Data, you need

This is a cross-post from Ranieri Communications…

Actual output from one of my dashboards

Have you seen Particle Fever yet? If not, you should. There’s a seminal moment when, on achieving collision, a Cern star states triumphantly: “We have data.” It’s the point at which the theorists craned their necks eager to see what the experimentalists could actually prove. Suddenly, this wasn’t theory any more.

If you’re in any way serious about your social media, you need to make sure you have data. Without data you don’t know what the current situation is, so you can’t measure where you’re heading, so you don’t know whether or not you’ve been successful. You need data to know whether your strategy is working.

What data exactly? Well, that depends on what you want to achieve. Say you want to use social media to improve your SEO. What makes you think you have a problem with SEO in the first place? What needs fixing? Better find out first, because that’s how you’re going to measure success. Or perhaps you want something more qualitative around reputation management. How are you going to quantify this? Where are you going to get the data from?

There are three approaches to getting data depending on how much time, expertise or cash you’ve got: manual, semi-automated, and fully automated. Here’s a quick rundown of each.

Manual: get typing

Everyone loves a spreadsheet. They’re amazing things and you can go a very long way by manually entering data that is publicly available and then drawing insights from it. The key here is to use data that you can compare like-for-like across social media channels to get an idea of how they’re doing. So, while Facebook’s dashboard for example is rich in data, and you should certainly be using it to improve your performance, a lot of the analysis isn’t available for other channels such as Twitter, or Instagram, or your blog.

At the very basic level, you can look at two essential metrics that work across all of social media: audience size and engagement. The audience size is the total potential audience you could reach with your message, so that’s fans of your Facebook page, followers of your Twitter feed and so on. Engagement is when people actually do something in response to reading about you, so they retweet you or they comment on your Facebook page.

Do this for your competitors too, build this up over time and you can start seeing patterns in the data. You’ll see spikes that correspond to activity, and how to develop more advanced metrics off the back of these. How about dividing engagement by reach to get insight into how engaged your audience really is? How about adding frequency so you can start forming an idea of tweet quality? How about requeesting access to the client’s Google Analytics and looking at how social media referrals to the website are behaving? Develop your own charts, stamp them with your logo, and you’ve got a bespoke measurement system. Port this to an online resource such as Google Docs, and you’ve got an online dashboard. Nice.

Semi-automated: learn APIs

If you’ve got an in-house geek (the one you keep in the cage in the corner and occasionally feed with Haribo) then they might like this: you can start getting involved with Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

An API grabs the data directly rather than going through the manual procedures. So, by using the Twitter API you could directly interrogate the Twitter database and get follower figures, retweets, times of tweets and so on delivered direct to your machine rather than having to input it manually. You can also use the APIs of other social search engines such as SocialMentionand Social Searcher that do a lot of the grunt work for you, by searching across multiple social media sources and aggregating them.

So, by downloading the results of API calls, you build up a store of data that you can then aggregate and analyse, again in Excel. With a canny combination of download managers, batch files and macros, you can do this all with just a couple of keystrokes.

The difference here is in quantity and types of data and therefore insight: you can accrue literally thousands of data points detailing who said what, and when, and you can start understanding who your influencers are, and what your issues might be – plus those of the competition and therefore the industry at large. At this point you really do start understanding the landscape.

If you have a smattering of statistical knowledge you can also start charting the ebb and flow of debate. Moving averages show the underlying trends. Crossovers of moving averages are highly significant. And so on.

Fully automated: bring in the Big Guns

If fully manual requires investment in time and semi automated needs investment in expertise, then fully automated is the money play. Here, we’re talking systems such as BrandWatch andSentiment Metrics who have millions of sites categorised, crunching huge amounts of data using dedicated server farms. It’s the rocket science approach and while this is mostly the domain of large companies that provide consumer services such as telecoms companies, there’s also a strong argument to be made that smaller agencies can use them profitably by sharing the cost across several accounts.

Hands, APIS, BFGs: Which one’s right for you?

If you’re not storing and analysing any data currently, then you need to start, right now.

At the very least start storing reach and engagement, ideally alongside competitors. It’s a useful exercise as of itself because you really start to understand cause and effect, and get to grips with the concepts.

When you get the hang of that, and you’d like to dive deeper, see if you have a geek in your organisation, or a latent geek, or know someone who keeps one. They might be able to ramp you up to the semi-automated solution and then you become something of a social media data guru.

And when you’re finally seeing the shiny green numbers coursing through the very fabric of the Matrix itself, and you’ve landed that major social media account – or you’re a postdoc working at Cern – it’s time to hoover up as much data as you can possibly get your hands on. Even if you don’t uncover the secrets of life, the universe and everything, you’ll know what drives conversation, and that’s a decent second.

What will happen come Twittergeddon?

