Activists VS. Corporations in the Social Web

Let there be no doubt; there is an information war taking place on the Web between corporations and their industry associations and activist groups who want legislative changes or government policies changed. For decades, corporations were the ones who could afford to fight the perception battle in traditional media; they had the financial resources. With the advent of social media, that has shifted. And activists have learned to use social technologies very well.

In our research of multiple industry sectors, from extractive resources to consumer products and to public policy research for governments around the world, we have come to find this pitched battle raging in every country we’ve conducted research. Who’s winning on the social web? For now, the activists. Whether it be environmental groups, health related or political, activist groups move faster are more nimble and less intimidated by engaging with the general public. Here’s a broad look at our findings;

Activists vs. Industry Associations:
As can be seen from the table below, activist groups are heavily engaged across all social media channel categories, far more than the industry associations they are often battling. We note that activists are using video and imagery very effectively and that it has become their medium of choice as citizens react more to imagery than text. Where they even out for presence is in blogs – but people don’t read long blog postings. Industry associations tend to rely on long blog posts when engaging in social media. Activist groups have also been faster to adapt to microblogs like Twitter and on average we found them to have 72% more followers than an industry association.

Activists Vs. Corporations
When it comes to measuring corporations vs activists, we see that corporations lag far behind activists. Especially in the use of videos and photos. In Social Networks (SocNets) we see a more level playing field, but looking at 4 primary social networks (Facebook, NetLog, Orkut and MySpace) our research showed activist groups tended to have 42% more followers than a corporation on average. As with industry associations, there is also a more even play in the blogosphere, but corporate blogs tended to be 30% longer in text and 78% less likely to include videos and photo’s in their blog postings. Looking at Alexa and other ranking tools for traffic and inbound links we also found that activist blogs had 32% more inbound links and mentions across social media channels than corporate blogs.

Conclusion
Well, a lot can be concluded from these findings. For many it is little to no surprise that activist groups are more engaged and that they tend to dominate the social web. Some may also surmise that is natural as the social web is more about grass roots, youth and ranting lunatics. Certainly there is a share of them. But more often than not, sober, well informed and educated, professional adults are seeing these messages. And they are reacting to them. As the technology to produce high quality videos and photo’s today is so inexpensive and a message can go viral so quickly, activist groups will continue to expand their activities and pose an ever more serious threat to corporations.

Activists are keenly aware of the challenges that corporations and their associations face with communications. They also know a corporation must contend with multiple stakeholder and present a balanced approach. And then there is the challenge of corporations still adapting to the swift changes and challenges of operating in a global community where the cost of broadcasting a message is almost zero and available to anyone who can get access to the Internet. The advent of mobile devices with immediate upload of video and photo images has added to the complexity of the situation and it will only become more challenging. Online reputation management tools will become ever more important, as will digital research firms who can dig deeper, go farther back in time and provide more professional insights.

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Note on Research Classifications:
We defined “activists” as non-profit organizations with a primary mandate/mission to change government policies and legislation on societal issues such as the environment, human rights or health care. NGO’s and NPO’s such as The Heart & Lung Association or Medicins Sans Frontieres are not included in this category. Industry associations are those that clearly represent the interests of a particular industry such as the World Coal Association or OPEC. We classified corporations in the context of those with 2,000 employees or more operating in more than one country with an estimated or clarified market cap of $100M and above. Our results are based on the aggregate evaluation of over 200 research projects from 2007 to 2010 in the English language and includes Canada, United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Holland, Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Argentina, France and Spain.

Exporting Revolutions in Social Media

Was Facebook the key driver that sparked revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Not likely. The social network, like Twitter, certainly played a pivotal role, of that there is little doubt. When the Web was mostly shut off in Egypt, mobile networks generally remained and people switched to alternate means; faxes and calling via landline to connections outside the country, who then reported via social networks.

Social technologies via the Web are enabling citizens to engage directly in the dialogue of governance. An issue developed nations are struggling to contend with and now arguably, one that has helped topple dictatorships. Such unrest in the Global North is unlikely to take on the scale and demands seen in Egypt and Libya, but there will be some unrest. Already we have seen a glimmer in Wisconsin, of all places.

Could that be the first sign of the export of revolutions? Arguably, it is fragile states that have shown the West how to use social technologies to drive change in governance and civil society. The uses of the tools in the Global North have been, so far, very much at the local level – small petitions and tools to create awareness about potholes their city isn’t fixing. That could change.

Citizens in Western nations have much more to lose by toppling governments than they did in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Thankfully, we enjoy much more stability, hence use of social technologies has been largely in the area of entertainment rather than political or societal change issues. Most revolutions come from the middle class and in Western nations, the middle class is increasingly restless; just as it was in Egypt and Libya. As food prices and the cost of energy continue to rise, this will put added pressure on the middle classes in Western nations. No doubt there is yet more unrest to come in the Middle East.

