While the buzz about social networking has shifted to the hot new thing, mainstream consumer adoption and usage of social networks is exploding.

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eMarketer this week shared some of its conclusions from a recent research report defining the scale and opportunity of the social networking category.

“There is no doubt anymore that social networks, reaching more than 50% of the total US Internet audience, are an essential part of the Internet experience,” said Debra Aho Williamson, eMarketer senior analyst and author of the new report “Social Network Demographics and Usage.”

The research points to broad usage of social network among all demographic categories and continued expansion in the market.   eMarkerter forecasts that two-thirds of Internet users will participate on social networks every month by 2014.  Williamson comments that “the connections and interactions that social networking makes possible didn’t even exist a few short years ago.”

An analysis of the growth in Facebook‘s US users since this past January underscores the robust growth in the social networking category.

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iStrategyLabs has been using Facebook’s ad targeting system to track the growth of key demographic cohorts on the service for the past couple of years.  In 2009, for instance, US users of Facebook gained 145% — an incredible explosion.

I was curious just how strong growth was in 2010 and went to the ad targeting system to update the iStrategy figures.

In the first five months of 2010, Facebook’s US users gained 22% to more than 125 million.  The rate of growth is remarkably strong, following the explosion of the past year.

Usage continues to grow more rapidly among adults, with the 25 – 34 cohort increasing 23% over the past five months, and the 35 – 54 cohort increasing 25%.  Interestingly, the number of adults 55+ appeared to decline over the past five months. The net effect of these trends is that the average age of a Facebook user continues to increase.

The service is remarkably mainstream.  And, as the usage data that Facebook shares indicates, remarkably utilized.

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Facebook reports as of the end of May that is has more than 400 million worldwide users.

Half of Facebook’s users log in every day.  They interact with 130 friends on average and are connected with 60 pages, groups and events.  Each user is creating more than 2 pieces of content a month:  a photo upload, a status update, a link share, a comment.

This is a truly social phenomenon.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the potential impact for marketers and media brands.

If each user has 130 friends, that means that their first degree of influence is 16,900 friends…the friends of their friends.  Their second degree of influence is 2.2 million friends …the friends of the friends of their friends.

photo.jpgEach time a user interacts with a page, or a group or an event, that interaction is broadcast to her 130 friends.  The interaction can be clicking the “Like” button, or becoming a member, or commenting on an update, or sharing a photo or a post.  If one of the 130 friends then interacts with that page or group, that interaction is broadcast to his 130 friends.  The multiplying effect of interactions with content expand with every Facebook user.  Each of these instances of sharing are a moment where a brand inserts itself, within the context of each users identity, into the awareness of other users.

This is part of the power of marketing on social networks.  The skill is in creating instances of content that people interact with.  Remember, the interaction isn’t just about “engagement.”  Clicking a Like button or sharing a piece of content is just as powerful as leaving a comment.

The Facebook universe is one powerful indicator of the mainstream character of social networking, and the dynamics of user activity underscore how potent this new marketing platform can be for large businesses, small business and media brands.

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A couple of months ago, Adam Japko and I sat down with two of our top editors to discuss the impact of social media sharing on the traditional magazine editorial workflow.  The conversation was stimulating and I thought it would be useful to share some of my notes, since the observations from the meeting form a practical framework for implementing a content-sharing model within a traditional magazine team.  (For background on the content-sharing model, you can see this post from last year.)

Diane Carroll is the editor of At Home in Arkansas and Clint Smith is the editor of Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles. Both have been at the forefront of integrating social media sharing into the day-to-day routine of their magazines.

The work of their teams has contributed to significant increases in web and Facebook activity around the brand.

Our conversation focused on what changes were necessary to execute the social media sharing and about what impact the sharing has had on their market presence.

The Conversation:

Diane opened the discussion by talking about how expanding the social media channels for At Home in Arkansas has changed the way she thinks about people and projects in her market.

She related an example where she was talking with a design resource in her market who wanted to get coverage in the magazine.

In the past, a limited inventory of editorial pages would have prevented her from giving this resource coverage, Diane shared.

With the addition of social media channels, there are multiple ways to share information about this resource with her audience: creating a blog post, doing a Facebook update on the fan page, and, in this instance, inviting the resource to do a guest post for the At Home blog. The resource came through with “a really great post,” Diane shared, that was interesting and useful.

The social media outlets that At Home and Atlanta H&L have developed are big benefits, Clint and Diane agreed, creating an entirely new way of distributing information, creating an interactive and energetic face for the brand and building their brand presence broader in the market. A simple act like updated the Facebook fan page keeps people very engaged, they observed.

