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School of WOM 2011 Takeaways: The Fallacies of Best Practices, Common Sense, and Influence

Fresh off the conference floor from this year’s School of WOM, it’s difficult not to feel conflicted as a digital communications professional. However, I’ve come to realize the true value of most conferences isn’t in the “Ah-ha!” moments, but rather the reflection. I don’t ever want to walk away from a gathering like WOMMA’s yearly event with notebook full of answers. If I did, I could have easily learned those lessons in a book or a blog post. A valuable conference in this industry is one that spurs discourse, rumination, and plenty of brow-furrowing.

What concepts stirred the pot during the 2.5-day event? Find out after the jump.

Showing off my artistic ability (or lack thereof) with a talkable nametag

Crayola provided crayons so we could show off our artistic abilities (or lack thereof)

The Best Practices Fallacy

Brian Solis put it best with this pithy statement (paraphrased): Social media is too new to even think outside of the box. In my own words, the social media arena is as much as a box as a Hoberman Sphere is a box – dozens of facets, perpetually contracting and expanding.

It sounds scary, but to those who care about the field, it’s actually refreshing. If we already have a box (or dodecahedron or something), we settled way too early, not giving actualization an honest shot. Keynoter Duncan Watts would reinforce that perspective with his thoughts on influencers and application of the scientific method in social spaces. When was the last time you tested a new idea or formed a practical hypothesis? It’s not always easy, but it does help our work get over the pitfalls of relying too heavily on conventional wisdom in an unconventional practice.

For brands, organizations, and agencies, Brian Solis had more wisdom: Define your own best practices. While we have tested frameworks at Ogilvy that act as guide posts, most social situations have unique best practices. The crux being that context, audience makeup, customer behavior, and others are arguably more relevant than ever because we’re dealing directly with human beings.

The Common Sense Fallacy

In broadcast media, it’s more acceptable (well, at least, not entirely detrimental) to look at people as audiences and GRPs, but social media should be different. Instead, we still talk about them as followers, fans, and subscribers – and then we wonder why programs don’t resonate. We’re still using a lot of “common sense” tactics in a new world, which would disappoint Watts all to pieces. The biggest failing of commonsense thinking in our practice is the habit of analyzing only what worked while ignoring what didn’t.

Does that mean most programs are failing? No, not necessarily, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be satisfied. Of course, there are rules of thumb that apply broadly for most brands and organizations (don’t be belligerent to your customers or try to control communities are pretty good ones), but they shouldn’t be the commandments you use to conceive social strategy and execute. While we don’t always have the luxury of continual optimization, that doesn’t mean we have the luxury to be lazy and break out the cookie cutters because we put the client and our own work at risk – of not being noticed.

[Communications professionals] who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.David Ogilvy

The Influencer Fallacy

Of course, those two takeaways result in the careful examination of the way we do things, most prominent of which is how we involve influential social media users in our programs. The definition and how influence is gauged have been hotly-contested concepts for the past few years. Essentially, they’re the same thing, though. Whether an influencer is one of the many definitions thrown around the stage – “individual with an above-average network size”, “passionate pundit”, and many more – isn’t what’s most important.

The most important thing is, well, deciding what’s most important.

Huh?

The crucial step in determining influencers is deciding what will maximize the impact and momentum of your program given a multitude of variables, including: duration, audience behavior, incentive, reach, ad infinitum. While in no way exhaustive and partially obvious, I’m certain most influencer outreach involves one or two. Moreover, there is one I’d like to call-out specifically:

Receptiveness of target audience.

When was the last time you considered audience receptiveness with the same importance that you did number of fans, followers, or UMVs? If the answer is “Never.” you’re probably not alone, but it means you need to start. If you use network/node-style models of information dissemination – supported by pieces of research from Watts et alia – then you must look past your first-level influencers and to every tier within the model. In some cases, every member in a particular network is an influencer in that he or she is part of “a critical mass of easily influenced individuals.”

Takeaways

What’s the biggest takeaway from School of WOM and these fallacies? I’m going to repurpose a phrase from Socrates 2,400 years ago:

The strategy which is unexamined is not worth executing.

How are you examining your practice on a regular basis to make it better?

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