Social Media Trends and Engagement

Social computing has decentralized brands and audiences, creating a new class of digital creators, curators, and watchful observers. Citizens of social media transcend time and space, shaping new opinions and carving out a niche audience in ways only an always-on globally-connected network can provide. This new form of distributed creation and communication changes the way brands must market and monitor their business to both new and existing audiences. Who is this new audience? Where do they hang out and participate online, and at what levels?

Forrester Research interviewed 4,500 adults and 4,500 youth in late 2006 to better understand consumer approaches to technology and various levels of social media involvement. Forrester analyst Charlene Li published the results of her study last week in a research paper titled Social Technographics, providing detailed break-downs of social media audiences already engaged in today’s Web.

In this week’s podcast I discuss social media engagement trends with Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li.

Current activities

Forrester social technographics activities

Over 60% of young consumers use social networking sites at least weekly, and about 40% check their networks every day. These young creators grew up in the age of personal computers, graphical user interfaces, and digital social annotations. The social computing boom of the past few years has created an online identity and digital hub, altered as frequently as one’s clothes.

Adults are also researching news and creating content online. 22% of adults read blogs at least monthly, and 19% of adults surveyed are members of a social media site. Customer ratings and reviews was the most popular online activity, with about 40% of survey participants utilizing sites such as Amazon to read the thoughts and opinions of peers before making a purchase.

Social media involvement

Forrester analysts identified six levels of social media participation in ascending levels of sophistication: inactives, spectators, joiners, collectors, critics, and creators. The categories are not mutually exclusive, as a blog author (a creator) will likely read other blogs (as a spectator), occasionally comment (a critic), and perhaps use web feeds or annotation tools (a collector).

These varied levels of social media participation highlight the need to better engage your audience across the board, easing them into the social media experience. Many social media sites focus on the joiners and creators, setting high barriers of entry and participation. A casual reader might mark a story or video as a personal favorite, or share a collection with friends. A collector might engage more audience members, creating a more focused community for a niche audience. Businesses and websites can engage multiple market segments and open up their community to wider participation.

Listen to the podcast

I discuss these findings and more with Social Technographics research analyst Charlene Li in this week’s podcast on social media trends. Our conversation is 20 minutes in length, a 9 MB download.

Listen to this Social Media Trends and Engagement podcast directly on this page using Flash Player.

Transcript

Niall Kennedy:

Hi, this is Niall Kennedy. You’re listening to Niall Kennedy’s podcast. This week I’m sitting with Charlene Li of Forrester Research. Charlene recently published a social technographics paper summarizing her research from the end of 2006, interviewing thousands of people on their habits in the social media space. Welcome, Charlene.

Charlene Li:

Thank you.

Niall:

Could you please introduce yourself, your background, and your current work at Forrester Research?

Charlene:

Sure. I’ve been at Forrester for eight years now, which is a really long time in the space of the Internet.

Niall:

Yeah.

Charlene:

And I have been focused on online media and the marketing space the entire time. I come from the newspaper publishing world.

I’d been focused on anything from sizing the online advertising market to online gaming at one point. Over the last couple of years I’ve been focused on this area of social computing, which we think about as this whole group of social technologies that people are using to connect with each other. So it’s been around for a very long time, but it’s really taken off in the past three or four years.

Niall:

How do you define social computing?

Charlene:

We define it as this phenomenon, this social structure, that comes about when social technologies are being used. Power actually passes from institutions down to communities around these institutions. We don’t define it by the technologies because it’s constantly changing.

Niall:

Sure.

Charlene:

You see things like Twitter coming along. How do we define that? Well, the key thing that’s happening there, the reason why people are up in arms about it — very excited or very divisive of it — is because of this power shift that’s happening.

Niall:

What are some of the clients you represent? How do you break down the changing world of social technologies over the past 8 years for Forrester clients?

Charlene:

It’s definitely changed in the past eight years. The current focus that I have is on marketers. I’m looking at interactive marketers in particular. So how can they use these technologies to reach their audiences and have a relationship with those audiences better? Sell the product, basically, or services.

Niall:

So are these marketers at large, consumer packaged goods firms? What are the types of businesses behind interactive marketing?

Charlene:

They range from everything from CPG companies, again, to financial service companies. I also talk to technology marketers and vendors, for example. So it’s across the board. But my focus is really, again, the use of these technologies in the marketing realm.

Niall:

For social technographics, you interviewed 5,000 adults and 5,000 youth to get a better idea of their online habits. How did you go about choosing that result set, and what are some of the questions you decided to ask?

Charlene:

These are part of the regular panel surveys that we do. So we did one for adults, again, 18 and over, about 5,000 or so. We asked a whole bunch of different questions. Some of them were, "How often do you use these funneling technologies? What are your attitudes towards them?" And then we also asked the same thing of teenagers and young adults, between the ages of, I believe, 12 and 21, in a separate survey.