The key to integrating social media into the overall workflow is improved long-range planning and execution of the editorial calendar.

Clint and Diane are experienced, seasoned editors, so it was interesting to discover that both of them had created the bandwidth for executing their social media programs by leveraging and improving their execution of an old magazine tool – the editorial calendar.

The focus was two-fold: improving the execution of the long-range features in the magazine editorial calendar, so that they weren’t racing to get pieces finished right at deadlines; and creating an editorial calendar for the social media content, so that they had a clear expectation of what work would get done when by whom.

The first task was to improve upfront planning. Both editors said that their upfront planning and execution on the print issue had improved as they had increased their social media activities. Without being explicit, it was clear that both Diane and Clint had used improvement of the existing processes in order to create the time resources needed to execute their social media plans.

The second task was to make the social media activity more routine. This required taking the same planning approach to social media as was used for the print issues.

Both At Home and Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles have created weekly social media content schedules.

These schedules are designed to achieve several goals:

  • Share all of the content in the issue through the social media channels;
  • Keep a regular flow of content on the brand blog and Facebook pages;
  • Increase interaction with other bloggers in their topic area and market;
  • Increase engagement with the community around their brand.

At Home has structured is weekly calendar around topics:

  • Monday: General post
  • Tuesday & Thursday: Share content from the latest magazine issue. This can be a Room of the Week, or a fashion segment, or a design project.
  • Wednesday: Recruit a guest blog, typically from someone who has been featured in the magazine;
  • Friday: Friday Favorites, a list of links to other blogs and comments that the staff found interesting during the previous week.

Altanta Home & Lifestyle has addressed the structure of its social media sharing by assigning a specific day of the week to different members of the content team. On that day, the team member is responsible for sharing something of value and interest on the blog and the Facebook page

This “staff blogger” schedule has helped to take the anxiety out of trying to make sure some content is being created each day. It also has the benefit of being predictable for the online audience; over time, a reader will notice that one of their favorites posts every Thursday, for example.

Creating a social media schedule shifts the focus and energy of the content teams, both Clint and Diane observed. One change is that the teams begin to look to other bloggers more. They’ve discovered that bloggers have an identity in the market much like top architects and interior designers. By bringing the bloggers into the umbrella of the brand, it increased the magazine’s presence.

Our discussion closed with some observations about the impact of social sharing on the market.

Clint and Diane commented that the “sense of connectedness” was  different. Things are more interactive: they get comments and ideas from a community that is enormously positive.

As editors, they are seeing more and more overlaps among the ways that they distribute information, and are thinking about new ways to integrate things.

In order to continue to draw benefit from this social sharing activity, the editorial teams would benefit from increased access to the results that they are driving, both in terms of audience to specific posts and sections of the web site, as well as the relative value of this audience to any advertising customers.

In the future, the editorial and sales teams will also need to coordinate the amount of audience that needs to get driven into specific sections of the web site and towards specific customer groups, so that the potential number of conversions to client activity is lined up with the expectations of the clients.

Conclusion:

An editorial team needs to implement four steps in order to increase the consistency and effectiveness of their social media sharing program.

  1. Assess and improve traditional planning and workflow:
    Many editorial teams can create incremental time by being more structured in their long-range planning and in creating their larger features with a longer lead time.
  2. Set specific monthly goals for your social media content
    1. Feature magazine content in individual posts
    2. Guest bloggers
    3. Featured blogs and comments
    4. Online-only features
    5. Community engagement
    6. Traffic/audience
    7. Fans
  3. Set up a weekly content plan
    1. Establish a social media content schedule
    2. Assign specific elements or days to individual staffers
    3. Communicate content schedule to entire team
    4. Have monthly meeting to review social media assignments and results
  4. Track results & feedback

Over at Junta 42, Joe Pulizzi has put up a great post on how publishers leverage social media tools to grow their online footprint.  Recommended reading for everyone in the publishing business, as Joe has synthesized a number of different perspective and added his own unique and experiences point of view.

The key issue is defining your goals correctly and aligning your teams around those goal. Says Pulizzi:

If you believe that your core business is publishing, then you are competing with the entire world (we are all publishers today). As a publisher, you need to rethink your business (are you in the business of providing engaging experiences for your niche customers?).

In the post, Joe linked to one of my posts from last July where I laid out a model for content-sharing that we had begun to implement with our regional home design magazines.

