Research Desk: Twitter Spam

Twitter Spam has been a topic of fevered discussion for at least the past year, from a number of different writers and social media gurus.

Before we get into the details, it’s important to note that the team at Twitter does a lot to cut back on spam. In fact, the most vile kind of tweetspams containing links to malicious code are actively discovered and removed by the twitter staff.

What’s left is:
Behavioral Spam – tweets that are annoying because they are part of a behavioral pattern. The best example is the dreaded direct message with a link to a get rich quick scheme. Behavioral spams annoy because of how the message is sent. A new kind of behavioral spam –– paid tweets –– are beginning to show up in the stream.

Content Spam – tweets that are pushed out you really, really could live with out. Links to pornography, affiliate marketing tweets and so on. Content spam on twitter is annoying because of what the tweet says or links to.

It’s also important to understand a couple of things about Twitter:

  1. The most effective way to gain followers on Twitter is celebrity. If you aren’t on the A list, then your best bet to get lots of followers is refollowing (which yields 200-400 new followers per day even with the current daily follow caps) and participating in the conversation.  Twitterazis – Don’t get upset.Refollowing is one of the most cited forms of Twitter Spam, and while it’s effective, it’s generally frowned upon.
  2. Twitter is a conversational social network. People join and engage to be a part of the conversation. Since Twitter does not set the rules on what the conversation is about like a discussion forum, nearly anything goes.
  3. Twitter makes it easy to follow and stop following people, so silencing a spammer is pretty easy until you’re following so many people you can’t track them all. This is a problem because 200-300 users is probably too many.

Blogs are the Center of the Universe

I love social media experts. There’s one born exactly every 0.017 seconds, and they all have great opinions that prove Dirty Harry’s second most famous quote right. One piece of advice they like to give is:

“You should not blog, at least not right away.”

Take it from a social media practitioner (I’m not a “social media expert” that is a title for an “interactive user” who has hung out a shingle), blogs are important. In fact, blogs are the center of the social media universe. Why?

Blogs are the root source of content for nearly everything.

If you plan on doing anything meaningful in social media, you have to have a landing point. Preferably one you can measure and is engaging. Often times you need a place to break a story.  Other times you need somewhere you can bring together ideas.  Blogs are perfect for this.

What Can Swine Flu Teach Us About Crisis Communication Through Social Media?

Social media has been playing an important part in the swine flu epidemic, which public health experts worry will turn into a pandemic (an epidemic that crosses many countries).social_media_communities_main-1

When I was the Risk Communication Director for the Indiana State Department of Health, half of my time was spent talking about the influenza pandemic — pan flu — and what we could do to communicate during a pandemic. I had a staff of public information officers, and we came up with all sorts of ways to communicate with the media.

We had email, cell phones, and Blackberries, and all of our strategies relied on us being able to have access to those email servers and being able to get news out to the state media outlets, who would then take our news and push it to the top of the news cycle, thus insuring our message would be prominent. Which is great if we were living in 1995.

But they were all the tools in the toolbox for communicating about the impending bird flu.

“People need to quit calling it bird flu,” said more than a few docs and epidemiologists one day. I had made the mistake of calling it bird flu in a meeting one day. (The H5N1 bird flu in Asia was the big fear in 2006.)

“But that’s what people are calling it already,” I countered.

“So?” they all said, in that way educated smart people can. “We just need to educate people to call it pan flu, because by the time it becomes a pandemic, it won’t be from birds, it will be transmitted through people.”

“We’ll spend all our time educating people on not calling it bird flu that we’ll waste our energy we could be using to educate the people.”

But my pleas fell on deaf ears, and so we called it pan flu. “Pan flu” this, “pan flu” that.

Except nobody’s calling it “pan flu” now. We’re calling it swine flu. And that’s the name that stuck, unless you’re from Israel (they’re calling it the Mexico Flu).

So the health department is calling it swine flu, and after three days of no news, they finally put up a press release on their website, and a joint Twitter account with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Social media has taught us all a few lessons when it comes to crisis communication and rapid response, whether you’re in a government agency or the corporate setting.

  • Use the terms the people are using, not your experts. The people are calling this epidemic swine flu. I’m glad to see the health department also calling it swine flu. But avoid the urge to call it “pan flu” if/when that happens. Avoid calling it “influenza.” We all know it as swine flu, so continue to use that term.

 

  • Go to where the people are. The people are not reading newspapers. That information, if we’re lucky, is only 12 hours old, which means it’s outdated as soon as the printer fires up. The people are online, on Twitter, and reading blogs. Meet them there, don’t make them come to you, because they won’t.

 

  • Some information is better than no information. Rather than wait for three days to release one press release, give out bits of information as you have it. Talk about precautions. Talk about plans. Talk about the number of cases in the state (at the time, none; now there is one case.

 

  • Use a blog to communicate with the public and the media. People aren’t reading local newspapers or watching local TV. They’re getting news online that’s been referred to each other through Twitter and other blogs.

 

  • Use the name of the topic on Twitter. While using ISDH in the title is good, and word will eventually spread that ISDH_IDHS is the Health Department and Homeland Security, it’s not very obvious, like IN_SwineFlu.

