news also needs to originate from the company announcing the news. Writing about another company’s news is an article. The reader should be able to determine exactly what the press release is announcing by reading the title and summary.

Written in Third-Person: Aside from a direct attributed quote, a press release is written in third person and does not use causal language such as referring to the reader as “you” or the author as “I” or “we.”

Attribution of Claims: Claims that could be interpreted as opinions should be attributed in a press release. For example, instead of opinions like “…the best real estate software on the market,” present attributable facts such as “…deemed the best real estate software on the market by XYZ magazine.”

Done correctly, press releases can be a powerful part of your online marketing and visibility mix. The release itself ranks well in the search engines — few other types of user-generated content can rank almost instantly upon publication. Furthermore, optimized backlinks within the release work to build link value for your site for years to come.

Christine O’Kelly is an SEO content marketing strategist specializing in optimized press releases. She is the co-founder of OnlinePRMedia.com, an SEO and multimedia press release distribution resource.

Seven Principles of Advocacy Communications

Courtesy of PRNewsOnline.com

By James Miller

Communication in the nonprofit, education and cause-marketing arena has its own set of challenges, opportunities and obligations. Here are seven core principles I’ve found to be helpful benchmarks in this unique communications environment.

1. Elevate disparate initiatives under a unifying platform.

Powerful communication begins when you frame your organization’s varied activities and assets under a single, compelling theme. Doing so elevates the organization beyond the sum of its parts. Be sure that your core theme is aligned with your mission and values, and integrate that theme into all of your communications vehicles. That means not only integrating into Web sites and collateral, but also talking points and Twitter feeds. With a core theme in place, disparate initiatives can gain strength through cross-pollination.

Ex. An education client invited experts from one program to serve as guest speakers in another.

2. Rally stakeholders with a clear call to action.

Communicating core messages as calls to action motivates and inspires stakeholders to get involved. It’s important to deliver your rallying cry from the top down through communication from your organization’s leadership. It’s also a good idea to conduct training sessions with the staff most central to your communications effort to standardize goals, benchmarks, messaging and measurement.

Ex. One client found that their members went from reluctant to enthusiastic participants in media interviews once they rallied around the cause of advocating for their profession through the press.

3. Speak with clarity, transparency and credibility.

Simplify your messaging to home in on core institutional goals, achievements and benefits to stakeholders. Use precise language and avoid overblown and meaningless marketing words. Institute a litmus test to reality check programs and services against real-world benchmarks. Substantiate your claims with facts and figures wherever possible. 

4. Personalize your story and make emotional connections.

Humanize your organization with stories that help people connect to it in a more personal way. To achieve this, canvas your organization to identify your best stories and best practices. For maximum impact, tell your stories through video and images, not just the written word.

Ex. A foundation that awards scholarships for advanced science research successfully broadened their reach beyond the scientific community by sharing the personal motivations behind their scholars’ research.

5. Engage in two-way communication with stakeholders.

Build trust in your brand by engaging in conversations. Listen to positive and negative feedback and respond to questions, criticism and praise. Engaging through social media is a big part of it, but participating in conferences and seminars is a great way to connect face to face. It’s important to approach social media with a commitment to continuous involvement. Better not to engage at all than to create the impression you are unresponsive, aloof or, worst of all, hiding something.

Ex. An organization dedicated to teachers established a Web portal with discussion forums for their fellows to share best practices, gain support from like-minded peers and ask questions from the organization’s senior staff.

6. Integrate educational components and teaching moments.

Develop educational opportunities to teach key constituencies about your mission and the problems you are trying to solve. Do it in such a way that you address real issues relevant to key stakeholders. Ask questions. Raise issues. Offer solutions. 

7. Validate with third-party endorsements and partnerships.

When voices outside your organization endorse what you’re doing, you should share the good news. Make your stakeholders aware of endorsements you receive from the public, press, government, business and academia. Be sure to leverage awards, evaluations and other forms of recognition. Integrating great quotes from third-party endorsements into your Web site, collateral and media outreach is a powerful tool unlike any other.