We’ve been working this content-sharing approach for close to a year and it’s had measurable impact on our consumer engagement, market presence and revenue opportunities. In this post, I share some of the ways that our top editors have integrated content-sharing into their workflow.

For those who are interested, here’s Joe’s presentation:

When you are using content to influence consumer behavior, the context that the content is delivered in has a big influence on how consumers respond to the messaging. This maxim is an important factor in designing content marketing and social media programs. Experience suggests that consumers impute authority to two types of content: content that is considered and structured; and content that is personal and authentic.

Take recent research from SheSpeaks and iVillage that was reported on in eMarketer this week.

The survey examined how women interact with brands on digital platforms. The big headline was that while women follow brands on different social platforms, brand content delivered on those platforms has relatively lower impact on purchasing decisions.women digital shopping path

I was struck by the relative weighting of different kinds of online content in influencing shopping behavior, and the degree to which context appears to have an impact on influence.

For instance, three categories of content had consistent impact on female consumers: reviews on message boards; articles on general interest websites; and content about products on brand websites.

Each of these three venues has assumptions built into the context that the content is delivered in. Messages boards and review sites have a self-policing nature, where reviewers gain credibility by their relative weight in the social group. General-interest websites present the same kind of editorial independence that traditional magazines have long benefited from. And brand sites have an underlying regulatory framework, since consumers understand that brands are required by law to make supportable claims about their products and services.

Each of the three categories has an foundation of trust that creates a positive context for the content.

The survey suggests that social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are less credible sources of information to women shoppers.

This assertion assumes, however, that the primary purpose of the social platforms is to communicate information about the brand.

Within a well-structured social media marketing program, social platforms serve two important purposes: content distribution and consumer engagement. In each case, the purpose of the program is to create awareness and to give the consumer easy access to points of contact and information.

The brand web site — and by extension, a brand blog — are the appropriate distribution points for brand content. Consumers are more inclined to trust content that lives within a trusted context.

Social media marketing is the integrated execution of two different marketing activities that are supported by content and engagement. Consumers will respond to authentic content, but not when they encounter it out of context.

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An Emarketer analysis this week of two research studies concluded that social media was going to be a big focus on web marketing expansion by small businesses.

Our experience on the ground selling our DigitalSherpa service confirms the direction of the surveys.  Once we get into a discussion about how content marketing and digital networking can help their firm, local business people quickly move past questions about “why” to questions about “how?”

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There’s a fundamental problem, though, that the research doesn’t get at.  Local businesses don’t have an interactive strategy that is geared to acquiring and converting qualified leads.

In most aspects of local business marketing, the lack of sophistication around leads acquisition and conversion isn’t that important.  But in internet marketing, it’s critical.

Take a look at the research first.  According to the “Third Annual FedEx Office Signs of the Times Small Business Survey” (that’s a mouthful), use of social media is the fastest growing tactic small business owners cite in their marketing planning.  The primary area of focus continues to be improving online presence, signaling that SMB owners consider this an area where improvement can is needed.

eMarketer then cites a Constant Contact study that shows that websites and e-mail marketing are the two most prevalent tactics or tools that SMB owners rely on to market their business.

NewImage.jpgThe high penetration of Facebook makes for an attention-getting headline, but the nuts and bolts of the marketing program are in the website and continuing contact to the prospect and customer database.

The challenge is how these SMB owners are making decisions about the effectiveness of these tactics.

It doesn’t sound hard:  track web traffic, measure leads and conversions and then select the most efficient sources.

But making these kind of analytical decisions are challenges to the largest businesses in America.  Another recent survey concluded that the biggest obstacle to effective web tracking at larger companies was finding the talent to do the analytics.  If large companies can’t get to the answer, how can small companies expect to?

In traditional marketing campaigns, these kind of analytics were not as important.   A local marketing initiative drove the consumers to one of two places:  a phone number or a physical location.  At the other end of the interaction was a real person, who would ask questions, engage and impart information.  The interaction was more discursive and exploratory, and the experience of the person representing the business in adapting answers to the knowledge and personality of the person asking was critical to driving sales.

With web marketing a primary goal of the program is to drive a person to a web site where they can get information that will inspire them to either act directly or reach out for more information.

If that web site isn’t designed the right way, then you’re not going to get the return on your investment that you should expect.

One of the things that we’ve learned in our business is that creating a web site that can drive conversions is a science, not an art.  Like any science, it requires constant experimentation and adaptation.

The challenge facing SMB’s is not just putting focus on internet marketing; it’s figuring out how to find partners who have the knowledge, expertise and interest to help them participate in a science that challenges even the largest firms.