 

  • Follow area people on Twitter. Right now @ISDH_IDHS is only following the news sources, but not the people of Indiana. One of our goals at ISDH was to correct misinformation, and people are putting out all kinds of bad information on Twitter. They should follow as many people as possible in Indiana, and then address any and all questions, bad information, etc. Refer people back to the blog, or at least the CDC’s website. Set up TweetDeck with a group that searches just for “swine flu” and “Indiana.”

—-
(UPDATE)

A few links to articles I’ve written on using social media for crisis communication.

The Importance of Measuring Social Media’s Impact on Sales & Marketing

I’ve been beating the “measuring social media” drum for the last several weeks, talking to whomever I can about the importance of measuring the nebulous world of social media.tape_measure_small

(In some cases, I’ve actually had to argue that it can be measured at all, but that’s a different story. My suggestion is, if you don’t do social media, don’t say what it can or can’t do. Ask if it can, but don’t declare it can’t.)

A few months ago, social media guru Jeremiah Owyang wrote how online community managers need to prove the worth of social media if they’re going to survive cutbacks during a recession.

His three areas to measure

  • Improvement in marketing efficiency – Measure how quickly a new product launch goes from awareness to the close of a sale, or spreading word of mouth. Measure your clicks on Twitter and your blog, and see how many of them place an order. How long did it take to go from date of launch to profitability? Back when I was in the poultry business, we measured that in months and sometimes years. Now it takes — and can be measured in — days and weeks. And sometimes months and years.

 

  • Reduction in support costs – Owyang says to measure any decreases in whether a customer goes to physical stores, emails an account rep, or calls the tech support line. You want to see an increased reliance on the community itself, and measure the dollars saved through your community. Apple takes advantage of their raving fans and expert users who provide free tech support to their customers with simple and not-so-simple problems. The net result to Apple? Fewer phone calls to tech support, which means lower tech support costs.

 

  • Actual improvement to sales – I said it before, and I’ll say it again. You CAN measure sales from social media and your community. It’s a simple matter of having an analytics package — like StatCounter or Google Analytics — installed on your site. Count the number of people who enter the site, count the number of people who buy your product, divide the number of visitors by the number of buyers, and you have your conversion rate. Dell Computers was actually able to show they sold $1 million worth of products just through Twitter alone. If you can show this, shout it from the mountaintop, or at least from the desk in your cubicle.”

 

But what about the long sales cycle?” the naysayers grumble. “What about realtors and insurance agents who don’t sell anything online?”

Easy. Here’s how:
1) Keep track of how long they spend on customers, and how long a sale takes. (Many of them already do.)
2) Keep track of each channel that gets customers, whether it’s the Yellow Pages, email, WOM referral, networking, or social media. (There are software solutions that do nothing but measure social media.)
3) Add up the time AND money spent on each channel.
4) Total up sales gotten from each channel.
5) Divide a channel’s sales by time spent on the channel. That’s your value per hour.

Sales ÷ Time = VPH

6) Subtract the channel’s cost from the channel’s sales. That’s your ROI.

Sales – Cost = ROI

See? Easy as pie. But if you’re still stuck, give us a call. We’ll help you out.

Best Practices… AREN’T

Recently, I read a book called “Be Unreasonable” which made a point that resonated with me. The author, Paul Lemberg, decries the age old reliance on “best practices” and convinced me, as the title of this post states, that best practices… aren’t.

How’s that?

Think about it… “Best Practice is an idea that asserts that there is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc.” (from Wiktionary)

Best practices for any given business are assumed to work in other similar businesses. While this may be true (or not) the danger is, once best practices are adopted, innovation stops, testing takes a back seat, and “ant mentality” begins.

As we all know, ants like to follow each other. We always assume that the ant at the front of the line knows where he is going. However, as I was catching a dose of NPR the other day I heard scientists had stumbled upon an entire colony of ants who were following each other in one giant circle. In a matter of days the entire ant colony starves to death.

It occurred to me that relying on so called best practices can lead a company in a similar situation.

Not only can you get caught erroneously following another company’s lead, but relying on a set of best practices might “trick” you into permanently following your old semi-successful (or unsuccessful) self… all the while thinking you are on your way to the top.

Instead of Best Practices

No, I am not about to give you a set of best practices for avoiding best practices. Rather, I’ll tell you what works for us.

We test new ideas, track returns and keep the operating manual light.

For example, the world of social marketing is full of well intentioned purists who think a Facebook profile set up solely for the purpose of marketing is an outrageous social faux pas, or at the very least… NOT Best Practice. Personally, I think we will begin to see more and more successful “engineered” Facebook marketing campaigns that are entertaining or compelling enough to be acceptable to the general audience. If we relied on conventional best practices, we would not test our intuition, and, miss out on a great innovative success story for a client.

Bottom line is… If you have joined the bandwagon that is social marketing, don’t let ANYONE strap you down to a set of guidelines or a list of tasks. There are no rules that are hard and fast correct for every person. Learn from what’s worked for others but create your own path.