Ex. For one client this took the form of a change in venue. By moving an annual reception from a hotel conference center to a prestigious museum, the organization gained credibility and elevated its reputation. Call it validation by location.

James Miller is senior vice president and managing director of Dentsu Communications, a firm that focuses in nonprofit and education communications. 

Beyond Paid Media: Marketing’s New Vocabulary

Courtesy of McKinsey Quarterly

Changes to the way consumers perceive and absorb marketing messages will force marketers to change not only their thinking but also the way they allocate spending and organize operations.

NOVEMBER 2010 • David Edelman and Brian Salsberg

Source: Marketing & Sales Practice

The rough guide to marketing success used to be that you got what you paid for. No longer. While traditional “paid” media—such as television and radio commercials, print advertisements, and roadside billboards—still play a major role, companies today can exploit many alternative forms of media. Consumers enamored of a product may, for example, create “earned” media by willingly promoting it to friends, and a company may leverage “owned” media by sending e-mail alerts about products and sales to customers registered with its Web site. In fact, the way consumers now approach the process of making purchase decisions means that marketing’s impact stems from a broad range of factors beyond conventional paid media.

These expanding media forms reflect dramatic changes in the way consumers perceive and absorb marketing messages.1 As a result, some strategic-marketing frameworks—such as the popular “paid, owned, earned” one—are in serious need of updating. Many marketers use this framework to distinguish different ways of interacting with consumers, forms of financing, and measures of performance for each contact. Yet the paid, owned, earned framework increasingly looks too limited. How, for example, should a marketing strategist for a company react to requests from other companies to purchase advertising space on its product sites? How should a company deal with online activists when they take hold of a product or campaign to push a negative emotional response against it?

Two media types must therefore be added to the framework: “sold” and “hijacked.” These new forms of media, which demand sustained investment and attention, challenge the traditional strategies, structure, and operations of most marketing organizations. Yet marketers should view their expanding range of media options not only as a challenge but also as an opportunity worth grasping, to encourage readers to share content or even create their own.

Five forms of media

Too many companies view marketing plans as little more than an exercise in where and when to buy media placement. Yet as the number of digital interactions increases, marketers must recognize the power that lies beyond traditional paid media (Exhibit 1).

Paid,owned, earned

Paid media include traditional advertising and similar vehicles: a company pays for space or for a third party to promote its products. This market is far from dying; options for marketers are expanding exponentially with the emergence of more targeted cable TV, online-display placement, and other channels, not to mention online video and search marketing, which are attracting greater interest. The second category, owned media, consists of properties or channels owned by the company that uses them for marketing purposes (such as catalogs, Web sites, retail stores, and alert programs that e-mail notifications of special offers).

Earned media are generated when the quality or uniqueness of a company’s products and content compel consumers to promote the company at no cost to itself through external or their own “media.” Starbucks, for example, announced in July that its Facebook fan base exceeded ten million people, the highest of any US corporation. The company directly links its recent strong performance to its social-networking efforts and “crowd sourced” innovations such as “My Starbucks Idea,” a Web site where anyone can suggest ways to make the company better. Similarly, Honda Japan undertook a promotion on the social-networking site Mixi, where more than 630,000 people registered for information about the launch of its new CR-Z vehicle. The company automatically added “CR-Z” to these users’ Mixi login names (for example, “Taro CR-Z”) and gave them a chance to win a car. Nonregistered users wondered why people suddenly had login names incorporating CR-Z. Thanks to the buzz, prelaunch orders reached 4,500 units, and actual sales topped 10,000 units in the first month.

Sold

Paid and owned media are controlled by marketers touting their own products. For earned media, such marketers act as the initial catalyst for users’ responses. But in some cases, one marketer’s owned media become another marketer’s paid media—for instance, when an e-commerce retailer sells ad space on its Web site. We define such sold media as owned media whose traffic is so strong that other organizations place their content or e-commerce engines within that environment. This trend, which we believe is still in its infancy, effectively began with retailers and travel providers such as airlines and hotels and will no doubt go further. Johnson & Johnson, for example, has created BabyCenter, a stand-alone media property that promotes complementary and even competitive products. Besides generating income, the presence of other marketers makes the site seem objective, gives companies opportunities to learn valuable information about the appeal of other companies’ marketing, and may help expand user traffic for all companies concerned.