So it’s been a very long time since I blogged. The main reason is that I’ve been getting to grips with mobile advertising for the past nine months – long enough to have a baby, or two-fifths of a baby elephant – and aligning Adfonic’s communications channels.

One key project has involved ‘classic’ social media: identifying our influencers, ranking them, and setting up mechanisms to monitor them. This just simply helps us to gain insights into the main industry issues, from the people who matter, and engage with them on a very human level.

The only stumbling block is: Twitter. Lists are great. But that’s just the ‘who’ part. To know what they’re saying, about a specific topic (ie mobile advertising) you need to be able to filter these lists. And that’s causing me headaches.

For example Hootsuite, while providing filters, does not do this persistently. When you add a filter, then select a different stream or tab, the filters disappear. Not good.

Tweetdeck used to have great filtering in the classic ‘Yellow’ version. But then it was revamped after being bought out by Twitter, and lost most of the features that made it useful in the process, including filtering.

So what is to be done? I’ve been running the old Tweetdeck as a backup solution, and it does a brilliant job. Every Twitter list, filtered for an extra smooth taste, gives me an instant overview of what our most influential Tweeters are saying about mobile advertising. It enables us to be informed across all our influencers, and agile in our response.

But I have a bad feeling. Come 5th March, Twitter will deprecate its old API, and at that point, I do wonder what’s going to happen with the old Tweetdeck. I expect it will just stop working, and I’m back to Hootsuite, or investigating more sophisticated – and expensive – tools that will do this very important job.

I know change is inevitable – George Harrison kind of said the same. But why on earth Twitter won’t enable filtering for lists, I do not know. Perhaps they think their servers will melt. Possibly they just want us to return to the ‘needle in a haystack’ approach of old. Or maybe – just maybe – someone somewhere will figure out a cool way to do this. And then charge us through the nose for it.

The old web is dying and I’m not sure I like the new one

BlogPulse has no pulse

So I was playing around with dashboards and the like yesterday  – as one does – and noticed that BlogPulse has disappeared. BlogPulse was not the greatest blog search engine around, but it was the only one offering anything like useable charts. So, given that Technorati charts disappeared years ago (although they still have a page claiming they’ll be back soon), and other solutions such as IceRocket don’t enable you to pass keywords to create live charts, it would appear there is no longer any blog charting widget out there.

Is this the final nail in the coffin of blogging? Are we really so uninterested in blogging activity that charts are no longer considered viable? It would seem that way, and the ‘blogging is dead’ meme is very much alive right now.

Charting generally seems to be suffering

Recently, tweetcloud.com disappeared, without even a whimper. It just vanished. I seemed to be the only person who noticed, but tweetcloud.com was, like BlogPulse, the only solution that did something incredibly useful: it would create a tweetcloud for a search term on the fly. In other words, you typed in what you were looking for, and it created a tweetcloud for that search (not a tweetcloud of your own timeline, which really isn’t that much use but I suspect a lot less processor-intensive). Plus it did it quickly, and there was a widget for it, which enabled you to build dashboards giving an instant overview of the latest terms associated with any topic. It was great. And then it wasn’t. There are sort-of alternatives still such as Visible Tweets, Cloud.li and Twendz, but, while they’re very pretty, you can’t build them into dashboards.

And today, Trendistic, the only (again) solution for live charting of Twitter trends, is down. It was down yesterday too. Look for it on Twitter search and there are just a load of weird Polish references to it (who knows, maybe Trendistic is a Polish pop group). Surely – sssssurely – Trendistic can’t have disappeared too? And surely, again, it can’t just be me who thought it was an absolutely brilliant idea?

RSS is dying

If you’re detecting a pattern here, you’re not alone. It does seem that really great ideas are failing as the web grows bigger and faster. They just cannot keep up, it seems – or, at least, not until/unless they’re snapped up by one of the walled gardens such as Facebook. Free information – as in, really free, readily available, easily manipulated and shared across the entire web – is disappearing.

RSS was supposed to be the great hope of free information. Peel the content away from the format, and hey presto, you can share pretty much anything across any platform. But therein lies the problem: something free is not something you can fence off and charge for. It is free in every sense of the word.

So it seems RSS is suffering too. Google Reader used to be a really nice way to bring feeds together and create a static web page of the results as well as a newly aggregated feed. Not since its recent revamp however. All the sharing features have been ported across to Google+, presumably because Google+ is a neat, walled garden whereas RSS was messy and free. Yahoo Pipes was the ultimate RSS aggregator/mash-up tool but suffered from underinvestment by Yahoo. Even after a supposed major overhaul, it’s flaky and too slow to power a dashboard (unless you’re prepared to wait for a minute or so while the results load up). Another RSS mashup tool, XFruits, died a couple of years back. Do a search for RSS aggregator tools and it’s like a graveyard. The only viable tool that I can see is called FeedRinse which, while it offers aggregation and filtering (the two most useful features of Pipes), also feels a bit overloaded and slow. And, as with TweetCloud and BlogPulse, it’s the only game in town, which leads me to believe it won’t be for much longer.