Research Desk: Thousands of Twitter Followers Quickly

Results of refollowing

Image via CrunchBase

Ok, so you’ve unfollowed that guy who sent you the get 16,000 friends in 30 days direct message. Think he’s gone for good? Probably not. See getting lots of followers on Twitter really isn’t that tough (or for that matter, LinkedIn, MySpace or Facebook).  Collecting friends is simply a behavior – much like an insect doing a mating ritual or mining gold for your World of Warcraft game.

It’s simply all about repeating a successful behavior over and over and over and over again.  On Twitter this behavior is called refollowing, and it is very common, especially when people decide, for whatever reason, having 36,000 followers might be useful.

Refollowing growth compared to normal growth.

Refollowing growth compared to normal growth.

Refollowing is also one of the biggest Twitter annoyances – we polled 95 people to find out what behaviors they considered spam, and refollowing far was the most commonly cited annoyance. That said, refollowing works – it’s the perfect behavior for getting friends. It works for building large profiles. It works for building out targeted friend lists (more on that later). There are three reasons it works:

  1. Somewhere between 18-22% of the poeple you follow will follow you back. Of remaining 82-78% if you follow them again, about 16-20% will follow you back… and so on.
  2. There’s no way to tell if someone has followed you before. Add to that Twitter’s occasional glitches, and people are quick to follow people that may have “fell off” their following list.  The only way Twitter gives you to stop refollowing is to block the other party.
  3. You don’t have a lot of options to build big friend lists if you are not already a celebrity (I suppose having 36,000 followers would make you feel like a celeb, though).

There are many ways to implement refollowing.  You can do so manually, you can use tools like Mr. Tweet.  You can do what I did to test refollowing and use an iOpus iMacro to automate following and a tool like Twitter Karma to automate unfollowing (if you are not doing refollowing, TwitterKarma is a great way to clean out people who you follow, who are not following you).

Here is how refollowing works – in three different versions.

Here’s How Refollowing Works (For Follower List Building)

  1. I follow a whole bunch of people.
  2. Wait
  3. About 20% will follow me back.
  4. Unfollow the ones that don’t follow back.
  5. Start the process over.

Here’s How the Amateur Spammers Do It

  1. I follow a whole bunch of people.
  2. Wait
  3. About 20% will follow me back.  Send an automatic direct message to sell super risky get rich quick scheme.
  4. Unfollow the ones that don’t follow back.
  5. Start the process over.

Here’s How the Professional Spammers Do It

  1. Get a big follower list.
  2. Unfollow your followers.
  3. Follow them again.
  4. About 38% will refollow you.
  5. Send auto direct message for new affiliate offer.
  6. Refollow the remaing 62% and repeat steps 7 and 8 as needed.

Ok, So Can Refollowing be Stopped?
It would be hard to stop refollowing without breaking Twitter.
At the end of March, Twitter did do a few things to slow refollowing down. First, they implemented a cap that only allows you to follow 2000 people until 1800 people follow you. Then you can follow about 200 more people than follow you. The caps result is slowing the maximum rate you can grow an account by refollowing to about 400 people per day.

Now the question is, what legitimate use to you have for 36,000 followers? Hmm.  And that leads us to our next research desk topic: Twitter Spam.

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What can American Business Bloggers Learn from the Irish?

Chris Baggott, friend and owner of Compendium Blogware, recently wrote about What can the Irish Teach American Business Bloggers?

Quite a lot, actually.

A survey from the Irish Internet Association shows that 39% of their respondents post several times a week, and that 50% of them spend up to four hours per week blogging.

Chris asked the question, how can Irish businesspeople justify this investment in time. Simple. They use it to generate business.

According to the IIA, they use blogging for:

  • a source for sales leads (here at Pro Blog Service, we get at least 2 leads per blog post. That’s why we do it, and we’re not even Irish.)
  • improving their company’s ranking in Google (nothing beats blogging for search engine optimization)
  • showing customers they’re experts in their sector (we write about blogging and social media. Guess what we’re good at.)

 

For Baggott, the most important question the IIA asked was “who is the target audience for your business blog?” For 89% of the Irish bloggers, it’s their potential customers. But according to a Forrester Survey, U.S. marketers say “brand awareness” is their primary reason to blog.

If you’re blogging for brand awareness, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. You put your logo on the side of a bus for brand awareness. You sponsor a little league team for brand awareness. You blog for search results and sales leads.

A brand is an emotional attachment between a customer and a company or product. It’s also the lame excuse marketers offer –– we’re building brand awareness –– for why they either can’t measure a marketing campaign or why that campaign didn’t work.

But you don’t build that attachment by telling people how great your product or company is. You build it by solving problems, answering questions, getting to know your customers, and letting them get to know you.

“Hey, lookit how great we are” won’t do that. “Here’s how you fix that” will.

Blogging is the best way to answer the “how” questions your customers have. You can create an entire knowledge base with a blog, doing nothing but answering questions from your customers, and dominate search results for your field. Because if one person has the question, others do too. Lots of others.

And those others are looking for the answers. They’re going to Google to find the answers, and Google is checking you out to see if you’re answering the question. If you’re not, they’re going to find someone who is.