Hijacked

The same dramatic technological changes that have provided marketers with more (and more diverse) communications choices have also increased the risk that passionate consumers will voice their opinions in quicker, more visible, and much more damaging ways. Such hijacked media are the opposite of earned media: an asset or campaign becomes hostage to consumers, other stakeholders, or activists who make negative allegations about a brand or product. Members of social networks, for instance, are learning that they can hijack media to apply pressure on the businesses that originally created them. High-profile examples involve companies ranging from Nestlé (whose Facebook page was hijacked) to Domino’s Pizza (a prank online video of two employees contaminating sandwiches appeared on YouTube).

In each case, passionate consumers tried to persuade others to boycott products, putting the reputation of the target company at risk. When that happens, the company’s response may not be sufficiently quick or thoughtful, and the learning curve has been steep. Toyota Motor, for example, mitigated some of the damage from its recall crisis earlier this year with a relatively quick and well-orchestrated social-media response campaign, which included efforts to engage with consumers directly on sites such as Twitter and the social-news site Digg.

The impact of the media revolution

The changing role of older media and the emergence of newer ones extend the marketer’s role well beyond the allocation of budgets and channels. Marketers today require a deep understanding of how consumers engage with different types of media at each stage of the journey toward a purchase decision. What’s more, these different kinds of media are related and interact with one another (Exhibit 2), so marketing plans and capabilities must adapt and evolve. Paid, owned, earned, sold, and hijacked media are evolving in four primary ways.

First, different kinds of media are becoming more integrated. The reach of paid media, for example, means that they will increasingly serve as feeders into owned-media hubs, where marketers can offer a more engaging experience, get consumers interested in products, and pivot into an ongoing and more targeted stream of contacts with users or members. New ways to connect with customers, for example, are transforming traditional relationship management by requiring marketers to interact with consumers through multiple forms of media in increasingly personalized ways. JetBlue has promoted its Twitter offering through many channels, for instance, and now has about 1.6 million followers seeking a regular feed of special deals for tickets. This approach has given JetBlue the ability to deliver timely coupons at a minimal variable cost, reducing its reliance on expensive paid media while fostering closer relationships with consumers.

Second, new publishing models are emerging because the increasing complexity of consumer needs and of efforts to address them means that marketers can’t do everything—and they are leaning on media providers for help. In what’s almost a throwback to the days of the soap opera,2 marketers are partnering with media publishers to create deeper marketing experiences for consumers and to obtain content and ad sales support. Computer maker Dell and automobile manufacturer Nissan, for example, worked with the Sundance Channel to create a television talk show hosted by Elvis Costello to attract their target demographic. With ads that seamlessly blended into the show’s content, Dell and Nissan not only gained exposure to a highly engaged audience but also shifted the perception of their brands to connect with late-stage baby boomers and with generation Xers.

In addition, applications on devices such as Apple’s iPhone are spawning tools that provide useful information. For example, eBay’s Red Laser generates a list of prices for any product whose bar code has been scanned by a mobile phone. Beverage companies show where their products are available by overlaying icons onto maps on the screens of mobile phones. In Japan, food manufacturers can increase sales across entire product categories through marketing collaborations with platforms such as Cookpad, the country’s leading online recipe site, with nine million members, more than 40 percent of whom are women in their 30s.

Third, marketing experiences are becoming more personally relevant. At first glance, personal conversations and experiences wouldn’t seem to be the best way of getting the scale and reach most marketers crave. But new kinds of media enable richer interactions and improve targeting, so they encourage consumers to share the things that make them happy. McDonald’s in Japan, for example, has developed expertise in the use of Twitter and other blogging platforms to promote new products and promotions by leveraging its huge fan base to talk about how much they love the company’s food. While this fan promotion is sometimes spontaneous, it’s often facilitated and encouraged by providing these fans with free meals. In this way, paid- and owned-media efforts (such as blog and Twitter campaigns) make consumers so enamored of McDonald’s products that the company generates a significant amount of earned media.