RSS from search has been abandoned by major players too. Such as the bookmarking platform Delicious. You used to be able to search across the Delicious database and pull an RSS feed from that. Stunningly useful, as it showed you what other people considered important for any topic. Not any longer. Twitter has also demoted RSS from search: you can still do it, but you have to look around to find out how. It’s another candidate for the cull, I believe.

Mash-ups are harder

So where does this leave us if we want to create our own mash-ups or dashboards? Well we can dive into the APIs if we fancy it, and learn a smattering of HTML and javascript. But we still need reliable platforms to base our dashboards on. The familiar theme of ‘only game in town’ is revisited here, in that the only solution offering public dashboards – that is, pages that you can show to anyone without them needing to log in – is Netvibes. And every time I create a dashboard in Netvibes, I find I have to spend quite some time figuring out what works still and what doesn’t. Quite apart from discovering over the past few months that third-party sites have disappeared, I’m finding that third-party widgets in Netvibes are broken, or even that Netvibes itself is cranky. So for example, my attempts to create a dashboard yesterday were frustrated by HTML widgets only displaying the top portions of any image or javascript output, widgets generally not staying in the same place when I refreshed the page, RSS feeds not being imported correctly, and on recourse to their support forum, finding it full of spam.

It seems the free tools that were once so useful are now decaying or falling apart. I don’t know what ‘Web 2.0′ really meant, but I have a sense of something dying, something that was slower and smaller than the web today, that shared more freely but was doing so with less immediacy and monetary return. Whatever we’re moving towards, if it’s Web 3.0, then it’s becoming more consolidated, monetised, bigger, faster, noisier.

So the ‘roll your own’ approach is going to get harder. The smaller, innovative sites that did one thing, and one thing well, just cannot survive the double onslaught of vastly increased traffic and expectations of real-time delivery unless they can make money from  it.  The old, fluid, free web that comprised many islands of activity is solidifying into separate continents of influence. The game is so much harder now, that it’s only the really big players that can make sense – and money – out of it.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Me? I preferred the more innovative, dynamic environment. I liked the way that RSS could be readily shared, and smaller enterprises could create neat tools that let you do things with it, without really needing to be a developer. I guess those days are gone. Nostalgia certainly ain’t what it used to be.

Postscript: … and no sooner do I file this post then I read this Observer piece by John Naughton, entitled “Has the Internet run out of ideas already?”, on the progression of information technologies: “from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel – from open to closed system.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. In fact, I didn’t.

Whither Social Mention?

Social Mention is a pretty good social media aggregator. Think Google, but for social media.

When I say ‘pretty good’, I mean it’s not without its faults. It doesn’t do real phrasal searches – that is, a search for “Brendan Cooper” in quotes will give results with just “Brendan” and “Cooper” in them, which is a bit naughty really – and it also has a tendency to be a bit slow.

It does have some quite cool features though. You can get RSS feeds off searches (which you can’t do with Google but you can with Bing and Yahoo). You can get alerts (which you can also get from Google, but not exclusively for social media). You can download results as CSV files, which you can then open in Excel and start analysing. You can start to get an insight into where people are talking about topics, who they are, what words they’re using and who is the most active for a given topic. And Social Mention even gives you some metrics around sentiment, engagement and so on, and if you keep the salt cellar handy while using these figures, and apply liberally, you might find them useful.

But wait. There’s something wrong with this post. It’s all in the present tense.

Because, as of around two days ago, Social Mention vanished. It reappeared briefly, but has disappeared again. Not a peep from the @socialmention Twitter account, or from @jonnyjon who created it.

So change all the ‘is’ to ‘was’ and the ‘does’ to ‘did’.

This is causing quite a lot of consternation in the Twitterverse. Social Mention is/was pretty much the only game in town when it came to a free, full-on social media aggregator/search, especially one so well featured. Which should tell us all something, I suppose. If something is free, and it’s the only one, then there’s a reason for that. Meaning, it’s really bad, or really really good, or it’s unsustainable. I do hope it’s not the latter in this case.

So what is to be done? Apart from wringing our hair,  pulling our teeth and gnashing our hands? Stephen Dale has come to the rescue with a list of alternatives but you still need to be canny to work out how to replace the unreplaceable.

Solution #1. Do all the searches separately and aggregate them yourself. So, do a Google Blog search, get the RSS off that, aggregate it with an IceRocket search maybe, a Twitter search (if you can find out how to get RSS off Twitter searches nowadays – fortunately I made a note of how to do this before they removed it from visibility), a Google News search, etc etc. Aggregate these in Google Reader or Netvibes some such thing. Good luck with Facebook, fingers crossed Twitter doesn’t remove RSS altogether, enjoy the vaguaries of how YouTube, Flickr etc handle search queries, and so on. And, of course, you don’t get the metrics or the other coooool stuff.

