Thursday, November 3, 2011

Klout, Qwikster, and Mob Marketing

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about Klout, a tool that attempts to measure an individual’s online social influence. As with all scales that try to quantify individual prowess – think IQ to SAT – there’s a healthy debate about the basic validity of what Klout purports to do: After all, what exactly is “influence”?

I’d hazard a guess that whether you’re a fan or a foe of Klout has a lot to do with how well you score on their 100-point scale, though I may be being overly cynical. But whatever you’re opinion of Klout I think we can agree that finding some way of articulating relative influence is a big marketing problem we need to solve. We desperately need a way to sort the wheat from the chaff, because in our noisy online world there’s an awful lot of chaff.

Personally, I don't see Klout as a permanent fixture of the social media landscape. Klout thinks it is selling a solution when they really only have a feature: Most social media monitoring tools of any worth have in them a way of determining salience, aka influence. Most search engines will get there soon too. This is where this "feature" belongs, in a context that has some value.

But there’s another problem, neatly exemplified by the well-publicized and stock-shrinking antics at Netflix. To recap, after doing a great deal of research with users, Netflix decided to split the company’s identity in two, and launched Qwikster so they can focus on their rapidly growing steaming media business. About the same time they also changed their fee structure. Within days the online hordes were screaming foul, droves left the service, and as of today the stock price is down about 70 percent from its high this year. A quasi- apology was made.

There are many complex financial and business issues at play here, and there's no question that Netflix management failed on many levels.  There's also a consensus that, from a strictly business standpoint, Netflix was making the right decisions. All that aside, my question is this: Given that Netflix did extensive research and consulted with their community of users before they made any changes, why was the subsequent reaction so profoundly negative?

One answer gets at the root of the real problem with Klout, which measures an individual’s influence. Often, this is the wrong unit of analysis. I’d argue that Netflix, like many brands before it, fell victim to a mob – a highly vocal minority that individually may have no clout at all, but collectively exert enormous influence. Worse, this vocal and passionate minority may not even represent the feelings of the silent majority of users, but they exert a disproportionate control.

Mass Marketing is passé. Welcome to Mob Marketing.

The communities that care about a particular brand or organization are diverse – they’ve always been so. What’s changed is the leveling effect of our online world: Everyone has equal voice, which means that amid all the babble it’s very hard to discern who matters individually and collectively. And it’s almost impossible to guard against a loose coalition of marginal naysayers once they’re mobilized.

What to do? Here's some suggestions:

  • First, make sure you are engaged with all constituents of your brand. Listen widely, respond selectively. Make sure that your communities feel appreciated. This is the responsibility of everyone in your organization.
  • Remember that all change attracts enemies. No matter what you do, it’s likely someone will take offense. Remain in control and have the courage of your convictions. Recognize that, despite what believers in crowd sourcing may say, giving over decision-making control to an unfiltered community may be unwise. Consult, inform and listen.
  • Make sure you understand what the valuable – and often silent – majority want and do everything you can to get them involved. Activating your core base is critical: The weight of their collective opinion is the best defense against a marginal mob. Find ways to amplify their views and champion your brand.
  • Finally, learn to recognize the marginal fanatics. Don’t overly invest in trying to change their hardened views – your energies are better spend cultivating and engaging your loyalists, and attracting new fans and supporters.

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