In a related phenomenon, the evolution of new kinds of media means that consumers are engaging more often in real-time conversations, particularly on social networks and other digital platforms. Helping consumers to express themselves is a scary and significant reversal of the control marketers have traditionally tried to maintain over brands. While most marketers are already exploring tools to monitor conversations in social media, they need to develop triage and action engines to ward off people seeking to hijack their media.

One consumer electronics company, for example, has recognized that every review or rating posted about its products creates the possibility of a hijacked conversation. It now responds to all comments within 24 hours: positive feedback gets a thank you, an invitation to become a Facebook friend, and special offers; negative reviews get explanations of how to fix issues, instructions on how to navigate an interface more easily, or follow-up questions to learn more about what the consumer didn’t like. Some hotel chains, recognizing the importance of travel sites (such as the popular TripAdvisor), likewise encourage satisfied guests to post comments online, while employing staff to follow and answer negative comments. These conversations become an interactive public-research project to gather information for future improvements. In effect, the evolution of media types means that a company’s marketers are now on the front lines of its efforts to deliver outstanding goods and services.

The challenge for marketing organizations

Marketers offer rich and complex experiences. But the consumer’s standards for the consistency of information encountered in different venues, the way it is provided in each of them, and its usefulness are becoming more stringent daily. Likewise, publishing, the brand experience, cultivating advocacy among customers, and generating personalized leads are now more important. These realities create four priorities for marketing organizations:

  • Think strategically about the role of each media type. As companies move more aggressively into, for instance, owned and earned media, the role of paid media should change: it may be used to drive consumers toward a company’s owned media or, more sparingly, as a “booster” for new-product launches and other promotions. That may require tighter coordination with ad agencies regarding the design and placement of marketing content. To reflect the influx of traffic to owned media, companies may also need to change their budgets and operations.
  • Rebalance time and resources. Owned media require patience, cultivation, and sustained engagement. Like the products of any good online publisher, a marketer’s owned media need a steady stream of traffic-building programs, fresh content, and optimized design. Focused management, sufficient budgets, and appropriate performance metrics are needed to build owned-media platforms, whether they’re foundational search or social-media efforts, site hubs, alerts, or feedback-gathering communities, to name a few possibilities.
  • Develop a clear community or social-networking strategy. Companies need an agreed-upon set of rules and principles for managing and responding to single or coordinated attacks against the brand. It’s imperative to appoint an experienced community or social-networks manager who knows in advance how to coordinate with marketing, public relations, legal, and other relevant units and has the required authority and decision-making rights. The cost of failing to respond effectively can be high. One multinational company, for example, responded to accusations about its business practices by arguing with its accusers on its Facebook page, even blocking and deleting posts. That move only heightened public interest in the dispute, in effect hijacking the page until the company apologized.
  • Improve both the art and the science of marketing. Debates among pundits of marketing typically focus on whether it is an art or a science (and thus on the relative importance of creativity and analytics). Actually, the bar is rising for both art and science, and a third dimension—execution—is growing in importance as the complexity of marketing escalates and its practitioners seek to deliver a richer consumer experience. This goal calls for teams that can design campaigns for a number of very different kinds of channels, from TV to social networks to search optimization. Data must be used more effectively to reach decisions and to apply them. Technology must make the spending of each dollar more efficient in the face of greater complexity. Quality must be defined and measured, and risks mitigated and managed.

Of course, the investment in hiring staff to answer every social-media posting may be tough to justify at first, but this approach will probably become critical for mitigating the threat of brand hijacking. And to deny negative reviews and comments legitimacy, companies must be able to make the justifiable design or service improvements consumers seek.