These are very regular things that we do. We have a panel provider that we go and use and get access to these panelists.

Niall:

One of the things you broke down was the different types of participation classifications, ranging from creator to an observer. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that you were able to classify the audience into these different categorizations?

Charlene:

The whole approach was we started looking at just straight uses of how people write blogs or read blogs. We thought there was something about their mindset that set them apart. So we grouped different types of behaviors together, like writing a blog or maintaining a web page, and then creating pure video, picture-rated video, that you upload to YouTube. So that is a type of activity we put into a creator group.

And then there was another end of a spectrum for people, we call them spectators. They read the blogs, they listen to the podcasts, they watch the video. It’s almost like a passive feeling to them. They’re not actively participating, but they’re still enjoying all this great content that’s out there.

Niall:

Is this an age-bound feature? Are you seeing a lot of youth involved as a creator, and more people as they get older shift more to the audience and observer roles?

Charlene:

We definitely see that youth are engaged across all the participation levels much more heavily than their older counterparts. But we still see, for example, boomers still participating across all of these things, albeit at a much lower level.

Niall:

Sure. Within companies, are there different types of people or different levels within the company that might be more likely to participate in a creator role or in a collector role?

Charlene:

We haven’t looked inside companies, but I suspect that, again, with consumer behaviors, with companies you see the same sort of behaviors also, that the younger workforce is going to be more likely to do this.

But it’s very interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of enterprise companies where they come back and say, "We’re very puzzled. We’ve put in blogs, we’ve put in wikis expecting that our young workforce is going to use it, and none of them use it."

I think the major reason is because people may be very much a creator in one part of their lives, but not in another area. And especially inside the enterprise. You’re asking the people at the very bottom of the company, with the most risk, and certainly in terms of what participation would bring them. They don’t know the benefits and they see tremendous risk, so they’re not going to do it.

Niall:

It’s one of the things we tried at Microsoft. We had a new version of SharePoint coming out (Office SharePoint Server 2007), so internal teams at Microsoft were able to use that tool. I thought there might be a correlation between not being able to properly identify each of the sources contributing. So that’s something that might be an influence for the enterprise base.

Charlene:

Exactly.

Niall:

What was the most surprising fact that you found throughout your entire study?

Charlene:

One of them was that males and females were very much balanced across all of these areas. Again, some areas like the collector group, because it tended to use more advanced technologies based on the definition, like RSS and tagging, skewed a little bit more male.

In the creator group, very even. In the critic group, people were commenting back and forth, fairly even. It wasn’t like 80% male. Especially when it comes to social networking, women tend to be more social, those networks are skewed a little bit towards women. So especially for marketers who are interested in reaching women, it was very interesting to be able to say, "OK, look at the demographics. It’s across the board fairly consistent."

Niall:

How do you think these new social media trends will change the workplace as the young adults enter the workplace and they’re very used to IM and other social technologies?

Charlene:

Well, it’s the same as when IM came into the enterprise, it’s very much an accepted enterprise tool in many companies.

And it came in through the back door, and they had to say "We either incorporate this into our enterprise applications, or it’s going to be something that we can’t control" So they said "We’re going to loosen up some of the communication fields that we have."

And I think it’s the same thing when it comes to enterprise, you typically have centrally controlled enterprise applications. And here we are saying, "Look, you’ve got to loosen it up." Yeah, can anybody have a blog, or what are they going to do with that?

Well, behind the firewall data integrity can be maintained, security and permissions can be maintained, other than that, what do you care about? But free information flow.

Niall:

So do you think there is room for some of the enterprise 2.0 vendors that are now trying to move in and bring some of the – what we’ve seen as Web 2.0 – social computing inside of a corporate network?

Charlene:

Absolutely.

Niall:

OK.

Charlene:

One of the things that we did with the social technographics, the foundation of this is now externally facing, publicly available, kind of behaviors. But they can also can very much apply within the enterprise, so one of the things we came out with in the report was to say, "Understand the social technographics profile of the audience that you are trying to reach."

So in the case of a marketer, definitely understand your target audience. And in the case of an enterprise architect you want to understand what the profile is of the existing group.

So if you want to put out a wiki, you may not have that creator class that feels comfortable doing this, so you need to build up the foundation. Very carefully think about how you are going to employ these wikis, because initially they are probably going to be spectators, and then essentially as more content becomes more relevant to them they ease into this area of participation, becoming more critics and creators.

Niall:

How do you measure that success? One of the things that you mentioned in the report, was that there is a snack goods maker who created a campaign on YouTube, it didn’t have a lot of views, but it did receive buzz, within some of what you might measure as buzz throughout the blogosphere and throughout the social media space.

