BlogHer ’11: Bloggers, Brands and Lots of Questions

Last year I joined thousands of women (and a few brave men) for BlogHer ’11 in San Diego, CA. This was my second year attending as both a blogger and social media professional, which gives me a glimpse into what motivates and concerns bloggers and brands. For two days I attended sessions, mostly about bloggers working with brands–what to do, what not to do and what to expect as told from the perspective of bloggers, brands and PR execs who represent brands.

I walked away with three revelations:

1. There is a lot of confusion from brands and bloggers about how they should work together. Like an episode of Love Connection, trying to make a connection between the two parties can be painful to watch. They want to work together, but neither group seems particularly certain about what they should get out of the deal. It’s these details that seem to create the most confusion.

2. There is no one-size-fits-most approach to working with bloggers or brands. Ask five bloggers the same question about something like compensation and you’ll likely get five different answers. This lack of standardization is what makes word of mouth marketing and influencer outreach genuine, credible and incredibly confusing to brands and bloggers alike.

Brands are also guilty of the same inconsistencies. They want and expect different things, and often they don’t know what they should expect from bloggers or what to offer bloggers in exchange. There are some companies, such as Sway Group, LLC, that are trying to bridge the information gap and help bloggers and brands work together, almost like translating for people who speak different languages.

3. Each group could benefit from learning a little more about the folks on the other side of the proverbial aisle. While we aren’t talking right wing versus left, there is clearly some bad blood between bloggers and brands born out of lack of understanding. Conferences like BlogHer, Blogging While Brown and cross-overs–bloggers who understand business and business people who blog–help to educate both bloggers and brands about how to work better together.

I’ve been to a few of these conferences and the questions remain the same, which means bloggers and brands need to keep reaching across the aisle, raising and answering these questions and educating one another. Brands and agencies should be building relationships with bloggers, reading their blogs and learning who they are, what they write about and what makes them special. Bloggers need to start or continue to make connections to people at brands and agencies so they know who to contact with a potential program or post idea or simply to get a gut check about working with brands.

That’s all for now. Keep writing and reading blogs, and play nice kids.

For more information about digital and social media strategy follow @JenPolk1 on Twitter.

How to Pick a Blog Post Topic

A few months ago, with all the best intentions, I agreed to write a few blogs for an up and coming online mom community that was hoping to expand their content. Now I sit here wondering what to write about. To say that the road to hell (and online anonymity) is paved with good intentions would be a understatement. My case of writers block got me thinking, “How do you pick you a blog topic?”.

In an effort to get the creative juices flowing and get back into the habit of blogging regularly, I decided to put pen to pad and share some thoughts on how to pick a blog post topic. Having already gone through the exercise of starting a blog and choosing a general blog topic – personal and professional branding with social and digital media, I needed the narrow the scope and figure out a specific post topic that would relevant and useful to a community of moms.

Below are a few mental frameworks and quick ways to assess your audience and find the cross section between their needs and topics you can write about in order to choose a blog post topic.

1. Write what the audience wants or needs to hear about. How do you know what they want to hear about? Ask them! To some this might seem too obvious and too easy, but trust me its worthwhile…plus blogging is meant to be fun not torturous. This is especially easy to do if you’re talking to community of users. Check out the community discussion boards, which are usually easy to sort by topic. Find out what your audience is talking about and what they’re curious about.

2. Write what you know. One thing separating an informative blog from an op-ed piece is an ounce of fact. While you don’t have to have a PhD, you do owe it to your readers to offer more than just your opinion. What you think is a great start, but take the time to do your research and back-up your opinions with actual fact. This means writing about a subject that you’re interested in so you won’t mind spending a few hours on research.

3. Write to help your readers. People blog for a lot of different reasons , but at some level we’re all writing because we think, or at least hope, something we share will be meaningful to someone. Remain true to that! Don’t just pontificate, but try to add value through useful info, or at least charm and wit.

That’s it, the process I follow to break the shackles of writer’s block. To find out what I wrote about, stop by Social Moms for a read.

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3 Reasons to Love Instagram

While I appreciate mainstream web publications, I sometimes learn about hidden technology gems through lesser known publications and blogs. This is one of those times, and I was fortunate to learn about Instagram–the latest photography application for the iPhone.