The list of challenges is long, and priorities will vary dramatically, depending on an organization’s competitive dynamics, willingness to experiment, and skills. Few of the necessary changes can be made through mandates from on high; they must happen organically. Ideally, chief marketing officers and other leaders would put together fresh, well-crafted pilots and get the support to invest in breakthroughs that can be applied at scale.

The proliferation of media types gives marketers a dramatically richer arsenal to deepen the engagement of consumers with brands cost effectively. Stepping up to meet the high bar of expectations, however, requires a renewed focus on execution, coordination, speed, and performance.
 

About the Authors

David Edelman is a principal in McKinsey’s Boston office, and Brian Salsberg is a principal in the Tokyo office.

A Modern Definition of Landing Page Optimization

By Brian Deagan  WEBSITE MAGAZINE

The term “optimization” is dangerously close to becoming a victim of overuse and relegated to meaningless buzz word status. But the word does retain a valuable definition that marketers and Web masters alike must internalize and apply. To prevent optimization’s definitional decline it is crucial to understand the meaning of the term in its evolved state.

The pillars of support for strong optimization are content testing and audience targeting. The effective combination of these two core direct digital marketing functions fosters success. Historically, however, many organizations have taken a divide and conquer approach to the roles and responsibilities of testing and targeting. As these organizational silos take shape, production speeds slow and landing pages are drained of their effectiveness.

The right approach to landing page optimization can be thought of as a triangle where the three points of intersection are labeled “data,” “testing,” and “targeting.” The data, at the top of the triangle, flows down to each function. A central location for the data is important because the data environment must constantly feed the content testing and the audience targeting.

Landing Page Optimization Starts with Data
The ideal data environment for landing page optimization is a universal profile management system. The system is designed to do two things. First it stores valuable data points like enterprise customer data and purchase history information. Second, it captures behavioral information like browsing patterns on a landing page affiliated Web site, and keyword or banner click entry points to the landing page. The combination of known information on authenticated site visitors and behavioral information helps marketers build unique segments and lay a great foundation for successful testing and targeting strategies.

Test and Target in Tandem
Once the data situation is properly setup the optimization process can begin. The most important truth to understand about good landing page optimization is that testing and targeting must work in tandem. When launching a new landing page project, a strategy conversation that begins with an initial need to test content may end by identifying a real need to target shipping rates based on geographic region. The ability to be flexible and easily add testing or targeting strategies to the landing page environment is important to meet conversion goals and adapt to a constantly changing consumer.

Selecting Landing Page Optimization Software
Like anything else in the on-demand software business, optimization tools fall on a continuum of low cost and capability to high cost and complexity.

It is easy to love Google because they offer helpful tools for free. But it is important to understand that free means there is a trade off somewhere. In the case of Google Optimizer, the trade off is a free testing tool for one that is incapable of targeting. Low (or no) cost tools are tempting, but the combination of testing and targeting is mandatory for landing page optimization success. The trade off just isn’t worth it.

On the other end of the spectrum, many tools that provide both testing and targeting cost a fortune in money and time, given their complexity. As usual, the right optimization software falls in the middle where reasonable cost meets up with a full feature set. The middle spectrum optimization tools are the ones technologists seek because they are easy to use. Marketers need them because it is easy to update copy or swap images without ongoing input from an already stretched IT group.

An Optimized Landing Page Example
Without sacrificing anything regarding the load time, here is an ideal setup for a landing page that takes advantage of the best optimization strategies.

Our example landing page has eight different dynamic content zones. Six of those zones are identified as content testing zones. The testing zones can rotate many different versions of content based on the data available about the page’s visitors. The content variations can range from a few lines of copy to different product offers. The remaining two zones are setup for audience targeting. Both zones use geographic data, one to populate a localized phone number and the other zone targets on the daypart to display local store hours. This example is a single landing page, but it is completely optimized for every unique visitor, dramatically increasing the page’s chances of success.