Charlene:

Right. And again, the definition of success is really up to the person who launches this program. So in the case of Butterfinger for example, really great buzz, class of interest, yet actual participation was pretty low.

I think in some ways they may have been disappointed. But my goodness, I’m so glad that they… They probably are very glad that they did this initially, because they have done additional rounds where they are getting more participation now.

I think you have to stick your neck out a little bit at the beginning, but I think the key thing is to set realistic expectations, if you don’t have relationships with people at that sort of participation it is going to take some time.

Niall:

What are some good ways to stick your neck out on participation levels? You took the participation levels and organized it as a ladder. There are different rungs and perhaps you’re trying to climb up some of these different rungs, being more and more involved, and as you get to the top you’re a creator, and you’re going to be blogging every single day. Is that really the point, are people, are companies, ment to get more and more involved?

Charlene:

Well, I think the goal of getting all of your users, whether you are in the enterprise or an externally-facing marketer, to be blogging and creating user-generated advertising for example is just un-realistic. Not everyone is going to participate at that level, they just don’t have that comfort level with it, they don’t have that passion to really do that.

And so again it’s a realistic look at your audience to say "Look, I am going after women who are 55 and older" Something like 6% of them are creators today, three years from now maybe 15% or 20%, but it’s never going to be a really high level."

And so realistically what can you expect in your marketing campaigns, in your enterprise efforts? Really think about what is realistic, and say "How do they want to participate today?"

Maybe, again just at the spectator level, you may actually encourage people in a very easy way to create some content, or to critique some content. You will see some people who will just join the social network right of the bat because they see the benefits of it, others will never join it.

Niall:

There are multiple ways to get involved. You can extend across multiple levels between just watching or just creating. You can step in and create a comment for example, or you can save some links to share with colleagues, so it’s not all just about setting up TypePad blog.

Charlene:

Exactly. And so I think this focus on blogging has been fantastic over the past couple of years, but it’s not the only way that people can participate.

We actually break out… And this is from future work that Josh Bernoff and I are doing for a book we are working on. We think that there are five major business strategies that people can use: one is to listen, another one is to speak, another one is to engage people, a fourth one is to support.

And the fifth one and the hardest one, which we all try to aim for, is to embrace. Where we really bring people into, and they become an extension of, an organization. That’s a really hard place to get to. But the other four are all parts of business strategies that you see people doing. And these social technologies, some are better at doing some of these things than others.

Niall:

One interesting breakdown you had was levels of participation by brand of computer, and how different ways that we wear a badge on ourselves might influence our ability to participate. Can you talk a little bit about that? Was that a surprising fact? Did you gather lots and lots of data and later look for correlations?

Charlene:

Yeah, we had in the same data TV ownership and phone ownership among other things, and we thought "let’s take out PCs, because everyone reading this report is going to have some sort of PC"

And we broke off data for HP, Dell, and Apple. And HP and Dell because of their sort of mainstream appeal tend to have very mainstream socio-technographics profiles, it was almost exactly like that.

And then the people who own the Apple’s were much more likely to participate. I think the creator level was something like 21%, versus the overall population of people who were creators at just 13%.

Niall:

Yeah.

Charlene:

It was just across the board, just significantly higher. I mean, you are sitting here with an Apple yourself, so…

Niall:

Sure.

Charlene:

And I think there was a bit of self-selection, in that the person who was drawn to an Apple just is more naturally inclined to participate as well.

Niall:

What are some things tool vendors can do to create a better environment for the social media space and its creators?

Charlene:

I think that often times I see a lot of tool vendors targeting one area. The marketers are left saying "Well, I’ve got to piece this vendor with another vendor with another vendor. And they don’t necessarily talk each other, so why am I doing this heavy lifting?"

And in many ways they are looking for a solution that can help them reach multiple points. So if you are doing blogging, for example, a blogging tool bender, I think one of the things that sets apart Digg with Vox was really smart. They sort of packaged in things like social networks and permissive controls so that they could let people add some of that joy and kind of interactivities to things.

Niall:

My favorite current thing on Vox is the This American Life partnership, where people that are already listening to a radio show and hearing people share their stories every day have a way to say, "Share your stories on this site. Here’s a text box, tell the world. You might not make it on our show, but you can have your own little show in this space." And that’s the kind of thing that you can have a bridge from being part of the audience and listening to creating your own stories. I think that will be big in the future.

Charlene:

Yeah. One of my favorite examples of a company that does a good job of moving people up that participation ladder is YouTube. One of the key things that they did is very early on, they realized that people weren’t coming there to just watch video.

Niall:

Sure.

Charlene:

It was to go do all the other things around the video. So people could create video and put it up, creator, and they make it very easy to do that. You could comment on those pages and on the videos, so you’re a critic. You could be a collector by having favorites and creating playlists that share. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to find video on YouTube is to go under store playlist.