Developed by Burbn, Inc., Instagram
is one of the top rated photography apps and is quickly becoming a favorite tool of many. I’m no exception and I can think of many reasons why, but for now I’ll limit myself to three reasons to love this app:

1. Easy to use. Grab pictures from your photo library or take a new picture. You can also turn things around for an impromptu self-portait. With 14 photo filters that range from a simple black and white (Inkwell) to a grainy technicolor look (1977) it’s easy to enhance your favorite pictures. There’s also a flash adjuster which comes in handy with filters like Gotham.

2. Encourages sharing. Post your pictures to the public feed, add tags and share through the app, email, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and more–all with a few fingertip swipes. You can also find and follow friends from your phone contacts, Facebook and Twitter to see, like and comment on the pictures they’re posting. Think Twitter meets Foursquare–the ability to see what friends are doing through the eyes of their camera lens.

3. It’s free–but it shouldn’t be. Enjoy this while it lasts. Instagram is hands down one of the best photo apps on the market, free or paid. This means the developers could have charged or maybe they’re hoping Instagram will do for photo sharing what Foursquare has done for location sharing–make it more popular to share these aspects of our lives with the world than to keep them private.

Whatever the case may be the world is more beautiful and more interesting through the eyes of friends and strangers all sharing their lives in photo. Instagram has made it all possible by turning even an amateur into an iPhone-wielding professional photographer.

5 Ways Brands Can and Should Use Twitter

A snowy Tuesday evening and the eve of the great blizzard of 2011 and I’m perusing the chatter on Twitter. As I do I see a number of my favorite brands–some local Chicago businesses, others national brands, all doing interesting and innovative things on the platform.

I’m inspired to write this blog because I don’t think enough credit goes to marketers and conversationalists who are using Twitter and increasing brand awareness without the aide of billion dollar marketing budgets.

Here are 5 things I’ve learned from them about how brands can and should use Twitter.

1. Start the conversation. @Huggies does a good job of asking a question that really gets you thinking and is easy to respond to in 140 characters. Even better, they often RT your reply which makes the user feel heard and recognized.

2. Join conversations about your brand. I can’t stress enough the close ties between pop culture and Twitter for consumer brands. Therefore, your brand has to have a full-time voice, and eyes and ears, to remain aware of what influencers are tweeting and saying offline that could lead to tweeting. This could be an opportunity to engage a very powerful brand advocate.

3. Tie into the trends. Twitter had made it incredibly easy to see what people are talking about. Go the extra mile and tie your brand to one of these conversation topics. This is great way to be relevant and spark up a conversation. Retailers like @bluelgcrew and @homedepot are doing this as we speak, tweeting about tips, tools and sales to help those in the Midwest battle the snow.

4. Connect across channels to reach more of your audience. @JimmyFallon is a great example. This afternoon Fallon tweeted to followers to play the hashish game by sending him your worst pickup lines with #worstpickuplines. Stay tuned to Jimmy Fallon Live tomorrow night and he’ll show his favorites. An awesome way to drive his audience from Twitter to TV by offering someone 15 seconds of fame.

5. Engage followers around your brand with a regular event. Whether it’s a regular Twitter conversation like the weekly deal chat hosted by @Frugalista or the daily trending topic shared by hosts if BET’s @106andPark. The topic is posted every evening on their show and leads to hundreds of tweets by their viewers and followers.

These ideas may not be driving ROI or winning a Shorty, but they’re creative, engaging and fun. At the end of the day that’s one of the primary reasons social consumers respond to and remember brands.

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60 Minutes and 140 Characters: How Social Media is Affecting Politics and Vice Versa

It’s nearly 10 pm on January 25, 2011 and I’m inspired and in awe. The State of the Union Address (#satu) is coming to a close, but the post-address commentary is just beginning. What amazes me is that I’m not watching it or the address on TV. Instead I’m following President Barack Obama (or the members of his staff who handle tweets) and between him and a handful of others getting a real time feed of the best of the State of the Union Address.

Let me be honest. In a household with two working adults and two kids, including a new baby, we just don’t have time to sit glued to the TV for an hour or more. We’re lucky if we can watch a thirty minute sitcom. Most TV gets recorded and watched later which just doesn’t cut it when history is in the making. So I turn to Twitter and am able to keep up with the theme and highlights, including a healthy dose of political satire.