Extend Landing Page Optimization by Learning From Other Channels
While these optimization principles are outlined primarily within the context of landing pages, they also apply to each function of direct digital marketing. Good optimization in email marketing, mobile marketing, and onsite targeting improves overall direct digital marketing campaign performance. But cross-channel optimization also adds valuable data points that can be leveraged to create better landing page experiences. Remember that landing pages are one part of an overall direct digital marketing strategy. The data that powers them, and the data they record, must connect to a central database that focuses on the site visitor and coordinates the experience across the entire direct digital marketing landscape.

Achieving Optimized Landing Pages
A successful landing page creates two outcomes for marketers. The landing page conversion translates either to a lead for other marketing programs to nurture, or an immediate transaction that triggers a retention/up-sell marketing cycle. Data powered optimization is the best and most proven approach for achieving both outcomes, whether a transaction happens immediately or must be nurtured for several months.

Next generation optimization software platforms do not view testing and targeting as separate functions. Both share the same focus – optimizing the landing page experience for each individual site visitor. When data, testing, and targeting all have a seat at the table, a more complete and effective landing page strategy is served.

Once a central database environment is properly configured, develop a landing page strategy that is not beholden to the limitations set by specialist vendors that encourage silos. Software tools exist to help avoid silos and prevent trading off testing in favor of targeting, or vice versa.

Web masters and marketers control the landing page optimization software market. If content testing and audience targeting are demanded, vendors will adapt and supply. The end result of applying a thoroughly defined landing page optimization strategy is a more coordinated user experience that dramatically improves conversion rates and performance. That outcome is as important as it is feasible. Don’t settle.

About the Author: Brian Deagan, a thought leader in direct digital marketing, is cofounder and CEO of Knotice, a direct digital marketing solutions company.

3 Emerging Trends in Social Network Analysis

Courtesy of Krishnan Parasuramari and IMEDIAConnection,

A (relatively unsuccessful) Facebook boycott brought about by privacy concerns put the social network in national headlines earlier this year. Just last month, Harrisburg University banned Facebook and Twitter for a week. And this month, Hollywood released a movie on the social network.

Americans are spending nearly a quarter of their time on social networking sites, up from 15.8 percent just a year ago. Many concerned citizens are wondering exactly how dependent we are as a society on social networks, while businesses are busy trying to figure out how to take advantage of the trend, and most recently, how to measure, collect, and react to conversations on social media.

Get connected. Want to meet up with the companies that are leading social media into the future? Check out the exhibit hall at ad:tech New York, Nov. 3-4. Learn more.

Changing the world one tweet at a time
Speaking at the recent ExactTarget Connections event, Sir Richard Branson indicated that his organization strongly believes that social media conversations can change the world one moment at a time, one person at a time. For example, one of his Virgin America passengers, who had been waiting a while for his in-flight food order, decided to voice his concern through social media. Using the Wi-Fi capability on board, he decided to tweet his problem and provided specific details, including his flight and seat numbers.

Virgin’s ground crew, which had been monitoring the company’s Twitter feeds, noticed the concern from the food-deprived passenger and immediately relayed the message to the air crew, who promptly made sure that the needs of the passenger were taken care of. Is this the nature of our conversations of the future? What happened to the good old means of pressing the flight attendant call button when you need something?

The social media bias
In their attempt to be extremely proactive in playing in the social media space and “participating in customer conversations,” are organizations creating a bias toward those who have exclusive access to the megaphone? Who exactly is the person behind the persistent angry (or occasionally happy) tweets, blog comments, or Facebook updates?

Even though the intent of participating and listening through social media might be noble, often times organizations tend to view this medium as a disconnected channel and create another information silo. Rather than view their customers holistically as individuals who engage with their brand, they tend to view them as a visitor on their websites, or a friend on their Facebook pages, or a follower on their Twitter accounts, or a user on their mobile apps.

Until we are able to connect our social network measurement and analytics strategy to our existing CRM or marketing analytics strategy, we will not have the kind of unified view of our customers and influencers that will ensure we’re efficiently reaching — and responding to — the right people, with or without the megaphone.