You can also just be a spectator. You can just watch, you can just listen and enjoy it. So, but very quickly, you find out, "Hey, you know, here’s a Diet Coke and Mentos video." They are all the related videos of people who are making their own videos. That’s giving me ideas to go and make my own video too, as well.

Niall:

Do you think this is an intimidating space for people who are getting started?

Charlene:

It can be very, very intimidating. Especially just moving into the Spectator area. Because one of the things I talked about, you want to make it very easy for spectators to find the content.

And search around most of the stuff is nonexistent, it does not have parameters, there’s no way to sort things, it’s just a miserable way to get around this stuff now. Or you hear about stuff that’s really interesting and for the life of you, you can’t find it when you go to a site. It’s buried or it’s on a different site and everything. So it is very intimidating and it’s hard to understand what is quality. It’s hard to understand who has what reputation, because the reputation mechanisms aren’t necessarily built into a lot of these social tools.

And I don’t think it’s identity, like knowing who is behind this, but again, that reputation is identified that is attached to a particular identity becomes extremely important.

Niall:

And is there a particular part of a site someone could be attached to so they might only care about the geriatric part of the site? The geriatric user that you were using as your example for some of the boomers, the senior sites, they might only care about Lonely Girl. Do you see that happening as a partitioning of some of the different social media sites?

Charlene:

And I think that’s actually quite normal, because people don’t all have the same interests.

So no matter how much I spend time on MySpace, I just can’t get into it. Because my friends on there, it’s not my social set. But I’m actually building up quite a group of friends on Facebook. Which is interesting because that’s where my friends have moved towards.

But again, the interest there tends to be people who are interested in the same sort of research areas that I’m in.

I’m also a working mom and so I’m a blogger on a mommy blog, SVMoms.com, and that’s where I spend my other part of my life. And then, I tend to be fairly environmentally interested. So I’m a big tree-hugger. I will never write a blog about it. I probably won’t even comment on it. But I will probably join a social network when I’m on it, because I want to meet other people and do earth-based kind of activities. But you know, the different aspects of my life are places where I won’t exhibit different levels of participation, which is very much reflective of what is out there too.

Niall:

That leads us to some of the motivations that you have broken down inside the same report. How people are interested in entertainment value, work value, etc. You’re engaged in social networks, but you didn’t mention Linked In. Some people are only interested in that type of social network, getting to the next spot on the career ladder, not necessarily the participation ladder. Can you talk a little bit about how someone’s goals might influence their level of participation?

Charlene:

Yes, and I think this is interesting. We broke it up by entertainment, career, and family. And entertainment-motivated individuals tend to be much more active in all of these areas. Whereas a family, much less active. Career is just about in the middle. And it makes sense because there’s a lot more content on there right now. There are many more ways to participate at the entertainment level. Whereas, family-motivated, there are two issues. While again, there’s not as much content, it’s beginning to get there, but also, this is the most time-stressed group of people. Parents, working parents, they just have no time.

Niall:

And privacy, perhaps.

Charlene:

And privacy is an issue, also as well. And so I think one of the key things is, as time goes on, if you are a vendor going after a particular group. Let’s say it’s Apple targeting families. The social media isn’t going to resonate as much with them. As much, for example, as an entertainment group. It doesn’t mean, though, that they shouldn’t use social media. They should just use it in a different way and with a different strategy for that particular group.

Niall:

Apple and Victoria’s Secret are two of the largest social groups on Facebook and that’s pretty surprising when I did my searches last week. You’re seeing some brands come in and set up these groups inside the social networks. Is that something more brands should be getting into?

Charlene:

Absolutely. I was just like on MySpace much event where they unveiled new research, some fairly good research. And I think, absolutely, because that’s where your audience is. But many brands are going into places like MySpace and Facebook and putting up static microsites, which isn’t very useful vertically.

Niall:

Sure.

Charlene:

What they want to do is they want to engage with the brand, they want to talk to them. One of my favorite examples is Ernst & Young. Not exactly an exciting brand, right? They’re very active on Facebook for recruitment purposes. So they have the wall, people come in on the wall, they have an employee who sits there and answers questions from the wall.

The student says, "Hey, you know, I’m thinking of a career in accounting, but I’m a liberal arts major, or I’m an English major." And the guy goes, "Hey, you know, it’s fine, we just want people who are smart and interested in helping companies. Come by on May 6th, we’ll be on campus then."

Niall:

Sounds like a great competitive advantage at this stage of the game as well. Not everyone is going to be there, so out of the Big Four you might be competing against if you’re the only one, that sounds great.

Charlene:

Yeah, exactly.

Niall:

All right, well thanks a lot for taking the time to do this. And you’re working from home today, we’re sitting in your home office, and this is been great to chat with you about all the latest social media trends.

Charlene:

OK, thank you.

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