Earlier today I learned of a major change in the Chicago mayoral election, followed one of the candidates and retweeted one of his posts to show my agreement and support though I live in the burbs. Not only has social media and Twitter in particular given me a window into politics, but it’s also amplified my political voice beyond the ballot.

It all seems to have started with the 2008 Presidential election and then-candidate Barack Obama using social networks to reach young voters. It’s turned into the way my generation talks politics and debates the issues that are most prevalent in our global society. We are journalists, bloggers, entertainers, mothers and more and we’re connecting to voice our opinions and exchange ideas with the fervor of a 60 Minutes broadcast and the pithy wit that comes with only having 140 characters.

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Target Selling Facebook Virtual Gift Cards: What Does This Really Mean and Who Stands to Benefit

Big news! Beginning September 5, Target will sell Facebook virtual gift cards in many of its stores. This is revolutionary and clearly the cutting edge of social media monetization for retailers…right? The quick answer is, “it depends.” In the past 24 hours, articles have been written, blogs have been posted, emails have been flying and meetings have been called by executives who feel this is something we have to get involved in, and fast.I’m not so sure about that. Based on the articles I’ve read, it sounds like this latest development has a user flow that goes something like this:

Clear winner! Along with game developers.

Step 1 Go into a Target store for….well do you really need a reason? This part is important. We’re talking about the cross-section of those who shop Target, go in store, use Facebook and participate in Facebook gaming or virtual gift giving.

Step 2 Purchase a $15, $25 or $50 co-branded virtual gift card bearing Target and Facebook logos. This is also important. This partnership drives awareness of Facebook, gaming and virtual gifts to millions of Target shoppers who visit their stores. I hope Target gets something too.

Step 3 Rush home, or grab your iPhone, and login to Facebook. Go to your account and redeem the gift card. What’s not clear is how the Target brand will show up in this part of the experience. Since they’re the first to strike this deal with Facebook, many details are unclear. Ok, I see how Facebook benefits. This partnership opens a new channel for them to sell virtual credits, which will supposedly be one of their leading revenue streams. I see how developers of Facebook games and virtual gifts benefit.

The new partnership with Target is likely to (1) increase spending on virtual items such as Snicker bars and new weapons for Mafia Wars and (2) increase the total number of Facebook users who buy, gift and use virtual credits.What is not clear is how Target benefits, at least from a monetary perspective. First, their cut has not been disclosed, but I imagine they are getting some percentage of gift card sales. Second, it would seem these virtual credits allow users to spend on items that are unrelated to Target, unless the retailer has built out its virtual gift offering. What would be interesting is if they’ve built out that gift offering with an incentive to users to spend the virtual gift credits purchased at Target on virtual Target merchandise.

Beyond revenue sharing and brand awareness, what do they gain?

Lastly, Target is opening the door to bring the Facebook brand into their stores, but how will their brand show up on Target? The biggest potential here seems to be driving brand awareness and association between Target and Facebook, but so far it seems to be a one way street. I’m sure all will be made clear on September 5, but I wouldn’t rush out and emulate this partnership just yet. Unfortunately, the same journalists and bloggers who create the original hoopla rarely follow up with results, so we’ll have to keep our eyes open for indication of whether or not this is a success.

Social Presence Equals Brand Presence

I recently had a chance to spend time with some of the leading U.S. brands discussing challenges they’re facing with social media within their respective companies. In the interest of confidentiality, I cannot disclose the names of the brands or the details of thoBoldse conversations, but I can talk about over-arching themes. One theme that came across loud and clear was the relationship between brand, strategy and social presence.

The thing that differentiates social media from every other communication channel is the ability for real time feedback and reaction. In other words, consumers of this media have a voice and they’re not afraid to use it. This includes customers, net promoters, advocates and detractors. This turns social media into the ultimate looking glass for a brand–a true reflection of how people feel about your brand, every touch point and every experience–good and bad.

It also creates a tremendous opportunity that is being misused by most and squandered by many–the opportunity to get real time feedback (more than you might want) and make improvements based on what you hear. Someone once told me feedback is a gift and the brands that are ignoring social media as a way to identify and address the things they’re doing well and poorly are failing to unwrap that gift.

The Strategy

Just as social media serves as a looking glass, a reflection of how people feel about your brand, it also magnifies your brand or business strategy, or lack thereof. Hopefully, it allows brands and organizations to see themselves through the eyes of their customers–whether their focus and mission are clear and evident in how they are perceived or whether people are confused about what the brand or business stands for and what role it plays in their lives.

