One of my favorite websites, for the sheer lens that it offers up to the Internet, is onesecond.designly.com. It’s essentially a counting tool that, in real time, documents the traffic that flows over the major social networks each second. You need to experience it to understand its visceral pull, but what it really speaks to is a revolution in human expression. For every second on the Internet, we see the following kinds of traffic:
- 197 Reddit votes cast
- 463 Instagram photos uploaded
- 833 Tumblr posts published
- 3,935 messages tweeted
- 33,333 Google searches performed
- 46,333 videos viewed on YouTube
- 52,083 posts liked on Facebook
Making sense of all that data, parsing the ‘signal’ from the ‘noise’ of millions of real-time voices, is where big data, natural language processing and market research professionals all come in; they Hoover up that information with the aim of making sense of it all. The emotional currency that underpins all of this traffic is our opinions, our reactions and judgments about the content and experiences we encounter in our lives.
What the big data miners want to know is what ‘you,’ as the archetypal Internet user, ‘thinks’ about a manifold list of subjects, from brands to people. This information is fed into prediction servers that then attempt to place the ad in front of you with the highest likelihood of being clicked when seen on a page. To wit, your opinions are highly sought after because if they can be understood, there is a much higher probability that when you are presented with a targeted ad, you will click on it.
I don’t think so. The brands that will be the most successful in continuing to engage their core in this era of information overload are the ones that empower consumers and help them make sense of this overload, not just the ones that contribute to it and heighten the sense of alienation. Here are some of the best practices companies can adopt to do just that.
Allow users to cloak themselves in anonymity
Today’s users require anonymity as a complement to their public online identities. The strength of Snapchat as a private, ephemeral alternative to more traditional social networks, and the recent surge in popularity of apps such as Secret and Whisper, whose central conceits are about removing identity as a part of online discourse, suggest that the free-for-all, ‘put it all on Facebook and let God and Zuck sort it out’ are probably over.
Give users control of their data and opinions
The controversy last year around the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program has only heightened user sensitivity about how major technology companies are using their data. Those concerns aren’t going away: a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in March 2014 found that a majority of Americans felt the major tech companies were encroaching too much into their users’ lives. Companies that are pro-active in giving users control over their data, and in giving them a strong voice in how that data is used, will be the ones that win the user engagement game.
Give potential customers control over their ad experience
Click-through rates vary from between 0.1 percent to upwards of 3 percent for some of Twitter’s most successful programs. Building a business on a platform where 97 percent of your customers don’t want or appreciate your product — in this case, targeted ads — is a tough slog in any economy.
Engagement and direct response, not interruption and distraction
Users see the democratic power of the Internet to engage brands, but really want that engagement to take place on their own terms. According to research conducted in 2013 by Lithium Technologies (the company that bought social influence engine Klout last month), 70 percent of users who engage a brand on Twitter want a response from that brand, and 53 percent want a response within the hour. This suggests a genuine need to be heard by the companies with which we partner.
However, new realities are likely to offer up useful insights for how businesses can respond.
Stop guessing, start asking
The tools now exist to have deeply meaningful one-to-one engagements real-time with your customers, as well as to engage your customers through 21st century surveying tools that are as fun as they are engaging. Use them.
Transparency above all
Uncontrolled expression of user-generated opinion is all around us, so trying to regulate or censor that data in order to preserve your brand is almost certain to be counter-productive. One solution is to ask better questions and offer up more transparency, allowing — even encouraging — customers to ‘rant’ about one part of your business, while ensuring that you:
1) address the problem, and
2) give them a chance to say something ‘nice’ about your business.
You can’t erase the initial problem, nor can you sweep a problem under the rug anymore, so the only solution is direct engagement.
Lead change, don’t fear it
The change that is causing so much disintermediation throughout our economy is also affecting and disrupting your clients. Be an agent of progressive, planned change, rather than the victim to a cultural fear of change.
Ask questions that convert thought and feeling into data and actionable insight
Part of the problem we face is in the tools we use to extract sentiment. Asking people to ‘like’ or give one-to-five stars to your idea for a business may produce many results, but not much in the way of real data. We need tools and heuristics that ask better questions, and in so doing, we will create better data.
The central reality we now all face is that social media is disruptive (duh!), but the extent to which it disrupts or augments your business will change as social media gets better at handling large quantities of data in fair, transparent, immediate and relevant ways. In order for this to happen, our basic tools for creating and extracting insight and opinion must also mature.