Social Media and Ant Colonies

Dozens of articles are written daily about ways that businesses and individuals can leverage Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, MySpace, and other social networks. Many of these articles assume that one-size-fits-all when marketing on social networks. But for every individual or company that has successfully marketed on social networks, numerous others fail – even when supported by vast marketing budgets and expensive consultants. For example, Cisco tried to imitate Old Spice’s viral social media campaign and nobody noticed.

Why? And what do ant colonies have to do with social media and social networks?

Ants are fascinating insects. E.O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler, in their 1991 Pulitzer Winning book The Ants, described an ant colony as a superogranism – a vast social network. The ants in the colony communicate with each other by following chemical trails left by other ants.

(Photo by aristeos)

In one sense, the strategy for success on social networks is not vastly different from the chemical trails that ants leave to guide other ants. Companies can leave digital “trails” by connecting users with each other and by engaging users in a dialogue with and about the brand. Old Spice successfully did this in their recent campaign.

If people were like ants and followed “chemical” trails, it would be easy to predict the success or failure of marketing efforts.

People are not like ants. People aren’t “programmed” to follow digital “trails” in the same way that ants follow the chemical trail left by other ants.

There are vast opportunities on social networks. They don’t all revolve around widgets, fan pages and viral videos. If you’re developing strategies to market on social networks, consider how you can differentiate yourself from others, not just in form, but in substance. Bring something new to the conversation. Find a different way to engage your customers. Develop a unique voice. Challenge yourself and your consultants to build new “trails” – like Old Spice did in their campaign – and not to merely recycle those left by others. Don’t feel compelled to do something merely because others are doing it.

Social Media Insiders Fiddle While Twitter Burns

Many have written about in-tweet (also called in-stream) advertising. Just in the past few days, among many posts on this topic, Mark Suster asks whether it’s a good idea to have ads in tweets and concludes that it is (Mark is an investor in Ad.ly – one of the companies making possible in-tweet ads). Robert Scoble is not a fan of in-tweet advertising but points out that “people who produce content should be able to make a living for producing that content.” Nick Halstead, CEO of tweetmeme, argues that companies should leverage re-tweets for in-stream advertising. Seth Simonds asks whether he is worth money to his followers/reader. The discussion has even moved into the mainstream media – The New York Times cautions that A Friend’s Tweet Could Be an Ad.

The discussions around in-stream advertising are intellectually interesting. However, they obfuscate a bigger problem: in-stream advertising can (and I believe, will) destroy Twitter.

Here’s why: imagine if Google allowed paid search listings within organic search results. Sure, paid listings could be clearly marked as paid. Why has Google not done so? Because including paid listings within organic search results would compromise search.

What if Google allowed another type of transaction: imagine if Google allowed pages that attained a high PR value to sell the title or description meta tags (or both) to a third party for advertising purposes. If this was done, search results would be far less meaningful.

In each of the above examples, there is a predictable outcome. People would search less often. Fewer people would click on adwords ads. And Google’s core business model would suffer.

The impact of in-stream ads is further complicated by the recent search deals that Twitter signed with Google and Bing. Both search engines are now indexing tweets and the organic search results will contain sponsored tweets – the equivalent of having paid search listings within organic search results. This is a disaster waiting to happen – it’s precisely what Google has worked hard, for ten years, to avoid.

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Welcome To The Social Media Revolution

Did you know that it took television 13 years to reach 50 million users? Facebook reached 100 million users in only 9 months. And Facebook isn’t even the largest social network. QZone – a Chinese analog, has 300 million users.

If you still think social media is a fad – the following short video (4:22) offers some compelling arguments that could prompt you to reconsider your views.

Are “Social Media Experts” Responsible For 40.55% Pointless Babble On Twitter?

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A study released yesterday by Pear Analytics analyzed 2,000 tweets in English, from U.S. users, randomly captured in half-hour increments between 11 am and 5 pm CST, over a two week period. Each tweet was categorized into one of six categories: News, Spam, Self-Promotion, Pointless Babble, Conversational and Pass-Along Value.

The results: 40.55% of the tweets were pointless babble. Conversational tweets (conversations between people) represented 37.55% of the 2000 tweets, and Pass-Along Value (any tweets with RT) represented a very distant third – at 8.7%.

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Anyone who conducts substantive original research deserves a lot of credit.  When the original research looks at the data in ways that others haven’t measured before – this credit is well deserved. Kudos to Ryan Kelly and his team on a job well done.

When I initially read the study, I wondered whether the sample of 2,000 tweets was statistically significant. I asked Ryan (on twitter). Ryan said that his team knew that there were 3 million tweets per day on twitter, and that a “inferences of a billion is estimated with data of a few thousand.” Ryan also added that the trends were pointing in the same direction, so it was not necessary to sample more data.

I hope Pear Analytics considers slightly expanding its analysis in future studies by assessing how their measured data is impacted by some or all of the following:

  • Five percent of Twitter users create 75 percent of the tweets (according to Sysomos). It would be interesting to compare the five percent to the other 95 percent, and categorize the results. Maybe we’d find that the pointless babble is created primarily by the thousands of “social media” experts on Twitter. Or the 24 percent of Twitter users who are bots (and presumably, also social media experts).

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Are We Becoming A Little Less Human Online?

2676960860_fa358c04a1_oI’ve been watching the TV series HEROES. The show is about people but with special abilities – flight, invisibility, ability to predict the future, melting solid objects, instant healing from any injury, and many more – who live among the normal population.

During one of the episodes.  Claire Bennet, a high school cheerleader who can instantly heal from any injury, loses her ability to feel pain. Pain was one of the few things that made Claire feel human.

After I watched that episode, I started thinking about my own experiences – offline and online – and about the many ways in which many of us are just a little less human when we’re online. Part of the problem lies in the medium – we can’t usually see the people we’re talking to online, and that makes our conversations a bit more detached and impersonal. We send @ messages on Twitter, post updates on Facebook, send emails and direct messages, and think of those activities as conversations. And they are indeed conversations – through these conversations, we learn, share, teach, laugh, discuss, debate, etc.

But as we continue to become a society that spends increasing amounts of time looking at a computer, are we losing a bit of emotion with each conversation? In the quest for popularity and followers and/or  friends, are we losing perspective? Are we more likely to forget when we’re online that harsh words and criticism can hurt others? And we quicker to judge others when we have the cloak of invisibility surrounding our online activities? And is this trend impacting our offline relationships too?

What do you think?

Image credit: 파파곰