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"Like" 2.0: New tactics to engage subscribers

"Like" 2.0: New tactics to engage subscribers Erik Kellener

With the emergence of social media activity streams, publishers can effortlessly connect with subscribers via "likes" and "follows." Unfortunately, these connections have developed a perceived value which encourages oversaturation. A direct conversation with an engaged audience is now lost in a sea of unengaged subscribers. This data noise ultimately clouds a publisher's ability to accurately measure its influence. As a result, volume without quantifiable engagement is substantially devalued.

According to Social Technology Review, nearly one-half of American users say they never return to a brand fan page after issuing a "like" to gain information, and more than one-third of users hide page updates from brands they "like." This is yet another example where traditional media metrics don't map well with new media. Just as the size of a company's email database doesn't tell a story, the number of "likes" on a page doesn't do much more.

With all of the subscriber noise in the social hemisphere, how does a publisher regain a clear view into its engaged, loyal audience?

In the early days, there was the e-newsletter signup. Then came blogging and RSS feeds, and now activity streams with Facebook and Twitter. At each evolutionary step, the synergy between publisher and subscriber (pub-sub) has become more acute. At the same time, activity stream based platforms have simplified the publishing process and made it available to the mainstream. The average Joe's burger joint is now empowered as an online publisher and can tout its "big and tasty one-pounder." Joe's audience can easily follow his touts. Best of all, he can easily get feedback and measure his influence.

Facebook has brought the process of digital pub-sub to the masses through its iconic "like" button. From a marketing perspective, "like" is the Trojan horse of all campaigns tools. Consumers see the "like" button as a fun, virtual nod to their network's contributors, while marketers use it to ride the viral highway and gain volume. More recently, "like protection" or "fan-gating" (forcing a user to "like" a page in order to view premium content) has become a more common tool to capture reluctant subscribers. This is much like a website would require a newsletter opt-in to gain access to privileged content.

The side effect is that troves of uninterested subscribers are now receiving content streams they don't really want -- desensitizing what should be a powerful communication channel. The noise created is a problem, as the publisher can no longer accurately measure its engaged audience through subscription metrics.

Gene therapy
What is the next evolution for the pub-sub paradigm, and can it break through the noise? A publisher's most valued segment is the advocate. Evangelism surely generates engagement, so why not connect with the "uber-subscriber" through a reward-based loyalty program? The noise originates from subscribers who are not true advocates or loyalists. While we wouldn't want to alienate this group, we could surface the target by simply rewarding evangelist behavior (think positive reinforcement).

A recent Forrester survey found 73 percent of marketing leaders fault promotional clutter as the main cause for ineffective marketing campaigns, and further recommend loyalty programs become a key component of any brand strategy. Loyalty programs are proven to keep consumers conversing with a brand. The great thing about evangelists is not only do they consume, but they also leverage the world's most powerful marketing channel, word of mouth, which is now amplified by a digital megaphone.

"Like" 2.0
"Like 2.0" occurs when the pub-sub paradigm intersects with reward-based evangelism and is then packaged into a dead simple online interface. 

The industry can thank affiliate networks for helping to lower the technology hurdle to the point where any person, any group, or any business can easily offer a reward program. There are very few standards -- if any -- in tracking and quantifying engagement in the social stratosphere. As the industry is in a nascent state, many services from HootSuite to Klout to Radian6 are concocting an engagement recipe, and each has its own secret ingredients.

Rewarding engagement can take many forms. The most black-and-white example would be rewarding an advocate with free or discounted goods and services (e.g., free music downloads, 25 percent off any pair of jeans at Gap, etc.). Groupon made an attempt at this model when offering a credit for member referrals, but it didn't inspire sustained loyalty and evangelism. Other examples can feed the advocate's ego, while leaving the brand's margin intact.

Rewarding through social exclusivity or gamification programs can serve as another evangelist motivator. This approach speaks above the value of content and focuses on being part of the elite few. For fanatic brands, leveraging brand capital to reward engagement through public recognition (e.g., ESPN's College GameDay Fan of the Week) can be enough to encourage the evangelist behavior. Regardless of the reward strategy, the result should incentivize sustained behavior. After all, in the workplace, those end-of-year performance bonuses aren't only about a job well done -- they're about encouraging sustained performance for the following year.

The emergence of activity streams has created new opportunities for brand and content publishers to connect with their audience. At the same time, it has challenged marketers to identify a new metric for measuring influence. "Like" and "follow" tools can certainly support driving awareness, but shouldn't imply support, advocacy, or engagement. Retargeting the focus to the evangelist segment, rather than the total number of users who execute a single keystroke, can result in more consistent metrics on which brands can rely to measure effectiveness.

As reaffirmed by recent company acquisitions and partnerships, reward programs are more important than ever to assist brands to continue the dialogue with their loyal followers. Ultimately, the ever-evolving social sphere will reveal whether reward-based evangelism can fuel and sustain a meaningful conversation.

Erik Kellener is CTO of United Future

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