One interesting aspect of the unrest in the Middle East is that it is not religiously motivated as it has been before. This certainly puts a nice damper on the aspirations of  al Quaeda and is a significant statement to the Ayatollah’s in Iran. Their spouting of a promised land has failed to materialize in 30+ years. This unrest is a desire for voice in the governance of their affairs. Social technologies are key; for these citizens of the middle east have seen the freedoms we enjoy in the West and the benefits of a capitalist society (maybe not perfect, but better than autocratic rule by far.) The middle classes in the West may then start to look at organizing through social technologies for more than just to help them get potholes fixed faster.

The Dark Side Of Social Media and Online “Marketing”

Yes, there is, surprisingly, a very active dark side of social media “marketing” in a number of business sectors. For business marketing online, it is a highly competitive place. Witness the large volume of SEO agencies and the vast volumes of SEO “how-to” content. Toss in the rise of social media channels and the perhaps even larger amount of content around how to engage in marketing through social media, it’s little wonder there is a darker side.

We’ve completed well over 200 research reports across a multitude of industry sectors; from consumer goods to ball-bearing manufacturers, finance and tourism. In almost all of them we have encountered what we’ve come to term as Digital Dark Marketing.

These tactics vary, mostly it’s been about companies using SEO tactics, legitimate and black hat SEO means, to push down their competitors in search engines. Increasingly though, we are seeing similar activities across social media channels. Sometimes it is simply the usual aim of improving a company or products visibility over  a competitor – this is fine and is part of the benefits of a capitalist society. A business may also hire, unknowingly, a black hat SEO firm as recently happened to a firm in New York (ironically the article is in Forbes, who has just been accused of link spam themselves – link to article below.)

Where is gets darker however, is when nastier tactics are deployed. These range from hiring people to place negative reviews of a competitors product or service all the way through to using tactics that get a competitor pushed into Google’s “sandbox” or listed as spam for the domains web address and company emails. As we looked back at our data over the past three years of research projects, we estimate about a 11% increase, CAGR, over the past two years and forecast an 14% CAGR increase in the coming three years. Not massive amounts you might think, but enough.

There are no regulations over these tactics. Tier 1 consumer search engines like Google or Bing do not have the algorithms or methodologies to know if a dark marketing tactic is being used. Gathering the evidence of these tactics is also not easy in manual form. To trace the activity and create a path of evidence is a significant challenge and most businesses barely understand social media and are still learning how it can help them in legitimate marketing – even the firms consulting on social media are still learning. It is still a nascent sector of the online world in business terms for marketing.

Some of the tactics we’ve seen are;

Link Spamming or Spamdexing: An ongoing point of pain for search engines who are constantly “tweaking” their algorithms to stay one step ahead of these annoying folks. This tactic can be used to push down a competitor in a search engine or cause the company targeted to be “sandboxed” by a search engine in a reverse link spam operation.

Paid Negative Reviews: This seems to work in two ways. 1) is by a firm or an agency hired by a firm, paying people to slam a competitive product or drive down reviews on ranking/rating services or sometimes staff will of the company will do this themselves and 2) finding existing negative reviews of competitor products/services and “promoting” them across ranking/rating sites and other social media services (e.g. using a false Twitter account to promote a negative instance.)

Pay Per Click Fraud: Some companies will find someone or an organization to click on competitors ads in search engines or other sites/services to maximize their ad budget quickly, then place their ads afterward.

Content Realignment: Fancy term we have for taking a competitors own “content” about their product or service and altering it, then placing it on the same social media channels where they placed it, but your name is mentioned. Slightly obvious but rarely gets detected.

Paid Bloggers: A company may find a blogger willing to provide a highly positive review of their product/service and subtly or overtly “slam” their competitor. They may provide the content and the blogger may admit they are being paid to write the review but may be unaware of how they are being manipulated. There are those who have no scruples at all however, and will do as the company bids and not declare their actions. Some laws are being developed to counter this, although the intent of the law is really to hold all bloggers responsible for their statements as general consumer protection.

Blind Party Linking & Ads: Companies may unknowingly be participating in this kind of action. This is when they are “sold” links or advertising by seemingly legitimate online marketing firms or individuals. The business doesn’t understand what is happening and simply thinks it is buying ads and links. Forbes magazine was recently accused of Link Spamming.

There are a host of other tactics, some as obvious as trying to get a competitor kicked out of a social media service all the way through to “flooding” a competitors hosting service or using bot or DOS (Denial of Service) attacks. The industries where see the most of this activity is financial products (mortgages, investing), insurance (home, auto, life), electronics manufacturers and online retailers. Other sectors however, are not immune.

How do you know if your company is being targeted? It’s not easy. It takes some time and effort, but a digital media research firm that understands social media marketing, SEO and search engine marketing tactics and Web technologies can help. Evidence is hard to gather for legal retaliation we have found, but you can develop strategies to fight back. Some online reputation management services are good, but they are too often just “real-time” and do not have the ability to track history and miss many social media channels.