Now more than ever brands need to revisit this fundamental question, “What is our number one priority?” Follow that with, “Is it evident in what we do and to the people we serve?” Answering those questions is essential to having a successful business, not to mention a successful social media strategy and presence. People have to know what you stand for and that you play a role in their lives before they will embrace you, shop you, fan you or follow you.

Social Presence

So as not to turn this into Business Strategy 101, let’s bring it back to the subject of social media and how this is all interrelated. Social platforms present a very public forum for brands to succeed or fail. They speak volumes about how the brand views itself and what it means to consumers. If stock price is the measure of how investors feel about your business, then quantity and quality of social connections measures how consumers feel about your brand.

Please do not misread this as an advocacy for a social media numbers play–I DO NOT ENDORSE SOCIAL MEDIA FOR THE PURPOSE OF GATHERING MORE FANS AND FOLLOWERS! Quite the opposite. If you are a brand with a clear and successful mission and strategy and customers feel good about, the fans and followers are there. If you’re struggling to find them, the problem may have less to do with social and more with your business or brand.So what does it all mean?

Hopefully it means that social media and the transparency it creates will draw consumers and brands closer. While companies often think this closeness will allow them to influence consumers, I feel it should and will be the other way around, at least for those companies that do it right. Companies and brands will be influenced by how their constituents feel about them, what they should do more of and what absolutely must stop. Hopefully we’re all better for it–better businesses, stronger brands, better choices for consumers and better customer experiences.

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What Is Your Social Purpose?

I’ve been thinking about how different people and organizations approach social media and it’s let me to ponder the meaning of life, or at least second life. How you approach social media should be grounded in why you’re using social media to begin with. First of all, there are no wrong answers to this question, accept the ones that don’t fit with the way you’re allocating time, effort and resources (this primarily applies to businesses). That being said, it is an important question to answer before you head down the prim rose path of “getting social”.

Are you interested in connecting with old friends and relatives? Are you simply exploring to see who and what is out there? Are you a brand hoping to tap into an underground fan club? Or a small company looking to spread the word about what makes you great? While these seem like simplistic questions, answering them upfront and honestly can help you focus your efforts and avoid many misguided attempts to “get social” without even knowing why that matters to you or your organization.

Let’s start with the individual who says they just want to find their high school sweetheart, but is perhaps a budding entrepreneur looking to spread the seeds of their business venture. Social media was made for you. You can start with allies–friends, family and other supporters and get them to advocate you to their network, usually on Facebook or a Ning community. Follow up with other professionals and individuals who share a common interest–these folks are easy to find and connect with on LinkedIn or Twitter using WeFollow.

What about the business that claims they just want to know what people are saying about them? Is this true or are they really after tangible results such as ROI, ROE and Share of Voice? Being honest about our intentions in the beginning can help craft a more meaningful and appropriate strategy and define the resources you’ll need to successfully execute that strategy. Let’s just assume they really just want to stick a toe, or rather ear, in the social waters to hear what is being said. Simple search tools such as Radian 6 can enable this type of research with little investment.

Once you know what’s being said, on which platforms and by whom, you can then determine what you want to do about it. So you’re a business and you learn that compared to your top 3 competitors you have substantially lower social share of voice, comments about you are predominantly negative and related to poor customer service. This a huge opportunity and great directional input. This should be the cornerstone of defining your social purpose, especially if you can connect what you’ve learned with customer behavior such as sales and complaints.

Once you make that connection, the next steps are easy. So sales have been declining, call center traffic has been increasing and you’ve been losing market share to those top 3 competitors. While social media isn’t to blame it is helping to diagnose some of the symptoms. Your initial social purpose should be LISTENING, finding out what people are complaining about, what they dislike about you and like about your competition and how this compares to information you’re getting through other channels, such as your customer service call center.

By defining your initial social purpose as listening, you can focus on (1) improving in the areas that are surfacing on social platforms; (2) entering those social platforms cautiously to engage in proactive listening and problem solving; (3) building customer relationships and brand advocates by creating value for your customers in the form of genuine concern and desire to improve, followed by actual scalable improvement. See the value of this approach versus diving head first into a Facebook fan page only to have your wall filled with complaint you’re unprepared to address.

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