Solution #2. Roll your own solution with Yahoo Pipes. I put a lot of work into Pipes quite some time ago. I built myself a completely modular social media aggregator, so you could change keywords and all the searches reflected it, or change the engine and all the results reflected that. Then I realised I’d just built my own version of Social Mention. But things kept changing and breaking, so I realised that Social Mention was doing the job for me, and instead of driving myself nuts keeping up with these changes, decided to use that instead. Guess what though? Yahoo Pipes stopped being reliable enough to use, and remains so despite a recent relaunch of the v2 engine. And guess what again though again? It’s the only solution out there that does what Yahoo Pipes does, for free. Sound familiar? Which heavily implies solution #3…

Solution #3. Accept that singularly useful, free services are an anomaly of the early years of social media, bite the bullet, and go to a pay-for service. There seems to be a new one every time I look, and I’m sure one of them will do what you want it to do. Check out the PDF report on Stephen’s page, it’s a good summary of them.

So, that’s my take on it. Solution #4 is, of course, to wait and see what happens to Social Mention. I really really really really hope this is not The End because I had plans for it. Same thing nearly happened with Delicious, which survived. But if this really is It, well, it was fun while it lasted.

Netvibes and me just don’t get along any more

I’ll be straight up: I like Netvibes. I’ve used it a lot in the past because I think it’s such a great solution to the problem of monitoring across the social mediascape. So it’s hurting me pretty badly now that it doesn’t work for me any more. That is, just me. As in, me personally. It’s fine for everyone else in the world, it would seem.

About a week ago, at the time of typing, they had a problem. None of the HTML or Twitter Search widgets worked which, considering I use a lot of HTML and Twitter Searches, was not good for me.

Then they fixed it. Nice.

Then, a few days ago, Twitter Searches stopped working for me again. “Not a problem”, I thought. “They’ll get it sorted.”

Problem is, they think there is nothing to sort. Twitter Searches work just fine for them. And, given that I’m using their free service, I do believe that’s the end of the story, as far as they’re concerned.

So the situation is this: every single private dashboard I ever set up is broken on Firefox pre-v4, and IE post-v7, including a completely new one I created specifically to test the problem.  Twitter Search widgets do not work on any of them, and another widget I used, called Remixed RSS, also does not work. It definitely did, even though it’s not an official Netvibes widget. Safari and Chrome are fine, as are other versions of Firefox and IE. But the versions that don’t work are the most popular. I cannot tell people to install a new browser simply to view my dashboard.

I’ve tested this on different machines, browsers, operating systems, accounts, dashboards, even entirely different infrastructures and countries. I consistently reproduce the problem: Netvibes do not. And they’ve had no other reports of the problem either. So that’s that then.

This is actually impossible. It’s almost as if I personally am unable to use Netvibes any more, no matter what machine I use, no matter what login details I create, or what dashboard I set up. Or even what country I’m in. It would appear just to be ‘me’. Given that, as I say, I use it a lot, I’m finding this extremely painful and frustrating.

Netvibes, in truth, have responded to some of my overtures via their support page, Facebook page and Twitter account. But they’ve now gone silent, even since sending them error messages from the IE and Firefox consoles which might give them an insight into the issue.

Of course they’ve gone silent. I don’t pay for support or anything. That’s the deal, right?

I guess I just need to advise people to use anything other than Firefox pre-v4, and IE post-v7 to use any dashboard I personally set up – although, in the same breath, I should also tell them that anyone else’s dashboards are probably fine. See? Crazy stuff.

In the meantime if you want to help me, you can. Here are the login details for the dashboard I set up to test this:

  1. Go to Netvibes.com
  2. Click ‘Sign in’ at the top right corner of the screen
  3. Sign in with email beans.milligan@gmail.com (yes, the names of my pets but don’t bother trying to use them to access any of my other stuff, I don’t use them for passwords or anything, and don’t use that email address for anything either), password testtest (you can even just copy and paste those details into the sign in page if you like).
  4. Tell me what you see.

Any help/advice/support appreciated…

If you want to understand social media, do it when there’s a big TV event happening

We’re living in a strange world right now. We’re sort of at a tipping point between broadcast and broadcomment, where we can watch what millions of other people are watching, while at the same time see what they’re saying.

This was brought home to me during the Prime Ministerial debates in the UK. I watched them with my laptop showing tweetclouds, sentiment analysis and Twitter search to get a flavour of what people’s reactions were. So it was a deeply flawed experiment in many ways – take a subset of the population who are interested enough in politics to watch the debates, another subset interested enough to comment online, and find the intersection between them – but it was interesting to see the stats shoot up in favour of Clegg. And ok, so, he didn’t win, but then again no one did. I, on the other hand, did find out a lot about social media monitoring.

