Thursday 12 May 2011

Who thinks Social Media is there for the taking?

Or who thinks they own the social web?

Until a couple of months ago I would have answered without hesitation - "marketers".

Since the beginning of the social media revolution wannabe marketers and wannabe marketer gurus have been desperately talking up and promoting the supposed potential of social media as an effective marketing tool. Well they would, wouldn't they? They were willing the future to be a nice income stream for them - social media as gravy train.

They pushed the concept to such an extent that by 2010 it had become an accepted dogma; a 'given'; carved in stone. Among marketers. Apparently it didn't matter what your business was, all social media platforms were there for the taking. It was just how to actually tap in was the problem. But never mind: there's money to be made selling the 'secret' too! Hurray!

Instead of "How might a marketer use social media?" it had become "Only I can give marketers the knowledge to use social media effectively."

But now there is a slight change out there in cyberguruspace. An ever-so-slightly more cautious tone is creeping into blog posts and analysis. In time this will be a bubble that bursts.

There is worry inside and outside Twitter about the microblog and newsfeed's huge percentage of inactive accounts: is Twitter over-valued as a result? For example, Bob Warfield summed it up very nicely at Enterprise Irregulars on April 14 2011.

He looked at how most tweets are really ads, and free ones at that. So how will Twitter convince business to pay for adverts? And will Twitter users accept their streams filling up with paid ads? Or will they simply not follow these kind of accounts? Isn't a paid ad automatically spam in the minds of most users? Afterall, they don't have to receive the free kind if they don't want them. And of course this applies to the true spam tweet - those emanating from dodgy marketers. Just don't follow the source. And block them from following you if you don't want to be associated with them in any way.

Twitter users have the power. That's the only way Twitter can really work, and why it has been such a success. Deep down Twitter must know this.

It is useful to look at the history of spam in a social web context. Spam started with email. In those far off innocent days when email was conceived nobody really thought about the way the unscrupulous would use it. There then began a long struggle to claim back the inbox and rid it of the pestilence. The war is effectively won. Ten years ago or so it was a total preoccupation for most users. That is all history. In these days of webmail, sophisticated filters and firewalls, unsolicited emails should be a relic from the past. Simply put, if you suffer from more than a couple of spam emails per month in your inbox you are doing something wrong: either you are using a very old-fashioned and poor service or you just can't be bothered to do anything about it. And though the spam email is still out there, everybody is familiar with those miniscule ROI stats associated with spam.

Furthermore, personal power has extended to all kinds of straight advertising on the web. If you find it gets in the way you can block selectively or with a blanket, using multi-browser add-ons such as Adblock.

So, when the social web came along with the ongoing explosion in platforms providing multitudinous ways for people to connect around different networking concepts, the spammers (they like to think of themselves as marketers these days to give themselves some cred) were very quick to see an opportunity.

But there is one huge stumbling block. The social networking sites were built on the back of years of experience with unsolicited email. The developers built sites at which users controlled who they were connected with and what they saw in their news streams. Of course this hasn't always worked perfectly and users have often been confused by some of the complexities of set-ups and options. Add to this the difficulties encountered by sites (eg Facebook) in letting in business without compromising the basic principles.

However the principle remains and is actually stronger than ever. Social sites are exactly that: they are for people. Businesses are mostly only let in under sufferance if they behave. (An exception would be Foursquare where businesses are central to the concept and users willingly buy into the game). Generally users must be proactive in connecting with business. If a business either doesn't behave, or is simply boring, or offers no incentive to connect, it will be ignored.

Where does that leave the 'marketers' - the modern spammers? Up a gum tree, that's where. How to invade Twitter (for example); appear attractive and interesting so real people follow you; and convince them to click-through and buy what you are ultimately selling? Because that is what it is really about.

The good news for the social media using public is that it is just beginning to dawn on all those thousands of wannabe Twitter 'marketers' (for example) that it is very difficult indeed - nay, impossible. That doesn't mean there aren't thousands more wannabes joining up every day and trying to find the yellow brick road. But they are joining up to an illusion; an incestuous roundabout with eventually no winners.

Quite a long time ago in social web history there was a site called Entrecard. (It still exists, but in a rather different form.) The concept was to get bloggers together in one place to promote eachother. Participants earned credits for 'activity' following other bloggers which could be used to place ads/links on other participants blogs. The more clicking-through a blogger did, the more credits you earned and apparently the more 'popular' your blog became.

Of course there was a fundamental flaw: serious bloggers haven't really got much time to read many other people's blogs and what they are really looking for is the great mass of non-bloggers to be interested in their posts, not attract a collection of other bloggers desperately feigning interest in an attempt to attract more people to their blogs - an incestuous roundabout.

This is what is developing slowly and more subtly at Twitter for the hordes of new marketers.

For the last few months I have been conducting an 'experiment' at Twitter. I have had the tweets at my personal account 'protected', meaning that potential followers must ask to follow me through an automatically generated email and I can accept or decline. The first thing I noticed was a significant increase in potential followers. My personal account is a fairly low-key affair - I tweet but once or twice a week and mostly use the account as a news harvesting service across several areas of interest, so this new found attention was something of a surprise. (Does a protected-tweet account give me some kind of kudos? Do people assume that I must be special?)

But who was trying to follow me was interesting: almost exclusively the new breed of wannabe marketers. Below are two recent examples. They are typical, and it will be seen that they are crass and uniform - tweeting without imagination to a formula set out by some wannabe make-quick-bucks guru. Everything about them feels wrong: from the 'attractive' but anonymous stock photo style of image, through the absence of any kind of biography to the post mix of irrelevant and oft-heard bon mots or platitudes juxtaposed with links to whatever-it-is that is being flogged.

But what really interests me is the list of followers these accounts attract - and believe me all these accounts are interested in is increasing their followers ad infinitum. I was struck by the similarity to the original Entrecard site. Most of the followers appeared to be abandoned or inactive accounts following automatically, or (and this turned out to be the case with these two examples) yet more wannabe marketers following back because, well, that's one of the ways to get more followers yourself isn't it? You've got to laugh.

Note that in the fragrant valenciamay's record of lists following 'her', IanDavidB has got it exactly right with his "spamandotherdouchebags" list! (Don't be surprised if by the time you read this both accounts shown above will have disappeared).

Comical really. So just like the old-style Entrecard, the modern Twitter spammers are setting up rings of incestuous wannabes all spouting trite quotes at each other and pushing the same stuff. One day they will catch on that it is all an illusion.

So what will happen? Under cover of the usual caveats about the foolishness of predicting the future, spamming as a social media activity will slowly fizzle out as we, the users, become increasingly savvy about who we let into our social networking lives. (Spamming should not be confused with aggressive account-hacking - that will almost certainly increase as the dodgy marketers realise that if they can't get your attention by 'fair' methods they must try foul.)

This will be bad news for the those that seek to over-value the likes of Twitter. The pop and collapse of over-valued social media sites is set to be the next Internet bursting bubble. This does not mean Twitter will disappear - far from it. It will be chastened, yes. More sensibly valued, yes. And the real users will go on using the service in all the many ways they use it now, once the hysteria has largely evaporated.

The conundrum for SM was, is, and will be, how, having attracted users in the first place by giving them the power, to make an honest buck without driving those same users away in their hordes. The users on the other hand will come out stronger than ever.

Footnote: a tweet suggestion (of a type they favour) for wannabe marketers to ruminate over: "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink."


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