There is an “information war” taking place in Cyburbia today. From spammers in email and websites for pirated or black label goods through to competitive anti-marketing tactics. Unfortunately this just adds to the challenge companies face with their online presence, yet as time goes by, can ill afford not to understand.

Orienteering Rules for Twitter

For those not engaged in Twitter, as in actively using it daily and participating (not just looking), it is often very difficult to understand. The comment most often heard of the nascent or determined non-Twitter user is; “I don’t get it.” So they don’t use it. Then it certainly is the case that you won’t get it. This causes bigger issues for government departments and corporations concerned with Twitter for crisis signals in social media or reputation management.

Social media monitoring tools can help somewhat, but tend to focus on Twitter as a channel and limit their “analysis” of Twitter users “influence” to rules set within the Twitter channel (i.e. how many followers they have, how much they re-tweet, how much their content gets re-tweeted). This can create a false trail and miss the actual story or issue. It is one of the many failings of social media monitoring tools today. To date, I’ve yet to see a single monitoring tool able to deliver network analysis and put an issue into context. The best we’ve seen for measuring Twitter influence is Klout, it’s good, not great, but the best out there.

Twitter is a live real-time map of the Web. Constantly. It is a set of road signs showing major highways, side paths, rivers, streams and oceans of data. I personally call it the Amazon river of the Internet, of Cyburbia. It is a constant flowing stream. Often inane, sometimes however, filled with nuggets of gold in the world of information arbitration.

In Twitter, a story can start anywhere, by anyone. A story can be false from the start, yet become quickly viral and evolve into a hashtag (i.e. #Jan25 for Egypt) or fizzle quickly. The challenge is to understand a) what is real and what is fake b) the true influence and authority of not just the originator but perhaps the first 30-50 people to then Re-Tweet the story and c) where is the story going matched to d) a validation incident that both quantifies and qualifies the original story. From this as well, is the need to “map the issue” through the network. This can only be done manually today…although we have been working with some clever folks on this, as are others.

But Twitter cannot really be “explained” to someone. I can tell you it is a service that only gives you 140 characters to say something and/or share a link to something else on the Web. But that doesn’t explain “how” Twitter has been adapted by netizens for sales, marketing, public relations, disinformation, crowdsourcing, organizing, protesting and so on…but it has and is, being used in all these ways.

But analysts and researchers who simply observe and do not engage, will always have a challenge to not only understand what is happening in Twitter, but how to use it.

Rules of Orienteering Twitter

The first rule to orienteering in Twitter is to engage. Only then will you be able to get a compass bearing.

The second rule is to participate in sharing content and engaging in discussion

The third rule is to be patient and expend the time. Building a stream that has inherent value takes time.

I suspect there are more and of course, we welcome your views and ideas.

The Confusion & Long Tail Danger of WikiLeaks

The world was captivated with WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables late last year. Or was it? As we researched some of the sentiment and commentary, we found most people didn’t really seem to care about the diplomatic cables. Most commentary seemed to be more amused watching governments around the world react. The story carried steam for couple of weeks, dying down. But it’s still simmering. More so than other stories.

The part I think most people missed was the people that are likely to be tortured or murdered as a result of these leaks. Transparency may be a Utopian ideal; but at what cost? Oddly enough, the moral and ethical debate carried more in circles of academia and diplomacy than by the general public.

As we analyzed some of the massive volume of commentary, we could only conclude one thing: the general public is confused. Or better perhaps is the word “perplexed” by it all. Our conclusion is that essentially, no one really knows what to make of all this information, or what to do with it. The WikiLeaks release of the US Army helicopter killing civilian journalists is easy to comprehend. Reams of diplomatic cables, not so much.

It then begs the question of how much can society absorb? When is it just too much information? We are increasingly “snacking” on media today. We prefer our news in little soundbytes that we can integrate into our daily lives. That’s a whole other topic right there. This is where I think the word “perplexed” comes into play…as a society, we simply aren’t so sure what to do about it all.

The long-tail danger to WikiLeaks releasing this data is that it is given out in a database that can be manipulated at any time. It remains open and accessible. Because of this, States and organizations looking for weaknesses to exploit in Western governments and mostly the US government, have a treasure trove of data to access on an ongoing basis. In this regard, WikiLeaks, I think, has done far more harm than good. I doubt we’ll see anymore “sensational” stories over time, but as the data continues to be analysed small groups impacted by it may suffer more, be exploited or gain from it. As for Julian Assange, some argue it’s become more about him than the stories. Our analysis of blogs, Twitter and commentary on blogs doesn’t paint him as much liked though.

So one might suggest that with society more confused and perplexed by this action from WikiLeaks, the value of what Assange was hoping for is minimal and more negative than anything. The scale of the scandal is too subtle and broad for society to take any serious actions.