Social media in action

So it occured to me then that the best way to demonstrate how social media works is during an event like that. Something that people can relate to what they’re seeing on TV, and reading about in the newspapers. Also – and this is really important – being able to tweet, and then see that tweet – their tweet – appear in the results. It’s what got me into blogging in the first place, when I posted to this blog, subscribed to my own RSS feed in Google Reader, and saw myself pop up a few minutes later. It impressed me. But I think people often don’t quite ‘get’ the idea of cause and effect, that what they blog or tweet about can and will be found by other people.

So this weekend, another event: the six nations Rugby. I don’t play rugby but I do like watching a good game, and this weekend there were plenty (not least because England won). And this time I got quite a few interesting insights using some monitoring solutions that are good for real-time monitoring, namely Twitterfall, Twendz, Tweetfeel and Tweetgrid.

Again, it was a really good occasion to demonstrate how you can set up searches (in this case, for mentions of rugby and 6nations), then tweet something with one of those search terms in it, then see your tweet appear a minute or so later.

Pretty Twitterfall

Of all the sites I tried, I preferred Twitterfall‘s look and feel. I can imagine it working wonderfully well projected onto a wall during an event, especially in its presentation mode.

But Twitterfall doesn’t really offer any analysis. Even a tweetcloud would be useful and fairly non-controversial, I’d have thought.

Interesting and idiosyncratic Twendz

I found Twendz a little jerky in its presentation, but I did find its analysis tools fascinating. Not least because they’re wrong.

I tested the Twendz sentiment engine a long, long time ago, on the day Jade Goody died (a contestant in Big Brother in the UK). I searched against her name, and saw some tweets come in saying “So sad Jade Goody died” being classed as negative. Presumably this was due to the proximity of ‘sad’ and ‘Jade Goody’ but to my mind, that’s actually in favour of Goody. I asked about this and was told it was a ‘correct response’. Correct in that it’s classing death as negative, but I wouldn’t really be monitoring to find out what people think about death, to be honest.

So this weekend a tweet saying “My two home nations playing but I can’t watch :(” was classed as negative. Again, this is a tweet by someone who I think really wanted to watch rugby, but couldn’t. The proximity of the sad smiley must have classed it as negative. But this is someone who is sad because they can’t be there. It’s a double negative. So it’s in favour of rugby, right? Not against, imho as a human being.

Twendz also has an idiosyncratic way of picking out the main topics people are commenting on. For example, ‘DONT’ came up a few times. When I looked to see what was causing that, it was just two tweets with the word “don’t” in them. Hmmmmm. Maybe this is why Twitterfall steers clear of analysis.

Or maybe it was just having a bad day. Or perhaps it needed the right kind of event to work properly, much like the people of Summerisle needed the right kind of adult.

Touchy Tweetfeely

Tweetfeel, on the other hand, really goes for sentiment analysis in a big way. It even has a big strapline on the home page saying so: “Real-time Twitter search with feelings using insanely complex sentiment analysis.”

And it did seem to work. I was surprised at how well it would correctly classify tweets. It could be that it only classifies tweets that are definitely one way or the other (eg “France are brilliant” or “Scotland suck” – sorry Scotland, but you did, a bit) so I’d have to look into that more closely to compare an unfiltered search with a sentimented search.

Still, it gave me confidence, so perhaps Tweetfeel is good for the sentiment analysis side of things. You could maybe run Twitterfall on one screen and Tweetfeel on another, or maybe even bring them together into a Netvibes dashboard.

Tweetgurn

Finally, Tweetgrid sounds great and does a decent enough job of presenting tweets in, as the name suggests, a grid, but I found it difficult to get started until I realised the big brown pictures in front of me were clickable icons, and then, well, its presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Given the choice, I’d go for Twitterfall or Twendz any time.

Cause and effect

So there you have it. If you really want to show someone how social media works then speed things up, so that they can see cause and effect, and give them a context. In other words, do it during a live, national event, and show them how this all works with some monitoring tools. They’ll get to see what’s good and what’s not so good about monitoring and social media today.

One day…

I’ve already mentioned Netvibes, and I’ve considered building dashboards before big events that bring together live video streams with social media feedback shown alongside. Maybe I’ll do that next time around.

I await the day when broadcasters realise they can integrate this stuff too. I did find it very interesting seeing what people were thinking, but frustrating that I had to look at the laptop, then at the game, and found I couldn’t really concentrate on either.

So maybe, one day, someone will have the bright idea of running a Twitterfall-like column alongside the picture, or running below it like a newswire, together with a cloud. If so, I’ve got copyright on that one.

Aggregated predictions: what really will happen with social media in 2011

Around Christmas-time I was foolish enough to list my social media predictions. They were a combination of ‘more of this, less of that, same of the other’, and you can still read it if you’re foolish enough to base an entire year that hasn’t happened on the ramblings of one poor gangrel creature.