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Take 5 minutes to watch the following video.  [If you already know about www.wheresgeorge.com skip ahead to the 2:00 mark.]

The video is more than a curiosity.  For those of us involved in social media and social networking it’s got some interesting implications.

  • Our culture is a grouping of relatively defined economic series of affiliation.  The transfer of dollars is a basic indicator of human interaction.
  • Those portions of digital social networks that are incorporated into an economic ecosystem can be transferred into physical networks.
  • Those portions of digital social networks that are outside of economic ecosystems will have less likelihood of transferring into physical networks.
  • Political boundaries influence the creation of economic ecosystems.
  • Geographic boundaries influence the creation of economic ecosystems.
  • The probability of digital social networks transferring into physical social networks probably has some impact on how people behave within those networks, but I don’t know exactly what it is.

Digital social networks are both expanding and limiting.  They expand our ability to connect and network with other people, but are limited by our inability to share the affective attributes of physical interaction.  It is not precisely social; it’s more a fabrication of the intellect than the experience of the body.

A note:  “Follow the Money” was created by graduate students Christian Thiemann and Daniel Grady at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University to help demonstrate their research under Professor Dirk Brockmann in human mobility networks. It won the 2009 Visualization Challenge sponsored by NSF and the AAAS.

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In the 455 posts since I launched ViralHousingFix on January 4, 2009, there hasn’t been a longer gap than the one between Post 454 and this post, number 455:  11 days.

The workbook I use for my professional notes is chock full from the past two weeks, and the program I store interesting snippets in has a long backlog, but there haven’t been any posts.

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Being busy with a lot of exciting developments at NCI is part of the explanation.  Getting engaged in a personal writing project is another.  But there are a couple of other reasons for the fallow spell that I think might be interesting to those of you who follow this blog regularly.

The first is that I’ve stepped back for a bit to see how things are going to turn out.  Over the past 16 months, I’ve written and shared a lot of analysis of the economy and the housing market.  The two big questions were exactly what the composition of the recession was and what the beginning of the recovery would look like.

Right now, we’re in the recovery and it’s a choppy and uncertain time.  The macro trends have been positive, as a fairly random selection of charts picked from the blog Carpe Diem shows.  Our business at NCI is hyper-local and consumer-driven, and our experience is showing us that while the recovery has settled people’s nerves, it is neither expansive or extended enough to dramatically shift consumer sentiment to the degree that households are getting reformed and the consumer’s near term outlook is upbeat.

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That sense of stasis has diminished my urgency to write about economic trends.  I don’t feel like there’s anyway to really project when consumers are going to have a baseline change in outlook.  It’s going to happen.  When it happens we’ll be happy about it, and a little surprised that we didn’t see it happening at the outset.

In a New York Times column, Jack Stack, CEO of SRC Holdings, Inc., summed up the current zeitgeist:

The funny thing is that despite their recent success, most of these folks seem reluctant to acknowledge that things have gotten better. Why? Well, I have two theories about that: one, people feel so burned by the last few years that they still fear a double dip — and they’re still waiting for another shoe to drop.

I think that’s a pretty good characterization.

A second reason for the dry spell on the blog is that I’ve been digging in on the learnings that we’ve developed around our DigitalSherpa social media marketing service over the past year.  It’s been pretty rich and exciting, and part of an overall organization audit and assessment that we’re doing across the service.

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I haven’t written about the things I’ve learned because there’s a lot to synthesize:  the outcomes and experiences of more than 1000 client engagements.  We’ve essentially got thousands and thousands of proof points around the power of content marketing on social platforms, the relative value of different types of engagement, and the impact that a consistent content marketing plan has on search traffic and referrals.

Some of the facts are fun for their sheer scale.  For instance, we’ve generated more than 1 million social interactions for our clients in the multi-family space since launching CommunitySherpa last summer.  Some of the facts are engaging for their business impact:  one client has been able to cut more than $200,000 of search marketing spend because of the impact of the content marketing program that we’ve executed.  (That $200,000+ savings is net of the cost of the program, by the way.)

When you man a blog single-handedly, you’re going to experience ebbs and flows.  What you were writing about isn’t always what you are going to be writing about, and when you get to a juncture where you see a new avenue to explore, sometimes you just need to set back and sift through facts for a while.

The last three weeks have been partly busy and partly sifting time.  Thanks for your patience.  The one thing that has really impressed me is how strong the traffic to the blog has stayed.  That’s because of the way that all of you have used the content — the sharing, the commenting and the reading.  I appreciate it.