Identifying the right set of strategies, tools, and processes that pertain to monitoring, measurement, and analytics of social networks can be confusing and even intimidating. However, as the market matures, we see the emergence of three common social network measurement objectives and techniques:

1. Measuring brand health via social media analytics
Brand health helps an organization gauge overall brand awareness, impact of a specific marketing campaign, competitive advantage, share of voice, and customer satisfaction. Recent studies have shown that 51 percent of active Twitter users follow companies, brands, or products on social networks. Most organizations have a fan page on Facebook. Both of these provide a platform for consumers to voice their opinion about brands.

James Kobielus defines the measurement of information sourced from social media such as Twitter and Facebook as social media analytics. The typical social media metrics that are indicative of brand health include a combination of engagement, sentiment, and activity metrics.

The types of tools that allow one to perform social media analytics range from real-time social media monitoring tools such as PostRank to “listening platforms” that enable the shaping of a social media marketing strategy. Alterian, Converseon, Nielsen, Radian6, Cymfony, and Visible Technologies are some of the leading vendors providing this capability.

2. Improving targeting precision by enriching customer data with social information
Marketing organizations and service providers are constantly striving to improve their targeting precision. Having more information about their customers enables them to direct specific, relevant, and targeted messages at them. Social network information acts as another channel from which one can extract an individual’s information that has been voluntarily made public such as status updates, recommendations, connections, friends, interests, etc. Using data mining techniques on this data, one can predict an individual’s responsiveness to campaigns, risk profile, influence across their personal social network, etc.

In a discipline that is being termed as social media profiling, a new crop of companies have emerged that glean social network data from across the web and create composite user profiles that can be enriched with traditional customer data for marketing activities such as segmentation and targeting. Rapleaf, 33across, media6degrees, and XGraph are leaders in the social media profiling space.

Traditional customer data companies and marketing service providers partner with social media profiling companies to create a robust customer profile that includes demographic, geographic, psychographic, behavioral, and social information about their customer or prospect. For example, using social network information for targeting enabled Sprint to promote the launch of the Palm Pre smartphone and quadruple related online sales.

3. Understanding customer influence through social graph analysis
Within any given social network, individuals are either creating relationships with one another or engaging with content or a community.  Individuals are creating relationships with one another by making them their friend or following them or recommending them. Individuals engage with content by expressing their opinion about that content (like, dislike, rating, etc.). Mathematically, this behavior can be expressed as a graph where nodes represent an individual, and a tie (or edge) represents a relationship (or engagement). The resulting social graph can be analyzed to detect social behavior patterns, emerging trends, and influencers.

According to a recent report that studied travel and hospitality marketers, 28 percent of email marketers are analyzing the social influence of their subscribers and using that to target their email campaigns.

Telecommunications companies have been successfully using social graph analysis to predict churn. Their customer lifetime value models incorporate a subscriber’s ability to influence others within their network, and they use this information in retention marketing efforts.

Social graph analysis can be a complex computational problem to solve. Organizations either use pre-packaged influencer marketing tools such as Pursway, or build their own using special purpose graph databases and network visualization tools.

These emerging trends and techniques clearly indicate that there are multiple nuances to analyzing and gleaning insights from social networks. As the market matures and organizations have a clearer understanding of how they would want to leverage social network data, a convergence of these approaches is very likely. The traditional architecture of a customer master database feeding into an enterprise data warehouse with customer purchase transactions fueling operational and analytical reporting will be augmented with social network data.

The customer master data management system will have hooks to third-party data sources that provide clean, up-to-date sets of “social attributes” to enrich the customer profile. Likewise, enterprise data warehousing platforms will have hooks to social network events and streams that can be assimilated along with other customer activities. Reporting and analytics tools that facilitate conversion of social graphs to relational constructs coupled with scalable analysis on social graphs will enable use of this information in conjunction with other types of data.

Once we achieve these goals, social network analysis will cease to exist as a stand-alone discipline. It will just be part of every firm’s CRM or marketing analytics strategy.

Krishnan Parasuraman is chief architect, digital media, Netezza.