Fortunately I wasn’t the only one. There are plenty of other gangrel creatures out there, with their own predictions, so I thought it would be interesting to see what other people have said, aggregate them all, and see if we have any agreements. While there are plenty of one-offs (for example I think I’m the only person who predicts the rise and rise of digital agencies at the cost of PR agencies) there are, amazingly, congruencies between people.

Here’s what I’ve found below, but you can see the Google doc I used to compile this, together with the links to the bloggers I read. I got as far as halfway through page 4 of the Google results before I started to lose the will to live, and I might even pick this one up again, but for now, this is where we’re at.

Mobile

There were various takes on this, ranging from the increased importance of check-in sites such as Foursquare, through to the influence of technologies such as the iPad. I bunched them all under mobile, and this is the most important popular prediction, with 11 mentions from Socialnomics, ReadWriteWeb, Fred Meek, 4TM Guide, Lockergnome, Social Media Examiner, The Next Web, Trevanian Legg, Ron Medlin, Social Media B2B, and Concepts Marketing.

Alignment with business goals

The gurus are being expunged, dormanted, deleted. Next most popular was the prediction that 2011 will see people really tying social media to business results, with 8 mentions from Conversational Currency, Socialnomics, OneForty, ReadWriteWeb, KnowledgeBlog, Social Media Examiner, Infusionblog, Trevanian Legg, and me. I went on to say that these would yield disappointing results, and I’m happy (or sad, or despondent, or maybe a little morose) to say that KnowledgeBlog and Social Media B2B think so too.

The rise of Facebook

I said that I don’t see Facebook declining any time soon – unlike, say, Google, and who’d have thought that eh? – and I’ve been joined by Fred Meek, Social Media Examiner, The Next Web, Hausman Marketing Research Letter, Ron Medlin, Likeable Media and Contently Managed – that is, 7 other thinkers who also think Facebook will continue to dominate, whether through expansion, flotation, collaboration, monetisation, or something else ending in ion.

Amusingly enough, 4 commentators think Facebook will decline in influence, mainly through the rise of niche networks. They are Forrester, ReadWriteWeb, Trevanian Legg and MSL Group. They are, of course, wrong.

More group buying, particularly Groupon

In total 5 commentators think that social or group buying, particularly that exemplified by Groupon (or, in fact, actually Groupon since its valuation last year north of one billion dollars) will be significant over the coming year. They are Socialnomics, KnowledgeBlog, The Next Web, Social Media B2B, and MSL Group.

More content-driven programmes

All social media should be driven by content, but Social Media Examiner, The Next Web, Infusionblog, Social Media B2B and Contently Managed think this will happen more in 2011, with tools to help marketeers do this, or to enable their audiences to do it for them.

More consolidation among the large networks

This is something I didn’t mention but I do agree with. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn are irresistible and I don’t think the likes of Diaspora (the open-source so-called Facebook killer) et al are going to make a single dent. So I agree with Socialnomics, KnowledgeBlog, 4TM Guide, Social Media Examiner and Contently Managed on this one.

Again however, there are dissenters. Social Media B2B and GigaOm think there will be a rise of importance from niche sites at the ‘big’ systems’ expense. Silly sausages.

Anonymity and vetting

This is something I really hadn’t considered but does make sense. One of the primary concerns I noted while training at the Social Media Academy last year was that of privacy, that is, how much should I let people know, and how can I tell if people are genuine online? Four commentators mention privacy/vetting issues, and they are Conversational Currency, Socialnomics, ReadWriteWeb and GigaOm.

Video

This one surprises me, I have to say. ReadWriteWeb, Tim Ferriss, Concepts Marketing and Contently Managed all mention the ascendancy of video to some degree. I guess this ties in with the ascendancy of mobile in that we’ll all be glued to our displays watching video while we accidentally fall into water features.

That’ll do pig

I don’t want to give the impression I’m being a bit hasty here but I really need to crack on. Take a look at the Google Docs spreadsheet for the full picture. I might add to it as I go along, but really, go and take a look to see what else people comment on. Of the remaining topics that are mentioned by at least three sources we have metrics (which I guess ties into business goals), advertising, more social search (and less social search!), more workplace acceptance, continued importance placed on social media, the culling of so-called social media gurus (using a blunt instrument I presume), the intriguing and some would say tautological concept of Social Google, more Quora (of quorse – sorry), and more Twitter - again, counterbalanced by some who say less Twitter. Nothing more thrilling than when people disagree.

2011 social media predictions

So while I have my blogging head on – hot off the news that Delicious is disappearing and Facebook has undergone yet another redesign – I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on the state of the social media nation for the coming year. It’s not all good. Here we go…

Confidence will go down

Social media lives in the cloud (or ‘online’ as we used to say). This is good, in that the cloud is a wonderful thing where you can pool computing resources and readily share information. But its fluidity is a problem. I’ve already written about my dislike of the state of ‘permanent beta’ of such services, and with the recent make-over of Facebook, I remain annoyed. The bigger a site gets, the more we depend on it. The more it changes, the less we like it – not just because we have to relearn it, but strategists have to go back to the blueprints, trainers have to re-do all their materials, and so on. And that’s nothing compared to what happens when sites like Delicious just disappear. How can you invest time and effort, how can you plan, when you don’t know what’s going to happen over the next few months, let alone the next year?

Monetisation will continue to be a problem

Yahoo owns the biggest bookmarking service around, and it cannot make money off it. Twitter, as far as I’m aware, still doesn’t have a monetisation strategy. I don’t quite understand how Mark Zuckerberg can be so rich off the back of Facebook. Anyone remember the dotcom boom and bust? Social media feels horribly similar, in that I believe the people who make money off social media right now are the ones who get paid to assess its value. It’s very like the old gold rushes – the ones who got rich were the ones who sold the spades to dig for the gold, not the poor fools actually looking for it.

PR still won’t ‘get it’

I still feel my temples throb when I meet up with digital colleagues at PR agencies, who recount phrases they continue to come across such as “Let’s do some blogging stuff” or “Maybe we should send some tweets out.” Social media is still new, but it’s gone from burbling helplessly in the cot to at least toddling. Four-plus years is enough for PR people to have understood the basics, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that PR people, while they are completely brilliant at issues, are unrivalled organisers and demon communicators, are completely at sea when it comes to the high-level strategy and the low-level nuts and bolts of getting through to people online. I don’t see this changing any time soon.

Freelancers will find it an increasingly tough gig

I admit I haven’t found the past year easy by any means. People rightly want the confidence of an agency behind their programmes in case I get run over by a bus. And if/when you do finally get a client who’s prepared to work with you in the longer term, again they quite rightly want to know your ‘secret sauce’ – and then do it for themselves.

Digital agencies will rise

While I find PR people don’t ‘get’ digital, I do find digital ‘gets’ PR. My prediction here is that, far from PR subsuming digital, it will eventually be the other way around. Digital agencies have the heft of a professional outfit, with a proper team structure and a wealth of expertise that, I think, will be the umbrella model for the future.

Social media curves will continue to go up, but results will continue to disappoint

I still find it astonishing that, for example, in 2010 there was more social media traffic than all years combined (trust me, it’s a valid statistic, but I cannot find the source for that right now). At the same time, broadcast and mainstream media just has those huge exposure figures that social media simply cannot compete with. Dan Sabbagh of The Guardian recently showed us this (and this time I do have a link): of the recent Alan Partridge Fosters YouTube videos he says: “The first episode has racked up 492,000 plays on YouTube at the time of writing, and while the latest episode, 5, has dropped to 135,000, [Henry Normal, the man who “minds the shop” at Partridge actor Steve Coogan’s production company Baby Cow] claims the results are a success, even though a new comedy on Channel 4 would expect to be seen by 1.5m to 2m viewers.” OK, so 15-minute YouTube clips are cheaper to disseminate but 135,000 views is NOTHING compared to 2 million viewers – regardless of trendy notions of ‘engagement’, ‘dialogue’ or ‘the network effect’.

Facebook will continue to dominate

Facebook is a juggernaut and it’s not going to slow down any time soon. This is a pity because the web was never meant to be a single-application platform. It was supposed to be a resilient, open resource through which information could freely – which also means anonymously – pass. One day Facebook will break and then we’ll all be sorry.

Dashboarding and curating will grow

I truly believe that every company should be monitoring what people are saying about it, its issues and its competitors, on a daily basis. Even if they don’t then engage, there is simply no excuse for not listening, especially when marvellous sites such as Netvibes make dashboarding easy as cake, a piece of pie. Set up an internal dashboard monitoring your competitors and what people are saying about them. That’s research. And have an external one showcasing what you say and the areas you want to ‘own’. That’s marketing. Where’s the harm in that?

Social media will only provably work for big companies that have stuff to sell

This is possibly the most controversial point here. Social media only works when it scales up. If you don’t have enough followers/members/contacts, it won’t work. People are the fuel that drives the social media engine. So smaller companies that genuinely want to engage will not see the benefit. However, larger companies that can command a large amount of interest online will see the benefit – and that will primarily be through selling. Take Dell, for example. It has sales that have grown, year on year, from 1 million dollars, to 3, to 6, to 18 million. That’s a steep curve, and whereas it’s peanuts for a company that size, I can see that they can totally point to an ROI that means they will continue to invest in it. Meanwhile your smaller enterprises will give up. This is a real pity because, in the same way the web isn’t meant to be one big application (see my Facebook point above), social media was supposed to give the little man a voice. Again, terms like ‘engagement’ and ‘dialogue’ are nice, but only if you can afford to invest in them without necessarily pointing to an ROI. ‘Selling’, on the other hand, is what the CEO is interested in, and will shell out money for, and you can only do this effectively if you’re big.

So, there you go. What will I do next year? Don’t know really. Maybe I’ll continue ploughing my furrow and see what transpires. Maybe I’ll close shop and go and work for a digital agency. Maybe I’ll set my own up. Maybe I’ll get out of social media altogether (again) and focus on something nice and comfortable, like copywriting.

And you? What will you do? Here’s my advice if you’re thinking about using social media next year:

  • Make sure you’re doing other forms of marketing too. Social media on its own will not cut it.
  • Make sure whoever you work with in social media knows what a strategy is. If they say “We’re all about tactics”, walk away.
  • Really think about monitoring. It doesn’t take long to set up and you will be amazed at what you find out.
  • Be prepared to work in the dark to an extent – you may never really know how much money you make off the back of your investment.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open for changes and closures. No social media site/channel/platform is too big to go under.

That about wraps it up for 2010. I’m going to finish my cup of tea and then work on thawing my toes out, then I’m going to sit by the log fire and stare into the distance for the next two weeks. Toodle pip.

Goodbye Delicious, hello… what?

So the news is out. Yahoo have screwed up. They’re closing Delicious. I don’t even need to include a link here – just go out and look for mentions of it right now and you’ll see the news.

This is A Big Thing. It throws up all sorts of substantial issues, not least among which is, if the social web is such a big thing, then how come the biggest bookmarking service is about to go belly up? If a major company like Yahoo is experiencing difficulties monetising Delicious, then what does this mean for other cloud-based services? And, from that, how confident can we be when we store things in the cloud? At what point do we need to back things up locally, or – shock horror – actually have to start paying for this kind of service?

These are all important topics for debate that I’m sure will be covered over the next few weeks. But right here, right now, this is bad news for me, because I rely on Delicious for several important activities.

  • Distributed information gathering. Ever wanted to harness the collective effort of a team to gather knowledge as they go about their daily activities, quickly bookmarking something and slowly building up an incredibly useful, dedicated database? I have. In fact, I did, before I got into Delicious. I set up a team with Google Reader, where every member subscribed to every other member’s shared items, so that we could all see what each other had shared. It was a very useful way for us all to be clued up – maximum returns, minimal effort required. But the Delicious solution was much more elegant, in that you could install the toolbar to bookmark pages quickly and easily, add notes explaining why you’d bookmarked them, and so on.
  • News feed creation. From that same Google Reader-based project, in turn, the shared items could generate a branded page and an RSS feed, so we could pump information out to clients. They could then see what we were sharing with them, as a feed that we created based on our judgement of what was important, rather than search engines.
  • Monitoring. You can (in the near future, change that to ‘could’) search Delicious without needing to sign in. You can (could) create an RSS feed off that search. This is (was) a wonderful facility, meaning you can (could) see not just what people are (were) saying about a brand, but what they consider (considered) important enough to bookmark. Its human-based nature complements (complemented) machine-based searches extremely well.
  • Measurement. If bookmarking is a form of engagement – that is, actually taking action rather than passively reading – then you could use Delicious as a form of engagement metric. If more people are bookmarking you, then they’re engaged with what they’re reading about you.
  • Auto-publishing. Delicious has (had – ok, I’ll stop this now) a great feature whereby you could get it to post automatically to your blog at the end of each day with the bookmarks you’d created that day. You get two quality outputs for one input. Fabulous.

That’s just five reasons I have had big plans for Delicious. I have one client that I was imminently going to: install the Delicious toolbar on each member’s machine; create a set of core tags for them to use on web pages; create RSS feeds from searches for those tags; bring those searches into a dashboard for monitoring; share them with clients as a news feed; and occasionally measure the number of hits across Delicious to gauge engagement.

Now, suddenly, I have to think of a viable alternative.

There are some out there, and it seems to me the frontrunners are Diigo and StumbleUpon (which I have heard of before and used briefly before realising Delicious was far superior), and Xmarks, which I haven’t heard of before and need to look into. There is also, I guess, Google Bookmarks, but I don’t know how that’s faring nowadays given Google discontinued support for Notes some time ago.

But as far as I can tell, none of them offer the ability to create an RSS feed off a search without having to sign in. So I can still conceivably create shared knowledge systems and use metrics to a degree, but I cannot monitor or create filtered news feeds for clients. Bum.

Meanwhile I also have the major headache of figuring out where else to store the 1,107 bookmarks I have on Delicious, which I use for my own research and even for navigation using the toolbar. Double bum.

There’s a huge amount of hue and cry about this online right now, so I’m probably going to get lost in the noise here with this post. But, if anyone can point me in the right direction to get this sort of feature, please let me know. Otherwise I may need to go back to basics – Google Reader, which some people find fiddly and is not as elegant, as open, as ubiquitous, as plain old useful and great, dammit – as Delicious. Bum bum bum bum bum.